Archive for April, 2011

Kathleen Raine

Dear friends and readers,

Last week we had Rosamond Marriot Watson (fin-de-siecle and Hardyesque poet, 1860-1911). My choice for this week’s foremother poet is Kathleen Raine (1908-2003), whose poems I found among the modern Scots and Anglo-Scots poets in Catherine Kerrigan’s An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets and in Ann Stanford‘s The Women Poets in English. I first came across her as an autobiographer in Beatrice Didier’s L’ecriture-femme, where Didier presents her as a quintessential autobiographer who enacted a myth of a return to a past that is still with her, that has never ceased to be, and for women, this is found in childhood as metaphor and reality before the development of an adult female sexual body with all the imprisonment, repression, and destruction of the self that society inflicts. Scotland became for her a maternal landscape where a woman could find a non-distruptive filiation through its continuity of language, myth and untransformed land.


She gave me childhood’s flowers,
Heather and wild thyme,
Eyebright and tormentil,
Lichen’s mealy cup
Dry on wind-scored stone,
The corbies on the rock,
The rowan by the burn.

Sea-marvels a child beheld
Out in the fisherman’s boat,
Fringed pulsing violet
Medusa, sea gooseberries,
Starfish on the sea-floor,
Cowries and rainbow-shells
From pools on a rocky shore,

Gave me her memories,
But kept her last treasure:
‘When I was a lass: she said,
‘Sitting among the heather,
‘Suddenly I saw
‘That all the moor was alive!
‘I have told no one before.’

That was my mother’s tale.
Seventy years had gone
Since she saw the living skein
Of which the world is woven,
And having seen, knew all;
Through long indifferent years
Treasuring the priceless pearl.

This one reminds me of the vision of Siddhartha at the end of Hesse’s novel of the same name

Highland Graveyard

Today a fine old face has gone under the soil;
For generations past women hereabouts have borne
Her same name and stamp of feature .
Her brief identity was not her own
But theirs who formed and sent her out
To wear the proud bones of her clan, and live its story,
Who now receive back into the ground
Worn features of ancestral mould.

A dry-stone wall bounds off the dislimned clay
Of many old face forgotten and young face gone
From boundless nature, sea and sky.
A wind-withered escalonia like a song
Of ancient tenderness lives on
Some woman’s living fingers set as shelter for the dead, to tell
In evergreen unwritten leaves,
In scent of leaves in western rain
That one remembered who is herself forgotten.

Many songs they knew who now are silent.
Into their memories the dead are gone
Who haunt the living in an ancient tongue
Sung by old voices to the young,
Telling of sea and isles, of boat and byre and glen;
And from their music the living are reborn
Into a remembered land,
To call ancestral memories home
And all that ancient grief and love our own.

Her well-known literal belief in a poetic vision of divinity manifest in nature (like those of Blake and Yeats whose work she studied in her Defending Ancient Springs) and the wisdom of the religions of peoples can thus be linked to her life-writing and feminism (e.g., in Farewell Happy Fields)

Message from Home

Do you remember, when you were first a child, Nothing in the world seemed strange to you?
You perceived, for the first time, shapes already familiar, And seeing, you knew that you have always known
The lichen on the rock, fern-leaves, the flowers of thyme,
As if the elements newly met in your body,
Caught up into the momentary vortex of your living Still kept the knowledge of a former state,
In you retained recollection of cloud and ocean, The branching tree, the dancing flame.

Now when nature’s darkness seems strange to you, And you walk, an alien, in the streets of cities,
Remember earth breathed you into her with the air, with the sun’s rays,
Laid you in her waters asleep, to dream
With the brown trout among the milfoil roots,
From substance of star and ocean fashioned you,
At the same source conceived you
As sun and foliage, fish and stream

Of all created things the source is one,
Simple, single as love; remember
The cell and seed of life, the sphere
That is, of child, white bird, and small blue dragon-fly
Green fern, and the gold four-petalled tormentilla The ultimate memory.
Each latent cell puts out a future,
Unfolds its differing complexity.
As a tree puts forth leaves, and spins a fate Fern-traced, bird-feathered, or fish-scaled.
Moss spreads its green film on the moist peat,
The germ of dragon-fly pulses into animation and takes wing
As the water-lily from the mud ascends on its ropy stem
To open a sweet white calyx to the sky.
Man, with farther to travel from his simplicity,
From the archaic moss, fish, and lily parts,
And into exile travels his long way.

As you leave Eden behind you, remember your home, For as you remember back into your own being
You will not be alone; the first to greet you
Will be those children playing by the burn,
The otters will swim up to you in the bay,
The wild deer on the moor will run beside you. Recollect more deeply, and the birds will come, Fish rise to meet you in their silver shoals,
And darker, stranger, more mysterious lives Will throng about you at the source
Where the tree’s deepest roots drink from the abyss.
Nothing in that abyss is alien to you.
Sleep at the tree’s root, where the night is spun
Into the stuff of worlds, listen to the winds,
The tides, and the night’s harmonies, and know
All that you knew before you began to forget, Before you became estranged from your own being,
Before you had too long parted from those other More simple children, who have stayed at home
In meadow and island and forest, in sea and river. Earth sends a mother’s love after her exiled son, Entrusting her message to the light and the air,
The wind and waves that carry your ship, the rain that falls,
The birds that call to you, and all the shoals
That swim in the natal waters of her ocean.


I came too late to the hills: they were swept bare Winters before I was born of song and story,
Of spell or speech with power of oracle or invocation,

The great ash long dead by a roofless house, its branches rotten, The voice of the crows an inarticulate cry,
And from the wells and springs the holy water ebbed away.

A child I ran in the wind on a withered moor
Crying out after those great presences who were not there, Long lost in the forgetfulness of the forgotten.

Only the archaic forms themselves could tell
In sacred speech of hoodie on gray stone, or hawk in air, Of Eden where the lonely rowan bends over the dark pool.

Yet I have glimpsed the bright mountain behind the mountain,
Knowledge under the leaves, tasted the bitter berries red,
Drunk water cold and clear from an inexhaustible hidden fountain.

and her poetry of imaginative memory and recreations of gaelic utterances in English (e.g,. “The Ancient Speech”,

Scottish highlands, Loch Torridon

poems to “Isis Wanderer and


Sailing by night on the dark Adriatic in the moon’s eye
I slept upon the watery flood where only spirits walk
In the womb of archaic night between deeps and skies;
And in my sleep sublunary saw the moon disclose
Her other face that only dreamers and the dead may see,
That seemed or was more real than moon over mast or funnel
Of the throbbing ship that traced my wake towards Piraeus …

A sympathetic obituary by Janet Watts published in the Guardian (Tuesday, 8 July 2003) provides a concise narrative of her life and achievement. Watts includes the story of her love for Gavin Maxwell (the title of whose book Ring of Bright Water is taken from a line in one of her poems, “The Marriage of Psyche”), which seems unfortunately to overshadow accounts of her life and work on the Net.

She was fortunate to live in an era where intellectual merit could win scholarships. Her background: her mother sang to her border ballads and wrote down her poems for her before she was able to; while her father was a miner’s son, he went to Durham university and became an English teacher and lay preacher. A scholarship took her to Girton College, Cambridge (where she later found a job); she studied science and psychology, Empson published some of her poetry. She did not at all follow trends of her secular world, and made it (monetarily) because her beliefs pleased Prince Charles (Windsor) who became a patron. (One needs to explain how people live.) She married twice (Hugh Sykes Davies and Charles Madge) and had two children, one of whom married a descendent of Thomas Taylor, a 17th century English neoplatonist important to Raine. She became close to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren late in life (see wikipedia). She visited India in 1970 and loved its culture and the place.

Her autobiography was published in three volumes: Farewell Happy Fields (1973), The Land Unknown (1975) and The Lion’s Mouth (1977). She wrote many critical works (many on Blake and Yeats) and published books of poems (the earliest, Stone and Flower, 1943, Living in Time 1946, Pythoness 1949; more recently Living with Mystery, 1987-91; The Collected Poems, ed. Brian Keeble, 2000). She was translator as well, of Balzac’s Cousine Bette (Cousin Bette, 1948) and Les Illusions Perdues (Lost Illusions, 1951). She contributed frequently to journals (Studies in Comparative Religion), co-founded a journal, Temendos, was a research fellow at Girton College (1955-61), a Mellon Lecturer at the National Gallery of Art in DC (1962), taught for a year at Harvard (“Myth and Literature”) and was a professor at Cambridge.

