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Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment – Renewed by Love

14 Feb

Dostoevsky’s novel “Crime and Punishment”, first published in 1866, is one of my all time favourite novels and I had such a blast reading it in grammar school. It’s a very long and complex novel that deals with many topics, and love isn’t even the main one but it serves to transform the characters and turn them into better individuals. The love story between the main character Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the intelligent and poor but failed student and a later a murderer, and Sonia Marmeladova, a shy, innocent and self-scarifying eighteen year old girl driven to prostitution by poverty, is one one of my favourites in literature. I had a crush on Raskolnikov because he was as cool as a rock star; dark eyed and handsome, nihilistic and emotionally unavailable, and I had a tremendous admiration for Sonia, the most selfless creature, gentle and fragile in appearance but strong within, guided by a higher law that helps her transcend the misery of her surroundings; her poverty, horrible clients, drunkard of a father, the demanding unfeeling step-mother, the prejudice she faces due to her job. Even Raskolnikov judges her at first, and places himself as a morally superior individual, as if he forgot he was a murderer. He visits her a few times in her shabby little room and a seed of love is planted in both of their hearts; both are flawed, both are outcasts, and both are denying this newly awaken sentiment; The candle-end had long been burning out in the bent candlestick, casting a dim light in this destitute room upon the murderer and the harlot strangely come together over the reading of the eternal book.

Sonia’s blind faith, childlike figure and naivety clash with her grim day to day reality. She is a pale-faced, yellow-haired whore with the purest heart; an angel. Loyal and kind hearted she is the one who advises Raskolnikov to admit his crime and pay the price for it, because that is the only path to salvation. He listens to her and is sentenced to seven years of exile in the cold Siberia. Sonia follows him there, even though she knows she isn’t wanted. Half the time he is rude and cold towards her, and other times he just ignores her, but the persistence of Sonia’s love and her patience eventually melt the icy exterior of nihilism and apathy and reveal a kind and noble spirit capable of love and compassion, someone who has faith in brighter future. Dostoevsky’s portrayal of power of love in this novel is very beautiful and very inspiring and here is the passage from the last chapter where they finally, after hundreds of pages of the reader’s waiting, fall in love. I especially love the last lines of this passage: “He thought of her. He remembered how continually he had tormented her and wounded her heart. He remembered her pale and thin little face. But these recollections scarcely troubled him now; he knew with what infinite love he would now repay all her sufferings. Perhaps Dostoevsky was a Romantic and not a Realist after all?

Laura Makabresku, Melancholy (2017)

Raskolnikov sat gazing, his thoughts passed into day-dreams, into contemplation; he thought of nothing, but a vague restlessness excited and troubled him. Suddenly he found Sonia beside him; she had come up noiselessly and sat down at his side. It was still quite early; the morning chill was still keen. She wore her poor old burnous and the green shawl; her face still showed signs of illness, it was thinner and paler. She gave him a joyful smile of welcome, but held out her hand with her usual timidity. She was always timid of holding out her hand to him and sometimes did not offer it at all, as though afraid he would repel it. He always took her hand as though with repugnance, always seemed vexed to meet her and was sometimes obstinately silent throughout her visit. Sometimes she trembled before him and went away deeply grieved. But now their hands did not part. He stole a rapid glance at her and dropped his eyes on the ground without speaking. They were alone, no one had seen them. The guard had turned away for the time.

Photo by Laura Makabresku

How it happened he did not know. But all at once something seemed to seize him and fling him at her feet. He wept and threw his arms round her knees. For the first instant she was terribly frightened and she turned pale. She jumped up and looked at him trembling. But at the same moment she understood, and a light of infinite happiness came into her eyes. She knew and had no doubt that he loved her beyond everything and that at last the moment had come. . . .

They wanted to speak, but could not; tears stood in their eyes. They were both pale and thin; but those sick pale faces were bright with the dawn of a new future, of a full resurrection into a new life. They were renewed by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.

They resolved to wait and be patient. They had another seven years to wait, and what terrible suffering and what infinite happiness before them! But he had risen again and he knew it and felt it in all his being, while she–she only lived in his life.

Also by Laura Makabresku

(…)

He thought of her. He remembered how continually he had tormented her and wounded her heart. He remembered her pale and thin little face. But these recollections scarcely troubled him now; he knew with what infinite love he would now repay all her sufferings.

