The Goblin Basements

3453163-dump-yard-full-of-dust-mess-and-garbageThe first time he visited the Goblin Basements he was very nearly unprepared. It was Christmas Eve, and the toys had been rioting all day, refusing to obey the simplest orders and breaking each other at the slightest excuse. He had given his laser to two members of the Imperial Guard so they could keep a couple of recalcitrant roboshifters at bay on the bedside table. His bodyguard ‘Thug’ Thorson was under interrogation in the kitchen cupboard, having been arrested the day before by the Bear Police for suspected dealings with a criminal gang on the True Crime channel. Gran had opened the flap of the garbage chute and a little vampire bat had escaped from inside, fluttering around and spraying noxious fumes all over the kitchen till Jenny flattened it with a spatula. ‘Bottom flap must be jammed open,’ said Gran. ‘Go down and fix it, would you, Ben? Quick as you can, tea’s almost ready. I’d go myself if it wasn’t for my gammy leg.’

Showering curses on elderly grandmothers and their gammy legs, Ben left the bears to grill ‘Thug’ Thorson and stumped out of the flat without so much as strapping on a light sabre. ‘Don’t be long, now, Ben,’ Gran called after him. ‘Don’t talk to strangers and don’t turn aside. If you see something useful in the basement bring it up – but never stray from the path whatever happens. You know the rules.’

‘I’m not a kid,’ Ben muttered under his breath, too softly for Gran to hear. He pressed the button for the lift and heard the distant clunk as it came to life in the depths of the building.

Then the lights went out.

The lights in all the public areas of the apartment block were governed by timing devices to save electricity. You switched them on by hand and after so many seconds they switched themselves off, usually at the most inconvenient moment possible. If you needed to switch them on again you could locate the switches because they had little red lights behind them like the eyes of Morlocks – those underground cannibals in the movie Ben had watched when he was eight, whose white fur and yellow teeth he could never forget when darkness took him. He thought of them now and shrugged his shoulders to shake off the shivers. He was older now; if he met a Morlock he would punch out its teeth with a blow of his fist. Still, he wished ‘Thug’ Thorson was with him. Thug wasn’t that big, and his left arm was missing, but he could talk Ben out of his fears with his Texas drawl and his cheerful grin. Maybe he should go back and get him now, before the lift doors opened –

The lift doors opened with a pneumatic hiss.

The cage of the lift was as dark as the corridor, though the light wasn’t governed by a timer. The bulb must be broken again. Ben stepped inside and felt for the button marked ‘Basement’. It would be the bottom button, wouldn’t it? He punched that. The lift gave an angry jerk and began its descent.

This was one of those old-fashioned lifts with open sides shielded with wire mesh to prevent you falling out into the lift shaft. When there was light you could see the concrete walls with their girders moving slowly past you. You could see other things as well: scribblings where, through one of the gaps in the mesh, someone had managed to scrawl his name as the lift went by; and other, more elaborate scribblings which could only have been done with time and patience. Ben had often wondered how they got there. Gran said it was when the lift got stuck, as it often did – then told him not to think about such horrible things, what was wrong with him, he should know better at his age. He thought the scribblings must have been made by the vampire bats or their leather-clad riders, who moved about the shaft independent of elevators.

Down the lift went, and down and down. Surely we should be there by now, Ben thought, tapping his teeth with one of his thumbnails as he always did when nervous. At least it was getting lighter. A pale green glow filtered up from below, and the usual groan and hum of the elevator was accompanied by other noises: a tapping as of distant hammers, a scraping as of shuffling feet. Must be workers in the basement, he told himself, though why they should be clearing sewage pipes or collecting refuse at midnight was beyond his comprehension. They would probably be strangers. When he got there he’d better keep shtum and stay close to the walls. Strangers meant trouble, and he didn’t want trouble so close to Christmas. You never knew what Santa would make of it if a brawl broke out and someone got hurt.

As the pale green light grew stronger he began to notice things. There were no longer doors at intervals in the concrete sides of the shaft; the last one had passed many seconds ago. And the drawings on the cracked grey surface were getting more ornate. They were mostly done in black and red: sharp, ugly little drawings that bore a family resemblance to the sharp, ugly little tap-tap-tapping noises in the depths of the building, which grew louder by the minute. Mostly they seemed to be of little black and scarlet figures, all spikes and jags, torturing each other with a range of complicated instruments. Under some of them slogans were painted in a childish scrawl: THE END IS NIGH, YOU’RE GOING DOWN, or simply DEATH. Ben loosened an imaginary pistol in its holster, acutely feeling his own defencelessness. His anger with Gran was still too hot for the cold to have entered him yet. If he was shivering it wasn’t with fear but with irritation; he would almost welcome, he thought, the chance to work off his feelings in a decent brawl. Deep down, though, he knew it wouldn’t be long before fear took hold, and he hoped against hope that he would have reached the bottom and stepped out of the lift before it did. If not, he would find it hard to leave the shelter of the cramped steel cage.

Now the lift was moving more slowly. Soon it stopped. The green light, as if governed by a timing device, went out. With another sharp hiss the doors slid open – he could tell by the gust of putrescent air that hit his face. Ben squared his shoulders and waited till his breathing was steadier. Then he stepped through.

Blackness swathed him, thick and breathless, muffling his ears so that the scuff of his boots on the concrete floor sounded far away and timeworn. His nose, too, was plugged by a stench that turned the air to acrid tar. He looked around for the small red glow that would mark a light switch. There were several, none close by. As he edged towards one of them along the wall, the distance turned out to be far greater than he had imagined, and was made to seem further still by the jumble of oddments that covered the floor. He kept treading on brittle sticks that snapped or crunched beneath his heels, or kicking aside hard hollow objects that clattered and rolled. The darkness, too, kept changing texture, sometimes stifling him like a pelt, sometimes clinging to his skin like plastic sheeting or trailing sticky cobweb-threads across his face. The journey to the light became a trek and then a nightmare, extending itself beyond all probability until the space he moved through seemed as vast as the vaults of hell and as full of torment.

Just as he reached the little red light – and by this time he had become uncomfortable with its shape – it suddenly vanished. He found himself utterly without coordinates, unsure where he had come from or what lay ahead. He had lost the wall; when he stretched out his hand to find it he felt only the brush of tepid air against his fingertips. Ben turned full circle in a desperate effort to locate another switch, the rubberized heels of his boots letting out small fearful squeals as they ground against concrete.

A squeal rang out to his left.

He stopped dead and stood unmoving, holding his breath, ears pricked to detect any further sounds. There were none.

After what seemed several minutes he could stand it no longer and broke the silence. ‘Anyone there?’ he whispered hoarsely. Then louder: ‘Anyone there?’

At once an echo seized his words and whipped them away into the cavernous blackness, making them rise and rise in pitch as they moved higher and circled faster, until the air was filled with squeaks and the frantic flutter of tiny wings. That was when Ben realized where he was. Everyone knew about the Goblin Basement – the yawning gulf that lay beneath the lowest level of the building, the abode of vampire bats and other things best left unnamed – and though the knowledge made his knees melt under him, it meant that he wasn’t wholly unprepared for what he saw when the light returned, flooding the unwholesome chamber with its luminescence.

The room was vast, as he had guessed, and half filled with rubbish. Parts of the ceiling had fallen in, dropping chunks of plaster on mouldering heaps of rusty cans, old stoves and fridges, twisted hub-caps, plastic bags, crushed cardboard boxes, broken bottles, the arms and heads of dismembered robots, the shattered shells of ancient visiscreens with sense-o-listic sense-stimulators trailing limply from their sides like the tentacles of long-dead octopods. From the holes in the broken ceiling, tubes and chutes stuck out at haphazard angles like severed limbs. Oily liquid drooled from the pipes, slavering the refuse underneath with yellow slime. As Ben crouched in the middle of the room, his features bathed in the uncertain glow from the globe above his head, he heard something crashing as it bounced against the sides of a nearby chute: down, down, down, louder and louder, till it whizzed from the open mouth and smashed to pieces on the rubbish beneath. He knew what the object was when a uniformed leg bounced against his foot: one of the guardsmen he’d left on duty on his bedside table. The leg gave a feeble jerk and then lay still.

The globe flickered bright and dim and dim and bright as if in time to some sickly heartbeat. By it, you couldn’t tell if there was anything else besides the rubbish in the Goblin Basements. But Ben knew there was something else; he’d heard the stories. He looked wildly around for the lift. There it was, impossibly far away to his right across the desert of the concrete floor. Between him and it the concrete stretched, a dusty plain marked with tiny ripples like the ocean bed and littered with overspill from the tip. He swiftly turned to face the rubbish and started to back towards the elevator doors. Always face your enemy, Gran had warned him, unless you fancy the thought of something long and sharp and rusty between your shoulderblades. Not tonight, he didn’t. Not on Christmas Eve, alone and weaponless in an underground dump.

A tap-tap-tapping broke out behind him: the same noise that had sounded in the lift shaft. He glanced over his shoulder, one swift glance, then returned his gaze to the mountain of refuse. The glance had been enough to show him a tall thin figure with an oily cockscomb of black spiked hair, a torn leather jacket, a T shirt asking DO YOU FEEL LUCKY, chains on its chest. Where the face should have been the figure wore a mask made from the front panel of an old-fashioned vacuum cleaner, with a vacant ‘O’ in the middle for dust to be sucked through. The legs were jointed metal lampstands, terminating in high leather boots without soles or toecaps. He could see through the gaps that there were no feet inside them. Strapped to the boots was a pair of rollerblades, a wheel missing from one axle.

The tapping came from a monkey-wrench being gently swung against the elevator doors.

‘Look alive, lads,’ a whistling voice called through the mask. ‘We have a guest to share our midnight frolics!’

Piece by piece the refuse stirred. Each piece turned out to be connected to another piece and moved by a will. The plastic face of a cabbage-patch doll, grotesquely small, attached to the barrel-chest of a boiler, rose on frail mop-o-matic legs and blinked its lashes as it looked Ben over. A small green rubberized monster with lightswitch eyes uncurled itself from under an unsprung armchair, which itself unfolded arms made of copper wire and peered at Ben from bloodshot eyes embedded in the upholstery. Kicking jars and cans aside, the Goblins lurched from their putrescent hiding-places and gathered in a semicircle about ten feet from where Ben stood. Ben went on retreating, right hand held out in the defensive posture favoured by ‘Thug’ Thorson. The thumb of his other hand – the one Thug didn’t have – knocked against his teeth, tapping out a nervous tattoo in time to the tapping of the monkey-wrench against the metal panels.

‘A big fellow, this,’ the whistling voice remarked, close by his shoulder. There was a rumbling sound as the rollerblades changed position on the concrete floor. Ben stopped dead, acutely aware that another step or two would bring him within range of the tool in Cockscomb’s fist. ‘Big enough to do the Jinglebells Waltz, I should imagine,’ the voice whistled on. ‘Or the Crimbo Caper, or the Krampus Can Can. Which will it be?’

‘The Krampus Can Can! The Krampus Can Can!’ ground out a waste disposal unit with iron teeth. ‘There’s so much more leftover waste in the Krampus Can Can.’

‘Can you dance, friend?’ Cockscomb whispered in Ben’s left ear, touching his elbow with the tip of its wrench. Ben swung round suddenly and smashed the panel from its crested head with a blow of his fist, sending it scuttering across the floor like a wrecked toboggan. In the space where the panel had been, a confusion of wires and fuses spat out sparks as if in outrage.

Ben broke into a run. ‘He’s dancing, he’s dancing,’ shrieked the Goblins, scampering to plant themselves between him and the liftshaft. A serve-o-bot mounted on a set of twisted pramwheels screeched past on his right. The faceless rollerblader passed him on his left, trailing sparks and smoke. Ben stopped dead and kicked out backwards with his steel-capped boot, felt the rubber monster bounce away at the impact, dodged around doll-face, then wheeled abruptly and started to run back the way he’d come, towards the mountain of waste. Wrong-footed, the Goblins didn’t recover quickly, which gave him hope. They careened into each other, cursing and laughing hysterically and spinning in circles to see which way he’d gone. He plunged straight into the garbage, driving forward with all his force until he reached the guardsman’s torso and snatched at the pouch he’d seen on its belt.

‘He’s meddling with our property!’ Cockscomb vented in a stream-train shriek. ‘He wants to play rough! Stop hedging, boys, and grapple him! Let him feel us!’

Ben had just managed to unfasten the pouch and get his hand inside when a hubcap, hurled discus-fashion, struck the side of his head. He fell sprawling into a pile of rotting vegetables and the rubber monster landed on his chest. Luckily his hold on the pouch never loosened; he clung to it like death as he rose to his feet. And now the Goblins began to shove him from one to another like a broken puppet. One pushed him in the small of the back so that he stumbled forwards; a second struck him on the cheek so he spun to his left; a third stamped on his boot so hard that he shrieked in pain, despite the steel toecaps. ‘He’s dancing the Krampus Can Can!’ the Goblins screamed, and clapped their hands, claws, gloves, or drill bits in a rising cacophony of wild applause.

In a lull between the punches, shoves and gouges, he managed to grasp the thing in the pouch, the thing he had stolen from Gran last week for just such emergencies. ‘Stop, all of you!’ he bellowed, holding it aloft. So loud he bellowed that even the bat-echoes forgot to transform his words into metallic shrieks. So loud that the Goblins did indeed stop for a moment, stunned into silence by his urgent tone.

The silence lasted only a moment, but it was long enough for him to shout again: ‘I’ve got the thimble! Don’t any of you move! I’ve got the thimble!

A hundred eyes fixed fearful gazes on the tiny thing he held above his head. Red eyes, hole eyes, single eyes, composite eyes, glittering or midnight black in the verdigris light that kept up its flickering from bright to dim, from dim to bright in uneasy response to the irregular current. The waste disposal unit took a step backwards on chickenbone legs, grinding metal teeth. A visiscreen retracted its sense-o-listic tentacles, which had been fully extended to deliver stabs of electric pain to Ben’s face and hands. A stove with lion’s-claw feet lost its balance and fell, crushing a sentient cardboard box that had been standing behind it. Still holding high the thimble, Ben stepped between the Goblins, taking care to hold their eyes with his fierce black stare. For a horrible moment he thought that Cockscomb and Pramwheels would not shrink away from him like the rest. But as he came closer the serve-o-bot trundled off into a corner and Cockscomb skated aside to let him pass. A whispering and murmuring followed him and he turned to face it, because, Gran said, you must never turn your back.

‘The thimble,’ Cockscomb was muttering. ‘He’s got the thimble. What does it do?’

‘Don’t ask me,’ Pramwheels hissed back. ‘I never felt it and I never want to feel it. See how it shines!’

‘Anyone here ever felt the thimble?’ Cockscomb called, and Ben knew his time was short. He picked up the monkey-wrench from where Cockscomb had dropped it and weighed it in his hand. Then he hurled it with all his strength at the glowing green globe in the middle of the ceiling. He had practised throws like this for many months on the roof of the building, hurling spanners, bricks and pool balls at a range of targets, until he could throw almost anything of any size and shape with pinpoint accuracy across a distance of up to fifty feet. The globe exploded, spraying the nearby Goblins with luminous goo. Screams rang out as the affected Goblins began to melt like plastic soldiers on a red-hot stovetop. Ben lunged for the elevator doors and punched the button. The doors began to open. Tires, claws, boots, pincers and caterpillar tracks clashed, rumbled, screeched or squealed as the Goblins rushed him. He flung the wrench at Cockscomb’s head and threw himself backwards, twisting round to punch a button, any button, as he landed inside. The doors hissed together with maddening slowness. A leather glove encasing steel pistons jammed itself between them. Ben gripped it and gave it a yank, the mightiest yank he had ever given; he’d practised for many months to perfect that yank, pulling rivets from twisted girders with bleeding fingers, ripping wheels and accelerator pedals from the wrecks of cars. It came off in his hand. The doors hissed shut. Outside a Goblin howled, a steam-whistle shriek of pain and fury that hurt his ears. Bleeding from head and sides, Ben sank down in a corner, clutching the glove.

As the lift ascended, the lights went on.

At Ben’s floor it stopped with a jolt and the doors hissed open. ‘Thug’ Thorson stood there, his one thumb hooked in his tooled leather belt with the snake’s head buckle, his Stetson tipped at a rakish angle on his shaven skull. With him were two or three members of the Imperial Guard, their uniforms still blackened from the famous battle in the attic a few weeks previously. They lifted Ben to his feet and half led, half carried him along the corridor towards Gran’s flat. ‘Thug’ Thorson stayed behind to cover their retreat with a rapid-fire crossbow.

Gran was at the kitchen sink, peeling tatties for their Christmas dinner. Carols drifted faint and shaky from the ancient wireless. ‘Did you manage to fix the chute?’ she asked without turning. Then, catching sight of his reflection in the kitchen window, she swung round and let out a cry of concern and anger.

‘Oh you poor dear foolish boy!’ she exclaimed. ‘You’ve got yourself thrashed by them boys that live in the rough parts of the building, haven’t you? You turned aside when I told you not to. You spoke to strangers when you should have kept shtum. I’ve told you over and over, but do you listen? Do you heck. Oh, whatever am I going to do with this mindless idiot?’

‘Lock him in the loony bin,’ Jemima suggested, cramming a fistful of tortilla chips between her jaws. She and Jerry were watching a horror film on the visiscreen, surrounded by the usual litter that accompanies such viewings: magazines to hide behind, armchairs likewise, screwed-up crisp packets, popcorn, plates. But Jerry took one swift glance at Ben’s bleeding wounds and let out a shriek fit to wake the dead, then buried his head beneath a pile of cushions.

‘Jemima, mind your wicked tongue!’ Gran snapped. ‘Ben can’t help his intellect. And Jerry, stop that awful racket. It’s bad enough having one fool in the family without you making it two.’

‘I saw a f-f-face at the window!’ Jerry stammered from under the cushions. ‘It was green, and it had red eyes like the lights in the c-c-corridor!’

‘Oh, hold your noise!’ Gran snarled as she steered Ben towards the bathroom. ‘You should be in bed. I always said them sorts of films was bad for young minds.’

But when Ben’s head had been bandaged up and his other wounds seen to, he went straight back to work, despite Gran’s weary demands that he go to bed. He did the rounds of the flat with extra care, stationing a guardsman at every window, a space platoon under every table, a laser-wielding bear on top of the tree. Far into the night he sat with ‘Thug’ Thorson in the living room, making his plans. Now and then he heard Gran muttering in her sleep, or one of the kids crying out in terror at some vivid nightmare: a monster remembered from the movie maybe, or a vision at the kitchen window, or something worse. Tonight, though, Ben didn’t go and comfort them as usual with a story or a wordless song. He was far too busy. Ben was plotting the Battle of the Goblin Basements; and as he plotted he paused now and then to raise his head, listening intently to the tap-tap-tapping that echoed up the waste-chute from the depths of the building.

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Frances Hardinge, Fly by Night

[This post contains many spoilers. Sorry.]

51yVWZqt8bL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Can we count as fantasy those texts in which nothing impossible actually happens? There are plenty of books in the fantasy section of my mental library about which this could be said: G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, the Gormenghast books, many of the novels in Joan Aiken’s Wolves series, Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. Given the absence of impossibilities in these narratives – people turning into beetles, acts of magic, fairies, dragons, mythical beings with astounding powers – why do they persist in finding their way onto fantasy booklists? Why do I think of Frances Hardinge as a fantasy writer, despite the fact that her first novel, Fly by Night, only violates the laws of physics once or twice, and then not to a degree significantly more startling than a conventional thriller?

In each of the cases I’ve listed the relationship with the fantastic is, I think, slightly different; but one thing all of them have in common is a knowing dialogue with other books of different degrees of implausibility. Chesterton is in conversation with detective fiction and the supernatural stories of the previous decade, such as Dorian Gray; Peake draws his inspiration from Dickens and the folklore of piracy; Aiken pays homage to Victorian melodrama; Kushner to the regency romances of Georgette Heyer and the swashbuckling adventure stories of Alexandre Dumas. These non-fantastic fantasies are books at two removes from what we think of as reality, and their flamboyant display of their own literariness makes it clear to their readers that they have no pretensions to mimetic realism except as a literary technique, a means of bringing alive a cast of invented characters in a clearly imaginary space. They are concerned to generate for a new readership some literary atmosphere which is particularly important for the writer – or rather, they seek to produce a new atmosphere out of that old one, an atmosphere that fuses the properties of an old literary genre with the urgent concerns of the present.

hardinge-xlarge_trans++1e7PqSjuVlPS9E5Sk9dVRSUvG1VjmqmGsf10Hf8vKfcFly by Night is unusual in that the texts it draws on have rarely been chosen as raw material for the construction of alternative universes. It’s also unusual, even among the fantasies mentioned above, in the degree to which its literariness is foregrounded. Literature – the world of littera or letters – is what it’s all about, and there are few novels that have played with concepts of literacy more wittily. Characters are read, written and printed with unceasing diligence throughout the narrative – at one point the heroine even finds herself stamped all over with printer’s ink – and the consequences of all these literary acts are as various as the people they happen to. Books, in this book, are the proverbial dragon’s teeth in Milton’s celebrated essay on censorship, Areopagitica: the seeds they sow spring up as armed men, and the urgent question that preoccupies Hardinge’s characters is whose side those armed men are on, whether or not their guns are loaded, and at whom they are prepared to shoot. Reading and writing are not, for Hardinge, an unqualified good. They can be instruments of torture, as when thieves are branded with the letter T, making their crimes indelible, their characters irrecoverable (and a character, too, is an act of writing). But reading and writing are always immensely powerful, and their power isn’t easy or even possible to control. That’s a good starting point for a book to take, I think, if it wishes to imprint itself on its reader’s imagination.

If there was ever a time when pens could kill, the early eighteenth century was it, when Pope, Swift, Addison and Steele waged war on the follies of humankind from the smoky interiors of coffee houses, when religion was a fiery theme and the British Empire was spreading its crimson tentacles across the globe, partly funded by the profits from the slave trade. This was also the period of enormous wigs, silly hats and ridiculous clothes worn mostly by men and women of the upper classes. What tends to get remembered from this time is the stuff of romance: the pirates who sailed the early eighteenth-century seas, the highwaymen who haunted its heaths, the plots being hatched by rebels of various stamps in its city streets, the battles fought by its generals. Hardinge’s secondary world, the Shattered or Fractured Realm, is evidently based on early eighteenth-century England, but her book is not concerned to romanticize it. Its only pirate is a barge captain with a fierce temper and a crooked wrist instead of a hook. Its only highwayman finds life on the open heath cataclysmically bad for his health, and the fame his exploits bring him profoundly inconvenient. Its principal rebel is a mild-mannered schoolteacher who has nothing further from his mind than insurrection; its only general an insane Duke who cheats when fighting a duel on behalf of his imaginary lovers. Hardinge’s topic is not so much romance as the processes by which romance is generated: in particular the printing press, whose output turns highwaymen into heroes, ordinary men into revolutionary masterminds, and piratical barge captains into corpses, thanks to the efforts of competing factions to take control of what the printing press produces.

Hardinge’s aim, in fact, is to make her readers think twice about the nature of the book they’re reading: the stuff it’s made of, print, paper, pages, font, words, letters, sentences, chapters, plots, and what these different things can accomplish for good and bad when brought together. And her means of doing this is to pick them apart, in much the same way that she picks apart eighteenth-century England by reducing it to its constituent elements in the Shattered Realm.

The name ‘Shattered Realm’ gets applied to Hardinge’s world in the book’s first chapter by Quillam Mye, a scholar whose work is banned and whose account of the country’s history left unfinished, so that it never gets printed. It’s an unofficial name, then, although it describes the country’s condition with perfect accuracy. And it’s a name that, like Quillam’s forbidden books and pamphlets, escapes from the limits of the written page and finds its way into public ownership, because it’s needed, because the people it describes require its lucid acknowledgement of their political and social situation. Like Dorimare in Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, the Realm has undergone a revolution in which the monarchs were expelled, as in the English Civil War of 1645; and like Dorimare it has never undergone a Restoration, whereby the monarchs returned in triumph to resume their position at the head of state. As a result, the divisions between the religious and political beliefs of the Realm’s inhabitants are everywhere obvious. They worship different gods – saint-like figures called the Beloved, with bizarre names and peculiar functions, such as Goodman Palpitattle (He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butterchurns), Goodlady Prill (Protector of Pigs), Goodman Grenoble (He Who Keeps Knots out of Moustachios) and Goodman Sicklenose (He Who Lures the Shelled Fish into the Hungry Net). They give their allegiance to different claimants to the throne: King Prael, the ‘king across the Tosteroy Sea’, King Hazard, the ‘king across the Magora mountains’, the Twin Queens, the ‘monarchs beyond the Jottland foothills’. Workers in every trade belong to a different Guild; dwellers in adjacent districts wear distinctive clothing; members of different Guilds or with different beliefs frequent different coffee houses. Yet these diverse affiliations are not absolute ones. The inhabitants of the Realm seem perfectly comfortable with their differences, and the chief dangers in the book are posed by fanatics who want total unity: a unified religion, a plain understanding of right and wrong, a single ruler, one set of keys to all the kingdom’s doors, a censorship system that imposes identical restraints on all printed texts, and so on. In Hardinge’s Realm, centrism is pitched against eccentricity, conformity against the marginal, consistency against multiplicity, and the artificiality of imposing any uniform regime on a wildly diverse population is brought out by the crazy inventiveness of their names: Aramai Goshawk, Mabwick Toke, Eponymous Clent, Vocado Avourlace, Mosca Mye. The Shattered Realm owes its fragmentary nature to the splits between large and small segments of its populace, and the question of how to bind the nation together without losing the distinctiveness of its fragments is a vexed one, to which Hardinge offers no simple answer.

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Mosca by Antonia Russell-Clark

The book, too, is a thing of fragments working together to solve a problem: how to find a place in the Realm for its diminutive heroine, twelve-year-old Mosca Mye. Each chapter takes for its title a letter of the alphabet which is linked to the aspect of the Realm it reveals to Mosca: ‘E is for Extortion’, ‘L is for Locksmith’, ‘S is for Sedition’, and so forth. The format of these chapter titles is that of old alphabets used to teach children their letters; but where conventional alphabets of this kind refer to simple everyday things (A is for Apple, B is for Bread, C is for Cat), Hardinge’s letters allude to the criminal underclass and the legal system that seeks to contain them. This is because Mosca herself is doomed from the start to consort with felons. Her father is an exile, sent to Chough from Mandelion for writing seditious tracts about the non-existence of the Beloved, the corruption of the powerful, and the universal necessity for freedom of expression. What’s more, her father taught her to read, which is another violation of convention in the Realm (considering her sex) and has thus invested her eyes with a power that renders her permanently suspect to the illiterate villagers among whom she grew up:

Everybody knew that books were dangerous. Read the wrong book, it was said, and the words crawled around your brain on black legs and drove you mad, wicked mad. […] Mosca might as well have been the local witch in miniature.

Here Mosca, whose name means ‘fly’ in Italian, gets inextricably linked with the words she loves, which crawl around readers’ brains (so the Choughians think) and drive them mad like the constant buzzing of flies in a limited space. The villagers’ reaction to this danger is to deprive the girl of reading material. When her father dies they burn his books with the aim of restricting his daughter’s development as a reader. But the result of this act of censorship is precisely the opposite of what was intended. In response to the lack of books, the girl reads everything else instead: the arbitrary rules the villagers live by, the monotonous rigidity of their existence, the fascinating ways of passing strangers. Hardinge’s constant references to her ink-black eyes insist on their agency, the agency of a child who is always playing the old alphabet game of ‘I spy’ (and the chapter headings could also be taken as answers to the game as she plays it). Mosca picks out unremarked elements of her surroundings and uses them to her advantage in the competition she has been forced to take part in since her father’s death: the struggle for survival in a hostile environment. In the process she continues her father’s work of challenging other people to see what she sees, with drastic results, in the end, for the Realm itself.

710437Mosca is not just a reader; she’s a writer too. She carries with her a violent goose called Saracen, whose name identifies him as another outsider in the village that raised him – hence their strange alliance. Quillam Mye, as his name suggests, wrote his books with a quill, and the best writing quills are fashioned from the primary feathers of a goose or swan. Mosca, then, carries a living sheaf of quills on her adventures, quills with a will of their own and a belligerent energy that reduces armed men to quivering wrecks in any confrontation. The goose also embodies her resistance to the most deadly threat she faces on her travels: the Birdcatchers, religious fanatics whose name alludes to their obsession with restricting the free movement of minds and bodies, as expressed in their vicious practice of trapping birds, men, women and children in metal cages, then murdering them by starvation or burning. The Birdcatchers think of anyone who disagrees with them as heretics, and Saracen’s name connects him with the ultimate heresy, a different religion altogether. During their period of power in the Realm, the Birdcatchers took control of the printing presses and restricted what could be written to texts authorized by their church. Saracen’s quills can no more be controlled than Quillam’s pen, and Mosca’s alliance with him marks her out as a resister of religious intolerance as well as of censorship, like her father before her.

