Archive for August, 2020

Happy birthday, Van Morrison

August 31, 2020

Van Morrison turns 75 years old today, and that is worth celebrating. He is a famously prickly interview subject. (Here is a recent account by a reporter who lived to tell the tale.) Let’s listen to one of the songs in which he complains about music journalists!

May he have many more years!

Hardy: Far From the Madding Crowd

August 30, 2020

Far From the Madding Crowd
Thomas Hardy
(Modern Library, 2001) [1874]
512 p.

Although she scarcely knew the divinity’s name, Diana was the goddess whom Bathsheba instinctively adored.

Love and marriage may indeed, as the song says, go together like a horse and carriage, but even a horse and carriage might, in a storm, bolt or overturn, with disastrous consequences. So also with love and marriage, and this is the theme of Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd.

The story centres on Bathsheba Everdene, a young woman both beautiful and propertied, who attracts the romantic interests of three very different men: Gabriel Oake, a rough but honest farmer who has lost his fortune and works on Bathsheba’s farm; Boldwood, a bachelor twenty years Bathsheba’s senior whose dormant passions are fired when he meets her; and Troy, a dashing young soldier who moves into the neighbourhood. The story unfolds as a kind of love quadrangle, with each of the men vying for Bathsheba’s love, each having something to recommend him, rivalries springing up between them, and Bathsheba herself, as the passage cited above suggests, being not quite obviously worth the winning. It’s a very nice set-up, providing ample space for Hardy to explore the complexities of love, jealousy, desire, and all of the many factors that together compose a good husband or wife.

Hardy sets this story, as he was to do again, in the imaginary English county of Wessex. There is a certain magic in the air as we, the readers, see this district taking slow shape under his pen, knowing, perhaps better than he, the other stories that will later unfold there. (I smiled at each reference to the nearby town of Casterbridge.) He paints the landscapes of Wessex with obvious affection for the rural life, so close to nature and so far from the madding crowd.

Not that his view of nature is a benign one. Two of the most arresting passages in the book concern dramatic natural events — one a rainstorm and the other a fire — in which the immense power and destructive potential of natural forces is vividly captured. They are excellent examples of Hardy’s strengths as a writer: muscular, sober, and, in a subdued way, musical.

This before Gabriel’s eyes was a rick of straw, loosely put together, and the flames darted into it with lightning swiftness. It glowed on the windward side, rising and falling in intensity, like the coal of a cigar. Then a superincumbent bundle rolled down, with a whisking noise; flames elongated, and bent themselves about with a quiet roar, but no crackle. Banks of smoke went off horizontally at the back like passing clouds, and behind these burned hidden pyres, illuminating the semi-transparent sheet of smoke to a lustrous yellow uniformity. Individual straws in the foreground were consumed in a creeping movement of ruddy heat, as if they were knots of red worms, and above shone imaginary fiery faces, tongues hanging from lips, glaring eyes, and other impish forms, from which at intervals sparks flew in clusters like birds from a nest.

His penchant for natural descriptions spills over, too, to his descriptions of his characters, and in way that was somewhat uncomfortable for me. A man warming himself at a fire could, in principle, be described as a body absorbing heat, but it would jar. A man has, of course, a physical nature, but our vision is askew if that is all we see. Hardy has a tendency — not exclusively, of course, but often enough that I noticed it — to use this kind of objective, and objectifying, language of his characters. I am having trouble digging up a specific example. Perhaps this gives the flavour:

The peculiar motion involved in turning a wheel has a wonderful tendency to benumb the mind. It is a sort of attenuated variety of Ixion’s punishment, and contributes a dismal chapter to the history of gaols. The brain gets muddled, the head grows heavy, and the body’s centre of gravity seems to settle by degrees in a leaden lump somewhere between the eyebrows and the crown.