I am drawn to her as an autobiographer, for her unconventional stance in life (anti-materialism, anti-ambition) and how the very marrow of her work seems to derive from her perception of women’s sexuality and creates a collective of female myth for women poets. Didier links Raine’s work to that of George Sand’s liberation through sentiment and Virginia Woolf’s mothers and daughters. Raine too has been “exiled” and re-finds herself in

“le langage des grands mythes antiques, parce que sa vie individuelle, si intensement qu’elle soit vecue, rejoint toujours — et precisement a cause de sa intensite — une certaine realite collective: l’histoire de l’humanite et de la longue servitude des femmes” (Didier, 269)

Ana Mendieta (1948-85), Silueta Works


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Renee Fleming as the Countess bowing before the audience after the opera was over: we see a wide portion of the whole set from on high

Dear friends and readers,

Before too much time goes by, I want to praise and recommend going to see the Met’s production of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. The Admiral, Izzy & I saw it in HD movie form this past Saturday, and I had this feeling of being transported quietly, of feeling touched in a tranformative distanced way that made me feel life could be so valuable if people would only live it according to its true pleasures — poetry, song, kind and/or courteous manners, good food, self-respecting dress.

The opera (as people who mention it usually quickly remark) was written during World War Two and is written as a kind of antidote to the horrors and terrors and cruelties of that conflagration, not so much to shut it out or pretend it’s not happening, but to carve a place, an interlude of refuge to remember and return to in our minds or memories. I never realized it’s set in 1770s. An overt allusion shapes it: Talleyrand said of the time before the French revolution, “Only those who lived before the revolution knew how sweet life could be.” He meant of course rich people which then and now means the privileged and lucky. In this opera we are asked to forget that such wealth and leisure and lack of insecurity was dependent on keeping a huge proportion of the population in servitude cheaply (and this cruel kind of arrangement is one the Republican reactionary party of the US is trying to return the US to), and I surmise one reason the opera is often not done in 1770s costume but in a generalized early 20th century one (say 1920s) is to make the viewer forget this immediate context and somehow abstract the experience into an ideal realm where no one is hurt from what we see.

I’d say its key is that it was made so intensely pleasurable I just didn’t want it to stop — and I felt the audience about me felt the same. When at the close, the production design and director teased the audience by step-by-step ending it, each time putting out more lights in the room, and then not yet ending it, one could feel the audience hold its breath, and hear laughter as each time we did not yet end. The opera began to “click” as this mood of rich quiet gratifications around the time the ballet pair came in, and we had the comedy of the thwarted absurdities of the classic ballerina. Then we had vexed quarreling between the poet (Olivier sung by Russell Braun) and composer (Flamand sung by Joseph Kaiser) over whose art was more important (and which man therefore more worthy the countess), which brought in the impresario (La Roche sung by Peter Rose) to sing the second best and longest aria of the opera, a justification of theater itself.

We see the principals circled round La Roche

The quarrel was a kind of pastoral version of Net debates I’ve experienced. You could call the opera an 18th century conversation piece (a favorite kind of genre painting of the era).

Fleming’s last aria was the crown of the piece — what was so unusual was the mood was cheerful, an upbeat genial hopeful melancholy (!). The role at the close is a reprise of her countess on Der Rosencavalier made political — the gossamer quality of her dress may be called symbolic.

Fleming in the shimmering silver dress that seemed to float on air: her rich typology made the opera even woman-centered — we have no less than 4 (countess, count’s sister, ballerina, diva)

This cheer was central to the opera too — it was filled with visual jokes. When the hired ballerina and her male danced came into the room to dance for the assembled group, the ballerina was thwarted in comical ways and we watched her from the perspective of the people in the room: Clairon (Sarah Connolly), the sister of the count (Morton Frank Larson) looked especially taken aback at the wild configurations of the ballerina’s legs as they neared Clairon’s body space. After the two Italian singers burlesqued their behavior while singing exquisitely, they sat down to eat cake and drink wine provided by the countess. The diva’s eating mounds of cake was made funny — such a human and natural failing, so sensual and sticky. When these privileged people left (for Paris — apparently they are in a country house), the male servants came in and comically discuss what we’ve just heard debated, with self-reflexive ironies like, What next, they’ll put servants in operas? Then the prompter came on in visibly frazzled dress and state, claiming to be the invisible spirit of it all, the genius loci hidden away under the floor, enabling everyone else to carry on. It made me smile.

On facebook where I put a brief message about the opera, a friend commented

Wasn’t it great! I went by myself (husband is grading papers) and the woman next to me, who was very chatty before the start, fell asleep and was snoring a tiny bit. This didn’t really bother me. I thought the whole thing was the most delightful confection. I hadn’t expected to be so moved by the whole thing.

I agreed:

The story went sort of slow and not much happened. I think a man on the other side of Isobel slept for a bit. It’s not just because I’m so into Austen that I thought of Austen’s Emma. Emma may be said to be Austen’s attempt to write a story about people were nothing much happens, a more rigorous form of realism. Well, the comparisons of usual opera as outlined by La Roche with their impossible unreal gods and goddesses, continual miraculous doings, heroic and tragic deeds, all well beyond the norms of verisimilitude with what we were watching make the same point as Austen’s: here are the real emotions these extravaganzas Write Large and lose sight of partly. The Emma project thus becomes an antidote to the war at the time, a spot of “civilization” (narrowly defined in upper class European terms) before any of the world’s most famous recent revolutions (French, Russian) occurred.

This evocation of a Canaletto in ruins found on one Met site suggests the Met was indeed referring to the revolution with the theme I suggest:

She (my friend) compared it to a Moliere comedy, The Misanthrope, and also the film The Red Shoes about a ballerina torn between love and ballet:

I thought of a Moliere comedy, because Madeleine with her suitors reminded me of Celimene in Misanthrope. And the brother-sister pair, too. But in Moliere the suitors would have been poor artists–here they were good (though vain and not very good husband material), and she really has an opportunity. I also kept thinking about the movie The Red Shoes, in which a woman is caught between two men, one of whom believes ballet is the highest art and the other that music (especially his own music) is the most important art. Apparently the director of Red Shoes wanted to direct a movie of Strauss’s life a few years after Strauss died, so maybe they were influenced by the opera, though in their work something does happen.

I objected but also agreed and generalized out to the theme as often presented in the 18th century:

I probably wouldn’t think of Moliere because I see him as so anti-feminist, savage satire against bluestockings (bad-mouthing word but appropriate here to Moliere’s plays). Strauss’s opera celebrates the countess and is fond of the other three women: Clairon, the ballerina, and the Italian opera singer. But I see your point. In the 18th century the emblem of Hercules between Vice and Virtue (comedy and tragedy in a Reynolds painting of Garrick):

Reynolds, Garrick between Tragedy (Virtue) and Comedy (Vice)

was a frequent underlying archetype; it probably goes back to the Renaissance. I think there is something like this in Sidney’s Arcadia, certainly Spenser’s Faerie Queene — Una v Duessa. I wished I could remember Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia play (also about the arts) more.

She conceded the anti-feminism of Moliere’s perspective:

Of course, you are right; poor Celimene never had a chance.

I don’t know why people who write of this opera persist in calling it a curiosity or feeling uncomfortable about it, since most operas are implicitly deeply conservative in their presentation of numinous and upper class figures, traditional myths, and irrational feelings as what must rule the world. It’s just honester, done with startling clarity and self-awareness and the intelligence that shines through is another part of its comfort. It can make a viewer hopeful that the world could be better since such moments and experiences can and (for a couple of hours on stage) have been.

Maestro now taking final bows with prompter, dancers, male servants seen too

Small pleasures for the 18th century lover were all the references to 18th century theater and art: the best and radical operas are Gluck’s (this is pre-Mozart with his revolutionary Marrriage of Figaro and Masonic Magic Flute), the reference to the group putting on a Voltaire play (Tancred).


