For National Poetry Day

spells

Spells by Sarachmet, 2009

Her Kind – Anne Sexton

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

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An Easter Brontë Pilgrimage

It’s Charlotte Brontë’s 198th birthday today, and happily I found myself in Yorkshire.

I’ve always been excited to see the land that shaped the Brontës’ imagination; the foundations of Gondal and Angria, and the Parsonage where they lived, worked, and died, particularly as the North is so strikingly different to my own flat East Anglia.

As my Lancastrian boyfriend noted: “That inclining green structure over there… we call that a hill.”

Gawthorpe-HallThe previous week, we went to the Jacobean Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire’s Padiham, where Charlotte Brontë paid two awkward visits to Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth in the 1850s. Sir James fancied himself a budding writer, and the green couch where Charlotte withstood her host’s overpowering enthusiasm is still on display.

Charlotte found the attentions of Sir James and his wife “painful and trying”. The couple tried to coax her down to London for the Season, but Charlotte’s nervousness and dread of being patronised meant she never fully warmed to the couple, despite their real admiration for her radical writing.

The moors further up the country, on the way to Carlisle. Branwell applied for a job as the secretary of a proposed railway line connecting Hebden Bridge to Carlisle in 1845. He was turned down.

The Parsonage at Haworth

With a water supply contaminated by corpses, open sewers, and no ‘night soil’ men to deal with the animal waste in the streets, it’s little wonder that the average life expectancy in Haworth during the Brontës’ lifetimes was just 25.8 years. Nowadays, it’s a pretty little town with a winding road providing a steady influx of tourists. It’s the end of a long rainy winter here, and the heather was flowering and the lambs trotting about in the Easter sunshine. Not remotely Wuthering, but totally lovely.

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The Parsonage, from the graveyard.

As it was Charlotte’s birthday, we were lucky enough to be invited into the collections room not normally open to the public. There we were shown some of the museum’s treasures, including one of Charlotte and Branwell’s handmade miniature books, so tiny it would fit in the hands of their toy soldiers. There was Branwell’s well-loved copy of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a small-print volume with no publishing information, suggesting it was a ‘pirate’ copy. Most touching of all was one of the last letters Anne composed before her death, written in a delicate ‘crossed’ pattern to save paper. In it she talks about her desire to survive tuberculosis for the sake of her father, who had already weathered the loss of so many children.

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Another of Charlotte’s miniature books sold at auction for £690,850 in 2011.

Excitingly, we also got within breathing distance of a rare first edition of their Brontës’ 1846 collection of poems, published under their androgynous pseudonyms, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The sisters paid the publishers’ bills, and sold a mere two copies. So if you’re ever feeling down about your own chapbook, take heart. The copy in the Parsonage collection room was gifted by the sisters to a favourite author, and includes a rather apologetic letter in which they detail its failure to fly off the shelves.

IMG_1727The house itself is unexpectedly small. I think that’s a function of decades of Brontë film adaptations set in sprawling Gothic estates, but when you take into account the width of women’s skirts during the 1840s, it’s easy to imagine the family having to shuffle about under each other’s feet, and the emotional closeness such proximity would generate.

Charlotte described Emily as “a solitude-loving raven, no gentle dove”, and her presence in the house was less palpable than her sisters’. Emily’s written work demonstrates a self-made inner world fiercely independent from Victorian sentiment and acceptable femininity. Legendary scenes from her life, like her calmly cauterising a dog bite with a hot iron, make her seem remote, but stepping into the windowless kitchen, you get a sense of her there, kneading bread, quietly plotting her next adventure in Gondal.

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When Charlotte was 20, she wrote to Robert Southey, Poet Laureate, for career advice. She received one of the blandest misogynist responses on record: ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life; and it ought not to be […] Farewell Madam!’

Today, on her 198th birthday, when people from all over the world queue to see her writing desk, Charlotte’s reply reads beautifully deadpan:

‘In the evenings, I confess, I do think, but I never trouble any one else with my thoughts.’

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Pre-Raphaelite Poetry II

My sonnet ‘Kelmscott’ has been published today in The Pre-Raphaelite Society’s annual poetry competition anthology.

“Collected in this book are the entries to the second Pre-Raphaelite Society Poetry Competition. The poems offer a myriad of pleasantly surprising responses to the Pre-Raphaelites, their successors, paintings, poetry and lives.”

Copies are £3.99 from lulu.com.

