One shall break frost’s fetters: on Old English poetry

Many years ago a friend, who knew of my interest in medieval literature, gave me for Christmas a copy of Michael Alexander’s translation in Penguin Classics of The Earliest English Poets. I’d studied Old English (OE) as an undergraduate, and had worked on the OE version of the Life of St Mary of Egypt (about whom I’ve posted several times recently here) in my postgraduate career, so it was a pleasure to revisit these texts at that time when I was working in the Basque province of N. Spain. I happened to pick this volume from my shelf just now.

Front cover of the Alexander collection

Front cover of the Alexander collection (see below)

It’s divided into categories, including Heroic Poems (with an extract from ‘Beowulf’: The Fight at Finnsburg); Elegies (including ‘The Seafarer’, translated with notorious freedom and panache elsewhere by the inimitable Ezra Pound); Gnomic Verses – which tend to be maxims in the form of generalisations about the natural or human world, for example

Frost shall freeze

            fire eat wood

Earth shall breed

            ice shall bridge

One shall break

                                                                              frost’s fetters

 Some don’t fit into neat categories, like The Dream of the Rood – rood, of course, meaning cross (hence the presence in most medieval English churches of rood-screens, designed to conceal from the gaze of the vulgar congregation the holy secrets of the priest’s sacramental rites).

In his introduction Alexander points out the etymology of the OE word for poet: scop: it derives from the verb meaning ‘to shape, form, create, destine’, and to scieppand, ‘creator, shaper, God’. The scop would likely have been attached to the court of a noble lord, and like today’s poet laureates would have been called upon to compose works for special occasions, as well as to recite (or sing) well-known works about the heroes and events of the past.

The Scandinavian equivalent was the skald, and both types of poet may well have accompanied themselves on a lyre-like instrument (I did some bibliographical work for [the now late lamented] Professor John Stevens at one point on his book Words and Music in the Middle Ages – still in print at CUP – in which he discusses this more learnedly than I can; scholars still dispute the allegedly oral basis of most early medieval poetry). ‘Skald’ seems to have etymological roots in Germanic words denoting ‘song, ring, clang or resound’.

‘Scop’ also had derogatory denotations, ultimately becoming modern English ‘scoff’ (as in scornful),while ‘skald’ may have evolved into modern ‘scold’.

Welsh bards and Gaelic ollaves were the scops of the Celts.

The name scop is the equivalent of ‘poet’, derived in turn from the Greek verb ‘make’; in medieval Scots a poet was thus a ‘makar’. The Provençal and Catalan trobador (much loved by Pound, in his early work), Northern French trouvère and Italian trovatore take their names from another linguistic root meaning ‘finder’. Early medieval ‘found verse’, in fact.

‘Deor’ is one of the uncategorised poems in this collection of worthy rather than thrillingly Poundian translations; one of the few tags of OE poetry that’s stayed with me all these years since my first year of undergraduate study is the refrain from this lovely, haunting poem, translated here as

that went by; this may too

 referring to the catalogue of woes and disasters experienced by the eponymous exiled poet whose voice utters the poem’s words, and his unconvincingly stoical hope that things can only get better.

It’s more powerful in the alliterative original:

Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg

The first letter is a survivor of the old runic futhorc,

OE Futhorc, from a 9C MS

OE Futhorc, from a 9C MS (via Wikimedia Commons)

which would have been incised on horn or wood. There’s a weird OE rune poem about these characters not in this Alexander collection.

There’s a useful article about runes at Wikipedia, from which I’ve taken this image of the 7C Northumbrian Franks Casket, a whalebone and tin box now in the British Museum, and inscribed with OE runes

The Franks Casket

The Franks Casket

relating the story of Wayland Smith (cited in the first line of ‘Deor’; his name signifies ‘articifer’, originating in the belief that forged iron swords were said to possess magic powers; he’s the counterpart of the Roman Vulcan).

 

The front cover of this Penguin edition (included above) has a detail from this casket, depicting Wayland drinking out of the skull of one of the sons of the captor Nithhad, who had hamstrung him so that he would not escape; he did, killing the tyrant’s two sons and raping his daughter. They were a tough lot back then. The poet Deor takes comfort from this legendary miraculous escape from apparently hopeless circumstances, and goes on to relate several other misfortunes from the heroic tradition, all of which resulted in deliverance.