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Robert MacNeil plays with his autistic grandson, Nick

Dear friends and readers,

Twenty days ago I wrote a review of touching, and intelligent film, about two disabled adults, both autistic, Wretches and Jabberers by Gerardine Wurzburg. I praised the film and hope that it gets more distribution than a few movie-houses in a few cities in the US. I have now a second film — or series of films to recommend on similar grounds: Robert MacNeil’s 6 segments on Autism Now have the capacity to help educate the general public about what autism, the as yet insoluble problems teaching autistic people, and the tiny amount of money given over to children, with just about none at all to help Aspergers and autistic adults.

The first segment was directly about MacNeil’s grandson who is on the autism spectrum. It was presented with a full personal perspective: MacNeil and his daughter talk about Nick, are filmed attempting to interact with him. I burst into crying and couldn’t stop myself or calm down for a few minutes.

The second segment showed that the increase in diagnosis in the last couple of decades has been extraordinarily large. What’s important & good in this part is the demonstration that autism takes such varied forms, and that an increase of diagnosis is progress for more people can be helped.

The third part showed people don’t know what causes autism, partly because it’s an umbrella term with many disorders placed under it. Generally it’s genetic and inherited but to say that is far from being able to understand its etiology, what genes might cause it, how to prevent it. MacNeil meant to defeat the mad nonsense by people who intuitively dislike vaccine that vaccine has caused their grandchild’s neurological system. His interviewees waffled so, they couldn’t even dismiss this canard.

A dialogue on this part of the series with a fried:

I enjoyed it (thanks again for the link). There’s a lot of information there though of course none of it is firm. MacNeil’s own daughter had attributed his grandson’s autism to a vaccine in Part 1 (I remember), so they had to address it and… he was probably interested in the speculations. I did think it would have been helpful to establish earlier and more clearly what you are saying about the variety of symptoms. I suppose that for funding’s sake and other political (in a good sense) reasons it is better to stress the common needs of autistics rather than the variety of disorders.

Logically and from history politically it seems ever to make sense to make a larger group with common cause, but my experience thus far is that the larger group setting emphasizes below an IQ of 70 and physical disabilities when it comes to… funding and many services. The accent is also on children. I seriously recommend, Judy, you try to see Wretches and Jabberers to get a sense of how little is available to Aspergers and High functioning autistic adults. It will (one hopes) change but when one reads much that purports to be sympathetic, you find it’s not so.

I became aware of the new definition when a friend’s daughter was diagnosed. She was in high school and the main results were smaller classes and not having to dress out in public for gym class. Her father probably had Asberger’s himself–he was a marvelous person, bright, meticulous and hard-working but not good at dealing with the social part of improving his job prospects (a situation with which I sympathized). Anyway, he and his wife had decided their daughter was “shy” but the new classification did make a big difference for her in school. I’ve lost touch so I don’t know where she is now, but I am hoping she is doing OK, having her dad’s qualities. However, it is the old definitions of autism that emphasized the very low-functioning children and adults. Nothing like that was in evidence in this program, which surprised me. Did you ever see the Oliver Sacks program on the autistic but artistic girl?

Thank you for this contrast in perspectives you’ve picked up. You’re right that this wider look at a spectrum is not just inclusive but changes the way we can see everyone within it. I’ve had some hard experiences this past year & so lose (or never had) a perspective on what’s been gained recently. Despite all the talk of concrete chemical environmental factors, the evidence is strong on behalf of heredity, genes. It seems to be a complicated process: not like inheriting an eye color but say intelligence or personality susceptibilities. And now from what I’ve seen, experienced, read, thought about yes: one of the most difficult areas for a higher functioning autistic person is forming relationships; as in middle class life this is central in gaining promotion, Aspergers will have a strong negative effect on people’s career. In the present competitive jobless economy unemployment is superhigh among Aspergers people. Since it’s invisible to many, there’s a great deal of shame and blaming the person. But MacNeil’s efforts are clearly what’s wanted; I’d just like to see more — and what’s needed is funding for effective services for adults (as well as children who have been getting services but are at risk in the budget cuts).

MacNeil’s fourth segment takes us into schools who are required to educate all children. It’s about the challenges educating autistic children. They need highly individualized attention, tender loving care & understanding. MacNeil does not emphasize this but one sees this is not something external to the person that he or she outgrows or can be cured, but intrinsic to a way of being. What is slowly learned is how to cope, &, with support, build a life for yourself.

The fifth segment — finally MacNeil treats of adults with aspergers/autism. I was troubled that only this small portion of the seriers was on adults. If you go to the PBS hour page where comments are allowed, you find many parents, relatives, people with adult autistic people in their families commenting, and you see many Aspergers adults commenting. It’s easy to make viewers think they sympathize with children.

I was hoping for much more on funding. I note on the page where we see talked about where money is going, but no concerted effort to get adults aspergers jobs and places in their community. SSI is a joke: you have to prove destitution & then you get a miniscule sum that won’t cover a typical rent.

Tonight was general health policy questions. The argument is that this is a general health emergency because nothing adequate to the numbers is being done. We have not begun to develop enough awareness to begin to set up educational programs to enable autistic people to have enough skills to cope with life in society; we do not offer monetary support to families and we do not provide employment or social recreation or housing for adult autistic and Aspergers people. Two of the people said that before 21 the availability of what services are available is highly varied, with huge numbers of people finding nothing before school and then having only what the public educational system offers; and after 21, the person is offered nothing and subject to the vagaries of their area; many with no community to join, no job, and given no meaningful work deterioriate.

Again there was no reaching out to discuss the imposed norms on autistic and Aspergers people and that these are skewed or unfair or unreal or even irrelevant to much of life. If you could get beyond these norms, the people could contribute much.

On the series as a whole:

I have some real reservations about the instrinsic value of what was said and dramatized. There are real problems in all MacNeil’s segments, the same ones as are found in Lehrer’s reports for donkey’s years. The reporters all rely on getting authority figures and asking them questions as central to whatever they present. These authority figures give a consensus safe view that protects their interests (personal) and the interests of the groups they represent (establishment). The result often is not the right questions are even asked that will elicit real truths that matter. (As a teacher I am asked to give out forms to my students which supposedly ask them to evaluate my class; the questions are not designed to elicit what students care about or want to say, but only what the administration wants to hear and most students do not think to ignore the questions and make up ones of their own.) Everyone on Lehrer-MacNeil is tactful lest anyone be offended — including members of the audience and there is this distorting idea that one must be balanced. Not that all opinions are voiced only the popular ones in a kind of opposition. But some ideas are wrong and balance leads to stating nonsense. Whence in part all the presentation as if true of these people who are anti-vaccine (probably an intuitive humane responise); here it was further skewed not to tell of the man’s whose science was filled with lies. Also things thought radical are often left out — as “extreme.”

All this takes up time and since there are but 10 to 12 minutes much is wasted. Then in each segment we had such idealism. This one on adults had the male parent an investment banker. He makes oodles of money, he has connections. Of course he found the best school available for his son. The relatives were all presented as spending huge amounts of time and love — this is patently unreal. The slight resentment allowed through was still voiced piously. Yes here and there some hard truths: like the salaries that are paid will not garner the best people for teachers. The emphasis on children came in here too — it will be more popular, appeal, be less controversial inside a controversial topic. For my part I find false optimism very common because it’s what is thought to be wanted by most people (the socially acceptable is the upbeat) but it gets in the way of seeing the real problems and realities of whatever you are presenting.

MacNeil clearly meant well — and he’s very smart — he did this series of programs. He did expose many of the unresolvable difficulties of the autism spectrum and especially the lack of funds given to autistic people, including children. There was no denigration of autistic people. The occasional blunt comments were directed at the audience’s important prejudices: for example, the opening statement about adult autistic and Aspergers people that they are not cute nor harmless nor unthreatening was repeated at the end when MacNeil said (without fully explaining what he was referring to — a typical tactic of the Lehrer hours too) that we fear what is different and what we don’t understand was there to explain why Aspergers/autistic people are not getting the help they need. But he didn’t say that quite — meaning he didn’t produce the idea he wanted to say fully, he left the statement hanging.

