Natalia Goncharova @ Tate Modern

Major retrospective

This is the UK’s first ever retrospective of the Russian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova. It’s huge, bringing together over 160 international loans which rarely travel, including works from Russia’s State Tretyakov Gallery which houses the largest collection of Goncharova’s work.

The exhibition is imaginatively laid out with some lovely rooms, and it certainly gives you a good sense of her range of styles, not only in painting, but in lithographs, fashion and costume design, especially for modern ballet, posters, pamphlets and much more. But it also leaves you with a few nagging questions…

Peasants Picking Apples by Natalia Goncharova (1911) State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Fabric design

Goncharova was born in Russia in 1881. She grew up on her family’s country estates in Tula province, 200 miles from Moscow. Her family were impoverished aristocrats who made their fortune through textiles, in fact the name of Goncharova’s family estate, Polotnianyi Zavod, means ‘cloth factory’. From early childhood, Goncharova witnessed the rhythms the farmers’ lives – working the land, planting and harvesting – and also became deeply familiar with all the stages of textile production, from shearing sheep to weaving, washing and decorating the fabric.

Hence two threads to her artistic practice:

  1. fabric design, which ran through the 1910s and led to her wonderful designs for the Ballets Russes in the 1920s and 30s, as well as commissions from fashion houses
  2. a profound feel for the rhythms of agricultural labour, which she depicted in a number of early paintings (like Peasants picking apples, above)

The first room epitomises both threads with several paintings showing agricultural labourers, in a highly modernist style, alongside a display case containing an example of the kind of traditional costume worn by the peasant women on Goncharova’s estate.

Installation view of Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern

Cubo-futurism

What comes over is Goncharova’s very quick artistic development from about 1908, when she was doing stylised but essentially traditional paintings of peasant subjects, to 1911 when she had transformed herself into one of the leading lights of the Moscow avant-garde.

Her swift development was helped by two Moscow industrialists – Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin – who had built up extensive art collections of leading European artists such as Cézanne, Gauguin, Picasso and Derain, and made their collections accessible to the public. These French works had an electrifying effect on young Russian avant-garde artists, which was accentuated by news of the new movement of Italian Futurism, which they could read about in international art magazines.

Goncharova swallowed both influences whole and became the leader of what contemporaries came to call Russian ‘cubo-futurism’. Various contemporaries are quoted commenting that she was the leader of the younger generation, not only in painting, but in self-presentation, creating an avant-garde ‘look’, as well as happenings, given walking through Moscow’s streets wearing stylised tribal markings on her face, or involved in volumes of avant-garde poetry published just before the Great War.

A work like Linen from 1913 seems to be a straight copy of Picasso-style cubism, cutting up an everyday domestic scene into fragments and pasting in some text, as if from a newspaper or advertising hoarding. The main differences from a cubist work by Picasso or Braques is that the text is in Russian, and the bright blue is completely unlike the cubist palette of browns and greys.

Linen (1913) by Natalia Goncharova. Tate © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The 1913 exhibition and ‘everythingism’

This exhibition feels logical and well designed, and features at least two particularly striking rooms. The first one is dedicated to recreating the landmark retrospective Goncharova was given in September 1913 at the Mikhailova Art Salon in Moscow. The 19193 show included more than 800 works (!) and was the most ambitious exhibition given to any Russian avant-garde artist up to that date. Goncharova was thirty-two years old.

The curators have brought together thirty big paintings which featured in the 1913 show and created a central column in the style of those circular bulletin boards you get in Paris, on which they have plastered copies of some of the posters and reviews of the original exhibition.

Here we learn that Goncharova’s fellow artist and long-time partner, Mikhail Larionov, invented the term ‘everythingism’ to describe her openness to diverse styles and sources, the way her paintings invoke all kinds of sources from the folk designs of her family farm, through to the latest ideas from Paris and Rome.

Thus the thing which comes over from the 30 or so works in this room is their tremendous diversity. There’s a striking female nude which reminded me of something similar by Matisse, there’s a pipe smoker at a table, a motif familiar from Cézanne, there’s a surprising work which looks like a dappled impressionist painting. It really is a little bit of everything and so ‘everythingism’ seems an accurate label.

You could claim this is as a positive achievement, indeed one of the wall labels praised the lack of ‘hierarchy’ in Goncharova’s diverse styles and I understood what they were getting at. There was the implication that it is somehow masculine to want to be the leader of the avant-garde, at the cutting edge, always one step ahead: and somehow a slave of capitalist or consumer culture to need to create a unique brand or style.

By contrast, Goncharova is praised for her more easygoing, unmasculine and uncapitalist stance – allowing herself to be open and receptive to all kinds of visual approaches, mixing Cézanne with Russian icons, or cubism with peasant designs, or futurism as applied to distinctly Russian cityscapes. She was presented as ‘a universal artist’.

You can see how, at the time, she seemed to contemporaries to be a one-woman explosion of all the latest visual breakthroughs and trends because she was covering so much territory.

The drawback of this approach is that Goncharova risks, in retrospect, appearing to be a Jill of all trades but a mistress of none. Lots of the works in this room were interesting but you found yourself thinking, ah, that’s the cubist influence, that’s the futurism, that’s a touch of Cézanne, and so on. They all had her mark, but not so many seemed entirely her, if that makes sense.

For me the most distinctive work in the room was the series of paintings she called Harvest, which was originally made up of nine large works which were designed to be hung together. Two have gone missing but Tate have hung the other seven together on one wall and the effect is stunning.

Harvest: Angels Throwing Stones on the City (1911) by Natalia Goncharova. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The palette of red, orange and tan runs across all seven paintings and gives them a tremendous visual unity. Also note the highly stylised, almost child-like depiction of the human figure, with simplified arms and legs and big simple eyes. The same big wide white eyes with huge jet black irises which appear in Peasants picking apples. This is maybe her core visual style.

Harvest uses Christian motifs. It was inspired by popular prints and the frescoes in Russian cathedrals and takes its images from the Book of Revelation in which the end of the world is presented as a symbolic harvest with the grapes of human souls being gathered and thrown into the winepress of God’s anger.

All in all, surprisingly religious, unironically religious, for an avant-garde artist. It comes as no surprise to discover that room six of the exhibition is devoted to just her religious paintings, featuring half a dozen enormous works she did on Christian subjects, notably four tall narrow full-length portraits of the four evangelists. I can see the way she has applied her distinctive cubo-futurist style to a very traditional Russian subject – I note her characteristic way with big white eyes – but I didn’t really warm to them.

The Four Evangelists by Natalia Goncharova (1911)

Fashion and design

Room four picks up the theme of Goncharova the fashion designer, showing work commissioned from her by the couturier to the Imperial court, Nadezhda Lamanova, in 1911-12. This room also includes work commissioned from Goncharova after the war by Marie Cuttoli, whose design house Myrbor showcased carpets and fashion designs by famous contemporary artists.

There’s a series of sketches from the 1920s, haute couture-style sketches which make the women subjects look as tubular as a Fairy Liquid bottle, with no hips or waist or bust, which were utterly unlike her modernist paintings, and looked more or less like any other fashion sketches for stick-thin flappers from the Jazz Age.

But on the opposite wall was a piece which I thought might be my favourite from the whole show, a study Goncharova did for a textile design in the later 1920s. I loved the vibrancy of the colours and the primitiveness of the design. In fact it’s only one of a series she did using bird motifs but, to me, it was a standout piece.

Design with birds and flowers – Study for textile design for House of Myrbor 1925-1928 by Natalia Goncharova. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The Great War

In April 1914, Goncharova and Larionov were invited to Paris by the famous ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev to work on designs for his opera-ballet The Golden Cockerel. This was presented in Paris to great acclaim and the pair followed it up with an exhibition. But then the Great War broke out, and both were forced to return to Moscow. Larionov was called up for military service and sent to the front line, was wounded within weeks and invalided out of the army.

Goncharova responded to the crisis by creating a series of prints titled Mystical Images of War which brought together symbols Britain, France and Russia together with images from the Book of Revelation and Russian medieval verse. They use her trademark stylisation of the human face and eyes, and throw in the religious iconography which we’ve by now realised was a big part of her psyche.

The fourteen or so prints on display in room five are a really interesting mix of modern warfare and traditional Orthodox iconography, featuring angels wrestling biplanes, the Virgin Mary mourning fallen soldiers, and the Pale Horse from the Apocalypse. She chose to create prints in order to reach a broad popular audience with what are, essentially, patriotic rallying cries, which also feature patriotic heroes who defended Mother Russia against invaders.

‘Angels and Aeroplanes’ from Mystical Images of War by Natalia Goncharova (1914) © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Books and photos

Room seven is a narrow corridor between the conventionally-shaped rooms six and eight. As in other exhibitions, this corridor makes a good space not to hang works of art, but to place books, pamphlets, photos, prints and posters related to the artist under review, in the long rack of display cases lining the wall.

For this exhibition the curators have displayed artist manifestos, exhibition catalogues and a number of books of poetry which Goncharova was involved in writing or designing or illustrating. The later part of the case displays the ephemera she produced for a series of artists’ balls in Paris, including posters, tickets and programmes. There’s a speaker on the wall from which comes a Russian voice reciting some of the avant-garde poetry included in the pamphlets on display. (It is, apparently zaum or ‘transrational’ poetry, from ‘World Backwards’ by Alexey Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, and Vzorval or ‘Explodity’ also by Kruchenykh.)

Cubo-futurism

Room eight is devoted to another series of cubo-futurist works, highlighting classic Modernist-style depictions of factories and machines and cars and bicycles, all those implements of power and speed which were fetishised by the Italian founder of Futurism, Marinetti.

There are some great pieces here, classic Futurist depictions of machines and factories, a big painting of a bicyclist, another titled Aeroplane over a Train, and a vivid depiction of rowers on the river (which reminded me of the similar treatment given the same subject by Cyril Powers, the British printmaker, twenty years later, as featured in the current exhibition of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art at Dulwich Picture Gallery).

Cyclist (1913) by Natalia Goncharova (1881- 1962) State Russian Museum © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Admirable though many of these paintings were, I began to be nagged or puzzled by something. Usually in a major retrospective, you are shown samples of the artist’s work throughout their career. Goncharova was established as a leader of the Russian avant-garde by the time of her huge exhibition in 1913, and lived on until 1962, producing works well into the 1950s.

So where are they? Where are all the later works? Here we are in room eight of ten and we are still… only at 1913?

The first eight rooms of this ten-room survey have all hovered around the years 1910 to 1914. Nowhere does the exhibition say so explicitly, but are we to conclude from this lack of later content that her golden years were a brilliant but brief period, from 1911 to 1914 or 1915?

Goncharova in Paris

Only in this, the ninth and penultimate room, do we learn what happened to Goncharova as a result of the Russian Revolution, namely that she and Larionov were on a tour with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes through Switzerland, Italy and Spain when the October Revolution broke out. The revolution, and then the civil war, prevented them from returning home, and in 1919 Goncharova moved into a flat in Paris that would remain her home for the rest of her life.

This penultimate room contains half a dozen works from the 1920s during which Goncharova received more commissions for ballet costume, some from fashion houses (as mentioned earlier) and a few funky commissions for interior design, including an impressive painted screen made in 1928 for the American patron Rue Winterbotham Carpenter. She did the interior designs for the Paris house of Serge Koussevitsky, exploring the motif of the Spanish Lady on a monumental scale.

When she had accompanied the Ballet Russe in Spain, Goncharova had become fascinated by the clothes of the Spanish women she saw, and ‘the Spanish woman’ became a recurring motif in her inter-war years, maybe because the vividness and ethnic distinctiveness of the outfits reminded her of the Russian peasant look she knew so well.

By far the most impressive work was a huge abstract work titled Bathers from 1922. It is immense, at least fifteen feet across, and reminded me of all kinds of other modernist abstract painters though I couldn’t quite put my fingers on who. First time it’s ever been exhibited in the UK and a coup for the exhibition organisers.

Bathers by Natalia Goncharova (1922)

Ballet designs

Anyway, the point remains – why isn’t there more of her work from the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s? You might have expected the last room in the show to cover the later part of her career but, instead, the exhibition takes an unexpected detour to make this final room, arguably the best in the exhibition.

It is a big space which has been specially darkened to create an atmospheric setting in which to review Goncharova’s work for the ballet and the theatre. Lining the walls are drawings and sketches for costumes Goncharova designed for productions of The Golden Cockerel (Rimsky-Korsakoff) and Les Noces (Stravinsky). There are some videos of her costumes and backdrops being used in revivals of the ballets, The Golden Cockerel footage is a silent but colour film of a production dressed in Goncharova’s costumes which toured Australia in the late 1930s.

But the highlights of the room are four or five of the actual costumes themselves, the costumes Goncharova designed for these classic ballet productions, which are featured in display cases around the room. They are all wonderfully bright and imaginative, drawing on the (to us) exotic and fanciful traditions of Russian legend and folklore.

Theatre costume for Sadko (1916) by Natalia Goncharova. Victoria and Albert Museum, London © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

And, last but not least, the room is filled with music, with clips from the famous ballet scores in question, wonderful Russian melodies filling the air as you stroll from wonderful costume to fascinating set designs, or stop to watch footage of actual performances using Goncharova’s colourful and vivid costumes.

The music, the darkened atmosphere, the videos of performances, and the glass cases of costumes – all make this room completely unlike the previous nine and a very evocative space to be in.

Summary

This is a major exhibition by a leading Russian artist who, for a period before the Great War, epitomised the avant-garde for her compatriots. She produced a lot of striking paintings, as well as pioneering designs for ballet costumes and sets, and a wealth of prints and posters and pamphlets and poetry books.

And yet I was left with two nagging questions: first, from such a profusion of images and designs, not that much really rang my bell. A lot of it was striking and thought-provoking and interesting – but possibly only the design with birds and flowers really set me alight.

The stylised human figures with those big eyes is the nearest Goncharova comes to having a recognisable ‘look’ and I liked it, but only up to a point. I actively disliked its application to the icons and evangelists and wasn’t, at the end of the day, that taken with the Great War prints, either.

Comparison with Käthe Kollwitz

Great War prints by a woman artist made me think of the epic prints created by the German woman artist Käthe Kollwitz. These are infinitely more powerful. Comparing the two made me think that maybe Goncharova was held back by her attachment to the Russian Orthodox tradition and its Christian iconography. Kollwitz, by contrast, has broken free of all traditional or religious straitjackets in order to create spartan images of humanity under stress which still speak to us today with horrifying force.