There’s hope for us all in a dreary world, is his message.

 

In America bluff is everything. William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), White Mule. Penguin Modern Classics1971

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) is probably best known for his pared-down, brief poems like The Red Wheelbarrow and This is Just to Say (I have eaten/the plums/that were in/the icebox…), or urban poetic epics like Paterson (he lived most of his life in New Jersey). After an early flirtation with the Imagists – his second volume of poems was published in 1912 with the support of Ezra Pound, whom he’d met at university in Pennsylvania – Williams’ writing style was to change direction towards a more radical modernism; he rejected the highly allusive and multilingual intellectual European style of Eliot, adopting instead a voice that was distinctively American vernacular, with his mantra ‘no ideas but in things’.

Williams also wrote prose fiction and non-fiction; one of my tutors at Bristol University, Charles Tomlinson (a British poet who died in August of this year) introduced me to modern American writing, and in particular that of Williams and Wallace Stevens, two poets he admired. He in his turn had an enormous influence on my own literary interests; he’s much missed – a genuinely kind and sensitive teacher.

1921 passport photo of Williams

1921 passport photo of Williams

I was interested in following up my reading of another American poet’s prose work, E.E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room, about which I wrote here last week, with that of Williams: what sort of novel would this paediatrician-poet create? Published in 1937, White Mule was the first in a trilogy of novels about the immigrant Stecher family’s struggle to assimilate in New York City. Its title derives, according to something I read online, but I don’t recall seeing it in the novel, from the baby, Flossie, whose fierce kick is likened to that of White Mule whiskey.

The plot is minimal: the novel opens with the birth of Gurlie and Joe Stecher’s second child:

She entered, as Venus from the sea, dripping. The air enclosed her, she felt it all over her, touching, waking her.

The baby is sickly and cantankerous, and her mother’s response on learning her sex is at first callous and negligent: ‘Another girl. Agh. I don’t want girls. Take it away and let me rest.’ She takes out her annoyance on Joe, telling him he’ll now have to earn more. And here one of the novel’s central themes emerges: Gurlie wants to live the American Dream, and as a woman is incapable of achieving her ambition on her own; she urges Joe to be more assertive:

You are too careful, you have no daring, you must bluff!

Never, said he.

You must. In America bluff is everything…be a better bluff than they are…But you are too timid. I could do it. But now is the time. You have two daughters now and I am not going to sit down and be a hausfrau. I am going to live and see the world and I must have money. And you are going to make it for me…If you think I’m going to stay here and have babies one after the other and nothing else you fool yourself. You tell those people you want more money or quit. If you don’t, I quit.

 The style is akin to that of Williams’s poetry: spare, idiomatic, concrete, almost monosyllabic. There’s minimal punctuation and no quotation marks for speech, or paragraphing to differentiate speakers’ utterances. Free indirect discourse abounds, as when Joe muses that outburst of Gurlie’s:

Watching her eyes flash, the very insensibility of her fire somehow excited him in spite of himself. It was something he did not understand but there it was. Foolish or reasonable, but there it was. He could understand that all right…It was his own wife. She had the brains of a chicken – but that was his hard luck. He had married her, hadn’t he? That wasn’t her fault…What did he care? He felt admiration – a borrowed resentment against the world momentarily possessed him. Yes, she was right. He was abler than the rest…

Notice how the stream of Joe’s untutored, barely articulate thoughts is complemented by the narrator’s higher-register observations. He and Gurlie make a formidable team. Go out and fight them, she tells him: ‘It is a free country. If you don’t fight for it you get nothing – but to be called a fool. You owe it to me to fight.’

Joe, a printer, was once a firebrand union member, but at the time the novel opens he’s turned gamekeeper, having become disillusioned with the corruption of union officials: as foreman in his printing works he does the owner’s bidding in pushing the workforce to ever greater output with minimal financial reward, taking great pride in his own technical printing skill. The printers eventually call a strike, which Joe resolutely defies and fights, even risking his own life as the hostility grows. But his ungrateful boss fails to recognise his loyalty, and doesn’t even give him a raise when the strike ends. Gurlie is disgusted with him.