But he did not counter real prejudices about specifics that might arouse hard antagonism. For example, why should a person go “out there”? Why is “out there” better than staying at home or in one’s room and occupying oneself fruitfully. Nowhere was the assumptions that sociability is a final test of whatever it is that is happening. If you could get the audience to agree it’s okay to stay in one’s room maybe they then might see that such a person given a job he or she could do — working at home on computer files — would offer society much of worth. That Aspergers/autistic people have real talents and much to contribute. Nowhere did we really see that Aspergers/Autistic people have important talents and skills, high intelligence that can contribute to society.

The best parts of the Lehrer reports are often the straight story telling, the film narrative of whatever it is — be it a war story, a story of a strike, of a hospital. There was some of this in these 7 segments — strongest in the first one where we were allowed to watch his grandchild be difficult in a store, be demanding, not be in touch with the grandfather following the boy about, hearing the mother’s stories of her first perception that “something was wrong” and her fear as she watched, her anxiety. In the last segment the statement by someone that after 22 with their relative they faced a black hole of nothingness.

On the job front — gov’t jobs — the continual shedding of gov’t jobs is far more important than any written mandate that demands disabled people be given opportunities for jobs in government. The important thing to watch, the subsequent growth of cronyism to the point that merit/skill does not matter it’s who you know in a particular office gets a job. The elimination of the 171 has been fatal to large numbers of people having an opportunity to get a job dependent on their education. That Obama clearly couldn’t care less for real about the vulnerable and powerless in the constituency that elected him. The MacNeil segment offered no statistics where they matter — for example how many autistic people there are who are unemployed and without resources beyond their families. I assume he has done enough research to be able to offer an extrapolated educated guess but he did not.

MacNeil has no hostility whatsoever towards autistic or Aspergers people — something very common in articles which purport to sympathize. Again and again they show themselves to have simplistic notions about autistic people which see them as freaks and because different fearful. Again and again the thrust is to coerce the Aspergers or autistic person into becoming neurotypical.

For example, an article in the Baltimore Sun about “exercise for autistic people” contained common central features I find troubling and problematic. Autistic people are referred to as “they” as if such a person is somehow radically different from others; it is assumed that neurotypical peopoel exhibit a set of characteristics (all of them) which include a liking for exercise. Then it’s assumed the autistic person should want to be like a neurototypical and how shall we go about forcing this.

On each count no real understanding is gained of anything much.

Laura Schreibman’s The Science and Fiction of Autism suggests that there is a real continuum between neurotypical people and autistic people as there is across the autism spectrum. Among the theories about personality type she explains is that the male human being tends to be more asocial than the female (more competitive, less cooperative) and that it may be autism is a kind of extreme of certain characteristics found in men — and reinforced by our society.

I found A Rant against autism awareness month.

We should be disquieted by talk we come across of people as empty shells and living utterly deprived lives necessarily. Not so. Autistic people can live rich lives inwardly.

It reminds me of when deaf people were first recognized as educable. In the middle 18th century the first sign language was invented and a tremendous change could be seen in deaf people taught sign language: from apparent idiocy to full humanity except they are deaf. By the end of the century though some schools had opened up where the first forbidding of sign language began to be seen and an insistence that deaf people be like hearing people insofar as sound is concerned to harms that come from hostile articles are many, and one is that people who are autistic or Aspergers might take seriously the caricatures and stereotypes
found in such articles. To be sure, stereotypes often have an element of truth and they appeal since they exaggerate one or two traits at the expense of many others. Caricatures take that one step further by seeing these few traits hostilely, presenting them in the light of ridicule or humiliation.

So we fall prey to hurt and harm if we argue about these unreal stereotypes and caricatures. People who are or with Aspergers may have friends, but they may experience friends differently and have a different relationship with them — one that also may look different if you see their outward daily patterns.

People who are Aspergers often like routines. I love what I call my routs. Some autistic people are comfortable with, like doing repetitive tasks which to a Neurotypical would be awful as NTs are careless about such things. That does not mean the NT’s way is better, only different

So while, as usual watching a PBS MacNeil segment on the Lehrer show was frustrating and at moments (for me) painful; nonetheless, these 10 to 12 minute segments probably did some good in gently spreading better attitudes and knowledge (think of water dripping on wood) for the very reasons I have objected to the program’s whole apparatus — it’s what respected, what’s respectable.


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I have a right to choose my own life … Verity, Bk 1, Ch 13, p. 138

Ross (Robin Ellis) and Verity (Norma Streader) Poldark greeting one another: he has returned from the presumed dead (Poldark Season 1, Part 1, Episode 2)

Dear Friends and readers,

I’m just delighted to be able to report that generally my students appear to have not just liked, but attended to, and even loved Graham’s Ross Poldark. I was so worried the detail of the book, the strangeness of the era, the size would put them off. But no. The first week we began to discuss it, one young woman said “I couldn’t put it down.” Another, “he gets me to care so much about the characters. When Jinny Carter was at risk [of rape, beating], I was so worried.” A third: “It’s my favorite book thus far”! Two boys read ahead that week. They said that “the history part” did not get in their way. The things in the book reminded them of today. The language was not a problem either — or no more of a problem than the average college-assigned novel nowadays.

Jim (Stuart Doughty) and Jinny (Gillian Bailey) Carter on their wedding day (Part 2, Episode 5)

This was our second week and we had our first three talks assigned on the book. Well two of them were among the best all term. First for an account of the novel’s phases and an outline of the story see Ross Poldark, Revenant.

Both by young men.

The topic for the first was: “On two of the heroines: describe the behavior of Ross Poldark to Demelza Crane: how is his behavior a direct rebellion against the mores of his time and how does it show what a rough/raw (unfair) deal women get? Describe the behavior of Verity’s family to her? Are they justified?”

He really entered into the spirit of the talk and produced a strongly feminist critique of the way that Demelza was treated — until marriage.

Demelza (Angharad Rees), first seen, being beaten (Part 2, Episode 2)

And was judicious about the family’s rejection of Captain Blamey for their apparently 30 year old spinster daughter, Verity: he pointed out how terrible was Blamey’s conduct (alcoholism beat his wife, kicked her down stairs when pregnant and she died) and the student was very harsh towards — much harsher than the book. (I added they should see how much power a brother as well as father had over a woman of 30.)

Ferociously violent family scene, Blamey (Jonathan Newth) tosses Francis (Cliver Francis) off Verity, Charles, the father (Frank Middlemass) shouting

Then he had done research on women’s positions in the era and compared it to today.

I was blown away. I didn’t expect it at all. The class discussion was about how Jinny Carter, the miner’s daughter was stalked and nearly raped — or violently killed — by an ex-suitor, disgruntled. A girl student brought up how anxious she had been for Jinny when her husband would go out poaching. They talked of how the two were near starving but for poaching small game and the “amazing” thing that she said she’d rather starve than Jim, her husband, poach.

The second was: “Discuss how in Ross Poldark the need for money, class antagonisms and resentments clash with family values in among the Poldarks and Warleggans and how that mirrors things that can happen within families and powerful people in an area too.”

The student did omit the Warleggans where it is harder to see the monopoly emerging but he was remarkably insightful on the characters’ personalities interacting in day to day life over class and money. He remarked that Verity was a female version of Ross.

Verity and Ross at ball

He was very alive to amounts of money mentioned in the book. For example, he noticed that Charles Poldark bet 100 guineas on a single cock-fight while Demelza was getting two guineas a year as a kitchen maid. He was very alive to what an upper class person might do or not do for a lower class one — you’d think US society was class-ridden (joke alert). He went into the competition over piano playing at the close of the novel that I’ve thought is an imitation of Emma. His main point was that Ross is a “hybrid” and feels more comfortable with working and lower class people even if he has the manners to stay with the upper class and seems to think he loves Elizabeth. (This is another student who declared Ross would have been unhappy with Elizabeth; only in reading the later novels and carefully can you see her better traits.)

Ross comfortable with the prostitute Margaret (Diana Berrimann)

Alas at the end he uttered a justification for the class system which did not seem aware that our own society has one nor that there are huge gaps in income in the US today. When I remarked that something like 1% of the US population now controls over 80% of the wealth, students looked astonished and disbelieving. “We no longer have have-nots” said one. This ignorance supports the corporations today. A couple of intelligent more well-read students seemed to know the truth of the matter.

