Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Illness and art

A great cover of the old Clientele song 'From a Window' reminded me all of a sudden of this passage by Proust:

'Nearly midnight. The hour when an invalid, who has been obliged to start on a journey and to sleep in a strange hotel, awakens in a moment of illness and sees with glad relief a streak of daylight shewing under his bedroom door. Oh, joy of joys! it is morning. The servants will be about in a minute: he can ring, and some one will come to look after him. The thought of being made comfortable gives him strength to endure his pain. He is certain he heard footsteps: they come nearer, and then die away. The ray of light beneath his door is extinguished. It is midnight; some one has turned out the gas; the last servant has gone to bed, and he must lie all night in agony with no one to bring him any help.'

Swann's Way p.4 tr. C. K. Scott Moncrieff

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Virgil's melancholy

... everything, by nature's law
Tends to the worse, slips ever backward, backward
As with a man, who scarce propels his boat
Against the stream: if once his arms relax
The current sweeps it headlong down the rapids

Virgil, Georgics, bk I-199

Twice in the year, men gather the honey harvest
First when Taygete the Pleiad shows
Her comely face to the world, and with her foot
Has spurned the streams of Ocean; and again
When the same star, fleeing the rainy sign
Of the Fish, more sadly hastens down the sky
Into the wintry waves

Ibid, bk IV, 231-5

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

carved in air

'The outer suburbs have almost a moorland fascination when fog lies thick and orange-coloured over their huge flat wastes of grass ... but does not quite conceal the stark outlines of a traction engine, some procumbent timber, a bonfire and frantic figures darting around it, and aerial scaffolding far away. Other fields, yet unravished but menaced, the fog restores to a primaeval state. And what a wild noise the wind makes in the telegraph wires as in wintry heather and gorse ... If a breeze arises it makes that sound of the dry curled leaves chafing along the pavement; at night they seem spies in the unguarded by-ways. But there are also days -  and spring and summer days too - when a quiet horror thicks and stills the air outside London.

The ridge of trees high in the mist are very grim. The isolated trees stand cloaked in conspiracies here and there about the fields. The houses, even whole villages, are translated into terms of unreality as if they were carved in air and could not be touched; they are empty and mournful as skulls or churches. There is no life visible - for the ploughmen and the cattle are figures of light dream. All is soft and grey. The land has drunken the opiate mist and is passing slowly and reluctantly into perpetual sleep.'

-Edward Thomas, The South Country, 1909, p.96-97

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


I had no idea where the phrase 'Halcyon days' came from until I read this beautiful lyric by the ancient Greek poet Simonides:

'During the winter solstice
Zeus orders fourteen days of peaceful weather
and man has called this windless season holy
for then the mottled halcyon rears its young.'

A Halcyon was a kind of Kingfisher (probably - we're not even sure which colours the ancient Greeks were referring to in their literature; there is no ancient Greek word for 'blue'). They believed it nested on the open sea in midwinter, coinciding with two weeks of calm, mild weather.

The most celebrated Greek lyric poet is Sappho, none of whose work has survived intact. Often her manuscripts were torn into vertical strips: they were used as mummy-wrapping! So in many cases we only have incomplete lines, but sometimes when those fragments are presented together, they coalesce into something extraordinary:

'a deed
your lovely face

if not, winter
and no pain

I bid you, Abanthis
take up the lyre
and sing of Gongyla as again desire
floats around you

the beautiful. when you saw her dress
it excited you. I'm happy.
The Kypros-born once
blamed me

for praying
this word
I want'