With Saracen’s help she finds her way into the underworld of the Realm, where she learns new words: the argot of the streets which is designed to befuddle the ignorant as surely as the professional jargon spoken by lawyers, doctors, clerics, politicians and poets. But her vigilant eyes ensure that she also picks up the words of the elite, startling strangers with her command of a vocabulary to which by rights she should have had no access. This little fly gets everywhere, like letters, those insectile scrawlings which can be used for the purposes of all classes, all plots, all tricksters with the nous to arrange them in different orders.

Letter by letter, she makes her way through the Shattered Realm, assembling her own unofficial version of the country, its past, its present, its possible futures. It’s a journey from rigidity to fluidity, from settled certainties to infinite possibilities, from being written to writing the world for herself with her own peculiar slant. At the beginning of the novel she is given a name that brands her forever as an affiliate of the least propitious of Beloveds, Palpitattle – the Realm’s equivalent of Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies. Her father insists she be given this name because she was born on Palpitattle’s feast day, and children in the Realm are always named for their patron Beloved; despite his atheism, the historian considers accuracy to be sacrosanct and will not permit the infant’s nurse to change the record of her birth by half an hour to give her the advantage of a better title. From this moment her name allies her to unpalatable truths – after all, flies are a necessary element in any ecosystem, like the detritus they feed on.[1] But flies are not easily contained, and by the end of the book Mosca is making her own choices, all of which involve liberating words and people from unwelcome constraints. This liberation, too, is associated with the alphabet, since Hardinge makes sure the procession of letters in her chapter titles never reaches Z: the final chapter heading is ‘V for Verdict’, and in it Mosca passes judgement on the people of Realm, just as they have judged her, while heading off in a new direction, not dictated by the conventions of the classroom. Her new direction was predicted, like the start of her life, by her father, with his passion for truth: ‘True stories seldom have endings’, he tells her, thus ensuring she will finally settle for the life of a vagabond (V stands for that too), and eschew the happy ever after of romance.

BlackbirdInk fanart - Mosca and Saracen in Chough

Mosca and Saracen by Lesya Blackbirdink

The movement from restraint to liberation is embodied in water as well as in letters. The village of Chough is full of the sound of water thanks to its dreadful climate, but the limescale in the water ensures that everything immersed in it turns to stone. The connection with the mental rigidity of Chough’s occupants is obvious. So too is the fact that it’s the criminal underworld that takes best advantage of this rigidity, offering an escape route to the child who suffers most from the villagers’ petrifaction. An itinerant conman, Eponymous Clent, spins a web of yarns from their hopes and dreams, and is condemned to the stocks when his scams are exposed. Mosca’s first act of liberation is to set him free, and in the process to free herself, since he can act as her mentor on the unfamiliar highways through the Realm she intends to take. It’s Clent who introduces her to Jennifer Bessel, a former gang leader who now sells objects turned to stone by the waters of Chough. Jennifer’s trade shows how ordinary things can be turned to new uses with a bit of ingenuity. So too does the barge captain, Partridge, with whom Clent and she take passage to Mandelion. Partridge is smuggling statues of Beloveds stolen from shrines in the hold of his barge, with the aim of melting down the lead they contain to make bullets for a planned insurrection. Thanks to Clent, Bessel, Partridge and their fellow felons, the rigidity bestowed by the waters of Chough melts away to be replaced by fluidity – of words, scams, improvised falsehoods and imaginative circumventions of authority (including the Guild of Watermen, who serve as the river police). By the end of the book Mosca is utterly at home on the water – as well as with felons of all stamps – while two at least of her enemies have met their end by it.

She has also learned the fluidity that characterizes human affairs, in spite of all attempts to render them rigid and simple – that is, to divide people into simple categories of good or bad, orthodox or heretic, law-abiding citizen or hardened criminal, or to write them into the constricting clichés of romance. Everyone in Hardinge’s world has a back story which makes them capable of eliciting sympathy. Everyone is to some extent connected with everyone else, and Mosca’s assessment of every major character changes in the course of the narrative, sometimes more than once. So too does her assessment of herself. At different stages of her journey she thinks of herself in different terms, as she aligns herself first with one character or interest group and then with another. This fluidity of narrative and personality can be seen as an act of re-education of her readers on the part of the author: the invention of a new kind of writing, with Mosca and her unorthodox schooling as an avatar of the reader, learning day by day to translate her growing skills in literacy into a fresh understanding of the richly interwoven languages of Hardinge’s world and our own.

The chief architect of this education is the conman, Eponymous Clent, whose first name links him to the title of the book, thereby signaling the crucial role he plays in its plotting. The eponymous hero of any narrative is the one whose name appears on the title page, and Clent is a fly-by-night if ever there was one, whose lies keep landing him in trouble even as they propel the story he gets caught up in. Trouble is what stories thrive on; without it there would be no tension to hold our attention for page after page, no crisis to trace through its convolutions to resolution. Clent himself allies the art of the professional fibber and thief with the art of the wordsmith. When Mosca bluntly tells him what he does for a living – ‘You tell lies for money’ – he replies by spinning himself a cloak of artistic respectability which serves as a perfect smokescreen for his scams. ‘My child,’ he tells her,

you have a flawed grasp of the nature of myth-making. I am a poet and storyteller, a creator of ballads and sagas. Pray do not confuse the exercise of the imagination with mere mendacity. I am a master of the mysteries of words, their meanings and music and mellifluous magic.

Mosca sees at once that he is right, since he drew her to him in the first place with his language, the fire-new phrases he brought to rural Chough (mellifluous, mendacity) which she ‘stroked […] in her thoughts like the curved backs of cats’. At the same time she sees that she is right also: he may supply her with ‘Words, words, wonderful words’, but they are ‘lies too’, and it’s this linguistic duplicity that governs their relationship throughout the novel.

200px-FlyByNight-FrancesHardingeAfter the girl has freed him from the stocks, Clent employs her as his secretary – literally, the keeper of his secrets – despite his assumption that (as a country girl) she cannot read or write, and despite the fact that he has no intention of taking her into his confidence. But it’s through her unsuspected skill as a reader that she discovers his only secret: a letter that reveals his identity as a spy for the Guild of Stationers, the organization in charge of the printing and censorship of books – the organization with which her father worked before his exile. The discovery puts Clent in her power, as she had earlier put herself in Clent’s by revealing that she’d torched her uncle’s mill; but it also connects Clent in her mind with her dead father, that uncompromising advocate of truth who was sent into exile for his insistence that people be permitted to peddle lies in print, unmolested by censorship. It’s appropriate, then, that Clent and Mosca should turn to writing as a means of cementing their relationship, and that the writing in question should be as mutual as their knowledge of each other’s secrets. Clent draws up a contract with Mosca, a document that binds him as well as her, and which she co-authors. But if words are lies, then a contract written in words can never be binding, and Mosca quickly loses confidence in the document, reading Clent’s dialogue and behaviour in a sinister new light thanks to her newly-acquired belief that he hides a more terrible secret than spying – she thinks him a murderer, which makes his cheerful garrulity deeply sinister. Later she recovers her former opinion of him, as a self-interested but largely loyal rogue; but in the meantime it’s become clear how the same words and actions can be subjected to entirely different interpretations, a revelation that applies with even greater force to the other characters she encounters.

Lady Tamarind, for example – the first woman she meets on the road after Jennifer Bessel – embodies a mass of carefully calculated contradictions. On first appearance she puts herself across as a coolly detached but still romantic damsel in distress, a white-clad fairytale princess whose damaged coach is attacked by highwaymen, placing her in a situation from which she permits herself to be rescued by the eloquent Clent. But the unvarying whiteness of her clothing also marks her out as a blank page, unreadable to others, unwritten on and therefore unaffiliated, available to be filled with any text of her choice that might advance her Machiavellian interests. She is a master wordsmith, like Clent, but on a grander, less human scale. Her main motive for avoiding robbery is to keep possession of an illegal signet ring which she uses to forge letters from the Twin Queens to her brother the Duke – who is obsessed with the identical monarchs –thus manipulating him into acting as she pleases. She also wields a printing press which she uses to sow fear throughout the city, again in her own interests, and employs the word-loving urchin Mosca as her spy, exchanging notes with her through the medium of a feather: a quill planted in the ground as a memorial to the many victims of the fanatical Birdcatchers. For a while Mosca is as obsessed with her as the Duke is with his uninterested lovers; she dreams of serving her and even becoming her, a distant figure clothed in white as a symbol of her exemption from the common dirt that binds together the rest of the Realm. But Lady Tamarind is not content with mere detachment – with not being written; she seeks to write others, as her scripting of her brother’s non-existent correspondence with the Queens makes clear. In this, ironically enough, she resembles the brother she seeks to displace, whose obsession with a pair of perfect doubles prompts him to rebuild the city, bit by bit, in perfect and impractical symmetry, at the cost of demolished homes and mass unrest. Lady Tamarind’s immaculate clothes have an equivalent in the Duke’s concern with his own appearance: he possesses the largest collection of wigs in the Realm, and is followed everywhere by a servant carrying spares. If the different parts of the Realm have different styles of garment, the distinctive fashions of Lady Tamarind and her brother set them apart, identifying them as outsiders, like the ousted monarchs of the Realm, for ever above and beyond their subjects – and therefore irrelevant to them, despite all their efforts to write them (and the city’s geography) into submission.

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Lady Tamarind by Tealin

Lady Tamarind is not, however, as detached from her people as she thinks. For one thing, she enlists Clent as well as Mosca as her spy after he rescues her from the highwaymen; and between them, Clent and Mosca seem to have connections with everyone else in the Shattered Realm. For another, the lady has servants and admirers, women of an inferior class who aspire to emulate her ‘look’ – and it’s one such act of emulation that leads Mosca to expose Lady Tamarind’s darkest secret: her control of the clandestine printing press with which she disseminates fear throughout the city for her own nefarious purposes. One of Tamarind’s maids sells a dress of hers – pure white, of course – which has been blemished in a distinctive way by contact with the press, and Mosca learns to ‘read’ the dress after finding the press and getting blemished with printer’s ink in a similar manner. In the process she exposes Tamarind as a liar far more deadly than Clent. Her fibs have led to imprisonment and danger of death for many, and her plans for the city include its seizure by the most deadly absolutists of them all, the Birdcatchers – who paradoxically see themselves as the unique custodians of truth, despite their alliance with the Duke’s mendacious sister. Where Clent wields words as tools in an elaborate and democratic competition, a game of ‘I spy’ in which everyone and anyone can join, Lady Tamarind’s words are designed to limit and suppress the words of others, to reduce them to a petrified silence, the oral equivalent of her pristine garments. This also sets her in opposition to Mosca’s father, whose controversial works are often mistaken for Birdcatcher propaganda, but who devoted his career to the fight for freedom of expression. Tamarind uses words as well as clothes to distinguish herself from others, to control them – and it’s Mosca’s awareness that words themselves, with their multiple meanings, can’t be controlled, that leads to the ultimate defeat of Tamarind’s plans, the frustration of her intended narrative.

The most prominent of Tamarind’s servants is Linden Kohlrabi, a young man so different from what he seems that his very name may not be his own – despite the taboo against changing your name in the Shattered Realm. His first meeting with Mosca entails an act of secrecy – he conceals her from a pursuer beneath his cloak – and this effectively defines their relationship as one of shared confidences, though of a very different kind than the confidences Mosca shares with Eponymous Clent. Mosca takes him for a replacement father, the association confirmed when he gifts her a pipe very like her father’s, which she had used – before she lost it – as an aid to thought. Kohlrabi meanwhile takes her as a copy of himself, an orphan whose father died for a cause – just as he reads her father’s works as confirmations of his own convictions as a lifelong member of the Birdcatcher cult. He is wrong, of course – Hardinge’s awareness of words’ duplicity makes this inevitable. Quillam Mye was never a Birdcatcher, he was a freethinker and a sceptic. And Mosca is not blindly loyal to her father, which makes her wholly unlike Linden. She used her father’s pipe to think for herself, not to share his thoughts; and in the process she followed his instructions not to let herself be told what to think by others, and thus not to subject herself to inward censorship. For this reason, it’s also inevitable that Mosca’s view of Kohlrabi will change, as will his of her, with tragic results. But the link forged between them ensures that neither finally sees the other as an enemy, despite Kohlrabi’s willingness, in the end, to take Mosca’s life.

Kohlrabi is a fundamentalist. He is willing to defend Lady Tamarind’s press by murder, because for him words must only ever be used to defend his faith, which is inherited, not self-discovered – handed down wholesale from his father, who he always took at his word. Given this, it is paradoxical that words themselves have little interest for him. It is their meaning that concerns him, and his certainty that this meaning can be conveyed by language without ambiguity or misunderstanding. When Mosca tells him, towards the end, that she knows he is a Birdcatcher, he dismisses the term as an empty signifier, scoffing that ‘the whole country is frightened of a word’, and adding that a word has never killed anyone – ironically enough, given his murder of Partridge to protect a printing press that was being used to foment civil war. He goes on to explain the Birdcatcher faith:

that there is something higher and better in this world than the dirt and darkness which surrounds us […] something pure, something so bright that its light could enchant everything else, like sunlight through a stained-glass window.

The man who makes this statement has blood on his hands and wishes to stain them with more. The conviction that things are see-through, that words or objects can be used as a means to gain access to some immutable truth, is the first step on the road to murder, itself the first step on the road to genocide. From this perspective it would be easy to persuade oneself that those who stand in the way of the light must be disposed of, and that the process of disposal is no more horrifying than the removal of dirt from a lens, the dispersal of darkness to illuminate a room. Mosca reponds to this conviction with the sentence she first applied to the conman Clent: ‘Words, words, wonderful words. But lies too.’ The difference is that she now knows the difference between Clent’s lies and the lies of a killer. Clent’s lies spring from an entirely different perception of language; and Clent’s perception brings life and liberty, where Kohlrabi’s brings only death, petrifaction, and imprisonment in iron cages.

Kohlrabi, then, is Clent’s inverted double, just as Lady Tamarind is Mosca’s (though as we’ve seen, the relationship between these four is more complicated than this). Kohlrabi and Tamarind aim to take control of the story of their country, writing it into something rigid, colourless and lifeless. Clent, on the other hand, improvises his stories spontaneously, desperately, with no overarching plot or scheme at all; yet his word-spinning finally sparks an uprising that briefly unites all the disparate elements of the Realm against the Duke, the Lady and Kohlrabi’s Birdcatchers. To save Tamarind from the highwaymen, Clent writes a ballad about their leader, Captain Blythe, which turns him into a hero; this makes Blythe the obvious choice for leader of the rising. Clent later writes a letter to his employers, the Guild of Stationers, claiming that a harmless lawyer called Pertellis is a deadly radical, who runs the clandestine press which the Guild is attempting to shut down. In the process Clent makes of Pertellis another popular hero ideally suited to supply the theory behind Blythe’s insurrection (and the theory he provides consists of the writings of Quillam Mye in defence of free speech). Clent’s letter falls into the hands of the Guild of Locksmiths, bringing them together (through circuitous routes) with their bitter rivals, the Guild of Stationers, as well as Blythe, Pertellis and Clent, in a floating coffee-house full of radicals, the Laurel Bower. The name of the coffee house connects it with poetry, of which Clent is a professed practitioner. And thus the web of Clent’s ‘way with words’, as Mosca puts it, comes full circle, confirming him as the disheveled Virgil, so to speak, of Hardinge’s farcical epic, and as the unacknowledged catalyst of insurrection.

Clent, then, has a kind of weight despite his comic appearance – and I’m not just referring to his physical corpulence. At the beginning of the book Kohlrabi identified him as dangerous, and by the end it’s clear the young Birdcatcher was right, since it’s Clent and Mosca between them who bring him down. Words, then, when used in the anarchic but expert way Clent has with them, can make things happen, for all Kohlrabi’s contempt for them as weightless objects, window panes that let light through but have no substance. Farce and pastiche, too, of which Clent is also a practitioner, can make real things happen. The marriage house where Clent stays, for instance – a semi-legal site where people get tied in bands of holy matrimony when the church refuses to tie them – plays an integral part in the improvised plot that leads to the fall of Lady Tamarind and the Duke: it’s here that Kohlrabi frames Clent for Partridge’s murder, the act that leads in a roundabout way to Mosca’s discovery of the clandestine press. And for all the absurdity of the ceremonies conducted in it, for all the Whitehall farces it encourages and takes part in, the marriage house also stands for something real as well as a fantasy, a tissue of dreams. One of its denizens, the young wedding-cake-maker who becomes Mosca’s friend and ally, learns about love there, a discovery that acquires substance in her romance with a young apprentice. Romance, like words, like poetry, like friendship, like loyalty, like truth, can be a source of joy as well as of danger. Nothing in this book is just one thing, and the lightest, most casual deployment of words can form part of a movement, can bring down tyrannies or shore them up.

Frances-HardingeI suspect that this is where, for me, Hardinge’s first novel intersects with the fantastic. Fantasy is a genre that has been consistently marginalized as a form of entertainment, branded as merely popular, merely escapist – much like farce, or its barely respectable parent, comedy. Hardinge’s novel affiliates itself with marginal people and popular fantasies, broadly defined, of every stripe: ballads, thrillers, detective novels, romances, fairy tales, farces, pamphlets, religious cults. To bring all these ingredients together in a coherent plot is an act of ingenuity. To make that plot a serious one, with political weight, would seem impossible. This is what she achieves; and in doing so she affirms my conviction that the fantastic, for all its lightness, is where we live, and that we must pay close attention to it if we don’t want it either to dull our minds or to be stolen from us by the forces of darkness.

They exist, those forces. We have them in us as well as around us, like Clent and Mosca, who are spies as well as heroes, traitors as well as resisters of tyranny. Thanks to Hardinge’s marvelously light but intricate novels, we now have the means to see more clearly how those forces work. We had better read her books if we want to know how the farcical and quasi-fantastic political events of 2016 could possibly have happened.

 

Notes

[1] Choughs too feed on detritus, above all manure; hence the poor reputation these birds enjoyed in the time of Shakespeare. So the citizens of Chough are more closely related to Mosca than they might have liked.

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The Reader

220px-Marbled_PaperCaptain Abend had asked to arrest his old friend Professor Bildnis himself, out of some confused desire to conduct the matter with the respect that had always characterized their dealings with one another. But now, as he stood at the great front door of the professor’s ancestral Schloss and waited for the ancient housekeeper to answer the bell, the uneasy feeling possessed him that this had been a mistake, and that he would have been better occupied burying himself in the pile of paperwork that was waiting for him on his desk in an obscure corner of the general’s mansion. He tried to imagine the look on the professor’s face when she realized what he had come for: hurt betrayal; tragic loss; or worse still, a barely-perceptible nod to indicate that yes, she had known this time would come from the moment she first saw him lingering on the threshold of her library, eyes wide with mingled awe and bitterness, as if he had already known at nine years old that he would never make a room like this his intellectual home. As old Marta led him across the hall he shrank, in his mind, to the size he had been then, recalling the prickly suit into which he had been crammed by his nervous mother before the visit, and how it had seemed to lock him into itself as he walked towards the monumental figure in front of the window, forcing his overheated legs to stride forwards even as his protesting mind yearned to make them sprint in the opposite direction, towards the manicured lawns and regimented woods of the Bildnis estate. ‘Captain Abend,’ Marta quavered as she pushed open the library door – he would have liked to help her, since the door was heavy, but knew that any attempt to do so would have inflicted appalling pain on her proud old servant’s heart – and he stepped through into the land of enchantment, the forest of books in which he had lost himself so often over the eighteen years or so since he had first entered it.

Professor Bildnis was standing at the great bay window with her back to him, poring over a gigantic volume which seemed to contain brightly-coloured pictures and exquisitely painted initial capitals – though of course he couldn’t make out any details at such a distance. The Professor herself was just as massive, on a human scale, as the book was on the bibliographical one. She wore a shabby plush dressing gown as dark and voluminous as an academic robe, and her tangled grey hair hung like cobwebs across the great flat boulders of her cheeks. Yet there was something light and nimble about her: the way her big hands caressed the leather binding of the book she held, the way she was poised almost on tiptoe in her old worn slippers as if about to take flight, etherealized to weightlessness by her excitement at what she had found there.

As he walked towards her, his polished boots boomed aggressively on the floorboards and he shrank still further inside. The echoes of his footsteps rolled about the room like out-of-control dirigibles, bumping against the age-dimmed spines of the books that lined the shelves from floor to ceiling, bumbling up and down the steps of the wheeled wooden staircases that stood around the edges like patient giraffes ready to help any undersized reader – such as the captain himself, as he felt at this moment – to reach the upper shelves. Captain Abend came to a halt in front of the professor, clicked his heels together – not very smartly – and saluted. The professor raised her grey eyes from the page at which she had been gazing, her lips still curved in the smile of pleasure the words and images on it had conjured up.

‘You’re here to arrest, me, aren’t you?’ she said, in a voice both distracted and kindly, as if this were a minor disturbance which was drawing her attention away from important business, but which she must pay attention to, for a while at least, out of courtesy and a lifelong affection for the young man who had brought it about. ‘I’ve packed my bags, if I’m allowed to take them. No?’ she added quickly as Abend gave the slightest shake of his head. ‘No bags? Not even a toothbrush? Never mind. I’ve made arrangements for the books here. I once hoped the city library would take them: I always meant to hand them over to the people, but I somehow doubt most of the people in their present mood would be inclined to accept the donation. Marta and her family will keep them safe for those in the future who care to read them.’

Captain Abend stared at her as she spoke, then sensed that his mouth was hanging open and closed it hurriedly. She had always had this effect on him: one unexpected observation (you’re here to arrest me, aren’t you?) and all his carefully-planned excuses and words of comfort fell round his feet, where they lay twitching their ascenders and descenders like exhausted mayflies. The professor watched him for a while, the same sweet smile playing on her lips, though there was a hint of sadness to it now. In fact, when he came to think of it, there had been a hint of sadness mixed with pleasure in her face when she first looked up. Sadness was what she lived on, it was meat and drink to her; her arrest, it seemed, was merely the culmination of a succession of sad moments born of the excessive hopes her books had awoken in her at a tender age.

‘May I ask, at least,’ she said at last, placing her big hand on his arm – she held the giant volume open in the other hand as if it had been a child’s hornbook – ‘may I ask why I’m being arrested? Is it for what I’ve written? If so, I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised. I hadn’t expected the generals to take such a sudden interest in the obscurer byways of historiography. They have risen several notches in my estimation.’

Captain Abend shook his head again and cleared his throat. ‘Well, yes and no,’ he said at last, his throat so dry the words hurt as they forced themselves past his larynx. ‘Of course they’re aware of what you’ve written. In fact you’re doing them an injustice to accuse them of ignorance. Some of them are actually fans – General Halfisch, for instance, told me the other day that you’d been an inspiration to him in his student days at Heldenbein University. The fact is, though, it’s you yourself they disapprove of. A woman of your ancestry and standing who has chosen to lead a life of scholarship, to involve herself in radical politics, to invite workers and poets and thinkers to her Schloss without regard to the view of their activities taken by the government, to draw the attention of foreigners to their so-called “cause” by virtue of her international reputation as a historian… Need I go on? You’ll know the charges against you well enough, Professor. I’m only sorry you didn’t listen to all my warnings.’

The Professor nodded her head slowly, still looking distracted. ‘That’s a pity,’ she murmured, though Abend saw at once that she wasn’t talking about her failure to pick up his mumbled hints at the growing hostility to her among the ruling party. ‘They should have read my books more carefully. If they had they would have arrested me long ago.’

All at once her eyes hardened, as if she were really seeing him for the first time. ‘But you’ve read them properly, haven’t you, August? Not just my books, but my dreams, my quest – I’ve spoken about these things to you many times, you are well acquainted with the book of my mind. You know what I’ve been looking for all these years. You know that my writings are little more than a record of frustration, scribbled notes on a lifelong search that kept leading me up blind alleys in chase of a glimpse, a damaged map, a riddling clue, a forgotten archive which, when I reached it, invariably turned out to contain no more than second-hand information, scraps of gossip, castles in the air. You’ve followed me on my mental journeys. You’ve embarked on mental journeys of your own from time to time. I could have wished you’d journeyed more, boy, and not let yourself get mixed up in this bad business. You can see plainly now, I think, the blind alley to which that particular path has brought you.’

Abend felt a flash of rage and clenched his fists, half tempted to strike her. He could never have dedicated himself to the journeys she spoke of – unlike her he had to make a living, he had younger brothers and sisters to think of, who had depended on him since his father’s death and his mother’s illness. Besides, his military career was not so much of a dead end as all that. He was well paid, he had glittering prospects – the general had told him so when they’d met by chance on the mansion staircase. And who was she to talk to him about blind alleys? Where had her reading got her? To this room, to this moment in time when her young friend stood awkwardly before her with an order for her arrest in his inside pocket. This was a cul de sac if ever there was one. He ought to pull out the paper at once and show her the wording, with the general’s extravagant signature at the bottom.

But his anger quickly faded as he noticed her eyes straying back to the book in her big left hand, as if pulled by strings. She would hardly notice the paper, even if he waved it in front of her eyes or struck her head with it; she had already half forgotten about it and him. This was not even a proper conversation, really, because she’d been talking to herself all along, as she always had, as she always would. He had never really been of any interest to her, and it was mere hypocrisy in her to express regret about his failure to follow intellectual paths for which she had always shown a supreme indifference. He might as well let her go on talking. There was no great hurry. This job once over, he had only the other dull papers on his shabby desk to attend to for the rest of the day. If he took his time over this arrest he could at least make sure that the rest of the day didn’t last too long.

And now she was speaking loudly, almost shouting, and waving the book at him as if it contained evidence of his sins of omission. ‘But August, August!’ she cried, cheeks wobbling with emotion. ‘I have finally found it! To think it was always there, right in front of my nose, in a book I knew as well as the inside of my head – a book I’ve known since I was younger than you were when I first met you! I would be embarrassed by my blindness if I weren’t so happy. Come over to the window; let me show you. It’s a matter of looking at the words and the pictures, both at once. I knew how to do that once, as a little girl; but you may have noticed how such skills melt away like frost with the passing years. It’s because we don’t read with all our attention, we don’t inhabit our books and populate them as we did when we were young. They don’t live in our minds, words and pictures together, when we go to sleep. They don’t talk to us in our dreams, as they did when we first discovered the heaven-sent miracle of reading.’

In a dream – half mesmerised by the flow of her words – he saw that she was looking at him now with what seemed genuine attention, as she beckoned with her head towards the bay window. ‘It’s not our fault, you know,’ she went on companionably. ‘We read too much, as adults – we know too much to be able to inhabit the books we read as we did before. We’d go mad if we tried. But every now and then, when we concentrate hard, we recover that skill again for a few short minutes. And those minutes stay with us for a while after we’ve stopped reading – long enough, sometimes, for us to set down some bald impression of what we’ve learned.’

As the Captain moved with her to the sunlit bay he experienced another sudden flashback to his nine-year-old self. Again and again she had beckoned him to some corner where she was poring over a page, often in another language he didn’t know. Forgetting his age, she would read it out to him, the mellifluous clatter of Greek, the dancing curlicues of Italian, the baroque efflorescences of formal French or Latin. He had listened enrapt, with pictures forming and fading before his eyes. The shape of the scripts told him stories more energetic and convoluted than the comics he secretly scanned in the shops when his mother wasn’t looking (she thought them vulgar and feared exposure to them would impede his development as a reader). Later he became resentful of the Professor’s blithe assumption that he could understand the erudite syllables she intoned. But now, striding after her, a sensation caught him by the throat, a thrill of excitement as of some imminent revelation, a door about to open on some world of wonders. He remembered it well now, that sensation, though he had thrust it down to some hidden cellar of his being, where it had mouldered under the stacks of soulless documents he had been piling up through his wearisome years as a military administrator. Each of the Professor’s readings had been, for him, a musical performance with a visual accompaniment, like the ballads sung by old men as they rapidly flipped through the great shimmering pamphlets full of crude hand-coloured pictures displayed on easels in the market squares of Helden. Suddenly he felt sure that he would now recover that half-forgotten pleasure, the one he had denied himself in his teenage years because of mounting frustration with his limited prospects. He drew close to her shoulder and found himself too short, still, to peer over it. Instead he squinted round the side of her massive gown-draped arm, allowing the script and illustrations on the page to fill his vision.

The words were arranged in short, neat lines that formed a column from top to bottom, which told him they were verse. The columns were broken at regular intervals, which told him the verse was arranged in stanzas. Alternate lines were indented apart from the final couplet of each stanza, so he had a good idea of the rhyme scheme. The Professor didn’t recite verse to him, however, nor did she speak in the archaic dialect of the poem. She spoke rapidly in the language he knew best, turning the pages to match the pictures to her words. Yet the story made little sense: something about a princess in a castle on an island, whose loneliness drew birds and beasts to her through the waves, till at last it drew a young fisherman who took her away with him on his skiff to the place where fishes have wings and birds have fins and beasts can sing. The story ended badly – ‘all stories from this period ended badly, it’s as if they didn’t know how to write a happily ever after’ – with the fisherman dead and the princess imprisoned once again on her lump of rock. ‘But look here!’ the Professor cried, tapping the final illustration. ‘The picture of the room where she lies dead after giving birth; do you see the door? It’s exactly like the door to this library. The carving on the lintel, the details of the paneling, the smallest glimpse of the room beyond. Her child is walking towards the door, growing as she walks – she’s almost grown already, see how tall she is, how long her hair. And the door is the door to the library – I can only assume the painter copied it from life, if that’s the right expression, still life I suppose it should be. If you look closely at the picture you can see the edge of this bay window. Do you see it, August? Her child is walking into this room, this very room where we’re standing now. I’m assuming – it’s a reasonable hypothesis – that the writer and illustrator knew very well that it would end up in this location; they must have been commissioned by one of my ancestors. The books themselves – the books are the key. I always assumed, when I was a child, that the king had won, that the child in the picture was myself, trapped in this castle without escape like her mother before her. But the books hold the key to the end of tyranny. She’s even carrying one in her hand. Can you see the title? With eyes like yours you can surely read it even without the magnifying glass – though of course you can borrow mine if necessary.’