They seemed interested in some of my lecture on fantasy and costume drama. At least they did ask questions.

We then watched most of Episode 3, including the unjust trial scene,

Ross getting very drunk, very bitter at his having made matters worse for Jim (perhaps), and the ensuing first sexual intercourse between Ross and Demelza.

He tells about his failure

She supports him as no one else has; Verity would correct, scold

The first gesture of tenderness

Ellis was brilliant in that one, shuddering unable to stop himself from bitterness and a desire for oblivion; Rees as the girl adoring the man who had rescued her from an abysmal life.

Still I have to admit the students didn’t care for the film either time as much as I hoped (that is, I hoped to attract others to read): through their eyes I could see how slow it seemed, and also how wasteful of film time (we are feed information in separate scenes that would not be done now). But they were alive to its comedy in Part 2 (which we saw the first week), especially Paul Curran as Jud and the initiating encounter at the fair between Ross and Demelza, their relationship changing and ripening into companionship over work (he in the fields, she bringing out lunch) and final love-making of Ross and Demelza — which nonetheless appeared to make a few uncomfortable because she was just 17 and he 30. Again a better read student said this was typical of the time, nothing unusual.

This experience has further developed my desire to write a panel proposal for the coming EC/ASECS on liberty in the 18th century on historical and post-colonial fiction, a paper proposal just on the Winston Graham’s Poldark series. My emphasis will be the first 7 books the series covered, and within that specific kinds of episodes. And I’ve been working out a few thoughts after reading Helen Hughes’s Historical Romance, Jerome de Groot’s Historical Novel and Suzanne Keen’s “The Historical Turn in British Fiction,” from A Concise Companion to Contemporary British Fiction, ed. James F. English.

Hughes begins: Historical fiction and costume drama are strongly popular in the US and Europe; historical novels have been so since the early 19th century saw the “birth” of the species (so to speak) with Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels (set in Scotland in the 18th century. I add another influence are gothic novels set in the past against a wide landscape of time and history, the first widely influential one by Anne Radcliffe, Mysteries of Udolpho which neither Catherine or Henry can put down (from Northanger Abbey).

Original covers of the Graham books showed — rightly — views of the Cornish coastline. As de Groot says, historical fiction has from its outset been part of a ongoing definition of one’s national, ethnic and cultural identity. These belong to a kind of subspecies of regional fiction — novels set in a specific place redolent of that place, Daphne DuMaurier’s novels also set in Cornwall. Ross Poldark we see the mines and dangerous rocky seacoast; Demelza, written under her “sign” so to speak, shows us spring, flowering pink bushes. I’m rereading Demelza for the third time too.

Coastline of Cornwall near Falmouth: opening of Season 2, Part 1

Hughes goes on to say that the word “romance” is much denigrated because it is attached to women and women as a group are demeaned in our culture except as they serve families and men (mothers, wives, daughters, teachers, nurses). (I add to say of someone he is effeminate is an insult. But it is true to say that not only is science fiction romance, so too is historical fiction: the linking element is fantasy and wish-fulfillment, a kind of distanced and thus comfortable feel finally even if the characters suffer a great deal.

Key element is combination of realism — so we believe in what we read and identify, engage, bond, and distancing of time — so story can be framed away from us, and feel mythic.

Buying Sheep

What historical romance and costume dramas do is highlight and dramatize versions of fear and hope we experience today — in Ross Poldark, war, class and gender inferiority, money. The time of revolution, the later 18th and early 19th century have been favorite periods for dramatizing dislocation and political themes — for criticizing the way the political arrangements of present society are through a mirroring technique.

We are invited to spend our time with the aristocratic world and with a hero who is charismatic and exemplifies qualities we are to admire, he is connected to a heroine who we can see also exemplifies traditional behavior of women which is flattering to and services men and families. There are also fairy tale romantic heroines, in this case I’ll add Elizabeth Chynoweth. I”ll add that Graham shows Elizabeth makes bad decisions which leave her in the power of the bullying crude amoral resentful George Warleggan.

Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) as first seen in the series, looking at and seen by Ross as she dances with her first husband, Francis, the heir to Trenwith (older son of older son).

And everyone does suffer a lot in these dramas.

The adventure part is very important. Hughes says most historical fiction does not use it to expose injustice clearly, so I’ll add Graham does and graphically and continually: in Ross Poldark and again in the fifth novel, Black Moon, we are brought into the prisons of the ancien regime. Do not say we do not have prisons: we have a huge population in captivity and if they are not treated so horrifically as they were before the fall of the Bastille, they are again a subject way of repressing a huge group of people — increasing numbers of woman. Privatized so we know little. In Jeremy Poldark (novel 3) a typical trial for poaching and for taking things from wrecks off shore expose how trials favor the rich and judges are from the upper class. Again today we have an analogy.

Hughes reiterates that the past is not just a pretext though, the unfamiliarity of the past lays bare before us what we see, but it also comforts. We try to note what has improved since then (sick people mostly get medical care, prisoners do not starve, they have light, live in cleanliness. We also feel we are studying something universal because we see the same characteristics then as now. Now this is not quite true as much anachronism goes into the creating historical fictions and costume dramas (we update though we don’t realize it), but we feel we are encountering permanent human characteristics. A core personality. Thus disguise enormously important: the characters disguise themselves during some of their adventures. Underneath they remain the same.

Historical fiction and dramas do to some extent marginalize the role of socialization in a given era and culture — sometimes though we are made strongly aware of a few characteristics — coerced marriage for a woman, how a powerful aristocratic male can do just about anything he wants.

It’s not escapist but a mix: a kind of inverted utopia.

Books are imagined by the writer and informed by his ideology; films are the product of the film-makers interaction with the text through the script and awareness of the conventions of films, and the actors and production design and costume and budget.

So, now to myself exemplify through the Poldark novels and film series what I’ve picked up by my reading; also to qualify, extend, enrichen:

Poldark series set in time of revolution and war: the French where fundamental values were changed and debated. We see relationships between parents and children, men and men, men and women and are supposed to become conscious of a critique of society through the past.

Ross almost killed in a casual execution by the emigres in France

Ross is a kind of Cornish 18th century Che Guevara: on the side of the poor, does the just and honorable thing, decries and directly flouts law to bring about justice, will go in for violence if necessary. If not quite a Jacobin (not quite so radical) then a Girondist: he would have been a middle-of-the-road revolutionary in French assembly.

Two systems going on at the same time: the archetypal and mythic and particular and historical.

Characters enormously important. We must care about them. We are led to worry about the kinds of failures and miseries that touch a nerve in us, a nerve in our consciousness. Will Jinny be raped by this ex-suitor? Will Ross do the right thing and keep Demelza, and then when they make love (so she is no longer a virgin) marry her. (Same thing in Northanger Abbey: when it’s implied that Frederick Tilney had Isabella, he has damaged her permanently; even if she is not sympathetic, he has done this carelessly to her — Frederick is a cad.)

So, Ross: strong in courage, ingenious in strategy: he borrows money and sets up a secret company to struggle against the monopoly power of Warleggans — they stand for modern corporate power. He is good at commanding men. Has to learn to cope with women. They are ultimately conservative in this sense: it’s a society run by “natural leaders” and the lower classes are shown as comic characters, as not capable of leading, investing and so on. He rescues the heroine.

Still he often remains a figure apart, thinking for himself, sensitive under a hard exterior. And to make ends meet in Demelza he will resorts to smuggling — as did many throughout the UK and other places. Excise tax killing people who lived on a subsidence level. He is almost taken more than once, if taken, he’d be hanged. He leads a band of men to rescue Dr Enys from prison and kills people himself to do it and to escape.