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National Poetry Day – Insomnia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Anyone who’s experienced long periods of sleeplessness knows it’s Hell. Insomnia dogged Dante Gabriel Rossetti most of his life. When he was well, he’d often work until dawn and sleep during the day. When he was ill in the 1860s and ’70s, sleep evaded him completely, turing him onto sedative drugs and stiff doses of whisky – bad news for a man who’d been almost teetotal most of his life.

Written in 1881, a year before his death, Insomnia was one of Rossetti’s last poems. With its lulling, almost seasick rhythm and disordered sense of time, I think the poem captures the way in which sleeplessness dulls and heightens the senses simultaneously, trapping the sleepless one in a purgatorial state of memory, desire, and regret.

Insomnia

Thin are the night-skirts left behind
By daybreak hours that onward creep,
And thin, alas! the shred of sleep
That wavers with the spirit’s wind:
But in half-dreams that shift and roll
And still remember and forget,
My soul this hour has drawn your soul
A little nearer yet.

Our lives, most dear, are never near,
Our thoughts are never far apart,
Though all that draws us heart to heart
Seems fainter now and now more clear.
To-night Love claims his full control,
And with desire and with regret
My soul this hour has drawn your soul
A little nearer yet.

Is there a home where heavy earth
Melts to bright air that breathes no pain,
Where water leaves no thirst again
And springing fire is Love’s new birth?
If faith long bound to one true goal
May there at length its hope beget,
My soul that hour shall draw your soul
For ever nearer yet.

Found Drowned - George Frederick Watts

Found Drowned – George Frederick Watts

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Wunderkammer: Cane Hill Asylum

The Internet, like the material world, offers places you’ll stumble across and never find again. An hour’s exploration can stay with you for years, long after the original site has disappeared, changed it’s name, or been wiped away by progress or neglect.

I came across photographer Mechanised’s images of Cane Hill Asylum on Livejournal years ago, and of all the teeming galleries of urban exploration you can trawl through online, this one left an impression. The photos struck a sensitive balance between the human narrative of the building’s original function and the beauty of the decay, and when I recently rediscovered the gallery’s new location – an accident – all the images packed their original punch.

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Mechanised indulges in none of the pound-shop Halloween gimmickry you often get with urban exploration. The overflowing drawers of patient art are particularly poignant.

Epitaph for Happiness (and Audrey) There’s not one curse or evil deed, No spells or promises to heed, There is no equal power within the mind Yes! Love’s happiness was hard to find [April, 1969]

Epitaph for Happiness (and Audrey)
There’s not one curse or evil deed,
No spells or promises to heed,
There is no equal power within the mind
Yes!
Love’s happiness was hard to find
[April, 1969]

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Post-war, wards at Cane Hill were named after historical luminaries in an attempt to lighten the stigma of the asylum. Waiting in the pharmacy, this wheelchair is from Rossetti ward – named for Gabriel, not Christina. Considering his mental health, it’s an affecting image.

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David Bowie’s half-brother Terry died on the railway tracks outside the hospital.

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Charlie Chaplin’s mother was a patient here.

She looked pale and her lips were blue, and, although she recognised us, it was without enthusiasm; her old ebullience had gone. […] She sat listening and nodding, looking vague and preoccupied. I told her that she would soon get well. “Of course,” she said dolefully, “if only you had given me a cup of tea that afternoon, I would have been alright.” The doctor told Sydney afterwards that her mind was undoubtedly impaired by malnutrition, and that she required proper medical treatment, and although she had lucid moments, it would be months before she completely recovered. But for days I was haunted by her remark: “If only you had given me a cup of tea, I would have been alright.”

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Cane Hill was demolished after arson and flood made it unwelcoming to prospective buyers. The land is now being offered up for flats.

As Mechanised says, London is a ruthless city.

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MAY 5 – CLARET

Rossetti, taking a sip in Millais' Isabella.

Rossetti, taking a sip in Millais’ Isabella.

The forth annual Claret Day is here, Victorianists. Settle down with a bottle of red, and take part in this tradition of immense poetical gravity.

(I made it up a few years ago after reading a cryptic comment in Rossetti’s notebook in the British Library.)

Bonus points if you involve a certain marsupial. The good people at Red House have joined the #WombatFriday malarky, so now it’s officially sanctioned.

So, on the subject of DGR and intoxication…

fortuneteller

The Card-Dealer
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Could you not drink her gaze like wine?
Yet though its splendour swoon
Into the silence languidly
As a tune into a tune,
Those eyes unravel the coiled night
And know the stars at noon.

The gold that’s heaped beside her hand,
In truth rich prize it were;
And rich the dreams that wreathe her brows
With magic stillness there;
And he were rich who should unwind
That woven golden hair.

