SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY by Lord Byron

I was leafing through my very old school poetry book and came across this one, which I had long forgotten. It’s so gorgeous I had to post it here. I hope you enjoy it.

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies,

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes,

Thus mellow’d to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impair’d the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or softly lightens o’er her face,

Where thoughts serenely sweet express

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek and o’er that brow

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent.

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The Top Three!

Last week was a strange one for me with various family situations, now resolved. Today I resume my routine. This morning I was out for my walk along the river and I thought very hard about which three books I loved the most; I came up with these three. David Copperfield, Catch 22 and Redhead by the Side of the Road. Which surprised me a little as my favourite writer for some years now is Patrick de Witt.

I first read David Copperfield when I was at school and I’ve read it at least twice since; so many wonderful characters, so many quotes still in my head. There was Peggotty, who worked as cook and maid in his mother’s house until she agreed to marry Mr Barkis, who signalled his intentions with the phrase,”Barkis is willin’.” And the wonderful Mr Micawber who was always sure that “something will turn up” and his wife declaring that she “would never desert” Mr Micawber. I’m going to stop with quotes here or I’ll be writing all day! I will just mention David’s cousins who lived in an upturned boat on the beach in Yarmouth; the boy he met in school called Steerforth who was a bad ‘un and became involved with Rosa Dartle. I can’t leave out his Aunt Betsey who took him in and cared for him and called him “Trotwood”. David’s first wife, Dora, made very little impression on me but apparently she was based on Dicken’s real-life first love. There are many more I could include and many, many quotes but – enough!

Catch 22 I first read in my twenties and again, I’ve read it many times since. It makes me laugh so much. Sometimes I stand at the book case and open it at random . . . I could be standing there for a long time! And sometimes I remember various passages when I’m on a bus or a train and I have to keep myself from laughing out loud. The first chapter sets the tone; the chaplain appears at Yossarian’s hospital bedside and begins a conversation. Yossarian doesn’t realise he is the chaplain and thinks he’s another mad soldier but he is happy to continue the conversation:

“Oh, pretty good,” he answered. “I’ve got a slight pain in my liver and I haven’t been the most regular of fellows, I guess, but all in all, I must admit that I feel pretty good.”

“That’s good,” said the chaplain.

“Yes,” Yossarian said. “Yes, that is good.”

The conversation continues in this vein with many – that’s good, yes that is good, and that’s bad, yes that is bad – until Yossarian realises he’s talking to the chaplain and is disappointed that there is a sane reason for the visit.

And what about Major Major Major Major whose father marches along the hospital corridor and register’s his son’s birth in the name of Major Major, unbeknownst to his resting wife. And the episode where the soldiers are listening to a speech by one of the Generals and they begin to moan at the sight of the General’s bosomy nurse, started by Yossarian of course. Ah yes . . .

Finally, Redhead by the Side of the Road. I won’t say much about this book as I recently posted a review on it. Suffice to say, when I was reading it, I carried it about with me and had many conversations with the main character, Micah Mortimer. Happy days!

Percy Bysshe Shelley | Ode to the West wind

Every year at this time I quote this poem to anyone who will listen to me. I learned it off by heart at school when I was sixteen and still remember most of it. And this is my old school book – A Pageant of English Verse. The poem is quite perfect. I’ll just quote a few verses here, to give you a flavour of it – it’s very long in its entirety.

O wild west wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

Pestilence-stricken multudes – O thou

Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds . . .

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.

Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!

I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O, wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Sea and Sardinia – a final excerpt

Before I leave this book I would like to share this piece – it’s so good! It’s a short book and the writing is brilliant. You’d have to read every paragraph twice. It’s a delight for any reader.

And they fell on their soup. And never, from among the steam, have I heard a more joyful trio of soup-swilkering. They sucked it in from their spoons with long, gusto-rich sucks. The maialino was the treble – he trilled his soup into his mouth with a swift, sucking vibration, interrupted by bits of cabbage, which made the lamp start to dither again. Black-cap was the baritone; good, rolling spoon-sucks. And the one in spectacles was the bass: he gave sudden deep gulps. All was led by the long trilling of the maialino. Then suddenly, to vary matters, he cocked up his spoon in one hand, chewed a huge mouthful of bread, and swallowed it down with a smack-smack-smack! of his tongue against his palate. As children we used to call this “clapping”.