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Manic Street Preachers – Little Baby Nothing

10 Feb

I often share poems on my blog, but why not share the lyrics of a rock song? As far as I’m concerned, their artistic value is the same, and often the lyrics of The Smiths, Manics, Syd Barrett etc. hold more meaning to me and I can relate to them more than I can to ‘classic’ poetry. Little Baby Nothing is THE first song by the Manic Street Preachers that I’ve listened to, and what can I say – it was love at first sight (or first hearing). Today marks the 27th anniversary of their debut album Generation Terrorists. This is not my favourite song by the Manics, nor my favourite video, but objectively looking I think the lyrics are amazing and every line is perfect. Some of their lyrics, specially from The Holy Bible, can be a bit confusing, although they sound great accompanied by the music, but ‘Little Baby Nothing’ can be read on its own, like poetry and it would still be as meaningful. In their interview from 1992, Nicky Wire said that ‘men are the most horrible creatures because they use women’ and that the song is about a woman who had power and intelligence and was used by men. Therefore, having Traci Lords to sing some lines was more symbolic than anything, and they felt she could identify with the lyrics. One of their later songs, Yes, also deals with the exploitation of women, but it also says that every time you say ‘yes’ to something you don’t want to do, it’s also a form of prostituting yourself. And of course, the glorious line ‘Culture, Alienation, Boredom, and Despair‘ which perfectly sums everything that their early songs were about.

Here’s what Traci Lords said about Richey and the song: “He reminded me of a young David Bowie: very avant-garde, and there was something quite feminine about him. He was very soft-spoken, and struck me as being vulnerable, almost birdlike. He definitely came across as someone who was living in a glass-house, in some sort of fragile state. I thought he was lovely. He never spoke to me about why he wanted me to sing on ‘Little Baby Nothing’ – it wasn’t until later that I read his reasons for it. It’s funny because I saw Richey as someone who was very vulnerable, and that’s how he saw me“. (NME, 14 February 2015)

I’m glad they chose Traci Lords, not only because she totally fits with the lyrics, but also because I’ve liked her ever since I watched ‘Cry-Baby’ (1990), I thought she was the coolest character in the film! And judging her character and morality based on her ex-porn-star career would be hypocritical and immature. Even the Manics said in the same interview that she was the most intelligent American they’ve ever met in their lives!

Egon Schiele, Woman in Black Stockings, 1913

“No one likes looking at you
Your lack of ego offends male mentality
They need your innocence
To steal vacant love and to destroy
Your beauty and virginity used like toys

My mind is dead, everybody love’s me
Wants a slice of me
Hopelessly passive and compatible
Need to belong, oh the roads are scarey
So hold me in your arms
I wanna be your only possession

Used, used, used by men
Used, used, used by men

All they leave behind is money
Paper made out of broken twisted trees
Your pretty face offends
Because it’s something real that I can’t touch
Eyes, skin, bone, contour, language as a flower

No god reached me, faded films and loving books
Black and white TV
All the world does not exist for me
And if I’m starving, you can feed me lollipops
Your diet will crush me
My life just an old man’s memory

Little baby nothing
Loveless slavery, lips kissing empty
Dress your life in loathing
Breaking your mind with Barbie Doll futility

Little baby nothing
Sexually free, made-up to breakup
Assassinated beauty
Moths broken up, quenched at last
The vermin allowed a thought to pass them by

You are pure, you are snow
We are the useless sluts that they mould
Rock ‘n’ roll is our epiphany
Culture, alienation, boredom and despair

You are pure, you are snow
We are the useless sluts that they mould
Rock ‘n’ roll is our epiphany
Culture, alienation, boredom and despair

Egon Schiele, Blonde Girl in Underwear (Blondes Mädchen im Unterhemd), 1913

Now, who’s to say something can’t be aesthetically pleasing and have a strong social message at the same time?

Did I also mention that the video is cool? Well, check it out and decide for yourself.