Of course Captain Abend could read the title: his vision was perfect, they had complimented him on it only the year before when he had undergone the annual test. Only his asthma had let him down, condemning him for ever to a desk job despite his impeccable scores in every element of his military training. He could see the title of the book, and knew full well why it had excited her so greatly. The title was hers – the name of the book she had written three years after he had met her. She had talked to him about it as she wrote, and later he had read it himself, head spinning with the visions she had put into it of better times to come. But this was hardly news – much less the miracle she was making it into. Clearly as a girl she had read that title, when her eyes were as good as his. Clearly she had recalled the title – though perhaps she had not known where she’d first read it – when she’d been writing her book. The Professor knew about the unconscious; she’d explained it to him often enough. How could she imagine the name of the book was a clue to anything?

The fact was, though, this was typical of her: to see her life as a perfect circle, beginning and ending in this room where her books had made her. What a charming justification that would be for a life of reading – for a life spent travelling, as she would put it, in the realms of gold, where ordinary men and women could not follow! How naïve she was, how profoundly selfish, to see such a life as having been worth leading, as having had any kind of purpose or significance for her people! While they had suffered and died outside her estate, here she had flipped the pages of ancient books with unsated hunger, searching and searching among forgotten texts – for what? For a fairy tale, a castle in the air, a chimera. She had never grown up, that was her problem; could not conceive what adulthood meant, or responsibility, or pain. Even her arrest wasn’t real to her; just the typical sad ending to one of the romances she had been reading since she could read.

‘That is… remarkable,’ he said coldly, hoping the irony of his tone would not be lost on her. ‘The library, the book, the title. I’m sure you’re right, and this old romance holds the key to everything you’ve been looking for all your life. I shall be sure to tell my friends at the officer’s club, and my brothers and sisters; they’ll be overwhelmed. But now, Professor Bildnis, I’m sorry to say that time’s against us. We have to go. Formally, of course, I’m supposed to show you the mandate for your arrest – but we can dispense with that formality if you don’t care to see it. Is there anything you wish to do before we leave? Any final instructions you want to leave for Marta? A note of farewell, perhaps, for someone close to you?’

The Professor turned her great grey eyes on him – they had always been her finest feature, the eyes of a woman slimmer and swifter than she, a dryad of the woods, a mermaid. To his surprise, they were full of tears. She shook her head gently, and he had the uncomfortable feeling that she was shaking it in pity at his willful ignorance. Her expression was exactly as it had been when he had had that outburst, on the last occasion he had seen her before enlisting.

‘You’re very kind,’ she said. ‘You always were, you know – though now I think of it I’m not sure you ever did know it. He hath ever but slenderly known himself. No, thank you; I’ve said my farewells, and my books will be my note to my friends and allies – especially that one. Read it again for me, will you, when I’ve gone? Just one last time. And try to read it with seeing eyes. I know you can.’

He was blushing now, though he was not sure if it was with childish embarrassment or anger. He had reached out to take her arm, ready to steer her through the Schloss to the great front door; he fancied he could hear the horses pawing the gravel, impatient to return to their stables and the excellent fodder they would receive after this long divergence from their normal routines. But the Professor was holding up her finger as if in remonstrance. Not just yet, her finger was saying; you know very well there is one last thing I have to do before we depart. Do I need to tell you, after all these years?

‘I had better put the book back,’ she said softly. ‘I want to be sure other people will find it in the right place when I am no longer there to find it for them. Wait by the door, my dear; I shan’t be a minute.’ And she turned away, cradling the book in her two great arms like a much-loved infant.

For a moment Captain Abend stood looking after her, as if turned to stone, as if striving to fix her massive form in his memory once and for all, so he could summon it up at will whenever he needed to consult her later in life. He could not have known, of course, that his life would not last much longer – that he would be one of the few casualties of the bloodless revolution of the following year, and that old Marta would find his corpse beneath his desk in an obscure corner of the general’s mansion, a sheaf of papers clutched to its chest as if to defend it against the bullets that had sprayed the building. He had no premonition of such an ending as he watched the Professor walk stiffly to a free-standing bookcase and vanish behind it. He thought only of how he would miss her, in spite of her ugly face, her eccentricity, her air of always knowing so much more than he did about everything – even the things she could not possibly know as well as him, such as life in the army and the ways of generals.

He heard her characteristic sniff from behind the bookcase. He heard a faint thump, as if she had stamped one of her slippered feet on the ancient floorboards – like Rumpelstilzchen, he thought, when he stamped his foot so hard he fell through the floor into endless darkness. What in the world, he wondered, had called that tale to mind? It was not as if she were angry with him – at least, not angry enough to make a hole in the castle floor and tumble through it, disappear without leaving a trace, apart from a heap of golden straw and a woman with a young child in her arms, a newborn baby, sign of the future…

All at once, fear swept through him: a sudden wind of panic blowing in from nowhere. He tensed where he stood and listened intently. There was no sound from behind the bookcase – and this alone was enough to chill his bones. The Professor was incapable of staying silent; she huffed and puffed as she moved around the library, her joints creaked, her slippers scuffed, her dressing gown swished as it brushed against incidental tables and the wheeled wooden staircases that waited to serve her like tame giraffes. And she sniffed constantly; her sniffing had driven him mad when he was a teenager. Why was she not sniffing? Had something happened to her? Could that thump have been the sound of her death?

In rising terror – ridiculous, really, he would think that evening, since he had come to the Schloss, to all intents and purposes, with the task of escorting her to her execution – he lurched forward in a clumsy run. His boots drummed against the floorboards once again with the aggressive tread of an intruder. He rounded the corner of the bookcase, bracing himself for what he would find, and stopped dead, heaving great gulps of vellum-scented air into his lungs. He put out a hand to steady himself against the top of the bookcase. He stood there panting and staring, staring and panting, letting his heartbeats slow to a steady rhythm against his ribs as he struggled to take in the scene in front of him.

Lying on the floor lay the painted volume, wide open at the page where the child was approaching the door with a book in her hands.

Behind the child, the princess lay on her curtained bed, eyes closed, hands neatly folded across her stomach.

Before the child, beyond the door, you could see the edge of the great bay window.

All in the picture was exactly as it had been a few moments earlier.

All except for the monstrous shadow on the floorboards under the window, the shadow of an ogre or a rampant bear.

All except for the hem of an old plush dressing gown, trailing in the air as if its owner had whipped out of sight when the book was opened.

All except for the expression of wild excitement on the young girl’s face as she hurried towards what lay beyond the door, clutching the book as if her life depended on it, her black hair streaming out behind her like a banner.

A sudden draught from the open window caught the edge of the page and flipped it over. The Captain still stood transfixed, staring at the marbled end-papers as if searching for words among the swirls of blue, green, red and muted yellow that marked the space between the story and the world.

 

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Mervyn Peake at Southport

[I’ve been busy marking this month, which hasn’t given me much time for blogging. Here, then, is an essay I wrote for Peter Winnington’s journal Peake Studies; the full version with notes can be found in Vol. 12 No. 1 (October 2010), 3-24. There will be more on Peake in January.]

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Sapper Peake

Mervyn Peake lived his life surrounded by eerie foreshadowings and replicas of Gormenghast castle.  His biographer Peter Winnington describes the hospital compound where he spent his early childhood in Tientsin as ‘a world surrounded by a wall with China on the other side; as in Gormenghast, the emphasis is on enclosure’.   Not many miles from the compound was Beijing, and the Forbidden City where the Boy-Emperor lived in seclusion as Peake grew up nearby; and the city inspired the setting of the BBC Gormenghast series along with a ‘Tibetan-style monastery in Ladakh’.   In the 1930s Peake joined an artist’s colony on the tiny Channel IslanFlying Bomb 8d of Sark, whose geography has often been compared to that of his imaginary castle;  and in the 1940s he moved back to the island with his family.  When he succumbed to Parkinson’s disease in the late 1950s, he was treated in the Holloway Sanatorium, Virginia Water: a spectacular palatial building decorated with astonishing grotesques, hailed by Pevsner as one of the crowning achievements of late Victorian architecture.  As with all great literary creations, once it was summoned up Gormenghast castle proceeded to generate doubles of itself through time and space, and Peake himself inhabited more than a few of these topographical echoes of the imaginary fastness.

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Southport Promenade Hospital today

One of the Gormenghasts he occupied, however, has remained more obscure than the rest.  This is the neo-Gothic building where he lived for one summer in the middle of the Second World War: the Convalescent and Sea-Bathing Hospital (later known as the Promenade Hospital) at Southport, Lancashire.  An imposing red brick Victorian structure at the seaside resort a few miles up the coast from Liverpool, the infirmary was administered after the outbreak of war as an emergency hospital, with beds for 600 patients, whose presence transformed it into a bustling miniature city with high-ceilinged nightingale wards and an enormous dining room.  To this place Peake came as a patient in the spring of 1942, after suffering a breakdown while on military service at a camp near Clitheroe, Lancashire.   The windows at the front of the building looked out on the promenade, which ran alongside a large artificial lake where you could go boating in peacetime.  Beyond the lake lay the vast expanse of the Southport sands.  Spanning the lake and stretching out across the sands was the Southport pier, one of the longest in the British Isles.  In the other direction, behind the hospital, you could stroll along Lord Street: a magnificent tree-lined shopping avenue once frequented by the future Emperor Napoleon III, who is said to have been inspired by it to fill the centre of Paris with spacious boulevards.    At any other time Peake might have liked Southport; but its brightness came to him at a time of emotional and intellectual crisis, and the works of art he produced there are as anguished as they are beautiful.

Writing SoldierTill now, most of what we have known about Peake’s time at Southport has come from his letters, the most informative of which was addressed to his old school friend Gordon Smith shortly before he left.  In this letter he lists some of the symptoms that landed him in a sickbed: ‘sleeplessness at night and tired all day (ironically) – irritable as a bereaved rattle-snake and apt to weep on breaking a bootlace’.   He found himself unable to work on the various illustrations he had been commissioned to produce because he was so ‘jittery’ – a word that might imply (Peter Winnington suggests) that his hands were shaking as they would do again in the 1950s, in the early stages of the Parkinson’s disease that ultimately killed him.   In a letter to Sir Kenneth Clark, Peake attributes these symptoms to the ‘perpetual frustration and […] wastefulness’ of army life: ‘two years of trivial routine’ during which he was perversely refused all opportunity to deploy his talents in the service of the war effort, condemned instead to fritter away his time at a succession of tasks and training exercises for which he had no aptitude.   ‘I am sick, sick, sick of it,’ he told Smith, ‘the perpetual littleness of the life – the monotonous conversation of what I suppose are my comrades who are with me polishing buttons and blancoing the webbing in our fight against world tyranny […] I just want to cry when I think of the stupidity of the whole bloody, ghastly, sordid business’.   Isolation, boredom, a sense of wasted time, combined with the ‘bloody, ghastly, sordid business’ of war to plunge him into a state of acute emotional vulnerability which left him unable to sustain the farce of pretending to participate in what were for him the senseless rituals of the army – a mood comparable to that of Titus Groan as he rebels against the meaningless rituals of Gormenghast castle.

This mood was intensified when Peake’s second son Fabian was born in April 1942 and he was refused permission to visit his family in Sussex.  Peake promptly went absent without leave and headed South; but when he arrived home his wife Maeve found him strangely distant and distracted, a condition he describes from within, as it were, in several powerful poems of the period (‘O, This Estrangement’; ‘Absent From You’, etc.).  Returning to Clitheroe, he accepted the routine punishment dished out to him by his regiment – he never said what it was – and continued his descent into depression.  The breaking point came at the end of May, when he found himself struck down with an attack of involuntary insubordination: ‘I bent down to do up my boot-lace, when I suddenly realized that I could never obey another order again, not ever in my whole life.’   He reported to the Medical Officer, and was admitted to Southport Hospital on 27 May, suffering from what he called a ‘nervous collapse’.

At the Southport hospital, patients were dressed in a distinctive uniform that caused Peake extreme embarrassment when he wore it in public: ‘shapeless “suits” of peacock blue with crimson rag ties’, unfurnished with pockets, which made their wearers ‘very noticeable in this artificial town with its sea on the horizon’.   The pyjama-like garments drew the unwelcome attention of the local women, who would look ‘very lovingly’ at Peake until they learned that he wasn’t wounded at Dunkirk.  He mentions the clothes in several letters, and wrote a poem about them too, as we shall see.  No doubt they contributed to his sense of being confined in an asylum, which was exacerbated by the behaviour of the other patients, who went about ‘gesticulating or grinning suddenly at nothing’, as Peake did not (at least, he didn’t think so).   One of the pictures he sent to Maeve showed him ‘with his fellow sick-men queuing up for their meals, in long nightshirts, huge army boots, and cropped hair’.   After collecting their meals on trays they would take them back to their wards, to eat in bed after taking off the boots.  It was the oddness of their physical appearance, as much as their eccentric actions, that marked out these men as distinct from the nattily uniformed ‘healthy-men’ of the British Army.

gormenghasttext_6805Other aspects of hospital life proved more congenial.  Peake was prescribed as treatment for his condition the task of getting on with his half-completed novel, Titus Groan; and some of the finest chapters in that book bear the inscription ‘Occupational therapy, Southport Neurosis Centre’ (a name for Southport Hospital which he seems to have invented).  He learned to play a pipe – ‘It’s the most thrilly thing in the world’, he told Smith  – and made two for himself, one in A and one in D, from which he could produce simple tunes such as ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’.   Evidently the carving of the pipes gave him as much pleasure as playing them.  ‘I want to make one of black walnut,’ he declared, ‘brace-and-biting it right through (one inch diameter) and then cutting away, rasping, etc., until I have a perfect tube, very slender’.   At other times he drew pictures of strange animals, cut them out and sent them home in letters to his sons.   Meanwhile he was taking an interest in poetry, spurred on perhaps by the good sales of his first collection, Shapes and Sounds, the year before.  He recommended to Smith a new anthology, Poetry in Wartime, singling out the Welsh poet Vernon Watkins – a friend of his friend Dylan Thomas – for special praise.  One of the manuscript pages of Titus Groan carries the injunction ‘Get Trahern’ [sic], signalling his intention to familiarize himself with the seventeenth-century poet and mystic Thomas Traherne.  He gave a copy of the Selected Poems of Louis MacNeice to a woman called Dora Street (was she a nurse at the hospital?).   And he was also writing poems himself.  Until recently none of the verses he wrote at Southport have been identifiable; but now a number have come to light, and they offer an intriguing insight into his existence on the Lancashire coast during his enforced four-month stay.

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Long John Silver by Peake

One of these poems is a fragment which brings us right into the ward where the ‘sick-men’ ate their meals side by side in bed.  Maeve tells us that Peake’s next-door neighbour in the ward was another sufferer from breakdown, a spiritualist who received regular visits from his dead mother.  Because of the army timetable, the man’s mother had been unable to find him while he was on military service; but since his hospitalization ‘they had been able to re-establish their old routine, and she came to see her son every evening at six o’clock promptly’.   The anecdote conjures up a vision of solidarity among patients who had been subjected to the intolerable pressure of conforming to the inflexible schedule of military life; Maeve reports it as if the mother’s visits were a secret shared by the bedridden neighbours in defiance of the hospital officials, and in broader defiance of the notion of sanity imposed on them by a manifestly insane environment.  This sense of conspiracy is consolidated in the fragment of verse I mentioned, which has never before been published.

WE ARE THE LIFELESS GYPSIES

We are the lifeless gypsies.  The swashbucklers
Who have to be in bed by half past nine
These summer nights – we are the grievance crew
Of love and filth, of plot and secret sign,

The unconvincing pirates of the ward
Where nurses whisper of their own intended
In cubicles when the ward lights are out

These verses repeatedly juxtapose tremendous vigour with passivity, building up to a crescendo of specifically sexual frustration in which patients and nurses find themselves confined in an artificially sexless environment, their proximity to one another strictly regulated to prevent any fraternization beyond the ‘plot and secret sign’ exchanged between patients.  The sick are represented as displaced persons in the disciplined hospital environment: gypsies and swashbuckling pirates, both groups associated with energetic wandering and often romanticized acts of courageous lawlessness, but here hobbled by adjectives that drain them of their traditional vitality: lifeless, unconvincing.  The pirates’ potential for swashbuckling has been buckled, as it were, to a strict routine (they ‘have to be in bed by half past nine’) which pays no attention to their maturity or the changing seasons (in north-western ‘summer nights’ the light remains strong till late, accentuating the earliness of the swashbucklers’ bed-time).  The sexual frustration of the patients, whose ‘grievance’ at their confinement manifests itself in outbreaks of ‘love and filth’ – abortive romance and furtive fantasy – leads them to listen intently to the conversation of the nurses after lights-out, as the women discuss their own love-lives in the seeming privacy of ‘cubicles’.  There is something satisfying in the way this poetic fragment peters out, just as the whispers inevitably drift into the silence of sleep.  There can be no satisfaction or closure for the hospital’s segregated inhabitants, and the form of the fragment as we have it mimics their inconclusive existence.

The fragment is written in the five-stress line, iambic pentameter, which could be described as Peake’s default metre in his ‘serious’ poems (as opposed to his nonsense).    In the letter he wrote to Gordon Smith from Southport he shows himself uncomfortably aware of the extent to which this metre dominates the music of his verse.  ‘My chief problem,’ he tells Smith,

is one of Form, and I find myself to be expressing things overmuch in the five-beat line, irrespective of the core of the notion.  Not really quite as bad as that, but a lack of being able to leap instinctively into the only form that the mood must be externalised by.  I want my poems to create this form in a growth way, out of the very nature of the thought, unfolding as they continue from line to line, from idea to idea, and then to close in gradually (or swiftly) like the petal of a flower at night…

Another poem to emerge from his Southport period is both a striking example of Peake’s weddedness to the ‘five-stress line’ and the extent to which he could make it seem to have grown quite naturally from the ‘very nature of the thought’ it embodies.  Published for the first time in the Collected Poems,  the poem has since been found on the reverse of the manuscript leaf that contains ‘We Are the Lifeless Gypsies’, confirming them as products of the same period of invalidity:

BLUE AS THE INDIGO AND FABULOUS STORM

Blue as the indigo and fabulous storm
Of a picture book long lost where islands burst
Out of the page, exploding palm on palm,
Are we, whom the authorities have dressed.
For we are bluer than the fabulous waters
That lap the inner skull-walls of a boy
So that his head is filled with brimming summer’s
Dazzling rollers which make dull the day
Surrounding him, like an un-focused twilight,
Such waters as uplift a rippling acre
Of naked jelly through the sunfire drifting
With at its centre a vermilion ember
Across whose fire the transparent eyelids rove
O fiercer than the azure lights that flare
At the lit core of fantasy.  We move –
See how the sick kingfishers take the air! –
In brilliance past the Southport pier
Yet we are shapeless in our azure suits
Which hang in monstrous folds.  Around our throats
The twisted snakes of fire burn all day long,
And tenderness recoils from our preposterous boots.

Jim and HandsRead in the context of Peake’s institutionalized summer at Southport the poem becomes a dazzling evocation of the sense of alienation imposed both by the condition of being a patient and by the state of being a visionary artist: a Blake or a John Clare with a distinctive perception of the world which he struggles to convey through word and image.  This sense of alienation is present in many of Peake’s poems, but is here exacerbated by the ‘monstrous folds’ of the vivid blue uniform that makes the hospital inmates stand out even from the blueness of sea and sky on a northern summer day.  Their costumes transform the patients into grotesque parodies of a vision that was of intense and lifelong interest to Peake: the ‘fabulous waters / That lap the inner skull-walls’ of a young boy, an imaginative ocean which dims the brightness of the actual summer day to a mere ‘un-focused twilight’, and which for Peake were specifically associated with the favourite book of his childhood, Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

As the poem proceeds, its focus shifts repeatedly from the outward appearance of the patients in their blue suits and fiery neckties to the boy’s interior landscape, whose brilliance is both challenged and alluded to by the ‘brilliance’ of the ‘sick kingfishers’ the patients have become.  The fantastic energy of the boy’s vision of a piratical picture book, where palm trees resemble explosions and ‘brimming summer’s / Dazzling rollers’ reduce the daylight of the room in which he is reading to ‘an un-focused twilight’, is more than matched by the monstrous vitality of the patients’ costumes, which are ‘bluer than the fabulous waters’ imagined by the child reader.  At the same time, the boy’s imaginative world and the patients’ real one seem to merge as the fabulous waters are described in greater detail, becoming the account of a vision which invalids and children share:

Such waters as uplift a rippling acre
Of naked jelly through the sunfire drifting
With at its centre a vermilion ember
Across whose fire the transparent eyelids rove
O fiercer than the azure lights that flare
At the lit core of fantasy.

At first hard to visualize, after rereading it becomes clear that these lines evoke with astonishing precision a breaker lifting its ‘rippling acre of naked jelly’ in front of a summer sun, so that the sun is seen through the advancing wave.  Wonderfully, it is not made clear whether we’re to think of the ‘transparent eyelids’ as a metaphorical description of the wave or as a reference to the actual eyelids of the spectator/poet, closed against the dazzling brilliance of the vision he has been granted.  In the same way, it is not clear whether ‘O fiercer than the azure lights that flare / At the lit core of fantasy’ refers to the fierceness of the sunlight seen through water, or whether it refers back to the blueness of the patients’ uniforms, which were ‘bluer than the fabulous waters’ of the boy’s imagination, and perhaps fiercer than them too.  The confusion is a productive one, because it mimics the bedazzlement brought on by the vision of the wave against the sun.  Spectator, wave, sun, and the imagined vision that the wave and the sun represent, become fused in a single scene where the explosive inward landscape of the child reading a picture book and the incongruous brightness of the patients at the sea front are equally at home, and equally alien to the ‘un-focused twilight’ of the ‘dull… day’ that surrounds them.  Implicitly, child and patients share common access to the ‘lit core of fantasy’, and a common desire to turn away from the everyday world to face the searing brightness of the inward picture.  The quasi-visionary nature of the experience described here may help to explain Peake’s interest, while he was at Southport, in getting hold of the work of the visionary poet Thomas Traherne.

0472The link forged between hospital patients and a young boy in this poem brilliantly denotes the infantilization of the institutionalized – one of several kinds of infantilization to which Peake was subjected before ever he came to Southport.  His first self-illustrated book had been a child’s picture story full of metaphorically exploding palms, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor; but when he tried to interest Chatto and Windus, the printers of his poetry collection Shapes and Sounds, in publishing illustrations to his poems, they rejected the idea as too radical: illustrations were too closely associated with publications for the young to be admissible in a serious publication  – and besides, there was a shortage of paper (though this didn’t prevent Eyre and Spottiswood from publishing his illustrated collection of nonsense verses, Rhymes Without Reason, in 1944).  With the exception of the jacket drawing, the illustrations he sent to Chatto’s disappeared, only for two of them to resurface decades later disconnected from the poems they were meant to embellish.   The same infantilizing view of his talents was shown by the army in wartime, who set him to painting signs for toilets as if this were the most suitable outlet for his artistic energies.   It’s hardly surprising, then, if the patients in ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’ end up as the kind of half-terrifying clowns Peake loved to draw throughout his life, whose shapeless suits hang in ‘monstrous folds’ and whose throats are encircled by actual monsters, the ‘twisted snakes of fire’ which externalize their inner torments.  Even the outsized boots which in clowns are comic have been transformed in this context to the kind of preposterous spectacle from which ‘tenderness recoils’, rendering their wearers bereft of emotional or sexual succour.  These clowns, like the murderously clownish pirate Captain Slaughterboard in the opinion of some contemporary critics, are both the stuff of infantile fantasy and at the same time wholly unsuitable for consumption by the young.

clown-oil-paint-on-canvas-by-mervyn-peake-1950s1Peake’s use of iambic pentameter in the poem is masterful, as is his subtle use of rhyme or half-rhyme throughout.  It’s easy not to notice the rhyme scheme when you first read it (although the division of the text into stanzas in the recently-discovered MS accentuates the rhyme);  and the repeated use of enjambment renders the five-stress line as fluid as its subject, the oceanic mental riot that the grotesque hospital uniforms both signal and seek to contain.  This fluidity makes it easy for Peake to break the ABAB rhyme scheme whenever he feels like it, or to add an extra foot to the last line – an entirely appropriate gesture given that it refers to the outsized boots described by Maeve as an integral part of the ‘sick-men’ of Southport’s uniform.  Here, then, despite his self-doubts, Peake has shown himself ‘able to leap instinctively into the only form that the mood must be externalised by’ – even if that form happens to be the five-stress line he deploys so frequently.

Two more poems from his time at Southport make equally skilful use of iambic pentameter; and although each is only a sketch that survives in a single manuscript, scribbled in a hand that is sometimes hard to decipher, each shows a similar mastery of its chosen metre, and throws similar light on his mood at this troubled moment in his creative development.  The first, scrawled on the marbled cover of an exercise book, describes a woman seated by a window, irresistibly conjuring up the many images of Maeve her husband sketched throughout their marriage (although it is always unwise to make assumptions about the identity of the women in Peake’s poems).  Because it is written in the second person, it reads like an act of mesmerism, whereby Peake seeks to affect Maeve’s actions across the war-torn miles that separate them:

CURL UP IN THE GREAT WINDOW SEAT

Curl up in the great window seat, your heels
Beneath you in the cushions while you watch
The summer rain fall with unnatural darkness
Beyond the pane.  Move your dim arm and touch

The glass that shields you from the violence
Of the primeval gods.  Then turn your eyes
To the book upon your knees, and make pretence
To read, but do not see it.  Then heave such sighs

As the melancholy drifts of water heave
As they draw back their salt drifts from a cove
Of clashing shingle – then, my darling, leave,
And suddenly, the room, and weep, my love.

Water and isolation dominate this poem, as they did ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’; and once again a visual impairment is described – though in this case connected with premature darkness rather than excessive light.  The first stanza sketches a comfortable homely scene with impressive economy.  The detail of the woman’s ‘heels / Beneath you in the cushions’ implies a tender familiarity with her habits (going barefoot indoors, sitting in certain favourite spots and attitudes), while the ‘unnatural darkness’ of the rain beyond the window pane only accentuates the cosiness of her situation.  But her touching of the glass, beyond which the ‘violence / Of the primeval gods’ is being visited upon the elements, abruptly changes the poem’s tone.  Soft summer rain is suddenly transformed to a tempest from which the watcher needs to be ‘shielded’.  The domestic calm is shattered.  We never learn exactly what makes the woman unable to read while pretending to do so – while trying to keep up the appearance, at least, of the cosiness of the first stanza; but by the third stanza the chill and damp of the weather outside has definitely penetrated the room she occupies, as her sighs become those of the cold ‘salt drifts’ of some retreating tide, which are powerful enough to make the shingle clash as the waves heave backwards from a cove they once filled.

0106At the end of the poem, the salt drifts have begun to vent themselves in the salt tears the woman weeps when she leaves the room.  Meanwhile the brokenness of the last two lines, achieved by commas and awkward syntax, is accentuated by the tender phrases that occur in them: ‘my darling’, ‘my love’, each confirming our suspicions as to the cause of the woman’s sudden melancholy (she is in some way separated from someone close to her).  There’s a violence about the last two lines, too, that is accentuated by these terms of affection.  If the poem is indeed a conjuration or a set of instructions, what kind of ‘love’ on the part of the writer would be prepared to call down such suffering on his absent ‘darling’?  Coldness, an inability to touch or be touched, seems here to be as much a product of the alienated state of mind of the writer as it is of the long enforced separation of Maeve and Mervyn brought about by his hospitalization.  Gothic creepiness replaces cosiness at the close, and we might well be reminded of the fact that Peake was writing some of the most powerful evocations of isolation in the Titus novels – the section he calls the ‘reveries’, in which guests at the baby earl’s birthday breakfast each find themselves locked away in their own thoughts, unable to communicate their hopes and fears to the people sitting next to them – at about the time when he wrote this poem.

The other poem in iambic pentameter he wrote at Southport has a very similar topic and mood.  Until now it has been known only in typescript, but I found a manuscript copy of the poem, in Peake’s hand, while looking through the Peake Archives at Sotheby’s, and the manuscript is written on the same paper, in the same ink, and with the same handwriting as the sole surviving manuscript of ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’ (which was also in the Archives, and had likewise not been available to me when I edited the Collected Poems).  Given the immense variations in Peake’s handwriting at different times of his life  (by turns confident, aggressive, shaky, sprawling, minuscule, painterly, and insectile), and in the paper and ink he used throughout his career, this makes it likely that the two were written in the same period; and although the grounds of the Southport Emergency Hospital do not seem to correspond with the landscape described in the poem, the state of mind Peake here articulates closely resembles his description to Gordon Smith of his state of mind at Southport: exhausted, irritable, emotionally hypersensitive, and unable to engage with any consistency with his various creative projects (even his work on Titus Groan stalled while he was at Southport, after completion of the ‘Reveries’ section).

