Archive for January, 2023

Blake: The Book of Urizen

January 30, 2023

The Book of Urizen
William Blake
(Random House, 1978) [1794]
102 p.

Twenty years ago I spent some time reading Blake’s prophetic writings, and could make nothing of them. To be more precise, they were lunatic. In them he described — though that word implies a certain clarity of presentation that I could not discover — a complex mythology peopled by mysterious beings of his own creation: Los, Thiriel, Orc, Urizen, and many others. The verse was, or appeared to be, heavily symbolic, so much so that the poems begged, to my mind, to be decoded into something more didactic, but, lacking the decryption key, I gave up in frustration.

I’ve tried again, with, I’m afraid, little better results. The Book of Urizen is one of his earliest works in this genre, and it tells, in verse of deep purple, how the world was created by an evil being called Urizen, who then dominated it, shackling up its denizens with chains of Science and Religion. According to the notes accompanying this edition, Urizen represents, in the mythology, opposition to spiritual awakening and progress, and the poem is about how such opposition came to control the world. Blake saw systematic reason, embodied in both Newtonian science and in organized religion, as an obstacle to spiritual progress.

Without some hand-holding, however, I’m not sure I would have been able to extract even that basic understanding of the poem. Perhaps it’s worth looking at some of the verse. After a brief invocation of the muses, it begins in this way:

Lo, a shadow of horror is risen
In Eternity! Unknown, unprolific,
Self-clos’d, all repelling. What Demon
Hath form’d this abominable void,
This soul-shudd’ring vacuum? Some said,
“It is Urizen.” But unknown, abstracted,
Brooding secret, the dark power hid.

Sense can be made of it, but it has an ugly, crabbed sort of feel. Later we read about a sphere of blood:

Life in cataracts pour’d down his cliffs.
The Void shrunk the lymph into Nerves,
Wand’ring wide on the bosom of night,
And left a round globe of blood
Trembling upon the Void.
Thus the Eternal Prophet was divided
Before the death image of Urizen;
For in changeable clouds and darkness,
In a winterly night beneath,
The Abyss of Los stretch’d immense;
And now seen, now obscur’d, to the eyes
Of Eternals the visions remote
Of the dark separation appear’d:
As glasses discover Worlds
In the endless Abyss of space,
So the expanding eyes of Immortals
Beheld the dark visions of Los,
And the globe of life-blood trembling.

The globe of life-blood trembled,
Branching out into roots,
Fibrous, writhing upon the winds,
Fibres of blood, milk, and tears,
In pangs, Eternity on Eternity.

I have no idea what is going on here. A lot of the poem is like this. The words are syntactically correct but convey little meaning. I’m not saying there is no meaning — Blake laboriously traced each word onto bronze plates, and clearly meant each word to be there — but for most readers the effort to penetrate the meaning will be considerable. Most readers, in the intervening two centuries, have not bothered, and I can’t blame them. The verse itself is not very musical or memorable. I’m afraid this is as far as I’m inclined to go with Blake’s mythology. Twice bitten, thrice shy.

Conan Doyle: The Sign of Four

January 24, 2023

The Sign of Four
Arthur Conan Doyle
(Dover, 2003) [1890]
99 p.

In this, the second Holmes novel, our detective of the strict observance lands in the middle of a head-scratching international murder-robbery in which a one-legged man and his dwarf have commandeered a chest full of gems and other delights. The quest: to find the one-legged man and his dwarf, which you would think would be pretty easy, but proves otherwise.

It’s not as good a novel as the earlier one, though it’s a challenge to say why. For one thing, the crime itself is quite convoluted, proceeding in stages, and I had trouble following exactly what was happening, and trouble remembering what had happened already. Maybe I was reading too often on the brink of unconsciousness. But then Holmes’ special powers of detection were not quite so impressive on this outing as they were before. Familiarity breeds contempt? There just didn’t seem to be that much for Holmes to do that might not have been done by a lesser mortal. Also, he’s a tad too keen on cocaine.