This is really Flossie’s novel. Much of the book relates her precarious infancy as a succession of youthful, inept nursemaids take unprofessional care of her; her mother finds her a chore. Williams’s clinical expertise as a pediatrician is apparent in his wonderful descriptions of the infant’s development:

For a fact the baby liked it immensely in that hot room, if actions mean anything, for it lay completely relaxed on its back, its head moving slowly about as if it were viewing the room though its eyes didn’t seem to focus on anything…The baby was playing up to the girl’s gentle voice and easy manner to perfection. With half closed eyes, it moved first a finger then an arm as if talking some mysterious sign language.

When malnutrition, neglect and infections weaken Flossie dangerously, her mother is advised to take her into the country for a healthier environment. Taking her other daughter with her (she’s five when Flossie is born), Gurlie lodges with a frugal, elderly Norwegian couple at their farm in upstate New York. Flossie thrives in the regime there, and Gurlie loves rural life, having been raised on a farm in Norway – she feels ‘cooped and tormented by city exigencies.’

By the novel’s end Joe appears to have made a deal with another printer-entrepreneur to start up his own company, a development which will please his driven wife.

Mule cover This is an artistically more ambitious and skilfully realised work than The Enormous Room, with a more artful structure and rounded portrayal of character and relationships. At first I found the abrupt shift of scene from the city to the country farm odd and felt it unbalanced the novel, and the open ending, with an apparently inconsequential rural event, unsatisfactory. On reflection, however, I’ve come to see that it points forward to the next novel in the sequence, and I find I do want to stay with the account of this abrasive, dysfunctional family, which manages simultaneously somehow to persuade me that they’re more than just a force to reckon with – they become a symbol of America’s thrusting, upwardly mobile immigrant-founded citizenry: they’re people who, despite their unattractive selfishness and truculent ambition are credible as flawed, striving human beings.

The novel closes with a description of Flossie and other children watching the menfolk (some are from Boston) shoot their rifles:

The children were standing back in a fascinated circle, the baby’s face smeared with berry juice, her hands sooty: quite part of it all.

 She has survived the ordeal of her first year in America and has become ‘part of it all.’ An American. But the cost to Joe has been high as he struggles to maintain his integrity in the face of corrupt unions on the one hand and greedy, corrupt employers – whose number he is about to join in order to get ‘In the Money’ – on the other.

We are all, in our diverse ways, immigrants, craving integration and assimilation while maintaining our independence and hoping for our families to flourish. Would Flossie thrive today, I wonder?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ernest Hemingway, ‘Cat in the Rain’ – a critique

Ernest Hemingway’s story ‘Cat in the Rain’ was first published in New York in 1925 in the collection In Our Time.  Hemingway dedicated the book to his wife Hadley.  It was inspired by a visit he made with his wife to Rapallo in 1923, where their friends Ezra Pound and his wife Dorothy rented a villa.  The Hemingways were in the second year of their marriage and of being based in Paris.

The story begins:  ‘They were the only two Americans stopping at the hotel.’  They don’t know any of the other guests; the narrative emphasises, that is, their isolation – they have only each other.  Their hotel room faces a scene described with Hemingway’s typically unadorned style; objects are singled out with minimal comment : ‘There were big palms and green benches in the public garden.’  The sentences are mostly simple in structure, usually just one or two phrases or clauses, tacked together with the conjunction ‘and’.   Adjectives are rare, and when used are usually monosyllabic and plain, even banal: ‘big’, ‘green’,‘bright’.   The atmosphere created is therefore neutral, even uninviting: ‘Artists liked the way the palms grew and the bright colors of the hotels facing the gardens and the sea.’

 

Rapallo (photo: D. Papalini via WikiC)

Rapallo (photo: D. Papalini via WikiC)

Rapallo is never named, but it’s clearly an Italian seaside resort very like it, for ‘Italians came from a long way off to look at the war monument’, which was ‘made of bronze and glistened in the rain.’  This is the only noun so far that is out of the ordinary, and even this ‘monument’ is presented unemphatically.  Its significance seems to be to highlight the seriousness with which the Italians took their recent history, and to show how committed they were to honouring the memory of those who’d died in World War I (they don’t just come to ‘look at’ the monument – they ‘look up at it).  This commitment contrasts with the presentation of the two self-obsessed American characters, who now appear.

