Plymouth Pilgrim

Plymouth pilgrimage

Drake statue HoeIf you’ve read this blog recently you’ll know that one of my oldest friends died in May. Michael Flay’s works (reviewed by me) and contributions have featured many times over the years here. He and I used to meet several times a year to talk. Usually it was somewhere between Cheltenham, where he lived, and Truro – most often Plymouth (Bristol and Exeter also, sometimes).

We always travelled by train to these meetings; Mike loved railways. Yesterday I went on a poignant, solitary trip to Plymouth to meet with him in his absence.

Having arrived at Plymouth station concourse at noon, I paused to scan the Arrivals noticeboard. There was the train Mike would have caught: the 13.01 from Cardiff. I would usually wait in the garish buffet over a coffee. I looked towards the barriers, half expecting to see Mike’s customary approach and greeting. Of course, it wasn’t to be.

Armada Way, looking north (wikipedia photo)

Armada Way, looking north (wikipedia photo)

Through the arid shopping precincts of the city (Mike would have called them ‘zones’), rebuilt by modernist zealots after the destruction of the blitz – aimed inaccurately at the naval shipyards – during WWII.

I walked to the Waterfront, a striking art-deco bistro-pub on a terrace right beside Plymouth Sound. To get there I pass over the

The repaired Waterfront bistro terrace with the Hoe behind

The repaired Waterfront bistro terrace with the Hoe and Smeaton’s Tower behind

Hoe, with its stiff statue (see above) of an implausibly theatrical Drake (born in nearby Tavistock), bowling-ball in hand, gazing out implacably towards the expected, despised, ‘invincible’ Armada.

From below the Pilgrim Fathers set out on their puritanical way in 1620 to New Plymouth in New England – the second settlement there. Hence the accent: the West country English burr.

Our favourite table inside the Waterfront when too cold to sit outside

Our favourite table inside the Waterfront when too cold to sit outside

To the West, the estuary of the Tamar, border with my county, Cornwall. To the east, the Plym. Across the broad entrance to the Sound stretches the Breakwater, which has protected the haven since 1814.

Like a whale’s back in the middle of the Sound looms the granite bulk of Drake’s Island.

Drake statue lighthouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Drake’s statue the red-and-white striped lighthouse, Smeaton’s Tower, named after its designer, and built by Cornish miners in 1759. Originally located 14 miles offshore, the second of the famous Eddystone lighthouses, it was dismantled and reassembled on the Hoe in 1877, two thirds of its original height. Tourists can now climb to the top to admire the panorama. The tower even has its own Twitter account (@SmeatonsTower).

We used to catch a cab to the Waterfront and have a couple of beers. Mike invariably ordered a burger, but he only ever ate half of it.

The curving facade of the Waterfront and its terrace, with Plymouth Sound behind

The curving facade of the Waterfront and its terrace, with Plymouth Sound behind

It was warm and sunny enough to sit outside and admire the view across the bay. The terrace was almost destroyed in the winter storms a couple of years ago, so we’d taken to spending our lunchtimes at what Mike called ‘the colonial hotel’, about which more later. Sadly, the Waterfront didn’t reopen in time for us to have one more rendezvous there.

A young man with a handsome whippet called Carlos joined his father at the table next to mine. We chatted. The father was from Belfast, and was delighted to hear that my ancestors came from that city. Carlos watched us with canine dignity.

Brittany Ferry in the distance, entering the Sound

Brittany Ferry in the distance, entering the Sound

As we talked I noticed the Britanny Ferries ship approaching. It passed close enough to see its name: ‘L’Armorique’. Plymouth has long been an important trading and naval port, with a busy ferry service to Britanny and Santander, across the choppy Bay of Biscay. Armorica was the ancient Gaulish name for that French peninsula which features so often in Arthurian legends. An apt reminder of the cultural and ethnic links between Old and New Britain (as Geoffrey of Monmouth called Britanny).

