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|I started the month off with a poetry collection: On a Calm Shore by Frances Cornford, published in 1960, the year of the poet's death. I spotted it in the library while clearing tables, flicked through it, and fell in love with the accompanying illustrations by Christopher Cornford (the poet's son), which (so says someone on Tumblr) use 'unusual colour combinations such as light grey with rust red and an inky purple with caramel and lime'.
If Frances Cornford's remembered at all nowadays, it's on the strength of a) her being Darwin's granddaughter, and b) one poem she wrote around 1910, 'To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train':
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering-sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
My late grandmother, when she'd got to the stage of forgetting who people were, was still able to remember this poem. I rather like it (perhaps I just like the triolet form), but other writers mocked Cornford for it (because of its perceived unkindness?). Chesterton wrote a cruel parody ('Why do you flash through the flowery meads / Fat-head poet that nobody reads'), while Housman wrote in a private letter, 'O fat white woman whom nobody shoots / Why do you walk through the fields in boots'. But browsing the volume under discussion suggested it might be quite a pleasant thing to read. I'm no judge of poetry, so am capable of enjoying it without having to worry about whether it's any good or not.
I was surprised at how much I liked it. Cornford's poetry is concise and immediate, not dressed up, not wilfully obscure. The collection is divided into six themed sections: 'Time', 'Children', 'Night and Morning', 'Love', 'Places and Seasons', and 'Transience'. A smattering of triolets. I think these poems were probably old-fashioned in their own time, but Cornford was in her 70s by then, and they read as the poems of someone looking back. One poem is an old man's ballad to his still-born brother that is quite like Blake, and there's one on the Tuileries that owes a debt to Oscar Wilde's poem on the same subject.
I've copied a few below to give an impression.
AGE IN SEPTEMBER
In what a little time the disinherited
Must leave, alone,
A blessedness they have so little merited
So slightly known:
Bees on the dahlias and sun on stone.
There is a bird, they say,
That only sings
When snow is on the way
And the moon ice-cold;
His name is so old
That now his name is lost,
But I was told
His nest is made of frost;
His singing seems
For any human ear
Almost too cold to hear:
But I have heard
About this bird.
Who has not seen their lover
Walking at ease,
Walking like any other
A pavement under trees,
Not singular, apart,
But footed, featured, dressed,
Approaching like the rest
In the same dapple of the summer caught;
Who has not suddenly thought
With swift surprise:
There walks in cool disguise,
There comes, my heart?
AUGUST AT HOME
How rich the elms, and large, and summer-sad,
My childhood trees;
I thought of them as people, when I had
No words for them like these.
I drink their presence, and I go my ways,
They bring no altered mood;
These heavy trees are part of all my days,
Like sleep they are, and food.
IN A CORNISH COVE
Perhaps young giant boys
Once hurled these rocks
In prehistoric play
About our shore,
Then when they heard their angry mother call
Fooled round no more,
But lumbering went to feed ancestral flocks,
And so the toys they strewed are round us still
This Lilliput day.
The giant footsteps where they ran and raced
Or shouting stood
Are almost by the sighing sea effaced
Over the green sheep hill
Have gone their way
And some of the designs:
|These are lovely poems, Gareth. Perhaps she was just a little ahead of her time. They read quite like some modern poems that I like - simple, straightforward, charming. A bit like Fleur Adcock's perhaps. For A Five-Year-Old is one of my favourite poems. It may have a little more depth than Cornford's, though I wouldn't necessarily stake my life on that.
For a Five-Year-Old
by Fleur Adcock
A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.
I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another,
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
And we are kind to snails.
|I'm sure I have that Cornford volume somewhere. But where - oh where?
I remember once exchanging a few words with Fleur Adcock on Waterloo Station after she had been reading poems to scurrying commuters from a platform on the concourse. I remarked that she had been very brave...and she advised me never to do the same......I seem to remember that another poet on the same platform was Miroslav Holub. I went to a lot of poetry things in those days. I remember meeting Alan Clodd, the founder of Enitharmon Books who invited me to his house to see his collection of first editions (not a euphemism). And he had a hall table signed by Thomas Hardy. I've also met Wendy Cope and Andrew Motion (with whom I discussed Keats).I once shared a café table with Carol Rumens. I sat on the grass drinking beer with Anne Stevenson. I was once in the same room with Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. My life is seriously un-interesting these days.
'Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?
And did he stop and speak to you?'
|For the past few weeks I've been slowly working my way through Pleasures of a Tangled Life, a collection of essays by Jan Morris on the things that give her pleasure. Morris is best known as a travel writer, and travel writing is something that (I regret) doesn't especially interest me. In novels the descriptions of places are the bits I'm most likely to skim. Probably half of the essays in this book are about places, and some of the passages about some of the places (Stockholm, Hong Kong) almost made me see the point of travel writing, Morris's lack of sentimentality and her refusal to fetishise ostensibly exotic places being distinctly in her favour. She has a way of pinning down the essence of a place, of identifying its quirks and curiosities (the essays on Russia and Australia, for instance, are excellent examples of this). Generally, though, my favourite essays were those about other things. The boredom of concerts, for instance (I hadn't realised her brother was the flautist Gareth Morris), or books, or her one-way friendships with character actors, something I identified with. I laughed throughout her essay on anarchy, it's written with such verve, and found myself thinking she belonged in the ranks of the great essayists of the 18th and 19th centuries whom I haven't read. Swift, Johnson, Carlyle, Hazlitt, those guys. If you were reading most authors and came across a sentence saying 'Actually all the best sex, in my view, aspires to the condition of incest', you'd probably do a double-take and think, Come off it. When Morris writes it, you think, I wonder what she means, how interesting.
