Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Garden of Verse: 'Immortal' Glimpses Into the Lives of Poets

           The title of this largely entertaining peek into the lives of creative artists in the early 19th century by Stanley Plumly, "The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb," mentions the names of three literary worthies likely to create an interest in lovers of poetry. Particularly the great age of English Romantic poetry. The title does not include the name of another artistic figure, Benjamin Robert Haydon -- a painter, not a poet -- who was the host for this "immortal evening." While he is not remembered the way the three writers are, at one time paid, public exhibitions of his ambitious historical paintings drew thousands of visitors in London and other sites.
         The book's title evokes the enduring importance of the three writers, especially the poets Keats and Wordsworth. Lamb was most successful as a storyteller and informal essayist, popular in his time and for generations after, though not widely read today. 
          But Haydon has been largely forgotten. His genre, "historical painting," has been entirely superseded, first by photography and then by film. The painting he was working on (and would take six years to complete) when he invited his literary friends for Sunday dinner, followed by a late supper, and apparently a good deal of wine throughout, was "Christ's Entry into Jerusalem." The particular reason for inviting the three writers (a few other guests were invited as well) was that all three had posed for Haydon and their faces, their figures clothed in period dress, appear among the crowd of observers depicted witnessing the momentous arrival of the great religious teacher.
          I found it hard to warm up to this painting. Plumly makes no case for it as great art either. The book's central preoccupation is what was wrong with Haydon's view of his vocation and his art, and with Haydon himself -- what keeps him, that is, despite his out-sized confidence in his own genius from being among the immortals. Rather than his painting it's his obsessive journal-keeping about his life and times that interests us today. His record of the memorable 'evening' serves as the book's lens into the characters of the 'immortal' figures and leads to his reflections about them at other times.
          But much of "The Immortal Evening" focuses on Haydon's "unsuccessful" life and this is the limitation of Plumly's approach. Almost anything else that Plumly writes about here is more interesting than his analysis of Haydon's failings, which at times appears to grow repetitious. It's the kind of book where you leaf ahead to see when the names of the people you are interested in, Wordsworth or Keats or Coleridge -- who, though unavailable for the feast or to pose for the painting, gets a lot of ink here too -- next turn up.
          So the hook -- three great writers who sort of know each other get invited to dinner by a guy who appears to be a better host than he is an artist -- attracts, but the book delivers less of what I want and more than I need to know about a period painter who happened to write an awful lot of diary and memoir stuff. At one point Plumly says of Haydon that he should have been a writer.
         Himself a poet, Plumly is a very good writer, and I would read anything he has to tell me about Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge or their period. Haydon's life may invite our sympathy, but like his paintings as a subject he's ephemeral.
            Plumly, who wrote a book titled "Posthumous Keats," which I read enthusiastically a few years ago, might be regarded as the high chef of literary biographical slices. Keats, who died at 26, had a short life, but Plumly's book concentrates on how its ending has fixed our notion of a young man of genius, who (it seems to me) resembles the famous pursuer of a dream in his own "Ode to a Grecian Urn": 

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal...

            Keats won't age, won't decline, won't disappoint his fans, can never be accused of "failing to live up" to expectation of his early brilliance.
            Here Plumly quotes this judgment by the ill-fated painter Haydon: "Keats is the only man I ever met with who is conscious of a high calling... except Wordsworth."
            In fact the arc of Wordsworth's artistic biography takes a path opposite to Keats's. His best work is done in his early years; by the time Haydon and Keats, and most English speakers, become acquainted with his great poetry, Wordsworth is at the peak of his fame but his inspiration is gone. He lives a long life, but falls increasingly out of favor, especially to those who loved his great work.  
            As for Lamb, of whose career I knew almost nothing, his biography is also a cautionary tale. Despite wide publication and popular favor, he spends almost his whole life as a clerk in a civil service office, supporting a troubled family. He takes long rambles through his beloved London and gets amusingly drunk at Haydon's "immortal" party.
            For readers, especially English major types, fascinated by the two genius generations of Romantic poetry, slices of life from period letters and diaries woven together by an author who is a master of the field are like peeks into the lives of the rich and famous by the celebrity lovers of our own day. Only, to make explicit my own prejudice, learning what these guys thought about, or said about themselves -- or about one another -- is actually worth the effort.
            Keats knew who he was, and it is interesting that a fellow artist who misjudged his own destiny also knew. Haydon puts his three writer friends into his would-be masterpiece as figures among a watching crowd as Christ on a donkey (wearing a tiara of heavenly glow) pushes past them into the holy city. Wordsworth's face droops downward with heavy thoughts. Lamb looks abashed at divinity's approach, while Keats passionately argues his own line of thought.   
            Plumly's fascinating book, perhaps unavoidably, puts Haydon in the center of the picture. But our eyes, and thoughts, are on the guys in the corner.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Garden of History: Richard III and the End of the Middle Ages