This isn’t a great example, admittedly, but that use of “centre of gravity”, a technical term from physics, to describe a drooping head has the kind of effect I’m getting at. This may be Hardy’s way of seeing the world, but it gives his writing a slightly caustic edge that I found in tension with the humanism that fundamentally animates his story.

This objectifying tendency is artistically successful in another sense, though, because it stokes the fatalism that permeates the novel. Hardy often forecasts what is going to happen; we, his readers, then watch it unfold, sure of where it is going but unable to stop it. Here, for instance, is a key passage in which Troy, Bathsheba’s young love interest, attempts to flatter her and she, susceptible to such methods, falters:

“I again say you are a most fascinating woman. There’s nothing remarkable in my saying so, is there? I’m sure the fact is evident enough. Miss Everdene, my opinion may be too forcibly let out to please you, and, for the matter of that, too insignificant to convince you, but surely it is honest, and why can’t it be excused?”

“Because it—it isn’t a correct one,” she femininely murmured.

“Oh, fie—fie! Am I any worse for breaking the third of that Terrible Ten than you for breaking the ninth?”

“Well, it doesn’t seem quite true to me that I am fascinating,” she replied evasively.

“Not so to you: then I say with all respect that, if so, it is owing to your modesty, Miss Everdene. But surely you must have been told by everybody of what everybody notices? And you should take their words for it.”

“They don’t say so exactly.”

“Oh yes, they must!”

“Well, I mean to my face, as you do,” she went on, allowing herself to be further lured into a conversation that intention had rigorously forbidden.

“But you know they think so?”

“No—that is—I certainly have heard Liddy say they do, but—” She paused.

Capitulation — that was the purport of the simple reply, guarded as it was — capitulation, unknown to herself. Never did a fragile tailless sentence convey a more perfect meaning. The careless sergeant smiled within himself, and probably too the devil smiled from a loop-hole in Tophet, for the moment was the turning-point of a career. Her tone and mien signified beyond mistake that the seed which was to lift the foundation had taken root in the chink: the remainder was a mere question of time and natural changes.

(Tophet was a place in ancient Israel where pagans sacrificed children to Moloch and Baal.)

All of these observations, taken together, suggest that Far From the Madding Crowd is a dark novel, and it is, especially in comparison to what we find in novelists like Austen or Dickens or even Thackeray. There are times when it seems to have more in common with a Shakespearean tragedy than anything else. Yet at the last it is not death or destruction that wins the day, but love — that sturdy, clear-eyed love that makes a sure foundation for marriage:

Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship — camaraderie — usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death — that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.


This novel was a great pleasure to read. It was my first of Hardy’s novels, but will not be the last.

Josquin: Mille regretz

August 27, 2020

Today is the 499th anniversary of the death of Josquin Desprez. Let’s listen to one of his brief chansons, Mille Regretz, sung here, in casual habiliments, by Vox Luminis.

Next year on this day we must remember to express our demi-mille regretz.

Dekker: The Shoemaker’s Holiday

August 19, 2020

dekker-shoemakerThe Shoemaker’s Holiday
Thomas Dekker
(Methuen, 2008) [c.1599]
120 p.

Thomas Dekker was a prolific playwright working in London at the same time as Shakespeare, and The Shoemaker’s Holiday, which might as aptly have been called The Playgoer’s Holiday on account of its good cheer and genial tone, was one of his most successful.

It’s an early example of a “city comedy” — a play about artisans, merchants, and ordinary folk in London. In his appreciative introduction to a late nineteenth-century edition of Dekker’s plays, Ernest Rhys describes Dekker as a man of “abounding heartiness”, and singles out this play as among “the best comedies of pure joy of life which were produced by the Elizabethans”.