Here is the poem, transcribed for the first time from manuscript, and thus differing slightly from the version in Collected Poems:

FOR GOD’S SAKE DRAW THE BLIND

For God’s sake draw the blind and shut away
The beauty that is crowding through the window:
A score of rain drenched elms and four drenched pastures,
All apple green against the leaden sky[.]
I do not want it – I am out of tune
With all this loveliness.  To hell with it.
Draw the thick blinds, put on the light – I will
Not watch the green leaves fluttering in the dark,
I will not watch it.  I am far too tired
For the responsibility for miracles[,]
O vulnerable when nature comes to me
And lifts the corner of her common veil.

The last two lines are particularly hard to read, which explains some of the differences between this transcription and that of the anonymous typist whose typescript I used for the version in the Collected Poems.  It seems clear, however, that the poem is not complete – although once again its fragmentary status renders it curiously eloquent, enacting the lassitude it describes, the refusal to continue to ‘take responsibility for miracles’.  And the subject of the poem seems clear enough too.  On a rainy day, the extraordinary beauty of a pastoral scene outside the window – the kind of scene Peake had been writing fine poems about only months or weeks before (consider ‘Leave Train’, ‘With People, So with Trees’, ‘An April Radiance of White Light Dances’) – suddenly becomes oppressive, carrying with it the burden of ‘responsibility’; presumably the artist’s responsibility to capture scenes like these in verbal or visual form.  That Peake is referring to a loss of artistic energy and confidence is suggested by another poem on the same subject, ‘Conscious that Greatness Has Its Tinder Here’,  which describes his loss of the ‘power’ to access the inner resources that might make him great as an artist or a writer, and perhaps specifically as a poet, since he tells us the power might manifest itself as the ‘high flame of an oracle’, a prophecy that traditionally takes the form of verse.   In this poem, his hope that the power of oracular speech has not been lost for ever is twice called ‘the hope of miracle’, a phrase recalled by the Southport poem’s reference to ‘responsibility for miracles’.  But in the Southport poem the plural noun distances the speaker from the processes he is describing.  The creative ‘miracle’ of ‘Conscious that Greatness Has Its Tinder Here’ takes place inside the writer; it is the sudden outbreak of ‘inner fire’ into artistic form.  The ‘miracles’ of ‘For God’s Sake Draw the Blind’ take place outside not just the writer but the room he sits in, in a rain-washed space where ‘nature’ is attempting to seduce him into participating in her ‘loveliness’ – into being in tune with it, as if he were a well-made pipe – at a point when he finds himself too weak to respond to her advances.  The tone of sexual alienation accords well both with the tone of ‘We Are the Lifeless Gypsies’, and recalls Peake’s account of his awkward encounters with the respectable women of Southport in his letter to Gordon Smith.

‘For God’s Sake Draw the Blind’ resembles ‘Curl Up in the Great Window Seat’ in that both take place at windows, beyond whose panes events are taking place which trigger a strong emotional reaction in those who are watching them: the seated woman, the hospital patient.  Peake’s most well-know window poem, ‘Each Day We Live Is a Glass Room’,  describes the whole of human existence as framed by glass, implying that ‘we’ share a sense of separation both from our fellow human beings and from the ideal landscape we would like to inhabit, a place of ‘green pastures’ where ‘the birds and buds are breaking / Into fabulous song and hue /By the still waters’.  In the version of this poem published in Collected Poems, the phrase ‘green pastures’ echoes Psalm 23 (‘He maketh me to lie down by green pastures’), and the biblical echo is confirmed by a later reference to the occupant of those pastures, ‘the Lord’.  An unpublished earlier version of the poem, however, does not possess these religious connotations; and the isolation it describes is a personal one, not collectively experienced by ‘we’ or ‘us’ but encountered on a daily basis by a single first-person speaker:

EACH DAY I LIVE IS A GLASS ROOM

Each day I live is a glass room
Unless I break it with the thrusting
Of my senses and pass through
The splintered walls to great landscapes
Where the birds and buds are bursting
Into Song and into Shape and Hue
Vivid and lasting.

Each day is a glass room until
I break it – but there’s many a day
I have no power to smash the walls
Of cloudy glass, and make my way
Into my own, into that vibrant country

Lesley Hurry’s illustration for ‘September 1939’

The landscape here is not the psalm-inspired pastureland of the published version but a grander, wilder expanse which Peake dubs ‘my own […] vibrant country’.  This sounds very like the private inward space described as a person’s ‘world’ in the celebrated chapter of Titus Groan entitled ‘The Attic’.  Here Peake speaks of the love ‘that equals in its power the love of man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply.  It is the love of a man or of a woman for their world.  For the world of their centre where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame’.   In Fuchsia’s case, her world is a suite of rooms in a hidden attic of Gormenghast castle; the one place where she can allow her imagination free rein, where it can burn with the brightness of the sea-refracted sun in ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’.  Fuchsia can access her suite of attic rooms with enviable ease.  In ‘Each Day I live’, by contrast, ‘my own country’ may be visited only sporadically and with considerable effort, when the strenuous ‘thrusting / Of my senses’ smashes the glass cell to which the speaker is confined.  Interestingly, though, both Fuchsia’s ‘world’ and the poet’s share a common concern with the fusion of shape and sound, word and image.  Fuchsia’s attic contains a ‘big coloured book of verses and pictures’, two of which (‘The Frivolous Cake’ and ‘Simple, Seldom and Sad’) we are privileged to read, the first through Fuchsia’s, the second through Steerpike’s eyes.   In ‘Each Day I Live’, the birds and buds of ‘my own country’ are always bursting ‘Into Song and into Shape and Hue / Vivid and lasting’; a fusion of sound, shape and colour which gets lost in the published version, where the green pastures contain birds of ‘fabulous song and hue’ whose shapes are never mentioned.  The combination of shape, sound and colour here recalls the title of Peake’s first collection of poems, Shapes and Sounds, and seems to suggest that poetry’s unique ability to combine shape with sound, on the page and in the writer’s and reader’s brain, makes it for Peake the imaginative space that most completely defines him – the ultimate expression of his ‘world’.   Presumably this poetic space would be even more defining of Peake if it were accompanied by illustrations, as Shapes and Sounds was meant to be – and as several poems by Peake were when they first appeared.  His friend Lesley Hurry illustrated three of his poems in the 1930s, including ‘September 1939’, which Hurry framed in a surreal watercolour landscape, thus enclosing it in its own glass room.

ForS+S1941

Illustration for ‘The Craters’

It would seem, then, that the ‘nervous collapse’  that took Peake to Southport was particularly disturbing, like the war in which it occurred, because of the violence it did to his inner landscape – a violence given external expression in the damage that was also being done to the urban landscapes Peake knew so well (the link between outward and inward damage is well expressed in his poem ‘The Craters’).  Fuchsia’s attic world is a place of tranquillity, where she can act out plays, tell herself stories, and read her illustrated poems without interference or regulation; and when Steerpike bursts violently into it from outside – reading her ‘book of verses and pictures’ to gain access to her mind – its magic is lost for ever.  Peake’s own country in ‘Each Day I Live’ is an energetic but peaceful place where only buds and birds are bursting, not bodies or bombs.  The visionary seascape he evokes in ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’ is far more tempestuous, with palms exploding and islands bursting from the waves instead of buds; but then it has been afflicted by the psychological condition of the patients it describes, whose privacy has been violated first by war and military service, then by parading them along the seafront in abominable suits.  The landscape beyond the glass in ‘Curl Up in the Great Window Seat’ is more tempestuous still, ravaged by the ‘violence / Of the primeval gods’ like the embodiment of the woman reader’s inner turmoil.  And though the four pastures in ‘For God’s Sake Draw the Blind’ are tranquil enough, the speaker cannot respond to their tranquillity, traumatized or nerve-wracked as he is into acute vulnerability – a word derived from the Latin vulnus, wound, returning the poem to the theatre of war from which it seems at first to be secluded.  The Southport poems show Peake exiled from the ‘vibrant country’ of himself, having been brutally pressed into performing absurd and inappropriate services for his nation.  The cloudy glass that surrounded him at Southport Hospital, separating him from his home and the people around him as well as from his creativity, must sometimes have seemed unbreakable during his prolonged confinement.

One more unpublished poem, though, shows how he fought to acclimatize himself to the physical and psychological landscape he inhabited in 1942.  Unlike the other Southport poems, it is not in iambic pentameter, but wends through various metres and rhyme-schemes, perhaps in an attempt to ‘create form in a growth way’, as Peake put it to Gordon Smith: that is, to discover a form of verse that grew organically, as it were, out of its subject, and out of the time and place of its composition.  Such a form would have a better chance than the five-stress line, he thought, of flowering and producing fruit; in other words, of spawning future works of art, especially poetry.  Certainly no other poem of his Southport period – not even ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’ – more obviously grows out of the specific location it was written in.  Those who have visited the beach at Southport will remember the great expanse of sands which is bared there at low tide, where even from the end of the pier it is possible to lose sight of the sea altogether, or see it only as a narrow strip of brightness on the horizon.  Southport is a place of immense vistas – as is the coastal part of Lancashire where it’s located, whose wide flat fields look like a green extension of the beaches that lie beyond them.  The ‘distant tide’, the ‘far, portentous sea’ in this poem, of which one remains acutely conscious despite its farness, is something that clearly springs from the land and seascapes of western Lancashire.

Here it is:

GATES OPEN AND LOVE’S VISTAS SPREAD

Gates open and love’s vistas spread
To the mournful barely heard
Tides that lap the bay of death
Where the wanderer through pastures
Wades and makes an end of breath
And the bodies thousand gestures
Many many years away.
But between the great gateway
Which has opened suddenly
And the far, portentous sea
Like a grey curtain filling up
The space where all the sky should be –
Spreads the dazzling woof and warp
Of the days and of the hours
And of the months and of the years
The rainbow and the diamond showers
And the tears
Of our love which are the river
That makes green the fields of lovers
When they wander through the world[.]
For what are tears but proof that we
Are alive to everything
That we hear and that we see
In each other’s entity
Where the purple heart takes wing[?]

Unlike the other poems of the Southport period, these verses enact not confinement but liberation.  Where the others are full of shut windows, this begins with an opening, rather like the generous opening of gates which Milton links with Heaven in Paradise Lost – or the gates of God’s house in Psalm 24.  The landscape revealed by this opening (we never find out in the poem which gates are being opened – perhaps they stand for the experience or recollection of falling in love) is a representation of the lover’s life, reaching through ‘many many years’ to the far-distant ‘Tides that lap the bay of death’.  These tides provoke thoughts of suicide, since at the end of his or her life’s journey the wanderer through love’s vistas wades into them voluntarily, as if eager to put a stop to the act of breathing.  They resemble a ‘grey curtain’ (covering another window?); but the panorama spread out in front of them is a dazzling confusion of shifting shapes and colours, reminiscent of the dazzling confusion of ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’.

But the reason for the confusion is here quite different.  It arises from the tears that blur the speaker’s eyes; tears that have little in common with the tears that occur in ‘Curl Up in the Great Window Seat’.  There they seem to flow from the ‘salt drifts’ of the woman reader’s melancholy.  She leaves the room suddenly to shed them in private, and there is nothing in them capable of mitigating the gloomy condition either of the woman’s mind or of the storm-surrounded room she has just left.  In ‘Gates Open and Love’s Vistas Spread’, by contrast, the tears utterly transform the landscape that is seen through them, giving it the ‘dazzling warp and woof’ of an exotic fabric, watering it with ‘rainbow and… diamond showers’, and greening its fields with irrigating rivers.  In Southport Hospital, tears were proof of disordered nerves: the symptoms of Peake’s breakdown as he described them to Gordon Smith included being ‘apt to weep on breaking a bootlace’.  In the poem’s transmuted Southport, tears are instead a proof of life; proof that those who shed them possess the most acute form of hearing and vision, the sensory acuteness of the lover, which is capable of breaking through the isolation of the individual and experiencing the whole of another person’s being (‘entity’ recalls the word ‘entirety’ or wholeness as well as being – health, then, instead of sickness).  So acute is the lover’s sight, in fact, that it can see the motions of the loved one’s ’purple heart’ as if it were the flight of a brightly coloured bird across wide-open spaces.   The poem closes with a phrase, ‘takes wing’, which is the direct obverse of the entrapment articulated in the other Southport verses.  Clearly, then, Peake had at times recourse to stratagems – born perhaps of his love for Maeve – capable of freeing him mentally from the confines of Southport Hospital.  And we may count ourselves lucky to have been granted a glimpse of one, at least, of these liberating moments.

 

 

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A Beautiful Shade of Blue

images

‘Yes! Yes, love! Well done!’ someone was shrieking. ‘Rage, that’s what we’re looking for! Let me feel your anger!’

Yana dreamt she was in her studio painting a picture while a team of visiting sponsors watched over her shoulder. She hurled paint at the canvas with increasing desperation, aware that she had lost control of the composition long ago.

‘Good! Good! More red! The colour of anger, the colour of new blood!’ One of the sponsors was bellowing in her ear as though determined to rupture the drum.

‘But not too much red,’ put in another. ‘Remember the décor. We want it to blend.’

‘To hell with blending!’ screamed the first. ‘We’re paying for art, not interior design! We want something that says to our clients, We dare! We dare!’

‘Could you put something shocking in the bottom left hand corner? There’ll be a rather unsightly water dispenser to the right of the picture, and we need to distract our clients’ attention from it, to draw away their eyes, as it were…’

‘Don’t listen to him, love, he’s a philistine. We want you to feel free to unleash the rage that made you famous. This year everybody who’s anybody in the city is looking for the return of raw power to the canvas. We’ll supply the publicity. You supply the terror. Terrify us again!’

She was aware that she had used up all the colours on her palette. She looked around for more tubes of paint, but could see nothing but plates full of macadamia nuts and half-empty glasses of champagne.

‘Almost finished, love? I’m only asking because we’re expecting the delegates from Tokyo at twelve, and of course they’ll want to see the finished picture.’

She mumbled something about more paint.

‘Paint, love? Why didn’t you say so? You can have all the paint you want. Come with me to the factory and choose the hues for yourself.’

As she turned away from the painting she noticed that there were hundreds of tiny, boneless creatures squirming under the oily surface like maggots in rotting flesh.

Accompanied by a crowd of sponsors she hurried out into the street. Together they all rushed along a few inches above the pavement, without any visible means of propulsion. All around them the city was in flames. Groups of women carrying babies and pulling small children by the hand darted round the corners of tower-blocks. Soldiers followed them. Cars exploded by the side of the road. A man ran up to a shop window and threw a brick through it, then ran away. Alarms went off up and down the street, and as he ran the headlights of the cars he passed began to flash, while car-alarms wailed in sympathy with the electronic shrieks from the vandalized building. A posse of policemen burst out of a side-alley and closed in on the fugitive. The last she saw as she rushed away was a mass of truncheons and shiny boots rising and falling where the man had been.

Now she found herself in a street lined with glass buildings and empty of people. Newspapers blew along it opening and closing, revealing and concealing silently raving headlines and grainy photographs of bewildered teenagers with enormous breasts. A tank rolled forward at the other end of the street: she heard its tracks crack the tarmac.

Just as her crowd of sponsors hurried her through sliding doors in one of the glass facades she noticed that a little girl had wandered into the path of the tank, clutching a doll. ‘Wait!’ she shouted, and struggled to free herself from the hands that gripped her by the elbows.

‘No time, no time!’ barked the sponsors in unison. And now she was inside the factory, and the noise blotted out her memories of the street, all but the ache of loss that always grew more acute as her dreams went on.

High overhead, a network of steel girders defined an invisible glass roof. The net was held in place by thick steel pillars. Lower down, metal walkways led from pillar to pillar, along which ambled men in overalls with long steel poles in their hands. Conveyor-belts moved between the walkways, with elongated sacks dangling from hooks at intervals along them. Now and then one of the men leaned over the metal railings and used the prong at the tip of his pole to shift a sack that had drifted too close to one of its neighbours. On the concrete floor below the conveyor belts vast witches’ cauldrons bubbled and fumed. From the streams of brilliantly coloured liquid that ran down the sides, she guessed they were full of paint.

‘You see, this is where the paint comes from,’ said one of the sponsors, rushing her up a metal stairway onto a platform near a vat full of dark red pigment. ‘We have every conceivable shade of black and brown, a wide range of yellows and greens, a somewhat limited supply of azure – it’s very expensive to produce – and of course a lot of red. Would you like to see how it’s done?’

She had no wish to see how it was done, but her tongue (which had been sluggish since the dream began) refused to obey her. The sponsor signalled to a nearby foreman with a moulded plastic helmet. The man leaned out over the railing as the others had done and with a twist of the little claw at the end of his pole snared one of the dangling sacks. A deft slicing movement, and the sack split open.

Inside hung the naked corpse of a young black woman. Her eyes seemed to gaze mournfully at them as the belt jerked her past.

‘There you have it,’ said the sponsor. ‘A fine rich chestnut, wouldn’t you say? This particular colour-source is destined for that vat over there, where it’ll be separated, melted down and carefully strained. Our colours are renowned the world over, and now you know the secret of their brilliance. Nothing like animal products for putting life into paint. Some might say it’s cruel, but our methods are really very humane, and there honestly isn’t any substitute for good old-fashioned flesh and blood. We import much of our yellow ochre from Southeast Asia, so that’s why the tubes cost more – we have to pay tax on our carbon footprint. The green is relatively simple to produce: we simply wait for the bodies to fester, then extract the mould. Ultramarine, cobalt and indigo we have to distil from our sources’ eyes, and as you can imagine it’s difficult to get hold of cheap azure eyes in the current state of the global economy. As for red; well, red is the easiest of all. If you please, foreman?’

The foreman moved to the other side of his walkway and reached out for another sack.

This one wriggled and kicked as he split it open. Tarek hung inside. As soon as he saw her he started to yell: ‘Yana! Yana, for pity’s sake! Help me!’

Tarek was moving in long jerks towards the vat of dark red paint near the platform she stood on. As he approached, a circular blade on the end of a jointed metal arm emerged from a tangle of machinery and stretched out lazily to greet him. She turned to the sponsor. ‘For God’s sake! That’s my husband! There’s been a terrible mistake!’

‘No indeed,’ said the sponsor, turning to her. ‘We want you to give us rage. We need the power of rage to lift the economy out of recession. Your husband will help you supply us with what we need.’

And now she saw that the sponsor had no eyes, only gaping holes with ragged edges. ‘You see, we all have to make sacrifices,’ he explained with a sidelong smile. ‘My eyes were a beautiful shade of blue, I tell you. A beautiful, beautiful shade of blue.’

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Generals and Degenerates in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida

Mask of Agamemnon

So-called Mask of Agamemnon

Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida in 1602, after the execution for treason of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, in the protracted final years of Elizabeth I. With the death of Essex a phase of Shakespeare’s life came to an end. When the Earl staged an abortive coup in 1601, one of his co-conspirators was Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated his poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Another co-conspirator was Shakespeare himself, since his company had staged one of Shakespeare’s plays, Richard II, with its controversial deposition scene, two days before the rising at the behest of the Earl’s supporters. After that performance Shakespeare stopped writing English history plays for over a decade. It’s hardly surprising, then, if the Greek history play he wrote the following year has an air of bitter retrospection, inverting the triumphalist rhetoric of Henry V – the final play in the Second Tetralogy, which refers to Essex as the heroic ‘general of our gracious empress’ – in an amazingly tortuous and orotund prologue.

Robert_Devereux,_2nd_Earl_of_Essex_by_Marcus_Gheeraerts_the_Younger

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

Troilus and Cressida is Shakespeare’s long farewell to English history, and to the particular history of England under Elizabeth. It concerns itself with the question of the ‘indirect, crook’d ways’ by which the past gets written, and with the function of history as theorized by the humanist education system that shaped Shakespeare’s mind. Its chief target is the humanist claim that you can draw general principles or rules from the disconnected fragments and wilful distortions of conflicting historical narratives. I’d like to suggest that this concern was already implicit in his choice of topic – Troilus, Cressida, the war over Helen – and that he and his audience would have approached it with a strong sense of their own complicity with the notoriously treacherous dispositions of the ancient Greeks.

by William Hole (Holle), after Unknown artist, line engraving, published 1616

George Chapman

In Tudor times the Trojan War was bound up with English history. The English traced their ancestry to Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, who founded a city as great as the city state of Aeneas’ birth: Troynovant or New Troy – later rebranded as London – in the land of Albion – later rebranded as Britain. It was easy, too, for Elizabethans to connect the Trojan War with recent history. Like the Essex rebellion, the Trojan war was an internecine conflict, with relatives on both sides taking arms against each other; the motive of the war was a woman; it involved a tangled web of betrayals; and one of its central figures was Achilles, who had been linked with Essex by the poet George Chapman in his 1598 translation of seven books from Homer’s Iliad. Chapman’s translation is dedicated to ‘the most honoured now living instance of the Achilleian virtues eternized by divine Homer’, the soldier-earl, and this sentence transforms Robert Devereux into an instructive example of the kind historians and poets seek to supply when penning their texts. At the same time, Chapman argues in his prefatory epistle that poets are more reliable than historians – or indeed their living subjects – in offering exemplary nourishment for the soul, that is, the moral and intellectual life of the mind. In the real world, Chapman contends, the soul is trapped in what he calls ‘the scum of the body’, that ‘wormeaten idol’ which invariably fails to manifest the soul’s ‘excellency’ – or worse still, contrives through its actions to ‘murder and bury her’. Great poems, on the other hand, like those of Homer, offer the perfect bodily vehicle for the soul, communicating its qualities as no human actions can, and resurrecting past heroes with a few well chosen syllables. As a result, ‘the lives of […] poets’ can be seen as the heroes’ ‘earthly Elysiums, wherein we walk with survival of all the deceased worthies we read of; every conceit, sentence, figure and word being a most beautiful lineament of their souls’ infinite bodies’. If this is so, then the Earl of Essex – who at the time of writing still occupied the ‘wormeaten idol’ of his living body – could never have represented Achilles as accurately as Homer’s verse does; and it was only one year later that the Earl’s Achillean virtues found themselves buried, so to speak, in the dismal failure of his campaign against the Irish (1599). Those who remembered Chapman’s dedication, then, would have seen the irony in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Achilles, whose body is verbally infested with so many diseases by the satirist Thersites. Once Achilles, always Achilles – so long as Achilles is merely a verbal rather than a corporeal construct, and hence not subject to old age, lack of fitness, or infectious diseases of body and mind.

2015-11-23_zu-Art_Giovanni-Domenico-Tiepolo_The-Procession-of-the-Trojan-Horse-in-Troy_WGA22382Despite Chapman’s praise of poets, Homer’s account of the Trojan War was viewed with distrust in early modern England. The war, in fact, was the perfect example of the untrustworthy nature of history itself, since there were so many competing versions of what happened, each weighted in favour of one of the warring sides, each accusing the other camp of inventing lies to support their cause. The versions of Homer and Dictys of Crete were said to be biased towards the Greeks, while Virgil and Dares the Phrygian sided with the Trojans. There were even suggestions from serious historians, such as Polydore Virgil, that all accounts of the Trojan War had been fabricated, and that the ancient history of Britain was therefore entirely fanciful. The body of evidence, then, as well as the bodies of the people who took key roles in the ten-year siege, was subject to corruption, and the question of whether the exemplary function of history was damaged or enhanced by its fabricated elements was fiercely debated in the sixteenth century.

The proto-novelist Geoffrey Fenton gives one of the most detailed accounts of the uses of history in early modern England. In the preface to his story collection Certain Tragical Discourses (1567) he states that like all arts, narratives of the past contain embedded in their particular details ‘certain special principles and rules for the direction of such as search out their disposition’, and that the responsible reader’s task is to extricate these general ‘precepts’ from the specific examples scattered so liberally through their pages. In the process the reader makes use of the past to plan for the future, on the presumption that ‘the nature of man in all ages, although the singular persons be changed, remaineth still one’, so that consequences of the same action or situation will be always and everywhere the same.

The point of reading history, then, is not so much to know what happened as to anticipate what will happen, in the interest of constructing policies. The ‘chief gain derived of such travail,’ he writes, ‘is in that we shall see set forth good and wholesome lessons of all sorts, whereof we may take to ourselves and benefit of our country such as we like to follow; and which presents to us the true picture and report of such enterprises as had both sinister beginnings and much worse endings’. In a well-written history, ‘good and wholesome’ actions must be made alluring – we need to like to follow them – while ‘sinister’ actions must be made repellent; something which, as Philip Sidney points out, is not always the case in authentic records. Unlike Sidney, however, Fenton seems to believe that the archives always show virtue rewarded and viciousness punished – that’s one of the general ‘rules’ he’s extracted from history. He acknowledges that ‘description figurative’ as used by poets has been readily accepted by many thinkers as a fine substitute for true history, but asserts that we are far more inclined to emulate our ancestors than to mimic invented figures with no connection to us. Truth is always preferable to feigning, and truth always yields instruction, because it comes from God.

Working Title/Artist: Giovanni Battista Scultori, Naval Battle between the Trojans and Greeks Department: Drawings & Prints Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: photography by mma, 30E_CP52R3M_cv scanned and retouched by film and media (jn) 2_2_04

The problem with the Trojan War is that it’s neither wholly fictional nor wholly factual, so that the truth of it can’t easily be located. For some commentators its hybrid nature as part fact, part fiction is unproblematic. Writing in 1531, the humanist Sir Thomas Elyot defines history much as Fenton does, as a record of past events which can be used to supplement our personal experience, and he considers the question of whether it’s true to be largely irrelevant to this function. ‘Admit that some histories be interlaced with leasings [lies]’, he writes,

why should we therefore neglect them, since the affairs there reported nothing concerneth us, we being thereof no partners, nor thereby […] may receive any damage? But if by reading the sage counsel of Nestor, the subtle persuasions of Ulysses, the compendious gravity of Menelaus, the imperial majesty of Agamemnon, the prowess of Achilles, the valiant courage of Hector, we may apprehend anything whereby our wits may be amended and our personages be more apt to serve our public weal and our prince, what forceth us [what does it matter] though Homer wrote leasings?

Eliot here suggests that we need not bother about the accuracy of Homer’s account of the Trojan War because modern Englishmen have no stake in it – they are ‘thereof no partners’. As we’ve seen, he’s being disingenuous, since the myth of Britain’s Trojan origins meant that the Tudor regime, at least, might be said to have had a stake in whether or not the story of their forebears had been made up. In 1600 an expert in heraldry, William Segar, wrote a passage that neatly summarizes some of the difficulties with Eliot’s position:

True it is […] that many enterprises in times past attempted and achieved above the expectation of men, are now thought rather fabulous than faithfully reported: either because we that now live did not know, or see them, or that ignorant men cannot conceive how they might be done, or that want of courage doth disable them to take the like actions in hand. […] And who so shall well consider how difficult a thing it is to write an history of so great truth and perfection, as cannot be controlled, will easily excuse these writers that have taken in hand matter so far from our knowledge and understanding. For like unto all other men, moved with love, hate, profit, or other private passion, they are either willing or ignorantly induced to increase or extenuate the actions and merits of those men, of whom their histories have discoursed. Howsoever that be, I verily think the acts and enterprises of Ulysses, Aeneas, Hector, and other famous captains […] were indeed of notable men, and some of their doings such, as writers have made mention.

Segar here presents us with a historical record that is always subject to the vicissitudes of ‘love, hate, profit or private passion’, where historiography is always ‘controlled’ – a word that could mean either ‘censured, criticized’ or ‘censored, kept in check’ – and where writers are always exaggerating or excusing the behaviour of the men they favour. If some of the deeds of the Greek and Trojan heroes were authentic, which ones were they? It’s important to know the answer if we’re to use their actions and those actions’ consequences as a means of planning our future enterprises.

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William Segar

Another way in which the Trojan War is mixed is in the examples it contains. These are divided along gender lines: men represent ideals to be followed, women vices to be shunned. But surely a man’s particular qualities can’t be disengaged from the larger project in the interests of which he chooses to use them? It’s all very well to say that Agamemnon is the perfect example of an enlightened general, or that Ulysses is the model counselor, or Achilles the ultimate warrior – but each of these men has undertaken a ten-year war to retrieve a woman who is widely cited as the ultimate example of infidelity and its consequences. And what if the judgement of women recorded by history is itself profoundly unsafe? Throughout the sixteenth century there’s a tradition of defending women like Helen and Cressida – especially the latter – as having been traduced by the faithless historians mentioned by Segar. In the much-reprinted poetry collection A Paradise of Dainty Devices (1576), for instance, Troilus tells Cressida that she has become an example to all women of the effects of what he calls ‘caterwauling’ (sleeping around like a lustful cat), and Cressida replies with a counter-accusation of her own:

No gadding moods, but forcéd strife,
Compelléd me retire from Troy:
If Troilus would have vowed his wife,
We might have dwelt in former joy.

