Benjamin L. Singley, “Overlooking the Thames at 11 o’clock at Night, London, England.” 1903. Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/item/91793505/
Under fluorescent light on Philip Larkin’s desk in the library at the University of Hull lies a black-and-white photograph. Looking in, Larkin notices a midden of tiny broken English things. These he takes to be metonyms for a larger England which is about to be broken. In the image, under the famous cloudless sky of summer 1914, are men standing in lines to enlist for what is about to become the Great War. Observing the behavior of the shadows cast by the lines, Larkin writes out a forecast: in an amazingly short time from this illuminated moment, the sun will shine down on one more thing: the title of the poem Larkin is now about to write, “MCMXIV.” Then the word will be inscribed in the stone of a war memorial. But for now, in the photograph, it is not yet even a word. It is only a pre-verbal, pre-stone dust that nobody yet understands to be subject to future inscription:
. . . the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns . . .
A farthing was a copper coin worth one fourth of England’s old pre-decimal penny — that is, 1/960 of a pound. A sovereign was a one-pound coin made of gold. Long before England’s currency went decimal in 1965, both coins had disappeared from circulation — the farthing because its purchasing power had diminished to nothing, the sovereign because the gold it was made of had become worth more than the shrunken fiat pound. Larkin’s term for the vanished years of farthing and sovereign is “innocence.”
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word . . .
Or, in prose: on the sunny day they signed up to die for the British Empire, the men of 1914 had their pockets full of soon-to-be-lost value. They lived before the loss began, poor innocent men, and the British Empire died with them, and now not all the antique shops in England can keep the Pakis out of Larkin’s neighborhood. For most of its length, “MCMXIV” expresses an idea, and that really is all the idea amounts to. As George Orwell remarks in “Inside the Whale” about A. E. Housman’s tragic young men in their emotionally similar situation: “Hard cheese, old chap!”
Nevertheless, all sentimentality discounted, on the other side of the brooks too broad for leaping there does lie a world different from ours. There everything in the present is seen at eye level, and the past isn’t seen but experienced by intuition. This sovereign landscape is pastoral, and its weather hints at pastoral’s delicate foreboding irony: the quality of both knowing and seeming not to know that it is a mere literary fashion.
And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence . . .
The earth-father of these Larkin lines is Wordsworth, and Larkin has obviously done the responsible thing and read Wordsworth’s report about the detection of splendor in the grass. But it’s hard to sense the grass-hazed coordinates of poetry’s specifics from on high, and during the Great War the coordinates of vision began acquiring a vertical axis. Here, then, is a counterimage to the one in “MCMXIV.” We see it from altitude, the War’s new sightline.
Onto the old world, says altitude, I have superimposed a new ruin: the aluminum frame of a German zeppelin bomber, all that remained after the zeppelin’s lifting gas burned off and recombined with its originating air. For the moment, the frame’s unburned streamlines are still contained within the rectilinear subframes of a pastoral landscape. In the poetry of Larkin and Housman and Edward Thomas and Hardy, these straight lines are taken to be metaphors for a natural order which incorporates human order into itself and makes the two orders one. Under the rules governing that genre, the only world there is is a world at ground level, seen from the height of a man. But the new ruin has begun to change that way of seeing. It descended on the land from above, and we see it now from above.
In ancient tragedy, only the gods see from above. The new image comes to us demonstrating that that’s no longer true. The original shadows of Domesday, level with the earth they were drawn on, have now been supplemented by lines surveyed from a higher angle. “MCMXIV” reads the new lines as an ironic antipastoral: not yet a new way of reading tragically, but a start.
For the start, poems like “MCMXIV” need more light, better distributed. Something verbal needs to be done, for instance, with the instance of light that penetrated for the first time into the skeleton of an airship. But time has been allotted for that to occur. After all, says the somber forecast from 1914, the new light is going to keep falling forever. With every declining sun in the century since a camera in the air first detected a fallen flightform, the lengthening, darkening, ever more almost-readable shapes of its roundness on the earth have shown us promises of more.
Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006001296/. Photoshopped.
It’s a standard thing to point out in the introductory class: although Wordsworth was a nature poet, he also wrote a sonnet about London, “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” whose first line is “Earth has not anything to show more fair.”
Much more typical for Wordsworth, however, is “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” whose lines overflow with a still yet ceaselessly moving
host of yellow daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
At the poem’s end, Wordsworth (or rather his sister, whose diary he raided for the description and the emotion) understands with his body what he has seen and what he is about to write down:
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
At about the time this picture was being taken, Ezra Pound, who had no respect for William Wordsworth, found himself in the Paris metro being overtaken by something like Dorothy Wordsworth’s sense of light flowing through earth and surfacing in blossom. Pound’s flowers, however, then and later, blossomed in the dark.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006001714/. Photoshopped.
