A dunce cap for T. S. Eliot, who could not tell a lilac from a lollipop — and an explainer in images

lilac buds 4 april 2018 postgutenberg@gmail.com SC

Lilacs, 1: Budding: 4 April 2018 (Does that ground look not just cold and post-wintry but ‘dead’? Scroll down for the next acts in the drama.)

In the internet tradition of putting out bird seed for each other — information for nameless, faceless strangers — this entry is mostly for those visitors revealed by our site traffic analysis to be doing their English Literature homework.

We would march in the streets to protect poetic licence, but a poet who cannot get his elementary facts about nature right cannot be trusted as a wielder of metaphors or teller of even strictly psychological truths. He is liable to be written off as a pretentious twit for ending a poem with, for instance, …

… London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina

Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow

Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih

… as T.S. Eliot did The Waste Land (1922), if he had started it with these offences against accurate observation and common-sense botany:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

What dead land would that be? Year after year, we watch as lilac bushes close by bud, sprout, come into leaf, then give us a live demonstration of why ‘You’re blooming!’ can be a true and sumptuous compliment paid to a young girl in love. Year after year, we imagine students in places where no lilacs grow frowning over the complexities of Eliot’s best-known poem — with no idea that he had everything back-to-front in its opening.

Internet searching suggests that those of us acutely irritated by this are (or were once) amateur or expert gardeners. Hardly anyone else has remarked — like the Oxford historian and gardening connoisseur Robin Lane Fox, in a marvellous essay about gardens in literature — that

No gardener … would agree that April is “the cruellest month” and in no gardens or landscapes known to me does April breed “lilacs out of the dead land,” least of all on the American East Coast within range of the young T. S. Eliot.

Even non-gardeners in the northern hemisphere know that the cruellest month is August. The hot weather is at its most evil, then, in warmer parts of the globe. In cooler maritime spots with changeable weather, it is when the last hope of any summer at all can be cruelly denied.

There is nothing dead about the ground when lilacs begin to push tiny brown buds from brown canes — as in the first of this sequence of pictures (above and below). It is wriggly with riotous new life. And no, Mr Eliot, you cannot believably proceed from a warm winter — or even one keeping only you warm — that fed ‘a little life with dried tubers’, to earth that somehow had all life mysteriously drained from it as the days lengthened and the temperature rose, more or less steadily.

Yes, we know about metaphors, you Eliot-defenders out there. We ourselves have been known to excoriate the obdurately literal-minded for refusing to dance with a poet’s imagination. We know from experience what T.S.E. was trying to say about how painful spring breaking out all over can be for someone depressed, after the protective cocooning of the dark, burrowing months. But if he had to reverse the truth of lilacs coming into their season, why didn’t he say he was writing science-fiction poetry?

We are in deepest sympathy with Vladimir Nabokov, when he asked a college student sent to him for tips on a career in writing if he knew the name of a tree outside a nearby window. When the acolyte confessed that he did not, Nabokov said simply, ‘Then you’ll never be a writer.’ **

** ‘Remembering Nabokov’ by Alfred Appel Jnr., in Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute, edited by Peter Quenell, 1979.

lilacs sprouted 28 april 2018 SC postgutenberg@gmail.com

Lilacs, 2: Sprouting, 28 April 2018

lilacs green gold 6 may 2018 SC postgutenberg@gmail.com

Lilacs, 3: Cluster-setting, 6 May 2018

lilacs blooming 10 may 2018 SC postgutenberg@gmail.com

Lilacs, 4: Blooming: 10 May 2018

lilacs in bloom in thunderstorm 15 may 2018 SC postgutnberg@gmail.com

Lilacs, 5: In full flower, in spring rain: 15 May 2018

for  1. 1. 2018

december 20 2017 cusp of the solstice

surprised deer FINAL

A poem we came across fit our 2017 exactly — both our personal experience of it and impressions of the state of things everywhere. No matter how closely we paid attention to what should be perfectly insulated from ugliness — always a good idea — there was seemingly no escaping the spirit of the year.

From a quick check, we learnt that this poem could easily have been written during the Second World War. With more time, we’d be interested to know what was happening in the life of the frequently magnificent Robert Frost, then.

Not only sands and gravels
Were once more on their travels,
But gulping muddy gallons
Great boulders off their balance
Bumped heads together dully
And started down the gully.
Whole capes caked off in slices.
I felt my standpoint shaken
In the universal crisis.
But with one step backward taken
I saved myself from going.
A world torn loose went by me.
Then the rain stopped and the blowing,
And the sun came out to dry me.

‘One Step Backward Taken,’ Robert Frost, 1947

Here’s hoping for a rather different backdrop for 2018 …

H  A  P  P Y    N  E  W   Y  E  A  R

 

Can literary, bacon-scented flies teetering on the brink of greatness — by 2016 standards — compete with a passage in, say, Orwell’s Burmese Days?

