Idea of Death in Writings of the Romantics and Morrissey

26 May

In every age there’s an artist who captures the spirit of the times and gives a voice to the generation. In the 1980s, posters of The Smith and their lead man Morrissey graced the walls of teenage bedrooms. Had the custom been around a century and a half earlier, teenage girls would probably put pictures of Lord Byron, Keats and Shelley above their beds in their exceedingly elegant Regency-era bedrooms. In the post-revolutionary and newly industrialised world, Romantic poets sang of beauty, love, nature and death, while at the same time living lives of rebellion, much to the dismay of the bourgeois class. Likewise, in the eighties which were a difficult decade for idealists*, in the era of Thatcherism, recession and miners’ strikes, pop music was an escape and individuals such as Morrissey intentionally detached themselves from the political instabilities by moving their focus to introspection and individual struggles and singing of loneliness in the nightclubs, ill-fated relationships, home town claustrophobia, dullness of everyday life, and a strong longing for death. More than a century and a half divides the poets of Romanticism and Morrissey, and yet the same melancholy, introspectiveness, ideals and views on death connect them.

I love this black and white picture of The Smiths with pink letters; it’s the perfect aesthetic for the band’s music and lyrics, or at least the way I see it – pink rose petals and a grey sky, promises and disappointments, wittiness and misery, shyness, idealism and memories…

 

Romantics and Death

A Lament

O World! O Life! O Time!

On whose last steps I climb,

Trembling at that where I had stood before;

When will return the glory of your prime?

No more -Oh, never more!

Out of the day and night

A joy has taken flight:

Fresh spring, and summer, and winter hoar

Move my faint heart with grief, but with delight

No more -Oh, never more!

When I say Romantics, I will focus on the second generation of English Romantics or the “groovy trio” which consisted of Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats; all three died very young in tragic circumstances, all cherished beauty in their poetry, used elaborate language, showed interest in the Classical world and Mediterranean countries, all three saw poetry as a challenge because its reward is the immortality itself; through the verses, the poet lives, long after the frail human body becomes tired from life. I will focus on Percy Shelley in particular, and then Keats, because I feel that Shelley and Morrissey have a lot in common but about that later on.

Source: Romantics who have ruined my life.

Percy Shelley; the rebel, the idealist, a ferocious promoter of free love, non-violence, atheism and vegetarianism, a young man with an insatiable hunger for knowledge who spent up to sixteen hours a day reading, at the same time attending only one lecture while at Oxford, an act which by itself carries a rebellious massage; conventions and formal education mean nothing to me. Elopements and self-pity are his forte. Suicides and unrequited loves followed him like a shadow. He was no stranger to romantic encounters at graveyards at night which irresistibly reminds me of The Smiths song “Cemetery Gates”; when Shelley and Mary proclaimed their love for each other at her mother’s grave in St Pancras Churchyard on 26th June 1814, did Shelley say: “Dear Mary, meet me at the cemetery gates… I’ll bestow a kiss upon thy sweet lips above your mother’s grave in a quiet nocturnal hour when the distant church bells announce midnight.”

In times when he met Mary, Shelley was bored with his wife Harriet (women seem to bore him easily) and he was eagerly longing for an intellectual female companionship. And Mary was a lonely teenage girl with a wild imagination; the two were a perfect match, although soon Mary bored him too. Shelley quickly abandoned Harriet, their baby daughter and their unborn child, and accused Harriet of marrying him for money.

Is he a hippie lad from the sunny South Kensington clad from head to toe in the latest groovy gear from Granny Takes a Trip? No, he is a poet, and his verses speaks of romantic rebellion, exalted and idealistic belief in the triumph of love and liberty, at the same time inviting the reader to act upon social justice as well as believing in the indestructible nature of beauty. His poems appear to be either manifestos of his political views, which were socialist and verged on anarchy; sweet and innocent verses on love, moonbeam, kisses, roses and larks; or deep, profound, honest longing for death and sighing on the idea of transience and passing of everything.

Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley

Shelley was morbidly obsessed with death; he saw it as a state of perfection, and for his self-pitying personality, it seemed to offer an alternative to the mundaneness and despairs of life – death promises all the sweet delights and mysterious, dark, ethereal pleasures that life denies us. Death equals dreams, peace, perfection and happiness. Death is mystical, otherworldly; it is an escape from all miseries.

I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

Shelley’s verse above, from his poem “Ode to the Westwind”, best illustrates his view on his own life, or human life in general. He often sets his poems in an autumnal setting, in days when one feels transience the most; nature is dying slowly, vibrantly, richly, lushly, in colours of ruby and amber; in the most beautiful way. The poem shows Shelley’s view of nature as carrying both the strength of destruction and creation for after the death in autumn, a new life awakens in spring. Likewise, after death, one awakens in another world, a better world. Here are verses from Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” which speak of the unique beauty of autumn:

The day becomes more solemn and serene

When noon is past–there is a harmony

In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,                                 

Which through the summer is not heard or seen,

As if it could not be, as if it had not been!

I feel that Shelley was ruled by or tormented by two different moods, a victim of which I am myself, and they are evident in his poetry. There’s one mood when he is in darkest thoughts, drowning, not in alcohol, but in self-pity, despair and melancholy, overindulging in his miserable existence, seeing himself as a martyr, deeply and honestly longing for death, so much so that you can imagine him sighing at the moon and just thinking “I want to die…” This is the mood that produced his poems such as “A Lament”, “Death” and “Mutability”. Then there is another mood, one which is responsible for his best poems, lyrically and stylistically, such as “Ode to the Westwind” or “The Indian Serenade”: a passionate, lyrical, imaginative mood when he is especially sensitive toward beauty that surrounds him, and often very gentle too, writing verses sweeter than cotton-candy such as these:

I fear thy kisses, gentle maiden;
 Thou needest not fear mine;
My spirit is too deeply laden
 Ever to burden thine.

I fear thy mien, thy tones, thy motion;
 Thou needest not fear mine;
Innocent is the heart’s devotion
 With which I worship thine.

Even in “The Indian Serenade”, he has that passionate and theatrical flair proclaiming “I die! I faint! I fail!”:

Oh lift me from the grass!
I die! I faint! I fail!
Let thy love in kisses rain
On my lips and eyelids pale.
My cheek is cold and white, alas!
My heart beats loud and fast;
Oh press it close to thine again,
Where it will break at last!

For Shelley, life is either a thorn which brings pain, or the lush rose blossom in whose velvety sweetness he wishes to be drowned; life is either a “dim vast vale of tears” (Hymn to Intellectual Beauty) or a “silver vision” (Alastor; or the Spirit of Solitude)*. At times, his idealistic spirit seems indomitable, his fight for justice, his passion for defending his ideas, thoughts and world views seem so ardent and strong, and yet, other times, his verses witness nothing but defeatism and despair, and in such times he feels this death-urge strongly and wishes, like Rimbaud, to “fall into nothingness”.