Holmes, I thought, lived by a maxim that ran something like this: “When you have eliminated the likely explanation, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In this book he gives an odd variant: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. Surely one does not have to eliminate, in any practical sense, the impossible. Maybe it was the cocaine talking.

On the positive side of the ledger, this book introduced a winsome romance between Dr Watson and Mary Morstan, whom I gather will be soon married.

After publication, Conan Doyle abandoned novels for a decade and devoted himself instead to short stories, where Holmes, I am told, really came into his own. We shall see.

Calderon: Life is a Dream

January 16, 2023

Life is a Dream
Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Translated from the Spanish by Gregary Racz
(Penguin Classics, 2006) [c.1630]
xxvi + 123 p.

Pedro Calderón, who, it so happened, was born on a boat (hence, ‘de la Barca’), was a Spanish playwright of the generation after Lope de Vega. Unlike de Vega, who tossed off plays like Denny’s tosses off hotcakes, Calderón was known for his careful polishing, revisiting and revising his plays in order to invest them with beauty and philosophical depth. He had an interesting life. He was already writing for the stage in his twenties, and achieved renown in his thirties. When he was fifty years old, however, he (mostly) gave up writing plays and became a priest, devoting his talents thereafter to the composition of autos sacramentales, one-act allegorical dramas traditionally performed in Spain during the Feast of Corpus Christi. Perhaps we’ll read one of those at a later date, if we can find one.

Life is a Dream is apparently generally considered to be one of his greatest achievements. It takes place in Poland, and is involved with a succession problem in the Polish court. The king is elderly, and, though he has a son, Segismund, his son has, since birth, been imprisoned in a tower because it was foretold, by various omens, that the king’s son would be a ruthless tyrant who would destroy the realm. The king ordered him confined for the good of the kingdom.

But the king is a Christian, and is unsure whether he ought rightly to trust the omens and astrologers who claim that the prince’s fate is fixed:

The direst fate, we know for fact,
Much like the rashest temperament
Or strongest planetary pull,
May boast some influence on free will
But cannot make man bad or good.
(I, vi)

He therefore decides on a clever stratagem: drugging his son with a strong sedative, he removes him from the tower and brings him to court, setting him up amid all the trappings of royalty. The idea is to see if he behaves justly or tyrannically. If the former, he can become heir; if the latter, he will be sedated again, returned to the tower, and told that the experiment was just a dream.

The prince, it turns out, behaves very badly indeed. Nearly his first act as “king” is to defenestrate a servant, and he is bent on worse. Back to the tower he goes, where, awaking, he speaks to his tutor with amazement about his “dream”:

My heart made bold with power and vice…
I’d thought to rule with tyranny
And match the evil I’d been done.
(II, xviii)

But sleeping princes, unlike sleeping dogs, cannot be allowed to lie. The people now know that their prince lives, and they raid the tower to liberate him. A civil war ensues, son against father, for the throne.

The play seems destined for a familiar tragic ending, bodies littering the stage. But — at the risk of spoiling a 400-year-old story — a funny thing happens, and it ends in joy instead, marriages all around. Just how this reversal comes about is presumably an ingredient in the play’s good reputation, although I myself feel that I’d like to see it staged before deciding whether it manages the tricky maneuver successfully.


There is much rumination in the play about the difference between dreams and reality, between sleeping and waking. How do I know that I am awake and not dreaming? Am I the same person when I dream? Do my actions in a dream reveal, or even shape, my character?  The structure of the story allows these kinds of questions to arise in an intriguing way.

Years ago I took an interest in the phenomenon of ‘lucid dreaming’, in which one becomes aware, in a dream, that one is in fact dreaming, and then consciously uses the greater freedom of dreams to have experiences, like flight, which are otherwise impossible. I never made it far enough into this practice to discover if it is a real thing or not, and for years now dreams of any kind have been rare, but the play reminded me of the strangeness of dreams, that shadow world in which we, at least sometimes, are awake even while we sleep. “I sleep,” said the singer of songs, “but my heart is awake.”