Screen-Shot-2015-05-26-at-17.53.51If Troilus had simply married Cressida, in other words, or fought to keep the woman he loved, she wouldn’t have been forced to seek the protection of his Greek enemy, Diomedes; and she adds that she has been misrepresented by tradition largely thanks to Troilus’s willingness to blacken her name. Shakespeare’s Lucrece (1594) is equally conscious of her dependence on the untrustworthy narratives of men for the example she will be deemed to have set for other women. Her urgent task after her rape by Tarquin is to pass on an accurate speaking picture of herself to future generations: she hates the idea of being fictionalized, transformed into a distorted image which is rendered convincing by the scraps of evidence from which it’s partly assembled. Her body is one such scrap of evidence, and she pleads with the personified Night to keep it concealed:

Make me not object to the tell-tale day.
The light will show, charáctered in my brow,
The story of sweet chastity’s decay,
The impious breach of holy wedlock vow;
Yea, the illiterate, that know not how
To cipher what is read in learned books,
Will quote my loathsome trespass in my looks.

As she seeks some answer to the question of how to transmit the brutal facts of her rape to her husband and the world in general, she finds herself looking at a painting of the siege of Troy, where she instantly recognizes the exemplary heroes, Ulysses and Ajax – though both seem a little ambiguous as moral examples:

In Ajax and Ulysses, O what art
Of physiognomy might one behold!
The face of either ciphered either’s heart;
Their face their manners most expressly told:
In Ajax’ eyes blunt rage and rigour rolled,
But the mild glance that sly Ulysses lent
Showed deep regard and smiling government.

The most puzzling image in the picture, however, is the treacherous Sinon, the Greek whose pretended defection to the Trojan side helped convince Priam to bring the wooden horse within the city walls. Sinon seems to be the direct opposite of exemplary, in that his appearance completely obscures his disposition:

But, like a constant and confirméd devil,
He entertained a show so seeming just,
And therein so ensconced his secret evil,
That jealousy itself could not mistrust
False-creeping craft and perjury should thrust
Into so bright a day such black-faced storms,
Or blot with hell-born sin such saint-like forms.

In this disconnect between his appearance and his treacherous behaviour Sinon confirms Lucrece’s experience of the rapist Tarquin, whose appearance disastrously misled her into trusting him. From now on, she declares, she will always assume that beautiful looks can only serve as the index of a vicious mind. At this early stage in Shakespeare’s career, in other words, Troy is already associated with the problem of assigning values to a man or woman on the basis of a reading of those ‘wormeaten idols’, their bodies. It’s also linked with the problem of extracting general ‘principles and rules’, in Fenton’s phrase, from particular examples: even after Lucrece has identified Sinon the general rule she derives from his looks is scarcely a credible one. Add to this that the best known account of Sinon’s treachery occurs in a version of Troy narrated by a biased poet, Virgil, and the relationship between the particular and the general, the example and the precept, is plunged into crisis by the ambiguities of Trojan history.

4fdee66d2782c1e397c6186f86116e1d.391x633x1When Shakespeare opened his Trojan history play, then, with a prologue who wears full body armour because he has no confidence in ‘author’s pen or actor’s voice’, and when that prologue ends his speech with the couplet ‘Like or find fault, do as your pleasures are; / Now good or bad, ’tis but the chance of war’ – I suggest that the Elizabethan audience would have found itself in familiar territory. The competing versions of the Trojan War demonstrate exactly this: that the outcome of any particular conflict, and the factional bias of its poets and chroniclers, determines the general moral lessons it is deemed to impart. And the play that follows is given over to an extended analysis of the mechanics of making examples out of men and women in a time of crisis.

b91af9ae77b696780f964ea13bf8a188In the play, examples are made in different ways depending on your gender and the moral and political priorities of the side you’re on. At the centre of this version of the Trojan War are two women: Cressida, who is deemed exemplary by Troilus in particular, and Helen, who is theoretically deemed exemplary by both Greeks and Trojans but is also the topic of heated debate in Troy over the current status of her exemplarity. Both are valued, it seems, only for their beauty, so that their exemplary function is limited and questionable (is bodily beauty a value or merely a trigger for erotic desire?). In fact a third woman is fought over during the play, but it would be easy to forget her presence in it. In the second scene we hear that Hector is angry because he has been humiliated on the battlefield by Ajax, and his reaction to the humiliation is to lose his temper with his wife – and hence to jeopardize his own exemplary status: ‘He chid Andromache, and struck his armourer’, as Cressida’s servant tells her. In the following scene, however, he sends a challenge to the Trojan camp which proclaims Andromache to be the most exemplary woman of all, and urges the Greeks to fight him in single combat if they disagree. Aeneas, who brings the challenge to the Greeks, expresses it thus:

Hector, in view of Troyans and of Greeks,
Shall make it good or do his best to do it:
He hath a lady wiser, fairer, truer,
Than ever Greek did couple in his arms.

This kind of challenge is of course familiar from chivalric romance, but in the context of the matter of Troy it is problematic: if Andromache is so much better than any Greek lady, past or present – and if a Greek challenger is prepared to fight on the basis that his own lady is supreme – what precisely is the war about? Moreover, Andromache – who was rebuked by Hector before he issued the challenge – quickly disappears as a motive for the single combat; and when we see her again it’s once more as the target for her husband’s wrath. She tries to make him change his mind over fighting on a day of ill omen, and his response is to say: ‘Andromache, I am offended with you. / Upon the love you bear me, get you in’. Clearly Hector’s reputation as a man of war is always his first priority, and the women he fights for are always and only ever the excuse for combat, the context in which Hector’s own exemplarity can best be displayed.

Troilus, by contrast, consistently identifies Cressida as lying at the heart of his system of values – as the centre of his world. This too, however, is problematic, since his image of her is entirely imaginary. His description of her in the first scene makes this patently obvious:

O, that her hand
In whose comparison all whites are ink
Writing their own reproach; to whose soft seizure
The cygnet’s down is harsh, and spirit of sense
Hard as the palm of ploughman!

Cressida_-_Edward_J._PoynterIf the whiteness of Cressida’s hand makes other whites seem black as ink, the term ‘white’ has lost all meaning – and the argument that black is white was the classic instance of chop-logic or sophistry as taught in Elizabethan schools. Again, if her skin is so soft it makes a cygnet’s down seem harsh then the term ‘softness’ no longer has a function; while if the ‘spirit of sense’, which is the faculty by which we convey sense impressions to the brain, has lost its sensitivity, then we can no longer distinguish one thing from another by touch. This view of Cressida, Troilus says to Pandarus, is not merely true – it falls short of truth; so that truth itself would seem to be both imaginary and inaccessible through the senses. There’s no chance at all, of course, that any woman could live up to this kind of hyperbole, and sure enough at the point when Troilus finally sleeps with Cressida his main concern is that she won’t match his expectations – the onanistic fantasies with which he has satisfied himself during their courtship. This, at least, is one interpretation of his speech before their union:

Th’imaginary relish is so sweet
That it enchants my sense. What will it be
When that the wat’ry palate tastes indeed
Love’s thrice-repuréd nectar? Death, I fear me;
Swooning destruction; or some joy too fine,
Too subtle-potent, tuned too sharp in sweetness,
For the capacity of my ruder powers.

In other words, Troilus fears he will be unable to feel the delights of sex about which he has been fantasizing for so long. His private fantasies are the zenith of his sex life, and sexual action can only be a disappointment by comparison.

Cressida herself is fully aware that it’s the male imagination that makes women exemplary, and that women have no agency in the process (apart from Lucrece, of course, whose technique of doing so is hardly appealing). She holds Troilus off as long as she can, as she informs the audience:

Women are angels, wooing.
Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.
That she beloved knows nought that knows not this:
Men prize the thing ungained more than it is.

Helen, too, has good reason to know that she is a construct of the male imagination. Troilus points this out, unaware that his words ironically underscore the fantastic nature of his image of Cressida; ‘Helen must needs be fair,’ he tells his Trojan compatriots, ‘When with your blood you daily paint her thus’. The painting here is that of cosmetics, an art form that stood for deceit in Elizabethan culture; so Troilus is suggesting that Helen is not what the Greeks and Trojans make her out to be – that she is, in fact, made up in another sense. Troilus’ rival Diomedes has a similar view of her:

For every false drop in her bawdy veins
A Grecian’s life has sunk; for every scruple
Of her contaminated carrion weight
A Troyan hath been slain; since she could speak,
She hath not given so many good words breath
As for her Greeks and Troyans suffered death.

popular_helen_of_troyHere Helen’s painted body has become carrion – another ‘wormeaten idol’, in Chapman’s phrase – hideously overwhelmed by the male corpses who have fought to uphold the myth of her exemplarity. The association of her with cosmetics and rotting flesh suggests that she is ageing, like the late portraits of England’s queen, so that the one quality that’s been ascribed to her, bodily beauty, is fading fast. The Trojan debate over her value in the play’s second act therefore focuses on time: if she was deemed worth taking from her husband in the first place, she must of necessity be deemed worth keeping seven years later. Hector objects that her value cannot be determined by a ‘particular will’ – presumably that of Paris – but must instead be inherent in her if she’s to be kept; he’s therefore in favour of giving her back, since ‘doing wrong extenuates not wrong, / But makes it much more heavy’. Troilus and Paris, on the other hand, insist that the ‘will’ that imputed value to her was a general one. But the upshot of the debate is a rejection on Hector’s part of the philosophical principles for which he’s been arguing; he dismisses what he claims is ‘truth’, that Helen is worthless, and chooses to retain her because ‘’tis a cause that hath no mean dependence / Upon our joint and several dignities’. A general rule – that two wrongs don’t make a right – is supplanted by a different kind of generality: that the collective honour of the Trojans would be impugned by any belated admission they were wrong; and thus the myth of Helen’s exemplarity is prolonged for another three years. The scene makes it plain, if it wasn’t already, that the Trojan War is not about women but about men, and that the women who are its ostensible motive are essentially male inventions.

brad-pitt-as-achilles-in-troy-1080p-desktop-pc-backgroundMen’s exemplarity, meanwhile, would seem to be yet more unstable than women’s. Distinguishing one man from another is a difficult matter; in the second scene, for instance, Pandarus fails to distinguish Troilus at a distance from his brother Deiphobus – a mistake Cressida takes great pleasure in mocking; and later Aeneas finds it hard to tell Agamemnon apart from his fellow Greeks, despite repeated heavy hints from the general himself. This difficulty explains the Greek insistence that the purpose of their continued siege of Troy is to establish the difference between heroes and ordinary men; it takes something as calamitous as a war to separate the masculine wheat from the effeminate chaff. Agamemnon’s anonymity also identifies the source of the problem he faces within his camp: that of insubordination. The general is simply not sufficiently distinguished to take his place at the head of a military hierarchy – and this is not just the fault of Achilles, who refuses to recognize Agamemnon as his general. The same attitude is spreading through the lower orders, with the result that Agamemnon can no longer be seen as generally representative of his people. His exemplary status as the ideal general is therefore at risk, and he responds – on the advice of Ulysses – by hatching a plot to undermine Achilles’ reputation, in turn, as the exemplary warrior. Agamemnon, then, agrees to undermine a hierarchy in a bid to restore a hierarchy, to discredit an example in a bid to restore his own exemplarity; a situation which, as Ulysses points out in his great speech on order, erases the distinction between right and wrong by erasing the basis on which such distinctions are made. The scene in which all this takes place, the third in the play, contains, I think, not a single mention of the woman who is ostensibly at the centre of the Trojan War; so in this way too the hierarchy of values has been undermined. The Greeks are clear, then, about their real motive in fighting the war: to achieve distinction; but they are also clear about the extreme difficulty of obtaining and retaining such distinction – and contribute to this extreme difficulty by their willingness to destroy each other’s reputations.

Agamemnon_head-_Marie-Lan_Nguyen_from_Louvre_CollectionThe Trojans make Helen central to their cause, though they betray their real priority as being their honour. The Greeks put their honour squarely at the centre of the conflict, while admitting that it’s badly tarnished. The Trojans look to the past for justification of their present commitment to retaining Helen. The Greeks look to the future to justify their long campaign, and take every chance they can get to bequeath a positive image of themselves to their descendants. The Trojans pride themselves on their consistency – what we valued once, Troilus insists, must always be valued. The Greeks don’t care about being consistent so long as they come out of it smelling of roses. But the Trojans are not consistent, whatever they claim. Troilus swiftly loses interest in Cressida after a single night of pleasure: ‘Sleep kill those pretty eyes’, he tells her next morning as he arms for battle, and Cressida sees at once that her prophesy has been fulfilled: ‘You men will never stay,’ she complains as she tries to dissuade him. Hector, who has a reputation for sparing unarmed men, forgets it completely when he sees a fine suit of armour on a fleeing enemy; and we’ve already seen how consistent he is when it comes to women. The Greeks and the Trojans, in other words, are indistinguishable, and it’s the duel between Hector and Ajax that points this up. The duel ends before it’s begun because it turns out that the ox-like Greek is partly Trojan. ‘Were thy commixtion Greek and Trojan so,’ Hector tells him,

That thou could’st say ‘This hand is Grecian all,
And this is Troyan; the sinews of this leg
All Greek, and this all Troy; my mother’s blood
Runs on the dexter cheek, and this siníster
Bounds in my father’s’; by Jove multipotent,
Thou should’st not bear from me a Greekish member
Wherein my sword had not impressure made
Of our rank feud.

But Ajax is neither one thing nor another, and neither are the warring armies between which he is so evenly divided. Cressida, too, is neither one thing or another, as Troilus finds; ‘This is and is not Cressid,’ he tells himself when he catches her with Diomedes; and even at this point he seems reluctant to let go his fantastic image of her as the touchstone by which the value of everything else is to be measured. Human beings, it seems – whether actual or fantastical – are not the best material to fashion simplistic examples out of. There is too much ‘commixtion’ in them, as Hector puts it. They are too subject to change, through time, through shifting moods, through illness, desire, the chance of war, and basic rottenness. Thersites nails it when he verbally spreads venereal disease throughout both factions: ‘Lechery, lechery! Still wars and lechery! […] A burning devil take them!’ The exemplary bodies Shakespeare has given us are already falling to pieces before this curse can take effect.

The process of making history, meanwhile, is best summed up by the death of Hector. Achilles finds himself too out of shape to defeat him man to man, and like Ulysses decides to deal with the problem by trickery. He orders his personal guard, the Myrmidons, first to isolate Hector on the battlefield, then to murder him. Having done so, the Myrmidons raise the cry ‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain’. A general murder becomes a particular triumph, and the two opposing versions of the Trojan War are brought into being: the version we’ve seen, in which Hector is murdered, and the version favoured by Homer, in which he’s killed by Achilles’ prowess. Neither history, nor the examples drawn from history, could ever look simple again after Shakespeare penned this episode. But then these things hadn’t looked simple for decades, thanks in part to the conflicting versions of the tale of Troy. The death of Essex may have brought this home to Shakespeare; and Shakespeare’s version of the death of Hector bequeathed his unease with the processes of making history to men and women in the twenty-first century. In the age of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage I suspect we share it.

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Inward Exile in Frances Browne’s Granny’s Wonderful Chair (1856)

190px-Frances_Browne_7Frances Browne (1816-1879) is a writer I’d like to know much more about. Born the daughter of the Postmaster of Stranorlar in Donegal, known in her lifetime as the ‘Blind Poetess of Ulster’, she made herself a voyager of the mind, who loved the works of Byron, Dante, Scott and Homer, and who traveled to Edinburgh and London at the height of the Famine to earn a living – and that of her family – by writing stories, essays, poems and reviews for magazines, as well as three novels. Her most famous work is Granny’s Wonderful Chair (1856), a collection of fairy tales written after she came to London. This exists in two versions that I know of: a simplified edition containing four stories bound together by a simple frame narrative, which looks like a clumsy redaction for small children; and a more stylistically sophisticated version, with longer words, longer sentences and longer paragraphs, containing seven stories and a much expanded frame. To me the longer version reads as both a trenchant analysis of the state of Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century and an ambitious work of art. These claims might seem grandiose given the book’s modest length and its faithful adherence to the language and conventions of the Victorian fairy tale; but I hope to make a case for it in these notes.

5140362346_a27b7d731b_bIn a letter quoted at the beginning of her first book of poems, The Star of Attéghéi (1844), Browne goes into detail about her education: how she persuaded her siblings to read to her in return for doing their chores; how she learned the location of distant countries by tracing the map with her fingers, beginning in a place she knew well and asking a sighted helper to name the places her fingertips passed until they reached the country in question; how she devoured history books and newspaper reports in her thirst to know the world, and learned novels and poems by heart in her thirst to expand her imaginative horizons. The Star of Attéghéi is packed with evidence of these mental travels. The two most ambitious poems it contains are a national epic set in Circassia, which gives the book its title, and ‘The Vision of Schwartz’, which tells the story of the twelfth-century German alchemist who invented gunpowder and who is afforded visions, by a spirit, of its drastic impact on world history. Other poems follow emigrants into exile from their homes in Ireland, Arabia, Canaan, Egypt, France, and the lands of the Cherokee people; her lifelong interest in the subject may have arisen from the fact that her father was the local emigration officer for several shipping lines to America and Australia. Browne finds in countries far from home echoes of the sufferings of her own; her Circassian epic begins and ends with an appeal to the bards of Ireland to sing something similar about the quest for ‘glory, love and liberty’ in Irish history. At the same time, many of her poems are about isolation, featuring a succession of male and female Robinson Crusoes (the introduction tells us this was one of the books her parents owned, along with the travels of the Scottish explorer Mungo Parke). One gets the impression that loneliness was an experience Browne knew well, despite the size of the family she grew up in.

A striking example of Browne’s poetry of isolation is ‘The Australian Emigrant’, in which a young girl on a ship bound for Melbourne laments that she has never felt at home, not even in Ireland. The story has a verse frame in which the stage is set for the girl’s song, which is in a different metre and includes this stanza:

Oh! MAN may grieve to sever
From the hearth or from the soil, –
For still some hope, some right, was his,
Which lived through want and toil; –
The dwellers of the forest,
They mourn their leafy lair; –
But why should WOMAN weep her land?
She has no portion there.
Woe – woe for deeds of worth,
That were only paid with ill! –
For to her the homes of earth
Are the house of bondage, still!

Here the girl expresses her disenfranchisement in a verse form widely used in Presbyterian hymns of the sort familiar to Browne from her upbringing (rhymed ABCB, with lines one, two and four in trimeter and line three for the most part in tetrameter). Such hymns were widely sung in households as well as churches, and the form’s association with communal singing gives an ironic contrast with the poem’s subject: a sense of exclusion that culminates in the young girl’s death. The girl’s song expresses a concept which pervades Browne’s work: that of what might be called inward exile, whereby a person feels herself to have been effectively displaced or marginalized by their local community or family. The resulting sense of home as a house of bondage is felt by the protagonists of both sexes in most of the stories in Granny’s Wonderful Chair, and while ‘The Australian Emigrant’ associates the experience with women, it could also be read as a direct consequence of living in a colonized country, at a time when British imperialism offered as a solution to domestic slavery the opportunity to travel around the globe in any direction – without ever finding a final escape from the ideological clutches of a global Empire.

Frances-Browne-Grannys-Wonderful-Chair-ills-DAs a result of its focus on inward exile and the outward migrations to which it gives rise, Granny’s Wonderful Chair offers an interesting perspective on the tendency of Victorian children’s literature, as considered by Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn in Children’s Fantasy Literature, to focus on enclosed domestic spaces. Levy and Mendlesohn see this tendency as driven by the desire to protect children by containing their imaginative and intellectual wanderings within a safely limited environment. For Browne, by contrast, the domestic space is very far from safe. It’s the location of abuse, neglect, hunger and child labour, and indoctrinates its child inhabitants in the necessity for travel – much as Browne’s own upbringing taught her to value migration (though there is no evidence that she was either abused or neglected). Home is not home for her heroes and heroines, and most of them set out to seek their fortune in classic fairy tale fashion, their restlessness echoing that of the Irish people in the mid-nineteenth century, who emigrated in their millions in the face of hunger and oppression.

i088Like Browne’s first book of poems, then, Granny’s Wonderful Chair is a peripatetic miscellany; but unlike the earlier volume – and in classic fairy tale fashion – the start and end points of the travels it describes are never specified. Instead each story begins by locating itself at a certain point of the compass: north, east, south, west, and then again west, west and north, as if in deference to Browne’s bias towards her own origins in the far north west of Ireland. These compass bearings imply that the collection takes place within a clearly defined topography, like the island of Ireland divided into many small kingdoms; and the work of the various protagonists and their families in each story – spinning, weaving, cobbling, shepherding, pig-keeping, fishing, fiddling, and so on – would have been familiar to Irish readers from their local communities. The presence of fairies in the landscape also associates the land with Ireland (though one of the fairies has the name Robin Goodfellow, which may make him more English than Irish), and there are a number of other links I’ll touch on later. At the same time the namelessness of the land makes it universal, a land of the mind, so that the travels it contains could be inward as much as outward ones; and indeed many of the stories in the collection are concerned with inward matters: the healing of a broken state of mind, for instance, or the reuniting of divided families. Granny’s Wonderful Chair, then, shows everywhere Browne’s preoccupation with the psychological as well as the material causes of alienation, and with bringing the experience of the world to bear on the particular troubles of the Irish.

3e948ac74967f477f9575b60c24bb625If the main characters in Granny’s Wonderful Chair find their homes unhomely, its narratives are also full of authority figures who spend little time at home: absentee landlords like the Irish landowners lampooned by Maria Edgeworth in Castle Rackrent (1800). Interestingly, each of these absentees is represented as a much-loved figure whose return is yearned for rather than dreaded. The frame narrative, for instance, tells of a poverty-stricken girl called Snowflower whose grandmother sets off on her travels, leaving her alone with only a magic chair for company. Luckily the chair is capable of telling her stories and transporting her physically as well as mentally anywhere she chooses – a metaphor, perhaps, for the books and stories Browne encountered in her own childhood. Snowflower makes her way in the chair to the court of King Winwealth, whose country has gone to rack and ruin since the unexplained disappearance of another much-loved figure, the King’s brother Prince Wisewit. The chair regales King Winwealth with stories to take his mind off his melancholy on account of his brother’s departure; and one of these stories again tells of absenteeism. ‘The Lords of the White and Grey Castles’ concerns a pair of much-loved local lords who disappear from their estates, leaving their children and tenants to be abused by their grasping stewards. In each case the lost authority figures have been kept away for reasons beyond their control, and their eventual return is greeted with delight by dependants who have been badly treated by the lost lords’ substitutes.

Alongside these physical absentees, many of Browne’s stories tell of rulers who are inwardly absent, thanks to depression or dissatisfaction of some kind, and whose misery makes their subjects miserable – psychological absentee landlords, so to speak. King Winwealth is one, and another is the king in the chair’s first story, ‘who had lately fallen into ill-humour because a neighbouring princess, with seven islands for her dowry, would not marry his eldest son’. The king of the mer-people in the sixth story is similarly discontent because a fisherman will not marry one of his daughters, and because the young man also refuses to tempt other mortals into visiting the underwater kingdom, which thrives on riches purloined from humans and their ships. The seventh and final story, which concerns a boy called Merrymind with a magic fiddle, again tells of a land made wretched by its ruler: in this case a lady called Dame Dreary with a dress of a ‘dingy drab colour’, ‘iron-grey’ hair and a ‘sour and gloomy’ face, whose subjects work unremittingly from dawn to sunset, unable to take a break until the spell of gloom is lifted from their dismal despot. In these unhappy kingdoms cheerfulness is more valuable than gold: Snowflower’s uncomplaining good humour as she retires to the meanest rooms in King Winwealth’s palace after regaling the King with tales; the optimism of the cobbler in the first story, who is granted the gift of merriment by the ‘Christmas Cuckoo’ of the title, and uses it to cheer up another king; young Merrymind in the final story, whose name denotes his disposition, and who liberates Dame Dreary and her people from their collective depression with the help of his enchanted violin. Songs and stories are a partial remedy, at least, for the psychological condition that leads to inward exile; and both are set in opposition to the lust for personal gain that drives the stories’ antagonists.

14802668033_a4041a7a9dIn Browne’s world, then, art is effective – it does work in the world and helps to change it. The stories told by the chair cheer up both King Winwealth and his people, as well as bringing financial security to Snowflower (just as Browne’s first collection of poems brought financial support to her, in the form of a small pension awarded by Robert Peele). The art of conversation and the disbursement of good advice, as practised by the cobbler Spare in the chair’s first story, teach another king and his court to share in Spare’s magical gift of merriment. Merrymind’s fiddle brings ‘the sound of merriment’ to the whole of Dame Dreary’s valley and teaches its inhabitants how to enjoy themselves outside working hours. Each of these works of verbal and musical art have a similar effect to the Irish tradition of song as celebrated by Browne in her most famous poem, ‘Songs of Our Land’, first published in the Irish Penny Journal in 1841. In the poem, Irish songs are praised as a kind oral archive, a repository of suppressed cultural information which endures from generation to generation, in marked contrast to the ‘power and the splendour’ of imperial thrones that ‘pass away’ and are forgotten along with their occupants. For Browne, songs preserve among the Irish people the thoughts of their ‘poets and sages’, keeping alive the ‘spirit of freedom’ in times of servitude and destitution. They also impart the sense of a stable identity to ‘wanderers through distance and danger’: emigrants, in other words, like Snowflower, or the cobbler Spare, or the boy Fairyfoot in the fourth story, who finds his way to the hidden land of the fairies, or the fisherman who journeys to the merfolk’s kingdom, or Merrymind, who leaves his home because his family has no time for him – apart from his mother (his mother also happens to be the only person apart from himself with any confidence in the possibilities for future employment represented by his fiddle). Each of these protagonists has an artistic gift. Fairyfoot, for instance, is a passionate dancer, while the fisherman Civil who visits the merfolk has the gift of the gab, as he tells a captive mortal woman when she asks him to help her escape from the submarine kingdom: ‘Fair speeches brought me here,’ he points out, ‘and fair speeches may help me back, but be sure I will not go without you’. Evidently stories, good advice, dancing, eloquence and wordless musicianship have much the same effect on these heroes and those who meet them as the songs in Browne’s poem, giving them a sense of community in troubled times – supplying them, in fact, with a portable home in their state of inward or outward exile.

zpage063If the rulers who remain at home in these stories are invariably inward exiles, so too (as I’ve suggested) are the stories’ protagonists: the boys and girls who set out to seek their fortune, some of whom we’ve already encountered. Before setting out the bulk of these young people already feel profoundly alienated. Merrymind is mocked by his father and siblings for his attachment to a fiddle he at first cannot play. Fairyfoot is derided by his large-footed family for the dainty size of his feet. In ‘The Christmas Cuckoo’, the cobbler Spare finds himself successively isolated in different communities: first his brother abandons him for not being sufficiently prosperous; he’s then looked down upon at the royal court for continuing to wear shabby clothes, in spite of the wealth he has gained from the monarch’s patronage; the king then loses interest in him when he loses his magical ability to make him cheerful; and Spare only finds a place for himself when he returns to the humble cottage where he first encountered the Christmas Cuckoo, and where he showed his community spirit by feeding it through the winter until it was strong enough to take flight in early spring. The young heroine in ‘Childe Charity’ is despised by her relatives after her parents’ death, as are the children of the lost Lords of the White and Grey Castles in the second story. If the ruling classes in each of these stories are disconnected from the lands they govern, their adult subjects and tenants are equally disconnected from their young dependants, showing no appreciation for the arts they practise or the generosity and good manners the children treasure.

zpage110The sense that the people of Browne’s alternative Ireland have lost their culture, and that it can be restored to them only with difficulty, is reinforced by the fact that entire races have gone into a kind of internal exile in the wildest parts of the country. Fairyfoot makes friends (as his name suggests he will) with the fairies, who live in hiding from other mortals because – as Robin Goodfellow tells him – ‘we and the people of this country have had no friendship ever since large feet came in fashion’. The abused children of the lost Lords of the White and Grey Castles find their way to the woodland home of a mysterious replacement mother, Lady Greensleeves, who has similarly been forgotten by the rest of humankind, and who helps them because she is lonely and likes their company. A similarly green-clad figure is at the centre of ‘The Greedy Shepherd’: a mysterious old man with the power to turn sheep into wolves to set them free when they have been mistreated. Meanwhile the fairies in ‘The Story of Childe Charity’ have cut themselves off from mortals in direct response to their selfish behaviour: the young girl of the title is taken to Fairyland as a unique piece of evidence that there are ‘good people still to be found in these false and greedy times’. The most prominent fairy folk in the story of Merrymind are ‘two fair maidens, all in white spinning on silver wheels, and singing together a blithe and pleasant tune like the larks on May-morning’. Known as the Night Spinners, they have been segregated from human beings for ‘seven times seven years’, and although we are never directly told this it would seem that what kept them away was the capitalistic self-absorption of Dame Dreary and her subjects. When Merrymind shows his community spirit by gathering firewood to keep them warm, the Night Spinners reward him with golden strings for his broken instrument, and he proceeds to smash the spell of glumness over the land by playing the tunes he heard them singing. The effect of these tunes is similar to the effect of the ‘Happy March’ at the end of James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912) – a collective liberation from alienated labour; and it’s worth considering the following passage by Browne as a possible influence on Stephens’s famous vision of liberation at the end of that novel:

The men paused in their delving; the women stopped their scrubbing; the little children dropped their work; and every one stood still in their places while Merrymind and his fiddle passed on. When he came to the castle, the coopers cast down their tools in the court; the churning and cheese-making ceased in the banquet hall; the looms and spinning-wheels stopped in the principal chambers; and Dame Dreary’s distaff stood still in her hand […] That night the fairies danced on the hill-tops; and the night-spinners, with their silver wheels, were seen by every hearth, and no more in the deserted cottage.