Demelza: strong in affection, makes a home, loves to garden, to cook, sets up orderly peaceful place, looks to help others in their affectionate emotional life, wants to solidify ties, accepts social realities and works within them — so as she marries and grows older a stabilizing influence. Enjoys sex. She is there for the hero. She wins and tames him

Ross Poldark is a solitary saturnine kind of guy and Demelza the spirited heroine. We get a symbolic expression of female concerns: a need for self-development is answered by the myth of her educating herself in Ross’s library. As she grows older she gains more independence but less liberty to enjoy it once she weds — anyway we are show in Demelza that social life for women is often abrasive encounters with aggressive men — why she does so badly in that first assembly and why in a much later book (Angry Tide). After the one experience, she stays in Cornwall. I understood this decision of hers from within my own experience as a teenager and young woman.

Safety is marriage in these books, but we see that the norms are enforcers of rules that derive from male needs. That is shown.

Love is a matter of affinity, physical love a crowning expression of this valuing of one another’s individual qualities, rather than an end in itself. The heroine becomes powerful because he values his home-life as stability and meaning (p. 129) where the hero retires to (at the close of most of the books) she is compensated for her quiet life serving him and his children by how he is valued as charismatic and is powerful on her behalf.

Tellingly both are disinherited. They are not illegitimate as is so common, but he is not of his class and he comes home to find much of his property removed from him. He is a younger son of a younger son. Her mother is dead, her father beats her; when he remarries he marries a religious fanatic whose identity would squash Demelza’s. So both have to find and invent new identities. They do and these cohere finally with the winners of their worlds, the conventional upper class: he landowner, mine-owner, she his loving wife and mother of his children.

But the characters do feel solitary too and we get a strong sense of their living apart in a indwelling mind — a chapter in Verity’s mind shows this very well as she tries to deal with how she has now been deprived of the life she had wanted to live with a husband and now has to live a supposedly safer life with more social acceptance in her father’s house. Bk 2 Ch 14, pp 143-45: the chapter is really about a young woman compromising what she wants and resigning herself to what she is pressured into accepting by those who supposedly love and have her best interests at heart. Verity’s assertions include: “I have the right to choose my own life” (p. 138) “These were the remarks she had forged in the quietness of her own bedroom ” (p. 119).

Each lives apart when contented too: Verity with her estranged husband, Demelza in her garden, her books, her library, Ross a wanderer.

The books individually ususuall end on a positive note (not always, e.g., Black Moon does not). But they do not end in tragic loss as the elite and high culture books we read in my class this term: Small Island (Andrea Levy’s Booker and Whitbread Prize winning books that I am going to read with my students as their last book for this term), not ending ambiguously as Namesake (which I read with students in the first half of the term), poignantly as A Month in the Country (by J. L. Carr, ditto), and ironically as in Bel Canto (by Ann Patchett, ditto).

At the close of the Ross Poldark he comes home to her and they have made a good space for themselves and coming child to thrive. Ross is momentarily rewarded at the end of the books with quiet domestic peace. His public actions are rarely rewarded: he is praised and admired by the populace but not liked by the powerful and again and again we see him come near bankruptcy and be threatened with dire punishments.

First series though ends in loss and conflagration with them apart — and how I loved it for this, exhilarating and comforting too (as Jim and I do live apart from others):

Closing moment of Season 1: here Trenwith has been burnt down, George and Elizabeth Warleggan thrown out, Ross broke returns to his regiment, Demelza to stay in Cornwall with children, but they are exhilarated as together

The Poldark mini-series displays a continual political, economic and social dimension which connects to the individual being able to take advantage of their natural liberty as entities in the world.

Why popular beyond this?

In writing of historical fiction’s power I see I left out a central feature which Hughes makes much of and I’m intensely aware of — having this morning read-skim through about half of Graham’s Ross Poldark — it’s that recreated within the terms of the fiction is a consciousness that feels modern and can be identified with. The appeal of these books is the consciousness of its characters. This is very strong in the first encounter between Ross and Demelza, pp. 84-82

Readership is often lower middle class, clerks, teachers, people in office and library and public service jobs. They are anxious about dislocation, and the anxiety of the characters enables them to re-experience and validate their own seeking/searching
Jinny Carter almost being raped by Reuben Clemmow (pp 169-70).

Identifying with idealized images of Englishness works not only to flatter and increase the person’s self-esteem but also makes the class conflict less visible, harmonizes and makes “sound” an idea of nationhood. This is one of the contradictions in the Poldark series.

Hughes has a chapter on Englishness in popular historical fiction. It harmonizes and makes people accept the class system as they are at least part of this apparently beautiful (green and pleasant land), civilized in manners, educated natioin. The Poldark series also subscribes to the middle-century middle class gospel that work will get an adequate reward; it’s a gospel of hazard too, where risk does eventually lead to success.

Ross Poldark and Graham’s second in the series (Demelza) are enormously rich in suggestiveness and details that can be later elaborated of all sorts, from wrecks and poaching and business deals … to marriage and babies and female isolation.

Western society seems to me to have changed little in fundamentals since 1945 — though the discourse of this unusual series remains unusual in its genuine left-of-center critique of class cruelties, injustices and at least an instinctive feminism (countered by now and again a curious drive to justify male violence towards women).

Truth to tell, I love them because inside them is a presence, Graham’s which values solitude, apartness, is deeply sceptical and disillusioned and he is aware of how women need safety and all people tenderness and liberty. They validate my deep needs and I feel I am in contact with another spirit who understands.

Unfortunately but not unexpectedly since the 20th century when the form turned more and more into woman’s romances and novels and presents women’s issues, women’s romance historical novels are not respected the way the form was in the 19th century when men dominated. So my great love of them is common among women and my inability to try to find a way to discuss the realistic ones which are not elevated by pseudo-high culture criticism (as the 19th century novel was elevated by its historicism and regionalism) fits just what I experience in other areas of life. As a woman what I like and want to talk of and share is not acceptable in establishment places where men and male tastes and pride predominate.

On C18-l we had a long thread where people cited “modern rewrites” of 18th century novels (see comments). I am wondering if someone (anyone who reads this blog — if there are any who will tell me you do) could make suggestions in the reverse direction. We’ve had citations of rewrites of 18th century novel.

Nomenclature: Jerome de Groot in The Historical Novel suggests that “rewritten fiction” is a good term for what we are discussing here. He argues it’s a subspecies of historical fiction. In rewritten fiction the franchise and world is the previous book. They undermine and engage larger social attitudes by presenting a kind of alternative literary history. Examples: Coetzee’s Foe and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargossa Sea and Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone.


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Sunset near Naples (c 1785), Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97) [serves as cover illustration for Anne Radcliffe’s Sicilian Romance]

Dear friends and readers,

A. Mary F. Robinson Darmester Duclaux, lyricist, ballad-writer, translator, sybil, wrote of Italy in a Vernon Lee sort of vein during one part of her long career, lived in France, her prose book is a study of Emily Bronte. When I first wrote a foremother poet posting to Wom-po in 2006, the implicit praise for the poetry involved prompted a series of protests from women poets on that listserv at the time, and in response a cogent passionate defense by Annie Finch of this type of feminine (“female poetess”) poetry. This week when I put the same few poems on Wom-po, the poems attracted curious questions and sympathetic interest.

The reader will find that Robinson is a consciously egalitarian poet, identifying as a woman and a poet of the people (of ballads, folksongs) and her defense of her lyrical bent is formal poetry is especially a woman’s province. Those discussing her in anthologies rarely reprint her poems about women: I have two here, “The Scapegoat” and “The Wise-Woman.” One shows her to have been a reading girl and then woman (“Bookworm”). reminding me of Logan Pearsall Smith’s comment: “Some people say that life is the thing, but I much prefer reading.”

Here are my favorites by her, which I found in Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds’s Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology. I chose her originally because I so loved the few lyrics that I found in this anthology; since then I’ve discovered that there is not one poem by her in Chadwyck-Healey nor available online on the Internet; you can read her at length only if you buy one of the recent facsimile reprints of her books of poetry (and they are not inexpensive). So here is a blog filled with her poetry, where I retell her life briefly and cite anthologies which include and essays on her.

The Sibyl

Behold, the old earth is young again!
The blackthorn whitens in the rain,
The flowers come baffling wind and hail,
The gay, wild nightingale
Cries out his heat in wood and vale.
(And in my heart there rises too
          A dim free longing
For some delight I never knew!