“Mother, she’s clapping!” I would yell with anger, against my sister. The German word is schmatzen.

So the maialino clapped like a pair of cymbals, while baritone and bass rolled on. Then in chimed the swift bright treble.

At this rate however, the soup did not last long. Arrived the beefsteaks of pork. And now the trio was a trio of castanet smacks and cymbal claps. Triumphantly the maialino looked around. He out-smacked all.

Sea and Sardinia by D. H. Lawrence – an excerpt

This is an account of the travels of D H Lawrence in Sardinia, with his wife, often referred to as the q-b (the queen bee). I’m not a great fan of Lawrence’s novels but this book is terrific, the writing mesmerising. Here is a short passage to give you a flavour:

And so we steam out. And almost at once the ship begins to take a long, slow, dizzy dip, and a fainting swoon upwards, and a long, slow, dizzy dip, slipping away from beneath one. The q-b turns pale. Up comes the deck in that fainting swoon backwards – then down it fades in that indescribable slither forwards. It is all quite gentle – quite, quite gentle. But oh, so long, and so slow, and so dizzy.

“Rather pleasant,” say I to the q-b.

“Yes. Rather lovely, really,” she answers wistfully.

To tell the truth there is something in the long, slow lift of the ship, and her long, slow slide forwards which makes my heart beat with joy. It is the motion of freedom. To feel her come up – then slide slowly forward, with a sound of the smashing of waters, is like the magic gallop of the sky, the magic gallop of elemental space. That long, slow, waveringly rhythmic rise and fall of the ship, with waters snorting as it were from her nostrils, oh God what a joy it is to the wild innermost soul. One is free at last – and lilting in a slow flight of the elements, wringing outwards. Oh God, to be free of all the hemmed-in life – the horror of human tension, the absolute insanity of machine persistence. The agony which a train is to me, really. And the long-drawn-out agony of a life among tense, resistant people on land. And then to feel the long, slow lift and drop of this almost empty ship, as she took the waters. Ah God, liberty, liberty, elemental liberty. I wished in my soul the voyage might last for ever, that the sea had no end, that one might float in this wavering, tremulous, yet long and surging pulsation while ever time lasted; space never exhausted, and no turning back, no looking back, even.”

This makes me wonder why I try to write at all! Sea and Sardinia is a short book but it is filled with magic writing like the above.

A Review: Peaches by Dylan Thomas

I first read this story many years ago and never forgot about it so recently I read it again, and again it seemed terrific. It is written from the point of view of a very young Dylan, perhaps ten years old. He is spending time with his aunt and uncle in rural Wales, and his best friend from school, Jack, is coming to visit. Jack’s people are well off and he is expected to arrive, accompanied by his mother, in a Daimler. Dylan’s aunt has been holding on to a tin of peaches for a special occasion and is now looking forward to serving them, with a dollop of cream, to Jack’s mother.

And all around this situation is built a whole world of characters:

” . . .  a thin, bald, pale old man, with his cheeks in his mouth . . . “

” . . . a sour woman with a flowered blouse and a man’s cap.”

There is not a wasted word in the story of this small boy with his fears and fancies; it draws you in, subsuming you almost, until you are living on that farm,  playing in that farmyard:

“On my haunches, eager and alone, casting an ebony shadow, with the Gorsehill jungle swarming, the violent, impossible birds and fishes leaping, hidden under four-stemmed flowers the height of horses . . . my friend Jack Williams invisibly near me, I felt all my young body like an excited animal surrounding me, the torn knees bent, the bumping heart . . . the sweat prickling in the hands, the tunnels down to the eardrums, the little balls of dirt between my toes . . . “

The young Dylan imagines his uncle:

“I could see uncle, tall and sly and red, holding the writhing pig in his two hairy hands, sinking his teeth into its thigh . . .  leaning over the wall of the sty with the pig’s legs sticking out of his mouth.”

And about his his aunt he writes:

“She went upstairs to dress like Sunday.”

In this tale the writing is the thing. It is hardly like reading at all; it’s like someone sitting beside you telling the story, the language rich and sumptuous and deep and luscious, full of adverbs and adjectives:

” . . . for his uncle to light his pipe and set the darkness on fire and show his long, red, drunken fox’s face to me, with its bristling side-brushes and wet, sensitive nose.”