 

 

 

L'Armorique ferry passes by

L’Armorique ferry passes by

Mike enjoyed coming to this place: as a child he’d spent many family holidays at the beach resorts nearby, and often visited Plymouth with his parents. I drove us to Cawsand, Kingsand and Whitsand Bay on one occasion when I came by car to meet him. We’d also visited Dartmoor – we liked the grim prison at Princetown, and once had a coffee in the dour café in the village.

 

Copthorne entranceCopthorne bar areaBack through the shopper-thronged precincts to the hotel bar, our more recent haunt while the Waterfront was rebuilt. It’s an unprepossessing concrete structure, but has a comfortable bar, and does adequate food. This is where my last obituary piece arose: the Sky News with sound off, subtitles scrolling, relating Cameron’s last PMQ session, and the forced jollity of the debating chamber’s farewell to the outgoing Prime Minister.

On the train home I considered whether this had been an uplifting pilgrimage, or morbid wallowing in sadness. On balance I think it was the former: cathartic. I felt his presence, like Eliot’s shadowy figure, the ‘third who walks always beside you’ from the Waste Land, and was able, in some way, to feel we’d communed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The evil in the air was corrupting everybody’: Gamel Woolsey, ‘Death’s Other Kingdom’

When I was studying Spanish at school back in the late 60s, my teacher, who then seemed to me an old man, but who was probably younger than I am now, used to beguile us all with his misty-eyed reminiscences of his youthful days in 30s Spain, which seemed to be spent bathing in icy mountain pools and eating delicious peasant food in country inns. Gamel Woolsey’s autobiographical account of her experiences of the outbreak of Civil War in Andalucía in 1936, and in particular the beginning of the attacks on Malaga, belongs to that same era, when the pastoral tranquillity of the country was shattered irrevocably.

My copy is in the Virago Travellers series

My copy is in the Virago Travellers series

Published in 1939, Death’s Other Kingdom is a lyrical and deeply personal record of her feelings and perceptions as the rugged but idyllic village life she shared in Churriana, just outside Malaga (now absorbed into its post-tourist-resort urban sprawl) with her husband, the Hispanist author Gerald Brenan, turned into a nightmare the morning she woke to the news of Malaga burning ‘under a pall of smoke’.

The opening chapter beautifully evokes that pre-war idyll:

It was the most beautiful day of the summer…The sky at dawn was cloudless and the ‘pink band’ of the tropics, the band of rosy light which ascends the sky from the horizon at twilight, rose to the zenith and faded into the growing light. Then the sun rose suddenly with a leap into the air: the long hot southern day had begun.

 It’s a world of placid serenity, when the Brenans did little more, in the summer heat, than ‘bask in the day like lizards, in the shade of the high white garden wall’ which surrounded their big old house with its walls ‘four feet thick’, and its huge garden, ‘gay with bright flowers, immaculate and cool in any weather.’

She describes the place with sensual, poetic fervor:

I always loved waking in Spain. The sun fell in stripes from the slatted shutters on the red and white diamonded tiles of the floor. Noises from the street below floated up; the pattering feet of the milk goats sounded like rain drops…

 More sounds rise up: the ‘melancholy call’ of the fish sellers ‘their hampers full of fresh fish just coming up from the sea on their lean donkeys’ — Sardinas and boqueronis – ‘the food of the poor, the cheapest of fishes.’ Then come the cries of the vendors of ‘grapes fresh and plump’, tomatoes and ‘pimientos gordos’, ‘melons, lettuces and plums, squashes, peaches and pumpkins were passing, a perfect harvest festival going by on donkeys.’

This is the dominant tone of the book: Woolsey’s profound sympathy for village life and the desperately poor rural inhabitants of these remote mountain and coastal pueblos. There are affectionately vivid portraits throughout the book of the Brenans’ domestic staff: Enrique, ‘a gentle, charming young man’, their passionate gardener, and his mother María the ‘severe’ and crotchety but ‘devoted’ cook-housekeeper and her daughter, a ‘melancholy widow’ called Pilar, whose brief experience of romance is cruelly and violently ended, leaving her in sad solitude again.

Woolsey evokes a now largely vanished rural Andalucia:

For a village in Spain is a unity; its inhabitants are like members of a clan, they have a close and indissoluble bond. ‘My village’ is constantly in the mouth of a Spanish countryman. It is more than ‘my country’.

