Curtis Fox and David Mikics discuss “Ozymandias”.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Filed under Audio, History, Poem
I met Auden late in his life and mine—at an age when the easy, knowledgeable intimacy of friendships formed in one’s youth can no longer be attained, because not enough life is left, or expected to be left, to share with another. Thus, we were very good friends but not intimate friends. Moreover, there was a reserve in him that discouraged familiarity—not that I tested it, ever. I rather gladly respected it as the necessary secretiveness of the great poet, one who must have taught himself early not to talk in prose, loosely and at random, of things that he knew how to say much more satisfactorily in the condensed concentration of poetry. Reticence may be the déformation professionnelle of the poet. In Auden’s case, this seemed all the more likely because much of his work, in utter simplicity, arose out of the spoken word, out of idioms of everyday language—like “Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm.” This kind of perfection is very rare; we find it in some of the greatest of Goethe’s poems, and it must exist in most of Pushkin’s works, because their hallmark is that they are untranslatable. The moment poems of this kind are wrenched from their original abode, they disappear in a cloud of banality. Here all depends on the “fluent gestures” in “elevating facts from the prosaic to the poetic”—a point that the critic Clive James stressed in his essay on Auden in Commentary in December 1973. Where such fluency is achieved, we are magically convinced that everyday speech is latently poetic, and, taught by the poets, our ears open up to the true mysteries of language. The very untranslatability of one of Auden’s poems is what, many years ago, convinced me of his greatness. Three German translators had tried their luck and killed mercilessly one of my favorite poems, “If I Could Tell You” (Collected Shorter Poems 1927–1957), which arises naturally from two colloquial idioms—“Time will tell” and “I told you so”:
Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.
If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so. . . .
The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so. . . .
Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
Filed under History, Poem
Novelist, short story writer, and poet Constance Fenimore Woolson, who chose a literary career over marriage and motherhood, was born on March 5, 1840.
Filed under Birthday, News
More than any other disease, tuberculosis (TB), or consumption, shaped the social history of 19th-century Europe. Its impact on the artistic world was just as powerful, with artists offering their own commentaries on the disease through painting, poetry and opera. Consumption was almost a defining feature of Romanticism, the style of expression for which the era was known.
According to The White Plague (1952) by René and Jean Dubos, Caucasian patients took on a profoundly anaemic countenance as they lost blood and iron – thus the title of their great history of the disease. The consumptive model Elizabeth Siddal, best known as the drowned Ophelia in John Everett Millais’s pre-Raphaelite painting, became an icon for her generation. Fashion-conscious, healthy women starved themselves and chemically whitened their skin to mimic this ‘consumptive’ look. Lord Byron, the most notorious of the Romantic poets, quipped that the affliction would have ladies saying: ‘See that poor Byron – how interesting he looks in dying.’ Indeed, the preponderance of Romantic writers, painters and composers with TB created a myth that consumption drove artistic genius. Many assumed that the spes phthisica, a kind of elation that intermingles with depression during the disease, elevated the mind.
The truth, of course, is that TB’s impact on the arts was merely a reflection of the savagery with which it ravaged the general population – artists and everyone else. In 1801, up to one-third of all Londoners died from TB. Yet its course was insidious, with some victims dying slowly over months, and others – years. Talented victims, all of them doomed before the age of antibiotics, had time (paraphrasing Keats) for their pens to glean their teeming brains, in spite of, not because of, the disease.
Filed under History, Study
In 1921, having taken time off from his job at Lloyds Bank for what would now be called depression, TS Eliot spent three weeks convalescing in Margate. It was the hottest October in years. Every day, he got the tram from the Albemarle Hotel in Cliftonville to the sea front, and, sitting in Nayland Rock shelter, he wrote “some 50 lines” of his poem The Waste Land.
These days, the hotel is a block of flats, and while the shelter is still a shelter, it is at present fenced off. Yet Eliot’s time in Margate, a brief interlude before travelling to a Swiss sanatorium, is preserved in Part III of The Waste Land: “On Margate Sands,” he wrote, “I can connect / Nothing with Nothing. / The broken fingernails of dirty hands.” If this, among the fragmented voices of a poem designed to disorient, directly reflects the poet’s psychological state, it also reflects the enterprise: connecting “Nothing with Nothing”, and stitching together disparate parts of history and literature to make a polyphonic, modern masterpiece.
Journeys with The Waste Land, an exhibition at Turner Contemporary in Margate, is currently displaying artworks in sync with Eliot’s poem. Contemporaneous Paul Nash paintings show the barbed wire of no man’s land, alongside Graham Sutherland’s response to Eliot’s line: “And the dead tree gives no shelter.” A Henry Moore drawing of stooped Londoners in a war shelter evokes something of what Eliot would have seen in his time in the “Unreal City”, attempting to make his way in literary London and finding it populated by men either unfit for service or physically deformed by it.
Filed under History, Reviews