From a wise piece containing advice on how to travel well:
I try never to grumble, even to myself, but simply remind myself,
gritting my teeth, that things could easily be worse – I might after
all be experiencing my own hypothetical epitome of an unhappy
travel experience, namely to have been robbed of my passport and
plane ticket, my luggage having already been lost in flight, while
suffering from extreme diarrhoea during a high summer heat-wave
and a severe water shortage, at a moment when the local electricity
supplies and telephone service have been cut off due to political
disturbances, with nothing to read but a Robert Ludlum thriller,
expecting a visit from the security police in a hotel room without a
wash-basin overlooking a railway freight yard on a national holiday
in the Egyptian town of Zagazig.
|I finished my traversal of the Sherlock Holmes short stories with The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, the final published collection. It's a mixed bag, some stories pleasingly whimsical, others lame. In the former category are 'The Blanched Soldier' and 'The Sussex Vampire', both of the eventually heartwarming human-interest type best exemplified by the early story 'The Yellow Face'. Occasionally I'd have liked more skulduggery. 'The Lion's Mane' is pretty innocent stuff, and 'The Veiled Lodger' has no suspense at all: a woman sends Holmes a message, he goes to see her, and she tells him a story. A distinct lack of mental muscle-flexing. 'The Creeping Man' is happily odd, 'The Three Garridebs' a lot of fun, though it's easy enough to follow Holmes' thoughts. In the earlier stories he's more enigmatic. A bit from 'The Problem of Thor Bridge', a rather fey rejoinder from Holmes that's almost Psmithian:
I sprang to my feet, for the expression upon the millionaire's face was
fiendish in its intensity, and he had raised his great knotted fist.
Holmes smiled languidly and reached his hand out for his pipe.
"Don't be noisy, Mr. Gibson. I find that after breakfast even the
smallest argument is unsettling. I suggest that a stroll in the morning
air and a little quiet thought will be greatly to your advantage."
'The Retired Colourman' provides a nice note on which to end, another of the handful of stories in which busy Holmes sends Watson away as a proxy investigator. Watson dul(l)y reports back:
"The Haven is the name of Mr. Josiah Amberley's house," I explained. "I
think it would interest you, Holmes. It is like some penurious
patrician who has sunk into the company of his inferiors. You know that
particular quarter, the monotonous brick streets, the weary suburban
highways. Right in the middle of them, a little island of ancient
culture and comfort, lies this old home, surrounded by a high sun-baked
wall mottled with lichens and topped with moss, the sort of wall--"
"Cut out the poetry, Watson," said Holmes severely. "I note that it was
a high brick wall."
Where now? Well, I've never read The Sign of Four or The Valley of Fear, so may as well strike while the iron's hot to complete the set. Also, I find I have in my possession a slim anthology of non-canonical Holmes stories by various writers, which I shall look forward to trying.
|Gareth, that has made me feel really ashamed. I know that Frances Cornford poem well, but had always been convinced that it was by John Betjeman. Oh, well, perhaps you have spared me from making a total fool of myself on some future occasion.
|Very pleased to have been of service, Chris. It isn't unlike Betjeman, is it. An easy mistake to make.
|I have finished About Schmidt and have writtne more about it on the Novels thread.
Gareth, I must read Jan Morris sometime. I think I have one of her travel books - Venice, maybe. But I should check out others. That extract has my biggest fear when travelling (apart from being stuck in a lift or underground somehow) - diarrhoea or vomiting. I do take a bit of care about what I eat when I am away, though sometimes I get a bit carried away by spicy food which I like. It seems fine when I am at home, but when I eat out at restaurants it sometimes leaves me with a slight tummy upset. Nothing serious, but enough to make me wary.
|I've just finished re-reading Margaret Drabble's biography of Angus Wilson. Rather foolishly I agreed to give a talk on him to my local U3A literature group because I loved his books when I read them in the 1970's and 80's. Now I find that although I still have several of the books on the shelf, I can't remember all that much about them.
Drabble's biography is very entertaining on Wilson's complex and unusual family background but when she gets to the latter part of his life, there are endless accounts of all the academic lecture tours he took. Do we really need to know that names of all the literary bigwigs who attended the conferences? At times I felt I was reading the telephone directory.
Does anyone read Angus Wilson these days? I seem to remember having a discussion with Evie (IIRC) on this board about "Anglo Saxon Attitudes."
|That's the one I've read, and I know I enjoyed it but don't remember all that much about it. One of those authors I'm forever meaning to return to.