The style in these opening three paragraphs reflects what Hemingway had been developing in his work, further encouraged by his mentors in Paris for the past two years – Pound and Gertrude Stein in particular: pare everything down to its essence in prose with rhythmic syntactic patterns and frequent repetition.  This involved striving for what he described in his memoir of the Paris years, A Moveable Feast (which I reviewed here recently): ‘Write the truest sentence that you know’ and ‘not describe’.  He elaborated this ‘theory’ thus:

[Y]ou could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.

in paragraph three, then, the word ‘rain’ (also used in the story’s title) or ‘raining’ appears five times, and it recurs five more times in the rest of this story which contains just over 1100 words in total.  Other words from this semantic field resonate throughout the story: ‘dripping’, ‘wet’, ‘umbrella’, and so on.  Many other carefully selected words and phrases are repeated in these opening paragraphs: ‘room’, ‘sea’, ‘public garden’, ‘war monument’; several reappear later.  Hemingway is intent on foregrounding the few solid things that are significant; everything else is omitted, and there are few abstract nouns.  This is his famous ‘iceberg’ method, where what is visible and solid in the story is considerably less substantial than what lies beneath the surface.

The other most-repeated expressions indicate where the symbolic and emotional focus in the story lies:  ‘cat’ is used in the title and twelve times in the story; the childish diminutive ‘kitty’ is used by the wife seven times.

Photo: Cindy2 via WikiC

Photo: Cindy2 via WikiC

She is referred to anonymously as ‘the American wife’ or ‘his wife’ seven times and even more patronisingly as ‘(the American) girl’ four times, whereas George is named eight times, only being called ‘the husband’ twice; his inertia is emphasised through being repeatedly described as lying on the bed – ‘read’ or ‘reading’ appears seven times, ‘book’ twice, ‘bed’ five times.  Only the wife physically moves about, which she does frequently and restlessly; George’s most strenuous act is to put his book down briefly and to ‘shift his position in the bed’.

The story proper starts with this ‘girl’ looking out of their window at the rain; presumably she’s bored, languid and listless – they’re trapped in the room by the weather, but we sense that her sense of entrapment goes deeper.  When she spots a ‘poor kitty’ cowering under a table outside,  sheltering from the rain, George offers half-heartedly to fetch it.  The wife goes, leaving him reading on his bed.   ‘Don’t get wet’, he says, unsympathetic, ungallant.

The hotel proprietor, by  way of contrast, is kind to her as she leaves the building.  The narrator repeats variants of the verb ‘liked’ seven times in quick succession– ‘She liked the way he wanted to serve her’; his generosity of spirit contrasts with George’s brusqueness and inattentiveness.  A maid appears, kindly sent by the proprietor, with an umbrella to shelter her as she searches in the downpour for the cat, but it has gone.  When she returns inside, ‘Something felt very small and tight inside the girl’ – possibly the first verbal hint at her true physical and emotional condition.  The proprietor bows to her and she feels strangely important.  There’s something childish about Hemingway’s depiction of her – and about George.

Back in their room they talk, or the wife does, in desultory fashion.

‘I wanted it so much,’ she said. ‘I don’t know why I wanted it so much. I wanted that poor kitty. It isn’t any fun to be a poor kitty out in the rain.’

George was reading again.

The wife turns her attention to her reflection in the mirror, and again is shown as immature through the language of the narrative; first she suggests that she should grow her hair so as to look less like ‘a boy’ (not ‘man’) – a look of which she repeatedly says she’s ‘tired’.  George says, seemingly sincerely, that she looks ‘pretty darn nice’; here again the language is hardly adult or sophisticated.  The wife’s tirade continues petulantly: she adds that she also ‘wants’ her own table to eat at with her own silver and candles.  She’s possibly craving the stability and security of a nest for a longed-for baby, but she also states this desire for tangible, domestic objects in the absence of warmth and affection from George – a factor he seems oblivious to.  She says that she wants it to be spring, to brush her hair and a ‘kitty’ (suddenly remembered again) and ‘some new clothes’, and she sounds (to George and to the reader) irritatingly pettish and girlish, but also discontented and frustrated.  His dismissive response, however, is to snap: ‘Oh, shut up and get something to read.’  And he returns to his own reading. End of Part One of this critique. 