 The villagers view with deep suspicion anyone from a different village, no matter how close; as for the nearby town of Malaga – it’s seen as the abode of evil people.

But when Malaga is set on fire and the air-raids begin, the peace is shattered. Lorries thunder by constantly:

The young men wave their pistols and throw up their clenched fists in a gesture of triumph.

 All is confusion. The ‘Revolution from the Right’ is countered by a ‘Revolution of the Left’. Rumours fly rapidly. Everyone is fearful, most especially of ‘El Tercio’ – the seasoned Foreign Legion ‘worthy of Lucifer’, and its most feared contingent, the Moors, the expectation of whose arrival ‘ran like a cold wave of horror through the countryside’. Patrols enter the house and the countryside looking for enemies. Arrests and imprisonments are commonplace, and summary executions and brutal reprisals from both sides terrify the people. Former friends become mistrustful enemies. Irreparable fissions form in the village’s life. The Brenans are protected from the worst atrocities by their foreignness – Gerald flies a Union Jack over the house and this acts like a lucky charm. But many of their neighbours and friends are less fortunate.

There are vivid descriptions of their visits to Malaga to see for themselves the terrible destruction wrought by the newly erupted Civil War. There are rueful touches of humour: they meet an Englishman in Malaga who regales them with tales of the night the houses around him were torched:

But I suppose it seems worse for British subjects to lose their luggage than lesser races their lives.

 

Most of the narrative relates with grim impartiality the catastrophic impact of the war on the people. A kind of madness grips the civilians, who indulge their ‘uglier instincts’ and take malicious pleasure in spreading stories of atrocities. It’s the ‘pornography of violence’ as she memorably puts it. ‘Hate is the other side of fear’, she suggests, ‘and it was horrible to see and feel this hate-fear rising around us like a menacing sea.’ The people are gripped by the ‘suspicion and bitterness’ that ‘thrive on fear’; ‘the distrust of Spaniards for other Spaniards is bottomless’.

The strangest section of the book is devoted to the Brenans’ providing refuge in their house to the aristocratic family from whom they’d bought it. Well-known supporters of the Falangists, they were in mortal danger if they stayed on in their own estate near the airport, so they accept the offer of a hiding place for their entire family and retinue. It’s an extraordinarily dangerous gesture of generosity, and would have cost the Brenans their lives, foreigners or not, if their guests had been found by the vengeful workers who searched for them and any other Franco supporters. Our sympathies are hardly engaged when Don Carlos, the head of the family, dances with glee on the Brenans’ rooftop as he watches Malaga burn in a fascist air-raid.

Gamel Woolsey (1895-1968) was an interesting character. Born Elizabeth Gammell (her mother’s maiden name; she later shortened it to Gamel and dropped her first name) Woolsey to a wealthy South Carolina plantation owning family, she was brought up with a sense of morality and virtue that are so apparent in this memoir. Her aunt was the author of the Katy books, Susan Coolidge, whose real name was Sarah Chauncey Woolsey.

She had an affair with a member of the literary Powys family, Llewelyn, whom she followed  to England in 1929, settling in Dorset to be near him. There she met Brenan (1894-1987), and left for Spain with him where they settled as man and wife. He had been a member of the Bloomsbury group, and had been romantically involved with Dora Carrington; Gamel was pursued by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Leftist in politics, Brenan had served as one of the youngest British officers in WWI. His terrible experiences there explain some of his responses to the brutal behaviour of some of their Spanish neighbours when the Civil War broke out, and his determination to help the oppressed, whatever their politics or religion.

In Spain they were visited by a stream of eminent artists, including Virginia Woolf, the Partridges (Frances wrote the Introduction to my Virago edition of DOK), Hemingway and V.S. Pritchett.