In some moments, I feel, verses of Shelley and Morrissey carry the same bittersweet, spiritless, yet charming mood. For example, when Morrissey sings “I really don’t know and I really don’t care” in the song Hand in Glove, it is that same careless, low-spirited, verging on pathetic, no-one-understands-me and have-pity-for-me mood that possessed Shelley rather often. And then, when he grabbed a quill and a piece of paper to gather his thoughts and wrote his poem “Invocation to Misery”, did he really mean “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”? I’m sure he did. Also, the voice of calm resignation in which Morrissey sings “I’ll probably never see you again!” in the song Hand in Glove reminds me so much of Shelley’s cute lyrical moaning “No more, oh never more!”

Although a century and a half divides their artistic periods, I feel that Shelley and Morrissey are philosophical equals. They were both vegetarians who promoted non-violence; both were very self-indulgent in terms of allowing themselves to spent days drowned in self-pity, melancholy and negativism, let’s say that “being miserable” could be considered their hobby; both exercised a certain idealistic version of “purity” of some sort; Shelley by abstaining from alcohol and Morrissey being celibate, both have that unswayable obsession with death and see it in the most romantic, glamorous terms. But again, this is just my opinion.

In his poem “On Death”, Shelley deals with the subject directly, again death as bringing us mortals into an otherworldly place, a place that no one can visit and return to tell, a place which will forever be covered with thousand veils of mystery:

“(…) When all that we know, or feel, or see,
Shall pass like an unreal mystery.

The secret things of the grave are there,
Where all but this frame must surely be,
Though the fine-wrought eye and the wondrous ear
No longer will live, to hear or to see
All that is great and all that is strange
In the boundless realm of unending change.

Who telleth a tale of unspeaking death?
Who lifteth the veil of what is to come?
Who painteth the shadows that are beneath
The wide-winding caves of the peopled tomb?
Or uniteth the hopes of what shall be
With the fears and the love for that which we see?

Poppies by: Nataliya Kalinina.

Shelley continues this romantic vision of death as a state equalling sleep and dreams in his poem “Mont Blanc” whose main theme, though, is again the sublime power of nature, it’s the highest mountain in Europe, and for the second generation of Romantics nature has what man can only long for, but will never possess: eternity or immortality.

Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep,-that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live. -I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled
The veil of life and death? or do I lie
In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
Spread far and round and inaccessibly
Its circles?….

Equalling death with dreams brings me to the wonderful flower often connected to dreams and sleep: poppy – its bright red colour speaks of passion, while the delicate petals whisper of fragility. Shelley used opium for relief, and so did another Romanticist, Edgar Allan Poe who said: “Sleep, those little slices of death — how I loathe them.

Both Shelley and his wife Mary were interested in the supernatural, and Mary, as we all know, later wrote Frankenstein. But Shelley too shows his fascination with the otherworldly creatures in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”:

While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped

Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,                    

And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing

Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.

Here are Shelley’s wonderful verses written by the hand of Richey Edwards, the great lyricist of the Manic Street Preachers, a set list for their show at the Glasgow Barrowlands, on October 15, 1994, found here. It’s not Morrissey per se, but it certainly links Romanticism with rock music.

Still, there were moments when Shelley was faced by death and mortality in real life, not just in imagination. First, there was the sad death of Fanny Imlay in October 1816, the half-sister of Mary Shelley and the out-of-wedlock daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, who travelled to Swansea in Wales and overdosed on laudanum in an inn; the always quiet, sombre and modest twenty-two year old Fanny was secretly in love with Shelley and she was heartbroken when he eloped with Mary. When Shelley heard of her death and the reason, he composed these poignant verses:

Her voice did quiver as we parted,
Yet knew I not that heart was broken
From which it came, and I departed
Heeding not the words then spoken.
Misery—O Misery,
This world is all too wide for thee.

Then, in December 1816, his first wife Harriet was found drowned in a lake in Hyde Park in London, the reason was not Shelley but her death finally enabled him to make Mary Mrs Shelley. And then, the youngest and the first of the three beautiful blossoms of Romanticism to wither, John Keats, died on the 23th February 1821. This occasion inspired Shelley to write his poem “Adonais”, in which he states: “No more let life divide what death can join together.

Even though I’ve focused on Shelley because he is my favourite Romantic poet and his lyrical vision is the most similar to Morrissey’s, my musing on death in Romantic poetry wouldn’t really be complete without mentioning this beautiful poem by John Keats:

Can death be sleep, when life is but a dream,

And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?

The transient pleasures as a vision seem,

And yet we think the greatest pain’s to die.

 

How strange it is that man on earth should roam,

And lead a life of woe, but not forsake

His rugged path; nor dare he view alone

His future doom which is but to awake.

_____________________________________________________________________________

Morrissey and Death

I’m bereft of spiritual solutions. I do believe that there has to be a better world, but that’s rather simple. I’m quite obsessed with death. I’ve gone through periods of intense envy for people who’ve died. Yes, I have a dramatic unswayable unavoidable obsession with death. I can remember being obsessed with it from the age of eight and I often wondered whether it was quite a natural inbuilt emotion for people who’re destined to take their own lives, that they recognise it and begin to study it. If there was a magical beautiful pill that one could take that would retire you from this world, I think I would take it and I suppose that’s the extremity of the obsessiveness.” (From “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before”, interview by Len Brown in NME (20th February 1988)

Ah, Morrissey, a man so adored by the misfits in the eighties as well as now, and a man for whom the general public has such an ardent hatred; that is something I am unable to comprehend for I think he is simply a charming man or a handsome devil, as you wish. Maybe the general dislike lies in the fact that he himself doesn’t like people, that he seems to look through the society’s hypocrisies, and he says what he means and that’s not a quality people like. Whether you like the charming persona of the “son and heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar” or you’d prefer to think that he is the “son and heir to nothing in particular”; you’d have to agree that their music is just damn good, their melodies are cheerful and whimsical, they are simply magical.

It was his lyrical vision, along with Marr’s wonderful musical contribution, that made The Smiths immortal. No one knows what it’s like to be an outsider better than Morrissey, and certainly no one sang about it better than he did. Here’s a quote from a book about Pulp called “Uncommon” by Owen Hatherley describing a situation which you can just translate to Morrissey’s teenage years: “What Pulp had in common most of all with the lineage outlined at the start of this introduction was a certain ‘vengeful self-creation’; the sense that they, like Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Siouxsie Sioux, David Sylvia, Morrissey, Richey Edwards or countless legions of bored suburban stars who never made it into the spotlight, had spent their lives transforming themselves into characters, with countless hours in their terrace, semi of tower-block bedrooms devoted to achieving the exact conjunction that would make them unique, and that they could then use as a weapon against a world that had already wronged them beyond forgiveness.