James Stephens is also worth thinking about in relation to another theme of Browne’s: hunger. Browne left Ireland for Edinburgh at the time of the Great Hunger, and it’s hunger that drives young Snowflower to leave her grandmother’s cottage on the magic chair – indirectly leading her to great good fortune at the court of King Winwealth. The cobbler Spare’s continual cheerfulness in the face of hunger is what first draws a melancholy lord to him as he is ‘gathering watercresses at a meadow stream’ – bereft of any other food source, like King Sweeney. Later in the story, the sign that Spare’s brother Scrub has inherited the gift of merriment is his utter contentment in the face of near starvation: he and his wife live only on wild birds’ eggs and berries after he obtains the gift. The abused children of the lost ‘Lords of the Grey and White Castles’ have only a barley loaf and some sour milk ‘to serve them for breakfast, dinner, and supper’, and their search for their fathers leaves them hungrier still. But like other fairy tale protagonists, and unlike the other characters in Browne’s book, these children are under a strict injunction from Lady Greensleeves not to eat or drink anything that’s given them on their travels; and this advice saves them from falling under the spell of the malevolent fairy lord who enchanted their fathers by giving them enchanted wine. Their willingness to suffer hunger, in other words, saves them from enslavement. Childe Charity gains the good will of the fairies for giving an old woman her supper, saving for herself only the scrapings of the pots in her abusive family’s kitchen. Meanwhile, plenty to eat continues to be the sign of servitude or entrapment. The fisherman Civil is unhappy in the sea-people’s kingdom because there is no end there of ‘fun and feasting’ – he concludes that ‘Fishing would have been easier than those everlasting feasts’ – and meets a fellow mortal who has been trapped there for many years. Merrymind rejects the offer of food from a surly giant in favour of wandering free and hungry around Dame Dreary’s land. Stephens, too, identifies hunger as a mark of solidarity among the poor, and contrasts the unspoken code that all poor people on Irish roads must share whatever they have to eat with one another with the psychological torment suffered by the servants of capitalism, as represented by two disembodied voices speaking out of the darkness in a police cell. For Stephens, this code of sharing food provides a template for the simple, egalitarian laws that will govern a future Ireland, unshackled at last from its prosperous and selfish imperial neighbour. Browne’s book implies something similar – though its vision of Irish liberation isn’t in the end as optimistic as that of Stephens, not surprisingly, perhaps, given the suppression of the Young Irelander rebellion in 1848, and the temporary absence after that of an alternative independence movement.

i071Throughout Granny’s Wonderful Chair the notion of the restoration of Irish identity is invoked by many means. The absent, loved lords in several stories have as much in common with the idealized Irish kings of legend as with the absentee landlords satirized by Edgeworth. The hidden fairies, with whom a succession of protagonists achieve reconciliation, bear a family resemblance to the Sídhe. More importantly, Snowflower’s storytelling invests her with a place in King Winwealth’s palace and helps to draw a new community around her. For each story the chair narrates Snowflower finds herself rewarded with a new item of clothing, better sleeping quarters and nicer food; each time the king wishes to hear another story he sends a more exalted page to find her. By the final chapter she is fully clothed in fine new garments, while in the course of the chapter the King’s unpleasant wife Wantall and daughter Greedalind disappear for ever down a gold mine, to be replaced at the monarch’s side by the long-lost Prince Wisewit and Snowflower’s grandmother. Both Wisewit and the grandmother, Frostyface, are connected with the chair of the book’s title, which may stand for Irish culture as celebrated in Browne’s poem ‘Songs of Our Land’: the chair belongs to the former, while the latter turns out to have been the owner of the magical voice that told the stories, trapped in a velvet cushion by a malignant fairy. The name of the fairy, Fortunetta, associates her with money rather than good fortune – a lesser, more grasping kind of fortune than the other kind, as the diminutive implies. Wisewit is liberated from his imprisonment in the cushion, ironically enough, by the efforts of Winwealth’s money-grubbing wife and daughter to secure the gift of storytelling for themselves. There’s an allegory, here, of the Irish artist’s need to retain her imaginative independence from her paymasters, whose acquisitive impulse is dictated by a desire for personal gain rather than the needs of the wider community. And in Browne’s book, imaginative independence helps to build a happy nation. Snowflower’s personal good fortune brings good fortune to King Winwealth’s people, whose new-found prosperity is best exemplified, Browne suggests, by their new-found freedom of movement: on his return as his brother’s adviser Wisewit makes ‘a highway through the forest, that all good people might come and go there at their leisure’, while the malignant fairy Fortunetta leaves the country in an ill-tempered gesture of self-imposed exile: ‘finding that her reign was over in those parts, [she] set off on a journey round the world, and did not return in the time of this story’. It’s an attractive thought that travel should be for Browne as much the sign of happiness at the end of the book as it was of misery at the beginning.

But the happy ending of Granny’s Wonderful Chair is not allowed to stand. Having conjured up a happy, prosperous kingdom, Browne promptly erases it again, much as George MacDonald did with the happy kingdom ruled over by Princess Irene and her miner-husband in The Princess and Curdie. ‘Good boys and girls, who may chance to read [this book],’ Browne tells us,

that time is long ago. Great wars, work, and learning, have passed over the world since then, and altered all its fashions. Kings make no seven-day feasts for all comers now. Queens and princesses, however greedy, do not mine for gold. Chairs tell no tales. Wells work no wonders; and there are no such doings on hills and forests, for the fairies dance no more. Some say it was the hum of schools—some think it was the din of factories that frightened them; but nobody has been known to have seen them for many a year, except, it is said, one Hans Christian Andersen, in Denmark, whose tales of the fairies are so good that they must have been heard from the fairies themselves.

front1Wars, schools and factories are the machinery of Empire, and the noise they make, Browne suggests, is capable of drowning out the songs and tales of colonized nations. But they persist, and she has heard them through the hubbub, like her mentor Andersen. Like him she has made their magic available to new generations. And she is not a singular instance of the sort of person who can hear old stories handed down from ancient times; this is a collective capability, and has helped to generate in some of its possessors a political conviction. ‘There are people who believe,’ she tells us, that the spell which has again trapped Prince Wisewit in the form of a storytelling mouth, a common item of household furniture, can again be broken, and that when that happens ‘the prince will make all things right again, and bring back the fairy times to the world’. This ending, with its sudden shift of focus from the realm of literary fairy tales to the ‘real’ world of the reader, throws into relief the anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist allegory that has been implicit throughout the book in the names of the characters. It links storytelling to revolution through the person of Prince Wisewit. It’s an opening out of the collection’s ending rather than a shutting down: a promise that the active art we have encountered in Browne’s stories may also have its effect outside the limits of her book. And it’s a promise that the stories she has told will continue to travel through time till what they describe – the return of the prince – becomes reality, and home is made homely at last for the Irish people.

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Shakespeare’s Comic Imagination

a-midsummer-nights-dream-ht-greenThis post begins and ends with two comedies in which Shakespeare unleashed the full force of his imagination on the space of the stage: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Both of these plays have plots not directly derived from any known source; in this sense they are the fruits of his personal fancy. Both plays are richly stocked with supernatural beings, and as a result invoke a fear of the stage – and in particular theatrical comedy – which was a real and active force throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime. Both plays pit the self-centred imaginative visions of powerful men and women against what might be called the collective imagination of a community; the kind of collective imagination that makes theatre possible, as audiences accede to the players’ invitation to share their dreams, to help them populate the stage with beings from ancient history, or spirits, or the inhabitants of far-off countries, or of countries that don’t exist at all. I’d like to consider, in fact, Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the workings of the imagination in his comedies; and I’d suggest that the imagination itself is his topic in many of them, furnishing him with the material for their comic plots and drawing attention to the complex ways the imagination works in the actual communities of early modern England and Europe.

cell-doctrineWhat was the imagination, then, for an English playwright of the sixteenth century? It was the part of the mind that formed images of things not actually present; a faculty located in the front part of the brain just behind the eyes, where information from the five senses was gathered in chaotic profusion before being sorted by the understanding and stored away in the carefully catalogued archives of the memory, which lay in the capacious area at the back of the head. The imaginative space was closely associated with the faculty called wit or natural intelligence, which is responsible for banter, improvisation, trickery and other functions that don’t involved the deployment of the meticulous and scholarly understanding. The most vivid Elizabethan representation of the imagination comes in Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene, the first three books of which were printed in 1590, five years before the probable date of the first performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the second book the personification of the imaginative faculty is named as Phantastes, a gloomy young man with a ‘working Wit’, ‘bent hollow Beetle brows’ and ‘sharp staring eyes / That mad or foolish seem’d’, whose room is painted with bizarre and colourful images:

Some such as in the World were never yet,
Ne can devised be of mortal Wit:
Some daily seen, and knowen by their Names,
Such as in idle Fantasies do flit;
Infernal Hags, Centaurs, Fiends, Hippodames,
Apes, Lions, Eagles, Owls, Fools, Lovers, Children, Dames.

 The air of this room is full of flies, which annoy visitors by buzzing in their eyes and ears. These insects, the poet informs us, are

[…] idle Thoughts and Fantasies,
Devices, Dreams, Opinions unsound,
Shews, Visions, Soothsayes, and Prophecies;
And all that feigned is, as Leasings, Tales, and Lyes.

The picture Spenser gives us here perfectly embodies the profoundly ambiguous attitude early modern people had to the imagination. On the one hand, Phantastes or the fancy is one of the three seminal functions of the brain, especially useful for conjuring up images of the future and enabling a person to prepare herself to face it. On the other hand, the fancy is dangerous. Far from being playful and pleasant, Spenser depicts the man with a ‘working Wit’ as tormented by the ‘agonies’ of what we would now call depression, and this is because the mass of images by which he is surrounded have a political impact on him; they generate idle thoughts which in turn give rise to ‘opinions unsound’, ‘soothsayes, and prophecies’. Prophecies were widely associated in the sixteenth century with plots and insurrections, which were sometimes referred to as imaginations – rebellious actions undertaken on the basis of irresponsible conjecture or non-existent grievances; while ‘opinions unsound’ invokes religious heresy, which for Spenser could encompass anything from Catholicism to radical Protestantism, either of which could spawn rebellion. Spenser’s Phantastes, then, is a political troublemaker rather than an entertainer; making things up invariably leads to making trouble; and Spenser himself seems to have been tormented by a kind of double standard, impelled by his own teeming fancy to imagine the longest and strangest poem in the English language while profoundly distrustful of the imagination itself as a breeding-ground for the flies of religious and political dissent.

20140801_150544-21The early modern period shares Spenser’s double standard. It’s the most imaginative era of English (and Scottish) history in terms of architecture, internal decoration and clothing fashions as much as of poetry and drama; yet it’s also a period that spawned the most virulent attacks on the products of the imagination. One influential theorist of poetry, George Puttenham, drew a clear distinction between two different kinds of imagination: euphantasy, which is the ability to represent ‘the best, most comely and beautiful images or appearances of things to the soul and according to their very truth’; and phantasy or the phantastic, which generates non-existent things in the mind and thus breeds ‘Chimeras and monsters in man’s imaginations, and not only in his imaginations, but also in all his ordinary actions and life which ensues’. In other words, for Puttenham the job of the poet is to represent only what is or what has been – to write not just realistically but historically; whereas representing non-existent subjects in poetry is a sure path to monstrous action (and as a passionate royalist Puttenham would have seen any form of social dissent as more or less monstrous). The poet Sir Philip Sidney, by contrast, whose Apology for Poetry came into print around the time A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first performed (1595), identifies making things up as the defining function of poetry, which for him is a term that means fiction and can refer equally to verse, drama or prose. This means that the poet has a licence, in Sidney’s view, to be utopian (and More’s Utopia is one of the few texts by English writers he writes of with approval):

 Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like: so as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.

For Sidney the liberation of the inventive wit from the chains of what exists, of crude hard fact, is to be celebrated rather than condemned, as is the poet’s capacity to act as a prophet, anticipating better modes of life than the ones that currently obtain on earth. The fiction maker’s free ‘ranging […] within the zodiac of his own wit’ – his refusal to be constrained within the limits of the real – makes him the ultimate resistance fighter against the forces of tyranny. Sidney and Puttenham stand at opposite political poles, although they view the capacity of the imagination to affect the world and its politics in very similar terms.

soldatopopAs you would expect, the early modern controversy over the imagination had a direct impact on the early modern theatre. For its opponents the stage was capable of awakening rebellious thoughts in the minds of spectators – especially the young; and such thoughts could range from sexual adventurousness to religious heresy to the seeds of political insurrection. The best of Elizabethan writers against the theatre, Stephen Gosson – who may well have been employed to write his polemics by the Lord Mayor of London – was particularly critical of actors for forsaking their true callings as trained craftsmen or tradesmen, as most of them were, to pursue an idle occupation: a shift from productive to non-productive labour which he saw as damaging to the society of which they were part:

 in a common weal, if private men be suffered to forsake their calling because they desire to walk gentlemanlike in satin and velvet, with a buckler at their heels, proportion is so broken, unity dissolved, harmony confounded, that the whole body must be dismembered and the prince or the head cannot choose but sicken.

For Gosson, ‘Plays are the inventions of the devil, the offerings of idolatry, the pomp of worldlings, the blossoms of vanity, the root of apostasy, the food of iniquity, riot and adultery’; and there were many Elizabethans who agreed with him, forming a vocal anti-theatrical lobby whose actions eventually brought about the closure of all playhouses in 1642. The players of course hit back at their detractors, mocking them on stage in plays and in the satirical song-and-dance routines known as jigs. It was partly in response to this controversy that the court office of the Master of the Revels – originally just the man who organised entertainments for the Queen, like Philostrate in the Dream – was in 1582 extended to include the censorship of plays. In fact, the Master of the Revels in Shakespeare’s time, Edmund Tilney, seems to have been responsible for preventing the performance of a play in which Shakespeare had a hand, Sir Thomas More, whose topic, ironically, was the writer of Utopia – the man held up by Sidney as the best English example of the freedom of the poet to oppose tyranny and imagine a better world. Many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries were imprisoned for falling foul of the regulations governing plays in the period, though Shakespeare wasn’t one of them. All the same, he remained interested throughout his life in the way the authorities seek to control their subjects’ imaginations, while imposing their own particular imaginative visions on the state and its inhabitants with all the tools at their disposal. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest in particular foreground this competition between the authoritarian and the communal imagination, and in the process evolve into manifestos for the playwright’s theory of the theatre at the beginning and end of his extraordinary career.

Will_Kemp_Elizabethan_Clown_JigBoth plays are comedies – most simply defined as plays that have a happy ending, and whose happy ending is never seriously in doubt on account of their prevailing tone, often described metaphorically (and punningly) as light. It’s no accident that Shakespeare’s two most vividly imaginative plays should have been comic. It’s comedies that drew the most vehement opposition from the anti-theatrical lobby; Stephen Gosson saw laughter as both infectious and addictive, leading those who experience it to seek more of the same and thus increasingly to relinquish control over their bodily functions and their moral and social responsibilities. For the early modern period comedy had two faces, just as the imagination did. On the one hand it was associated with physical and mental lightness, improvisation, trickery, disguise, wordplay, desire, laughter and youth – all things that can bring harmless pleasure to those who experience or witness them; they can even serve as medical therapy, as the comedy of The Taming of the Shrew is supposed to do for the ‘brainsick’ tinker Christopher Sly. On the other hand comedy evoked transgression, devilry, thievery, falsehood, sex, mental disorder and the corruption of the young. The association of the comic with devils and evil spirits, in particular, was actively encouraged by the players themselves. In the interludes or allegorical plays that dominated the stage in Shakespeare’s youth the devil figures, known as vices, were the main source of humour, being played by famous clowns and becoming so popular with audiences that some interludes were entirely populated by vices, the virtues having been evicted as intolerable bores. The presence of spirits in Dream and Tempest, then, could be seen both as a reference to this old theatrical tradition and as a deliberate and open provocation of the theatre haters. The very fact that these spirits are not represented as particularly devilish (although the idea of devilry is directly invoked in both plays) – that they are in fact attractive and sometimes funny – would have enraged the more morally rigid among Shakespeare’s enemies, an example of the playing with hellfire that theatrical comedy reveled in.

Annex - Cagney, James (A Midsummer Night's Dream)_03The Dream and The Tempest have spirits in them, then, but they also contain monsters: a man with an ass’s head and a native islander who is constantly referred to as deformed and monstrous. As we heard, for George Puttenham the imagination could conjure up monsters of all kinds if used to visualize things that don’t exist, made-up things. In both these plays, though, Shakespeare suggests that the real monsters are human beings: the tyrants who treat their subjects as slaves or playthings; the male lovers who treat their women as objects to be discarded at will; the parents who impose their will on their children regardless of the child’s desires or needs. And the imagination, fantasy or fancy, that faculty that conjures up images of things not actually present, is an integral part of all of us – a seminal function of the brain, which is always at work in everything we do, painting the world and the people around us in strange, vivid colours, making monsters out of ordinary beings, driving us to acts of astonishing kindness or dreadful atrocities. To frown on or dismiss the imagination, Shakespeare suggests, is to turn our backs on an integral part of ourselves – and such ill-considered negligence will always result in the imagination taking its revenge, as the clown Feste takes his revenge on the fun-hating steward Malvolio.

p03w4jphA Midsummer Night’s Dream embodies the ambiguous Elizabethan attitude to both comedy and the imagination in its title. It’s a self-consciously light piece of work (small objects and beings, for instance, are everywhere in it), which opens with an exchange between two besotted lovers who are planning their wedding. The lovers also happen to be a King and Queen; so we learn at the start that even monarchs can choose to be not-so-serious or even irresponsible, especially at midsummer, which was a time set aside for pleasure and play in the early modern calendar (it’s widely assumed that the Dream was first performed at Midsummer, just as Twelfth Night was first performed on the final evening of the Christmas holiday). Yet the play’s also set at night, when spirits and misdirections abound, and on a particular night associated with festivities and quasi-pagan rituals which were roundly condemned by the more serious-minded of the church authorities. The dream of the title was an ambiguous thing, too. For Elizabethans a dream could be comforting, something sent by God to soothe tormented minds, or it could delude and terrorize the people it visits, making them imagine scenarios of a sexually, politically, or psychologically disturbing nature. In dreams, Thomas Nashe reminds us in his pamphlet The Terrors of the Night (1594), the devils of hell do their most effective work in tempting mortals. And this ambiguity extends itself to the love between the two monarchs we meet in the play’s first scene. Theseus and Hippolyta have very different attitudes to their prospective marriage. I said they were besotted with each other, but it’s only Theseus who shows true signs of infatuation; for him the four days until their marriage at the new moon seems like a lifetime, whereas for Hippolyta the days will pass very quickly, which implies she’s not half so eager for the impending ceremony as her fiancé.

Hippolyta has good reason for not being eager. The wedding has been set for the first day of the new moon, and the moon reminds her of her days as an independent Queen of the Amazon warrior women, before Theseus came into her life. She compares the new moon of their wedding day to ‘a silver bow / New bent in heaven’, which resembles her own Amazonian bow (the Amazons were famous archers), or the bow of the goddess Diana to whom the warrior women committed their lives. Diana is the goddess of chastity, not erotic desire, so the reminder may well be a painful one; Hippolyta is giving up her culture by marrying a man, on the very day when the moon is at its smallest and least potent. Moreover, she’s engaged to Theseus because she is a prisoner of war, as Theseus reminds her. ‘Hippolyta,’ he says,

I wooed thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.

 Actually, the terms pomp, triumph and revelling – especially triumph – were linked in Elizabethan times with the celebration of military victories; and one might conjecture that Theseus’s marriage will double as a public display of the spoils of war, with Hippolyta the most splendid and valuable of these spoils. Marriage, then, in this first exchange of the play, is an unequal partnership between men and women, tainted by violence. And it’s notable that this has an effect on the imagination; the man and the woman involved imagine the next few nights (or predict the future, which for Spenser was a function of fancy) in starkly different terms, suggesting that their view of the world has been coloured, so to speak, by their different gender and experiences.

Theseus seeks to impose his view of the world on Hippolyta through the festivities he promises her – to make her feel good about her defeat and forced engagement. The same association of marriage with the forcible imposition of a man’s view of the world on a woman is made in the second part of this first scene, when old Egeus bursts in with his ‘complaint, / Against my child, my daughter Hermia’. In Egeus’s view, his daughter is guilty of having had her imagination captivated by a man he did not choose for her; Lysander stole her heart with the lightest of trifles, including poetry (‘verses of feigning love’) and useless objects (‘bracelets of thy hair, rings, gauds, conceits, / Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats’) – in the process ironically using these light things to make the deepest ‘impression of her fantasy’, as he puts it, indenting or shaping it in his own image. For Egeus, Hermia’s crime is that she refuses to recognize herself as his possession: ‘she is mine’, he insists, to be used as he sees fit, and above all to have her mind impressed with the images he chooses to put there – in particular the image of the young man he favours as her husband, Demetrius. And Theseus agrees with him. Hermia’s father, he tells her, is the one who effectively created her, like a god, and as a result she should consider herself as ‘a form in wax / By him imprinted, and within his power / To leave the figure, or disfigure it’ [my emphasis]. She has no rights over the images she entertains in her fancy – no right to acquire them for herself or let them shape her as she wishes; they are to be supplied by her father, and the punishment for taking back her fancy for her own purposes is to be subjected to violence – refusal to obey her father will result in death or imprisonment in a nunnery. Hippolyta would recognize the choice between unwanted ‘love’ and violence immediately; it’s notable that she doesn’t say a word throughout this exchange between the men and the recalcitrant daughter.

84690-004-D096CCF6Soon after the exchange, the ‘dream’ of the play’s title acquires a new set of associations. Hermia’s lover Lysander connects it with what he calls ‘true love’: reciprocal desire between two young adults, as against the arranged matches for economic or political purposes that were the norm for upper-class families in Shakespeare’s time. Speaking of their seemingly doomed attraction to each other, Lysander tells Hermia that mutual desire is made as evanescent and insubstantial as a dream by the culture that forbids it: ‘Swift as a shadow, short as any dream, / Brief as the lightning in the collied night’. The reference to lightning here also associates desire with lightness – both the brief flare of light in the dark and the notion of moral lightness which was attached to unauthorized erotic adventures in the period. The same notion is conjured up in Lysander’s lovely line ‘So quick bright things come to confusion’, where the word quick accommodates both the word’s modern meaning of swiftness (swift as lightning) and its older meaning of alive; true love is associated with death, the ultimate confusion of the living. It’s been argued by scholars that the Dream was written at around the same time as Romeo and Juliet, where the love between quick bright things ends in death and the darkness of a crypt. The Dream entertains the possibility of this ending for its lovers throughout its length, and although I think it’s never a serious possibility – the language and tone of the play are too consistently playful for this – Shakespeare makes sure we are always aware of it as the flip side of the kind of comedy to which he treats us.

midsummerThe first scene of the play, then, sets up the plot that follows, which is a struggle for control of the fancy or imagination. Throughout the play it’s the imagination of the men that proves both most fickle and most forceful. Men seem able to change the object of their affection – the woman by whom their imaginations have been impressed or printed – with unnerving ease; and they also seem prepared to back up their perceived claim to that beloved object with brute force, no matter how fresh their attraction to her may be, no matter how radically their new claim contradicts the claims to other women they’ve staked in the past. This theme is anticipated in the first scene, too, in the changed affections of Demetrius, who ‘won the soul’ of Helena but has now transferred his fancy to her best friend Hermia. Later, when they enter the forest, Demetrius threatens Helena with violence if she continues to follow him, and tells her she now repels him – appears, in other words, as an entirely different being in his imagination, although she has of course not changed physically at all. In this he follows the example of his monarch. Theseus was a byword in Elizabethan times for male infidelity thanks to his long catalogue of abandoned lovers, from Helen of Troy to Ariadne of Crete. Shakespeare’s Athens is a man’s world, and the women have good reason to know it. Men shape and reshape real, living women in their imaginations according to whim, and women have no control at all over how men perceive them.

1999 Stanley Tucci And Rupert Everett Star In The Movie "William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream." (Photo By Getty Images)

In this play the forest, too, is a man’s world, despite its traditional association with female power. Diana is a forest goddess, the goddess of the chase as well as of chastity, and the fairy queen Titania is named after Diana; but Diana’s worshipper Hippolyta was entrapped by male force, and the same thing happens to her supernatural counterpart. Her husband Oberon acquires a love-potion that takes control of her imagination, and uses it not only to shape her female fancy but also to underline the shiftiness of the male fancy, by making both Demetrius and Lysander transfer their affections from one woman to another – the magic of the potion merely serving to reassert men’s tendency to reimagine women. Oberon’s potion is dropped not into his victim’s food or drink but into her eyes, altering the impression those organs convey to the common sense – that part of the brain where the imagination operates – so that

The next thing then she waking looks upon
Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape)
She shall pursue it with the soul of love.

The fact that the potion always takes effect while its victim is asleep, implying that it realizes in the waking world the fanciful absurdities of dreams, confirms that its operation is on the imagination or fancy – as does Oberon’s statement that its operation will fill Titania ‘full of hateful fantasies’ (2.2). The flower love-in-idleness is a weapon aimed at the fancy, and Oberon’s willingness to use it suggests how far he wishes to take control of the imaginative world with which the audience is presented on the playhouse stage.

Titania’s enforced change of fancy enables Oberon to gratify his own propensity for switching his loyalties. He uses the potion to ‘make her render up her page to me’ – forcing her to give him a ‘little Indian boy’ in her care for whom he has conceived a fancy, and for whose sake he has been willing for months to sacrifice his relationship with his wife. Without the intervention of any potion, then, Oberon is like Theseus the embodiment of fickleness – something Titania reminds him of when they first meet in the play; and though he says the same of her (she fancies Theseus, he claims, though she denies it), it’s clear that he is keen to shape those around him to conform with his changing fancies to a degree that no woman in the play is ever accused of.

Elizabeth1EnglandMeanwhile, the attempts of women to avoid being shaped or trapped by the violent imaginations of men – especially powerful men – are conveyed through the background story of the flower whose juice yields the potion. Oberon first became aware of the plant’s properties when he saw Cupid shooting one of his arrows at a virgin queen – Elizabeth I, who may well have been in the audience when the play was first performed. Elizabeth’s Diana-like chastity was so great that Cupid’s arrow glanced aside from her impervious body and struck the flower instead, giving it the arrow’s own power to change people’s affections. Meanwhile Elizabeth walked on ‘In maiden meditation, fancy-free’. This could either mean that she was free from fancy altogether, or more probably (given Spenser’s assumption that fancy is an integral part of the human mind) that her fancy remained unimpressed and unimprisoned, ‘freely ranging only within the zodiac of [her] own wit’, as Sidney puts it, unbeholden to any more tyrannous male authority.