Around her, where she sits, the dance
Now breathes its eager heat;
And not more lightly or more true
Fall there the dancers’ feet
Than fall her cards on the bright board
As ’twere an heart that beat.

Her fingers let them softly through,
Smooth polished silent things;
And each one as it falls reflects
In swift light-shadowings,
Blood-red and purple, green and blue,
The great eyes of her rings.

Whom plays she with? With thee, who lov’st
Those gems upon her hand;
With me, who search her secret brows;
With all men, bless’d or bann’d.
We play together, she and we,
Within a vain strange land:

A land without any order,—
Day even as night, (one saith,)—
Where who lieth down ariseth not
Nor the sleeper awakeneth;
A land of darkness as darkness itself
And of the shadow of death.

What be her cards, you ask? Even these:—
The heart, that doth but crave
More, having fed; the diamond,
Skilled to make base seem brave;
The club, for smiting in the dark;
The spade, to dig a grave.

And do you ask what game she plays?
With me ’tis lost or won;
With thee it is playing still; with him
It is not well begun;
But ’tis a game she plays with all
Beneath the sway o’ the sun.

Thou seest the card that falls,—she knows
The card that followeth:
Her game in thy tongue is called Life,
As ebbs thy daily breath:
When she shall speak, thou’lt learn her tongue
And know she calls it Death.

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Contraindications – now on Kindle

Contraindications

I’m pleased to say that my chapbook of six poems, Contraindications, is now available for Amazon Kindle. It will still be available here as a PDF, so readers have a choice of formats to suit their devices, and the option to print. We will also be publishing on other platforms, like Kobo, shortly.

Thanks go to Gabriel May for the hours he spent grappling with code, formatting and converting the files by hand. It was a laborious process; one I couldn’t have managed without his patience and technical expertise. If you need your own ebook converted, Gabriel is considering offering his services to more writers – so get in touch.

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A call for establishment of The International Deverell Defence League

Since I blogged about Walter Howell Deverell’s Twelfth Night, I’ve been wanting to spend a bit more time with the poor doomed boy. So here’s a treat – the study for his ill-fated The Banishment of Hamlet. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was most likely the model for Hamlet.

Walter is mostly remembered as the ‘lost’ Pre-Raphaelite who discovered Lizzie Siddal in a hat shop. Had he accepted full membership into the Brotherhood, he may have been better regarded today, but Walter was the eldest of seven surviving siblings, motherless and later fatherless, too. Linking his name to a controversial gang of artistic upstarts seemed like another way to make life difficult for him and his dependants. As such, he tends to be relegated to a walk-on character in the story of Rossetti’s love-life.

By all accounts, Walter was a nice young thing, and highly sought-after as a model among the PRB. He was especially close to Rossetti, cackling over clueless patrons in the rooms they rented together in Red Lion Square – purportedly so dingy that Walter’s doctor was moved to pat Rossetti on the head and mutter “poor boys, poor boys”.

Looking like a Victorian Johnny Depp, Walter had a mildly-exaggerated reputation for driving girls to distraction, although his infamous comment about PRB standing for “penis rather better” was probably in reference to the constant pain he would have suffered with the Bright’s Disease that eventually killed him, aged 26. Having had acute pyelonephritis aged 14, I can attest to its utter mind-bending awfulness, which is one of the reasons I feel so sympathetic towards poor old Walter.

The Banishment of Hamlet was doomed from the beginning, receiving a typically venomous Athenaeum review:

Hamlet himself, in spite of his being perched upon a square box in the gawky, shrinking attitude of a delinquent school-boy, might, with an effort, be allowed to pass as not wholly un-Shakespearian; but his yellow, pink, and blue majesty Claudius, who pokes towards his nephew in a withering attitude – copied, perchance, from the Bayeux Tapestry – is.

The painting was roundly abused when it appeared at the National Institution in 1851, went unsold, and then, depending on the source, was either blown up in a gas accident or lost in a fire. The study above resides in the Ashmolean under another name, making it difficult to trace.

William Michael Rossetti penned a kinder review*, praising the prince’s moodiness in the same terms he reserved for descriptions of his brother around the same time:

There is a certain brooding indolence in his whole figure; irresolution is shown in the movement of his hand, and mingles even with the settled scorn of his eyes.