On those rare occasions when my thoughts go on like this “Hmm, wouldn’t it be nice to be normal and have a friend and go out, and do whatever it is normal, sociable people do?”, I just go and listen to a few songs by The Smiths and Morrissey’s brilliant, at turns haunting, melancholic, poignant or witty, but always gorgeous lyrics such as: “Under the iron bridge we kissed“, “No, I’ve never had a job because I’m too shy“, “Hills are alive with celibate cries“, “I’ve lost my faith in womanhood“, “and though I walk home alone my faith in love is still devout“, and I laugh at my own silly thoughts. To have a social life, why – I have books. To have a real friend, why – I have a mirror.

Morrissey’s lyrics have made me feel like I belonged, like I don’t need anyone or anything as long as I hear their music. And when he proclaimed: “Throw you homework onto the fire, come out and find the one that you love and who loves you“: that’s exactly what I did on many occasions; who has time for homework when there’s evenings to be spent listening to The Smiths and dancing a lonely dance with flowers because they’re all I have. I know exactly how he felt as a teenager, oh how I do. Welcome to Morrissey’s world, shaped by the years of loneliness in his small bedroom with posters of James Dean, days spent reading Oscar Wilde, walking the grey suburban streets with dull red-brick houses that linger on and on, watching kitchen sink dramas and listening to sixties pop stars and New York Dolls. Being happy and sociable is passé and being miserable is tres chic.

Just like Shelley’s, the lyrics of The Smiths, all written by Morrissey, are a glamorous beautiful mix of lyricism and self-pity, bittersweet verses of irony filled with longings and rejections at the same time, wanting to belong and arrogantly showing the world the middle finger, his music was “so intoxicatingly melancholic, so dangerously thoughtful, so seductively funny that it lured its listeners, most of whom were not really damned, just slightly cursed, into a relationship with him and his music instead of the world. The Pop Pied Piper knows that life doesn’t imitate great art, it is destroyed by it.“*

Smiths 1984 De Montfort Hall

Look at those gorgeous red carnations that he’s swaying about, from whose garden did he snatch them, I wonder?

If you don’t want to die, go and read Oscar Wilde, or be charming and wear flowers in your pocket after listening to The Smiths, that you haven’t really listened to them. Well, maybe their music awakens other desires in you, but you are soulless and heartless if it leaves you feeling nothing. Their first album, called The Smiths (1984) is the best example of those gorgeous, witty, bedroom-years inspired lyrics which speak of “the passions and preoccupations that consumed Morrissey for years, alone in his darkened bedroom“*, and these lines, despite being from the third album, pondering on life and death, can serve to illustrate the mood – the mood I am engulfed in majority of my time:

And when I’m lying in my bed
I think about life
and I think about death
and neither one particularly appeals to me.” (Nowhere Fast)

“I’m not happy and I’m not sad” and “neither life nor death appeal to me”; how outrageously gorgeous is this ambivalent attitude towards such important matters?! Life or death, happiness or sadness, whatever, I dunno…

Death, yearning for death because you’re depressed, miserable in a humdrum town where rain falls hard all the time, rejected, unloved, tired, disappointed, and the graveyard seems a more exciting place than your bedroom, or simply because, in a manner of Oscar Wilde, it’s an aesthetically alluring idea, and to die for love, beauty or mere boredom is just original, romantic and glamorous. Wilde said himself that “The artistic life is one long lovely suicide.”

When Morrissey says: “If there was a magical beautiful pill that one could take that would retire you from this world, I think I would take it…” My thoughts exactly! The manner in which Shelley and Morrissey see death is vastly different from the way people who really take their own lives see it. Shelley and Morrissey’s view on death is not seriously depressed or suicidal, but rather “artistic”, deeply romantic and idealistic view of death as something mystical, glamorous, as a dream, and dreams are better than reality. I think it’ i that constant discord between beautiful and sad, magical and mundane aspects of life that drives the imagination to devise an escape from the prison cell of life, to fantasise about something different, something better, and sometimes all these longings turn into melancholy and an obsession for death. Death is the last step, the fulfilled longing; and only death can make beauty immortal. No other theme is greater than love, beauty and death combined.

And speaking of beauty: “To this day, there are precious few Smith songs that can’t mist my visionNot because they are “sad” or “miserable”, but because they are so unutterably, unfeasibly, unlawfully handsome. Which is the deadliest drug of all. If ever there was a proof that Keats’ assertion “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is anything more than just a trite line or simply wishful thinking, it is in The Smiths.”*

Morrissey and yellow daffodils, I love a man with flowers! Morrissey waving a bouquet of gladioli on the Top of the Pops performing This Charming Man must be the coolest thing ever! I also love something that Morrissey said in 1984 when interviewed by kids, when one boy asked “Why do you hold flowers when you sing?”, Morrissey gave a wonderful reply: “Why do I hold flowers?… I think flowers are beautiful things. Very nice and innocent things. They don’t harm anybody. They don’t burp and they don’t do anything ugly. So, why not, it’s better, I think, than waving socks about.

In his book “Dark Stuff”, Nick Kent called Marianne Fatihfull “Morrissey’s first love”, and in this interview when she was just 21 years old her view on death is as romantic as it can get, she says; “I love death!… I feel it’s important to stay in the world and do things, but on the other hand death and dreams are another thing. I’d really like to go there… into death. But it’s wrong to make your own death, death is when you get it. I think it’s a beautiful thing, death, such a relief, just imagine if there wasn’t any death….

And now some of Morrissey verses that deal with death:

What She Said

What she said:
“How come someone hasn’t noticed
that I’m dead
and decided to bury me
God knows, I’m ready”
What she said was sad
but then, all the rejections she’s had
to pretend to be happy
could only be idiocy
What she said was not for the job or
lover that she never had.

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

….time’s tide will smother you
and I will too
when you laugh about people who feel so
very lonely
their only desire is to die (…)

well, it suddenly struck me
I just might die with a smile on my
face after all.

Well I Wonder

Well I wonder

do you see me when we pass?

I half-die

Please keep me in mind

please keep me in mind

 

Gasping – but somehow still alive

this is the fierce last stand of all I am

Gasping – dying – but somehow still alive

this is the final stand of all I am

Please keep me in mind

Madame Bovary (1991)

How Soon Is Now

There’s a club if you’d like to go
you could meet somebody who really loves you
so you go, and you stand on your own
and you leave on your own
and you go home, and you cry
and you want to die…

Song Cemetery Gates always reminds me the Gothic romance of Percy and Mary Shelley and their graveyard meeting, always. And there’s also the mention of Keats and Wilde, that’s cool too:

A dreaded sunny day
So I meet you at the cemetery gates
Keats and Yeats are on your side
While Wilde is on mine

So we go inside and we gravely read the stones
All those people all those lives
Where are they now?
With the loves and hates
And passions just like mine
They were born
And then they lived and then they died
Seems so unfair
And I want to cry.

John William Waterhouse, Miranda – The Tempest, 1916

The haunting beginning of the song I Know It’s Over reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories of people buried alive. What a spooky picture for the imagination; to feel the soil falling over your head….

Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head

See, the sea wants to take me

The knife wants to slit me

Do you think you can help me?….

 

Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head

Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head

Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head

Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head

Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head

John William Waterhouse, Sleep and his Half-brother Death, 1874

Don’t listen to this one, Asleep, if you’re feeling depressed and vulnerable to begin with:

Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
I’m tired and I
I want to go to bed
Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
And then leave me alone
Don’t try to wake me in the morning
‘Cause I will be gone
Don’t feel bad for me
I want you to know
Deep in the cell of my heart
I will feel so glad to go
(…)
There is another world
There is a better world
Well, there must be
Well, there must be
Well, there must be
Well, there must be
Well…Bye bye
Bye bye
Bye…
Queen cover image with model wearing a nightdress by Angela Gore. Photographed by John Hedgecoe. Scanned by Miss Peelpants from Queen, 17th July 1968.

Shakespeare’s Sister

Young bones groan
And the rocks below say :
“Throw your skinny body down, son!”
But I’m going to meet the one I love
So please don’t stand in my way
Because I’m going to meet the one I love

Pre-Raphaelite painting by John Everett Millais is perhaps the most beautiful, most romantically idealised depiction of someone dying in the art history, and Morrissey’s lyrics of the song There Is A Light That Never Goes Out are possibly the most romantic and glamorous vision of death and love combined:

 “And if a double-decker bus
Crashes in to us
To die by your side
Is such a heavenly way to die
And if a ten ton truck
Kills the both of us
To die by your side
Well the pleasure, the privilege is mine”

And here’s another quote from the same book which just perfectly describes the feeling you get from listening to The Smiths:

He cooed in my ear that, yes, adolescence, like the Smiths and pop music, might be a moment that passes, that one day you might be laughing and dancing and finally living, but that feeling of aloneness and the bittersweet prospect of a life of disappointment stretching out before you (…) is the purest, truest, noblest feeling you will ever have.“*

Apart from dealing with the subject of death in his lyrics, you can take this post as a certain “Ode to Morrissey” too because there is no other person from popular culture that I can relate to more strongly. A few days ago, I spent an amazing afternoon listening to all albums by The Smiths in a chronological order, absolutely fantastic way to waste an afternoon, fully recommend it. Also, I am neither a girl of Romanticism nor a teenager of the 1980s, and yet I have pictures of both Shelley and Morrissey on my wall; what can I say, I love charming men! So, let us all walk around with flowers and kindness, read books, be charming and die… from beauty!

_________

* Mark Simpson, Saint Morrissey: A Portrait of This Charming Man by an Alarming Fan

Elizabeth Siddal – All changes pass me like a dream

23 May

Famous Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his beautiful melancholic muse, Elizabeth Siddal, who was the walking epitome of Pre-Raphaelite beauty with her lavish masses of coppery golden hair, greenish-blue unsparkling eyes and heavy-lidded gaze, married on the 23th May 1860 in the seaside town of Hastings. Last year on their wedding anniversary, I posted one Rossetti’s poems, and this year here’s one called “Love and Hate” by Lizzie herself.

I remember when I fell in love with Pre-Raphaelites, in August 2014, in one of those afternoons of late summer, rain had lingered for days, sky was coloured in greys, chill air in twilight seemed to whisper that autumn is coming, and every time I picked red rosebuds I treasured them as if they were the season’s last jewels, my soul already soaked in that special combination of melancholy and sweetness which occurs only in autumn when rustling leaves bring me delight and yet I feel overwhelmed by the transience of everything in nature and our lives of humans – it was in those days that I gazed for long hours at Millais’s beautiful Ophelia and idealised the image of a drowned girl, and the red-haired maiden who posed for the painting, reading about her destiny and slowly discovering her poetry, laced with sadness, its verses spoke of love and death. A particular verse has been my favourite since those days, I have it written on my wall, and I almost feel it etched into my soul:

“All changes pass me like a dream,
I neither sing nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree
That stole my life away.

Lizzie Siddal posed for Ophelia and died an equally tragic death (is there a non-tragic death?); she overdosed on laudanum. Onyx black poppy seeds from that fragile yet passionate red flower, lulled her to eternal sleep. Rossetti dramatically buried his book of poems with her coffin, only to have it exhumed years later. Their tumulus relationship was the main source of inspiration for her poetry. I can understand her sadness, but Rossetti’s infidelities I cannot. With that beautiful gem at home, why on earth would he ever want to spend time with other women? Wasn’t his idol Dante content with just daydreaming about Beatrice?

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52

Love and Hate

Ope not thy lips, thou foolish one,
Nor turn to me thy face;
The blasts of heaven shall strike thee down
Ere I will give thee grace.

Take thou thy shadow from my path,
Nor turn to me and pray;
The wild wild winds thy dirge may sing
Ere I will bid thee stay.

Turn thou away thy false dark eyes,
Nor gaze upon my face;
Great love I bore thee: now great hate
Sits grimly in its place.

All changes pass me like a dream,
I neither sing nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree
That stole my life away.

Broken Blossoms (1919) – A Lyrical Tale of Love, Idealism and Death

19 May

Today I will talk about my favourite silent film ever, Broken Blossoms (1919), which tells a story of an innocent love between a beautiful waif girl Lucy and a Chinese opium-smoking dreamer Cheng, broken idealism and death, set in the seedy and decaying Limehouse district of London.

D.W. Griffith’s film “Broken Blossoms” first premiered on 13th May 1919, almost a hundred years ago. The introductory title card says: “It is a tale of temple bells, sounding at sunset before the image of Buddha; it is a tale of love and lovers; it is a tale of tears“. It was based on Thomas Burke’s short story “The Chink and the Child” from his collection of short stories called “Limehouse Nights”, first published in 1916, and it tells the story of a sad, helpless and beautiful twelve year old girl called Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish), her loutish and abusive boxer father (Donald Crisp), and a man recently arrived from China, Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess), whose dream is “to spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands.”

I have immediately been attracted to the atmosphere of the film; seedy, dangerous streets and alleys of London’s East End, with poverty-stricken immigrants, thieves and prostitutes, and a little girl wandering the streets all alone, an untainted little blossom whose heart yearns for kindness, gentleness and flowers. The same dark gritty streets have swallowed Cheng’s idealism. He is presented as a naive and romantic opium-smoking idealist and a dreamer, who finds himself too weak to fight evils and injustices that surround him, and instead of spreading the gentle message of Buddha, he wastes time in opium-induced reverie, working in his shop or standing at the corner, lost in his thought, not just powerless against the mud of society, but lying in its dirt.

