Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Coleridge's "Christabel"

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) wrote the long poem, “Christabel”, in two stages, but never finished it. The setting is unspecified mediaeval. The heroine, after whom the poem is named, is the daughter of a widowed baron, Sir Leoline. She encounters a mysterious girl stranger, Geraldine, who, it is hinted, may be a witch or a demon, and who proceeds to win Sir Leoline’s heart. Christabel feels deserted and threatened. Nothing much actually happens, and we have no knowledge as to how the poem might have been completed, but the atmosphere is increasingly sinister and charged with sexual imagery.

The first part was written in 1797, when Coleridge was living in Nether Stowey in north-west Somerset, and he and Wordsworth, who was living nearby, were working on their groundbreaking anthology of poetry, “Lyrical Ballads”. Coleridge wrote two others of his greatest poems, “The Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” at this time. It was also at then that he began to take opium.
The second part of “Christabel” was not written until 1800, and the location was now definitely placed in the Lake District. Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were then living in Dove Cottage by Rydal Water, and Coleridge, with his wife and son, was lodging at Greta Hall, near Keswick. Coleridge continued to take opium, but was also an energetic, not to say reckless, fell-walker.

Neither “Christabel” nor “Kubla Khan” was published until 1916.

I do not propose to contribute to the debate on what the poem is “all about”. What has always interested me, as someone brought up in the Lake District, are the opening stanzas of Part II. They have very little to do with the rest of the poem, apart from helping set the atmosphere. Here we have Coleridge, probably suffering the after-effects of being stoned out of his mind on opium, up on the fells somewhere above Ambleside on a Sunday morning, listening to the church bells:-

“Each matin bell, the baron saith,
Knells us back to a world of death.
These words Sir Leoline first said
When he rose and found his lady dead:
These words Sir Leoline will say
Many a morn to his dying day.

And hence the custom and law began
That still at dawn the sacristan,
Who duly pulls the heavy bell,
Five and forty beads must tell
Between each stroke: a warning knell
Which not a soul can choose but hear
From Bratha Head to Windermere.

Saith Bracy the bard, so let it knell!
And let the drowsy sacristan
Still count as slowly as he can!
There is no lack of such, I ween,
As well fill up the space between.
In Langdale Pike, and Witch’s Lair,
And Dungeon-Ghyll so foully rent,
With ropes of rock and bells of air
Three sinful sextons’ ghosts are pent
Who all give back, one after t’other,
The death-note to their living brother;
And oft too, by their knell offended,
Just as their one! two! three! is ended,
The devil mocks the doleful tale
With a merry peal from Borrowdale”

I don’t know where “witch’s lair” might be, but the rest of it sounds geographically correct.

I think these are the most sinister lines of great poetry in the English language. The only cheerful note is attributed to the devil!

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Opportunities taken, opportunities missed

On a very few occasions one has the possibility of making a really apposite silly comment. Such an opportunity should not be wasted.

I once met a young policeman who told me how he was on duty outside an expensive hotel in the West End of London when this appalling woman flounced out. "Constable!" she summoned him, "Call me a cab!" He wrestled with his professional conscience for a while, but knew that it was no use. "Madam," he replied,  "You are a cab!" Then he fled from the scene before she could take his number. (I suspect this might be a Groucho Marx joke: if not, it certainly ought to be)

By contrast, I missed my chance when I was going round Chatsworth House with a friend. Down in the basement there was an exhibition of servants' costume through the ages, mounted on tailor's dummies. The dummy with the postilian's uniform had broken and fallen over. I said to my friend, should I go up to the attendant at the door and tell him that his postilian had been struck by lightning? (following the legendary entry in a tourists' phrase-book from a previous century, "My postilian has been struck by lightning"). I approached the man, but before I could open my mouth he shot me a glance so savage, and so indicative of not understanding recondite jokes, that I lost my nerve and left the room in silence, to the accompaniment of cries of "Boo! Chicken!" from my friend. This was entirely justified on his part, since I doubt if I will ever again have an opportunity to use this memorable phrase.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Jackie Wullschlager: Inventing Wonderland

This book is about children’s literature, and traces the careers of five “classic” children’s authors: two mid-Victorians; Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear ; two Edwardians; J. M. Barrie and Kenneth Grahame  and one from the inter-war period; A. A. Milne It is a central theme of the book that, of these five, Milne was the only one who enjoyed a normal married life.