It makes today’s pared-down prose appear without smell or taste or colour, and it reminds me of “A Christmas Carol”, especially the middle part, about Christmas Present. I found it very difficult to choose which quotes to include in this short commentary – every line is memorable.

A Review: The Three Fat Women of Antibes by Somerset Maugham

Does anyone read Somerset Maugham any more? I don’t think so; my own young ‘uns don’t for sure. Two of his novels are terrific – Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge, both made into successful movies. But his short stories are even better, wonderfully exotic, full of heat and colour, and cocktails – a combination of narrative drive with great dialogue and characters. I should add to my series on “writers no one reads any more” and begin with him. Or Graham Greene anyone? Maurice Walsh? Do young people read War and Peace? David Copperfield?

Anyway . . .

From the opening paragraph of this story the reader is grabbed and held in fascination. Here we have our three fat ladies, three friends who have melded into a tight unit over many years, each one balancing what is missing in the other. They are kind to each other, making allowances and being supportive. Arrow was the youngest, an American twice divorced; Beatrice Richman was a widow and Frances, who was known as Frank, had never married. Maugham explores what happens when an outsider joins this group, how the dynamics are altered and distorted.

“They were great friends, Miss Hickson, Mrs Richman, and Arrow Sutcliffe. It was their fat that had brought them together and bridge that had cemented their alliance.”

The ladies are grossly overweight and every year they go to Carlsbad in Western Bohemia – the Czech Republic now – for a “cure”. They take the waters, follow the strict regime and attend the same doctor. If one of them falls behind with weight loss:

” . . . the culprit went to bed for twenty-four hours and nothing passed her lips but the doctor’s famous vegetable soup which tasted like hot water in which a cabbage had been well rinsed.”

And every year they return, fatter still. This year, Frank decides that they should take a house in Antibes to continue the “cure” on their own for a month or two and Arrow and Beatrice happily agree. They would have their own cook who would continue to feed them boiled eggs and raw tomatoes. But there was one problem – where would they find a fourth for bridge?

“They were fierce, enthusiastic players . . .  they had long arguments over the rival systems. They bombarded one another with Culbertson and Sims.”

However, it so happened that a cousin of Frank’s was newly widowed and making her way to the Riviera. Frank invited Lena Thorne to join them.  She was a bridge player so they would be independent of outsiders and able to continue with their restricted diet.

Lena arrives. Lena is not fat. They sit down to dinner the first evening and Lena immediately asks for a cocktail. Frank, aware of her friends sensibilities says:

“We find alcohol isn’t very good in all this heat.”

But Lena says the heat doesn’t affect her and when dinner arrives – a poached sole, all  alone on a plate – she asks for, and receives, potatoes with plenty of butter. But worse was to follow – Lena asks for fresh bread.

“The grossest indecency would not have fallen on the ears of those three women  with such a shock. Not one of them had eaten bread for ten years.”

And when Beatrice intimates that she will get fat Lena laughs and says that nothing ever makes her fat and she can eat whatever she likes without worry.

“The stony silence that followed this speech was only broken by the entrance of the butler.”

And then of course, Lena was a terrific bridge player, playing with glorious abandon and imagination, ignoring systems and rules. The friends begin to bicker, accusing each other of being vulgar, of sneaking food, and of never losing any weight. Tears and recriminations, but they make up and hug each other and decide that Lena, being a new widow, should have whatever she liked to eat.

“But human nature is weak.”

Beatrice grew “limp and forlorn”; Arrow’s “tender blue eyes acquired a steely glint”, and Frank’s voice “grew raucous.”.

Lena guzzled macaroni and cheese and paté de fois gras with peas swimming in cream; she drank burgundy and champagne. The bridge sessions became bitter and silent, often ending in tears.

“They began to hate one another.”

But Lena’s stay in Antibes came to an end and Lena went on her way, claiming she had had a wonderful holiday. Frank left her to the train, holding herself together, remaining polite until she waved goodbye. But on the way home:

“‘Ouf!” she roared at intervals. “Ouf!'”

Beatrice was the first to give in. Frank found her in a restaurant eating croissants with jam and butter; a jug of cream stood by the coffee pot. Frank hesitated, but only for a second before sinking into a chair. And then Arrow came along. She pretended horror and disgust before seizing a chair herself and calling for the waiter. Course followed course:

“They ate with solemn, ecstatic fervour.”