“The Yellow Man watched Lucy often. The beauty which all Limehouse missed smote him to the heart.” (32:43)

“Lucy’s starved heart aches for the flowers.” (36:38)

Thomas Burke’s literary style is described as a blend of realism and romanticism, and this is exactly the kind of mood that Griffith has created. Throughout the film, the opposites clash and meet; Lucy lives in poverty and is abused mentally and physically and yet she dreams not of wealth and power, but of flowers and kindness, and Cheng is just a shop keeper on the outside, but his mind is always in the state of sweet reverie. Their life-conditions are realistic, but their idealistic friendship and love are so naive and romantic. When the two finally meet in the street, Cheng’s kindness soon grows into innocent adoration for this pretty little thing.

Burke’s fantasy of Limehouse follows in this tradition of an alternative world-turned-upside-down … a French definition of chinoserie that neatly encapsulated the late-Victorian and Edwardian concepts of Chineseness which found expression in the staged Orientalisms of Looking-Glass worlds. (…) In Bakhtinian terms, Chinese Limenhouse presented itself as a place of carnival. The district of Pennyfields and Limehouse Causeway are London streets overlaid with the trappings of an alien culture.  The shop windows are filled with arcane products, restaurants are denoted by weird hieroglyphs and serve weirder food. Stragely dressed people and the locality’s dimly lit glooms provoke an early association with theatrical spectacle and grotesquerie, Limehouse is always enveloped in transforming mists and enveloping fogs.” (Thomas Burke’s Dark Chinoiserie: Limehouse Nights and the Queer Spell of Chinatown, by Anna Veronica Witchard)

Sad little Lucy forcing a smile

Here’s a lyrical part from the story describing the moments Cheng saw Lucy and his daydreams about her from then on: “So he would lounge and smoke cheap cigarettes, and sit at his window, from which point he had many times observed the lyrical Lucy. He noticed her casually. Another day, he observed her, not casually. Later, he looked long at her; later still, he began to watch for her and for that strangely provocative something about the toss of the head and the hang of the little blue skirt as it coyly kissed her knee.

Then that beauty which all Limehouse had missed smote Cheng. Straight to his heart it went, and cried itself into his very blood. Thereafter the spirit of poetry broke her blossoms all about his odorous chamber. Nothing was the same. Pennyfields became a happy-lanterned street, and the monotonous fiddle in the house opposite was the music of his fathers. Bits of old songs floated through his mind: little sweet verses of Le Tai-pih, murmuring of plum blossom, rice-field and stream. Day by day he would moon at his window, of shuffle about the streets, lightning to a flame when Lucy would pass and gravely return his quiet regard; and night after night, too, he would dream of a pale, lily-lovely child.

1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 1

A quote from the story:

Always the white face was scarred with red, or black-furrowed with tears; always in her steps and in her look was expectation of dread things. (…) Yet, for all the starved face and the transfixed air, there was a lurking beauty about her, a something that called you in the soft curve of her cheek that cried for kisses and was fed with blows, and in the splendid mournfulness that grew in eyes and lips. The brown hair chimed against the pale face, like the rounding of the verse. The blue cotton frock and the broken shoes could not break the loveliness of her slender figure or the shy grace of her movements as she flitted about the squalid alleys of the docks…

1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 3

Cheng had seen Lucy many times before, but they have never conversed. Their encounter takes place one evening when Lucy, after being beaten up by her father, weak and vulnerable, aimlessly wanders the dangerous streets at night and somehow finds herself lying on the floor of his shop. When Cheng returns to his shop after going out for noodles and tea, his mind still floating in a vibrant opium dream, he think she too is a product of his altered conscience, but quickly comes to his senses and takes care of her. These are his thoughts upon that sweet unexpected encounter: “O lily-flowers and plum blossoms! O silver streams and dim-starred skies! O wine and roses, song and laughter! For there, kneeling on a mass of rugs, mazed and big-eyed, but understanding, was Lucy … his Lucy … his little maid. Through the dusk she must have felt his intense gaze upon her; for he crouched there, fascinated, staring into the now obscured corer where she knelt.

Breathing in an amber flute to this alabaster cockney girl her love name – White Blossom. (from a title card, at 55.18)

Now, for the first time in her life, Lucy feels safe and loved, and he nurtures her for three nights; showers her with kisses, gentleness and hugs, listens to her sorrows, buys her a doll and flowers, cares for her as if she were indeed a gentle flower found on a road. He dresses her up in beautiful, sumptuous gold and blue fabrics from the far East, thus turning her into a little Chinese princess, he even gives her a love-name: White Blossom. In this pale, frail Cockney girl he found an object of affection and a soul to offer nourishment to. This is where an interesting technical aspect of the film comes from; the scenes in his Oriental fairy-tale bedroom are in a pink-purple colour so they look magical indeed compared to the  which is black and white. His room is a safe haven of beauty.

What he brought to her was love and death. For he sat by her.  He looked at her – reverently, then passionately. He touched her – wistfully yet eagerly. He locked a finger in her wondrous hair. She did not start away; she did not tremble. (…) No, she was not afraid. His yellow hands, his yellow face, his smooth black hair… well, he was the first thing that had ever spoken soft words to her; the first thing that had ever laid hand on her that was not brutal; the first thing that had deferred in manner towards her as though she, too, had a right to live. She knew his words were sweet, though she did not understand them.

1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 2

Slowly, softly they mounted the stairs to his room, and with almost an obeisance he entered and drew her in. A bank of cloud raced to the east and a full moon thrust a sharp sword of light upon them. Silence lay over all Pennyfields. With a bird-like movement, she looked up at him – her face alight, her tiny hands upon his coat – clinging, wondering, trusting. He took her hand and kissed it; repeated the kiss upon her cheek and lip and little bosom, twining his fingers in her hair. Docilely, and echoing the smile of his lemon lips in a way that thrilled him almost to laughter, she returned his kisses impetuously, gladly. (…) So they stood in the moonlight, while she told him the story of her father, of her beatings, and starvings, and unhappiness.

After the rapture of their encounter passes, Cheng began to redecorate his little room to make it fit for his White Blossom:

… the clock above the Millwall docks shot twelve crashing notes across the night . When the last echo died, he moved to a cupboard, and from it he drew strange things… formless masses of blue and gold, magical things of silk, and a vessel that was surely Aladdin’s lamp, and a box of spices. He took these robes, and, with tender, reverent fingers, removed from his White Blossom the besmirched rags that covered her, and robed her again, and led her then to the heap of stuff that was his bed, and bestowed her safely. For himself, he squatted on the floor before her, holding one grubby little hand. There he crouched all night, under the lyric moon, sleepless, watchful; and sweet content was his. (…) Weary and trustful, she slept, knowing that the yellow man was kind and that she might sleep with no fear of a steel hand smashing the delicate structure of her dreams.