“Lewis Carroll” was the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-98), the son of a clerical family, who spent almost all his adult life as a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church College, Oxford. He never married, and was always far more at ease in the company of small girls than with adults. His natural shyness was not helped by a persistent stammer, which was probably nervous in origin. The great actress Ellen Terry, who came to know him well, made the perceptive remark that, “He was as fond of me as he could be of anyone over the age of ten”. Carroll was also one of the pioneers of early photography, but many of his best pictures were of the children of friends; little girls posing scantily clad, or even nude. Carroll always asked permission from parents before doing this, which was usually given. Throughout his life Carroll took with him collections of toys and games, to attract little girls on train journeys and at the seaside, and he wrote long, teasing letters to his child-friends.
Everyone knows how on July 4th 1862 Carroll and his friend Robinson Duckworth went for a boating trip with the three young daughters of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church (Alice being the middle daughter). Carroll had always enjoyed writing and illustrating nonsense fantasy stories, and on this trip he improvised a story for the occasion: “Alice’s adventures underground”; which eventually became “Alice in Wonderland”, published with John Tenniel’s illustrations in 1865. “Through the Looking-Glass” followed in 1872, by which time Alice Liddell was twenty. She lost touch with him, but despite having many later child-friends, Carroll continued to be obsessed with the memory of her, as is shown in his poems.
Carroll’s behaviour would attract the gravest suspicions nowadays, but the word “paedophile” had not then been invented. Few, if any, parents seem to have raised objections to his close relationship with their daughters. Carroll was a strictly moral Victorian, and it is possible that he genuinely saw nothing abnormal or wrong in his conduct.

Edward Lear (1812-88) was the twentieth of twenty-one children of a stockbroker. Disaster struck when he was four years old: his father went bankrupt, the family was broken up, and Lear was largely brought up by his elder sister. He first made his living as a painter: the crude and childlike sketches which accompany his writings could only have been produced by a genuinely talented artist. Wullschlager argues that, whereas Carroll was an adult attracted to children, Lear in essence was always a child. He was presumably a repressed homosexual; he suffered from epilepsy, extreme short-sightedness and periodic severe depressions, and was obsessed with the belief that he was grotesquely ugly. He became a friend of many important people in the Victorian artistic world, such as Lord Tennyson and Holman Hunt, but never felt at ease, and when his younger friends got married he felt a sense of desertion and betrayal.
The anarchistic world of the Limericks first appeared in the 1830s. Other collections of poems followed, but by the 1870s the mood had become increasingly darker. The limericks showed people rejected by society because of their eccentricities, and many of the longer poems were about finding happiness by running away: the Owl and the Pussy-cat, the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo, Mr Daddy Longlegs and others. Lear himself ran away to the Riviera, but did not find much happiness even there. The greatest of his later poems, “The Dong with the luminous nose”, spoke only of despair at never finding a lost love. He was buried in the British cemetery in San Remo. None of his friends attended the funeral.