Tytania with little Indian boy.1Other women in the play protect themselves from male efforts to impose their imaginative visions on them by restricting themselves to female society. Once again, this is embodied in the story of Oberon and Titania. Titania cherishes the little Indian boy because he is the son of one of her ladies, a ‘votress of my order’ – which makes her sound like a member of a formal all-female community – with whom she shared jokes and imaginative games (they enjoyed comparing the woman’s pregnant belly to the sails of passing ships). The woman died in childbirth, and Titania loves the child for her sake. It’s in the same scene that Elizabeth is referred to as a ‘fair vestal’ – a priestess of Vesta, Roman goddess of the household, whose servants were all women – and thus effectively enlisted in another all-female community. A third all-female community – a very small one – was formed by Hermia and Helena before men’s love set them at odds. The two girls, bound together by ‘sisters’ vows’, shared a mutual imaginative vision as well as a mutual affection: both ‘chid the hasty-footed time / For parting us’ (and remember here that Theseus did not share his view of time with his supposed lover Hippolyta); and both worked together on their embroidery ‘like two artificial gods’, deities of craftsmanship such as Arachne the weaver, to create ‘one flower’ while singing ‘one song’ in ‘one key’, each of these (pictures and songs) being images, in their own way, of something not actually present. Women’s communities in this play share a mutual imaginative vision, whereas men seek to impress their imaginative visions by force on other people.

ctors-perform-a-tradition-005If women share a collective imaginative space, so too do the Athenian men of the lower orders: the craftsmen or mechanicals, who are of the same social class as the Elizabethan actors who played them. Bottom and his fellows are of course comic in their conviction that the imaginative space they create on stage will deeply impress their courtly audience – that the spectators will run the danger, in fact, of confusing stage illusion with reality. In this, the craftsman-players share the anxieties of the Elizabethan theatre-haters about the potentially deleterious effect of their stagecraft, and they seek to circumvent the problem by drawing up a kind of imaginative contract with their auditors: they will introduce themselves by their own names and explain the fact that they are only representing lions, lovers, moons, walls and so on. In doing so, of course, they shatter the illusion altogether; but they also enlist the support of their courtly audience, who recognize their good will and consent to participate in it. The play in the final act involves the active imaginative participation of both craftsmen and nobility; and it’s Theseus, of all people, who recognizes this. ‘The best in this kind are but shadows,’ he tells Hippolyta as she laments the actors’ incompetence, ‘and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them’; to which she replies, ‘It must be your imagination then, and not theirs’. But for the courtiers’ imaginations to work with the craftsmen, the craftsmen must first offer them material to work with. What we witness in the final act is the forging of a mutual imaginative space which stands in direct contrast to the colonizing male imagination of the play’s first half.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 24/05/2016 - Programme Name: A Midsummer Night's Dream - TX: n/a - Episode: A Midsummer Night's Dream (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, TUESDAY 24TH MAY, 2016* Bottom (MATT LUCAS) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Des Willie

The craftsmen-players, then, offer a splendid defence of the comic theatrical imagination. For one thing, their performance breaks down the hard-and-fast distinctions between men and women that obtain elsewhere in the play. Bottom is as eager to play the female lead in their tragical comedy as he is to play the male protagonist or the lion, and Francis Flute wows the audience with his female death scene. For another, the lovers in it are utterly besotted with one another, as the lovers in the rest of the play are not. For a third, Bottom himself may well have won the theatre audience’s respect by the time he appears as Pyramus in Act Five. Transformed by Puck into the ‘hateful fantasy’ demanded by Theseus as a tool for tormenting Titania, Bottom with this donkey’s head behaves quite unlike a conventional monster. No Minotaur to be killed by some passing Theseus, he treats Titania and her followers with a courtesy Oberon has not so far shown her, and shares her dreams as her husband does not, falling asleep in her arms after willingly accepting her distorted view of him as true (not so distorted, perhaps, if it’s based on his qualities rather than his appearance). Even after waking he retains the impression of his night with the fairy queen, describing it as a ‘most rare vision’ and describing it – albeit in muddled terms – in a sentence that echoes the New Testament: ‘The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was’. The confusion of the senses here might remind us that the impressions of all the senses are what the fancy works on, while the echo of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds us that God’s kingdom, too, which is what Paul describes in that famous passage, is a place not actually present. Our only access to that perfect place is through the imagination, and it’s the mechanicals, and chiefly Bottom, who give the best indication of how the imagination can be used to anticipate the kind of collective experience a believer might hope to have in the world to come.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, Stanley Tucci, 1999, TM & Copyright (c) Fox Searchlight. All rights reserved.

If the women and craftsmen in the play offer us glimpses of a collective or mutual imaginative space, as against the controlled imaginative space imposed on others by powerful men, we are also treated to glimpses of the delights and dangers of the wholly uncontrolled imagination through the tricks and errors of Robin Goodfellow. Robin is the spirit of wandering and hence of error (literally, erring or wandering), as we learn as soon as we meet him. When he meets a nameless fairy he asks her ‘whither wander you’, and she later points out that one of his traits is to ‘Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm’ – an accusation Robin confirms while identifying himself as yet another wanderer: ‘Thou speak’st aright, / I am that merry wanderer of the night’. Robin is also associated with laughter and hence with comedy; he’s a comedy of errors in himself, and his errors are what lead to the clash between the Athenian lovers in the central scene of the play, as he accidentally squeezes Oberon’s juice into the wrong man’s eyes. He embodies, in fact, all the properties of comedy: he’s associated with laughter, with lightness (flitting round the earth at impossible speeds), with improvisation, trickery, disguise, wordplay, and desire (he plays most of his tricks, it seems, on maidens and lovers); also with transgression, devilry, thievery, falsehood, sex, mental disorder and the corruption of the young. Misleading people and disseminating error are what devils do, of course, and at one point Puck even seems to think of himself as a devil, as he warns Oberon that the dawn is approaching and suggests that they retreat from the light along with the other ‘Damned spirits’ who fear cockcrow. The theatre haters would have agreed with the implication here that any supernatural being, even when depicted comically on stage, could only be a devil; but Oberon contradicts both Robin and them, insisting that ‘We are spirits of another sort’ and adding, ‘I with the morning’s love have oft made sport’. The implication here that Oberon might have had an affair with the goddess of the morning, Aurora, would be nicely enraging to the players’ enemies; but his insistence on the good intentions of these particular spirits – of himself and his fairy companions – is borne out by the final effects of Robin’s wandering. Puck may lead the young lovers astray in the woods; he may confuse their senses, so that branches and bushes become groping claws and hungry bears; but he also leads them out of the maze again, ensuring that ‘all this derision / Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision’. His interference with the imagination is neither wholly controlled by his master Oberon, nor are its effects permanent – except in one case, since Demetrius’s eyes are never disabused of the impression, imparted by the flower’s juice, that Helena is an earthly goddess. This detail, too, could almost have been slipped into the play as a defence of the comic imagination; Demetrius’s continued enchantment is necessary if the play is to have a happy ending, and its good effects imply that any lingering imaginative impression left by comic theatre will be therapeutic rather than damaging to its spectators.

EperilsitodiSisisogno307457_2538893677725_830055400_nRobin is also associated with the community drama of the craftsmen, taking part in their performance both as auditor and actor (his main action, of course, is the spell that imposes an ass’s head on Bottom). In addition he’s a much more sympathetic Master of the Revels than Philostrate is. Philostrate is deeply reluctant to let the craftsmen entertain Theseus, but Robin enlists them at once as the main event in the entertainment he is staging for his own master, the King of Fairies. He is given the play’s epilogue too, which asks the audience to mend the play – to participate in shaping it, or reshaping what is wrong with it, like expert craftsmen – with their applause, the work of their hands (remember that Francis Flute is a bellows mender). It’s thanks to Puck, then, that the comedy ends by including Shakespeare’s spectators as an integral part of the collective imaginative space that has been forged or cobbled together in the final act. And it’s thanks to his interference that the lovers who were at first to have been impressed into the roles intended for them by Egeus and Theseus find themselves instead participating in the craftsmen’s show, along with Theseus and Hippolyta. Puck’s errors and improvisation, then, far from damaging anybody, save a woman’s life, and help to remind Theseus himself of the sheer attractiveness of an uncontrolled fancy.

The most famous speech about the imagination in the play – the most famous passage Shakespeare ever wrote about it – comes after the lovers have been found asleep in the forest, exhausted by their Puck-induced wanderings. When they wake from their sleep their dreams prove to have been therapeutic – to have healed them from damage and aggression; and it’s the spontaneous change of heart on Demetrius’s part, along with the strange story of the night’s proceedings, that prompts Theseus’s reflection on the nature of the fancy. ‘I never may believe / These antique fables, nor these fairy toys’, he tells Hippolyta, serenely unconscious of the fact that for the Elizabethan audience he himself is an ‘antique fable’. He goes on to set three kinds of people against the ‘cool reason’ he claims to champion – ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet’ – and again seems serenely unconscious of the fact that he himself is supposed to be a lover, and therefore one of the unreasonable people he has just listed. ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet,’ he tells his new wife,

Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
This is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to hell, from hell to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy:
Or, in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

devil_main_0For Theseus, then, the man who sees devils – ‘more devils than vast hell can hold’ – is a lunatic; that is, someone affected by the moon, whose constant changes were supposed in the sixteenth century to have a direct influence on the size and shape of the human brain. There are no devils in Shakespeare’s play, but the theatre haters would have seen them everywhere. Fairies, spirits, men with ass’s heads, Puck, even the pagan Theseus – all of these would have seemed devilish to the anti-theatrical lobby, who by seeing them in this way brand themselves as brainsick according to Theseus’s speech. They also identify themselves as close relatives of the ‘frantic’ lovers and playhouse poets they disapproved of, and just as deceived in their impressions of what they see; except that where lovers make something lovely out of something conventionally seen as ugly (‘Helen’s beauty’ from ‘a brow of Egypt’), the theatre haters make something monstrous out of nothing at all. The poet, too, employs his imagination in a positive way, giving a ‘local habitation and a name’ – substance, in other words, like the substantial bodies of the actors who speak the poet’s words – to a kind of ‘joy’ that didn’t exist before he thought of it (apprehending some joy he at once ‘comprehends some bringer of that joy’). Fear, on the other hand – such as the fear of bears or playhouses – is as insubstantial as the ‘joy’ given substance by the poets, and far less pleasant. Theseus, then, is well aware that the imagination can work in two ways, bringing fear or joy to its possessor; but both the joy and fear it generates are for him equally light and unbelievable – ‘fairy toys’, in other words. He articulates the ambivalent view of the imagination shared by many Elizabethans, but articulates it in such a way as to show that everyone shares this deceptive faculty, including himself, and that it’s both attractive and more or less harmless.

For Hippolyta, however, the imagination becomes something far more powerful than a ‘fairy toy’ when it is shared. Replying to her husband, she points out that the astonishing things told by the Athenian lovers about their night in their forest are strangely consistent, and that

[…] all their minds transfigur’d so together
More witnesseth than fancy’s images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable.

 Something significant, in other words, is generated when many people imagine the same, non-existent thing together. That thing becomes what Hippolyta calls a wonder – admirable means to be wondered at – and its strangeness, its newness, promises to reshape the world by shaping a group or community’s view of the world. The theatre haters claimed that plays, and particularly comedies, made things happen, and Hippolyta concurs. The difference is that for her they make things better – mend them, in the term Robin Goodfellow uses in his epilogue.

normalI said at the beginning that the imagination furnished Shakespeare with both the central topic and the plot of most of his comedies. It seems to me that the Dream is typical of Shakespeare’s comic process in the way it pits the controlling imaginations of powerful men against the collective imaginations of the rest of the cast; and the same conflict dominates the major comedies that followed this seminal play. Much Ado about Nothing, for instance, tells the story of how Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, conspires with his friends to shape the imagination of Benedick and Beatrice, making them see one another anew by making them believe each is secretly in love with the other. Don Pedro’s malevolent brother Don John then performs a similar trick on the prince himself, making him believe the innocent Hero has been unfaithful to her fiancé, his best friend Claudio. Don Pedro then teams up with Claudio to impress or impose their vision of Hero’s infidelity on everyone else, regardless of due process of law; and it’s only by another, positive counter-plot, whereby a group of Hero’s male and female friends team up to work collectively on Claudio’s imagination, that the situation is resolved. The high point of the counter-plot is Friar Francis’s description of how Claudio’s mind will be affected when he thinks Hero has died of grief as a result of his accusations against her:

When he shall hear she died upon his words,
Th’idea of her life shall sweetly creep
Into his study of imagination,
And every lovely organ of her life
Shall come apparell’d in more precious habit,
More moving, delicate, and full of life,
Into the eye and prospect of his soul
Than when she liv’d indeed. Then shall he mourn […]
And wish he had not so accused her –
No, though he thought his accusation true.

Notice the wonderful way the word ‘life’ weaves through this passage – ‘Th’idea of her life’ – ‘every lovely organ of her life’ – ‘full of life’ – ‘she liv’d indeed’; the imagination is a vitalizing instrument, bringing dead people back into the world in a better, lovelier form than when they left it, and healing the mourner in the process. Of course, Hero is not really dead, but it’s the collective conspiracy of her friends that first makes her seem so and then seems to bring her back to life, thus quasi-magically restoring life to the love affair that was broken by Don Pedro’s authoritarian imposition of his imagination on others.

84524361a3508653c48a790357a6b865The same combat between the authoritarian and the collective imaginations is present in a later play that brings a person back to life, The Winter’s Tale. At the beginning of the play Leontes finds himself imagining that Hermione’s verbal and physical playfulness is a sign of sexual misbehaviour; ‘Go play, boy, play,’ he tells their young son; ‘thy mother plays, and I / Play too, but so disgrac’d a part, whose issue / Will hiss me to my grave’. Convinced that what he has imagined is true and that she has slept with his friend Polixenes, he orders Polixenes’s death, Hermione’s trial, and his baby daughter’s exposure at sea, while forbidding his subjects to speak out on her behalf, and even overriding the unambiguous affirmation of her innocence by a divine oracle. Every aspect of communal life is in this way overthrown by his obsessive need to impress his vision on those around him. His rigid reimagining of his wife’s harmless playfulness puts an end to playfulness itself for sixteen years; and it’s only the return of laughter, unabashed desire, trickery and playfulness with the next generation that allows him and his kingdom to become a community once again. The signal of the return of the collective imagination is a wonder, of the kind Hippolyta noted in the strangely consistent tale told by the newly woken lovers. A statue of Hermione, the product of an artist’s imagination, comes to life in view of the whole cast, thus giving substance to an absurd ‘old tale’ (one of Theseus’s ‘antique fables’) in spite of either rigid law (which would forbid the magic that animates sculpture) or reason (which would deny the possibility of such a restoration). Leontes’s willingness to participate in this wonder, to believe in this old tale despite its apparent impossibility, marks his willingness to return to the collective life of which such tales are the ultimate symbol.

helen-mirren-as-prospera-the-tempest-still-frame-via-imdb-2Finally, the last of Shakespeare’s magical comedies, The Tempest, begins with a banished Duke impressing his imaginative vision on a ship and its crew, and ends with his acceptance that he is part of a collective imaginative life which cannot be governed by any human authority. In the course of the play the imagination spawns both utopias (think of Gonzalo’s dream of an ideal island) and conspiracies (Antonio urges Sebastian to murder his brother and take his place on the throne of Naples by saying: ‘My strong imagination sees a crown / Dropping upon thy head’). The play might take as its epigram the words of the catch sung by the intoxicated commoners Stephano and Trinculo, ‘Thought is free’. And Prospero himself begins to acknowledge the complexity of the relationship between the real and the imagined when he concludes that we are all, without exception, ‘such stuff / As dreams are made on’, and that ‘our little life / Is rounded with a sleep’. This famous speech is the first indication in the play that he sees himself as allied with the rest of humanity. And given that he is indeed human, his hope of orchestrating on the playhouse stage or the imaginary island a happy ending to the story of his life, composed by himself and obediently acted out by others, at this point seems an absurd one. If everything is the stuff of dreams, including Prospero, then the Duke cannot have a hope of keeping all the different imaginative threads of the world under his control, not even by magic. The final scene does indeed provide a happy ending, as Prospero’s daughter Miranda expresses her delight in the ‘brave new world’ of human wonders with which she finds herself surrounded – her new young husband chief among them. But in this final scene, too, the conspirators Sebastian and Antonio show no sign of repentance, and even Miranda’s naïve enthusiasm suggests her future life at Naples may be full of danger. The wild unpredictability of Robin Goodfellow’s imagination is present at the close of the play, as well as the collective imagination that knits together communities.

The play’s epilogue, however, reinforces the notion that the whole performance has been a collaborative effort. Prospero asks the audience to work their magic by clapping, thus releasing him from the imaginative spell that binds him to the island by announcing the close of the theatrical festivities. Authority is here set aside and collective fancy takes its place; a fancy that includes the hope for a better future, in heaven perhaps, or in an earthly state that favours mercy over retribution: ‘As you from crimes would pardon’d be, / Let your indulgence set me free’. Spenser tells us in The Faerie Queene that Phantastes, the imaginative faculty, is about foreseeing possible futures. Shakespeare’s comic imagination foresees a range of social and emotional states which we might well wish to share – and which he invites us, in this epilogue, to help bring into being.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by Alfred A. de Pass in memory of his wife Ethel 1910 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02686

Further Reading

For lightness as a crucial element of Shakespearean comedy see R W Maslen, Shakespeare and Comedy, Arden Critical Companions (London etc: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005). For Puck as a kind of devil see R W Maslen, ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1.1 (March 2009), pp. 129-44 (http://northernrenaissance.org/articles/Robin-GoodfellowbrRobert-Maslen/13). For the Utopian element in Shakespeare’s comedies see Kiernan Ryan, Shakespeare’s Comedies (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

 

 

 

 

Posted in Early Modern, Theatre | Leave a comment

The Mouse Messiah

gerbil

…died since our ship touched down on this planet, eighteen days ago. The nature of the disease hasn’t been diagnosed: we know only that it occurs instantly on contact with the atmosphere, and that there’s no known cure. I’ve been confined to my quarters since nine this morning, when I re-entered the ship with a gash in my suit. If it really is a disease… to me it seems more like a heightening of the senses to the pitch of madness. I’m running a temperature that would have killed me hours ago, if it weren’t for the drugs.

Through the glass door of my cubicle the crew regard me with contempt. The accident need never have occurred if I hadn’t ignored our botanist’s advice and got too close to a sword-plant. But I was always the joke member of this expedition. After all, why should a priest have been assigned to a ship without Christians aboard, its destination a planet without intelligent life-forms? A bureaucratic slip at head office, perhaps; or a cruel prank played by some peevish atheist, who gigglingly transferred my name from one list to another without a thought for the years I would waste on this pointless mission. There’s no-one on the ship but miners, technicians, scientists, military personnel – every one of them a committed materialist, with a zealot’s passion for debunking the notion of transcendence. And there’s nothing on the planet at all. Just a wealth of newly-discovered minerals, which we shall mine, and a species of rodent, like rabbit-sized mice, which we shall of course exterminate as an accidental side effect of our mining operations. In my situation Saint Francis would have preached to the rodents, but we all wear helmets for fear of infection. Our helmets and suits are not decontaminated; we’re not afraid of infecting. Each time we step out of the air-lock we unleash a swarm of alien bacteria, enough to set off a thousand epidemics among the flora and fauna of this fragile ecosystem.

So the mice are doomed, unless some miracle interposes itself. But why should this concern us? We have our own body-count to fret over: the fact that three valuable crewmembers have died since touchdown, and that a fourth entirely useless crewmember is about to follow them. We’re already beginning to view this planet with hatred, and to treat its victims as traitors, feckless collaborators with an invisible army of hostile micro-organisms committed to wiping out all human life. The sooner we rid ourselves of both, the safer we shall feel.

So here I lie in this bare room, making the smooth walls bulge. This is a skill I’ve acquired since falling ill: I can alter my surroundings with a glance. The only ornament in my room, a crucifix, stretches and bleeds whenever my eyes light upon it. Tiny gaps between the panels on the floor expand and contract as my gaze sweeps across them. My hands lie inert on the sheets and my mind is mostly empty; but not for lack of power. Not at all! On the contrary: I’m afraid that if I move, say, my foot just a quarter of an inch I might punch a hole in the side of the ship, even as I buckle the walls with sight alone. And if a thought should cross my mind – a real thought, I mean, not this burbling stream of consciousness, this aimless interior chat – it might rend the walls of my understanding and scorch me with intolerable light. So I lie inert in this naked berth, sweating with the effort to contain my energies, trembling with force withheld.

The door shoots aside to admit the captain, a tall woman with hair so thick with product it looks enamelled. Her helmet flashes as she enters, almost detonated by my vision. At the press of a button a seat slides out of the wall; she sits. I struggle with the muscles round my mouth, not because I’m trying to speak, but to stop them wrenching my jaw into a mighty yawn that would swallow her helmet and all. I haven’t spoken to her more than a dozen times in the course of this expedition, intimidated by her height, her authority, the rigidity of her coiffure.

‘Any better, padre?’ she asks the wall. Inside her helmet she has formed a decision, like another chamber in her skull. With infinite gentleness I shake my head. The room leaps from side to side, shimmering with fear of my hidden strength.

‘You understand, of course, that I have no choice,’ she says harshly. ‘We can’t go back to the station with the plague on board. It’s simply too contagious. Doc reckons it could work its way through an unprotected human population within hours; through the race as a whole in the time it takes for the slowest of our ships to reach the Outer Reaches. Even as it is, we’re going to have to go through the most rigorous decontamination procedure in history before we can dock at the station. It’s my duty to begin that procedure now, before we leave this planet. I’m afraid you’re going to have to stay here, padre.’

No reaction. You can see from her face that she thinks I haven’t understood a word, that I lost her drift before she’d finished her final, punitive sentence. As she speaks, her harsh voice over the intercom above my pillow grows gentler, more thoughtful, as if trying to soften the cruelty of duty with its maternal inflections.

‘Is there anything I can do for you, Padre? Any messages you want me to take back to your friends, your family? We’ll leave you with supplies, of course. But is there something else you need?’

I say nothing, but I’m touched.

My mind is almost tempted out of hiding by the captain’s kindness. I can feel it pushing against its restraints, swelling, burgeoning, growing. Be careful! Once free of my skull it will continue to expand till it fills the ship, crushing furniture and people against the vessel’s inner membrane as it thrusts itself into every corner, eager to make the most of its fine new cranial cavity. With a violent effort I force it back into the skull’s narrow casement, commanding it to retreat like a swollen snail into its shell. For a while its tender horns explore the bony walls of its enclosure, probing for weaknesses, shoring up fragile areas with its mental secretions. I satisfy myself that my head is sound, that the bulk of my new-found power may be safely contained there. Then one by one I allow the horns to steal forth into the open.

Good God! The sky!

My mind gives a dreadful lurch, almost dissipating itself into the limitless acreage of heaven before I take hold of it again with a grip of iron. Its mollusc foot once anchored in my skull, I dare tentatively to look around, take stock of my situation.

I’m on a stretcher, and the stars jump from horizon to horizon with the stretcher’s motion. They are carrying me in a straight line from the ship to the place where they plan to maroon me. Apart from sword-plants, the planet supports little vegetation: only many-coloured lichens carpeting the rocks and patches of crawling fruit-vines bristling with spikes the length of nails. The heart-shaped fruits burst beneath my bearers’ boots, spattering their suits with bloody liquor. We are making for the highest point in the vicinity, a hollow mound of rock eaten away by the acid rain so that it’s pocked full of holes. From one angle it resembles a crumbling snail, from another a skull.

Now and then rodents trot from the shelter of the thorns and stare at us with alien eyes. We know nothing about these creatures. The only biologist on board is a botanist, who advises us on the dangers posed by sword-plants and refuses to waste his attention on the little quadrupeds. Once I tried to interest him in the question of why they like to stare at us with such apparent interest. I have a theory of my own, I said. Somewhere I’ve read that there was a species of rodent on earth called a groundhog, long extinct, which used to sit along the verges of highways absorbing vitamin D from sunshine through a kind of plate in the top of its head. Perhaps the rodents here absorb energy through their eyes, so that they’re literally drinking us in as they watch us crashing about the surface of their planet, fiddling with our equipment, clearing paths through the foliage, gesticulating at one another and shouting through our intercoms. That would be a nice thought, wouldn’t it, I said: that we’re giving them, as it were, a visual feast, even as we spread the germs that will eradicate their species? The botanist just glared at me and returned his attention to a lichen he was trying to chip away from a boulder. I suppose he thought my theory as stupid as my faith; but it comforts me now as they carry me past a row of staring rodents. What a sumptuous banquet they must be getting from the heat that radiates from my feverish body! It would be strange and pleasing if I should finally get a proper function only after I’ve been abandoned to die on an alien planet!

We reach the hollow mound by picking our way between crazier and crazier rock formations, some leaning so steeply that the stretcher-bearers hunch their shoulders in anticipation of an avalanche. Happily, though, we arrive unharmed at one of the skull’s decaying cavities. As we enter, the roof arches overhead like the roof of a mouth. The cave is deep, the floor uneven. They set me down in a corner, at such an angle that by the merest twist of the neck I can peep out of the cave-mouth and scan the twisted land beyond. By my right hand they place a plastic picnic hamper full of goodies. At least, that’s how I like to imagine it: stuffed to the brim with honey-roast ham, chicken drumsticks, pickles, cheeses, raspberries and cream, a dozen kinds of freshly-baked bread. In fact, of course, it contains only nutrition tablets, water tablets, and painkillers – enough of these to kill an ox. If I swallow the painkillers I shall be able to leave the other tablets for the next poor unfortunate to be marooned in this cave.

They place my battered old bible gently on the lid of the hamper. Then they gather round in awkward silence, hands clasped as if holding hats, heads bowed in a show of reverence they never managed at the daily act of worship. With the hint of a smile I raise two fingers in blessing, then inch them towards the bible on the hamper. I prod the spine, striving to open my lips and offer it as a gift. But the stretcher-bearers have gone; I must have taken longer than I intended.

My mind again retracts to wrestle with its power. This time I’m no longer a mollusc: I stand knee-deep in a pitch-black chamber full of echoes. Somewhere something flounders in the water, its splashes magnified by the high curved walls. Somehow I must reach that floundering thing before it drowns, discover its identity. A shower of acidic rain hisses down outside the cave, each drop raising a wisp of vapour where it hits the ground.
A flicker by the cave-mouth. A rodent sits there gazing at my face. Has it come to absorb another dose of my body’s warmth through its giant pupils? Another rabbit-mouse hops to its side; a third, a fourth. Dropping to all fours, the mice approach me paw by paw in a dance too complex to be followed by the uninitiated.

Now and then they sit up again and stare at me with alien eyes. Each time I find my thoughts distributed in dialogue.

RODENT: Are you sick?
MAN: I think so.
RODENT: So were many of our people.
MAN: What was their sickness?
RODENT: An epidemic brought by you, the creatures with two heads.
MAN: Aren’t you afraid I might infect you?
RODENT: Don’t be afraid. Our Queen is coming. She cures all disorders.

The conversation has gone this far before I know I’m neither dreaming nor delirious. Our speech isn’t made of words: it’s a mutual understanding. I hear the scrabble of claws on the rocky floor, the uneven sound of my breathing, but nothing else is audible over the intercom. An extraordinary warmth washes over me, an ecstasy of a wholly unfamiliar kind, as I bask in the sudden consciousness of full communion. We are speaking together without the use of tongues, rolling back the intervening ages since the fall of the Tower of Babel! After so long without speaking to anyone, the joy of this easy exchange is almost past bearing.

The first rodent has reached my boot and sniffs at it, nose a-quiver. I long to take off my glove and touch its fur, but fear that my hand will crush it into lifelessness.

MAN: Tell me about yourselves.
RODENT: We are the little dancers, we dance the star-dance among the piercing thorns. And you?

We believe, I’m about to say – some of us believe – that this lump of pallid flesh shares natures with infinity. But in my mind-vault I’ve finally reached the floundering thing and am struggling to lift it from the water, poor sodden mouse. It’s the magnitude of my next question, not the heightened power of my body and mind that dries up my tongue at the root. How share my faith with creatures who don’t share my humanity, to whom parables are nothing, comparisons mere confusion? Our minds have touched for an instant; but where on earth, or off it, can our souls connect?

Fever makes my head ache, but the pain in my heart is worse, because the love of those who have shared your skull is the deepest love of all. I remember the rodents’ Queen, the one who cures disorders. Perhaps one might draw a parallel from that?

MAN: Tell me about your Queen. What is her nature, what rooms does she inhabit?
RODENT: There is no telling, there is no knowing, there is only showing. She is here, she will give you comfort.

As we speak, more rodents gather at the cave-mouth looking in, then spill forward, more and more until the floor is crawling with rabbit-mice. Like the lichen on the tottering rocks they are all colours – purple, orange, emerald green, magenta – and they range in size from six inches to three feet. The multitude divides down the middle, leaving a gangway from the entrance to the soles of my boots. There’s no sound apart from the patter of claws, but the thoughts of this mighty gathering eddy and mingle like the voices of massed choirs. A light, sunshine I guess reflected from the steaming puddles outside, flashes from the cave-mouth. And now there’s a rodent scuttling down the passage as if on a sunbeam, a delicate white rabbit-mouse with a glint of gold on the top of her head, on the place where the groundhog absorbs the rays of the sun. Every mind in the assembly bows down low, every rodent’s nose touches the ground between its foreclaws in honour of their tiny Queen.

Again words lack. I know the Queen shares natures with infinity, that she travels through this many-coloured Gethsemane towards some rodent passion as terrible as Calvary. I know that there is pain in her heart as there is in mine, that ahead of her lies sorrow, torture, despair and death, and that she can see the path ahead with appalling clarity. Wherever there are empty chambers, chaos-filled caskets, lonely cubicles or vaults teeming with isolated lives – there you will find Golgotha, place of the skull. The pain in my body and mind is worse than ever. But her claw touches mine and the doors are flung wide open, every room and closet filled with light.

And once again I’m lying in my naked berth. The captain sits beside the bed, hands propping her forehead (she has taken off her helmet). Between her elbows rests my battered old bible, shut. There are stains on the cover where she has wept, each tear raising an invisible wisp of vapour where it struck the binding.

A smell of burning, traceable to the gun in her holster, pervades the room. I planned to maroon you, padre, she whispers, because I feared you. The heat you radiated scorched my cheek, as if something inside you had grown so huge it was seeping through every pore. So why did you stumble out from behind the crazy piles of rock, scaring me so badly that I pulled out my gun and shot you down at my feet? And then why did you bless me, padre, broken on the broken ground, and press your book like a treasure into my trembling glove?

On the wall the crucifix shivers as if under water. There were suddenly so many rodents, padre, rodents of every size and colour milling about our boots as we carried your corpse to the ship, bursting fruit at every step. And now my crew regard me through the glass door of the cubicle with undisguised contempt, because I’ve murdered you twice over – first by giving the order for you to be marooned, then by blasting a hole in your chest through which the last few fierce convulsions of your heart were clearly visible. Where are you now, padre? Can you hear me at all? Have you found a tongue large enough to speak with? Is there room enough in the universe to accommodate such a tongue?