The Survivors by Käthe Kollwitz (1923)

Then again, maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges. Goncharova’s works were created at the very start of the war, when it was thought of as a religious crusade, and everyone thought it would be over by Christmas. Whereas Kollwitz’s haunting images were made nearly ten years later after not only bitter defeat, but collapse of the German state and descent into semi-civil war. So it’s not a fair comparison at all. But you can see why, if you set the two side by side – as we latecomers a hundred years later are able to – Kollwitz’s images are vital, a necessary record of a horrifying period; whereas Goncharova’s are an interesting and nice inclusion in a retrospective of her work, but have nowhere near the same importance or force.

Where is the later work?

And second, where was the work from the later years? Are we to deduce from its almost complete absence from this exhibition, that the curators consider Goncharova’s work from the 1930s, 40s and 50s to be poor or sub-standard? Or is it for some reason hard to borrow and assemble for an exhibition like this?

As far as I could see, the only work dating from either the 1940s or 1950s was one medium-size set design for Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, which Goncharova drew in 1954.

Set design for the final scene of The Firebird by Natalia Goncharova (1954) Victoria and Albert Museum, London © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

I thought this was brilliant, vivid and fun, in a completely different style from everything which preceded it, like a highly stylised illustration for a children’s book. So is this what Goncharova’s work from the 1950s looked like?

Having devoted eight or so rooms to going over with a fine tooth comb the intricacies of her output from 1911 to 1915 or so, it’s a shame we didn’t get at least one room telling us what happened to her style in the entire last thirty years of her career.

Video

‘Visiting London Guide’ produce handy two-minute video surveys of all London’s major exhibitions. I include them in my blog because they give you an immediate sense of what the exhibition looks like.

Curators

Natalia Goncharova is curated by Natalia Sidlina, Curator of International Art, and Matthew Gale, Head of Displays, with Katy Wan, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995) Notes on the Introduction

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics selected by medieval scholar Thomas G. Duncan. He converted each of them into the south-east England dialect of Chaucer (in my opinion, a highly questionable thing to do), printing them in a format designed to help the reader with pronunciation, giving line-by-line glosses to the meaning of tough words or phrases, with extensive notes on the meaning and imagery of each poem at the back of the book.

Duncan makes a number of interesting points in the introduction, which I wanted to note and remember:

The twelfth century

The twelfth century was the watershed between the heroic warrior code of the Anglo-Saxon world and the chivalrous knightly code of the later Middle Ages

The twelfth century saw the rise of pilgrimages and crusades (First Crusade 1095-99), commercial expansion, ecclesiastical change and revival of the church, flourishing of cathedral schools and the emergence of universities (Bologna 1088, Oxford 1096, Salamanca 1134, Cambridge 1209, Padua 1222, Naples 1224, Toulouse 1229, Siena 1240) Gothic architecture (pioneered at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, near Paris, whose choir was reconstructed with Gothic rib vaults and large stained glass windows between 1140 and 1144).

1. Courtly love and love lyrics

The twelfth century also saw the flourishing and spread of the poetry of courtly love pioneered by the troubadors in the south of France in the period from about 1100 to 1150. The feudal concept of service to a male lord was converted into the idea of service to a lady in the name of love. The troubadors took the idea to extremes, claiming in their poems that service to the Lady was the only thing that made life worth living, while her disdain and scorn made a man want to die.

Most of the love lyrics before Chaucer (active 1360-1400) survive in just one manuscript – MS. Harley 2253 in the British Library. Duncan repeats this fact in another form at the end of the introduction, namely, that if this one manuscript had not survived, then we would have lost half the lyrics – and often the best ones – from the entire Middle Ages before Chaucer. The contingency, the slenderness of fate by which these beautiful things happen to have survived… we live in a world of accidental survivals, chance remnants…

The thirty-five love lyrics in his selection use many of the tropes of courtly love but are distinct from real troubador poetry for the following reason: troubador poetry was often intensely intellectual, its poets developing highly sophisticated philosophical concepts of different types of ‘love’. The English lyrics Duncan includes are much less demanding, much more formulaic, because made for public declamation or performance.

They make use of stock ideas: the lover sighs, lies awake at night, feels condemned to death, and pleads for mercy. The lady shines, her hair is golden, her neck is long, her waist slender.

These ideas are expressed in stock phrases, often alliterative indicating their deepness in the language and tradition: the lady is a ‘byrde in a bower’, ‘brightest under bis’, ‘geynest under gore’ and ‘beste among the bolde’. Ladies are sometimes described through elaborate comparisons, often with flowers or precious stones.

Heo is coral of godnesse;
Heo is rubie of ryhtfulnesse;
Heo is cristal of clannesse;
Ant baner of bealte.
Heo is lilie of largesse;
Heo is paruenke of prouesse;
Heo is solsecle of suetnesse,
Ant ledy of lealte.

She is coral of goodness;
She is ruby of uprightness;
She is crystal of chastity;
And banner of beauty.
She is lily of generosity;
She is periwinkle of excellence;
She is marigold of sweetness,
And lady of loyalty.

They do not philosophise or argue. Because they are songs meant to be sung to an audience, the pleasure derives not from the novelty of the thought, but from the familiarity of the tropes and similes

Some of the love poems are in a genre pioneered by trouvère poets of northern France, the chanson d’aventure which opens with the narrator out riding when he comes across… something or more usually someone, most often a pretty young maiden.

Als I me rode this endre dai
O my pleyinge,
Seih icche hwar a littel mai
Bigan to singe

As I went riding the other day
for my pleasure
I saw where a little maiden
Began to sing.

Or:

Ase y me rod this ender day
By grene wod to seche play
mid herte y thoghte al on a may
surest of all thinge…

As I rode out the other day
By a green wood to seek pleasure
with my heart I was thinking about a  maid
sweetest of all things…

The pastourelle is sub-set of the chanson d’aventure in which the poet encounters a maiden who is sad or pining for love or loss, and proceeds to offer her ‘comfort’. Duncan points out that, in all forms of the chanson d’aventure, the fact that the poet is riding a horse emphasises his knightly or noble status, and also confers a social – and physical – advantage over the poor helpless maiden that he meets.

The reverdie is an old French poetic genre, which celebrates the arrival of spring. Literally, it means ‘re-greening’. Often the poet will encounter Spring, symbolized by a beautiful woman. Originating in the troubadour ballads of the early Middle Ages, reverdies were very popular during the time of Chaucer. they occur in numerous poems, both as a central conceit or metaphor or as preparatory description leading into the main poem. For example, the extended description of the joys of spring in ‘Lenten is come with love to toun’.

Lenten ys come with loue to toune,
With blosmen ant with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth.
Dayeseyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales,
Vch foul song singeth.
The threstelcoc him threteth oo;
Away is huere wynter wo
When woderoue springeth.
This foules singeth ferly fele
Ant wlyteth on huere [wynne] wele
That al the wode ryngeth.

Translation

Spring has arrived, with love,
With flowers, and with birdsong,
Bringing all this joy.
Daisies in the valleys,
The sweet notes of nightingales,
Every bird sings a song.
The thrush is constantly wrangling;
Their winter misery is gone
When the woodruff flowers.
These birds sing in great numbers,
And chirp about their wealth of joys,
So that all the wood rings.

In fact it’s important to realise that the poets of the day intensively categorised and formalised all the types and subject matters of their poems, gave them names, and then did their best to excel each other at a particular type, or to ring changes on it. Duncan mentions other genres such as:

  • the chanson de mal-mariée, a song expressing the grievances of an unhappy wife, traditional in northern and southern France and Italy, reflecting the social reality of customary male dominance
  • the song of the betrayed maiden, who has been made pregnant and abandoned
  • the chanson des transformations in which the wooed lady imagines transforming into all sort of animals and birds to escape her lover (who often imagines changing into the predator of each of her imagined animals, in order to capture her)

Duncan’s selection of love lyrics ends with half a dozen poems by Chaucer or in his style. There is an immediate change in tone, style and form from what went before. Chaucer was a highly sophisticated poet, attendant on the court of Richard II, who had travelled to Italy and knew the leading poets of Italy and France.

Instead of anonymous and stock situations, Chaucer names specific individuals. Whereas the earlier lyrics were made to be sung and so use stock phrases and familiar ideas, Chaucer’s poems were meant to be recited to a courtly audience which delighted in picking up personal and learned references. Whereas the earlier lyrics are often simple in form, Chaucer’s tend to be far more wordy, and composed in complex rhyme schemes copied from his French contemporaries e.g. so-called rhyme royal in which each stanza consists of seven lines rhyming ababbcc. Chaucer’s poetry is far more wordy, learned and urbane than anything which went before.

2. Penitential and moral lyrics

Duncan contrasts lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer with some of the medieval penitential poems. In the former the sense of desolation is complete. The great hall, the brave warriors, the fire and the feasting have all completely disappeared and the poet is left embattled and alone in a friendless world.

Gemon he selesecgas ond sincþege,
hu hine on geoguðe his goldwine
wenede to wiste wyn eal gedreas!

He remembers hall-warriors and the giving of treasure
How in youth his lord (gold-friend) accustomed him
to the feasting – All the joy has died!

Later the Wanderer speaks a famous lament which gave its name to the whole genre, ‘Where are…?’ he asks about the trappings of lordship and power, which came to be known as the ‘ubi sunt?’ the Latin phrase for ‘where are the…?’

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga! Eala þeodnes þrym!
Hu seo þrag gewat, genap under nihthelm,
swa heo no wære…

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup! Alas for the mailed warrior! Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away, dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been…

As you can see, it is an apocalyptic vision of the complete destruction of a society.

By contrast the medieval lyrics are much more sophisticated and often much more personal. The whole world hasn’t been destroyed, it lives on but – for the purposes of his lament – the poet may point to the fall of powerful kings, the downfall of the rich and mighty, or his own calamities, or just a general sense that, no matter how bright and shiny, all life ends with death. This is embodied in the ubiquitous image of Fortune’s Wheel, ever turning, ever raising up the hopeful and bringing down the mighty.

Duncan points to a poem from his period which literally uses the ubi sunt formula, but manages – paradoxically – to convey a sense of the wonderful wealth and courtliness of the world the poet is describing.

Where ben they bifore us were,
Houndës ladde and hawkës bere,
And haddë feld and wode?
The richë ladies in here bour
That wered gold in here tressour
With here brighte rode?

The second really big difference is that, although the Anglo-Saxon poems make reference to God and the Almighty, they don’t really give much sense of Christian theology, of a Christian worldview. By contrast the medieval poems have fully incorporated Christian theology and terminology and so the standard lament for falls, declines and ageing, are confidently and beautifully mingled with references to death, judgement, sin and punishment, hell and damnation and so on.

Once again, as in the love lyrics section, the final poems are by Chaucer and of an altogether different level of sophistication, as befits one writing for the court, for the most learned and sophisticated audience in the country. The poems themselves are much chunkier, fuller, the lines are longer and there are more of them. Here’s the opening stanza of The Balade de Bon Conseyl in rhyme royal (ababbcc).

Flee fro the prees, and dwelle with sothefastness;
Suffyse unto thy thing though it be smal,
For hord hath hate and clymbyng tykelness,
Prees hath envye and wele blent overal.
Savour no more thanne thee byhove shal,
Ruele wel thiself that other folk canst rede,
And trouth thee shall delyvere, it is no drede.

Chaucer’s tone is immensely urbane and worldly wise. He is never hectoring or angst-ridden as some of medieval penitential writing is.

3. Devotional lyrics

Duncan explains that the eleventh century saw a revolution in Christian theology and sensibility. Previous theories of the atonement focused on the notion that God and the Devil were like two feudal lords fighting over the world. Man had mistakenly given his allegiance to the Devil who therefore acquired the rights of a medieval lord over his vassal. God couldn’t abrogate those rights and so resorted to a cunning plan. He sent his son down to earth as a man. The agents of the Devil, denying his divinity, crucified him, but this was a mistake because based on a wrong conception of Christ’s nature and his legal rights. The Devil, in effect, got his law wrong, and this enabled God to reclaim man as his vassal.

You can see how extraordinarily legalistic this conception is. According to Duncan, during the 11th century the theologian Saint Anselm presented a completely new theology of the atonement. In this view Man, by disobeying God, incurred the penalty of Death. Christ volunteered to become a man and pay the penalty in Man’s place.

Thus the story changes from a rather dry and legalistic story to become one which emphasises the humanity of Christ, and which dwells not on legalistic terminology, but instead on the blood, sweat and tears, the suffering and agony of the man Jesus. It is this tremendous humanising of the Jesus story which comes to dominate later medieval sensibility. Duncan quotes the great medievalist R.W. Southern for the Cistercian monks for spreading what became a great flood of sensibility and tenderness.

The tenderness is reflected in a host of topoi or standard subjects, for example the sweetness of knowing Jesus and loving him, and the devotion and motherly love of Mary, a figure which also came to dominate later medieval religiosity. Many of the poems describe the sweetness of the love between mother and child, several of them in the form of lullabies, but lullabies touched with the infinite sadness that we know what the fate of the sweet little babe will be.

Lullay, lullay, little grom [lad, boy]
King of allë thingë,
When I think of thee mischief
Me list wel litel sing [I have very little wish to sing]

Another standard topos was to consider Mary standing at the foot of the cross looking up at her dying son. Sometime in the 13th century a Latin poem, the Stabat Mater, was written on this subject and would go on to be set to music by numerous composers. A number of poems in this selection depict this scene, but Duncan singles out the extraordinary ‘Why have ye no routhe’ because in it Mary appears to turn on her son’s persecutors with real anger.

Why have ye no routhe on my child? [pity]
Have routhe on me ful of mourning;
Tak doun o rode my derworth child [rode = cross]
Or prik me o rode with my derling! [nail me up]

More pine ne may me ben y-don [more hurt cannot be done me]
Than lete me live in sorwe and shame;
As love me bindëth to my sone,
So let us deyen bothe y-same. [both die together]

Many poems use sophisticated techniques to achieve deceptively simple effects and Duncan points to the common use of anaphora i.e. the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. But in among the longer, more calculating poems, you keep coming across short ones which possess a proverbial, primeval power.

Now goth sonne under wode,
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Now goth sonne under tre,
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.

Now goes the sun behind the wood
I grieve, Mary, for your fair face.
Now goes the sun behind the tree.
I grieve, Mary, thy son and thee.

4. Miscellaneous lyrics

These are the most ‘Chaucerian’ of the four categories because the least to do with elaborate courtliness or Christian worship, and instead describe more everyday subjects such as imprisonment, poverty, exploitation, bribery and corruption as well as wit and humour. They also tend to be the longest and most rambling. Duncan singles out ‘Ich herde men upon mold’, a long lament by a farmer oppressed by the endless taxes of the mighty, and describes the harsh taxes, the cruel weather and the petty officials of the manor including the ‘hayward’ (who was responsible for maintaining the fences which separated the common land from enclosed land), the ’bailiff’ (who administered the lord’s land and upheld his rights in law), the ‘woodward’ (who was in charge of forests and forest timber) and the ‘beadle’ (who worked under the authority of the bailiff, here acting as a tax-collector.