Hemingway in Paris, 1924 (JFK Library, via WikiCommons)

Hemingway in Paris, 1924 (JFK Library, via WikiCommons)

Part Two of this critique is found here: it offers a closer look at how ‘Cat in the Rain’ might be interpreted, in the light of a parallel scene in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife – her novel based on Hemingway and Hadley’s life in twenties Paris, my review of which is found here.

Ernest Hemingway, ‘A Moveable Feast’ – Review Part II

PART TWO: for part 1 of this critique, click HERE

Fitzgerald invites him to accompany him on a trip to Lyon to collect the open-top car that he and Zelda had been forced to abandon there because of the bad weather; Zelda had bizarrely insisted the car remain a makeshift convertible after the original roof had been damaged and removed.  Fitzgerald misses the train, probably because he was drunk, and Hemingway is furious with him.  When he eventually shows up at Hemingway’s hotel in Lyon, they spend a strange evening in which Hemingway unwisely (maliciously?) plies him with alcohol.  Soon Fitzgerald insists he’s dying; Hemingway is unsympathetic; he’s probably right in thinking he’s just drunk – but he had already developed the opinion that Fitzgerald was both a heavy drinker and unable to hold his drink.

There’s a great deal of warm humour in his account of this scene: when Fitzgerald insists they send out for a thermometer to check his temperature, room service returns with an enormous device not intended for clinical use, and Fitzgerald wonders with some trepidation into which orifice his friend intends inserting it.  This good humour pervades much of the book, making it an enjoyable read for the most part, despite the swaggering self-aggrandisement Hemingway indulges in, and the generally rancorous portrayal of Fitzgerald, whose talent he clearly envies.

Gertrude Stein with Bumby (John) Hemingway in Paris (WikiCommons)

Gertrude Stein with Bumby (John) Hemingway in Paris (WikiCommons)

There’s warmth too in most of the other portraits of the writers he encountered in Paris.  He’d gone there in the first place partly because it was a cheap place to live, but mostly because he shrewdly gauged that he was more likely to advance his literary career in the city that was at the heart of world artistic creativity at the time.  He is generously mentored by the guru of modernism in Paris, Gertrude Stein, who is the subject of several early chapters.  Mostly his account of her and her salon is grateful and fond in tone (she was always ‘friendly’ and ‘affectionate’ towards him, at first anyway): he recounts how he learned a lot from her about technique, such as using rhythm and repetition – both of which became characteristic features of his own prose.   He gleefully tells of her opinionated, often acerbic gossip about famous writers and artists like Sherwood Anderson, Picasso and Apollinaire.   But it’s apparent towards the end of their friendship that they fell out seriously.  And he can’t resist mentioning several times that Gertrude excluded Hadley from all their conversations (he doesn’t mention making any attempt to do something about that at the time).

Ezra Pound's head, by Romanian artist Gaudier-Brzeska, a piece that Hemingway admired when he saw it in Pound's apartment in Paris (WikiCommons)

Ezra Pound’s head, by Romanian artist Gaudier-Brzeska, a piece that Hemingway admired when he saw it in Pound’s apartment in Paris (WikiCommons)

Ezra Pound was the other most notable modernist writer in Paris at the time, and he also took great interest in the ambitious young Hemingway’s precocious talent, and helped him considerably.  Nevertheless Hemingway frequently portrays himself as a superior masculine figure, for example teaching Pound to box, and finding him a poor pupil.

He’s a bit of an expat snob, too.  He haunts the Closerie des Lilas, the nearest ‘good café’ when he and Hadley lived above a sawmill (in central Paris!) at the rue Notre-Dame des Champs; he does much of his writing in this café, whereas earlier he’d rented a room to work in.  He doesn’t try to conceal his scorn for posers:

 

People from the Dome and the Rotonde never came to the Lilas.  There was no one there they knew, and no one would have stared at them if they came.  In those days many people went to the cafés at the corner of the Boulevard Montparnasse and the Boulevard Raspail to be seen publicly.