From the swelling in my skull I fear I’ve caught a touch of your sickness. If sickness it is… I find it more a heightening of the senses to the pitch of madness. Four crewmembers have died since we touched down on this planet, nineteen days ago.

Posted in Short Stories | Leave a comment

Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and the Death of Orpheus

DT2737Venus and Adonis (1593) is Shakespeare’s cheeky and disturbing contribution to the fierce contemporary debate over the function of poetry. The poem was his first published non-dramatic work, an opportunity for the young author to drop clues about his poetic agenda. Fourteen years previously, The Shepheards Calender (1579) had trumpeted Spenser’s pretensions to becoming the official Elizabethan poet laureate, with its echoes of Virgil carefully annotated in E.K.’s obsequious gloss. Shakespeare, by contrast, offered his patron a poem which couldn’t be placed in any of the traditional generic categories, and which incorporated its own sardonic commentary. He chose a topic that allied him, not with Virgil, the celebrant of Roman nationalism, but with a poet who was banished from Rome, Ovid. And in doing so, he announced his intention to participate in some of the hottest poetic controversies of the 1590s.

Just as Ovid wove together the stories of the Metamorphoses into a complex web, so Shakespeare weaves together several metamorphic fables to construct his own imaginative labyrinth. The most obvious subsidiary fables he makes use of are the stories of Narcissus and Hermaphroditus.1 But another narrative can be detected more subtly woven into the fabric of the poem: the story of Orpheus.

painting1In Ovid’s poem, it’s Orpheus who sings the tragedy of Venus and Adonis, before being torn apart by the Thracian women. But Shakespeare’s treatment of the story goes back to an earlier stage of Orpheus’s history, before his marriage to Eurydice. Shakespeare could have found an account of Orpheus’s early career in a number of places; but the place where the story cropped up most frequently was in contemporary defences of poetry. Apologists repeatedly used the Orpheus myth to argue that poets were responsible for the foundation of civilization itself. Perhaps the most elaborate account of the civilizing powers of poetry available to Shakespeare could be found in the third chapter of George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie (1589). Here Puttenham describes the state of anarchy that obtained ‘before any civil society was among men’, when humanity subsisted in a violent state of nature:

vagarant and di[s]persed like the wild beasts, lawlesse and naked, or verie ill clad, and of all good and necessarie provision for harbour or sustenance utterly unfurnished: so as they litle diffred for their maner of life, from the very brute beasts of the field.2

 It was the poets who rescued mankind from this bestial state, drawing people together into the first communities with their intoxicating utterances, and supplying these communities with the first politicians, the first lawgivers, the first official historians. Both Orpheus and Amphion are allegories of the early poets’ powers of speech. Amphion, who brought stones to life to build the walls of Thebes, represents the poet’s gift of ‘mollifying … hard and stonie hearts by his sweete and eloquent perswasion’; while Orpheus, who tamed wild beasts with his singing, represents the poetic orator who ‘by his discreete and wholsome lessons uttered in harmonie … brought the rude and savage people to a more ciuill and orderly life’.3 For apologists like Puttenham, eager to show that poetry could be subjected to the discipline of rules like any other social activity, Orpheus as the first administrator provided eloquent testimony to the fundamentally ‘civill and orderly’ functioning of the poetic art – to its qualifications as a supplement to other kinds of state policing.

Venus_and_Adonis_by_TitianShakespeare’s Venus and Adonis inhabit a landscape that closely resembles the wilderness colonized by Puttenham’s Amphion and Orpheus. Coleridge, the poem’s most sympathetic commentator, said that Shakespeare wrote his text ‘as if he were of another planet’.4 But it might equally be said that Shakespeare’s narrator writes the poem as if he were peering through the web of Elizabethan culture at another age, an age immeasurably distant from the sixteenth century but intimately bound up with it. Venus and Adonis live at a time before history has been subjected to what Puttenham calls the rules of art, before the ‘rude and savage’ condition of humanity has been rendered ‘civill and orderly’. A favourite Elizabethan metaphor for history was that of a mirror, in which the contours of present-day events could be traced, often with disturbing implications, in events of the past. Shakespeare’s narrative dissolves the glass that separates the violent pre-Orphic state of nature from the ‘civill’ world of Elizabethan social custom. In doing so it exposes the rudeness and savagery that Elizabethan culture strove to conceal under layers of allegory and rich brocade.

From one point of view, Venus and Adonis are completely Elizabethan. Adonis wears an Elizabethan bonnet, and his horse sports the rich trappings suitable for the mount of a young Elizabethan aristocrat. More importantly, Shakespeare’s narrator is a detached and worldly Elizabethan spectator who likes to flaunt his familiarity with the social and economic conditions of London life. He knows the legal scene, offering his opinions on the fee Venus’s ‘heart’s attorney’ ought to charge for its eloquent pleading (335).5 He knows the points of a good horse by the book, quoting almost verbatim from a contemporary riding manual when he describes Adonis’s palfrey.6 He knows the drama scene, at one point describing Venus’s actions as a dumbshow to which her tears act as an ineffectual chorus (359-60).

Above all, he is a cynic. Like other spectators in Shakespeare’s work, the narrator of Venus and Adonis finds his greatest delight in spectacles that involve cruelty, frustration, and especially violence. He’s the kind of spectator who takes pleasure in blood-sports like bear-baiting and hunting, and who can produce sophisticated commentaries on the pain these activities cause their participants, as Jacques comments on the wounded stag in As You Like It; who would rush with Rosalind to watch a wrestler breaking the necks of his challengers, or enthuse with Puck over the murderous violence he has stirred up between the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Venus and Adonis is the poetic equivalent of a blood sport, with the same indifference to the agony of its victims that Venus attributes to the hunters of the hare. The narrator is not interested in the feelings of his actors; he’s aroused only by the intellectual games he can play with those feelings, as when at the emotional climax of the poem, as Venus approaches the dead Adonis, he contemplates the effect of her eyes and tears ‘lending and borrowing’ from each other as if in an Elizabethan money-market (961). At times a note of overt sadism creeps into his text:

O what a sight it was, wistly to view
How she came stealing to the wayward boy!
To note the fighting conflict of her hue,
How white and red each other did destroy! (343-6, my emphasis)

To this jaded narrator, who confesses that conventional love language bores him (841-6), the only interesting relationship is a mutually destructive one. He may be sophisticated in the ways of court and city, but he is hardly ‘civill’.

A9180And his readers are implicated in his cynicism. When Venus tells Adonis he need not be ashamed to kiss her because nobody can see them (121-6), we, the invisible spectators, become voyeurs, sharing the narrator’s jokes as we ogle the couple. The narrator keeps reminding us of our complicity, with cries of ‘Look’ and ‘Lo’; and if at first this voyeurism seems no more than a harmless game, it soon becomes less comfortable, more openly an act of aggression committed on the actors.

Shakespeare’s text can be broadly divided into two halves. In the first half, Venus tries with increasing desperation to entice Adonis into sex. The language she uses is a giddyingly inventive display of familiar Petrarchan tropes. She bombards him with oxymorons involving hot ice, showers him with floral metaphors, launches into an extended variation on the old carpe diem theme, cracks the familiar puns about harts and deer, and interpolates a parodic passage where she inscribes herself as a Petrarchan mistress, the Laura of an inverted sonnet-sequence composed by Laura herself (139-50). Venus seems to have imaginative control over her own body, putting it through whatever changes she pleases, making it heavy enough to need trees to support it, then giving the violets she lies on the strength of trees (152). For all its desperation, the first half is energetic and hopeful, emphasising Adonis’s youth, Venus’s constantly self-renewing flesh, and the sexual pride of the courting horses, who inject new life into Venus’s own courtship just as she’s running out of ideas.

But at the centre of the poem comes a change of mood. Adonis announces that he intends to hunt the boar tomorrow. Venus collapses with the boy on top of her, and there follows what ought to be the sexual climax of Venus’s wooing. But all Venus gets from the encounter is frustration: ‘all is imaginary she doth prove’, the narrator tells us (597), and compares her frustration to that of the birds who tried to peck at Zeuxis’s temptingly painted grapes and found them to have no substance (601-4). After this the poem is wrapped in gathering gloom, a kind of post-coital lassitude rendered the gloomier because there has been no coitus. In the second half of the poem Venus speaks of fear, the fear of the boar and the terror of the hunted hare. Death, which has been a shadowy presence throughout the first half, becomes the tyrant of the second. Instead of urging Adonis to beget, Venus warns him that he will be murdering his own posterity if he fails to make love (757-60). The youthfulness which had been described in such vital terms in the first half, able to ‘drive infection from the dangerous year’ (508), suddenly finds itself subjected to more infections than it can hope to cure:

As burning fevers, agues pale and faint,
Life-poisoning pestilence and frenzies wood,
The marrow-eating sickness whose attaint
Disorder breeds by heating of the blood (739-42).

If, as scholars have argued, the poem was written while the London theatres were closed because of plague, Shakespeare could hardly have given contemporary readers a more shocking reminder of the powerlessness of poetic discourse.

Young-Hare-IAt the same time Venus loses control over her body. As she hurries through the woods after the sound of Adonis’s horn, her body is subjected to the intrusive gropings of bushes: ‘Some catch her by the neck, some kiss her face, / Some twine about her thigh to make her stay’ (872-3). The elaborate mythical structure she wove in the first half of the poem is abruptly unwoven. The second half is full of metaphors of unweaving; terrifying expansions of the oxymorons beloved of the Petrarchans. The hare ‘turns, and returns’ in the ‘labyrinth’ of its flight (704, 684). Later, Venus re-enacts the flight of the hare as she searches for Adonis (‘She treads the path that she untreads again’ [908]). Later still, in her efforts to persuade herself that Adonis is alive and well, she tells herself story after story, each one less convincing than the last: ‘Now she unweaves the web that she hath wrought’ (991). By this stage, the mysterious power of poetic eloquence and imagination as it was celebrated by the Elizabethan apologists has been laughed out of court. The process of telling stories has become no more than a trick to procrastinate the inevitable confirmation of misery, a meaningless incantation to keep off the encroaching dark.

adonisIn Venus and Adonis Shakespeare weaves and unweaves the poetic fantasies of his contemporaries. The best known English treatment of the Adonis myth before Shakespeare’s was the episode of the garden of Adonis in the Faerie Queene, the first three books of which were published in 1590. Expanding on a false etymology of Adonis’s name, Spenser depicts the garden as a pagan Eden, a ‘joyous Paradise’ constructed on the pattern of a female body, whose inexhaustible fertility nurtures flowers, throngs of babies and an unmutilated Adonis.7 In the first half of Shakespeare’s poem Venus struggles to create just such a poetic Eden out of the substance of Adonis’s body and her own. She tells him that he is the ‘field’s chief flower’ (8), and urges him to join her on a bank of flowers, an enchanted circle from which serpents and other vermin are banned. She then proceeds to transform her own flesh into a metaphorical Paradise. Her cheeks become gardens (65), she assures him that ‘My beauty as the spring doth yearly grow’ (141), and offers herself to him as a protective enclosure where he can shelter from the savage environment: ‘I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer:/ Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale’ (231-2). But, as the central stanzas of the poem warn us, ‘all is imaginary she doth prove’. The landscape of the poem only ever becomes Edenic in the rhetoric of Venus. As the poem moves on, her rhetoric loses its persuasiveness, and a very different landscape emerges, a landscape which has more in common with Puttenham’s pre-Orphic wilderness than with Spenser’s idyll. Always present alongside Venus’s imaginary Eden, always encroaching on its borders, is a savage environment where the sun scorches exposed flesh, and where forests seethe with wild beasts. As this wilderness emerges, its climate gets less Edenic. In the first half, Venus compares Adonis’s breath to ‘heavenly moisture’, a dew like the one God used to water the plants before he invented rain (62-6).8 But the alternating weather conditions generated by the lovers’ bodies grow steadily less moderate, passing from rain to parching heat and back again to rain in a bewildering flurry of changes. In the second half of the poem these changes become wholly violent, hurrying through the ‘wild waves’ of the night (819) towards the tempest signalled by the ‘red morn’ of Adonis’s open mouth (453-6). The storm breaks during Venus’s search for the boy (‘Like a stormy day, now wind, now rain, / Sighs dry her tears, wind makes them wet again’ [965-6]), and her discovery of his body unleashes a climactic earthquake: ‘As when the wind imprison’d in the ground, / Struggling for passage, earth’s foundation shakes’ (1046-7). Where Puttenham’s Amphion brought stones to life with his poetry and used them to found a city, by the end of Shakespeare’s poem the earth itself has been shaken to the foundation. And Venus’s final prophecy bequeaths the same turbulent climate to future societies, whose sexual alliances will ‘bud, and be blasted in a breathing while’ (1141).

Antonio_Allegri,_called_Correggio_-_The_Abduction_of_Ganymede_-_Google_Art_ProjectIn the same way, the text reverses Orpheus’s transformation of ‘brute beasts’ into civilised human beings. Shakespeare’s works are full of animals, but not even King Lear has such a high proportion of beasts to humans as Venus and Adonis. The animals range from horse and hare to lions, tigers, bears and boars; and these beasts repeatedly swap characteristics with people. Adonis becomes a deer, a ‘dive-dapper’, a snarling wolf, while Venus changes into a vulture, a pregnant doe, a snail, a boar, a falcon, until the dividing line between humans and ‘beasts of the field’ becomes as imprecise as it was in Puttenham’s state of nature. Even as she promises to protect the boy from serpents, Venus transforms herself into the most terrifyingly voracious eagle the Elizabethans had ever read about, who ‘Tires with her beak on feathers, flesh and bone’ (56). This eagle either has not yet assumed its emblematic function as a royal bird, or else must act as emblem for a very violent and barbaric sort of royalty. Ascham, Gosson and others warned that erotic poetry subjected its readers to a Circean metamorphosis from humanity to bestiality. Shakespeare’s poem makes explicit what Ascham and Gosson imply: that the human body trembles on the borderline between beast and rational being.

At the same time, the closer one looks into the text, the more disruptively it seems to parody the posturings of contemporary apologists. Even the Latin motto Shakespeare prefixes to the poem is ironized by the narrative that follows it. In Marlowe’s translation the lines read:

Let base-conceited wits admire vile things:
Fair Phoebus lead me to the Muse’s springs.9

Outside their context in Ovid’s Amores these lines sound like an arrogant repudiation of ‘inferior’ art (although in Ovid’s elegy they form part of a witty demolition of poetic hierarchies). But in Shakespeare’s poem Phoebus is only one of the aggressive inhabitants of the pre-Orphic wilderness. The first we see of him, he is blushing violently and breaking away from a weeping woman:

Even as the sun with purple-colour’d face
Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn. (1-2).

This sounds suspiciously like the aftermath of a rape, the same kind of sexual violence that leads the boar to gore Adonis at the end of the poem, or which generates Venus’s mutation into the eagle. When Apollo reappears a few stanzas later he’s as randy as ever, this time lusting after Venus, and prepared, without any of the misgivings that afflicted Phoebus in the Metamorphoses, to let Adonis guide his chariot like a second Phaethon, while he takes his pleasure for the second time that day (177-80). In this poem the classical patron of the poetic art is an irresponsible lecher.

The other gods are equally savage. The god of war spends his time in violent conquest, before being reduced to slavery in his turn by Venus (97-102). The moon goddess, who had so often stood in for Queen Elizabeth, proves as unstable as any of the others; in her jealousy of Adonis she bribes the destinies to make beauty ‘subject to the tyranny / Of mad mischances and much misery’ (737-8). No more gods are mentioned. There is no overruling authority, no Jove or Nature to make up for the demotion of the lesser gods; and Shakespeare’s ‘tyranny / Of mad mischances’ has none of the compensatory ‘eternity in mutability’ Spenser placed at the heart of the garden of Adonis.10 In place of the dignified Olympian structure implied by the poem’s Latin motto, the mocking narrator presides over a text that disintegrates into an unruly brawl. And his interpolations keep drawing unnerving parallels between this brawl and conditions in his own culture; a culture that constructed an elaborate mythology of its own stability, which Shakespeare’s alternative mythology systematically demolishes.

Shakespeare’s poem has no context. Few characters apart from Venus and Adonis themselves are given names. The genealogy of the protagonists is never mentioned, and the land they find themselves in is nameless, in marked contrast to Spenser’s Faerie land, or Lodge’s Isis, or Marlowe’s Sestos.11 The struggles in the text take place in a topographical and historical vacuum, outside the orderly records of Elizabethan classicists and chroniclers. Venus and Adonis are dislocated, in fact, from all the verbal conventions that give a semblance of structure to Elizabethan affairs. Even their conversations are incoherent, not so much acts of communication as a kind of verbal autoeroticism, ornate variations on guttural moans. They never really talk to one another. The only form of speech Venus is really interested in is her own minute register of the changes that take place in Adonis’s body, as it responds to arousal, to embarrassment, to violence; and the narrator with his rhapsodies over Venus’s body shares her limited interests. Venus hardly listens to Adonis; she shuts him up with kisses (48) or with wordplay (‘Speak, fair, but speak fair words, or else be mute’ [208]). When he does manage to get a word in edgeways, she first waxes eloquent about the sound of his voice, then faints dead away as he opens his mouth to speak again. In the second half of the poem the language of Venus loses all pretence of conveying meaning, as she quibbles with echoes which respond like ‘shrill-tongu’d tapsters’ (849), or stops to talk with one of Adonis’s dogs which ‘replies with howling’ (918).

173562c232235aba34d2abd0e3451212Running through this dissonant wilderness is a series of ‘speaking pictures’, the verbal evocations of the visual which Horace and Sidney identified as the poet’s chief source of persuasive power. Shakespeare’s recalcitrant speaking pictures rebel against the functions they performed in contemporary theory. At the centre of his narrative he sets a picture whose power is solely that of stressing its own uselessness: the trompe l’oeil painting of grapes, that at once arouses and frustrates the appetites of birds. Earlier in the poem, Venus accuses Adonis of being another such useless artefact, a ‘lifeless picture, cold and senseless stone, / Well-painted idol, image dull and dead’ (211-2). These two empty works of art mockingly enact the repressive uses poetry was put to in Elizabethan apologetics. The policing of sexual desire was one of these functions; Sidney’s exemplary speaking picture was a verbal portrait of Lucretia killing herself.12 Yet at the same time Sidney himself maintained that the advantage ‘speaking pictures’ had over other forms of discourse was that they stimulated emotions in their readers: whether appetite, like the painting of the grapes, or battle-lust, like the old song of Percy and Douglas in Sidney’s Apology, or sexual desire, like Venus’s statuesque Adonis. For the moralists, poetry was designed to regiment and frustrate the feelings it played on: to arouse emotion only to crush emotion.

Rearing-Horse-1483-98In contrast to these useless and frustrating speaking pictures, Shakespeare intersperses his text with very different verbal paintings. The extended descriptions of Adonis’s horse (259-324), the boar (615-72) and the hare (673-708) all refuse to perform the functions the apologists would have demanded of them. The description of the horse comes just at the point when Venus’s eloquence has failed her: ‘Now which way shall she turn? what shall she say?’ (253). At this moment of creative crisis Adonis’s horse snaps its reins and so lends a new energy to Venus’s poetic improvisations. The narrator invites us to compare the animal to an equestrian painting, an idealized re-presentation that possesses all the points an artist would choose ‘when a painter would surpass the life / In limning out a well-proportion’d steed’ (289-90). But this is no conventional Renaissance painting, gracefully instructive; it is the picture of something out of control, a beast that defies its master, crushes its bit, and gallops off in mad pursuit of a mare. Unlike Sidney’s speaking pictures, it forms no part of any pedagogic or political agenda: and the ‘moral’ Venus derives from it stresses the horse’s exuberant resistance to the constraints of morality.13

il-porcellino--florence-italy-boar-statue-gregory-dyerThe same is true of the boar. Commentators have repeatedly tried to read the boar as an allegory, whether of winter, of war, or of homosexual desire, but it resists moral or generic classifications. Venus recreates the boar verbally in order to scare Adonis from hunting it; but she succeeds only in scaring herself, with

The picture of an angry chafing boar,
Under whose sharp fangs on his back doth lie
An image like thyself, all stain’d with gore (662-4).

This vatic prediction is vouchsafed her, not by the Muses appealed to in the poem’s motto, but by fear and ‘dissentious jealousy’ (657), a form of imagination that cannot be trusted, since it ‘sometime true news, sometime false doth bring’ (658). And like Venus’s other speaking pictures, it has no effect on its audience whatever.

In fact, the deeper we plunge into the second half the more undisciplined and ineffectual Venus’s imagination becomes. Her inventiveness comes more and more to resemble the hapless cunning she ascribes to the hare, which designs a random ‘labyrinth’ in a vain attempt to elude its enemies. What Venus says of the hare is equally true of herself: ‘Danger deviseth shifts, wit waits on fear’ (690). The creative intelligence that Venus shares with the hare, the wit that ‘waits on fear’, has little in common with the semi-divine ‘erected wit’ that governs Sidney’s aristocratic poet.14 It is the wit of the poor, generating the same fantasies that inhabit the streets and taverns of Elizabethan London, as the similes in the text increasingly remind us. After Adonis has left her, Venus begins a conversation with Echo. The poet who converses with Echo was a favourite device used by courtly poets like Sidney; but Venus’s Echo is no courtier but a barman, who is well used to soothing the imaginative humours of ‘fantastic wits’ (850). Later, Venus’s fearful imaginings about Adonis’s fate are nothing nobler than a child’s nightmares – she describes them as ‘causeless fantasy, / And childish error’ (897-8). The predictions she makes when she sees Adonis’s hounds resemble the superstitious predictions made by ‘the world’s poor people’ when they see a comet (925-6). Venus started the poem as a strong-armed poet-queen rather like Puttenham’s Queen Elizabeth; but by mid-way through the second half she has lost all her mythical and cultural potency and become as helpless as the poorest of her subjects.

AN00575557_001_lShe herself stresses her own helplessness when she imaginatively evokes the ruler of this wilderness, as she approaches Adonis’s body. Where Spenser’s April eclogue concluded with a hymn to Eliza, the queen of the shepherds, safely inscribing the Shepheards Calender as a royalist tract, the highest authority in Shakespeare’s poem is a vague and menacing shadow, a force that has no identity at all: Death. Venus describes it twice over as she hurries towards Adonis’s corpse. At first, when she has convinced herself that the boy is dead, Death is a ‘Hard-favour’d tyrant’ who drinks the tears of his victims (931). Later, thinking Adonis might still be alive, she abruptly changes her tune; in an outburst of renewed hope and gratitude she ‘clepes him king of graves, and grave for kings, / Imperious supreme of all mortal things’ (995-6). Venus’s two contradictory versions of Death mimic the sycophantic carollings of court poets, whose celebrations of the sovereign waxed more lyrical as their hopes of preferment grew stronger. But like his treatments of the traditional royal emblems, the eagle, the sun, and Cynthia, Shakespeare’s treatment of the myth of monarchy itself has been drained of all glamour, all civility, reduced instead to the savagery of arbitrary power: a power that cannot create, only destroy.

In fact, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis enacts a process which is the precise obverse of the civilizing influence ascribed to poetry in Puttenham’s myth of Orpheus. If Venus and the narrator are Shakespeare’s poets, their words and actions expose the barbarity that lurks beneath the elegant surface of Elizabethan court culture. And the poem’s commentator recognizes this fact. As Venus composes her seductive poetry, Adonis acts as her surly critic, a disgruntled version of Spenser’s E.K., who fails miserably to respond to the force of poetic discourse. He tells her that her fictions are hackneyed and unprofitable (‘this idle theme, this bootless chat’ [422]). He informs her, as Ascham or Gosson might have done, that her eroticism is unwholesome for adolescents (524-8)); tries to cut short her endless story-telling (716); and finally launches into an extended attack on her ideological stance, made up of phrases that might have been culled from the works of the ‘poet-haters’. Her discourse is the song of a mermaid or siren, which incites its hearers to lust rather than rational love; her poetry is made up of ‘forged lies’ (804) and offensive to chaste ears. However redundant Adonis’s distinction between lust and love may be, it incorporates one insight which the poem bears out: that Venus’s poetry represents just one more effort to gain power, and that her wit fails to hide the fact that she serves a ‘hot tyrant’ who is potentially as destructive as Death (797). From the beginning of the poem, Venus was at her most savage when she came closest to getting what she wanted:

Her face doth reek and smoke, her blood doth boil,
And careless lust stirs up a desperate courage,
Planting oblivion, beating reason back,
Forgetting shame’s pure blush and honour’s wrack (555-8).

Where Orpheus tamed the bestial hearts of wild men, Venus urges a return to bestial action; where Puttenham’s early poets planted the artificial memory of history, Venus plants ‘oblivion’.

Venus is no Orpheus; but then, neither is the frigid Adonis. Standing over his corpse, Venus finds herself quite incapable of giving an accurate account of his death; far less of his life, which is much less verifiable. Like distorted glasses, her tears make his wounds look twice as bad as they are; she therefore seeks to console herself by mythologizing his biography. As she narrates her own version of his history she transforms him into a voiceless Orpheus, taming wild animals wherever he went. ‘To see his face the lion walked along / Behind some hedge, because he would not fear him’, she croons (1093-4), and we might be inclined to believe her, if we didn’t remember her terror when she found he was hunting ‘the blunt boar, rough bear, or lion proud’ (884). In Shakespeare’s text, myth is no allegory of actual events but a falsification of history, a consoling lie designed to conceal the ‘black Chaos’ that underlies the veneer of historical order.

Jean_Cousin_the_Elder,_Eva_Prima_PandoraThe implications of this go far beyond a critique of Elizabethan poetic theory. After all, Queen Elizabeth herself was to a great extent a construct of poetic mythmaking. It’s always tempting when confronted with a powerful queen in Elizabethan poetry to transform her into one of the many aspects of Elizabeth. The problem with Shakespeare’s Venus is that she seems to present the queen and sexual politics at court in such a darkly satirical light. Yet the more one looks at the poetry of the 1590s, with its blossoming of satire in verse and prose, the less unlikely such a reading looks. Two years before Shakespeare published his poem, the patriotic Spenser produced his most satirical collection of verse, the Complaints (1591). One of the poems in the collection, The Teares of the Muses, recounts a reversal of the civilizing process very like the descent into savagery enacted in Venus and Adonis. One after another the Muses complain that their verses have lost their potency and that the social structure is collapsing as a result. The one hope they have of reversing the process of degeneration is a queen called Pandora. Of course, officially speaking, the name Pandora as applied to Elizabeth could only invoke its most complimentary etymological derivation. But Spenser’s View of the Present State of Ireland shows that he knew the myth of Epimetheus very well, and was fully aware that Pandora did not bring civilization to early mankind, but ‘black Chaos’ (he doesn’t mention hope).15 Might he be insinuating that Elizabeth/Pandora is the cause of, as well as the potential solution to, the collapse of Elizabethan court culture?

By the 1590s, the rich poetic mythology that had been woven into Elizabethan culture, and which had looked so alluring at the time Spenser wrote the Shepheards Calender, seems to have begun to fray and fall apart. Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis wittily charts that disintegration. And it ends with an echo of the myth that had been most closely identified with the reign of Elizabeth: that of Astraea. The English queen was said to be the reincarnation of Astraea, dedicated to restoring the Golden Age on Earth.16 But Shakespeare’s poem ends like the beginning of Juvenal’s sixth satire, with a disappointed and bitter goddess – no longer the goddess of justice, nor even effectively the goddess of love – retiring in disgust from a wilderness in which she no longer has a place.

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Notes

1 For Shakespeare’s use of the fable of Hermaphroditus, see the Arden Edition of The Poems, ed. F.T. Prince (London: Methuen, 1960), Introduction and Appendix I. All references to Venus and Adonis are taken from this edition. For allusions to the fable of Narcissus, see Prince, p. 12, l. 157-62, and pp. 47-8, l. 829-52.

2 The Arte of English Poesie (London: Richard Field, 1589) fols. 3-4.

3 Puttenham, fol. 4.

4 The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge (London: William Pickering, 1836), vol 2, p. 59.

5 ‘Her pleading hath deserv’d a better fee’. l. 609.

6 See Prince, p. 19, l. 295-8, fn.

7 The Faerie Queene, ed. A.C. Hamilton (New York and London: Longman, 1977), III vi 29-50; ‘joyous Paradize’, III vi 29.

8 Genesis, 2, 6.

9 The Complete Poems and Translations, ed. Stephen Orgel (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), p. 135, l. 35-6.

10 Spenser’s Adonis is said to be ‘eterne in mutabilitie’. III vi 47.

11 A bank of the river Isis is the setting for Lodge’s Glaucus and Scilla (1589); Sestos is the setting for Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (1598). Both poems can be found in Elizabethan Minor Epics, ed. Elizabeth Story Donno (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963).

12 See An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (London: Nelson, 1965), p. 102, l. 21-37.

13 ‘The sea hath bounds, but deep desire hath none;
Therefore no marvel though thy horse be gone.’ l. 389-90.

14 See Shepherd, p. 101, l. 14-24.

15 See A View of the Present State of Ireland, ed. W. L. Renwick (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 2.

16 For an account of Elizabeth as Astraea and of Juvenal’s treatment of Astraea in his sixth satire, see Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters (Sussex: Harvester, 1983), Chapter 6.

 

 

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