Birth Anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe – The Oval Portrait

19 Jan

Edgar Allan Poe was born on this day in 1809. It must have been a cold and dreary winter’s day in Boston when his parents, traveling actors, welcomed him into this sad world. If he had been a girl, he would have been named Cordelia because his mother was a fan of William Shakespeare and often played roles from his plays. But he was a boy and they named him Edgar instead, again a theatre-inspired name from the play “King Lear”, more about it here. Now is as good opportunity as ever to indulge in his poetry or prose, and I decided to remind you all of his perhaps the shortest short story called “The Oval Portrait” (1842) which lingers in the memory long after one reads it; the shortness and the vague ending leave one wanting more, and the complex ideas about the conflict of life vs art, reality versus the world of imagination, and the idea of art feeding on life and ultimately destroying it. These ideas carried within them a seed which, long after Poe’s death in 1849, traveled over the ocean and blossomed into sumptuous flowers; the “l’art pour l’art” philosophy and later Aesthetic movement and Oscar Wilde’s “Dorian Gray”.

This story seems to have been particularly appealing to the French Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard because in his film Vivre sa Vie or My Life to Live (1962), there is a scene where a young man is reading a fragment of the story to the main character Nana, played by Anna Karina who was Godard’s wife at the time. Their marriage was already falling apart because he was apparently too absorbed to even notice her or anything besides his films. Everything he wanted to say, he expressed through the art of film. Just like the painter in the story, Godard saw Anna, his beautiful blue-eyed wife only through the camera lens. You can watch the clip here if you’re interested.

“The Oval Portrait” starts as a Gothic tale with an unnamed narrator coming into a strange castle and becoming enamored with a portrait of a beautiful young woman on the wall, but the plot soon jumps from the narrator to the story about the portrait itself and its history, again there’s “the most poetic topic in the world” according to Poe himself; the death of a beautiful woman, a pale wistful bride and her half-mad artist husband. Here is the entire story accompanied by some portraits of pretty women painted around the same time the story was originally published:

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Bildnis eines Mädchens (Portrait of a Young Girl), 1840

THE CHATEAU into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Appennines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe. To all appearance it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned. We established ourselves in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments. It lay in a remote turret of the building. Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique. Its walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies, together with an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque. In these paintings, which depended from the walls not only in their main surfaces, but in very many nooks which the bizarre architecture of the chateau rendered necessary- in these paintings my incipient delirium, perhaps, had caused me to take deep interest; so that I bade Pedro to close the heavy shutters of the room- since it was already night- to light the tongues of a tall candelabrum which stood by the head of my bed- and to throw open far and wide the fringed curtains of black velvet which enveloped the bed itself. I wished all this done that I might resign myself, if not to sleep, at least alternately to the contemplation of these pictures, and the perusal of a small volume which had been found upon the pillow, and which purported to criticise and describe them.

Long- long I read- and devoutly, devotedly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by and the deep midnight came. The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I placed it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book.

But the action produced an effect altogether unanticipated. The rays of the numerous candles (for there were many) now fell within a niche of the room which had hitherto been thrown into deep shade by one of the bed-posts. I thus saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. It was the portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. Why I did this was not at first apparent even to my own perception. But while my lids remained thus shut, I ran over in my mind my reason for so shutting them. It was an impulsive movement to gain time for thought- to make sure that my vision had not deceived me- to calm and subdue my fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze. In a very few moments I again looked fixedly at the painting.

That I now saw aright I could not and would not doubt; for the first flashing of the candles upon that canvas had seemed to dissipate the dreamy stupor which was stealing over my senses, and to startle me at once into waking life.

The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back-ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filigreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person. I saw at once that the peculiarities of the design, of the vignetting, and of the frame, must have instantly dispelled such idea- must have prevented even its momentary entertainment. Thinking earnestly upon these points, I remained, for an hour perhaps, half sitting, half reclining, with my vision riveted upon the portrait. At length, satisfied with the true secret of its effect, I fell back within the bed. I had found the spell of the picture in an absolute life-likeliness of expression, which, at first startling, finally confounded, subdued, and appalled me. With deep and reverent awe I replaced the candelabrum in its former position. The cause of my deep agitation being thus shut from view, I sought eagerly the volume which discussed the paintings and their histories. Turning to the number which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow:

Henry Mundy, Martha Kermode, c. 1840

“She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to pourtray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead. But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And be was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well. But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him. And when many weeks bad passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!