A missing comma made the sentence funny.
In the United States during the fall of 2011, a group of Republican candidates for President traveled from city to city, holding televised “debates” before enthusiastically Republican audiences. When one candidate was asked whether an ill person without health insurance should be allowed to die, people in the audience responded with scattered shouts of “Yeah!” The shouts weren’t at all scattered when a gay soldier spoke; that time the audience bellowed its loud and all but unanimous boos. The boos turned to high-volume cheers when anybody spoke the word “execution.” And as to the problem of immigration from Mexico — the more murderous a candidate’s suggestion in the way of high-voltage electric fences along the border, the more frenzied was the noise from the plush seats.
In Texas, the noise evoked a quiet response: a Mexican-American talk show host cut his Republican party card in half and posted a picture online. Reporting the cut, however, the Hispanic blog “¡Somos Republicans!” went noisy. It explained, “The Republican Party lost a long life [sic] Republican, who is a Texas Latino GOP leader due to the continued betrayal of the Republican Party.”
Well, I did take that sentence to class to do the English-teacher thing and talk about listening to the words. Oh yes: please listen, then please indicate the pause that wants to be heard before the phrase “due to.” Better still, eliminate “due to.” Best of all, rearrange the whole sentence into something like, “Because of its continued betrayals, the Republican Party lost a lifelong Republican, the Texas Latino GOP leader Lauro Garza.” That version says more and says it more clearly, and it’s four words shorter too. But it’s also educational about words, and as such it misses the point of what it is to be a Republican. That point has nothing to do with words.
You can see this in a tellingly imperative word a few sentences farther down the page. Bellows the blog: “FOR THE CRITICS: Lauro is a long life [sic, again] Republican, staunch advocate of 2nd amendment rights and hunts religiously.” For Lauro, apparently, killing animals is in the first instance neither an economic necessity nor even a pleasure. It’s an act of obedience to duty, the noun that Wordsworth called “Stern Daughter of the Voice of God.” Connected with the noun “duty” by the adverb “religiously,” the verb “hunts” enters the special thought-lexicon of prayer, perhaps as prayer is defined by George Herbert: “something understood.” For the blogger who interprets Lauro’s trigger-words, to hunt is to go after God, for whatever purpose. Think of Ahab and Starbuck changing places.
In the same month that Lauro was wielding his scissors in Texas, Kurt Cardinal Koch, the head of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, was going after God in New Jersey with a different implement. A Jewish newspaper reported:
This past July, [Cardinal Koch] came into conflict with Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, when he wrote in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, that the cross is “the permanent and universal Yom Kippur” and a symbol of reconciliation.
Di Segni responded in a subsequent edition of L’Osservatore Romano, “If the terms of the discussion are those of pointing Jews to the way of the cross, it is not clear why there should be dialogue.” . . .
When Koch was asked [in October] about his statement regarding the cross as the eternal Yom Kippur and the cross’s connotation to Jews as a symbol of persecution, he said, “I know the history what Christianity have made with the cross and I think that it is our duty to show that the cross isn’t a motive for hate. In the Christian view the cross is an invitation of reconciliation and I can’t understand because Jews can’t be content with this invitation.”
In a 1927 photograph from Life magazine’s online archive, Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, Nuncio to Germany and the future Pope Pius XII, sweeps out of the palace of President Hindenburg and descends a short flight of stairs to his waiting limousine. His driver is saluting, as are President Hindenburg’s two rifleman sentries. Since approximately 1933, the silhouette of the riflemen’s helmets has borne an unfortunate connotation in the archive. But what the image preserves is a pre-archival instant in 1927, and within that instant the archbishop’s own silhouette has been fixed pre-archivally for all time, suspended for a fraction of a second just as it became a sign. Within the silent picture, for a fraction of a second of 1927’s time, it was as if a word had been spoken. As the archbishop stepped off the last riser into air, his foot passed under his cape and became invisible. There in his image, then and now, the archbishop has stepped and is stepping into ascending flight, forever. When he hunts his prey, he will leave a wake through heaven.
Click to enlarge.
As to the mice in the shrubbery at the moment of the Nuncio’s ascent, they never were archived. The camera didn’t understand that they were present. They were only there to die anyway.