The ‘delinquent school-boy’ attitude of Walter’s Hamlet may well have been inspired by his friend’s air of insouciance; his habit of pulling his sleeves down over his hands and flicking his long fingernails when nervous. The painting certainly seems to have been the subject of jokes between the pair as seen in these cartoons by Rossetti in which the lads’ Irish patron MacCracken erupts with delight at the sight of something that looks an awful lot like Walter’s Hamlet:

‘The long expected Deverell, arriving at length/ find M’C laid up with the sickness of/hope deferred. Owing to an unfortunate error/of packing, the patient is strongly excited on seeing it/and there seems every reason to fear the worst.’ – DGR’s caption

There are lots of these over on The Rossetti Archive, suggesting that Hamlet’s unsaleability was a source of humour rather than anguish. Indeed, Walter exhibited a strange, fatalistic disinterest in the way no one seemed to want his pictures.

Rossetti and Deverell sip wine and snigger as MacCracken reacts in typically understated fashion.

I love the way Rossetti always depicts himself as scruffy and round-shouldered next to Deverell’s rather natty figure. Perhaps the ‘delinquent school-boy’ comment appealed to his sense of humour, or perhaps it was a gentle dig at Walter’s popularity with the girls.

The Dauphin Of France, camping it up bigtime

It’s a shame that Walter has become a footnote in Rossetti and Siddal’s relationship. There’s a sweetness to his surviving paintings that I find refreshing. Pretty girls pose with pretty birds, and Shakespearean characters totter about in pointy shoes and bright tunics like tableaus from a child’s picturebook. It would be easy to write them off as twee, and perhaps that’s precisely what happened, but I think Walter may have sought out idyllic scenes on purpose, what with the stress of his family responsibilities, the purgatives prescribed for Bright’s Disease, and the eventual realisation that he wasn’t going to make it. His poetry, published in The Germ, betrays a troubled frame of mind:

The Sight Beyond.

Though we may brood with keenest subtlety,
Sending our reason forth, like Noah’s dove,
To know why we are here to die, hate, love,
With Hope to lead and help our eyes to see
Through labour daily in dim mystery,
Like those who in dense theatre and hall,
When fire breaks out or weight-strained rafters fall,
Towards some egress struggle doubtfully;
Though we through silent midnight may address
The mind to many a speculative page,
Yearning to solve our wrongs and wretchedness,
Yet duty and wise passiveness are won, —
(So it hath been and is from age to age) —
Though we be blind, by doubting not the sun.

Walter died on the 2nd of February 1854. He only sold one painting in his lifetime.

Rossetti wrote to Ford Madox Brown: “He had been told in the morning that he could not live through the day and he appeared to receive the announcement without emotion or surprise, saying he supposed he was man enough to die”.

It was the first big loss of Rossetti’s life. “I have none left who I love better, and I doubt whether any who loves me so well,” he wrote to Walter’s family. By 1870, he was still trying to sell The Banishment of Hamlet to raise funds for Walter’s surviving family. If he had succeeded, perhaps we would still have it today.

*It has been argued this was DGR writing under WMR’s name, but I’m going to trust the original citation for the time being.

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If you have an hour to spare on this chilly Armistice Day, I recommend spending it with Derek Jarman’s haunting 1989 film War Requiem.  With no spoken dialogue it has the same dreamy, shadowy quality that made Caravaggio one of my favourite films*, juxtaposing gentle, balletic human interaction in chalky light with painterly nightmare sequences suggestive of Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell. All shot on a budget of about £3.50.

If nothing else, watch the sacrifice scene at 43:06. Nathaniel Parker looking like a moustachioed Edwardian angel as the cigar-puffing masses watch from a safe distance, rouged and smiling, is one of the darkest, most gorgeous few minutes of film I’ve ever seen. Nathaniel’s trusting little smile – oh, God.

* I use Caravaggio as a method of gauging character. If you can sit through it happily, you’re an alright sort. If you love it as much as I do, you can stay.

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As it’s National Poetry Day, I’d like to share my favourite Dante Gabriel Rossetti poem. (Besides the one rhyming ‘wombat’ with ‘flings a bomb at’, lest we forget).

Sudden Light was written in 1854, when life was relatively good for Rossetti. This was the period when he and Lizzie Siddal were holidaying in Hastings together, and the romantic optimism of the poem makes it a lovely window into that time.

Sudden Light

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before,—
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow’s soar
Your neck turned so,
Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore.

Then, now,—perchance again! . . .
O round mine eyes your tresses shake!
Shall we not lie as we have lain
Thus for Love’s sake,
And sleep, and wake, yet never break the chain?

There are two versions, with differing final stanzas. This is the earlier of the two – the other was published some time after Siddal’s death, with a more melancholy slant. I prefer the first, but make up your own mind.

Has this been thus before? 
And shall not thus time’s eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death’s despite, 
And day and night yield one delight once more? 

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