Much of that “joy of life” erupts from the play’s central character, Simon Eyre, a shoemaker who, by play’s end, has become Lord Mayor of London. Eyre is a man bursting with vitality and sturdy jollity, “the very incarnation [says Rhys] of the hearty English character on its prosperous workaday side.” He reminded me of no-one so much as Falstaff, right down to the joyous creativity of his volcanic speech:

Eyre. Away, you Islington whitepot! hence, you hopperarse! you barley-pudding, full of maggots! you broiled carbonado! avaunt, avaunt, avoid, Mephistophiles! Shall Sim Eyre learn to speak of you, Lady Madgy? Vanish, Mother Miniver-cap; vanish, go, trip and go; meddle with your partlets and your pishery-pashery, your flewes and your whirligigs; go, rub, out of mine alley! Sim Eyre knows how to speak to a Pope, to Sultan Soliman, to Tamburlaine, an he were here; and shall I melt, shall I droop before my sovereign? No, come, my Lady Madgy! Follow me, Hans! About your business, my frolic free-booters! Firk, frisk about, and about, and about, for the honour of mad Simon Eyre, lord mayor of London. (V, iv)

I don’t know what it all means, but it’s meant in good humour.


earlymoddrama-bookmarkThe play turns sweetly on a few charming romances. One thread has a nobleman in love with a lower class woman; he ducks military service and disguises himself as a Dutch shoemaker in order to be near her (speaking the while in a thick and fake Dutch accent that Dekker renders in almost undecipherable lines). Another has a young man wooing a woman whose husband is believed killed in a war against the French — until it turns out that the husband is in London but just hasn’t known where his wife is living! But I think it is fair to say that the story is largely just an occasion for the characters to do and say things, rather than the other way around.


Because we’re dealing here with the lower classes, much of the language of the play is challenging. As in Shakespeare, Dekker tends to give metrical lines to the upper classes and free prose to the lower, while endowing the latter’s speeches with a wealth of slang that would be hard going without notes. But this street talk is wonderfully colourful too, as in Eyre’s speech above.

Dekker also sometimes uses verse to signal important or especially graceful moments. There’s a scene I particularly liked in which a young man, Hammon, first approaches a woman, Jane, as she’s working in her shop. He loves her, and wants her to know it. It’s worth quoting at length:

Jane. Sir, what is’t you buy?
What is’t you lack, sir, calico, or lawn,
Fine cambric shirts, or bands, what will you buy?
Ham. (Aside.) That which thou wilt not sell. Faith, yet I’ll try:
How do you sell this handkerchief?
Jane. Good cheap.
Ham. And how these ruffs?
Jane. Cheap too.
Ham. And how this band?
Jane. Cheap too.
Ham. All cheap; how sell you then this hand?
Jane. My hands are not to be sold.
Ham. To be given then!
Nay, faith, I come to buy.
Jane. But none knows when.
Ham. Good sweet, leave work a little while; let’s play.
Jane. I cannot live by keeping holiday.
Ham. I’ll pay you for the time which shall be lost.
Jane. With me you shall not be at so much cost.
Ham. Look, how you wound this cloth, so you wound me.
Jane. It may be so.
Ham. ’Tis so.
Jane. What remedy?
Ham. Nay, faith, you are too coy.
Jane. Let go my hand.
Ham. I will do any task at your command,
I would let go this beauty, were I not
In mind to disobey you by a power
That controls kings: I love you!

This is simple and generous verse. That Dekker contrives to have the dialogue consist of rhyming couplets makes audible the happy harmony developing between them. In that respect it’s very much like the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet (although in that case the two lovers actually compose a sonnet together).


I was also intrigued by how much Catholicism was in this play: the shoemakers belong to a guild devoted to St Hugh, and the characters swear by the Mass, by God’s wounds, by God’s nails, and other holy things characteristic of English Catholicism before the Reformation. Digging a bit, I found that the character of Simon Eyre is based on a real fifteenth-century Londoner, and so the action of the play is presumably meant to take place then.

There is even a passage late in the play in which the King is asked to undo the inter-class marriage by an outraged father, which includes this exchange:

King. Are they not married?
Lincoln. No, my liege.
Both. We are.
King. Shall I divorce them then? O be it far,
That any hand on earth should dare untie
The sacred knot, knit by God’s majesty;
I would not for my crown disjoin their hands,
That are conjoïned in holy nuptial bands.