Nature in Syd Barrett’s Songs

6 Jan

In lyrics Syd Barrett wrote for Pink Floyd and his two solo albums, he crated a tapestry of images, moods, fragrances and colours that change from vibrancy and childlike whimsicality of early psychedelia to more sombre, tinged with melancholy tunes that smell of withered flowers, last summer sunsets and have that after party mood when the guests are gone, the music stops and solitude remains. In many of his songs, images from nature serve to mirror the state of his soul, his emotions and his loneliness.

“Jiving on down to the beach to see the blue and the gray
Seems to be all and it’s rosy-it’s a beautiful day!”

(Gigolo Aunt)

John William Waterhouse, Ophelia, 1894, detail

Syd Barrett was the imaginative and stylish individual behind the early Pink Floyd. He also went on to have a brief solo career and released two albums in 1970; “The Madcap Laughs” and “Barrett” which mostly feature his melancholy voice and guitar, mirroring the dark and sad waters of his soul. Although the mood of Syd’s lyrics changes from the early ones which are fun and quirky, and later ones which tend to be more mystical and introspective, there is a theme which lingers throughout Syd’s poetry – nature.

The reason behind the frequency of nature as a topic of Syd’s lyrics is tied to his childhood; where he grew up and how he grew up. Syd was part of the baby boom generation and grew up in a safe and clean middle-class neighbourhood in Cambridge where his father worked as a pathologist. Unlike Morrissey, for example, whose early memories are tied to the dark and grim streets of Manchester and a red brick house which he can never go back to, the stage of Syd’s early memories is a lovely Victorian house where mum read fairy-tales and the arts were appreciated. Despite being only an hour away from London, Cambridge was, at the time, still a quaint town where myths and reality lived in harmony.

Constant Puyo, 1903.

In the book “Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe”, the author Julian Palacious describes the area as a”bleak land rife with myth; a land where one can see the ruins of monasteries and abbeys looming through the heavy autumn fog, the spring of the Nine Wells associated with druids and witchcraft, a place where cold winters bloom into chill and damp springs and violet flowers fill the meadow all the way to the Beechwoods, a place of fairy ring mushrooms and willow trees gently touching the surface of the river Cam with their long yellow branches; all in all a setting ideal for a psychedelic schoolgirl to explore the secrets that nature beholds and float down the river forever and ever like a modern Ophelia: Syd conjured the very thing in his song “See Emily Play”. Palacios further says that “The Fens were rumoured to be the haunt of lost souls, witches, and web-footed peasants”, thus mingling the vivid Celtic past and mystic of nature with everyday suburban reality.

Arthur Rackham illustration for The Old Woman in the Wood from The Grimm’s Fairy Tales

In his book “Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head”, Rob Chapman also comments on nature being a common theme in Syd’s lyrics “Like Lear, Syd would populate his lyrics with imagery drawn from botany , zoology and nature. Lear and Caroll influenced the clarity of his lyrics too…”, adding that Syd “grew up surrounded by Fen countryside, absorbed in pastoral pursuits and Arcadian literature, and frequently drew upon nature for the subject matter of his artwork. His father was a keen amateur botanist and the entire family were be taken for Sunday morning jaunts to the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. The experience would be ingrained and absorbed from an early age.” We might say that nature was Syd’s first love, one which came before painting and music, and one which stayed much longer, even in his old age when he tended to the roses in his garden.

Photo found here.

In his early writings for Pink Floyd, nature is the setting of Syd’s psychedelic imaginings. In one song from their first album, “Flaming”, a very cheerful tune, nature comes alive and the meadow is one big playground. The lyrics bring to mind whimsicality of Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland: “Alone in the clouds all blue/ Lying on an eiderdown/ (…) Lazing in the foggy dew/ Sitting on a unicorn./ No fair, you can’t hear me/ But I can you./ Watching buttercups cup the light/ Sleeping on a dandelion.” Through his perceptions of nature, Syd paints us the landscapes of his soul, through the sounds we see its changing colours from yellow, gentle green and pink, to greys, dusty pinks and faded blues.

The first hint of the darkness to come can be traced in the lyrics of “The Scarecrow” where a solitary scarecrow standing in the middle of a golden barley fields brings to mind the sad landscapes that Vincent van Gogh had painted near the end of his life. Another song, “Octopus” from his first solo album, mingles the cheerfulness of his early days with a premonition of the madness that was to come: “Isn’t it good to be lost in the wood/ Isn’t it bad so quiet there, in the wood/ Meant even less to me than I thought… the seas will reach and always seep/ So high you go, so low you creep/ the wind it blows in tropical heat”. One time Syd was on holiday with his family in Wales, he was but a little boy, and he wandered off into the forest and was lost for hours.