Here is how the room of his Oriental princess is described in the story:

…and now at last his room was prepared for his princess. It was swept and garnished, and was an apartment worthy a maid who is loved by a poet-prince. There was a bead curtain. There were muslins of pink and white. There were four bowls of flowers, clean, clear flowers to gladden the White Blossom and set off her sharp beauty. And there was a bowl of water, and a sweet lotion for the bruise on her cheek. (…) Cleansed, and robed and calm, she sat before him, perched on the edge of many cushions as on a throne, with all the grace of the child princess in the story. She was a poem. The beauty hidden by neglect and fatigue shone out now more clearly and vividly, and from the head sunning over with curls to the small white feet, now bathed and sandalled, she seemed the living interpretation of a Chinese lyric. And she was his; her sweet self and her prattle, and her birdlike ways were all his own. Oh, beautifully they loved. For two days he held her. Soft caresses from his yellow hands and long, devout kisses were all their demonstration. Each night he would tend her, as might mother to child…

So far, everything seems idyllic; a tale of love, a tale of blossoms, sweet melodies and sweet words spoken in moonlight, in the seedy streets of Limehouse where the warm light of lanterns permeates the eternal mists, but after three dreamy nights, Lucy’s father found out of her whereabouts and was furious to hear that a foreigner, a yellow-man had taken his daughter, even though he himself had never loved her. When Cheng was out to buy more rice, the furious Burrows came to the chamber of White Blossom, smashed all the beautiful porcelain, ripped the muslin curtains, and dragged Lucy by hair downstairs and back to their house… To quote the story: “The temple was empty and desolate; White Blossom was gone.”

There is a famous scene from the film called “The Closet Scene”, which you can watch here, where Lucy is hiding in a closet and her father is trying to smash the door with an axe, and she’s screaming (we can’t hear her of course), but her face expressions reveal the fear she’s feeling. It is said that in reality she was screaming so convincingly that lots of people gathered outside the studio, thinking that there really was something bad going on.

Death of the White Blossom had made life impossible for Cheng too:

The sacrament of his high and holy passion had been profaned; the last sanctuary of the Oriental  – his soul dignity – had been assaulted. The love robes had been torn to ribbons; the veil of his temple cut down. Life was no longer possible; and life without his little lady, his White Blossom, was no longer desirable.

More in the state of deep sadness and despair than anger, Cheng took the frail lifeless little body of Lucy, still warm, to his home, not a soul had seen him in that night of thick velvety river mist and….

He laid her upon the bed, and covered the lily limbs with the blue and yellow silks and strewed upon her a few of the trampled flowers. Then, with more kisses and prayers, he crouched beside her. So, in the ghastly Limehouse morning, they were found – the dead child, and the Chink, kneeling beside her, with a sharp knife gripped in a vice-like hand, its blade far between his ribs.

American screen actress Lillian Gish (1893 – 1993) in costume for her role in the MGM film ‘Romola’, an adaptation of George Eliot’s novel, directed by Henry King, 1924

Last spring I watched a lot of Old Hollywood films, in particular I found myself falling in love with silent films and watched a lot of those. I really loved the Gothic suspense mood of “The Sparrows” (1926) starring Mary Pickford, but “Broken Blossoms” is still my favourite silent film. I’ve fancied Lillian over all other silent film actresses for a long time. Mary Pickford is more famous, without a doubt, but she is cheerful, happy-go-lucky, like the Sun, while Lillian’s face exudes melancholy and wistfulness, she is more like the Moon. One line from Rabindranath Tagore comes to my mind whenever I think of Lillian: “Her wistful face haunts my dreams like the rain at night.

Role of the frail and gentle Lucy is typical for Lilian Gish. She said it herself: “I played so many frail, downtrodden little virgins in the films of my youth that I sometimes think I invented that stereotype of a role.” I happen to love the characters of gentle, fragile, helpless, beautiful waif-like virgins, guilty as charged. I know that silent films are not for everyone, but I see them as hidden jewels! I’ve noticed that I pay way more attention while watching a silent film, because the face expressions, gestures and title cards mean way more;  you have to read their feelings from their face, isn’t that wonderful?! I also very much love the fashion aspect of the films; Lillia Gish has the cutest hairstyle, and the same goes for the clothes both she and Mary Pickford are often wearing; hats, frilly dresses, white lace… It is amazing how they were in their twenties and still playing child-parts, while today girls of fifteen are encouraged to look older and more attractive.

In the end, they are both “Broken Blossoms”; broken idealism and broken life. Have you see the film? Read the story? Don’t you think Lillian is a pretty little thing? The film is on Youtube, as are many other silent films, and Thomas Burke’s stories you can read here. I felt so inspired after watching the film again, that I decided to read not just this story, but some other from the collection as well. They are so interesting and lyrical, and despite being set in London, the atmosphere is that of a magical Oriental world. Suddenly everything is about street lamps, mists, blossoms, perfumes, sweet melodies and roses. Here is a quote from another story, “The Sign of the Lamp”: “He talked of a land of lilies and soft blue nights which he had left that he might adventure in strange countries, and see the beauties of the white girls of other lands and learn great things… All these things he told her in successive sweet evenings of June, when Limehouse, was a city of rose and silver, and the odour of exotic spices lured every sense to the secret amiable delights of the pillow.” So alluring, can you resist not reading it?

Julie Daydreaming by Berthe Morisot

15 May

“They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” (Edgar Allan Poe)

Berthe Morisot, Julie Daydreaming, 1894

A portrait of a wistful round-faced girl in a loose white gown, with large heavy-lidded dreamy eyes, pouting and gazing in the distance, supporting her face with a delicate white hand; it’s Julie Manet, portrayed here in the sweet state of daydreams in the spring of her life, aged sixteen, by her mother Berthe Morisot.

I have been loving this portrait of Julie, it’s charming and subject of daydreams is very well known to me, but this is just one out of many portraits of Julie that Morisot has done. Julie was her mother’s treasure and her favourite motif to paint since the moment she was born on 14 November 1878, when Morisot was thirty-seven years old. Morisot comes from a wealthy family with good connections and this enabled her the freedom to pursue her artistic career. Another interesting thing is that her mother, Marie-Joséphine-Cornélie Thomas was the great-niece of the Rococo master Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Berthe had art flowing her veins.

Berthe Morisot, Julie with Her Nurse, 1880

Berte Morisot was part of the Impressionist circles, and married Eugene Manet, younger brother of Edouard Manet. Very early on, she had shown interest in painting children and made lots of portraits of her sisters with their children, so the arrival of little Julie enriched both her personal and artistic life, and she was known to have always tried mingling the two together, as explained by the poet Paul Valéry, her niece’s husband: “But Berthe Morisot singularity consisted in … living her painting and painting her life, as if this were for her a natural and necessary function, tied to her vital being, this exchange between observation and action, creative will and light … As a girl, wife, and mother, her sketches and paintings follow her destiny and accompany it very closely.

