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[…] poets scorn

The boundaried love of country, being free

Of winds, and alien lands, and distances

Vagabonds of the compass, wayfarers

Pilgrims of thought, the tongues of Pentecost

Their privilege, and in their peddler’s pack

The curious treasures of their stock-in-trade

Bossy and singular, the heritage

Of poetry and science, polished bright

Thin with the rubbing of too many hands

Last Monday Stephanie and I travelled out to Kiama to take in the sights. It was a beautiful day, the sun was causing little birds to queue up for shallow bird baths and the town itself has a lovely series of shops that stock tasty condiments, dessert sweets and some unusual jewellery. There was of course also a second-hand book shop, which I made a bee-line for.

There I picked out this book, as I have always wanted to learn more about Vita Sackville-West. All I really knew about her was that she inspired the Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. Indeed she is most famous these days as Woolf’s lover, a great woman reduced to a footnote. I flipped through the book, with its water-damaged cover and dedication dated 1939 – and found on the back page a poem written by the book’s original owner.

So here’s what I am doing folks. I am going to quote the poem in full, here, so that it lives on and survives this decaying book. Just a little gesture on my part to this book lover who was inspired by Sackville-West to write his own poem –

Plus and Minus

What is a tree before the Spring?

A skeleton, a scaffolding

And yet the inner spirit grieves

At the officiousness of leaves

 

When does it most delight the age?

In January or July?

And in the sum of loveliness

How much is figure, how much dress?

George Keogh

Anyway, back to the business of reviewing.

Sackville-West long-form poem is split between the four seasons, beginning with Winter. Each seperate season is allocated it’s own canto and within each of these the perspective of an assortment of labourers, farmers and country-folk is described. The relationship between man and the land he tills is described as an alternating master/slave dialectic:

There is a bond between the men who go

From youth about the business of the earth,

And the earth they serve, their cradle and their grave

This same passage leads to what I think is the most devastatingly beautiful line in the collection:

Life’s little lantern between dark and dark

Her purpose is not to condescend to the ‘yeoman’, and ‘shepherds’ cited within their verses, but to celebrate them, frame their labour as an expression of the purpose of humanity itself. Sackville-West takes the pastoral Romantic vision of, say Wordsworth, and  injects it with the individualistic thrust of Walt Whitman. The Land is also passionately nationalistic:

An English cornfield in full harvesting

Is English as the Bible

The English weather is cited as a temperate ideal envied by ‘exiles’, in other parts of the world.

The purpose of the poet is to celebrate and promote such ideals of individuality and nationhood, but also the essential role played by ‘ordinary workers’, in sustaining humanity’s foothold on the earth. In a sense, Sackville-West is attempting to collapse the rarefied divide between upper-class literary society and the working class. High learning may be of no practical use, but the farmer, the bee-keeper and the gardener has a deeper understanding of the world than insensate Romantics:

I have not understood humanity.

But those plain things, that gospel of each year,

Made me the scholar of simplicity

The passing of the seasons is shown not just to require different activities in relation to harvesting and husbandry, but in turn causes the men who work the land to change. The fields that have been ploughed and tilled should not be mistaken for a beaten opponent. Those who work the land should respect it as an ally, a companion. Somewhere in between the free-flowing verse of pastorals and the dry concerns of farming, a middle-ground is sought, where true understanding can be found that outstrips empty talk of Nature(!).

To a contemporary reader perhaps Sackville-West‘s language seems too old-fashioned, but consider the audience she was pitching this work to. The Land received the Hawthornden Prize in 1926, so I imagine her message was heard. Of course the idealism and forward-looking culture that rose up following the ‘Great War‘, would soon be lost..

A socially conscious corrective to Romanticism, beautifully captured.

 

One more page, she decides; just one more. She isn’t ready yet; the tasks that lie ahead (putting on her robe, brushing her hair, going down to the kitchen) are still too thin, too elusive. She will permit herself another minute here, in bed, before entering the day. She will allow herself just a little more time.

Johann Goethe is credited with having inspired the dolorous Romantic movement that followed the publication of his work The Sorrow of Young Werther. The German author would later disown Werther, for inspiring what he felt was a ‘sick’, morbid melancholy, a fascination with the act of suicide itself. “It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him.” I wonder if Virginia Woolf were to have lived to see the publication of The Hours might she have expressed similar regrets.

The Hours tells the story of three women fascinated by the story of Mrs Dalloway. It begins with the suicide of Virginia Woolf herself, before returning to the period during which she conceived the novel. This is intentional, as her work, for better or worse, will forever be defined by the manner of her death in the minds of her readers.

We then skip forward to the present day, where a Clarissa Vaughan, much like her namesake, is feverishly planning a celebratory party for her old friend Richard, who has won a prestigious literary award. She is also caring for her friend, who is dying of AIDS and is rapidly losing his grip on reality.

Finally we meet Laura Brown, a pregnant housewife who is obsessed with Virginia Woolf and her novel Mrs Dalloway. She feels trapped by her marriage to her war hero husband, petrified by the responsibility of being a mother to her young son Richard, while all she wants to do is retreat into a book and hide from the world.

The parallels between the lives of these three women and the novel Mrs Dalloway are teased out by author Michael Cunningham. Obviously in the case of Virginia Woolf we see how events in her own life inspire the characters and situations introduced into her writing. Where she is offhand to her servants, Clarissa Dalloway will be caring and considerate. Her feelings of depression inspire the character of Septimus Warren Smith. Laura Brown takes inspiration from Woolf in reflecting about her own life, whereas Clarissa is mocked by Richard with the nickname ‘Mrs Dalloway’.

As well as focusing on the importance of Woolf’s writing, this is also a book about how the challenges faced by homosexuals have changed by the end of the 20th century. In Woolf’s time gay men and women conducted their lives in secret (speaking of which, gamahuche is my favourite euphemism – ever!). Now gay lifestyles are more visible, yet the bigoted view that AIDS is somehow a ‘gay disease’ is expressed openly by homophobes. These are important issues and I am glad that writers like Cunningham are unafraid to deal with them.

So why do I find this such a trite book?

In part it is the aping of Woolf’s style. While I found the language of Mrs Dalloway flowed and sang with a natural rhythm of its own, the imitation attempted by Cunningham feels like purple prose. This is also quite a humourless book, full of doomed characters reflecting on self-slaughter. When Tom Stoppard wrote the script to Shakespeare in Love he wisely avoided hammy portentousness and self-indulgence, throwing in digs at the expense of England’s Greatest Writer ™ (I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once). Cunningham has Virginia and her husband casually discussing “Tom’s mistakes”, presumably a reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, which they published under the imprint Hogarth Press.

This attempt at levity comes off as pretentious name-dropping. It gets worse when Clarissa in the present day is amazed at the sight of Meryl Streep entering her trailer on a New York street. Perhaps in an attempt at po-mo humour Stephen Daldry cast the actress as Clarissa in the film version of The Hours. Both she and Laura are overly enamoured with famous actresses in the book, making their profundity strangely trivial.

This tiresome book is Twilight for New York literary salons, little more than turgid and pretentious fanfiction.

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