The book’s title is taken from T.S. Eliot’s Dante-influenced poem ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925):

Those who have crossed

With direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom

Remember us – if at all – not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow men

The stuffed men…

 ‘Death’s other kingdom’ is one of three of death’s kingdoms in the poem, and it relates to that heavenly zone entered by those who have left behind a state of spiritual nothingness (in hell or purgatory) and entered into an enlightened state of knowledge where they are capable of seeing the inner truth. The hollow men are those who fail to reach such heights. Eliot was one of Gamel’s favourite poets (she was primarily a poet herself, though she published very little verse or prose in her lifetime), and the line’s significance for her memoir is apt: it could signify the higher truth to which she felt those who experienced war should aspire, rather than the hypocrisy, lies and deception that so many around her (the hollow men) wallowed in when hostilities broke out, who lost sight of their morals and values.

 

‘Among gentlewomen’: Barbara Pym, ‘Excellent Women’

Excellent Women was Barbara Pym’s second novel, published in 1952, but set, as a note on the MS indicates, in the year immediately after the end of WWII: London is a city still gripped by economic austerity, rationing is still in force, meat and other commodities are in short supply, there are still bomb-ruined churches (though the services still go on), and the men are still coming home from military service to find their homes much changed. The women they left behind have learned to become more independent, and unsure whether they want to return to the old, pre-war culture of subservience to the men.

My Virago Modern Classics copy

My Virago Modern Classics copy

The novel has been much written about by other bloggers (links at end), who all give admirable summaries of plot and themes, so as with some of my recent posts I’ll give just a sketchy outline of plot here, then focus on those aspects of the novel that I found most interesting.

The protagonist is a 31-year-old spinster, Mildred Lathbury (a dowdy name, resonant perhaps of ‘mildewed’ or ‘mouldered’? buried?), who lives alone in a flat in an unfashionable part of London, on ‘the “wrong” side of Victoria station’. She’s a pillar of the local Anglo-Catholic church, and much of her life is devoted to its fund-raising and parochial matters. She’s a close friend of its priest, Julian Malory (he’s ‘about 40’), and his slightly older career-spinster sister, Winifred. The two women have vague notions that he and Mildred might one day marry; he insists he’ll remain celibate, until he meets his glamorous new lodger, Allegra (more on her shortly). Despite her relative youth, Mildred comes across as lonely, middle-aged and frustrated, for she is imaginative and spirited, not entirely convinced that she’s cut out for the life of submissive service to others – of taking on their ‘burden’ (a key word in the narrative) — that she’s assumed, and which others assume, is her lot.

Mildred’s life, and those of the Malorys, are changed irrevocably by the arrival of two sets of new neighbours. This plot device causes all three of them to reassess their relationships, their feelings and their destinies.

The central theme is the desirability of or necessity for a woman to marry. Is there a possibility of fulfilment in any other kind of relation in this world, as there is for men? Pym is too subtle an artist to give a clear answer; her delightful skill lies in her subtle and deceptively witty way of posing such questions.

As others have written so fully about all of this, I’ll simply look at a few passages and comment on what I enjoyed so much about this novel.

First, it isn’t as cosy or twee as it might seem on the surface. As with Jane Austen’s heroines and fictional worlds, with which Pym’s have often been compared, there is a steely, deeply serious quality beneath the humorous, parochial triviality of Mildred’s daily routine.

Another revealing literary parallel drawn explicitly in the narrative; Mildred says early on that she is not Jane Eyre,

Who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.

This merits close attention. There is no further explanation or justification of this remark, and one’s initial reaction is to think: Really? What makes you think that? Isn’t Mildred deceiving herself, or failing to face up to her own shortcomings and weaknesses? By the time I’d finished the novel, however, I revisited this statement, and have come to agree that indeed she isn’t a Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë’s heroine is always going to find her Byronic, broodingly handsome and wealthy hero, despite her self-deprecating, humble doubts that such is the fate for the likes of her.