          This is a book that engages both a love of history and an interest in those who search for history, dig for it or otherwise create 'new' history, a seeming paradox. As the head archeologist repeatedly states in this multi-purposed book, "Digging for Richard III: The Search for the Lost King," you don't go looking to find the graves of famous historical figures and you pretty much never find them. You plan digs after careful research, probably preliminary digs that suggest that there may be finds of some scientific interest if you plan an organized, well-prepared, funded dig with a reasonable chance of telling you something more about the human uses of a particular site in the depths of time. Nevertheless, this archeological project in Leicester, England, a place with a university and a long history of human settlement, truly began with a contemporary woman's -- intuition? psychic summons? -- that she knew where the grave of Richard III could be found.
          I'll be frank. It's the history that interests me most, and that attracted me to this book. Richard III is of course one of the most controversial kings, perhaps the most, in English history. Shakespeare, following earlier writers and traditions, blame him for the murder of two young claimants to the British crown ("the princes in the tower"), and Shakespeare's famous history play "Richard III" turned him into a monstrous and notable villain.  A reaction, typified by the novel "Daughter of Time," looked at the historical evidence and concluded that Richard was a well-intended monarch who had been bad-mouthed by his enemies after his death. No evidence, this view says, shows that Richard had the princes killed.
           So for me the highlight of this book comes at the beginning when author Mike Pitts gives a clear account of the War of the Roses, enumerating the twists and turns of the (mostly bloody) conflict between various branches of royal descendants over who had the better claim to the throne. Here are some of my gleanings from this book's account: Richard III, a member of the York line, and the last British kind to die in battle, lived from 1452 to 1485, a short life. He contended for the throne, made enemies, vanquished them for the crown, then fought to keep it and died in the effort. His death at Bosworth, marking the end of the Wars of the Roses, also initiates the reign of the Tudor dynasty. Also, arguably, the battle at Bosworth marks the end of the Middle Ages for England. Richard's lifetime saw the first book printed in English, the Caxton Bible, in 1473. Richard III owned one book, a slender "book of hours" prayer book; that's the pre-printing Middle Ages for you. Richard is generally regarded as last Plantagenet Kings (going back to William the Conqueror), though the Tudor kings who replaced him seem also to be descended from a Plantagenet ancestor. Dynastic politics is complicated.
            I also learned that the British royal family today still receives rents from lands bequeathed to English monarchs from the Plantagenet kings.
         The history of the area of the dig, what medieval Leicester was like, is also interesting. In act the official reason for the dig was to explore the remains of an old religious establishment. And I did find the details of the dig itself, and what Pitts had to tell us about how archeology actually works in today's world, worth reading about. However, I was less interested in the story that follows the amazing discovery; none of the professionals thought they would find the grave of Richard III. The journalistic account of how various institutions, academic, governmental, media, etc. reacted was less compelling. Maybe these details about how the world works today are more interesting to English readers, who can bring their own experiences to the contemporary story. I suspect, however, that if America had kings to dig up, the resulting brouhaha would be truly appalling.
           There will always be an English royalty. Saying this, I have to admit to being a devoted viewer of two recent TV series about English monarchs. (I like fiction too.)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Garden of Time: Is There Life on March?