The previous three sections – the love poetry and the devotional verse – tend to focus on the individual and his laments over Fortune’s Wheel or his emotional response to Jesus and Mary. In these longer ballads and poems we re-encounter the broader social world in which those feelings took place. Here are the first two stanzas:

Ich herde men upon mold
make muche mon
Hou he ben y-tened
of here tilyinge
Gode yeres and corn
bothe ben a-gon
Ne kepen here no sawe
ne no song singe.

Now we mote werche
nis ther non other won
May ich no lengere
live with my lesinge
Yet ther is a bitterer
bit to the bon
For ever the ferthe peni
mot to the kinge.

Translated:

I hear men upon earth
make much moan
how they are harassed
in their farming
good years and corn-crops
both have gone
they care to hear no tales
nor no song sing.

Now we must work
there is no other choice
may I no longer
live with my losses
Yet there is a bitterer
cut to the bone
for every fourth penny
must go to the king.

This is poignant to read in the context of Dan Jones’s history of the Plantagenet kings which I’ve just finished. Jones shows all the rulers of England, without exception, repeatedly, year after year, mulcting and taxing, fleecing and extorting money from their entire kingdoms, again and again imposing draconian taxes, to fund their violent and generally futile foreign wars.

It’s easy to get blasé about this history and to concentrate solely on the political consequences of monarchs overtaxing their realms. A poem like this redresses the balance and, in the absence of so much information about people’s ordinary lives and livelihoods, amounts to important – and baleful – social history.

Luminarium

If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.

There’s also a PDF of medieval lyrics, carols and ballads, which Duncan seems to have been involved in publishing and translating.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995)

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics along with an extensive introduction explaining their historical and cultural context and explaining the rhyme scheme, scansion and pronunciation of the poems. Each work benefits from a ‘crib’ or translation of obscure phrases which is on the same page as the text, and extensive notes on each poem at the back of the book.

The pronunciation

First the pronunciation. In the following short poem ‘i’ is pronounced like a long ‘e’ as in leave so ‘miri’ is pronounced like mini except with an r in the middle and ‘while’ is pronounced weelë. ‘Sumer’ is soomer, the ‘i’ in ‘i-last’ is ee. The extra ‘e’ on the end of many words is generally voiced which is why Duncan prints it as ‘ë’ to remind the reader to pronounce it. ‘Ou’ is pronounced oo, so ‘foulës’ is pronounced foolës. Gh is like loch in Scottish. So ‘night’ is pronounced with an ‘i’ as in lit or sin and the ‘gh’ sounding as in loch, to make it sound like the German word nicht. ‘Ich’ is pronounced itch, ‘michel’ sounds like mitchell. A’s are short as in cat.

Miri it is while sumer i-last
With foulës song;
Oc now neghëth windës blast
And weder strong.
Ei, ei, what this night is long,
And Ich with wel michel wrong
Sorwe and murne and fast.

So a phonetic version would go something like this:

Mirry it is weel soomer eelast
with foolës song
oc noo neiyeth windës blast
and weder strong.
Ei, ei, wat this nicht is long,
and ich with wel mitchell wrong
sorwe and mourne and fast.

You can make out the pronunciation in this medieval setting of the poem.

‘Mirie it is’ on the Luminarium website

Read out loud

As to the meaning, well, when I studied Middle English (and Anglo-Saxon) at university I found it was best to read the poetry aloud, over and over again, to get the pronunciation and rhythms and sounds into your mouth and mind for some time before worrying about the ‘meaning’.

The kind of crib Duncan provides – i.e. not a full translation into modern English, but just picking the hardest words or phrases and suggesting a meaning – helps because it is fragmentary and doesn’t swamp the poem with a full modern version but just guides you in interpreting some of the original medieval words.

This is one of the appeals of medieval poetry, that it speaks to us before we completely understand what it means and, even after we’ve read modern translations and ‘cribs’, it still says something more than a literal translation into modern English can do.

Thus Duncan helps by pointing out in his glosses that ‘i-last’ means lasts, ‘foulës song’ means birds’ song, ‘oc’ means ‘but’, ‘neigheth’ means ‘draws near’, ‘wat’ means ‘how’ (so the line means ‘how this night is long’), and – most suggestively – that ‘with wel michel wrong’ means ‘for very great wrong doing’…

Given these clues, the reader is forced to reread the poem and assimilate these new meanings to the lines. In effect, to begin to learn Middle English. Compare and contrast the effort required and the reward of trying to understand a different language, with simply swamping your mind with a brisk modern translation:

Merry it is while summer lasts with the song of birds;
but now draws near the wind’s blast and harsh weather.
Alas, Alas! How long this night is! And I, most unjustly,
sorrow and mourn and fast.

In my opinion all the power and mystery is lost in this or any modern translation. How much more powerful, mysterious and interesting (and difficult to scan) it is to say:

and ich with wel mickle wrong

than it is to say:

And I, most unjustly

If one of the purposes of poetry is to refresh the language, or our understanding and use of language, this can be done far more quickly and deeply by learning just one medieval lyric which transports you to a different universe, than by listening to a hundred rap songs which merely entrench you deeper and deeper into the baleful, violent present.

Scansion

Another cause of uncertainty, mystery and pleasure is the odd scansion of most of the lines. Some of them fall right into our modern-day feel for iambic pentameters and regular rhythms. But others just don’t. Duncan has a long essay explaining the scansion i.e. how the rhythm of the poems is made up of the emphases which should – in theory – be given to different vowels, consonants, or words which start lines or words which end them.

For example, it’s important to realise that Middle English had far more words ending in ‘e’ than we do and that sometimes the ‘e’ was voiced but sometimes it wasn’t. It is generally voiced before a consonant but if a vowel begins the next word, elided into that vowel and so not distinctly sounded.

This is why Duncan sometimes prints ‘e’ with a diaeresis over it – ë – when it is to be pronounced – as in ‘foolës song’ – but otherwise leaves the e plain, when it is to be elided into the following vowel to create just one syllable instead of two – ‘Sorwe and murne and fast’ where the e’s on the end of sorwe and murne blend into the a of the following and.

But – in practice – as Duncan admits, many of the poems seem to ignore these rules or to only obey them erratically. No manual or criticism or explanation survives by contemporaries to explain the thinking behind rhythm and syllables and beats, so scholars have had to reconstruct ‘the rules’ six or seven hundred years after the poems were written and there is still a lot of debate because whichever rules you devise, you can immediately find examples which seem to break them.

All this adds to the sense of mild challenge about the poems and forces you to read and reread each one until you think you’ve got the correct rhythm.

Music

And finally, all the poems were in fact lyrics, designed to be set to music and this music – genuinely medieval music – worked according to rules and values most of us find strange, lacking the basic ideas of a dominant key and a structured progression through related chords with the voice picking out melodies from the chord progressions. Instead, in medieval music, the voice was its own master, far less constrained by ideas of harmony and chord progression.

This is particularly true of a solo vocal rendition, as of ‘Wynter wakeneth’ which I quote below. In this instrumental version of ‘Miri it is’, there is a strong sense of rhythm which rides over the doubts and uncertainties you get from just reading the words.

For example, they sing just one ‘ei’ whereas the presence of two ‘eis’ in the original is one of the complicating factors in trying to scan that line. As so often in musical settings of a poem, the composer / performer just ignores the problems of scansion in order to produce a smooth product.

Amended spelling

I am intrigued that the singers in this performance pronounce the word Duncan has given as ‘sorwe’ as ‘sorrich’. This is because they have spelt it ‘soregh’ and not ‘sorwe’ which brings us to a big point.

In this edition Duncan has made the big editorial decision to change the spelling of all the poems in his collection to ‘bring them into conformity’ with the dialect of south-east England. During this period – 1200 to 1400 – there were many distinct regional variations of English, complete with different grammar, spelling and vocabulary. Duncan says he has brought all the spellings into line with the dialect of south-east England – or London – because that is the Middle English of Chaucer and so the version which most of his readers are likely to be familiar with.

I think this is a controversial decision. On the whole I think I would like to be in possession of what the medieval scribes actually wrote than a cleaned-up version which Duncan thinks will be easier for me to read and understand. I don’t want it to be easy. I want it to be accurate and faithful.

There’s a fascinating article devoted to this very song:

which contains a photo of the one and only surviving manuscript of the song (complete with stave lines indicating the note to be sung over each word).

Manuscript of Miri it is

Immediately you can see that the first word is a) missing the initial M b) is written [M]irie, not ‘miri as Duncan gives us. This is a vast difference. The article suggests it should be pronounced with three syllables: mi-ree-e (the last e pronounced as in web). That’s a hell of a difference from the two syllables of Duncan’s ‘miri’.

Similarly, on the second line you can quite clearly see that what Duncan has given as ‘foulës song’ is in fact written ‘fugheles song’. They both mean birds’ song, but Duncan has changed the northern dialect word fughel to the word Chaucer would use, ‘fowl or foul’.

I don’t want to be churlish, but I object to this. 1. I prefer to know what the scribe actually wrote and 2. fugheles quite obviously has three syllables unlike ‘foulës’. Or at least there is a flicker of hesitation over the ‘ughe’ which has been removed by turning it onto ‘ou’.

(Also, as explained, none of the originals have the diaeresis over the e – ë – because that is an entirely Duncan invention, put in hte poems to help the reader with the correct pronunciation.)

In other words, any effort made trying to scan Duncan’s version is effort wasted, or led astray, by the fact that he doesn’t print the words of the actual poem! The online article I’ve referred to gives this as the poem’s correct, unexpurgated text:

[M]Irie it is while sumer ilast
with fugheles song
oc nu necheth windes blast
and weder strong.
Ei ei what this nicht is long
And ich with wel michel wrong.
Soregh and murne and [fast].

(Note that the final word, ‘fast’, is not included in the text as we have it, but is a guess by all succeeding editors.)

Conclusion

Study of this one short poem suggests an approach to Duncan’s entire book which is:- to use it to ramble and surf and browse through the wonderful world of medieval lyrics, to let yourself be caught and captivated by individual poems and work with Duncan’s cribs and read up his notes on each one…

But then to use the wonders of the internet to search for the actual original text of each poem, and to get to know that and not the bowdlerised version Duncan has confected for us.

I sing of a mayden

One hundred and thirty-two is a lot of poems and they range from short seven-liners like the above, to the five short stanzas of a classic like ‘I sing of a mayden’, to much longer, wordier, and more complex poems, poems with elaborate refrains such as ‘Alysoun’, or even dialogue poems where alternate verses are spoken by characters.

‘I sing of a mayden’ is a favourite among fans of this period and has been set to music by many modern composers. Duncan’s version is:

I syng of a mayden
that is makëles:
King of alle kingës
to her sone she chees.

He cam also styllë
ther his moder was
As dewe in Aprylle
that fallëth on the gras.

He cam also styllë
to his moderës bowr
As dew in Aprille
that falleth on the flour.

He cam also stillë
ther his moder lay
As dewe in Aprille
that fallëth on the spray.

Moder and mayden
was never non but she:
Wel may swych a lady
Godës moder be!

It appeals:

  • because of the short simplicity of the lines
  • because of the repetition of the three central verses which vary only the rhyme words was/gras, bowr/flowr, lay/spray
  • because of the sweet innocent purity of the floral imagery
  • and because of the way the simplicity, repetition and natural imagery convey an immensely gentle, sweet and loving relationship between Mary and her beloved son

Does it need translating? As mentioned, Duncan has already bowdlerised it a little, converting the original ‘þ’ into modern ‘th’, and adding his diaeresis e’s to clarify pronunciation and emphasis. The original version of the first two verses reads:

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,
kyng of alle kynges
to here sone che ches.

He came also stylle
þer his moder was
as dew in aprylle,
þat fallyt on þe gras.

You can feel the rhythm and the meaning, cant you, but your mind just needs guiding and supporting at a few of the more obscure moments, and this is the merit of Duncan’s ‘cribs’ i.e. printing the meaning of some of the more obscure terms on the same page as the poem. Thus you need to know that ‘makeles’ means ‘matchless’, ‘ches’ means ‘chose’ and that ‘þ’ is pronounced as ‘th’ as in this or that. Once you know that you’re away!

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless,
King of all kings
For her son she chose.

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falls on the grass.

He came as still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April
That falls on the flower.

He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falls on the spray.

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.

As to pronunciation, key points would be that ‘makeles’ is not pronounced like modern ‘make’, but mack-e-less, and that maiden is pronounced my-den. Again, once you’ve grasped its meaning and a feel for the pronunciation, how much cooler and slicker it is to say:

Moder and maiden
Was neverë noon but she

Than:

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;

Just as it is cooler and slicker to refer to someone’s savoir faire than to their ‘knowledge of how to do things properly’. Learning Middle English is like learning another language which 1. is not, at the end of the day, that difficult because so much of it is similar, sometimes identical, to modern English, and 2. you don’t have to learn well enough to have conversations in it, just well enough to begin to have a feel for the words and phrases, enough of a feel to bring these magical poems to life.

Rhythm and repetition

These two poems epitomise one aspect of Middle English, its ability to make brief, punchy phrases pregnant with meaning:

[M]irie it is while sumer ilast

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,

But ‘mayden’ also highlights the ability of what are, for the most part, songs made to be sung, to use repetition with variation to create beautiful rhythms. (In this example remember ‘bounden’ is pronounced ‘boonden’.)

Adam lay ybounden
bounden in a bond,
fowre thousand winter
thoughte he not too long;

And al was for an appil
an appil that he took,
As clerkes finden writen
writen in hire book.

Ne hadde the apple taken ben
the apple taken ben,
Ne hadde nevere Oure Lady
ybeen hevene Quen.

Blessed be the time
that appil taken was:
Therfore we mown singen
Deo Gratias.

Even if you’re not sure what ‘Adam lay ybounden, bounden in a bond’ exactly means, it’s not hard to 1. get a feel for the nice rhythm of the thing and 2. get the gist of the meaning – that Adam paid dearly for his original sin of eating the forbidden appil, and defying God’s ordinance, and triggering the Fall of Man.

But all’s well that ends well, because if that appil had never been taken, there would have been no need for Christ to have been conceived and born and crucified to redeem us all, in which case there would have been no Virgin Mary, and imagine the world without the Virgin Mary! No, it can’t be done!