O Spring, thou art a subtle thing,
Wiser than we, thou Sibyl, Spring!
Thy tresses blown across our face
In Life’s mid-race
Remind us of some holier place —
(And unawares the dullest find
          A new religion
That all their doubts have left behind

From Tuscan Olives

“Seven Rispetti”


At Lucca, for the autumn festival,
          The streets are tulip-gay; but you and I
Forgot them, seeing over church and wall
          Guinigi’s tower i’the black-and-blue sky.

A stem of delicate rose against the blue;
And on the top two lonely olives grew,
Crowning the tower, far from the hills, alone;
As on our risen love our lives are grown.


Who would have thought we should stand again together,
          Here, with the convent a crown of towers above us;
Here, mid the sere-wooded hills and wintry weather;
          Here, where the olives bend down and seem to love us;

Here, where the fruit-laden olives half remember
All that began in their shadow last November;
Here, where we knew we must part, must part and sever;
Here, where we know we shall love for aye and ever.

John Singer Sergeant (1856-1925), A Boating Party (1889)

The Bookworm

The whole day long I sit and read
          Of days when men were men indeed
          And women knightlier far:
I fight with Joan of Arc; I fall
With Talbot; from my castle-wall
          I watch the guiding star …

But when at last the twilight falls
And hangs about the book-lined walls
          And creeps across the page,
Then the enchantment goes, and I
Close up my volumes with a sigh
          To greet a narrower age.

Home through the pearly dusk I go
And watch the London lamplight glow
          Far off in wavering lines:
A pale grey world with primrose gleams,
And in the West a cloud that seems
          My distant Appenines.

O Life! so full to truths to teach,
Of secrets I shall never reach,
          O world of Here and Now;
Forgive, forgive me, if a voice,
A ghost, a memory be my choice
          And more to me than Thou!

Here are some of her longer poignant despairing pieces on behalf of fellow women.

The Scapegoat

She lived in the hovel alone, the beautiful child.
          Alas, that it should have been so!
But her father died of the drink, and the sons were wild,              And where was the girl to go?

Her brothers left her alone in the lonely hut.
          Ah, it was dreary at night
When the wind whistled right thro’ the door that never would shut
          And sent her sobbing with fright.

She never had slept alone; when the stifling room
          Held her, brothers, father – all.
Ah, better their violence, better their threats, than the gloom
          That now hung close as a pall!

When the hard day’s washing was done, it was sweeter to stand
          Hearkening praises and vows,
To feel her cold fingers kept warm in a sheltering hand,              Than crouch in the desolate house.

Ah, me! she was only a child; and yet so aware
          Of the shame which follows on sin.
A poor, lost, terrified child! she stept in the snare,                  Knowing the toils she was in.

Yet, now, when I watch her pass with a heavy reel,              Shouting her villainous song,
It is only pity or shame, do you think, that I feel
          For the infinite sorrow and wrong?

With a sick, strange wonder I ask, Who shall answer the sin,
          Thou, lover, brothers of thine?
Or he who left standing thy hovel to perish in?
          Or I, who gave no sign?

The Wise-Woman

In the last low cottage in Blackthorn Lane
          The Wise-woman lives alone;
The broken thatch lets in the rain,
The glass is shattered in every pane
          With stones the boys have thrown.

For who would not throw stones at a witch?
          Take any safe revenge
For the father’s lameness, the mother’s stitch,
The sheep that died on its back in a ditch,
          And the mildewed corn in the grange?

Only be sure to be out of sight
          Of the witch’s baleful eye!
So the stones, for the most, are thrown at night,
Then a scuffle of feet, a hurry of fright –
          How fast those urchins fly!

The witch’s garden is run to weeds,
          Never a phlox or a rose,
But infamous growths her brewing needs,
Or slimy mosses the rank soil breeds,
          Or tares such as no man sows.

This is the house. Lift up the latch ­–
          Faugh, the smoke and the smell!
A broken bench, some rags that catch
The drip of the rain from the broken thatch
          ­Are these the wages of Hell?

The witch – who wonders? – is bent with cramp.
          Satan himself cannot cure her,
For the beaten floor is oozing damp,
And the moon, through the roof, might serve for a lamp,              Only a rushlight’s surer.

And here some night she will die alone,
          When the cramp clutches tight at her heart,
Let her cry in her anguish, and sob, and moan,
The tenderest woman the village has known
          Would shudder – but keep apart.

May she die in her bed! A likelier chance
          Were the dog’s death, drowned in the pond.
The witch when she passes it looks askance:
They ducked her once, when the horse bit Nance;
          She remembers, and looks beyond.

For then she had perished in very truth,
          But the Squire’s son, home from college,    Rushed to the rescue, himself forsooth
Plunged after the witch. – Yes, I like the youth
          For all his new-fangled knowledge.

How he stormed at the cowards! What a rage
          Heroic flashed in his eyes!
But many a struggle and many an age
Must pass ere the same broad heritage
          Be given the fools and the wise.

‘Cowards!’ he cried. He was lord of the land
          He was mighty to them, and rich.
They let him rant; but on either hand
They shrank from the devil’s unseen brand
          On the sallow face of the witch.

They let him rant; but, deep in his heart,
          Each thought of some thing of his own Wounded or hurt by the Wise-woman’s art;
Some friend estranged, or some lover apart.
          Their hearts grew cold as stone.

And the Heir spoke on, in his eager youth,
          His blue eyes full of flame;
And he claspt the witch, as he spoke of the Truth;
And the dead, cold Past; and of Love and of Ruth ­
          But their hearts were still the same,

Till at last – ‘For the sake of Christ who died,
          Mother, forgive them,’ he said.
‘Come, let us kneel, let us pray!’ he cried …
But horror-stricken, aghast, from his side
          The witch broke loose and fled!

Fled right fast from the brave amends
          He would make her then and there;
From the chance that Heaven so seldom sends
To turn our bitterest foes to friends, –
          Fled, at the name of a prayer!

Poor lad, he stared so, amazed and grieved.
          He had argued half an hour;
And yet the beldam herself believed,
No less than the villagers she deceived,
          In her own unholy power!

Though surely a witch should know very well
          ‘Tis the lie for which she will burn.
She must have learned that the deepest spell
Her art includes could ne’er compel
          A quart of cream to turn.

And why, knowing this, should one sell one’s soul
          To gain such a life as hers –
The life of the bat and the burrowing mole ­
To gain no vision and no control,
          Not even the power to curse?

‘Tis strange, and a riddle still in my mind
          To-day as well as then.
There’s never an answer I could find Unless –
0 folly of humankind!
          O vanity born with men!

Rather it may be than merely remain
          A woman poor and old,
No longer like to be courted again
For the sallow face deep lined with pain,
          Or the heart grown sad and cold.

Such bitter souls may there be, I think,
          So craving the power that slips,
Rather than lose it, they would drink
The waters of Hell, and lie at the brink
          Of the grave, with eager lips.

They sooner would, than slip from sight,
          Meet every eye askance;
Sooner be counted an imp of the night,
Sooner live on as a curse and a blight
          Than just be forgotten?


Marianne Von Werefkin (1870-1938), Woman with a Lantern

And last:

Selva Oscura

In a wood
          Far away,
Thrushes brood,
          Ravens prey,
Eagles circle overhead,
Through the boughs a bird drops dead.

Wild and high,
          The angry wind
Wanders by
          And cannot find
Any limit to the wood
Full of cries and solitude.


Helen Allingham (1848-1926), Santa Maria Salute (1901-2)

A. Mary F. Robinson died two years before I was born. She was born in Leamington, England, and spent her childhood at home, educating herself through reading in her father’s library. He was an architect’s daughter and grew up among respected literary people (knew Robert Browning, Oscar Wilde); it’s said that she decided that instead of having a coming out ball at age 18, she had a book of poetry published. She did go to school, in Brussels, 1870, and then studied in Italy and at University College, London. She published a study of Emily Bronte in 1883. Emily Dickinson wrote of Robinson’s study that it was “more electirc far than anything since Jane Eyre.” She and Vernon Lee may have been lovers — they were at least close friends.

She lived through the worst of World War Two apparently utterly devastated by what she saw.