The seductive power of images can be tremendous, with the right image-maker, but they rarely tell us enough about being in the places they depict. Photographs: MIL22 (above); postgutenberg@gmail.com (below).

The seductive power of images can be tremendous, with the right image-maker, but they rarely tell us enough about being in the places they depict. Photographs: MIL22 (above); postgutenberg@gmail.com (below).

Sunset fm BigVM postgutenberg@gmail.com

Conjuring the sensations of actually being there in telling about sights, scents, flavours, and the effects of a place on its observer’s mood may interest only the dwindling ranks of magician-scribes — writers’ writers — in the 21st century. For evocation, most people seem content with receiving still and moving images anyone can capture — with no need to struggle with complicated camera-buying decisions because cameras come with go-everywhere telephones the way glove compartments do with cars. Fewer and fewer of us know what we are missing. Many have never known or forgotten how much deeper or how unforgettably a word picture can take a reader into the same scene whose story the most captivating photograph can only tell incompletely. Of course the most inspired literary description lacks what is uniquely in photography’s power to record. We have been taught that a picture is worth a thousand words. But it would be hard to accept a picture in place of those many words without a lot of questions and conditions. Which words, chosen and arranged exactly how? At post-Gutenberg we have been mulling over comparisons between our own records constructed from the alphabet and confections from light and pixels, tackling the same subjects.

If we were to prefer a particular passage of text to a picture, to what degree would our taste coincide with the preferences of those of us brought up entirely on description-lite contemporary prose, in this post-print Age of the Image? A startling fragment of praise in a recent Sunday book review in the New York Times was not encouraging. The critic applauded the author’s …

 … keen sense of visceral detail (“The air smelled like bacon from the flies that sizzled in the overhead lights”) that borders on sublime. 

We reread that fragment several times in the same browsing session, a few days ago, and have returned to it more than once since. Beyond our bafflement by the reviewer’s bedazzlement, we have been asking practical questions. Do flies, as small as they are, smell strongly enough of where they have been perching lately for human noses to detect that? Or would you need one especially acute nose, like this author’s? Or are flies being cured nowadays, the way pig-parts are? No, that cannot be right — if they were sizzling in overhead lights, they were partially alive and in the process of extinction. But could the passage mean to imply that they were partially cured, like chickens still running around post-decapitation? Fly bacon, for consumption by whom? … Hard to say. We shall return to that review — to which we are not linking, here, because it’s not really the author or book by which we have been mesmerised but the 21st-century reviewer’s taste and conception of what borders on sublime. We are determined to read that snippet over and over again and surely one day, with the right degrees of determination and open-mindedness, will see exactly what the literary critic wanted us to know.

In the meanwhile, mystification sent us running to our bookshelves, and lunging for a text, any text, that we think borders on sublime. We picked a paperback from the George Orwell shelf — a fair comparison, because this writer never accused of being flowery or prolix has long been considered a master of lean, spare, modern prose; is famous for his ‘style of no style’ far closer to contemporary taste than the surpassing descriptions of, say, Dickens.

From Burmese Days (1934):

He acclimatised himself to Burma. His body grew attuned to the strange rhythms of the tropical seasons. Every year, from February to May, the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly the monsoon blew westward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy ceaseless downpour that drenched everything until neither one’s clothes, one’s bed nor even one’s food ever seemed to be dry. It was still hot, with a stuffy, vaporous heat. The lower jungle paths turned into morasses, and the paddy fields were great wastes of stagnant water with a stale, mousy smell. Books and boots were mildewed. Naked Burmans in yard-wide hats of palm-leaf ploughed the paddy fields, driving their buffaloes through knee-deep water. Later, the women and children planted the green seedlings of paddy, dabbing each plant into the mud with little three-pronged forks. Through July and August there was hardly a pause in the rain. Then one night, high overhead, one heard a squawking of invisible birds. The snipe were flying southward from Central Asia. The rains tailed off, ending in October. The fields dried up, the paddy ripened, the Burmese children played hopscotch with gonyin seeds and flew kites in the cool winds. It was the beginning of the short winter, when Upper Burma seemed haunted by the ghost of England. Wild flowers sprang into bloom everywhere, not quite the same as the English ones, but very like them — honeysuckle in thick bushes, field roses smelling of peardrops, even violets in dark places of the forest. The sun circled low in the sky, and the nights and early mornings were bitterly cold, with white mists that poured through the valley like the steam of enormous kettles. One went shooting after duck and snipe. There were snipe in countless myriads, and wild geese in flocks that rose from the jeel with a roar like a goods train crossing an iron bridge. The ripening paddy, breast-high and yellow, looked like wheat. The Burmese went to their work with muffled heads and their arms clasped across their breasts, their faces yellow and parched with cold. In the morning one marched through misty, incongruous wildernesses, clearings of drenched, almost English grass and naked trees where monkeys squatted in the upper branches, waiting for the sun.

… What album of photographs could hope to compete with those not quite four hundred Orwellian word-choices?