And therefore Adam lying bounden in a bond is a small price to pay for having the Mother of God reigning in heaven to guard over us poor sinners and hear our prayers.

(Duncan’s note explains that in medieval theology, Adam was supposed to have remained in bonds with the other patriarchs in the limbus patrum from the time of his death until the crucifixion of Christ, and that this was estimated to have lasted four thousand winters.)

There’s something immensely powerful in the way the entire theology of the Christian religion, with its vast holy books and thousands of theologians, can all be compressed down into this simple carol, whose well-chosen repetitions can all be sung in less than a minute, and bring great spiritual and psychological reassurance.

The literary critic John Spiers makes the acute point that part of the poem’s appeal is the way the idea flows so naturally. ‘The doctrine of the song is perfectly orthodox… but here is expressed very individually and humanly. The movement of the song reproduces very surely the movements of a human mind.’

I think of Shakespeare with his colourful conceits, of John Donne with his far-fetched similes or John Milton with his heavy Latinate tread. Compared to all those later poets, this poem flows as simply but as profoundly as a fairy tale.

Four categories

Duncan divides his book up into four categories:

  • Love Lyrics
  • Penitential and Moral Lyrics
  • Devotional Lyrics
  • Miscellaneous Lyrics

In the modern, post-romantic world almost all the poetry and certainly all the songs we are subjected to are about worldly love. Another appeal of medieval poetry is the way it transports you beyond the limits and clichés of modern poetry to an entirely different world, which had different priorities and perspectives.

Some of the love poetry has a familiar feel, and Duncan makes the point that it was during this period that the notion of courtly love, of romantic love for a powerful and demanding mistress which originated among the troubadours of the South of France, first entered English culture. He goes on to make fine distinctions between the highly sophisticated and deliberately intellectual poetry of the troubadours and the more relaxed, more sensuous love poems to be found in medieval England.

The frailty of man’s estate

But personally, I never get tired of the central medieval theme of the decline and fall, the turn of Fortune’s wheel, the inevitable decay of all earthly success, wealth and love, the frailty of man’s estate, and so liked the section of Penitential and Moral Lyrics most. Take ‘Wynter wakeneth’. Here’s Duncan’s made-easy version.

Wynter wakenëth al my care,
Nou this levës waxeth bare.
Ofte I sike and mournë sare
When hit comth in my thought
Of this worldës joie hou hit goth al to nought.

Here’s the original text:

Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare.
Ofte y sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.

Remembering medieval pronunciation, here’s my phonetic interpretation:

Winter whackeneth Al me ca [a as in car]-rë
Noo this lay-vës waxeth ba[a as in bar]rë
Ofte ee sick ant mournë sa[a as in saab]re
When hit comëth in mee thocht
Of this worldës joy, hoo hit goth Al to noght.

Once you’ve got the pronunciation right and rolled it round your mouth a few times, it shouldn’t take much translating; you just need to know that that ‘leves’ means leaves, ‘waxeth’ means grow, ‘y’ means I, ‘sike’ (pronounced sick, the final e elided into the a of ant) means sigh, ‘sare’ means sore or sorely or bitterly, ‘goth’ means goeth i.e. goes. Thus a modernisation would read:

Winter wakens all my grief,
Now these leaves grow bare.
Often I sigh and sorely mourn,
When it enters my thoughts,
Regarding this world’s joy,
how it all comes to nothing.

But once you’ve really processed and absorbed the meaning, how much smoother and more musical it is to say:

Wynter wakëneth al me care

which is strange and far more invigorating, than:

Winter wakens all my grief

Which is boring.

Wele and wo

The poems describing spring and maidens and love and flowers and bowers contain sweet simple imagery, dance along with gladsome rhythms, and have been turned into songs of striking happiness and joy.

Lenten ys come with love to toune,
With blosmen & with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth;
Dayes eyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales;
Uch foul song singeth.

Translated:

Spring has come with love to town,
With blossoms and with birds’ song
Which all that this bliss bringeth;
Daisies in these dales,
Notes sweet of nightingales;
Each bird his song singeth.

‘Lenten is come with love to toune’ (pronounced toon’), isn’t that a great opening line? In fact it’s a noticeable characteristic that many of the poems, short or long, announce their presence with a striking first line.

But by the same token, the poems lamenting man’s brikkelness and the unpredictable turns of destiny also have just such a primitive, almost primeval force, reeking of a society with no safety nets, where most people were close to famine and disease all their lives, where average life expectancy was around the mid-30s.

This rendition of ‘Wynter wakeneth’ captures perfectly the sound of a lone survivor of the Black Death or one of the period’s endless wars, sitting in the pew of a burnt-out church, sole survivor of his family and his community, lamenting his fate as the cold snow falls endlessly all around, smothering the land.

Luminarium

If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

I’m Still Here @ Royal Festival Hall

On the ground floor (Level 1) of the Royal Festival Hall is a suite of rooms rather hidden away opposite the loos and cloakroom. It turns out to be a linear and surprisingly big exhibition space. It is currently displaying artworks from the 2018 Koestler Awards.

The Koestler Trust is the UK’s best known prison arts charity. Each year, it encourages over 3,000 people from inside the criminal justice system, as well as ‘secure forensic and immigration removal settings’, to express themselves creatively, and learn new skills by entering work to the annual Koestler Awards.

The Mental Health Hydra, a collaborative work by members of the Bluebird House secure mental health unit

The Mental Health Hydra, a collaborative work by members of the Bluebird House secure mental health unit

This year there were 7,236 entries. Rather then whittle this down themselves, the curators asked three wives and two families who’ve each supported a family member though a prison sentence, to select the works from this huge array which really spoke to them about the experience.

Since the five groups each chose around 40 works, the exhibition contains some 200 pieces, many of them for sale, many of them profoundly imaginative and moving.

AAAAARGH! by Michael at Bolton Probation Office

AAAAARGH! by Michael at Bolton Probation Office

There’s a really wide range of styles and types and sizes of work on display, including paintings and sculpture, poems and videos, animation and craft.

Left: Lift by the Spinney (secure mental health unit) Right: Circle by Gordon from HM Prison Edinburgh

Left: Life by the Spinney (secure mental health unit) Right: Circle of Life by Gordon from HM Prison Edinburgh

Many of the works are done to a very high standard indeed. Anthony Gormley curated last year’s show. This work – Night at the chippy by ‘Brian’- won the Grayson Perry Highly Commended Award for ceramics. In other words, the project has secured the co-operation of some of Britain’s leading artists.

Night at the chippy by Brian (The State Hospital)

Night at the chippy by Brian (The State Hospital)

I don’t know why, but writing that sentence made me cry. So much talent, so many young lives, gone astray.

Disconnected by Peter at HM Prison Dovegate

Disconnected by Peter at HM Prison Dovegate

If you’re passing by the South Bank Centre, make the effort to go visit this exhibition. It’s open from 10am till 11pm, and is FREE.


Related links

Arp: The Poetry of Forms @ Turner Contemporary

Turner Contemporary

Turner contemporary art gallery is on the beachfront at Margate in East Kent. It was opened in 2011, allegedly on the site of a boarding house where the great Victorian painter, J.M.W. Turner, used to stay on his frequent visits to Margate.

Exterior of Turner Contemporary, Margate

Exterior of Turner Contemporary, Margate

Inside the main atrium-reception space-cum-shop is one of the best views I think I’ve ever seen from any building anywhere, better than Tate Modern’s boring view over London, better than the view from the Rockefeller Centre over New York. which I visited a few years ago. The high windows create a frame through which you see the ever-changing movement of the grey sea, the surf-capped waves, the enormous blue sky puffed with clouds and seagulls swooping and wheeling. Apparently, Turner wrote to Ruskin that ‘the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe’, and on the day I visited it was a believable claim.

View out of Turner Contemporary over the sea

View from the ground floor of Turner Contemporary over the sea

The gallery contains a main exhibition space, a smaller space, and education and kids’ spaces. When I visited a ballet/contemporary dance class for under-tens was in action, watchable through big sheet glass windows. The whole place feels big and open, family-friendly and happy.

Jean Arp: the poetry of forms

Hans Jean Arp was born in 1886 and lived till 1966. He was a draughtsman, painter, sculptor and printmaker as well as a notable poet. He was born in Alsace-Lorraine, the disputed borderland between France and Germany, which was seized by Prussia in 1870, taken back by France in 1918, and seized again by the Germans in 1940. His mother was French, his father German and he grew up speaking both languages, using Hans or Jean as necessary, or just ‘Arp’, writing poetry fluently in both languages.

Installation view courtesy of Turner Contemporary, photograph by Stephen White

Installation view courtesy of Turner Contemporary, photograph by Stephen White

Dada

Arp was associated with the Dada movement of the 1910s and then surrealism in the 1920s and 30s. Dada was founded in 1916 by a group of writers and artists as a reaction against the senselessness of the Great War. Arp wrote:

Revolted by the butchery of the 1914 World War, we in Zurich devoted ourselves to the arts. While the guns rumbled in the distance, we sang, painted, made collages and wrote poems with all our might.

Arp contributed drawings and illustrations to Dada magazines (included here). He also contributed his distinctive free verse poems. These were written in French or German, with a high degree of dada/surrealist no-sense, but have been well translated into English and are strangely persuasive.

kaspar is dead (1912) by Hans Arp

Kaspar is dead (1912) by Hans Arp

Object language

Throughout the show are many of Arp’s woodcuts, often in relief, as he laid one outline of wood over another. They are abstract shapes rather than realistic depictions. There are plentiful references in titles to natural objects like birds, cutlery or people, but always these figures have undergone substantial transformation towards abstract shapes and patterns – he seems to have been a natural abstractionist from the get-go. Everything has been alchemised into purer, simpler shapes.

Static composition (1915) by Jean Arp

Static composition (1915) by Jean Arp

The exhibition includes this set of seven ‘Arpaden’ which represent pictograms of simple everyday objects which he suffused with his own meanings and became the basis of an object language which he used for the rest of his life. In particular, the navel (a ring shape) represents nature and the cycle of life, whereas the moustache (apparently copied from images of Kaiser Wilhelm) represents pomposity.

Arpaden (1923) by Jean Arp

Arpaden (1923) by Jean Arp

For such a revolutionary in style is is surprising that he had a surprisingly conservative worldview, a strong belief in nature, believing that art is an extension of natural processes like growth and decay. He was seeking new forms and shapes which gave the sense of having grown, of revealing the essence of life. There are a lot of reliefs made from painted wood which somehow combine the curves of life forms with the hard edge of the wood into a kind of biomorphic modernism.

Der Pyramidenrock (1924) by Jean Arp

Der Pyramidenrock (1924) by Jean Arp

Arp’s titles are playful. They share the same enjoyment of language, of mixing incongruous words and ideas, as his dadaist poetry, examples of which are scattered liberally and amusingly throughout the exhibition.

The cloudpump (1920) by Jean Arp

The cloudpump (1920) by Jean Arp

In fact playfulness and humour, a lightness of touch, are in evidence throughout.

Plates, fork and navel (1923) by Jean Arp

Plates, fork and navel (1923) by Jean Arp

Surrealism

In 1925 Arp’s work also appeared in the first exhibition of the surrealist group at the Galérie Pierre in Paris but this attachment didn’t significantly alter his well-worked out visual language. From the same time he began to experiment with converting the wood-reliefs into free-standing sculptures. The sculptures included in this exhibition appear fully-formed and highly finished, utterly abstract if vaguely zoomorphic blobs, very smooth and self-contained and complete.

Three disagreeable objects on a face (1930) by Jean Arp

Three disagreeable objects on a face (1930) by Jean Arp

In some of these bronze sculptures the smaller blobs are moveable so they can be rearranged to create new works. Très moderne.

In the early 1930s Arp developed the idea of ‘constellations’, using the same shapes or patterns in a limited set of variations and combinations. In his poetry this meant using the same constellation of words in different contexts, to explore new meaning combinations, echoing the endless metamorphoses of the natural world.

Surrealism in service of the revolution (1933) by Jean Arp

Surrealism in service of the revolution (1933) by Jean Arp

In the 1930s Arp also coined the term ‘concretion’ for his zoomorphic sculptures. With typical fluency Arp wrote:

Concretion signifies the natural processes of condensation, hardening, coagulation, thickening, growing together. Concretion designates the solidification of a mass. Concretion designates curdling, the curdling of the earth and the heavenly bodies. Concretion designates solidification, the mass of the stone, the plant, the animal, the man.

You can see how the poetry comes from this fondness for repetition and recombination.

Human concretion (1933) by Hans Arp

Human concretion (1933) by Hans Arp

Way back in 1915 Arp had met the artist Sophie Taeuber, who was also involved in Dada, designing costumes and scenery for their wacky theatrical productions, as well as herself dancing and performing. During the war Taeuber taught weaving and other textile arts at Zurich Art School, and from early on she influenced Arp towards abstract design and encouraged the practical handicraft aspect of the woodcuts and his sculptures. They married in 1922 and lived and worked closely together till her tragic accidental death in 1943.

Arp’s art and poetry isn’t usually very moving. The dry outline of the wood reliefs, the smooth globular shapes of the sculptures, the restrained colouring of his prints, all create a kind of mood of tranquillity, a contemplative, relaxed vibe, which he would presumably have said stems from nature, the source of all creativity.

Coloured prints by Jean Arp

Coloured prints by Jean Arp

Which is why it was a surprise to come across some rather tear-jerking late works. He had previously torn up stuff in the Dada years, and during the war was so hard-up he produced minimal sculptures from waste paper (papiers froissés). But after Taeuber’s death, Arp embarked on a series of papiers déchirés (torn drawings) in which he ripped up and repositioned fragments of drawings by his wife and soul mate. As the wall label says:

The act of tearing Taeuber’s works may be seen as an attempt by Arp to come to terms with his loss and to renew, posthumously, the collaboration that had been such an important part of their life together.

All the more moving for being so under-stated and unemotional.

Collage of torn-up drawing by Sophie Taeuber (1939/47)

Collage of torn-up drawing by Sophie Taeuber (1939/47)

Also during this period Arp came across some drawings which had developed mould. He realised there is no stopping the natural processes of degeneration and death. His poems express the same sense of despair and dereliction, the futility of striving for any kind of artistic ‘perfection’, acceptance of mutability.

On my way (1948) by Jean Arp

On my way (1948) by Jean Arp

Summary

I had only a vague sense of Arp before visiting this exhibition, but now feel I know a lot more about his work, his key ideas and motivations, about his personal life and – the biggest surprise of the show – the fact that he wrote poetry, and really enjoyable poetry at that. Thanks to Turner Contemporary for including the translated poems on the walls rather than just in the catalogue – giving them the same size and priority as the art works.