“The land in silence stands” (Swan Lee)

And the landscape turns melancholy; the gates of childhood are closed, dandelions have withered and unicorns are nowhere to be found… the dark sea of adulthood is sad and mute as the grave, and its shore desolate and unpromising. Lost hopes and lamentation at the sudden awakening. There isn’t a song which better paints a picture of Syd’s mind at the time than “Wined and Dined” whose lyrics and melody both recall happier times and lament at the sadness that just doesn’t go away:

“Only last summer, it’s not so long ago
Just last summer, now musk winds blow…”

Melodies and lyrics of Syd’s solo albums bring to mind not the pictures of meadows and flowers, but scenes of isolation; murky waters, birds flying away, broken pier, trees are silent and lonely… Syd shows an acute awareness of what is going on around him. As a lyricist, and a poet too, Syd used images of nature as symbols for his states of mind and ways of expressing feelings imaginatively and indirectly; he is painting landscapes with his words which mirror the states of his soul.

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise Over the Sea, 1822

Here are some interesting lines from his song “She took a long cold look” from “The Madcap Laughs”, the image of the broker pier, wavy sea and water streaming over him are striking:

“a broken pier on the wavy sea
she wonders why for all she wants to see…
But I got up and I stomped around
and hid the piece where the trees touch the ground…

And looking high up into the sky
I breathe as the water streams over me…”

Picture found here.

A beautiful song “Opel” has long sad solos and a sense of isolation lingers throughout it, especially haunting are the last lines “I’m trying to find you” sang in his distant voice and accompanied by his guitar:

“On a distant shore, miles from land
Stands the ebony totem in ebony sand
A dream in a mist of grey…
On a far distant shore…

The pebble that stood alone
And driftwood lies half buried
Warm shallow waters sweep shells
So the cockles shine…

I’m trying
I’m trying to find you!
To find you
I’m living, I’m giving,
To find you, To find you…”

Anna Akhmatova – And I’m drunk on the sound of your voice, echoing here

16 Dec

A beautiful poem called “White Night” by Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) that I recently discovered.

Photo by Natalia Drepina

White night

Oh, I’ve not locked the door,

I’ve not lit the candles,

You know I’m too tired

To think of sleep.

 

See, how the fields die down,

In the sunset gloom of firs,

And I’m drunk on the sound

Of your voice, echoing here.

 

It’s fine, that all’s black,

That life’s – a cursed hell.

O, that you’d come back –

I was so certain, as well.

Reneé Vivien: I am drunk from so many roses redder than wine

11 Nov

These days I am swooning over the sensuous, dreamy and languid poetry by a French poetess born in England, a lesbian in love with death and flowers, a turn of the century Sappho: Reneé Vivien (1877-1909).

Maurice Denis, Portrait of Mlle Yvonne Lerolle in three poses, 1897

She was born on 11th June 1877 in Paddington, England, in a prosperous family. Her childhood was laced with coldness from her mother’s side and an inexplicable longing. Sensitive and introspective, as a teen she was introduced in the world of poetry through a correspondence with an older poet who was her father’s friend. At one point she ran away from home, but she quickly ran out of money on that quest and she was just about to throw herself in the Thames when she was caught and returned home. Still, by that point, she had made up her mind to be a poetess and as soon as she could she moved to Paris and changed her name to Reneé Vivien. Always a hopeless romantic, always bitterly disappointed by poly-amorous attitudes of her lovers. After many love affairs, loneliness and sadness remained, and her withered soul, yearning for raptures and delights, found relief in alcohol, deliberate fasting and a drug she was addicted to since she was a teen.