She married as well, a French scholar and professor of Persian, James Darmesteter; they translated one another’s work, and tried to bring about an alliance of French and British culture. She lived in Paris where she is described as having a salon (so are other women). She did translations from Greek. When her husband died in 1894, she did not return to England, but rather remarried, this time a French scientist, Emile Duclaux, and stayed in France. He died in 1904 and she continued to write until nearly the end of World War II.

It seems she remained close much of her life with her sister, Mabel, a year younger than she was. Her Images and Meditations published 1923 was dedicated to “to Mabel, Only Sister, Dearest Friend.”

Pietro Fragiacomo (1856-1922), Inverno [Winter, Venice]

Most of her poems are set in Italy, Venice frequently.. Some show a power of authoritative argument (“Darwinism”) but I have preferred the lyrics and deeply melancholy enigmatic pieces. She defended her love of ballads, and said it was a “special woman’s form,” valuable for an authenticity of experience.

We women have a privilege in these matters … We have always been the prime makers of ballads and love songs, of anonymous snatches and screeds of popular song. We meet together no longer on Mayday, as of old in Provence, to set the fashion in tensos and sonnets. But some old wife or other, crooning over her fire of sticks, in Scotland, or the Val d’Aosta, in Roumania or Gascony, is probably at the beginning of of most romantic ballads …

Fruit Stall Near Venice, Helen Allingham (again)

Beyond Leighton and Reynolds’s Victorian Women Poets, one may read her poetry in The Collected Poems, Lyrical and Narrative of Mary Robinson (Madame Duclaux), London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1902, and British Women Poets of the 19th Century, edd. Margaret Randolph Higonnet (who also prefers the sequences of lyrics). There’s her Emily Bronte in the Eminent Women series, London.

Writing on Robinson includes M. Lynda Ely, “Not a Song to Sell: Re-presenting A. Mary F. Robinson,” Victorian Poetry, 38:8 (2000):94-108; Emily Harrington, “The Strain of Sympathy: A. Mary F. Robinson, The New Arcadia, and Vernon Lee,” Nineteenth Century Literature, 61:1 (2006):66-98.

John Singer Sergeant (1856-1925), Vernon Lee (1881)

From her Love without Wings (“Eight Songs”):


Ah me, do you remember still
          The garden where we strolled together,
The empty groves, the little hill
          Starred o’er with pale Italian heather? …


Long blessed days of love and wakening thguht,
          All, all are dead;
Nothing endures we did, nothing we wrought,
          Nothing we said.

But once I dreamed I sat and sang with you
          On Ida’s hill.
There, in the echoes of my life, we two
          Are singing still.


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Ralph Fiennes as Duke telling the Duchess he does not make deals; why should he? Keira Knightley as the powerless stunned wife listening (The Duchess)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve returned to my movie studying project (right now I’m watching films and making notes towards a revision of a chapter on Andrew Davies and the 2008 S&S), and as a sort of control film, what an Austen film is not, I re-watched The Duchess, directed by Saul Dibb, screenplay Jeffrey Hatcher, Saul Dibb, and Anders Thomas, produced by Gabriella Tana and Michael Kuhn (among others), featuring Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling and Dominic Cooper. I also watched the features (one of Foreman reading aloud from the letters), another on the costumes and production design and a final one emphasizing the position of women at the time.

I had only watched the film once before, written a blog, but knew I should re-see it. I now realize how inadequate was my take. Yes it’s unlike Amanda Foreman’s book but in a good way: Foreman’s book is a mildly feminist one: she values the woman at the center and shows her to have led an intelligent life well lived and been a fine writer (especially of letters). But Foreman goes no more and even (I think backtracks) to suggest the system at the time was not inimical to women. I had written a foremother poet (and writer) blog about the real Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire, but not considered the film seriously.

The movie is a strongly protest one with a heavily outlined feminist fable at the center. Its done very formally and at times strong stylization which makes the scenes more acceptable in their absoluteness. The characters are continually given either-or choices: the either/or is obey the conventions and authority figures or these people (the mother of the duchess, the duke she marries) will destroy you. We see her married to the duke and simply taken by him as an object, we see him rape her brutally; we see his utter indifference to any injustice to her and demand she accept his promiscuity and bring up his children out of wedlock but strong retributive punishment for her if she stray sexually openly. The poignant scene where she is forced to give up her child by Grey

has a parallel to a scene in Small Island where a white mother gives up a black child (she had intercourse with a black man) for its own sake though it breaks her heart and life’s hope.

Ruth Wilson as Queenie Bligh, Benedict Cumberbatch as Bernard Bligh

In the movie it’s there as a part of a paradigm one sees in movies in modern dress. Most striking are the many scenes carried off so well by Fiennes (out of typology) where he is adamant and cruel to Georgiana and they have no recourse.

Here he refuses to listen to anything but his own will

It’s hard to say that the film could not be read as conservative. Certainly if you wanted to read it this way you could: by obeying at the end we are told Gray became a prime minister, the child was brought up loved, and Georgiana lived a full influential society life. This would be like in Thelma and Louise emphasizing the ending — for the journey is one of strong victim hood and suffering and loss, violation of spirit and body, wtith he duchess becoming a heavy drinker, gambler, almost setting herself on fire.

We are never told what the job of motherhood entails – that’s telling. It seems to be only playing with a child or kissing it. That it entails re-inculcating these ugly inhumanities we’ve seen all movie long is only seen in Charlotte Rampling’s remorselessness. It’s part of the movie’s failures — for as in most art the painful sordid and icky realities of networking are nowhere to be seen.

Telling of raw things casually — over cards as if things of intense emotional importance do not count

The movie deals in absolutes but as cinema and film art it’s all the more effective.

The figure at the center was coerced by threats and violence into selling her body for these beautiful costumes and hats :). Shooting on location was reinforced through color and everyway possible to make a richly luxurious picturesque experience, at the edges of which were dependent poor.

Landscape around Chatham, where the Duchess’s letters in manuscript reside

I note Saul Dibb has done two documentaries of serious protest: one about the lives of black people in London and the other about pornography and prostitution. It’s not common to find a man doing this for women’s issues too.


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Dear friends and readers,

I’ve noticed in mainstream media the determination to de-fund Planned Parenthood has not been treated with any clarity or truthfulness. What has been repeated is the mantra of the Republican group refusing to sign the budget is the objection to Planned Parenthood is they support abortion and do abortions. The reality is a tiny percentage of Planned Parenthood’s efforts are about abortion (different figures are quoted, one that’s repeated is 3%).

The real animus against Planned Parenthood is they enable women to have sex without getting pregnant. The whole thrust of the organization (as seen in its name) is to spread contraception, to give women control of their bodies — and inexpensively. It’s a legacy of Margaret Sanger. The real objection of the republicans is such places enable women to have sex without anxiety.

IN the 1970s I went to Planned Parenthood to be fitted for a diaphragm and while there I had a health assessment exam and pills for menopausal pain. One of my daughters went there in the later 1990s. She wanted contraception, and chose the birth control pill. She also got pills to help her with nervous anxiety and saw a psychologist regularly for about a year.

Why in the mainstream media is the false presentations about abortion and Planned Parenthood repeated. Whose interest is it to prevent women from having sex unless they are threatened by pregnancy? Whose interest is served by not telling the truth here? Can it still be that men measure their manliness by their ability to control women’s sexuality? Husbands have to pay the costs of having children. Who is afraid to say aloud that women should have access to contraception? that women should have equal access to sexual enjoyment as men?

I omit the general health care that Planned Parenthood provides as that’s not the apparent target here, though their price and inclusionary policies also free women of authorities in their lives, the need to have money or connections.

I’ve not written many political blogs since the Admiral and I opened “Ellen and Jim have a blog, two,” but the recent self-serving, ludicrous, and pettily triumphant theatrics over closing down the US government included one vignette, one photo I also want to record…

At about 1 in the morning on Friday night I saw a glimpse of one of the leading women from Planned Parenthood. She looked terrible, her face so harrowed like someone aged 10 years in the last hour, careworn, her shattered held-together guarded expression indescribable. Imagine what they have been going through: the whole nation held up (countless individuals threatened with going broke) because, you see, of these evil women. It’s not a coincidence, that this is an organization dominated by women.


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