Installation view of Arp: The Poetry of Forms at Turner Contemporary

Installation view of Arp: The Poetry of Forms at Turner Contemporary

This is a lovely show, a revelation for anyone who, like me, wasn’t that knowledgeable about Arp. It’s unbelievable that such a thorough and interesting survey is FREE!

And, after being lulled into a zoomorphic, nature-inspired, seraphic mood – you step out of the gallery and into the first floor landing where this amazing view awaits. It’s an all-round lovely experience.

View from the first floor of Turner Contemporary over the sea

View from the first floor of Turner Contemporary over the sea

Related links

Seeing Things As They Are by George Orwell edited by Peter Davison

The full title is Seeing Things as They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings of George Orwell and it does what it says on the tin. This long densely-printed paperback is a treasure trove of Orwell’s best book, film and theatre reviews, along with his BBC radio broadcasts and numerous magazine articles, interviews and short essays. It does not include the full-length, often literary-minded essays – these are collected in a number of other selections.

Peter Davison (b.1926) has devoted his life to editing the 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell, to identifying and cataloguing everything Orwell ever wrote into one thoroughly annotated, indexed format, first published in 1998. For this massive labour of love Davison was awarded an OBE for services to literature.

In the 480 pages of this handsome Penguin paperback Davison presents a selection of the very best of Orwell’s writings from across his fairly short (20 years, 1930-1950) but prolific career. It brings together an astonishing variety of writings, from a school poem right at the start, to an deleted passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four right at the end of his life. For a start, it is an eye-opener to see what a diversity of channels were open to a freelance journalist in the middle of the twentieth century. He writes for:

  • The Adelphi (literary magazine), New Statesman and Nation (founded by the Fabian Society), New English Weekly, Time and Tide, Left Forum, Horizon (founded in 1940 by Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender), Tribune (founded in 1937 by Labour MPs), Left News, Partisan Review (an American left-wing magazine), The Listener (the BBC’s radio magazine), PoetryThe ObserverThe Manchester Evening News (founded 1868), The Windmillthe Times Literary SupplementThe New Yorker and more.

Davison not only prints the pieces but gives detailed, sometimes page-long, notes explaining the background of each of the magazines in question and Orwell’s relation to them – for example, including correspondence between the editors of Partisan Review and Orwell, when they commissioned a regular ‘London Letter’ from him in December 1940.

Orwell worked for the BBC from the start of 1941 to November 1943. He was involved in a variety of projects, initially writing and reading weekly News Reviews, generally describing the political situation, which were broadcast to India and the Far East (there appear to have been 59 of these). But he also worked on a variety of other programmes, for example, giving four talks on literary criticism in 1941, or six editions of a poetry magazine, for which he personally persuaded leading poets of the day to contribute – and so on.

Orwell quit the BBC in November 1943 in order to join the left-wing newspaper Tribune as its literary editor. He commissioned others to write its book reviews, wrote reviews of his own, and created a regular weekly slot called ‘As I Please’ in which he wrote about subjects that took his fancy. He wrote 80 As I Please columns, and since each one often contained three or so subjects, that’s a lot of issues, ideas and areas of contemporary life which he covered. To take a random selection, subjects included: insulting nicknames, Ezra Pound, anti-Semitism, clothes rationing, the decline of religious belief, Dickens and country life, foreign words, flying bombs, the Warsaw Uprising, and so on.

One of the standout items is a page on ‘the colour bar’ (As I Please 37, Tribune 11 August 1944) which argues why it is so important to call out racist pubs, clubs, restaurants who forbid admission to non-whites, which sounds very relevant to our own race-conscious times.

The ordinary Indian, Negro or Chinese can only be protected against petty insult if other ordinary people are willing to exert themselves on his behalf. (p.290)

If one thing emerges it is that, although he writes occasional literary criticism on authors he likes or thinks important – T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Henry Miller, Jack London – the lion’s share of the texts, whether BBC broadcasts, book reviews, Letters from London or As I Please columns, are concerned with politics and with Orwell’s particularly pessimistic take on the world around him.

Stepping back from the multitudinous details of these pieces, it’s possible to summarise Orwell’s core worldview thus:

  1. The world is going to hell: capitalism is visibly collapsing before our eyes: its days are numbered.
  2. Already it has been replaced across much of Europe by a new kind of authoritarian government – totalitarianism – which seeks to control not just what people do and say but even what they think.
  3. Ranged against these forces of social and mental repression is the key Orwellian virtue of Decency, the term which sums up honesty, fair play, justice and which, in Wigan Pier, he put at the centre of his definition of Socialism.
  4. Imaginative literature, of the kind he likes and would like to write himself, is only possible in a world of free individuals, free to think what they want and free to express it how they want.
  5. Given that the old order, with its antiquated class system and its reassuring certainties, is being swept away, the only way to preserve decency and the dignity of the individual in the coming world will be by supporting a democratic Socialism – Socialism because the only choice is between Socialism and Fascism – and ‘democratic’ to signal its difference from Stalinist totalitarianism.

Almost all Orwell’s writing takes place against this bleak background and pretty much every one of the pieces here refers to at least one of these ideas: whether he’s reviewing plays, films or books, one or other element of the basic argument crops up – capitalism is collapsing; totalitarian thought-control threatens; the private decency of the old writers is no longer possible; only a Socialist revolution and the advent of democratic Socialism can a) fight off totalitarianism b) ensure the survival into the future of all the aspects of human decency and literary freedom which Orwell cherishes.

It is very interesting to learn that this tendency, the tendency of all his writing to return to the same fundamental issue, was noticed at the time. The book includes the first ever sustained essay written about Orwell, by Jonathan Cape’s leading reader, Daniel George, who comments:

Most of Orwell’s essays have a literary starting-point. But he quickly deserts literature for life and politics… All of these [the essays in Orwell’s Critical Essays, published 1946] become, sooner or later, but chiefly, moralisings upon modern tendencies in thought and behaviour; and all illustrate his dislike – almost his fear – of a totalitarian system of government… Insidious persuasion is his method… (Davison pp.375, 377, 379)

In the light of the enormous effort Orwell poured into his writings, it seems ungrateful and churlish to point out that very little of what he predicted actually came about. Certainly Stalinist totalitarianism conquered Eastern Europe, but the Fascist powers in Germany, Italy and Japan were defeated. America emerged as the world’s military and economic superpower, capable of defending democracy in Europe and the Pacific, at the same time! In fact, with vast funding from America, Germany and Japan in particular were transformed within a decade of the end of the war into paragons of modern capitalism.

Orwell fails to see this coming because of his instinctive anti-Americanism. It comes out strongest in the novels whose protagonists routinely despise American consumer culture, despise soda pop and breakfast cereals and slick movies and streamlined advertising. This cultural-emotional anti-Americanism made Orwell underestimate America’s growing power as the war progressed, and fail to anticipate what it would mean for the ‘West’ as the war draw to an end – i.e. not only the survival, but the triumph of the kind of consumer capitalism he despised and thought was doomed, and the concomitant flourishing of all the freedoms he thought were so threatened.

The totalitarian mind-control which remodelled human nature to render it supine forever, creating a new race of zombie slaves – this never happened. Even in the darkest days of the Soviet Union and its control of Eastern Europe, there was samizdat literature, there were dissidents, people rebelled, in Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and again in the 1970s, setting up Charter 77.

(To be fair, in a mea culpa piece for Partisan Review dated October 1944, Orwell does concede that nearly all his predictions about the war had turned out wrong, including his belief that only by having a Socialist Revolution could Britain win, pp.301-307).

And although I wanted to like Orwell, as I read through these pieces I found myself repeatedly disagreeing with him, on issues large and small. He is against the metric system and in favour of keeping rods and acres, pints, quarts and gallons, pounds, stones and hundredweights (p.416) – an opinion of purely historic interest to us today. He speculates that, if four-letter words were freely published in fiction and newspapers, it might remove their magic and mystique,

and the habit of swearing, degrading to our thoughts and weakening to our language, might become less common. (p.396)

Well, that didn’t work out, did it? On the larger scale, Orwell says capitalism is finished – well, put simply, it triumphed and defeated communism around the world. He says the novel is dying – well, the 1950s saw some great novels written and the 1960s saw an explosion of writing of every type. He says the English language is in irreversible decline – well, that’s what gloomy Guses in every age claim, the English language looks alive and kicking to me today.

And quite often not only does his journalism reference one or more elements of the worldview I summarised above, but it takes a visceral pleasure in saying so. He is thrilled by the bleak future he envisions. It gives him – and is designed to give his reader – the shivers.

The era of free speech is closing down… The time is coming – not next year, perhaps not for ten or twenty years, but it is coming – when every writer will have the choice of being silenced altogether or of producing the dope that a privileged minority demands. (Written in 1938 – p.69)

That just didn’t happen. As political and social and cultural prophet, Orwell is wrong again and again. When blurb writers and reviewers claim that Orwell ‘still speaks to our time’, is ‘more relevant than ever’, I don’t get it. We do not today face the threat of external totalitarian regimes invading and conquering us. If we do face a political challenge today, it is from the political instability caused by the prolonged rule of neo-liberal capitalist ideology which has produced an unequal society, exacerbated by the tensions caused by mass immigration.

But then, society was also grossly unequal in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s. In fact, it’s a working definition of a free democracy that it is always struggling with various crises of unrest and complaint. I am old enough to remember the endless strikes of the 1970s, the Miners’ Strike of 1984, the Poll Tax riots in the early 1990s. In comparison the situation we find ourselves in now, in 2017, seems like a kind of consumer utopia for a large percentage of the population.

And far from living in a society of zombies who supinely accept the mind-numbing slogans of a totalitarian government, do we not live in the extreme opposite – a society which, due to the internet, Facebook, twitter, Instagram, and millions of blogs like my one, has more voices yelling complaint about every possible issue under the sun than ever before in human history?

On the plus side Orwell’s journalism offers trenchant commentaries on particular events of his day, and a good deal of nostalgic fondness for imperial weights and measures, forgotten Edwardian novels and boys comics. It contains thoughts on social issues and trends which are often overlooked by the history books. The fact that shopkeepers got ruder as rationing got tighter (p.308), tensions between American soldiers and the native English, the significance of the lonely hearts columns in wartime newspapers (p.278) – Orwell’s writings present a fascinating social and intellectual record of his age, specifically the 1930s and 1940s. This volume amounts to a useful primer on the texture of ordinary life in the era of the Great Depression, the Second World War and the start of the Cold War.

Preparation for Nineteen Eighty-Four

Maybe the best way of seeing all these essays and reviews – in fact the way in which they themselves often suggest they are read – is as a steady, thorough and obsessive working-out of the themes and ideas which reach their perfect expression in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Whenever Orwell mentions thought-control, or the implications of totalitarian society on culture, or the death of free speech, or control of the past, or the likely division of the world into three superstates (p.315), the reader can’t help but think of hos these ideas will end up informing his great novel.

In this respect, Orwell was tremendously lucky. As this selection shows, from almost the start of his career he was obsessed with the idea of totalitarianism and how it would destroy the decencies and freedoms he remembered from the Edwardian boyhood which he held so dear. Over and over again he nags and worries at the implications of this terrifying threat. I call him ‘lucky’ because he was lucky enough to find an imaginative structure into which he could pour a lifetime of brooding and thinking. And lucky that he managed to complete his masterwork, considering just how close a race it was against his worsening health in the late 1940s.

That he was able to finish the book which is one of the great masterpieces of the century was partly because its central ideas and their application in every detail had been brooded on and worked through for decades – as the hundreds of pieces gathered in this book testify.

This book contains scores of passing insights and ideas, all expressed in his brisk, no-nonsense prose, deliberately denuded of rhetoric and fancy, always nudging and persuading you to agree with his common-sense-sounding assumptions. These are all enjoyable and make the book a great pleasure to read. But what it shows more than anything else is the length of time and the depth and variety of thinking which went into the creation of Orwell’s masterpiece.

Anti-Left

Another major theme which emerges is Orwell’s consistent opposition to and criticism of the left-wing orthodoxy in the England of his day. Barely a page goes by without some withering criticism of left-wing intellectuals. This is because, ever since his experience in Spain in 1937, he had grasped that Soviet Communism was a completely amoral extension of Stalin’s nationalist foreign policy. Orwell’s image of totalitarian thought control doesn’t come from Nazi Germany – which he never visited – but from his actual personal experience of the kind of lies and distortions carried out by the communists in Spain, as he watched them take over the republican cause and proceeded to vilify, arrest, torture and execute all their political enemies.

When he came back to England he found that all the left-wing publishers refused to publish his account of his experiences, Homage to Catalonia because they didn’t want to undermine ‘the cause’,because they wouldn’t accept its criticism of Soviet policy. And when the book was eventually published, it prompted negative reviews from most of the left-wing press as well as personal attacks calling Orwell a lackey for capitalism and imperialism, a Trotskyist, a saboteur etc, all the hate terminology he’d seen the Stalinists using in Spain.

And he realised – It could happen here. It could happen here because the entire deracinated, unhappy intellectual class had given its heart to a foreign power and to a Great Leader who they slavishly believed would transform the world and make them happy. And because the left-wing intellectuals have imposed a stifling orthodoxy of thought over all the publications they control, creating an atmosphere of political correctness which you speak out against at your peril.

Thus, although he routinely criticises the Tories, whether in or out of power, the lies of the right-wing press, and has harsh words for the Catholic church’s instinctive support of all right-wing causes – the real animus in his writings is consistently against his own side. The real enemy is the slavish devotees of Stalin’s Soviet communism.

Typical comments are:

  • I don’t share the average English intellectual’s hatred of his own country and am not dismayed by a British victory. (p.304)
  • Particularly on the Left, political thought is a sort of masturbation fantasy in which the world of facts hardly matter. (p.303)

Now readers up-to-speed with left-wing politics in general and the tortuous situation of the 1930s in particular, Orwell is making subtle and important points. How many people would that have been? As an indication, some of Orwell’s books only sold a few thousand copies in his lifetime. But to someone a bit further removed from the cat fights of the English Left, it can all too easily seem that Orwell’s Socialism is associated with violent revolution, burning down churches, locking up, torturing and executing your opponents and imposing totalitarian mind control. In other words, his calls for a Democratic Socialism only really mean something to someone who already knows quite a lot about left-wing politics and can distinguish between its multiple strands and traditions.

Political correctness

This is one of the few ideas I think we can actually apply to our own times. For we also live in times when a ‘progressive’ orthodoxy has imposed politically correct axioms right across the mainstream media to do with race, gender, sexuality, with immigration and identity, which you criticise or question at your peril. As he wrote in his essay, The Prevention of Literature:

To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. (The Prevention of Literature)

‘One cannot be politically orthodox.’