When Morisot painted other children, those were just paintings, studies, paint-on-canvas, but with Julie it was more than that, it was a project, one we could rightfully call “Julie grows up” or “studies of Julie” because since the moment Julie was born to the moment Morisot herself died, in 1895, she painted from 125 to 150 paintings of her daughter. Degas had his ballerinas, Monet his water lilies and poplars, and Berthe had her little girl to paint. It’s interesting that Morisot never portrayed motherhood in a typical sentimental Victorian way with a dotting mother resembling Raphael’s Madonna and an angelic-looking child with rosy cheeks. She instead gave Julie her identity, even in the early portraits she emphasised her individuality and tended to concentrate on her inner life. This makes Julie real, we can follow her personality, her interests and even her clothes through the portraits. Also, Morisot didn’t hesitate to paint Julie with her nanny or wet nurse, showing her opinion that the maternal love isn’t necessarily of the physical nature, but artistic; she preferred painting over breastfeeding her baby girl.

Édouard Manet, Julie Manet sitting on a Watering Can, 1882

As a lucky little girl and a daughter of two artists, Julie received a wonderful artistic upbringing. She was educated at home by her parents, and spent only a brief time at a local private school. Morisot, who saw her nieces Jeannie and Paule Gobillard as her own daughters, taught all three girls how to paint and draw, and also the history of art itself. Morisot took Julie to Louvre, analysed sculptures in parks with her and together they discussed the colour of shadows in nature; they are not grey as was presented in academic art. Morisot also started an alphabet book for Julie, called “Alphabet de Bibi” because “Bibi” was Julie’s nickname; each page included two letters accompanied by illustrations. (Unfortunately, I can’t find a picture of that online)

Still, Morisot wasn’t the only one to capture Julie growing up, other Impressionist did too, most notably Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Julie’s uncle Edouard Manet who made a cute depiction of a four year old Julie sitting on a watering can, wearing a blue dress and rusty-red bonnet. Julie’s childhood seems absolutely amazing, but her teenage years were not so bright. In 1892, her father passed away, and in 1895 her mother too; she was just sixteen years old and an orphan. The famous symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who died himself just four years later, became her guardian, and she was sent to live with her cousins.

Berthe Morisot, The Artist’s Daughter Julie with her Nanny, c. 1884.

Berthe Morisot, Young Girl with Doll, 1884

Like all Impressionist, Bethe Morisot painted scenes that are pleasant to the eye and very popular to modern audience, but what appeals me the most about her art is the facture; in her oils it’s almost sketch-like, it’s alive, it breaths and takes on life of its own, her bold use of white, her brushstrokes of rich colour that look as if they are flowing like a vivacious river on the surface of the canvas, and her pastels have something poetic about them. Just look at the painting The Artist’s Daughter Julie with her Nanny above, look at those strong, wilful strokes of white and blue, that tickles my fancy! Or the white sketch-like strokes on Julie with Her Nurse.

It was Renoir who encouraged Morisot to experiment with her colour palette and free both the colour and brushwork. It may not come as a surprise that Julie loved her mother’s artworks, in fact the lovely painting of a girl clutching her doll was Julie’s favourite, and she had it hanged above her bed. Imagine waking up to this gorgeous scene, knowing that it was painter by your dearest mama.

Berthe Morisot, The Piano, 1889

Both Renoir and Morisot fancied portraying girl playing piano, and this is Morisot’s version of the motif, made in pastel. The girl painted in profile, playing piano and looking at the music sheet is Julie’s cousin Jeannie, while the eleven year old Julie is shown wearing a light blue dress and sporting a boyish hairstyle. She is here, but her thoughts are somewhere else, her head is leaned on her hand and she’s daydreaming… Oh, Julie, what occupies your mind?

Berthe Morisot, Portrait of Julie, 1889

And here is a beautiful pastel portrait of Julie, also aged eleven but looking more girly with soft curls framing her round face, and a pretty pink bow. There’s something so poetic about her face; her almond shaped eyes gaze at something we don’t see, her face is always tinged with melancholy, even in her photo. Playful strokes of white chalk across her face, her auburn hair ending in sketch-like way…

Berthe Morisot, Portrait of Julie Manet Holding a Book, 1889

Berthe Morisot, Julie Manet with a Budgie, 1890

As you can see, in all the paintings from the “Julie series”, Julie is presented in an individualised way, not like typical girl portraits of the time with golden tresses and clutching a doll, looking cheerful and naive, rather, Morisot painted her reading a book, playing an instrument, daydreaming, lost in her thoughts, or sitting next to her pets, the budgie and the greyhound. Morisot wanted more for Julie that the role of a mother and a wife which was the typical Victorian ideal of womanhood, because as a prolific artist with a successful career, Morisot had also chosen an alternative path in life. There’s a distinct dreaminess and slight sadness about Julie’s face in most of these portraits, which only becomes emphasised as she grows older.

Now the “Julie grows up” element comes to the spotlight. We’ve seen Julie as a baby with honey-coloured hair, we’ve seen her with her pets, playing violin or listening to her cousin playing piano, but Julie is growing up so quickly… almost too quick to capture with a brush and some paint! My absolute favourite portrait of Julie is one from 1894, Julie Daydreaming, which reveals her inner life and her dreamy disposition the best. I love her white dress, her gaze, the shape of her hands, I love how every lock of hair is shaped by a single brushstroke. There’s a hint of sensuality in it as well, and it has drawn comparisons to Munch’s “sexual Madonnas”, which seems unusual at first since it was painted by her mother. I don’t really see it that way though, I see it simply as a portrait of a wistful girl in white wrapped in the sweetness of her daydreams.

I can’t help but wonder what she is daydreaming about. Tell me Julie, whisper it in my ear, I won’t tell a soul; is there a boy you fancy, would you like to walk through the meadows full of poppies, or watch the dew as it catches on the soft petals on roses in some garden far away, do you dream of damsels and troubadours, would you like to fly on Aladdin’s magical carpet, or listen to the sea in Brittany, what fills your soul with sadness Julie? And please, do tell me where you bought that dress – I want the same one!

Berthe Morisot, Julie Manet and her Greyhound Laerte, 1893

Berthe Morisot, Julie Playing a Violin, 1893

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Julie Manet, 1894

This portrait of Julie Manet by Renoir is particularly interesting to me; Julie is shown with masses of long auburn-brown hair, flushed cheeks, large elongated blue eyes with a sad gaze, in a sombre black dress against a grey background. The melancholic air of the portrait reminds me of one portrait from 1857 of Millais’ young little model and muse Sophy Gray; the same rosy cheeks, the same melancholic blue eyes and brown tresses.

John Everett Millais, Sophy Gray, 1857

And now Julie is a woman! In May 1900 a double wedding ceremony was held; Julie married Ernest Rouart and her cousin Jeannie Gobillard married Paul Válery. Her teenage diary, which she began writing in August 1893, is published under the name “Growing Up with Impressionists”. What started as just a bunch of notes, impressions and scribbles turned out to be a book in its own right, one which shows the art world and fin de siecle society through the eyes of a teenage girl. Julie died on Bastille Day, 14th July, in 1966.