I can imagine raised eyebrows when this played in Elizabeth’s court.


Plays are not meant to be read, but acted and seen and heard, and so we’re working from a position of weakness when we approach an unfamiliar play on the page. This weakness is especially acute, I think, in a quick-moving, quick-witted comedy like The Shoemaker’s Holiday, which drops non-negligible difficulties of diction in our path. I would love to see this play on the stage, and especially to see what a talented actor could do with Simon Eyre. As it is, I enjoyed the play, but suspect that there is more to it than I gleaned on my own.

Boswell and Johnson in Scotland

August 3, 2020

A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland
Samuel Johnson
(Penguin Classics, 1984) [1775]
120 p.

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
James Boswell
(MacMillan, 1936) [1785]
425 p.

I had desired to visit the Hebrides, or Western Islands of Scotland, so long, that I scarcely remember how the wish was originally excited; and was in the Autumn of the year 1773 induced to undertake the journey, by finding in Mr. Boswell a companion, whose acuteness would help my inquiry, and whose gaiety of conversation and civility of manners are sufficient to counteract the inconveniences of travel, in countries less hospitable than we have passed.

So began the famous journey that would carry the two companions first to Edinburgh, then north to Inverness, across the north, and to a sojourn of several months in the Hebrides. After returning home Johnson penned his fine book containing observations on the lands they had passed through, and Boswell, choosing the better part, penned his fine book containing observations on Johnson.

We may forget that the Scottish Highlands, at that time, were far removed, not just geographically, but culturally, from the London that Johnson knew. He may have professed that the country was one which could no longer satisfy those “whose curiosity pants for savage virtues and barbarous grandeur”, but by and large it was wild country, in which civilization, as Johnson recognized it, had a slender foothold, here and there, in the homes of Scottish Lairds. He had desired to visit, but was not strongly tempted to remain:

“Nobody born in any other parts of the world will choose this country for his residence.”

Nonetheless, his book is full of pithy observations on the beauty and merits of Scotland. The book might be profitably scoured by the Scottish tourism board in search of good pamphlet copy, as Johnson expounds on, for instance, the forests of Scotland:

A tree might be a show in Scotland as a horse in Venice.

or, on the charm of the landscapes:

An eye accustomed to flowery pastures and waving harvests is astonished and repelled by this wide extent of hopeless sterility.  The appearance is that of matter incapable of form or usefulness, dismissed by nature from her care and disinherited of her favours, left in its original elemental state, or quickened only with one sullen power of useless vegetation.

or, on the attractions of Scottish religion:

The malignant influence of Calvinism has blasted ceremony and decency together; and if the remembrance of papal superstition is obliterated, the monuments of papal piety are likewise effaced.

or, on the local produce grown by Scottish farmers:

Of vegetable fragrance or beauty they are not yet studious.  Few vows are made to Flora in the Hebrides.

or, on the Gaelic tongue:

It is the rude speech of a barbarous people, who had few thoughts to express, and were content, as they conceived grossly, to be grossly understood.

Johnson’s book, in fact, reads something like an anthropological study, albeit an unusually eloquent one, as he takes an interest in the beauty of Scottish women (“The ladies have as much beauty here as in other places”), marriage practices (“The question is, How many cows a young lady will bring her husband.”), and the veracity, or not, of second sight.

Interspersed with these observations are bits of advice for other travellers, including some that might surprise:

No man should travel unprovided with instruments for taking heights and distances.

Perhaps the most interesting stage of the journey for me was their visit, brief as it was, to Iona, which endeared itself to me when I visited many years ago. Johnson stated, far better than I could, why he honoured the place:

Whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings.  Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue.  That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona!

The Scottish sojourn came to an end eventually, and Boswell reports Johnson’s reaction when, for the first time in a long time, they saw again one of the signs of civilization: wagon tracks.