As of April 21 my new WordPress blog hasn’t yet been found by Googlebot, but it already seems to be picking up more spam comments in a week than the old Blogger blog attracted in six months. The latest one compliments my brilliance and then extends an invitation to advertise something called Juice Cleanse Detoxify, and the more I look at that phrase in my own blog’s composing window the more seductive it seems.
After all, the notion that the literal or figurative body is a vessel full of poison is not just perdurable but ancient. Walt Whitman, who suffered from chronic constipation, was always writing himself resolutions to purify and then rebuild his body, and the metaphor is prevalent throughout nineteenth-century America, from the writings of the health lecturer Sylvester Graham, “the peristaltic persuader,” to the Book of Mormon. In twentieth-century Europe, too, Gottfried Benn was attacked by a fellow Nazi, the propaganda painter Wolfgang Willrich, in a book which was called Säuberung des Kunsttempels, or “Cleansing the Temple of Art.” In that title the metaphor presumably (I haven’t read the book) comes from the Bible, perhaps by way of Psalm 51: Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” At the opening of the Mass, the priest symbolically purifies the congregation by sprinkling holy water as he chants that verse.
Willrich’s own art was pure in the extreme;
Click to enlarge
Benn’s perhaps less so. Taking notes in wartime like a responsible clinician, Dr. Benn observed one of his fellow officers in the act of commenting on his own language practice — “I command only once” — and then completed the communication by completing the predication: “The subject was latrine-cleaning” (58). That realized a little zone of the world by anchoring its language to the soiled human actuality of a toilet brush. As spoken by the officer, the phrase “I command only once” could have significance only for the officer, but after the poet translated it into what Wordsworth called “the language really spoken by men,” it acquired communicable meaning.
But the art of Willrich’s portrait begins by expelling the really spoken. Erase the black, says this art, and leave the paper white; purge the unclean and leave the perceiving eye nothing to perceive but the clean. Willrich’s head model has been cleaned that way by the artist’s charcoal, and so he no longer senses the persuasions of his lower body. Erased from within, his expression has lost the fascia that once made it move. You can’t believe you could see through that unmoving face into a mind full of thought, as you might believe in front of a portrait by Rembrandt. A head by Willrich has no body, and there is nothing inside it except paper. The paper is a painter’s, too, not a poet’s. It’s blank and wordless.
As for me writing words in the postwar, I dismissed as spam my commentator’s persuasive invitation to collaborate in the ongoing work of cleansing and detoxifying. But thanks anyway for thinking of me, anonymous bringer of hyssop from the ancient world.
Work cited: “Block II, Room 66,” trans. E. B. Ashton. Gottfried Benn: Prose, Essays, Poems, ed. Volkmar Sander (New York: Continuum, 1987), 53-63.
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.
William Wordsworth didn’t walk down the Wye River valley in 1793; he ran, “more like a man / Flying from something that he dreads than one / Who sought the thing he loved.” Revisiting the valley in 1798, he discovered that the unrepeatability of that primal experience had slowed him to a walk. By 1908, when so much more had vanished into the immer schon, even the idea of seeking the thing one loves had changed. Now – thanks to the new geometry imposed on the planet by the railroads and canals of the nineteenth century – it was possible for a view from above to become a mental exercise: a laying down of parallel lines.
“Maumee River waterfront”
Toledo, Ohio, ca. 1908
http://www.shorpy.com/node/10239. Click to enlarge.
Only the tufts of smoke coming from the blocky building in the right background and the tugboat getting up steam in the river are non-linear. The river has no ripples left to show; they and their unpredictable little excursions into the air have been erased by the slow shutter speed of the 1908 camera. The camera itself would have been a large wooden box mounted on a tripod. An exercise for the class would be to reconstruct the lines of perspective radiating from the still glass point at the box’s front center.
In 1906 someone sat down with needle and thread and fashioned a change for a cat, turning her into a man smiling in stripes and a tie and fuzzy shoes. Shot from below, the image makes us look up toward the face. That angle imposes words on us, along the lines of, “He looks so proud.” Under the words’ control, we’ll smile too – and not like the cat with her muzzle fixed by anatomy in a curve, but consciously, muscles extending themselves to exert power over the micro-environment of our face and the thoughts it expresses.
Think of the ore carrier Jay C. Morse (no relation) as one more muscle, extending the smile indefinitely along what was once a river valley. Patiently waiting before its image for it to begin moving again, we seek the thing we love. And at the top of our line of sight in the meantime is the cat from 105 years ago: an earnest of our hope to live on if our curvy smile can charm the line of time.