Photo of Julie Manet, 1894

She looks so frail and sad in the photo, but I can’t help but admire her lovely dress and hat. Sad little Julie, you just keep on daydreaming….

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – I was a child beneath her touch….

12 May

Today would have been Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s birthday and I will take that as an excuse to share with you my favourite poem of his, “The Kiss”, along with some drawings he did of his darling Lizzie Siddal. I especially love the second stanza of the poem and also here you can watch a short video of Aidan Turner who played Rossetti in the BBC show “Desperate Romantics” reciting the poem.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, ca 1860

“What smouldering senses in death’s sick delay

Or seizure of malign vicissitude 

Can rob this body of honour, or denude

This soul of wedding-raiment worn to-day?

For lo! even now my lady’s lips did play

With these my lips such consonant interlude

As laurelled Orpheus longed for when he wooed

The half-drawn hungering face with that last lay. 

 

I was a child beneath her touch,–a man

When breast to breast we clung, even I and she,– 

A spirit when her spirit looked through me,– 

A god when all our life-breath met to fan 

Our life-blood, till love’s emulous ardours ran, 

Fire within fire, desire in deity.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, study for ‘Delia’ in the ‘Return of Tibullus’ (1853)

John Constable – Romantic Ruins of Hadleigh Castle

6 May

Sublime landscapes with romantic ruins are what fills my heart with delight, for nature by itself is plain and mundane. Ruin of a Medieval castle or an abbey overgrown with ivy, lovers sitting in forest glades bathed in silvery moonlight, rivers whose calm flow brings forgetfulness, sight of a lonely figure amidst wild nature; a landscape unadorned with any of these things seizes to excite me. And is there a better age in art for all these qualities than Romanticism?

John Constable, Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ c.1828–9, London, Tate Gallery

John Constable’s aim in painting landscapes was to capture the nature with honesty, to capture its beauty and simplicity without showing off in an arrogant Turner way. He is not the representative in portraying nature with passion, lyricism or melancholy; you should seek those qualities in paintings of Turner, John Martin or Caspar David Friedrich, but at one point, in 1828, he felt that his life and art were in a state of ruins and he sought in nature a vision of his own soul and he found it in a desolate scene of a Hadleigh Castle in Essex.

The brooding tower is a sinister sight indeed, seen after a stormy night; wrapped in dark thoughts, breathing in the air of decay, its glory days forgotten and only a corpse of stone walls remains, the crows flying by its only friends in centuries of solitude… The sky is a commingled mass of whites and blues, and the marshlands are drowning in darkness. A vague figure of a shepherd with his dog in the left corner, and cows and cliffs painted carelessly. The most peculiar thing about this oil sketch is the way it is painted; almost expressionistic with those thick, careless brushstrokes, heavy, thickly impasto way of applying colour with no constraint. And it’s sublime and sombre mood has since drawn comparisons to Rembrandt’s “The Mill” (1645-48). The scene seems so out of place in Constable’s usual peaceful countryside scenes painted in a very detailed way with fine brushwork, that one can’t help but wonder about this strange change of style and theme.

John Constable, Maria Bicknell, 1816

This peculiarly dark mood of the painting is caused by the events in Constable’s private life. His dear wife Maria, who was of fragile health, fell ill after giving birth to their seventh child in January 1828, and in November the same year she died from consumption. Constable was devastated; he started dressing in black and  succumbed to melancholy. The death of his angel, as he called her, changed everything. They married in autumn of 1816, when he was forty years old, after their friendship grew into deep love. But now, after only twelve years of happiness, Constable was a lonely, depressed figure, wrapped in gloomy thoughts, tormented by anxiety and brutal self-questioning of his life and career. Nothing made sense any more, and he wrote in a letter to his brother Golding “hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel—God only knows how my children will be brought up…the face of the World is totally changed to me“.

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, sketch, 1814

As you can see from the rather small pencil sketch, about 8 x 11 cm, Constable had visited the sight way before he decided to fully devote to it and paint it on a large, six foot canvas in oils. It seems to me that the distance between two towers is bigger in the drawing than it is in the paintings. Perhaps the reason why he returned to the subject of the Hadleigh Castle after fourteen years lies in the fact that while he visited it for the first time, in 1814, he rapturously wrote to Maria of its beauty. This is what he wrote, on 3 July 1814: “At Hadleigh there is a ruin of a castle which from its situation is a really fine place – it commands a view of the Kent hills, the Nore and North Foreland & looking many miles to sea.” After she died, he may have revisited their correspondence, and with tears glistening in his eyes remembered the happier times, and he may have seen the castle as a symbol of those times.

I love the sketch, specially the birds flying around the tower and the clouds, and something about it appeals me more than the finished painting. I know what it is; in the drawing there is no figure of a shepherd and the cows; a motif so utterly Constable and so unfitting for the Gothic mood of the sublime. As much as I like the painting, I would have preferred to see it painted as a nocturnal scene, in dark magical blues with large moon shining on the horizon and a distant figure of a horseman, and the moonshine peeking through the old ruin of a tower, but that wouldn’t be Constable any more.

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames–Morning after a Stormy Night, 1828-29

Now you can see what an impact personal life and tragedies can have on an artist, and that even a simple landscape is filled with secrets that leads us to the artist’s soul. Constable’s saddest state resulted in what is perhaps the most poetic, the most ‘sublime’ out of all his paintings, but the wild and gloomy sketch version from the Tate Gallery isn’t the only one. He painted another version of the same scene, pretty much the same, which is more in tune with Constable’s typical refined, sleek style; gloom is subtler, brushstrokes are more controlled, and you can see the details more clearly, such as the shepherd and his dog, and the cows, even the sky looks softer and less threatening. So there is a ‘passionate’ version and a ‘tamed’ one. Needless to say which one I prefer.

My Inspiration for April 2017

30 Apr

This April I was inspired by Berthe Morisot’s loose brushwork and images of women, romantic ruins, heather fields and hawthorn trees, Chopin’s Mazurkas, Eugene Onegin, Winterhalter’s portrait of Empress Elisabeth Sissi in her gorgeous tulle gown, gardens in bloom, straw hats, Victorian fashion photography, Turgenev’s heroines, Beardsley’s decadent glamour, moonlit Dutch landscapes, portraits of women with harps, 1840s fashion. I’ve read a few interesting short stories; First Sorrow by Franz Kafka, and I’ve been rereading Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s short story collection Twelve Pilgrims; when I first read it six years ago and now still my favourite story is The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow; it’s about two wealthy Columbian newly weds, Nena and Billy Sanchez, who come to Europe on honeymoon, and Nena cuts her finger on a rose thorn, leaves a trail of blood in the snow… and, well read for yourself. The atmosphere of the story has similarities with Kafka’s style. I’ve watched an interesting three part BBC documentary narrated by Lucy Worsley called Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency, and a film with nice costumes set in times of the English Civil War – The Devil’s Whore (2008); both are on Youtube.