Archive for the ‘People’ Category

No, I don’t wish to contribute much more to the tonnage of comment on the works of W. H. Auden. I just want to add this feather.

Here’s a poem Auden wrote, I have no idea why. It’s from The Sea and The Mirror, and takes up themes from Shakespeare’s the Tempest…but I don’t care.

Warm are the still and lucky miles,
White shores of longing stretch away,
A light of recognition fills
The whole great day, and bright
The tiny world of lovers’ arms.

Silence invades the breathing wood
Where drowsy limbs a treasure keep,
Now greenly falls the learned shade
Across the sleeping brows
And stirs their secret to a smile.

Restored! Returned! The lost are borne
On seas of shipwreck home at last:
See! In a fire of praising burns
The dry dumb past, and we
Our life-day long shall part no more.


Read the above, and you presume you’ve been reading rhymed verse. But look hard. No rhymes!


Then look harder again. Or hear harder.

The first stressed word of the third line in each stanza rhymes with the last of the fourth.

The first and third lines end in consonant rhyme: it’s delicate, but perceptible.

Even more devilish is the way the second line rhymes fully with the front half of the fourth. (In tricky Auden fashion, there’s no caesura in “Across the sleeping brows”, but the ear still picks up the rhyme because of the quantity of the rhyming syllable, sleep-, and the weakness of the surrounding syllables.)

As if that’s not enough, check out the quasi-rhymes of the middle of the first lines and the ends of the third lines. And the fainter consonant rhymes at the end of each caesura in the first line of each stanza: still-miles, invades-wood, returned-borne. Subtle but audible – and he meant to do it.

All very deliberate…and all quite wonderful. And there’s more deliberate music, beyond those half-buried rhymes and assonances. There are metrical intricacies, too, and much attention to syllabic quantity. Note the slight bump in the metre at the penultimate line, with an alliteration right on the bump.

So clever. So pretty. Why does nobody talk about these things?


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When things flower madly around here it doesn’t mean it’s spring. It just means: pollinate me.  These beauties won’t have much trouble finding pollinators.

smaller grev

Moso bamboo knows it’s not time too send up shoots yet. In fact, after an ideal cool season, there’s now the chance of a dry spring and summer. That can mean later and fewer shoots. To take one’s mind off the frustrations of El Nino…what about some book talk?

Stefan Zweig was a depressive, Jewish, middle-European intellectual who wrote psychological studies of…Whoa! I’m losing you, aren’t I?


But stay with me. Zweig was an entertainer. His studies of European historical figures don’t pretend to be either history or biography. Rather, he selects a character who can’t fail to interest and lets you see the times through that character. The result can read a little like a novel and Zweig is not above the odd Hollywood flourish to keep a bit of juice in the mix. Yet for all his narrative vibrancy, he was a scholar and respected interpreter of history. The style is clear, like Orwell’s, and, like Orwell, his emphasis on character and human nature gives his work appeal to readers of all political colours.

I’d heard that his study of Fouche was a great read, but didn’t get round to it till now. Yes, it’s a great read. And what a subject! (He’s Foo-shay, by the way. There’s supposed to be an acute accent over the “e” in Fouche, but I have trouble with  tech stuff.)


I’ll avoid spoilers – but was there ever such a brilliant, twisty, amoral survivor as this guy? Starting his career as a prig, a demagogue and mass-murderer in the French Revolution, he took more shapes and turns than seems possible for one man. Still loathed by nearly all to this day, Fouche was nonetheless recognised by Balzac as a genius, and Zweig, while harbouring no illusions on the character of his subject, exhibits that genius. One is even tempted to think that France and Europe were better off for his unlikely, unwanted influence over such titanic figures as Robespierre and Napoleon. Probably more lived than died because of the unloveable Joseph Fouche.

As you read the book, you find yourself shrieking: “How is Fouche going to make the next switch? Surely, he’s washed up this time!” It’s not unlike watching Indiana Jones.

A possible lesson. A guy who can walk into a room and have everyone like the way he looks and talks can make great career strides quickly. But a man who struggles from birth against a general and spontaneous dislike of his person might well develop psychic muscles others know nothing about.

Another lesson. If a screaming demagogue comes round to your house one morning, seizes your property, publicly condemns everything you stand for, then publicly shoots you into little pieces with a big cannon…Don’t worry! He probably doesn’t mean it. He’ll probably feel completely different about things by afternoon. Such was Joseph Fouche, Duke of Otranto.

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