        Is March the most changeable month of the year? 
Is it winter, or is it spring? Is it the month when things are growing? Or the month when it's still snowing? Wheels are turning? Sunsets burning? Will we see bulbs blooming? Or plows prowling? Snow blowing? Wind howling? 
             The top photo was taken earlier this month at the start of one our frequent snow events, before the garden began filling up with snow. I don't know if bulbs, ground cover plants like the Vinca Minor, or anything else is breaking earth, greening up, or growing new leaves, because if they are, they are doing it beneath the layers of snow or ices, accumulating or melting back over the last three weekends.   
            For color we have relied on the feathered flowers of the air, particularly the sharp contrast of red male cardinals against the monochrome white snow days. The second photo down, taken roughly a week ago is an example of the redbird phenomenon. 
             What about other Marches? Last year we were pretty much snow free. The red-tailed hawk, in the third photo, was setting up show in the Quincy shoreline salt marsh, looking for lunch in the increasingly active vernal life of birds, bugs, rodents, squirrels and rabbits. I found the hawk there for weeks. At home in the crocuses, white and violet, were breaking ground, along with the Lenten Rose (Helleborus), shown in the next three photos. 

Two years ago, I took no photos of the garden at all in this putative first month of spring, as I was tired of looking at the snow cover which endured through all of February and March, until the last few days. The photo below the violet crocuses, shows the back garden as it appeared in the first few days of April. Bleak, brown, shorn, severe, with nothing showing of new green. It looked spared down for winter; or like a teenaged boy with a bad haircut.
              The photo beneath that one, taken that same year, shows the first signs of green returning from the earth. Tulips and vinca emerging from the earth. I was clearly desperate to take a photo of something. We were a week or two into April. 
             The year before that, March of 2014, we were visited with enough snow to cool my enthusiasm for signs of spring. I include one photo from March of that year, though not taken in the garden. 
            It was taken on the last day of the month in the sculptural gardens of Paris, actually in the Place de la Concorde. No flowers in this Place, though we found quite a few in the nearby public gardens, but I think a few of the goddesses depicted in this fountain sculpture are standing in for the bounties of nature.  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A New Warning for the Ides of March: Beware the Weather!

           We have had some wicked months of March lately.

            Nobody around here will ever forget March 2015.  Most everybody has already forgotten March 2016.

            Two years ago, while February was the heavy snow accumulation month, the snow hung on the ground all through March because the weather never warmed up.

            Last year, 2016, the "mean temperature" for the month of March was 42.5F with an average high of 50. (Fifty sounds pretty good in these chilly wind days we've been getting used to in March this year,)
            The photo above shows an early spring bloomer, the Lenten Rose (Hellebores) that bloomed in March of 2016.

            In 2015 the mean temperature for the month of March was 33.3. That's a huge difference from last year's 42.5. Two years ago the snow pack sat on the ground refrigerating the air above it. Because the air temps seldom got much above freezing the snow melted very slowly. Because the snow didn't melt, the temperature stayed cool. A vicious cycle.

            Last year's high temp recorded in March was 77F; two years ago, only 57.  
            The second photo, showing the Quincy shoreline, was taken in March of 2015. Not much green in the middle of March in our garden either; nothing blooming, nothing even showing.

            This changeable third month of the year is no longer proving a "comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb" month. It's either an entirely lionish month, or a mostly lamb-like one. (Maybe some Marches will go back to registering somewhere in the middle -- sheepish, let's call them.)

            The lowest temperature recorded in March last year was 21. The lowest in March of 2015 -- 9. With its coastal waters already beginning to warm (except for the old snow we kept dumping into them), Boston recorded a temperature of 9F.

[Data from Weather Warehouse:  http://weather-warehouse.com/WeatherHistory/PastWeatherData_BostonLoganIntLArpt_Boston_MA_March.html]             This year, halfway through March 2017. tomorrow's predicted high is 32 -- not a lot of melting from Tuesday's snow dump to be expected. The historical for the date is 45. That's the way the last 10 days or so have been running -- well below average.
            The first day of march this year produced a high of 63F, 20 degrees over the date's average, and the month hasn't gone anywhere near that since. We've had a high of 58 a week ago, but also a couple of weekend storms, followed by arctic cold fronts, approaching record lows for their dates. Lows of 10 and 9 on the month's first weekend, followed by exactly the same two figures on the second weekend. Also lows of 16, 23, and 14 on Monday night, right before the arrival of Tuesday's blizzard. We're heading back down again.  
            As I write Wednesday night the current temp is 23, with a predicted the overnight low of 17. Tomorrow, March 16, is predicted to warm up to a balmy 32. I don't think the frozen ice-cap on the my driveway will do a whole lot of melting under those conditions. [according to http://www.accuweather.com/en/us/boston-ma/02108/march-weather/348735]

             Given the amount of rain we got with the so-called blizzard that brought lots of wind, the very wet snow we received hardened overnight into un-removable state locally described as "it's a rock." Trapped behind the ice barricade left by the plows, our car was liberated only because neighbors arrived with a classic old-fashioned ice chopper and a heavier metal shovel than I possessed. A steady round of downward chopping created the impression of a three-guy work gang pounding stone. That's one dead metaphor that will come alive for me. 
             The third photo I've posted here is my "calendar shot" so far for March of 2017. I don't know when I'll get to check on the progress of the Lenten Rose.