Her entire life she dreamed of death as a romantic escape from the dreariness and misery of this earthly existence. She particularly daydreamed of drowning just like the melancholy heroine Ophelia. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt by laudanum in 1908, when she stretched herself on a divan clutching a little bouquet of violets in her hand, she was weakened and pneumonia took her on the 18th November 1909. Violets were her favourite flower, and purple her favourite colour. Rich in visual imagery, rich in sounds, laced with longing and desire at once, intense and nocturnal, her verses make one imagine a lady from a Symbolist painting, strolling slowly in a garden, at night, dressed in a long loose white gown, her hair left down, caressed by the moonlight, inhaling the fragrance of midnight roses and white jasmine as her bosom invitingly rises and descends… Here are two of her poems that I particularly loved; “Undine” and “Chanson”:

***

Undine

Your laughter is light, your caress deep,

Your cold kisses love the harm they do;

Your eyes-blue lotus waves

And the water lilies are less pure than your face..

 

You flee, a fluid parting,

Your hair falls in gentle tangles;

Your voice-a treacherous tide;

Your arms-supple reeds.

 

Long river reeds, their embrace

Enlaces, chokes, strangles savagely,

Deep in the waves, an agony

Extinguished in a night drift.

Reneé Vivien, born under the name Pauline Mary Tarn, below with her lover and muse Natalie Clifford Barney:

***

Chanson

The flight of the fluttering bat

Is tortuous, anguished, bizarre.

Then, beating her bruised wings thereat,

She turns, and looks back from afar.

 

Have you never felt, just one time,

How, drunken with painful defeat,

My soul, in a mad flight sublime,

Soared to your lips, distant but sweet?

La Belle Dame Sans Merci – Pre-Raphaelites and John Keats

11 Oct

In this post we’ll take a look at a very popular topic for the Pre-Raphaelite painters: the heroine of John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. At once beautiful and cruel, this damsel enchants the poor naive knight and brings him to his doom.

John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1893

The most beautiful, the most captivating portrayal of the beautiful and cold-hearted lady from John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is, for me, the one painted by John William Waterhouse in 1893. The warm rich colours, her languid pose and the way she gazes at the poor knight linger in the memory. Winterhouse wasn’t particularly faithful to Keats’s vision of the setting; Keats described the scene of their doomed encounter as taking place in a desolate wintry landscape where no birds are singing. Waterhouse and other artists before and after him had envisaged the scene differently, which shows that sometimes motifs from poetry don’t translate well into visual arts. Still, the warm colours and details such as red leaves in the foreground suggesting that it’s late summer or early autumn, add to the sensuality of the theme. The autumn is not much different to the merciless lady; nature in autumn charms us with her richness, giving promises it won’t fulfill; the crimson leaves speak of luxury, yet they shall wither and fall in decay.

This is how the knight in the Keats’ poem describes the lady:

“I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful, a fairy’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.”

Most unusually, but very fitting for the rest of the painting’s colour palette, Waterhouse painted the lady’s dress in a beautiful warm shade of purple, in a seductive and illusive colour of wine. And look at the heart on her sleeve. Her long auburn hair is falling down her back as she gazes transfixed at the knight, in the same way that the nymphs in Waterhouse’s other painting “Hylas and the nymhps” are gazing at the poor Hylas. Her ruby red lips, her long hair and sweet-scented air all lie; for it is not love that lies on her heart but deceit! And it is only the poor naive knight who is blind to it. And the nature is lying with her; white briar-roses bloom and the trees in the background, reminiscent of the early Renaissance painters, are silent and many dark things they wickedly withhold. The dense row of tall trees reminds me of the trees in Botticelli’s paintings from series “The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti”, part one and two.

Frank Dicksee, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1902

Frank Dicksee was another painter who painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style, but just like Waterhouse he wasn’t the member of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. There is something sentimental about his version which I don’t like, but I do love the lady’s long flowing red hair with a crown of white flowers on it. Here is John Keats’s poem, it is too beautiful not to be included:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful, a fairy’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1863

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Frank Cadogan Cowper, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1926

At last, the knight is defeated and the lady arises like a phoenix from the ashes with a victorious glow on her cheeks, hair even shinier and more beautiful – she is ready to strike again. Wild red poppies are swaying in the wind, dancing and whispering passionately of the poor knight’s death. Her dress is intricate and ornate, and, similar to Klimt’s designs, almost has a life of its own. Her hands are seductively placed above her head, while the knight is lying dead in the grass, poppies and a few dandelions around him make for a very striking and powerful scene. Whereas Waterhouse opted for a dreamy idyllic version of the theme, focusing on the lady’s intense seductive gaze, Cowper here isn’t shy at portraying her as a merciless vixen.