In a similar way, today in 2017, there are a number of progressive causes which you criticise or question at your peril. While I was reading the book and thinking about the issues it raises, the resignation was announced of Shadow Equalities Spokesperson, Sarah Champion, after writing an article in the Sun newspaper about British Pakistani men:

I am not taking any opinion whatsoever on the article or its subject matter – I am just pointing out that we live, like Orwell, in times where you have to be extremely careful what you say on certain issues – if anyone in the world was going to be politically correct and careful what they say, you’d have thought it would be Labour’s equalities spokesperson. If even she can’t speak casually and openly on certain subjects, then the rest of us better keep quiet.

The peril doesn’t come from the Right. I can say or write whatever I like about Donald Trump or Theresa May, I can insult Brexiteers or English nationalists till the cows come home, and I will be praised in the mainstream media. It is the Left which has erected certain orthodoxies, certain ‘correct’ attitudes, which anyone writing, or even talking out loud, must be careful to comply with.

To repeat – I make no comment whatsoever about the subject raised in Champion’s Sun article – I am just pointing out that her resignation shows that we live in a time of powerful orthodoxies which you infringe at the risk of your job and your career – and that I find Orwell’s thoughts about the impact of unquestioned orthodoxies on freedom of speech and imaginative literature far more relevant to our present-day situation than his more directly political analyses.


Credit

Seeing Things As They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings by George Orwell edited by Peter Davison was published by Harvill Secker in 2014. All references are to the 2016 Penguin paperback edition.

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

Related links

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell (1936)

The types he saw all round him, especially the older men, made him squirm. That was what it meant to worship the money-god! To settle down, to Make Good, to sell your soul for a villa and an aspidistra! To turn into the typical little bowler-hatted sneak — Strube’s ‘little man’— the little docile cit who slips home by the six-fifteen to a supper of cottage pie and stewed tinned pears, half an hour’s listening-in to the B. B. C. Symphony Concert, and then perhaps a spot of licit sexual intercourse if his wife ‘feels in the mood’! What a fate! No, it isn’t like that that one was meant to live. One’s got to get right out of it, out of the money-stink. (p.51)

In Orwell’s previous novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, the seducing cad, Warburton, cynically suggests to the naive young Dorothy that money makes the world go round; in fact, he suggests that the famous chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians should be brought up to date with the word ‘money’ replacing ‘charity’. One year later this novel was published and its epigraph satirically does exactly what Warburton had suggested.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not money, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not money, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not money, it profiteth me nothing. Money suffereth long, and is kind; money envieth not; money vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things…  And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.

This weak, unsubtle gag accurately summarises Keep The Aspidistra Flying which is the unremittingly dingy, depressed and ultimately monotonous story of short, miserable, failed poet Gordon Comstock who is obsessed with money and his lack of it.

Gordon Comstock

Gordon is 28 and works in a grimy second-hand bookshop in a seedy part of north-west London. He seethes with resentment against his miserable fate, resentment he takes out in the form of withering satire on his customers, the wretched adverts on hoardings opposite the shop, the weather, London, the depressing spirit of the times, everything. Everything – his clothes, the shop, the boos, the street, the customers, the boarding house, the landlady, the other lodgers – everything, seen through his eyes, is seedy, run-down, grimy, filthy, mangy, mildewed and manky.

Orwell pays minute attention to every humiliating aspect of Gordon’s shabby, poverty-stricken little existence. He takes two pages to describe the lengths Gordon has to go to in order to make a cup of tea in his own room (a practice banned by the landlady) which includes sneaking downstairs to the privy to flush away yesterday’s tea leaves, and heating the water on his room’s wretchedly underpowered gas ring.

Orwell takes a sadistic glee in rubbing the reader’s face in Gordon’s all-conquering sense of failure and the sordid practicalities of his existence. The squalor, the shame and the thousand petty humiliations of a) living on the edge of poverty b) being a wretched failed poet, are drilled home on page after page.

Of the half dozen I’ve read, this is Orwell’s least interesting book: the subject of being a failed writer in London is extremely clichéd, and Gordon’s diatribes, either in his own head or to anyone who will listen, are above all very repetitive; by page 100 they’re just boring.

So this is not such a good book to read as the splendidly descriptive Burmese Days or the experimental and reportage-filled Clergyman’s Daughter.

The plot

Second hand books We’re introduced to Gordon, rotting and miserable in the dingy second-hand bookshop. He takes the mickey out of the customers. He goes home to his dingy miserable boarding house and makes a secret cup of tea. He reminisces about his large and hopeless middle-class family of losers, the wretched Comstocks. He traipses north to a literary party which turns out to have been cancelled to his vast chagrin, so he ends up walking all over London, looking wistfully into pubs and lustfully at passing girls and feeling immensely sorry for himself.

Back story He reminisces about his miserable time at private school where he was mocked for his genteel poverty. Then his time at an advertising agency where he turned out to be good at copywriting but despised himself for being in on the ‘great money-scam’, ‘worshiping the money god’ etc. This is all below Gordon who considers making money sordid and disreputable. So, to the despair of his hard-up family, he quits this excellent job to work in the bookshop out of some misguided wish for moral purity. What an arse.

Ravelston Gordon goes for a few beers in a squalid pub with his rich friend, the magazine editor and champagne socialist, Philip Ravelston. Gordon spends the entire time moaning about how miserable life is on a measly two quid a week, never having enough money to eat properly, to go out, to make friends and contacts, never having the peace of mind to write blah blah blah. The trouble is – we know the problem is entirely of his own making. The kindly owner of the advertising agency made it clear that Gordon can go back any time he wants to. It is obstinate to the point of imbecility to make himself and everyone around him so miserable.

Rosemary He has a girlfriend, the diminutive but tough Rosemary Waterlow. They meet for a walk (Gordon’s landlady won’t allow young women to even enter the hallway). This descends into another long bitter rant against his poverty by Gordon, combined with the bitter accusation that, after two years of going out, she still hasn’t let him sleep with her. The third-person narrator attributes this refusal to her upbringing in a big happy rambunctious family. Rosemary wants to preserve her happy sexless girlhood for as long as possible. She is ‘fond’ of Gordon and wants to mother him etc but can’t bring herself to say yes. He, for his part, is tormented by frustrated lust: it is all he can think of half the time, and all twisted up by the thought that it is essentially his poverty which prevents them either getting married or even being able to afford a hotel to have sex in.

No sex please, we’re British Gordon and Rosemary go on a set-piece outing to Burnham Beeches, catching the train from Paddington station to Slough. The winter sun warms and animates them but they can find nowhere to eat except an over-priced hotel by the Thames and here Gordon is, characteristically, overawed and bullied by the pretentious waiter, finding himself forced to use up all his money on a rotten meal of cold beef and muddy wine.

Eventually, miserable and humiliated, the couple walk on into woodland where they find a warm nook, Rosemary strips off her clothes and prepares to ‘sacrifice’ herself to him. She will ‘give’ herself, although she doesn’t really want to, solely in order to make Gordon happy. This is disheartening enough, but at the vital moment Rosemary realises Gordon isn’t wearing a condom and panics. He is rebuffed. They argue. Standing looking down at her naked body, he is disgusted with himself and with her. The sun goes in and the whole thing suddenly appears unbearably sordid and mean.

Rosemary bursts into tears and gets dressed. They walk for miles in silence, but Gordon is no longer brooding on the failed sex, he has moved on to his more familiar routine of being more worried about not having enough money to pay the fare back to London, after spending more than he meant to at the posh riverside hotel.. Eventually, after prolonged sulking, he reluctantly admits this to Rosemary who promptly points out what an idiot he is: she has more than enough and is happy to pay. But with his ludicrously antiquated sense of ‘honour’ he simply can’t let her and prefers to stew in a juice of humiliation and endlessly pontificate about the ruinous effect of poverty. By this stage we know that what is ruining his life is his ruinous imbecility.

A drunken binge In chapter eight there is an astonishing turn of events as Gordon receives a cheque from an American magazine which has inexplicably decided to publish one of his poems. £10! He insists on taking Ravelston and Rosemary out for a slap-up dinner. The more they urge caution, the more insistent he becomes to go to the finest restaurant, order champagne and generally drink himself stupid. Reeling through the West End he hustles Rosemary into a back alley and tries to have sex with her but she fights free, slaps him and disappears. Completely plastered Gordon finds himself being taken over by two whores and Ravelston mournfully decides he ought to go along to protect his pathetic protege. In the event Gordon is far too drunk to get it up and passes out on the floor. This compares with the Saturday night party scene in Down and Out in Paris and London as a very convincing portrait of the progressive stages of drunkenness, from light exuberance, through gorging on booze, to staggering incoherence. It’s the best passage in the book.

Arrested Gordon wakes up with an incredible hangover in a police cell. After being booted out by the prostitute he wandered Piccadilly swigging from a wine bottle in the street (illegal) and when stopped by the police punched the sergeant. Orwell gives a reliably factual account of a police cell, being taken in a Black Maria to the holding cells at the court, being sentenced to £5 fine or a month in gaol. In fact his fine has already been paid by his sheepish champagne socialist patron, Ravelston, who takes Gordon back to his luxury pad in St John’s Wood. Gordon sleeps in silk pyjamas in a downy bed beneath an electric light – unimaginable luxury.

And this is the central imaginative flaw of the novel – all Gordon has to do is say Yes, Yes to help from his rich friend, Yes to getting his advertising job back, and he would have money and Rosemary’s attitude would soften and he would have her, too. It is the opposite of some searing portrait of Depression-era Britain – it is the portrait of a mean-minded, resentful, selfish little idiot who ruins ‘his own and everyone else’s life for the sake of his ‘meaningless scruples’.

Staying at Ravelston’s After the drunken night and arrest something snaps in Gordon: he accepts Ravelston’s offer of a comfortable place to stay for a while but his bitter resentment at Ravelston’s charity ends their friendship. Ravelston eventually finds him a job with a Dickensian grotesque, a misshapen dwarf who runs a seedy bookshop renting out the cheapest kind of thrillers and romances. Gordon moves into a substantially worse flop house, reeking of haddock and ringing to the arguments of the proley inhabitants. He ignores Ravelston on his one visit to him. He spurns the appeals of Rosemary and his sister, Julia.

Down, down The final chapters become dominated by his death wish, by his wish to sink down, down, down below the realm of decency or class, to submerge into what he calls the ghost-kingdom below class and society. He finds he likes the job, the grinding boredom, the idiotic clientele who borrow the sad cheap two-penny novelettes. He sits and reads cheap magazines all day (Tit BitsThe GemThe Girl’s Own Paper) and lies on his bed smoking looking at the ceiling all night.

Sex at last One evening Rosemary knocks on the door (in this low lodging house women are allowed, unlike the grimly correct rooms of his previous landlady, Mrs Wisbeach). She thinks maybe finally losing her virginity to him will somehow galvanise him and persuade him to take the mythical job back at the advertising agency. (It turns out she has gone in person to see his old boss at the agency to beg, and the boss willingly agreed to have Gordon back.) But Gordon is too far gone. They reluctantly do the deed then lie with their backs to each other. She dresses and leaves without a word.

The baby A few weeks Rosemary turns up in the bookshop. She’s pregnant. She won’t force her to marry him but she wants to keep it. There is the usual squalid discussion about a back-street abortion (such as features in the Michael Caine movie, Alfie, Kingsley Amis’s novel, You Can’t Have It All, and in the Jean-Paul Sartre novel, The Age of Reason) which you are meant to be repelled by. Gordon goes to a public library where the disapproving lady librarian lets him look at medical textbooks in which he leafs through illustrations of foetuses making himself, and the reader, feel sick.

He turned back a page or two and found a print of a six weeks’ foetus. A really dreadful thing this time – a thing he could hardly even bear to look at. Strange that our beginnings and endings are so ugly – the unborn as ugly as the dead. This thing looked as if it were dead already. Its huge head, as though too heavy to hold upright, was bent over at right angles at the place where its neck ought to have been. There was nothing you could call a face, only a wrinkle representing the eye – or was it the mouth? It had no human resemblance this time; it was more like a dead puppy-dog. (p.261)

Gordon gives in But he capitulates. He agrees to marry Rosemary and take the job at the advertising agency, though advertising represents the acme of everything he finds meretricious and trashy in contemporary culture. To his surprise he is immensely relieved. He realises it was his destiny all along. He feels as if he has finally grown up.

Gordon takes the job. He has a gift for copywriting and is soon working on a campaign for a soap client to persuade the British population they have smelly feet and need as much soap as they can buy. Rosemary and Gordon get married at a registry office. Ravelston is the only guest. He gives them a crockery set. They move into a top floor apartment off the Edgware Road. They have barely moved in before they have their first argument. He insists on buying an aspidistra to furnish the room. At first Rosemary thinks he’s joking, but he means it. In Gordon’s mind everything he rejected – including the aspidistra plant which had been, for him, a symbol of craven respectability – it has all won. Genuinely won. With no irony or sarcasm he insists they buy one and display it in the front room for everyone to see. He has joined the grown-up world. Like everyone else he will keep the aspidistra flying.


Comments

Pathetic

Gordon isn’t principled, he’s pathetic. He’s as wretchedly timid and scared as Dorothy in A Clergyman’s Daughter but without her dignity or integrity. He daren’t go into the pub to see his friend because he’s embarrassed about only having a three-penny bit to his name. He’s afraid of going up to the flat of his rich patron, Ravelston, because he’s intimidated by its moneyed comfort. He’s scared of offending his landlady and so hides his illicit tea-making. He is, in short, frightened of life. He is a mouse not a man. Chapter 9, where he lets himself be taken in, is a catalogue of Gordon’s moral cowardice.

  • He wanted to refuse, and yet he had not quite the courage…
  • Yet for the time being he stayed, simply because he lacked the courage to do otherwise…
  • But he hadn’t the guts to face the streets as yet…
  • From time to time Gordon made feeble efforts to escape, which always ended in the same way…

and spending three hundred pages in his company – despite the appeal of Orwell’s ever-lucid prose – is depressing.

  • He lay awake, aware of his own futility, of his thirty years, of the blind alley into which he had led his life. (p.38)
  • He took a sort of inventory of himself and his possessions. Gordon Comstock, last of the Comstocks, thirty years old, with twenty-six teeth left; with no money and no job; in borrowed pyjamas in a borrowed bed; with nothing before him except cadging and destitution, and nothing behind him except squalid fooleries. His total wealth a puny body and two cardboard suitcases full of worn-out clothes. (p.209)
  • He didn’t want to be cried over; he only wanted to be left alone — alone to sulk and despair. (p.216)
  • He looked back over his life. No use deceiving himself. It had been a dreadful life — lonely, squalid, futile. He had lived thirty years and achieved nothing except misery. But that was what he had chosen. It was what he wanted, even now. He wanted to sink down, down into the muck where money does not rule. (p.

