Dear readers, RT for the last several weeks has been exploring 19th century British romantic prose; where else could he possibly find himself, on his 55th birthday, but washed up on the shores of Charlotte Bronte‘s great novel, Jane Eyre?
It goes without saying that this novel is primarily addressed to women, relating as it does the search of a sympathetic and intelligent young lady for the earthly paradise of marriage. “Reader, I married him,” she reports as the novel reaches it conclusion. Few sentences in the English language can have had as widespread an impact on our culture as this one.
But fellow men, take note: we can only wish that we were capable of the profound passion that Mr. Rochester evinces during the novel’s proposal scene. Rochester’s language here reaches the intensity of poetry, as does, in an entirely more feminine way, Jane Eyre’s:
Excerpts from the Proposal Scene, Jane Eyre
“Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”
“And your will shall decide your destiny,” he said: “I offer you my hand, my heart, and a share of all my possessions.”
“You play a farce, which I merely laugh at.”
“I ask you to pass through life at my side—to be my second self, and best earthly companion.”
A waft of wind came sweeping down the laurel-walk, and trembled through the boughs of the chestnut: it wandered away—away—to an indefinite distance—it died. The nightingale’s song was then the only voice of the hour: in listening to it, I again wept. Mr. Rochester sat quiet, looking at me gently and seriously.
“My bride is here,” he said, again drawing me to him, “because my equal is here, and my likeness. Jane, will you marry me?”
Still I did not answer, and still I writhed myself from his grasp: for I was still incredulous.
“Do you doubt me, Jane?” “Entirely.”
“You have no faith in me?” “Not a whit.”
“You, Jane, I must have you for my own—entirely my own. Will you be mine? Say yes, quickly.”
“Mr. Rochester, let me look at your face: turn to the moonlight.” “Why?” “Because I want to read your countenance—turn!” “There! you will find it scarcely more legible than a crumpled, scratched page.
Read on: only make haste, for I suffer.”
His face was very much agitated and very much flushed, and there were strong workings in the features, and strange gleams in the eyes.
“Oh, Jane, you torture me!” he exclaimed. “With that searching and yet faithful and generous look, you torture me!”
“How can I do that? If you are true, and your offer real, my only feelings to you must be gratitude and devotion—they cannot torture.”
“Gratitude!” he ejaculated; and added wildly—“Jane accept me quickly. Say, Edward—give me my name—Edward—I will marry you.”
“Are you in earnest? Do you truly love me? Do you sincerely wish me to be your wife?”
“I do; and if an oath is necessary to satisfy you, I swear it.”
“Then, sir, I will marry you.”
“Edward—my little wife!”
RT suspects that the need for romance becomes more insistent as we grow older. Perhaps, visual impairment notwithstanding, we grow more clear-sighted as we age. Energy is everything, and what better energy can we hope for than affection? Marriage may not be the only answer; we should remember that we are always falling in love with each other. Passion pursues us right up to the grave, and perhaps beyond it. A better fate is hard to imagine.
Drawing: Portrait of Charlotte Bronte; Evert A. Duyckinck (based on a drawing by George Richmond). 1873. University of Texas; WikiCmns. Public Domain. *
Actually, RT hasn’t finished the book, but is far enough into it to have fallen under the novel’s spell. Certainly the world its author presents captivates a world-weary heart; here we find a fresh, untrammeled beauty, a poet’s tribute to nature and man…and woman.
Let any doubts about the book’s style be settled by this sample from chapter 2:
“To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement. The sensation may be caused by the panoramic glide of the stars past earthly objects, which is perceptible in a few minutes of stillness, or by the better outlook upon space that a hill affords, or by the wind, or by the solitude; but whatever be its origin, the impression of riding along is vivid and abiding. The poetry of motion is a phrase much in use, and to enjoy the epic form of that gratification it is necessary to stand on a hill at a small hour of the night, and, having first expanded with a sense of difference from the mass of civilised mankind, who are dreamwrapt and disregardful of all such proceedings at this time, long and quietly watch your stately progress through the stars. After such a nocturnal reconnoitre it is hard to get back to earth, and to believe that the consciousness of such majestic speeding is derived from a tiny human frame.”
Visionary, massive, gorgeous–and it helps to remember that Hardy’s father was a stone mason.
The plot couldn’t be more attractive. It’s a love story, thank heavens, filled with all the twists and turns you would expect, driven by human foible and heartbreak, illuminated with satirical sketches, and yet deeply aware of tradition, dignity, and the possibilities for happiness.
Then we have the story’s lovers–the shepherd Gabriel Oak, an old-fashioned hero, more than equal to the difficulties set before him, and Bathsheba Everdene, a lady alluring, intelligent, and prone to impulse. She enters the story a milk-maid, rises far in her fortunes, and then encounters a gentleman well-suited to be her husband. But Hardy writes in such a way that it isn’t clear which of the suitors will win Bathsheba’s hand–what is clear to the artist might for others be obscured by the world’s commotions.
