The Physical Pleasures of Dancing and Writing

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Perhaps one reason why both [Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot] of them were able to go on writing so extraordinarily well was that, despite the views they held and the bundle of prejudices they, like all of us, carried with them, they remained close to the child and the adolescent in themselves, ever responsive to the physical pleasures of dancing and writing.

Gabriel Josipovici, Eliot in His Letters, from The Teller and the Tale

Precursors by Elizabeth Jennings

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Passages of music, a violin’s slow pace, a picture
Recording the sunset but telling more, stating
History’s alarm and hurry. I watched as a child the slow
Leaves turning and taking the sun, and the Autumn bonfires,
The whips of wind blowing a landscape away.
Always it was the half-seen, the just-heard which enthralled,
My nurse pulling her white dress off in the moonlight,
My sister pushing me in a doll’s pram as I recovered
From a slow illness. There is a library somewhere surely of
Pictures piled waiting for a hand to lift them,
Books with long markers in them. This is the world
Once ahead of me, now behind me, and yet
I am waiting still to record some of the themes
Of the music heard before I understood it,
The books read to me long before I could read
And with me tantalisingly near. So I have come
To believe that poetry is a restoration
Or else an accompaniment to what is lost
But half-remembered. Today it is Autumn outside
And as the sun reddens the whole landscape
And a smell of bonfires haunts me, a tune begins
To sing in my mind. It has no words as yet
And a life and a half would probably be too short
To set the music down with appropriate words,
Record a season completely, words before death.

Things Happen

The Family, 1988 by Paula Rego

This weekend, finally, Paula Rego’s retrospective at the Tate Britain, the first time I’ve seen most of these extraordinary paintings outside of books. Spanning seven decades from the surreal to the austere, the experience was as powerful as seeing Goya’s black paintings in Madrid for the first time, the same feverish intensity. The same day, the first visit in almost two years to the Royal Opera House for Leos Janácek’s Jenůfa, also the first time I’ve seen and heard a live performance of the first opera I bought on CD when still a teenager (for reasons I no longer recall).

Asmik Grigorian as Jenůfa and Karita Mattila as Kostelnička in Claus Guth’s staging of Janáček’s opera at the Royal Opera House

Reading this weekend took the form of drifting between Virginia Woolf’s essays, Geoffrey Hill’s Now and Collected Poems, 1952-1992, Jacques Roubaud’s essays on poetry, and slowly rereading Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. I’m also continuing to languidly thin my library, aiming for a collection that is both smaller and more concentrated.

Ovid in the Third Reich

By Geoffrey Hill

non peccat, quaecumque potest peccasse negare,
solaque famosam culpa professa facit.

Amores, III, xiv

I love my work and my children. God
Is distant, difficult. Things happen.
Too near the ancient troughs of blood
Innocence is no earthly weapon.

I have learned one thing: not to look down
So much upon the damned. They, in their sphere,
Harmonize strangely with the divine
Love. I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.

Reading Charlotte Brontë’s Villette

Lately it came to mind, on several occasions, that I should read Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, one of the key intertexts of Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs, volume one of Richardson’s Pilgrimage series. It has a style that carries one along and against my intention I found that I had burned through it in five days.

I started with the best intentions, to keep some distance, and chew slowly on sentences like: “The charm of variety there was not, nor the excitement of incident; but I liked peace so well, and sought stimulus so little, that when the latter came I almost felt it a disturbance, and wished rather it had still held aloof.” What I discovered in Villette was a powerfully intimate voice of obdurate experience that plays against the narrator’s voice. Intention aside, caring little for the paraphernalia of plot, that voice kept me reading late over a few nights, never once finding it tedious or pompous or patronising or superior.

Having reached the end, I admit to feeling it unfortunate that I galloped through the whole thing, but having got the hang of it as a whole, will now turn back to page one, with pencil in hand and read with greater restraint.

Dorothy Sayers’s Dante Essays (volumes 1 and 2)

For the most part thought-provoking essays (lectures) on Dante’s Comedy, which, relatively late, became a ruling passion of Dorothy Sayers’s life. There are few lay people today with the substrate of theological understanding to offer such a richly specific perspective, particularly of the Paradiso, which, thus far, resists my effort to read beyond the first three cantos. Neglected place-markers in the multiple translations of the Comedy in my library evidence previous distraction.

Sayers’s interest in the Comedy after reading Charles Williams’s The Figure of Beatrice extended, in the ultimate act of literary criticism, to her translation of all three books of the Comedy. Hers is a lively translation, enjoyably readable and lacking the archaisms that earlier translators seem unable to resist, however inappropriate a response to Dante’s Italian.

Across both volumes (there is a third that I haven’t read yet) the essays are inevitably uneven, but those with an interest in the Comedy will find much that is rich and stimulating in both books. They join a small library of books that offer fresh perspectives on this magnificently curious medieval treasure.