J. M. Barrie (1860-1937)was already a successful author and playwright when he wrote “Peter Pan”. He came from a moderately prosperous background in northern Scotland, but the family was struck by tragedy when he was just six years old. His elder brother died in an accident; a disaster which caused his mother to withdraw to a darkened room for the next six months. Barrie remained close to her until her death, but she never recovered psychologically.
The effect on Barrie himself cannot be assessed. Wullschlager’s verdict is that he was a boy who refused to grow up. On the surface he was ambitious, hard-working and successful. He graduated from Edinburgh University and then went to London with the ambition of becoming a journalist and writer. His books and plays were well-received, but he was always ill-at-ease in the company of women, instead preferring boyish pursuits with other men. He founded a cricket team, mysteriously named the “Allahakbars”, whose members included Conan Doyle, P. G. Wodehouse and A. A. Milne. Then in 1894 he took a step for which he was entirely unprepared: he got married. The marriage was childless, and probably sexless, and ended in divorce in 1909. But in 1897 Barrie met the true love of his life in the shape of Sylvia and Arthur Llewellyn Davies and their five young sons. They became very close: Barrie delighted in playing pirates and Red Indians with the boys, who undoubtedly provided the inspiration for “Peter Pan”, the eternally youthful boy battling adults. This opened as a play at Christmas 1904. It was a tremendous hit, and was rewritten as a novel in 1911.
Barrie never afterwards wrote anything of equal popular appeal. Instead he found himself acting out his own fantasies. In 1907 Arthur Llewellyn Davies died, after a series of horrible operations which left him unable to speak. Sylvia followed him in 1910, nominating Barrie as guardian of their five boys, aged between seven and seventeen; so Barrie now had “lost boys” of his own. He was always very close to them. Wullschlager discounts any possibility of paedophilia on Barrie’s part: Barrie seems to have been entirely sexless.
Barrie received worldly recognition, being created a baronet in 1913, but the fate of his “lost boys” was not happy. Of the five, George was killed in the First World War, and Michael, always Barrie’s favourite, was drowned in 1921, amidst rumours of a suicide pact involving a homosexual relationship with a friend. Barrie never recovered from the tragedy: he withdrew into seclusion for many years and died in 1937. Peter, another of the “lost boys” threw himself under a train twenty years later. He knew he was the namesake for Peter Pan, and always hated what he called “that terrible masterpiece”.  

Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932) had a successful career as a senior official of the Bank of England, but his heart lay in the countryside of the Thames valley, in Berkshire and Oxfordshire. His work allowed him time to write two best-selling books about childhood; “The Golden Age” in 1895 and “Dream Days” in 1898. He was popular, successful and rich; and then at the age of 41 he got married.
The marriage was a disaster. Grahame and his wife, Elspeth, were totally unsuited to each other, and their only child, Alastair, was blind in one eye and had severe psychological problems. Grahame was quickly driven back into his private dream world. In 1906 he moved from London back to the Thames valley at Cookham Dene, whereas Elspeth wanted to stay in the city for the social life, which Grahame hated. Grahame began to tell the stories which came to form “The Wind in the Willows” to keep Alastair happy, but it soon became obvious that he was actually writing them for himself: pouring into them his frustrations, his love of the countryside, his dislike of the modern world (as represented by Mr Toad) and his dread of the working classes (the stoats and weasels). The book was published in 1908, when Grahame retired from the Bank. It was not well received by critics, and the publishers were not optimistic about its chances, but it was an immediate success.
Grahame refused to write anything else, and his later life was thoroughly miserable. Alastair could not settle at school or at university, and in 1920 he was found dead on the railway line. He had committed suicide. The Grahames fled abroad, and could not bear to return to England for several years. Grahame eventually bought a house at Pangbourne, once again on his beloved Thames, and the setting was used by E. H, Shephard for his illustrations for a new edition of “The Wind in the Willows”. Grahame died of a heart attack in 1932, and was buried in Oxford, his favourite city.

The background of A. A. Milne (1882-1956), unlike the others, was one of almost unsullied happiness. He was a popular student at Westminster school and Cambridge University, he joined the staff of the humorous magazine “Punch” in 1906 and married in 1913. Despite his pacifist beliefs, he volunteered for the army in 1915, and survived the battle of the Somme before being invalided home with trench fever; a piece of good fortune shared by a younger writer: J. R. R. Tolkien. His son, Christopher Robin, was born in 1920. By the time Winnie-the-Pooh made his appearance, Milne was already the well-paid author of a number of successful light plays (including “Toad of Toad Hall”: a stage adaptation of “The Wind in the Willows”), and he was able to settle in a country retreat on the edge of Ashdown forest.
Pooh appeared first in a collection of children’s poems, “When We Were Very Young”, published in 1924. It was an great success, and was quickly followed by “Winnie-the-Pooh” in 1926 and “The House at Pooh Corner” in 1927. They were illustrated by E. H. Shephard, and were immediate best-sellers. There was no dark psychological side to Milne’s stories: they were merely harmless tales of the silly adventures of his son’s nursery toys, set in the scenery of Ashdown forest. But, although Milne became rich as a result, other consequences were less happy. Fashions in the theatre changed; no-one wanted to stage his plays any more; and he was remembered solely for Pooh. His wife, Daphne, drifted apart from him. His son hated being identified as “Christopher Robin”, was subjected to endless teasing at school, and resented it ever afterwards.
In 1952 Milne suffered a stroke and survived, crippled and miserable, until dying in 1956. During these last years, Christopher Robin visited him only twice. Daphne lived another fifteen years, but never saw Christopher Robin again.