Mildred, the novel shows, is far from certain that her ‘Mr Right’ exists in her circle of acquaintance; more important, she has serious doubts whether she wants or needs a man to complete her. Yes, she presents herself as ‘mousy and rather plain’, with the drab dress sense of a much older woman. But after meeting her glamorous new neighbour, Helena Napier, and the splendidly and deliciously inappropriately named Allegra, a predatory merry widow who turns the head of Julian when she ingratiates herself into his life as his lodger, Mildred smartens herself up and even buys some uncharacteristically sexy ‘Hawaiian Fire’ lipstick and swaps her usual dowdy brown skirts for a chic Dior-esque black dress. She is not prepared to become the kind of ‘excellent woman’ Jane Eyre was, and did not want to conform to that romantic formula – even though like Jane she craves love and companionship. In that sense this can be seen as a proto-feminist novel in its questioning of that kind of fairytale plot outcome.

How does Pym negotiate all this without descending into banality? Here’s a random passage I’d marked early in ch.1:

I don’t know whether spinsters are really more inquisitive than married women, though I believe they are thought to be because of the emptiness of their lives…

 Her language here, as in the previous passage about Jane Eyre, is suggestively ambiguous. Mildred habitually expresses such bleak thoughts in an unassertive way, often as negatives (she is not Jane Eyre, she does not know about married women compared with her own spinster state), with frequent hedges – all that use of adverbial markers of doubt or uncertainty, like ‘really’, ‘rather plain’ and so on. And the more she protests her unworthiness with such unassuming, self-deprecating timidity, the less I believe her. This is the persona she has been ‘trained’ for – as she often suggests about her upbringing as a ‘clergyman’s daughter’. For although it’s her natural inclination to assume her role in life is to be a mouse, as it was Jane Eyre’s, like Jane she has suppressed fire in her. In that sense she IS Jane Eyre – but Jane’s Rochester is definitely not matched by Mildred’s handsome new neighbour Rocky Napier (the similarity of name is surely deliberate).

Photo from the Barbara Pym Society website

Photo from the Barbara Pym Society website

Mildred is sexually attracted to Rocky, with his ‘charming smile’, but realises he’s a shallow, philandering flirt. Part of her would love to throw herself at his feet – but this is not 1847, and Rocky isn’t going to be symbolically castrated, as Rochester is when he’s blinded in the fire at the end of Jane Eyre. On the contrary, Rocky never really looks at Mildred, preferring to gaze at his own reflection in her adoring eyes. And deep down she knows it.

Mildred had worked ‘in the Censorship’ during the war, and later at a ‘Learned Society’ of anthropologists – as Pym herself did. As a consequence she isn’t as unworldly or naïve as she chooses to suggest – though she certainly deceives those who know her into assuming that she is, and it’s easy for a modern reader to fall into the same misconception. Despite her frequent references then to her gradual drift into becoming ‘fussy and spinsterish if I wanted to’, ‘set in my ways’, ‘spinsterish and useless’, one of the shabby-genteel ‘impoverished gentlewomen’ whom she helps out in her voluntary work, the language clearly hints that she doesn’t ‘really’ want this fate:

I forebore to remark that women like me really expected very little – nothing, almost.

 She says this to the other potential romantic partner in her life, the attractive but desiccated Everard Bone (Pym’s good on names). As ever the apparent nullity of her expectations is counterpointed by those qualifications: ‘really’ (yet again), ‘almost’. And of course, she ‘forebore to remark’ the words anyway. She might have thought them, but she sure as hell wasn’t going to say them to the pompous, treacherous Everard.

It’s this plucky refusal ultimately to accept the Trollopian fate that all around her – and those who shaped her – take for granted will be hers that makes Mildred such an engaging heroine, given her apparently self-effacing character. In another of her little remarks in which as usual she appears to present herself as nugatory, there’s the equally usual ambiguity; she’s being teased by Father Julian about her crush on the desirable sailor home from the war, Rocky; Mildred would never ‘do anything foolish’, says his sister Winifred, springing to her defence. Mildred reflects on this ‘a little sadly’ (note the usual hedge) as being ‘only too true’, but

…hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.

 

Exactly. She may be a female Prufrock, but like Eliot’s wistfully cautious and obtuse ‘Fool’, who is ‘not Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be’, Mildred has heard the male equivalent of ‘mermaids singing’. And she’s less inclined than Prufrock to believe finally that they won’t sing to her – or that if they do, she’ll be taken in by their siren calls.