As we walked up from the shore, Dr Johnson’s heart was cheered by the sight of a road marked with cart-wheels, as on the main land; a thing which we had not seen for a long time. It gave us a pleasure similar to that which a traveller feels, when, whilst wandering on what he fears is a desert island, he perceives the print of human feet.

And so it was that Johnson returned, a little like an exile coming home, to the bosom of London and the English way of life.

These books are intermittently informative, but consistently rewarding, and the latter principally on account of Johnson. As in his Life Boswell captured many aphorisms and judgments, “of rich and choice expression”, uttered by his companion in the course of their travels, and preserved them for our benefit. I’ll conclude this post by sharing a few samples from the crop.

[On forgetfulness]
I mentioned to him, that a worthy gentleman of my acquaintance actually forgot his own name. JOHNSON. ‘Sir. that was a morbid oblivion.’

[On Homer]
JOHNSON. ‘…There are in Homer such characters of heroes, and combinations of qualities of heroes, that the united powers of mankind ever since have not produced any but what are to be found there.’

[On politeness]
He insisted that politeness was of great consequence in society. ‘It is,’ said he, ‘fictitious benevolence. It supplies the place of it amongst those who see each other only in publick, or but little. Depend upon it, the want of it never fails to produce something disagreeable to one or other. I have always applied to good breeding, what Addison in his Cato says of honour:

Honour’s a sacred tie; the law of Kings;  The noble mind’s distinguishing perfection,  That aids and strengthens Virtue where it meets her.  And imitates her actions where she is not.

[On authority]
Dr Johnson observed, that there had been great disputes about the spelling of Shakspear’s name; at last it was thought it would be settled by looking at the original copy of his will; but, upon examining it, he was found to have written it himself no less than three different ways.

[On human nature]
Lady M’Leod asked, if no man was naturally good. JOHNSON. ‘No, madam, no more than a wolf.’ BOSWELL. ‘Nor no woman, sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, sir.’ Lady M’Leod started at this, saying, in a low voice, ‘This is worse than Swift.’

[On wickedness]
Wickedness is always easier than virtue; for it takes the short cut to every thing.

[On Leibniz]
No, sir, Leibnitz was as paltry a fellow as I know.

[On observing the Sabbath]
He said, ‘I do not like to read any thing on a Sunday, but what is theological.’

[On being the subject of controversy]
Dr Johnson said, ‘Nay, sir, do not complain. It is advantageous to an authour, that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck only at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends.’

[On shame]
Where there is yet shame, there may in time be virtue.

[On historical understanding]
The distance of a calamity from the present time seems to preclude the mind from contact or sympathy.

[On the value of money]
There are some advantages which money cannot buy, and which therefore no wise man will by the love of money be tempted to forego.

[On power and wealth]
Power and wealth supply the place of each other.  Power confers the ability of gratifying our desire without the consent of others.  Wealth enables us to obtain the consent of others to our gratification.  Power, simply considered, whatever it confers on one, must take from another.  Wealth enables its owner to give to others, by taking only from himself.  Power pleases the violent and proud: wealth delights the placid and the timorous.  Youth therefore flies at power, and age grovels after riches.

[On traditions, written and not]
Written learning is a fixed luminary, which, after the cloud that had hidden it has past away, is again bright in its proper station.  Tradition is but a meteor, which, if once it falls, cannot be rekindled.

[On books and language]
There may possibly be books without a polished language, but there can be no polished language without books.

[On wonder]
None but philosophers, nor they always, are struck with wonder, otherwise than by novelty.

[On civility in argument]
Treating your adversary with respect, is giving him an advantage to which he is not entitled. The greatest part of men cannot judge of reasoning, and are impressed by character; so that, if you allow your adversary a respectable character, they will think, that though you differ from him, you may be in the wrong. Sir, treating your adversary with respect, is striking soft in a battle.