 

The Lilas was a former haunt of poets, but the only one he ever sees there is Blaise Cendrars, who Hemingway doesn’t mention had abandoned writing modernist poetry in 1925 and became a famous avant-garde novelist.

In an amusing passage which is perhaps intended as self-deprecatingly ironic in its

vLa Closerie des Lilas in 1909 (WikiCommons)
La Closerie des Lilas in 1909 (WikiCommons)

depiction of his bad-tempered reception of interlopers who pester him when he’s trying to work there, he recreates a scene in which a second-rate writer has the gall to criticise his prose style as ‘too stark’.

‘Too bad,’ I said.

‘Hem, it’s too stripped, too lean.’

‘Bad luck.’

‘Hem, too stripped, too lean, too sinewy’.

I felt the rabbit’s foot in my pocket guiltily.  ‘I’ll try to fatten it up a little.’

‘Mind, I don’t want it obese.’

Sisley, The Seine at Argenteuil.  Hemingway enjoyed taking meals at the Pêche Miraculeuse overlooking a Seine vista that reminded him of this artist's riverscapes (WikiCommons)
Sisley, The Seine at Argenteuil. Hemingway enjoyed taking meals at the Pêche Miraculeuse, an open-air restaurant overlooking a Seine vista that reminded him of this artist’s riverscapes (WikiCommons)

He’s joined there on one occasion by Ford Madox Ford, about whom he’s quite rude(but about the Vorticist painter and writer Wyndham Lewis he’s venomous, finding him ‘evil’): he says that Ford gloats after claiming he’s just ‘cut’ Hilaire Belloc, and recalls that Pound had advised him never to be rude to Ford for ‘he only lied when he was tired’, and that he was a good writer with ‘domestic troubles’.  Hemingway tries hard to remember this, he says, but the ‘heavy, wheezing ignoble presence of Ford himself…made it difficult.’  Maybe he just doesn’t get Ford’s English mentality; in a hilarious Wildean exchange that follows, when Ford explains that it’s necessary as a gentleman to cut a ‘cad’, Hemingway asks if one should also cut ‘a bounder’.  ‘It would be impossible for a gentleman to know a bounder’, Ford retorts.  ‘Is Ezra a gentleman?’ Hemingway asks.  ‘Of course not,’ Ford said.  ‘He’s an American.’ What about Henry James?  ‘Very nearly’, replies Ford.  And Hemingway himself?  ‘”You might be considered a gentleman in Italy,” Ford said magnanimously.’

Despite the macho posturing, then, this is an amiable book, charming at times, often very funny, though one learns very little that is trustworthy about Hemingway himself or his relationship with Hadley – though he writes of her with passion and affection.  This makes his subsequent abandonment of her at the end all the more difficult to understand, and the unflattering, ungallant way in which he tells of the affair with Pauline and ensuing separation and divorce is hard to stomach; he talks nastily of the ways he was innocently beguiled by rich people, one of whom must be Pauline, who he says used ‘the oldest trick there is’:

It is that an unmarried young woman becomes the temporary best friend of another young woman who is married, goes to live with the husband and wife and then unknowingly, innocently and unrelentingly sets out to marry the husband.  When the husband is a writer and doing difficult work so that he is occupied much of the time and is not a good companion or partner to his wife for a big part of the day, the arrangement has advantages until you know how it works out.  The husband has two attractive girls around when he has finished work.

Having begun the affair with Pauline he returns to Austria from Paris, where he’d been with her on his own, having left Hadley and Bumby in Schruns, and describes seeing Hadley waiting for him on the station platform; this passage seems both lyrically fine but also mealy-mouthed : ‘She was smiling, the sun on her lovely face tanned by the snow and sun, beautifully built, her hair red gold in the sun, grown out all winter awkwardly and beautifully…’

Notre Dame from the east (WikiCommons)

Notre Dame from the east (WikiCommons)

And so he leaves Paris, to which he says there is ‘never any ending’, and ‘the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.’

Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.  But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.

 

For my review of Paula McLain’s novel based on the marriage of Hemingway and Hadley, and its demise – The Paris Wife – click HERE