Other reviews

 Most recent is the excellent post at Jacqui Wine’s Journal. Jacqui closes with links to several other bloggers’ reviews. I’d also recommend to anyone interested in further researching the work of this once neglected author’s work the site of the Barbara Pym Society, which has links to a huge range of web resources, including scholarly conference papers of that Society.

 

 

 

 

 

The function of criticism: to be ‘a trifle temperamental’.

This has been a rather disruptive few weeks as building and repairs were carried out on the house. As a consequence a couple of pieces I’ve been pondering for blogposts have had to be put on ice, including one on a volume of stories by Cees Nooteboom which I recently finished reading. So here are a few literary morsels which I hope will whet the appetite for more substantial fare in the near future…

With the painters and plasterers working indoors I had to stash most of my books away in boxes, limiting what was accessible to me to a few random texts. The other day, having finished the Nooteboom, I could find nothing that took my fancy from the few titles still on my last available little shelf, except for an old paperback Peregrine copy of F.R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit, and Italo Calvino’s essays in a collection called The Literature Machine, first published in Italian in the early 80s, and published by Vintage in paperback in 1997.

N Curry Jul 14 025My literary training in the 70s, first at A level then as an undergraduate, was very much in the Leavisite ‘close reading’ tradition – those who’ve read any of these posts may well recognise the approach. I know it’s no longer fashionable, but it’s the one I’m comfortable with. When I carried out postgrad research into medieval hagiography at Leavis’s old college, Emmanuel, in Cambridge in the 80s the structuralists were in the ascendancy, and I found some aspects of their work of interest, as we shall see when I turn to Calvino in a future post.

This battered old Peregrine book was first published by Penguin in 1962 (but the essays in it first appeared in Leavis’s review, Scrutiny, a decade or so earlier; this edition is dated 1969). I first encountered it at Bristol University in the early 70s, when required to read the seminal essays on Milton, Swift, Pope and Shakespeare (among others scrutinised in the volume).

What caught my attention as I started re-reading it last week, not having looked into this text for several years, was the preface, where Leavis explains the source of its title: it’s taken from T.S. Eliot, The Function of Criticism, and his passage about the ‘quiet corroborative labour’ which the serious and objective critic should strive for in debate with colleagues and ‘fellows’ in ‘the common pursuit of true judgement’. Unfashionable, maybe, but those words still resonate for me.

The other passages I’d like to reproduce here remind me that FRL’s reputation as being a humourless curmudgeon is unmerited. His epigraphs include this from Robert Graves’s autobiography, Goodbye to All That:

At the end of my first term’s work I attended the usual college board to give an account of myself. The spokesman coughed and said a little stiffly: ‘I understand, Mr Graves, that the essays that you write for your English tutor are, shall I say, a trifle temperamental. It appears, indeed, that you prefer some authors to others.’

Wonderful.

In one of two epigraphs Leavis includes from the letters of Henry James there’s this, to WD Howells:

From the website of The Leavis Society

From the website of The Leavis Society

They are, in general, a sort of plea for Criticism, for Discrimination, for Appreciation on other than infantile lines – as against the so almost universal Anglo-Saxon absence of these things; which tends so, in our general trade, it seems to me, to break the heart.

If ‘our general trade’ – those of us who have the temerity to offer our critical judgements in places like this blog, and those who read and comment on them – is Discrimination and Appreciation applied to our careful readings of literary texts, then gods stand up for bastards, as Edmund so succinctly puts it in King Lear. Why shouldn’t lit crit be ‘practical’? What’s so terrible about being discriminating, provided it’s done in a spirit of probing, honest scrutinising corroboration with one’s fellow critics and readers?