He takes every opportunity to offend anyone close to him, starting with his family and continuing with the patron Ravelston, he’s beastly to his girlfriend, bullying and arguing with her. I particularly disliked his snobbish superiority to all popular culture – he despises the cinema, hates the products he used to write advertising copy for – especially the new American trend for ‘breakfast cereals’ – despises the ‘villa culture’ of the suburbs. The pathetic ineffectual intellectual snob.

They began to pass through straggling villages on whose outskirts pseudo-Tudor villas stood sniffishly apart, amid their garages, their laurel shrubberies and their raw-looking lawns. And Gordon had some fun railing against the villas and the godless civilization of which they were part — a civilization of stockbrokers and their lip-sticked wives, of golf, whisky, ouija-boards, and Aberdeen terriers called Jock. (p.143)

And pretty much all the vast verbiage about ‘poverty’ is nothing more than bitterness and resent against the better off. The whole book is a vast crate of sour grapes.

A stream of cars hummed easily up the hill. Gordon eyed them without envy. Who wants a car, anyway? The pink doll-faces of upper-class women gazed at him through the car window. Bloody nit-witted lapdogs. Pampered bitches dozing on their chains. Better the lone wolf than the cringing dogs. He thought of the Tube stations at early morning. The black hordes of clerks scurrying underground like ants into a hole; swarms of little ant-like men, each with dispatch-case in right hand, newspaper in left hand, and the fear of the sack like a maggot in his heart. How it eats at them, that secret fear! Especially on winter days, when they hear the menace of the wind. Winter, the sack, the workhouse, the Embankment benches! (Chapter 4)

The money-stink and war

In all Orwell’s previous books he had interesting things to observe or to explain about imperialism, poverty, coal-mining, sleeping rough, hop-picking and so on. This is the first book where almost everything the protagonist thinks and does is worthless.

Gordon’s attitude to ‘capitalism’ and ‘money worship’ is so naive and childish as to be barely worth discussing. Orwell satirises Gordon’s contempt for money-making, for seeking a good career, a good place, he especially hates go-getting American types and he loathes advertising agencies etc. Every page is packed with new formulations of Gordon’s simplistic hatred of the money god, the money-stink, capitalism etc.

What he realized, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion – the only really felt religion – that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success. Hence the profoundly significant phrase, to make good. The decalogue has been reduced to two commandments. One for the employers – the elect, the money-priesthood as it were – ‘Thou shalt make money’; the other for the employed – the slaves and underlings – ‘Thou shalt not lose thy job.’

It sounds good – like so much of Orwell’s it has a strong rhythm and great clarity of phrasing which drives the words home – but it is undermined by our clear knowledge that Gordon has an easy way out of the trap any time he wants to. Just ring up his old boss at the advertising agency. But no, he prefers to suffer and complain.

In a feeble sort of philosophical conversation with his wealthy patron, Ravelstone, the latter tries to argue Gordon into believing in Socialism – despite showing little or no understanding of what that would actually mean. Ravelston’s reading of Marx seems to amount to the notion that a) present capitalist society is on its last legs b) a communist revolution is inevitable and will sweep away all injustices and usher in the Golden Age. Like some of the book, this has a certain value as social history, as a presumably reasonably accurate of what educated Englishmen of the time thought.

But in any case Gordon dismisses Socialism as bunk; he is too consumed by sheer hatred and resentment of anyone better off than him. With obsessive violence he fantasises about planes flying over London, over the dingy boarding houses and squalid flats and windswept streets and lonely people and bombing it all flat, consuming London in a great conflagration. He wants a massive war to come and Ravelston sadly points out he’s not the only one.

‘Do you know that the other day I was actually wishing war would break out? I was longing for it — praying for it, almost.’
‘Of course, the trouble is, you see, that about half the young men in Europe are wishing the same thing.’
‘Let’s hope they are. Then perhaps it’ll happen.’

Maybe this is the best way to read this book – because it is not much value as a ‘novel’ – maybe it’s best to think of it as a kind of portrait of typical angry man who encapsulates the unhappiness and humiliation of the borderline poor, of the frustrated lower middle-classes, a representative of the clever but frustrated intellectuals of an entire generation. In the hands of a continental writer Gordon could, conceivably have turned into the portrait of a fascist, an angry young man who dreams of violence cleansing the world of parasites and decadence. Encourage his anti-Semitism and throw in a shiny uniform and you have a Nazi.

All over London and all over every town in England that poster was plastered, rotting the minds of men. He looked up and down the graceless street. Yes, war is coming soon. You can’t doubt it when you see the Bovex ads. The electric drills in our streets presage the rattle of the machine-guns. Only a little while before the aeroplanes come. Zoom – bang! A few tons of T.N.T. to send our civilization back to hell where it belongs.

This fetid War Wish of Gordon’s suggests just how little people learn – or intellectuals, anyway. There was a similar mood among the volunteers for the Great War, that it would cleanse and sweep away a corrupt and sick society (see Rupert Brooke). And here, 20 years later, we have the same kind of minor intelligentsia having the same kind of thoughts all over again.

Down, down – Orwell’s psychopathology

In the end Gordon is an embarrassingly revealing description of Orwell’s own self-loathing, embarrassment, shame and cowardice. A pauper at Eton, an odd-ball in the Burmese Police, an outsider to the Bloomsbury Set and the smart London literati, resenting the doting care and concern of his parents and relations – he had a hopeless psychological urge to escape, to plunge down into the filthiest depths of degradation and, in the end, Keep The Aspidistra Flying all-too-clearly conveys Orwell’s own strange nostalgie de la boue. It gives the game away, revealing the deeply personal motivations behind his supposedly fearless social reporting.

The final chapters are dominated by Gordon’s monomania for sinking below the realm of class and decency, of escaping all those who care for him, especially the womenfolk, Rosemary and his sister, Julia; of sinking down, down, down.

  • He must get out of this place, and quickly! Tomorrow morning he would clear out. No more sponging on Ravelston! No more blackmail to the gods of decency! Down, down, into the mud — down to the streets, the workhouse, and the jail. It was only there that he could be at peace. (p.219)
  • He didn’t want ever to work again; all he wanted was to sink, sink, effortless, down into the mud… (p.222)
  • Under ground, under ground! Down in the safe soft womb of earth, where there is no getting of jobs or losing of jobs, no relatives or friends to plague you, no hope, fear, ambition, honour, duty – no duns of any kind. That was where he wished to be. He wanted to go down, deep down, into some world where decency no longer mattered; to cut the strings of his self-respect, to submerge himself – to sink, as Rosemary had said. It was all bound up in his mind with the thought of being underground. He liked to think about the lost people, the under-ground people: tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes. It is a good world that they inhabit, down there in their frowzy kips and spikes. He liked to think that beneath the world of money there is that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal. That was where he wished to be, down in the ghost-kingdom, below ambition.  (p.227)
  • Life had beaten him; but you can still beat life by turning your face away. Better to sink than rise. Down, down into the ghost-kingdom, the shadowy world where shame, effort, decency do not exist! (p.233)
  • He had finished for ever with that futile dream of being a ‘writer’. After all, was not that too a species of ambition? He wanted to get away from all that, below all that. Down, down! Into the ghost-kingdom, out of the reach of hope, out of the reach of fear! Under ground, under ground! That was where he wished to be. (p.244)
  • He would not be free, free to sink down into the ultimate mud, till he had cut his links with all of them, even with Rosemary. (p.

On reflection, it is immensely apposite that the first word of the title of Orwell’s first published book was down.

Conclusion

If we take a romantic view of writing i.e the author is trying to ‘express’ something, then the author has to find a genre, a format, a style that provides the suitable framework. When it comes to the novel, an author needs to find characters and a plot to provide a structure for the other elements – dialogue, description, reflections and ideas.

Burmese Days is a success as a novel because the wide range of characters and incidents allow Orwell to show and dramatise his experience of British imperialism, with remarkably little explicit editorialising about it. The story and the characters are the message.

A Clergyman’s Daughter is a fascinating failure. He wanted to shock his readers by taking a highly respectable Anglican spinster and submit her to the humiliations of begging, sleeping rough, hop-picking, staying in London’s roughest flop houses and so on. But a) he is trying to hit too many targets; the same woman who is supposed to experience the bitterness of sleeping rough is also meant to experience the genteel humiliations of working in a fourth-rate private school. He tries to cram too much of his own experience into one container. And b) the precise mechanism by which she is pitched out of her comfortable middle class existence onto the streets is never satisfactorily explained. Nonetheless, I think it is well worth reading because, if you forget about these problems of the book’s ‘integrity’, then the individual sections – sleeping rough in London, hop picking in Kent, being a shabby teacher – are vividly written; they have the power and insight of his best reportage.

Keep The Aspidistra Flying is the second example of Orwell trying to find an outlet, a form or structure for what are obviously his own experiences and feelings. (Orwell himself worked in a bookshop in Highgate while he struggled to write; many of Gordon’s thoughts about the pointlessness of even trying to be a writer must come straight from the heart.) But there isn’t enough variety of scene or subject matter to justify a 300-page book. Realising this, Orwell has taken the conscious decision to exaggerate Gordon’s anger and contempt, to turn up his bilious rants and let his acid resentment go on for page after page. My guess is he thought that by exaggerating every aspect of his own sense of poverty, immiseration, humiliation and resentment, he would produce a Great Satirical Portrait; that Gordon would become a Representative Figure of our Age

But it doesn’t come off. Gordon just comes over as an ineffectual wanker, a stew of petty frustrations. It’s no surprise that Orwell forbade the reprinting of this book in his lifetime. The first and only print run sold just over 2,000 copies.


Aspects of style

Orwell’s use of stereotypes

I noticed in A Clergyman’s Daughter how Orwell’s texts are built of ‘types’ which we are expected to recognise, this recognition drawing us unconsciously into the point of view of the narrator, into the book’s world-view. And recognition of ‘types’ is compounded by worldly-wise sweeping generalisations. Both are exemplified in this passage:

  • Gordon wriggled free of Flaxman’ s arm. Like all small frail people, he hated being touched. Flaxman merely grinned, with the typical fat man’s good humour. He was really horribly fat. He filled his trousers as though he had been melted and then poured into them. But of course, like other fat people, he never admitted to being fat. No fat person ever uses the word ‘fat’ if there is any way of avoiding it. ‘Stout’ is the word they use — or, better still, ‘robust’. A fat man is never so happy as when he is describing himself as ‘robust’.

There’s plenty more where this came from. It would be possible to take Orwell’s narratives to pieces in terms of blocks or chunks built around these types or stereotypes.

  • It was one of those ‘twopenny no-deposit’ libraries beloved of book-pinchers.
  • She was one of those malignant respectable women who keep lodging-houses. Age about forty-five, stout but active, with a pink, fine-featured, horribly observant face, beautifully grey hair, and a permanent grievance. (p.24)
  • It had the sort of furniture you expect in a top floor back [room]. (p.28)
  • Lorenheim was one of those people who have not a single friend in the world and who are devoured by a lust for company. (p.28)
  • It was one of those houses where you cannot even go to the W.C. in peace because of the feeling that somebody is listening to you. (p.31)
  • The Primrose Quarterly was one of those poisonous literary papers in which the fashionable Nancy Boy and the professional Roman Catholic walk bras dessus, bras dessous. (p.35)
  • The Comstocks belonged to the most dismal of all classes, the middle-middle class, the landless gentry. In their miserable poverty they had not even the snobbish consolation of regarding themselves as an ‘old’ family fallen on evil days, for they were not an ‘old’ family at all, merely one of those families which rose on the wave of Victorian prosperity and then sank again faster than the wave itself… Gran’pa Comstock was one of those people who even from the grave exert a powerful influence. (p.39)
  • They were one of those depressing families, so common among the middle-middle classes, in which nothing ever happens.
  • They were the kind of people who in every conceivable activity, even if it is only getting on to a bus, are automatically elbowed away from the heart of things… (p.41)
  • Some of the women did make rather undesirable middle-aged marriages after their father was dead, but the men, because of their incapacity to earn a proper living, were the kind who ‘can’t afford’ to marry. None of them, except Gordon’s Aunt Angela, ever had so much as a home to call their own; they were the kind of people who live in godless ‘rooms’ and tomb-like boarding-houses. (p.42)
  • His father, especially, was the kind of father you couldn’t help being ashamed of; a cadaverous, despondent man, with a bad stoop, his clothes dismally shabby and hopelessly out of date. (p.44)

And so on and so on throughout the text. These continual expectations that the reader is familiar with this, that or the other aspect of modern life, with this or that ‘type’ of person or place or situation, stand as continual nudges into the fiction. They both flatter the reader’s intelligence and bolster the author’s aura of worldly wisdom. ‘You and I both know about this stuff, don’t we, old chap,’ and you find yourself reluctantly coerced to go along, even if you have no idea what he’s talking about.

  • He was the kind of man who never hears of anything until everybody else has stopped talking about it. (p.56)
  • The New Albion was one of those publicity firms which have sprung up everywhere since the War – the fungi, as you might say, that sprout from a decaying capitalism. (p.54)
  • It was one of those coats which have been made by a good tailor and grow more aristocratic as they grow older… (p.88)
  • He had one of those movements of contempt and even horror which every artist has at times when he thinks of his own work. (p.92)
  • It was one of those small, peaky faces, full of character, which one sees in sixteenth-century portraits.
  • She was the youngest child of one of those huge hungry families which still exist here and there in the middle classes. (p.123)
  • This was one of those cheap arid evil little libraries (‘mushroom libraries’, they are called) which are springing up all over London and are deliberately aimed at the uneducated. (p.225)
  • Gordon knew her type at a glance. (p.259)

Orwell knows all these types at a glance. He is an expert on humanity. And he expects you to be, too.

Orwell’s humour

All this said, Orwell is always capable of moments of pawky humour:

Ravelston lived on the first floor, and the editorial offices of Antichrist were downstairs. Antichrist was a middle – to high-brow monthly, Socialist in a vehement but ill-defined way. In general, it gave the impression of being edited by an ardent Nonconformist who had transferred his allegiance from God to Marx, and in doing so had got mixed up with a gang of vers libre poets.

Though it is often a rather grim, unsmiling humour.

Orwell’s use of the macabre

The ghost of Dickens is always hovering over Orwell’s writing, in the combination of urban poverty with sometimes warm broad humour and other times the weird and macabre.