And Frank said:

“You can say what you like, but the truth is she played a damned rotten game of bridge, really.”

A Review: The Woman who Rode Away by D.H.Lawrence

This is quite a long, short story but it should be read at one sitting; it is strongly rhythmic, repetitive, bearing you along in a trance that Lawrence has made for you. It tells of a woman, married with two children, who lives in a remote area of Mexico.

I don’t love this story; I’m not even sure I like it but I couldn’t forget about it. Right from the beginning it is about death and the desire for death. In the fourth paragraph:

” . . . she saw a dead dog lying between the meat stalls and the vegetable array . . . Deadness within deadness.”

The lady in question is:

” . . . not thirty-three, a large, blue-eyed, dazed woman, beginning to grow stout.”

After ten years of living in isolation near a worn-out silver mine the woman wakes from her daze; she becomes aware and restless and when she overhears two men speak of the Indians who live in the far-off mountains, she feels in her heart that she has to find these secret places and the strange people who live in them. A day comes when she packs food and water and rides off alone. The journey takes a long, weary time, plodding on and on, following a narrow trail up into the mountains, making camp where she can, trying to sleep:

“She was not sure that she had not heard, during the night, a great crash at the centre of herself, which was the crash of her own death.”

She gradually becomes aware that the Indians are near, watching her. They come closer, strongly-built dark men in dark clothes with “glittering” black eyes and “rivers” of long, black hair. They take her on another, longer journey yet. The night passes:

“A long, long night, icy and eternal, and she was aware that she had died.”

They arrive in a village, deep in a hidden valley where the woman is unceremoniously stripped and given a new tunic to wear. She is given a soporific drink which makes her vomit, then leaves her with a drugged feeling. For many months she is kept apart from village life, fed and drugged until:

” . . . the languor filled her heavy limbs, her senses seemed to float in the air, listening, hearing . . .  as if she were diffusing out deliciously into the harmony of things.”

She sees that the men are not aware of her as a woman:

“Only that intense, yet remote, inhuman glitter which was terrible to her.”

Counterpoint all the time between the large, dazed, white, blue-eyed woman and the strong, dark men; the words death and drugged and river and glitter repeated throughout.

A young Indian who speaks English, explains to her that the white man has stolen the sun and the white woman has stolen the moon. And that she, the white woman, must be given to the sun so that the Indians will be full of power again.

One day then, she is taken from her chamber, drugged afresh and given new clothes; she is taken up in a litter and to the sound of drums, the villagers form two lines to dance:

“And across the flat cradle of snow-bed wound the long thread of the dance, shaking slowly and sumptuously . . . their black  eyes watching her with a glittering eagerness, awe and craving.”

It is impossible to convey in a short review, the way this story lulls you until you are almost as dazed as the woman herself, ready to lie down and accept your own fate!

The last line of the story says:

“The mastery that man must hold, and that passes from race to race.”

It almost seems as if it was tacked on. And it’s ambiguous. Does Lawrence mean that urge which permeates all cultures that ever were, the urge to control an uncontrollable world by placating the Gods, by touching wood or saluting magpies? Or does he mean man’s need to control women?

Bookish thoughts . . .

The classics: In my opinion many of them should finish half way through. I’m thinking about David Copperfield – shouldn’t it end when Dora dies? I can barely remember the rest of it except that David marries Agnes and lives happily ever after. And what about Wuthering Heights? Does anyone remember what happens after the first Cathy dies? I don’t; of course that could be the influence of old movies which finish at that point. And poor wee Jane Eyre – I have a fondness for books that begin with the main character as a child – but after the wedding fiasco and the fire and the death of Rochester’s first wife, the book seems to lose colour and interest. And then there’s Eugénie Grandet; for me that book ends when her cousin disappears from the story.

I’m sure there are many more like this but that’s all I can think of for the moment. I need to do a trawl around my books!

“1984” an excerpt . . .

From my dear, old, battered, often read copy of 1984. Read and ponder this paragraph. Can we imagine such a world? No words, no books, no conversation. Dante could have included this scenario in his Inferno! My youngest child was born in 1984 – I didn’t call him Winston.

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Insoc is Newspeak . . . Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”