 

 

 

Rhyming Byron: Orioles and Eliot

 ‘I also like to dine on becaficas’: T.S. Eliot, epigraph to The Sacred Wood

In  Beppo (written in Venice in 1817) stanza 42 Byron’s narrator says he likes ‘on Autumn evenings to ride out’ without worrying too much whether the weather will be clement, for in Italy everything is less mundane than in England.  He goes on, in the next stanza, with further examples of why he finds Italy superior to England:

I also like to dine on becaficas,

To see the Sun set, sure he’ll rise tomorrow,

Not through a misty morning twinkling weak as

A drunken man’s dead eye in maudlin sorrow,

But with all Heaven t’himself: the day will break as

Beauteous as cloudless, nor be forced to borrow

That sort of farthing candlelight which glimmers

Where reeking London’s smoky Caldron simmers

We can still find genuine pleasure in the playful pararhymes in Byron’s verse; ‘becaficas’ clearly chimes visually as well as in a sonic sense with ‘weak as’ – the vowel sounds are identical if one adopts a vaguely Italian pronunciation for the ending of the first line, and the consonants are also symmetrical (although the sibilant Italian terminal ‘s’ clashes with the ‘z’ sound in ‘as’).  But this pattern is subverted when, according to the rhyme scheme, we expect line 5 to chime with lines 1 and 3; instead we get ‘break as’ – which only rhymes if we pronounce this already irregularly sounded word falsely, as if it were an ‘ee’ vowel, not ‘ay’.  It’s an eye-rhyme, a sonic corruption, and it thwarts the very pattern established by the preceding stanzas.

It’s this subversive teasing with words and sounds that is one of the reasons I enjoy Byron’s lighter poems: he refuses to take himself or anyone or anything else seriously; it’s the opposite of po-faced (‘smiling’?)  Here’s another delightful example (he’s writing about Venetian ladies’ pretty faces):

And like so many Venuses of Titian’s

(The best’s at Florence – see it if ye will),

They look when leaning over the balcony,

Or stepping from a picture by Giorgione’…

Once more he’s teasing his pretentious readers with their smug awareness that the Italian name ‘Giorgione’ is pronounced ‘George-oh-nay’, and that therefore one’s reading of ‘balcony’ renders the next line-ending problematic – he’s forcing us to consider pronouncing the artist’s name ‘GEORGE-oh-nee’, with the stress on the first syllable, to rhyme with ‘balcony’; or else we have to consider the ridiculous possibility of retracing our readerly steps and retrospectively re-pronouncing ‘balcony’ as ‘bal-CONE- y’, with the stress on the second syllable!  As the academic F.V. Bogel helpfully explains, this produces for the reader a ‘division…between visual and auditory modalities’ (The Difference Satire Makes: Rhetoric and Reading from Jonson to Byron [Cornell UP, 2001]).  While we’re looking at Beppo, here’s one of my favourite lines, a beautifully balanced and modulated artifact in words: the narrator is mockingly praising England – ‘Our cloudy climate, and our chilly women’.

So what on earth IS a ‘becafica’?  The OED spells it ‘beccafico’(although an ‘a’ ending is one of its variant forms), deriving from the Italian for ‘fig-pecker’:   ‘A name given in Italy to small migratory birds of the genus Sylvia, much esteemed as dainties in the autumn, when they have fattened on figs and grapes: they are identified with the British Pettychaps and Blackcaps’.  Marquez often writes about his characters eating such small fowl, maybe baked in pies.  Conrad Aiken in an essay about Eliot defines ‘becafica’ as a small bird, a warbler, a garden oriole, loosely termed by Italians as one of the ‘uccellini’.   He says that by using Byron’s line as an epigraph to this book published in 1920 Eliot was suggesting that he likes to ‘dine on song-birds’, apprizing us, ‘with a gleaming and slightly sinister politeness, that he is about to do so’.  He intends, that is, to be ‘severe to the point of destructiveness’ (‘The Scientific Critic’, in Freeman, 2, [2 March, 1921], pp. 593-94).

How fitting that Eliot should choose to head his collection of essays  about poetry, published in 1920, two years before The Waste Land, with this particularly ambiguous line; while delineating the modernist notions of technique, feeling and a  ‘tradition’ in poetry, (here we find his famous pronouncement: ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality’) Eliot illuminates the text and prepares us for the bombshell of The Waste Land with jewel-like fragments like those ‘becaficas’, which fail to sate our appetite, but  charm us with their song.