I was also reminded of Christopher Nolan’s film Inception, which is similarly all about the interplay between dreaming and waking. Those familiar with the film might have been dismayed, as I was, by the prevalence of those faults that beset so many science fiction films: arbitrary rules, non sequiturs, and irrational choices. Why is the implanting of a thought — “inception” — thought to be difficult to achieve? Doesn’t it happen every day, all the time? How exactly does the token help distinguish the dream world from the real? Why must they not “die” in the dream? The entire film is sustained by a tissue of these logical lacunae. But the difficulties vanish if we suppose that the film’s “reality” is actually a dream, for dreams are full of these kinds of non sequiturs. The whole “reality” of the film is, on this reading, happening in the mind of the main character while he dreams, and in fact the film contains quite a number of hints that this is indeed the case. The main difference with Calderón’s play is that in the film a dream state is mistaken for reality, whereas in the play it is the other way around.

Nor should we forget that a film, like a play, is a sort of dream for us: an alternate reality that we inhabit for a time. While we watch it we are “asleep”; when it ends we “awake”.


There are a number of interesting ideas at work in the play, therefore, and I enjoyed reading it. One feature of the play that I appreciated was that Calderón gave his characters several long speeches; this is something that we find in Shakespeare, but which I really have not found in the other English playwrights from the time. These long speeches allow us a sustained window into the thoughts of the characters, which I found enriched the play considerably.

As to its literary merits, it’s hard to judge in translation. Calderón wrote in verse, and in this Penguin edition Gregary Racz does his best to mimic the verse forms in English, complete with rhyming, where appropriate. It was pleasant to read, but it’s not really possible to say more.

There are a few more plays by Calderón that interest me, so I believe I’ll be returning to him again over the next few months.


McCarthy: Child of God

January 12, 2023

Child of God
Cormac McCarthy
(Vintage, 1993) [1973]
197 p.

They came like a caravan of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning sun, the truck rocking and pitching in the ruts and the musicians on chairs in the truckbed teetering and tuning their instruments, the fat man with guitar grinning and gesturing to others in a car behind and bending to give a note to the fiddler who turned a fiddlepeg and listened with a wrinkled face.

So begins this harrowing tale of a loner turned killer in rural Tennessee. Lester Ballard is poor, homeless, without a family, and incapable, it seems, of living in society.

He is small, unclean, unshaven. He moves in the dry chaff among the dust and slats of sunlight with a constrained truculence. Saxon and Celtic bloods. A child of God much like yourself perhaps.

He roams the countryside, scavenging, bedding down in abandoned out-buildings, treasuring his rifle and not much else. He might be crazy. When, one fateful day, he discovers two lovers dead in their car on a deserted road, he does something that removes all doubt, and the novel, which was already sombre and crepuscular, takes a hurtling plunge into the dark.

So dark and depraved does it become that this reader, at least, began to wonder what the point was. I expect McCarthy’s books to be violent and disturbing, but in later novels like No Country for Old Men and The Road there is always a glimmer of light around the edge, a crack through white a hint of redemption or justice might be glimpsed. That glimmer is harder to find here. What is McCarthy up to? Is a portrait of evil enough? Are we to feel compassion for this man? Hatred? Should we long for justice, for him and those whom he harms? I think it’s possible, as readers, to answer all of these questions in the affirmative, but how the book itself answers them is sometimes murky. The title, maybe, gives us a hint.

Certainly one good reason to read the book, despite its difficulties, is the rough allure of its prose. Muted, laced with idiomatic colour, severe, and sometimes starkly beautiful, his voice is one of a kind. Look again at that opening sentence above. It’s quite long, and has a meandering feel, but it functions something like a cinematic image: we see first the wide shot, with a row of vehicles coming up, and then we’re focused on the back of the truck, and then an individual man, and finally an individual face. We get a sense of motion, both back and forth, as they rock over the ruts, and also forward and in. And then there is the alliteration: caravan and carnival, teetering and tuning, guitar and grinning, fiddlepeg and face. And the touches of poetry: “swales of broomstraw”. I read that sentence, set the book in my lap, and smiled, happy to be in the hands of a master again.