As lovely and shrewd as all of this is, the novel’s setting and worldview have made the deepest impression on RT. Did a way of life as simple, communal, and breathtaking as this ever really exist? Hardy’s Wessex may not be the southern England of actual fact, but RT has enjoyed spending some time there. We need more handcraft, more confidence, and more romance. RT
Painting: Thomas Hardy (1893); Thomas Strang. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
RT offers here a powerful and enigmatic poem by the great Victorian poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. By way of unraveling these tightly bound lines, RT notes that kingfishers suggest the Fisher King, that emasculated keeper of the Grail. This is a physical poem, one that embraces the beauty and sheer substance of the world, and the acts of men, that handsome, tremendous spectacle.
AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme
AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 5
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 10
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Painting: Hopkins, painted 24 July 1866; unknown. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Recently RT was inspired to do a little more research on his grandfather the actor. He didn’t turn up any new information, but he did manage to compose this brief bit for his tentative biography/novel, The Nitrate Angel. (And here is more on Coxey’s Army.)
Panic and poverty—those early memories stayed with him. His father had joined Coxey’s Army, that assemblage of the ill-used, tramping and wending, surging and weaving its way down to Washington. He was too young, even by the standards of the time, to go himself, but the listless eyes and growling stomachs of the other boys, those things he remembered. Later, much later, when his friends, appalled by his grueling schedule, urged him to have some fun, he told them the truth: there is never enough work.
Never enough. He turned his eyes from the Mirror, folded the newspaper under his arm and shoved his hands deep in his pockets, and continued on his way. The day was bitter under a raw December sky, and still the avenue bustled. The terror of war and flu had gone.
“Edward!” someone called out, followed by a clap on the shoulder. It was Hanum.
Photo: Madison Square, New York City, 1908. LOC Prints & Photos Online Catalog. WikiCmns. Public Domain.
By way of breaking long silence, RT offers this beguiling missive from Ms. Dickinson:
Civilization — spurns — the Leopard!
Was the Leopard — bold?
Deserts — never rebuked her Satin —
Ethiop — her Gold —
Tawny — her Customs —
She was Conscious —
Spotted — her Dun Gown —
This was the Leopard’s nature — Signor —
Need — a keeper — frown?
Pity — the Pard — that left her Asia —
Memories — of Palm —
Cannot be stifled — with Narcotic —
Nor suppressed — with Balm —
Drawing: Grand Panthere. Leon de Wailly. 1812. Public Domain.
The New Year has started, and it has been almost exactly a month since RT last posted. By way of explanation, he will say only that various transitions and plottings are afoot and have taken him away from his regular obligations and projects. More will be revealed as some of this work begins to bear fruit (which is to say, in the next post or two). Our distracted blogger’s first contribution of 2015 is his version of a poem by Chan Buddhist monk Jia Dao (old spelling, Chia Tao), 779-843 AD. Highly regarded during his life, JD is not now as well known as the small group of most famous T’ang poets that includes Du Fu and Bai Juyi; on the basis of the following poem, RT thinks this might be a mistake. JD seems to have combined a deep respect for natural process with indications of the intensity of his experience as a monk, linking his internal and external lives in unforgettable images.
Evening; Watching the Snow Stop
Clutching my staff, I watch the storm lift;
hills and clouds braid tight, dissolve in dusk.
Woodcutters disappear into their cabins
as a weary sun drops to its bed.
And later: wildfire flowers in distant grass.
Tattered mist trailing; boulders, pine.
Hushed, I climb the monastery road—
night strikes the mountain like a bell.
Chia Tao/Jia Dao
version by Eric Quinn
copyright 2015, The Rag Tree
Photo: Tetons from Signal Mountain (1941); author, Ansel Adams. National Archives. Public Domain. *
The An Lushan Rebellion, which broke out on December 16, 755 A.D., devastated China’s Tang Dynasty and brought to a close the era known as the “High Tang,” which is generally considered to be China’s finest cultural and political flowering. The last imperial census taken before the rebellion (in 755) reported a population of 53 million; the census of 764 (the year after the rebellion ended) counted just 17 million. Thirty-six million people had died or been left homeless during the fighting.
Out of the wreckage emerged a remarkable voice, a poet whom the Chinese have honored for centuries as the greatest they have ever produced. This man, Du Fu (712-770), developed a technical mastery of the demanding 5-character Shi form of Chinese poetry that has never been equaled. But while Du Fu’s skill was evident early on, his empathy for the suffering of ordinary people and criticism of the corruption and cruelty of the elite developed in response to the rebellion and place his work in a special category. Not that other Chinese poets didn’t develop a comparable concern for the welfare of the people (Bai Juyi among them), but none of these (admittedly gifted) men spoke with such heartbreaking clarity of the crisis and its place in the Chinese worldview.
To translate a poet as great as Du Fu is to spend significant time with him (or her) via reading, reflection, and writing; RT makes no claim to having invested the requisite energy and time in Du Fu, but offers here a step towards gaining an understanding of the writer the Chinese have called “the god of poets.”
Grass murmurs along the riverbank,
and our mast sways high in the breeze;
stars fall. broad fields, flat, empty,
are gone in the moon’s eruption from water.
Has poetry not exalted my name?
old scribblers should know when to quit.
not yet a ghost, flickering, i drift
on a gull’s wings between heaven and earth.
Copyright © 2014, The Rag Tree.
Photo: Statue of Du Fu (located in Chengdu). Photo author: Fanghong. WikiCmns; CC BY-SA 3.0.