             In today's newspaper I'm told that, one, we may get another snowfall this weekend. And, two, that overall this turn for the cold is a good thing for farmers and gardeners. According to Eric Fisher writing about weather for the Boston Globe , the record warmth of late February was posing threats to plant vitality.

            Fisher writes: "If the record warmth had stuck around for another four or five days, peach buds would have swelled and more plant life would have surged into action much too early....We may have switched back to winter weather in time to keep everything asleep until the more appropriate late-March to early-April time frame."

             OK. I'm very big on the early spring emergences of late March and early April and can wait another two weeks to enjoy them. Just don't tell me we're going to get another brontosaurus-long winter like the one two years ago any time soon. I have plants, a rhododendron and a boxwood to name two big ones, that will never be the same. And neither, I suspect, will I.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Garden of Verse: The Search for the Truth of America and Other Poetic Journeys

           The prose introduction to Dick Allen's poem "I Was Eighteen" in the March issue of Verse-Virtual is a poem by itself: "So in the summer of 1958, I hitchhiked, train rode, bus rode, and walked about our nation. Ever since, I’ve doubted any truth about America that doesn’t stumble on rural dirt roads and stand under inner-city streetlights."  
          The poetry of names rides along on this villanelle's refrain:
Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska—
           when I was eighteen I hitch-hiked across them,
trying to find out the truth about America.

            I love this poem's candor and expansive innocence. The poet simply hitchhikes across the country "In sunlight and storm" -- imagine your son proposing to do that today? -- asking himself and those he meets for the "truth about America."
            The innocence of the boy -- "But I was eighteen, na├»ve as clam chowder" -- reveals something about the nobility of the quest, and the country in which he pursues it, even if by itself it does not lead to wisdom. In the poem's final stanza that last line becomes:
 they just smiled when I asked them the truth about America.           

            In  the villanelle "So Easily Do Women Weep" by William Greenway, the formal repetitions of the refrain reveal meaning through shades of emphasis. Is the poem truly about how easily women weep, or is it (as the developing stanzas indicate) about what men hide from women? The first stanza foregrounds the alleged ease, and copiousness, of women's tears, and appends the reflection on male tears in a subordinate clause, the second of the two refrains.
So easily do women weep

you wonder why the seas don’t overflow

and though a man may sorrow just as deep

          But the emphasis shifts in later stanzas to: 
the depth of grief we keep

is something she must never know 

so easily do women weep.

            That ease of women's tears turns into men's excuse for keeping their grief unshared. (Face it, guys, we know this is true.)
            Joyce S. Brown's  "Villanelle to a Golfer" turns the form into a dialectic. At the start we learn "To me life seems more Hardy than Voltaire." She stakes out Hardy country by walking through the storm, while the golfer dresses for the links.
            Later, when the golfer exhibits some vulnerability, we learn:
            Now you’ve become more Hardy than Voltaire.
            But at the end poet and golfer are living in the universe after all:
            the dark, the light of Hardy and Voltaire.
            ​ Margaret Hasse's "Divorce Proceedings" modifies the refrain of the antagonistic couples -- "They burn with anger as they slam the door" -- to spell out the necessary corollaries of a couple who, as the poem says, "banish their better angels./ No,
they cannot live the life they had before." Every aspect of their prior life together goes out that slamming door: 
A signed decree and marriage is no more.              
Wedding china, photos, the blue tent—go.

            The final version of the refrain is the necessary conclusion of the "burning anger" we heard about in the first stanza, using most of the same words repurposed:
They can never live the life they had before
everything burned and they closed the door.

             The moral? Don't shut the door on the flexible value of the villanelle. You can read the rest of these poems, and all the others, at http://www.verse-virtual.com/poems-and-articles.html