To take another example, consider this passage in which Lester is lost inside a cave:

Ballard lay listening in the dark but the only sound he heard was his heart. In the morning when the light in the fissure dimly marked him out this drowsing captive looked so inculpate in the fastness of his hollow stone you might have said he was half right who thought himself so grievous a case against the gods.

Again, we have a sentence that keeps going where another author might have split it up, more tidy-like. There’s a striking visual image of Lester lying on the rock, like a figure sketched in chiaroscuro, and a blending of the narrator’s voice, I think, with Lester’s own, a hint of which comes through in the last phrase. It has a stern beauty. The book is full of things like this.

It is not full, though, of quotation marks.

Aeschylus: The Persians

January 9, 2023

The Persians
Translated from the Greek by S.G. Benardete
(Chicago, 1991) [472 BC]
44 p. Second reading.

In 480 BC the Persian army, led by the emperor Xerxes himself, invaded Greece in an attempt to subdue the regions, including Athens and Sparta, that had resisted his father’s invasion ten years earlier, but in a remarkable series of battles — first at Thermopylae, then Salamis, and finally Plataea — the Greeks, against the odds, defeated him. It was one of the most important, formative series of events in Greek history, and they could be justifiably proud of what they had achieved.

Less than ten years later, Aeschylus presented this play at the annual Dionysia festival. It is the earliest of his plays to come down to us, and it is unique among surviving Greek tragedies in portraying a recent historical event, for it relates the aftermath of the Greek victory over the Persians. Remarkably, it is set in the Persian court. The characters are Xerxes, his mother, and the ghost of his father.

Even more remarkable than Aeschylus having set his drama in the enemy camp, so to speak, is that he adopted the Persian point of view. The events are tragic for the Persians, and for the pathos of the drama to work his audience must feel their pain. They must consider the Persians not as victims to be gloated over, or bullies to be treated with contempt, but as people suffering a loss and deserving of some level of sympathy. It stands, therefore, as a notable testament to Aeschylus’ magnanimity, and, presumably, since it won first prize at the festival that year, to the magnanimity of the Athenian audience.

The play itself follows the conventions of Greek tragedy, of course. There are long speeches from the few characters, there is a gregarious chorus that comments on the action, and, for those of us reared on Shakespeare, it feels stiff and slight on circumstance. The theatrical conventions were very different, and it is difficult, at least for me, to form a mental picture of the action and to get the feel of the thing.

But I am pleased to have read the play (again), for it stands close to the headwater of the amazing torrent of creativity and generous humanity that was to pour from Athens over the succeeding century or two. We are onto a very good thing.

Musical anniversaries in 2023

January 5, 2023

There are a few notable musical anniversaries to celebrate this year. From a thorough list (Thanks again, Osbert) I have culled the following set:


  • 25 years:
    • Alfred Schnittke
    • Michael Tippett
  • 50 years:
    • Gian Francesco Malapiero
    • Noel Coward
  • 400 years:
    • William Byrd
    • Thomas Weelkes
  • 450 years
    • Christopher Tye


  • 50 years:
    • Lera Auerbach
  • 100 years:
    • Gyorgy Ligeti
  • 150 years:
    • Sergei Rachmaninov
    • Max Reger

As usual, I will structure some of my listening this year around these anniversaries. I only made the acquaintance of Tippett’s music for the first time in the last couple of years, so I’m looking forward to exploring more this year, and I am a little surprised to find that I have only one disc of Noel Coward’s songs in my collection, so this anniversary year is a welcome chance to improve my familiarity with him. Lera Auerbach is a young(-ish) composer whose music has, on limited exposure, intrigued me, and this year seems a good opportunity to hear it again.

I suppose the 800 pound gorilla is Rachmaninov, and of course I’ll hear the All-Night Vigil, which I love, and I’ll probably pull down the symphonies and piano concertos, though I’m not really enthusiastic about it. For me, the two big names this year are Schnittke and Byrd; I’m really excited at the prospect of spending some significant chunk of time with each of them.