Mr Cheeseman was a rather sinister little man, almost small enough to be called a dwarf, with very black hair, and slightly deformed. As a rule a dwarf, when malformed, has a full-sized torso and practically no legs. With Mr Cheeseman it was the other way about. His legs were normal length, but the top half of his body was so short that his buttocks seemed to sprout almost immediately below his shoulder blades. This gave him, in walking, a resemblance to a pair of scissors… It was apparent that Mr Cheeseman clipped his words from a notion that words cost money and ought not to be wasted… He took Gordon into his confidence, talked of conditions in the trade, and boasted with much chuckling of his own astuteness. He had a peculiar chuckle, his mouth curving upwards at the corners and his large nose seeming about to disappear into it… (p.223)

More than a touch reminiscent of Dickens’s malignant dwarf, Quilp, from The Old Curiosity Shop. But the advent of Mr Cheeseman, the miserly bookseller, in the final chapters of the book, is also maybe an indication that the whole thing is intended as a grotesque exaggeration, a satire, a hyperbolic fantasy.

Big Sister is watching you

Early on in the book the landlady of Gordon’s wretched lodgings is described as sneaking around and spying on her lodgers.

It was queer how furtively you had to live in Mrs Wisbeach’s house. You had the feeling that she was always watching you. (p.31)

Ring any bells? When I noticed this I realised the same thing happens in A Clergyman’s Daughter where miserly Mrs Creevy is constantly spying on Dorothy’s school lessons, and creeping about listening at the door of her bedroom.

The unpleasantness of being continually spied on was obviously an theme of Orwell’s fifteen years before Nineteen Eight-Four was published.

Contemporary relevance

Throughout the novel, among the kaleidoscope of his other thoughts Gordon feels guilty for not worrying more about the Depression and the unemployed and the suffering millions. The Depression and its severe impact on the north of England is exemplified in the repeated notion of Middlesborough as a particularly blighted town.

  • Most of the time, when he wasn’t thinking of coal-miners, Chinese junk-coolies, and the unemployed in Middlesbrough, he felt that life was pretty good fun…
  • But what of the real poor? What of the unemployed in Middlesbrough, seven in a room on twenty-five bob a week? When there are people living like that, how dare one walk the world with pound notes and cheque-books in one’s pocket?
  • He thought of the unemployed in Middlesbrough. Sexual starvation is awful among the unemployed.
  • In Middlesbrough the unemployed huddle in frowzy beds, bread and marg and milkless tea in their bellies. He settled down to his steak with all the shameful joy of a dog with a stolen leg of mutton.

As it happens today, Wednesday 9 August 2017, I just listened to a report on Radio 4’s World At One programme about the long-term impact of the financial crash of 2008, and they chose to send a reporter to Middlesborough as exemplifying the enduring negative consequences of the crash. We heard local people saying nothing is done for the town, it’s ignored by southern politicians, there’s no prospects for young people leaving town, not much hope of getting a job and no hope of buying a house. Unemployment is 1 in 6, double the national average and, as a consequence, Middlesborough had the highest Brexit vote of anywhere in the UK.

Obviously lots of things have changed since Orwell’s time, thousands of things, people’s lives have been transformed in countless ways. But some other things, deep structural things, haven’t changed at all.


Related links

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

The Muse Among the Motors by Rudyard Kipling

‘A series of verses on motoring and motorists, in the form of parodies in the style of earlier writers’

a) Kipling was an early enthusiast for motor cars from the moment his friend, the newspaper tycoon Lord Harmsworth, arrived at his Sussex home in one in 1900. He quickly bought a very early model – in fact a soon-to-be redundant steam-powered car, a ‘Locomobile’ – and employed the first of a series of chauffeur-engineers to drive and maintain it for him.

b) Kipling’s family was very artistic and throughout the children’s childhood and youth, the whole family read poetry and plays together, especially Shakespeare. Encouraged by this cultured environment, Kipling showed a precocious ability at writing pastiches and parodies from an early age. One of his first books was a self-published collection of parodies titled Echoes, printed when he was just 19.

After the turn of the century, when the South African war was over and Kipling had settled into his new home in rural Sussex, the two interests came together in a series of light-hearted pastiches of early, medieval and romantic poetry, with Kipling copying the styles of various classic poets (Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Donne, Milton, Byron Wordsworth and so on) as if they’d written poems about motor cars.

The first 14 were published in the Daily Mail in 1904 – to which he added six more in 1919, and a further six in 1929, making 26 in total. Some are very short. None are masterpieces. Some are mildly amusing. I like his take on the alliterative four-stress line of Anglo-Saxon poetry:

The Advertisement

(In the Manner of the Earlier English)

Whether to wend through straight streets strictly,
Trimly by towns perfectly paved;
Or after office, as fitteth thy fancy,
Faring with friends far among fields;
There is none other equal in action,
Sith she is silent, nimble, unnoisome,
Lordly of leather, gaudily gilded,
Burgeoning brightly in a brass bonnet,
Certain to steer well between wains.

and his spoof of Chaucer (I particularly like the line about Paris, that is exactly the kind of thing Chaucer says about his characters):

The Justice’s Tale

(Chaucer)

WITH them there rode a lustie Engineere
Wel skilled to handel everich waie her geere,
Hee was soe wise ne man colde showe him naught
And out of Paris was hys learnynge brought.
Frontlings mid brazen wheeles and wandes he sat,
And on hys heade he bare an leathern hat.
Hee was soe certaine of his governance,
That, by the Road, he tooke everie chaunce.
For simple people and for lordlings eke
Hee wolde not bate a del but onlie squeeke
Behinde their backés on an horné hie
Until they crope into a piggestie.
He was more wood than bull in china-shoppe,
And yet for cowes and doggés wolde hee stop,
Not our of Marcie but for Preudence-sake—
Than hys dependaunce ever was hys brake.

and this one, copying Adam Lindsay Gordon who I’ve never heard of, but which has the combination of sentimental pathos and humour of the Barrack-Room Ballads and also the punchiest final line.

The Dying Chauffeur

(Adam Lindsay Gordon)

WHEEL me gently to the garage, since my car and I must part –
No more for me the record and the run.
That cursèd left-hand cylinder the doctors call my heart
Is pinking past redemption – I am done!

They’ll never strike a mixture that’ll help me pull my load.
My gears are stripped – I cannot set my brakes.
I am entered for the finals down the timeless untimed Road
To the Maker of the makers of all makes!

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Charles Carrington on Kipling’s verse (1955)

Charles Carrington’s biography of Kipling is a masterpiece, not only of privileged research (he had access to family papers and diaries which were later destroyed, as well as close advice from Kipling’s only surviving child, Elsie, b.1896) but of balance and careful judgment, and with wonderfully evocative passages of its own.

For a whole generation homesickness was reversed by Kipling’s magic spell. Englishmen felt the days of England sick and cold and the skies grey and old, heard the East a-calling, fawned on the younger nations, learned to speak the jargon of the seven seas; while, in the outposts of empire, men who read no other books recognised and approved the glimpses of their own lives in phrases from Kipling’s verse: the flying-fishes and the thunder-clouds over the Bay of Bengal, the voyage outward-bound till the old lost stars wheel back, the palm-tree bowing down beneath a low African moon, the wild tide-race that whips the harbour-mouth at Melbourne, the broom flowering above the windy town at Wellington, the islands where the anchor-chain goes rippling down through the coral-trash. (Rudyard Kipling His Life and Work by Charles Carrington, Penguin paperback edition p.398)

Carrington on Kipling’s verse

Two thirds of the way through the 600-page book, Carrington pauses his narrative to give a ten-page essay on Kipling’s verse, which is packed with insights:

The ballad

Carrington draws a direct link between Kipling and Sir Walter Scott, another writer prolific in popular verse and tales, who dominated his age. Kipling’s mother (Alice MacDonald) was Scottish, and he showed a marked fondness for Scottish characters (notable the famous engineer McAndrew) and Scots dialect.

Carrington summarises on page 413 the elements of Scott’s use of Lowland popular verse as including:

  • the free borrowing or adaptation of  his predecessors
  • stylised imagery
  • the use of incantatory repetitions
  • harmonics of words meant to be recited against the background of simple instrumental music
  • changes of sentiment indicated by changes of rhythm
  • the violent alternations of the grotesque, the horrible and the pathetic

To this list I’d add the deliberate use of older ‘poetic’ words and phrases. But whereas in Scott these are references to older Scots speech and pseudo-medievalisms, Kipling’s poems are drenched with the lexicon and rhythms of the Bible.

Influence of the Bible

Both Kipling’s parents were the children of Methodist ministers, reared in God-fearing, Bible-quoting households. In his horrible childhood in Southsea the young Kipling was tyrannised by a tub-thumping, Evangelical housewife in a household where Bible readings and hymn singing were compulsory.

This was the common fare of the great bulk of the English people in the nineteenth century – of almost all of them, it may be said, except the deracinated intellectuals. It was precisely because Kipling’s prose repeatedly echoes Biblical rhythms and turns of phrase that it was accepted and understood by a public that read the Bible, but did not read Walter Pater. (p.415)

His more serious poems were written in a didactic and sonorous style which directly derives from Hymns Ancient and Modern, ‘by far the most popular volume of verse in nineteenth century England’.

Popular tunes

But Carrington’s biggest insight into Kipling’s verse is the fact that he composed it to the rhythm of musical tunes. From his Methodist parents, from his harsh Evangelical upbringing, from weekly attendance at school chapel, Kipling knew a wide range of hymn tunes and, once he’d moved to London in 1889, he developed an enthusiasm for the London music hall, which introduced him to all the popular hits and melodies of the age – ‘The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo’, ‘Knocked ‘Em In The Old Kent Road’ – as well as American classics from earlier in the century like ‘John Brown’s Body’, ‘Marching Through Georgia’ and so on.

Carrington here and elsewhere in the biography quotes eye-witness accounts of the way his wife, friends and visitors would see and hear Kipling humming a tune as he walked round his study or up and down the garden or along the deck of an ocean liner, humming and singing to himself and slowly forming words which matched the rhythm of the song. His wife noted in her diary ‘Ruddy was singing a new poem today…’

He would say ‘Give me a hymn-tune’ and, when someone suggested one, would go about for days humming it over, drumming it out with his fingers until words framed themselves to the tune, intent upon that and oblivious of the world, until he had finished his verse. It did not matter, for that purpose, that the song whose tune he borrowed was quite incongruous with the poem he intended; it was the rhythm he wanted and made his own. (p.321)

It is best to think of many of his poems as music hall songs, which aren’t designed to evoke sensitive emotional responses from an aesthete drawling on a divan, but are intended to be recited and even sung, to a wide audience. Like music halls songs, they adopt a character or persona and are replete with comic ‘patter’, as a music hall star might intersperse jokes and comments into a song. And, like a song, instead of evoking a range of emotions in a range of readers, they are meant to unite an audience of listeners onto one clear and forceful message.

Carrington exemplifies the relevance of the musical interpretation over a purely technical interpretation by pointing out that both Kipling’s ‘Mandalay’ and Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’ are written in trochaic lines of eight feet.

Kipling

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
‘Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!’

Tennyson

Thro’ the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day;
Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.

The rhythm of the Kipling is more emphatic, as is the break or ‘caesura’ in the middle of each line – made crystal clear by the use of a comma – because it is a song and even if we read it silently, it still rings in our heads more like a song than a poem.

Carrington notes that Kipling himself fictionalised the process of ‘adapting’ a popular song in his comic story ‘The Village That Voted The World Was Flat’, where the village is pilloried in a popular song created by its enemies which is a straight lift of the tune of ‘Here We Go Gathering Nuts In May’. The title of the story is the title of the song and fits the tune perfectly.

Carrington identifies some tunes with specific poems: ‘Mandalay’ with a contemporary waltz tune; the refrain of ‘Follow Me ‘Ome’ with the Dead March; ‘Birds of Prey’ with ‘Knocked ‘Em In the Old Kent Road’ and, strikingly, the rhythm of ‘A School Song’ with ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’!

Let us now praise famous men’ –
Men of little showing –
For their work continueth,
And their work continueth,
Broad and deep continueth,
Greater than their knowing!

Kipling’s daughter is among the many witnesses quoted as to the importance of music in the composition process and herself suggests musical bases for some poems:

R.K. usually worked in the morning, if he had anything in hand, either doing the actual writing, or pacing up and down his study humming to himself. Much of  his best known verse was written to a tune, the ‘Recessional’ to ‘Melita’, the tune usually sung to ‘Eternal Father, strong to save’; ‘Mandalay’ to an old waltz tune: and so on; this was curious as R.K. was quite unmusical. (Quoted on page 481)

The story about ‘Recessional’ fits. You can indeed fit the words of Kipling’s poem to the hymn tune:

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Ghostly presences

Carrington’s last thought is that most of the poems can’t be easily identified with specific songs: only Kipling knew their derivation and source, and kept his secrets. But – and this makes them all the more effective – the ghosts and hints of old-time music hall songs, popular tunes or classic hymns known to millions float across the poems, underpin them, appear and disappear in their rhythms. And this deeper fugitive layer of meaning, of rhythmic and harmonic meaning, is one of the reasons why poems which, so often, ought to be trite and vulgar, in fact possess a strange and eerie power.

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Rudyard Kipling: Selected Verse edited by James Cochrane (1977)

This Penguin edition from 1977 has neither introduction nor end notes, in fact there is no editorial matter of any kind. It also contains only 119 poems, compared to 183 in the Craig Raine selection and 123 in the T.S. Eliot edition. On the face of it, the Raine edition is the best paperback selection, casting its net widest, including more of the early light verse, and more oddities and rarities: it’s the most diverse and the most entertaining.

Where this edition does score over both the others is in its layout. Each new poem starts at the top of a page. Both the other editions run one poem straight on after the previous one, so poems start mid-page or right at the bottom of a page, with maybe just one stanza visible before you have to turn over and continue. Sometimes, given that Kipling poems often comes in sets and also often have a preliminary stanza in italics before the main poem begins, this layout can lead to real confusion.

Trivial though this may sound, the layout of this Cochrane edition does actually give each poem a kind of dignity and space in which to operate. When a poem ends the rest of the page is blank. You turn over – and a new one begins. It’s much clearer and easier to read than the other two.

Partly because of this, reading this edition I noticed poems which, although they’re included in the other editions, are broken up across several pages whereas here, starting at the top of their own dedicated page, they immediately had more presence and made more impact.

And once again, the poems amazed me with Kipling’s range. I was particularly struck by The Way Through The Woods (1910). A world away from the bouncy music hall ballads or the sonorous hymns of the 1890s, it could be by the sensitive Georgian poet Edward Thomas.

The Way Through The Woods

They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods.
But there is no road through the woods.


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