So of our five classic children's authors, Carroll and Lear were lifelong bachelors, and Barrie and Grahame would have been better remaining as bachelors; but without the darkness in their lives we might not have had the stories from them. Only Milne had a normal married life: the darkness in Milne’s life came after his stories, rather than before.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Roman Chariot Racing

This carving shows us how a Roman racing chariot would have looked:-
We can see from this that the chariot is a small, light vehicle, drawn by four horses (though it might be only two, or in some cases up to ten). The horses appear to be galloping rather than trotting. The charioteer has no more protection than a leather helmet, and has tied the reins round his waist; which could lead to serious injury or even death if he failed to cut himself free in the event of a crash. He is about to make an anticlockwise turn round the spine (the "spina") running down the centre of the racetrack. One chariot is already disappearing round the turn, which is marked by columns called "metae". Races would last for several laps.
   There were traditionally four chariot-racing teams: the Greens, Blues, Reds and Whites. These teams, with their supporters' clubs, attracted violent partisanship among Romans, and at times almost acted like political parties. This all gave several words to the English language: a chariot-racing team was called a "faction", and a supporter of a charioteer an "agitator". Chariot-racing was an expensive business, requiring considerable sponsorship, and, as with horse-racing nowadays, what kept it going was, of course, the betting on the results; to which all Romans were addicted. (The man who sponsored a Roman Games, usually an aspiring politician hoping to win votes, was called an "editor"!).
   Chariot-racing was extremely dangerous. Fatal accidents were common; with crashes (nicknamed "shipwrecks") particularly likely on the difficult sharp turn round the end of the spine. Because of this, professional charioteers usually began as slaves, and many of them were killed whilst still young; but if successful they could become rich and famous, like modern football stars; and the names of some of them (and even the names of their horses!) still survive today.

The Latin word for such a racetrack was a "circus". The most famous chariot racing circuit was the Circus Maximus in Rome itself: a vast structure which was used not only for chariot races but also for gladiatorial contests and wild beast fights. Probably far more Christians were martyred here than in the Coliseum, which was a much later building. The Circus Maximus was originally a long natural valley, called the Murcia, between the Palatine and Aventine hills, which had been used for horse-racing since the earliest days of Rome. The spine was a quarter of a mile in length. Wooden seating was erected along along the valley sides, but after the disastrous fire in Rome in AD 64 it was all rebuilt in stone, and could hold a quarter of a million spectators: the biggest sporting venue in world history! Two enormous obelisks from Egypt decorated the spine, and bronze dolphins were removed from the tops of pillars were used to show how many laps remained.
 Not much is left of the Circus Maximus today, but you can still see the spine, and in the background the remains of one of the imperial palaces on the Palatine. In front of this would be the Imperial Box, overlooking the finishing line.

This is what it could have looked like in the heyday of the Roman Empire (This is from a model of the city)

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Hayek's question revisited

"If the market is blind to need or merit, how can those who have no reasonable expectation of benefiting from it be reconciled to their situation?" (Friedrich Hayek)

This is a very good question.  If people are rewarded merely according to their "market value" (i.e. whatever anyone is willing to pay them) rather than according to their needs (e.g. food for their families) or by any moral worth (e.g. the social value of their work), why should they support such a system if they themselves are failing to benefit? A traditional Conservative (or, indeed, Rousseauist) notion of the "organic society" would argue that we have a duty to work for the greater good of all, even if others, who seem to be less worthy, are benefiting more than us; but I doubt if notions of "duty" have any place in free-market philosophy. It is also clear that some people who are benefiting from the free-market system by earning large salaries, show little sense of civic duty; for example, finding complex devices to avoid paying tax.