Tag Archives: Poetry

John William Waterhouse and John Keats – Isabella and the Pot of Basil

31 Oct

John William Waterhouse’s portrayal of John Keats’s poem “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil”, is dreamy, which is typical for his oeuvre, and, following the tradition of the Pre-Raphaelites, it is rich in details, but the seemingly innocent scene hides a darker theme. In this painting, Waterhouse beautifully unites the Medieval macabre imagination of Boccaccio with the sensuous imagery created by Keats in his poem.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1907

In a secluded spot of a beautiful garden somewhere in Florence, a damsel known by the name of Isabella is kneeling beside a pot of basil, embracing it with her gentle white arms and “gazing amorously upon it with all her desire”. The air is warm and fragrant, but laced with sadness. The spot seems secretive and the path that leads to it is rarely used. With no living soul around her, she must have whispered the woes of her heart to the greenery around her: the grass, the ivy, the hedge, have all become friends. The fragile red poppy that grew next to her white gown, along with a skull on the pedestal of the basil pot, could be interpreted as signs of the other world. Poppy is a flower connected to dreams, sleep and death. She is dressed in a long white gown that touches the ground with intricate Medieval-style sleeves. Her auburn hair falls on her back as she tilts her head and sighs at the inequity of her destiny. How can a maiden so young and so pretty be so sad?

Ahh, but poor Isabella is ill from sadness. In a feverish state her gaze turned blurry from tears, and yet, with wild perseverance she wraps her weak arms around the pot, pining and weeping, day upon day, night after night. Her heart aches for something she can never have, and not even a thousand tears would bring the dear face of Lorenzo back to life; the anguish that sits on her chest is heavier than a stone, and yet her face shows longing rather than pain, as if her devotion, her pining and daydreaming upon that pot of fragrant basil bring her serenity. For, what else can she do but weep her days away?

John Keats’s narrative poem “Isabella” is adapted from a story in Boccaccio’s Decameron (IV day, 5th story) which tells the tale of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. (A note: Keats changed the setting of the story from Messina to Florence, and the name from Lisbetta to Isabella.) In Decameron, Lisbetta is a fair and well-manered maiden who lives in the town of Messina with her three brothers who want her to marry a rich and respectable man, but Lisbetta falls in love with Lorenzo, the dashing young employee of her brothers. After enjoying the delights of each other’s company, the young lovers are discovered and the brothers decide to take things into their hands. On day they take Lorenzo into the deepest darkest forest and murder him. Lisbetta, not hearing from Lorenzo for so long, grows impatient and worried until one night he appears in her dream and tells her what had happened and where his body lies. After that “she awoke and giving faith to the vision, wept bitterly.” Lisbetta finds his body in the forest, and despite her woes remains cool-headed and knowing that she can’t take the whole body, she cuts his head off and wraps it in a napkin and:

“…returned home, where, shutting herself in her chamber with her lover’s head, she bewept it long and bitterly, insomuch that she bathed it all with her tears, and kissed it a thousand times in every part. Then, taking a great and goodly pot, of those wherein they plant marjoram or sweet basil, she set the head therein, folded in a fair linen cloth, and covered it with earth, in which she planted sundry heads of right fair basil of Salerno; nor did she ever water these with other water than that of her tears or rose or orange-flower water. Moreover she took wont to sit still near the pot and to gaze amorously upon it with all her desire, as upon that which held her Lorenzo hid; and after she had a great while looked thereon, she would bend over it and fall to weeping so sore and so long that her tears bathed all the basil, which, by dint of long and assiduous tending, as well as by reason of the fatness of the earth, proceeding from the rotting head that was therein, waxed passing fair and very sweet of savour.”

To rest your eyes from Waterhouse, here is another version: Arthur Nowell, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1904

She sits and weeps over that pot of basil with mad devotion, adoringly wrapping her arms around it, as is she was enchanted or cursed like the Lady of Shalott. It arises suspicion in her brothers and one day they turn out the pot and find a head, not yet rotten, of Lorenzo. In fear that things might get revealed, they move to Naples and Lisbetta is once again separated from her lover, or this time, from his head. It is indeed a pity that they moved Lorenzo’s rotting head because it fertilised the soil in the pot and the basil grew ever so lush and fragrant. Every good gardener knows this is the secret to a healthy plant!

Lisbetta eventually dies from sadness: “The damsel, ceasing never from lamenting and still demanding her pot, died, weeping; and so her ill-fortuned love had end.”

Poor, poor Isabella! Waterhouse must have thought that too, when he chose to portray the scene of a sad tale of love first written by Boccaccio and later sang by Keats whose eloquence and melancholic disposition added the lyrical and sensuous dimension. Who knew better than Keats the ache of wanting so desperately something you cannot have? Did he not yearn for the sweet nectar of life, and was denied to taste the very drink? Having died so young from consumption, did he not feel on his own skin the transience of everything which hurts like knives piercing your chest, and therefore nurtured beauty in his verses. Her is what his beautiful poetic vision tells us of Isabella and Lorenzo falling in love:

“They could not in the self-same mansion dwell

Without some stir of heart, some malady;

They could not sit at meals but feel how well

It soothed each to be the other by;

They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep

But to each other dream, and nightly weep.

With every morn their love grew tenderer,

With every eve deeper and tenderer still…”

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was not a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but he, like many other artists, accepted their style and subject matter. He too dipped his paint brush into the paint of dreams, and painted scenes from mythology, Medieval romances, love and longing. Pre-Raphaelites drew inspiration from poetry and even though for Rossetti Dante was God, we could rightfully say that John Keats was placed on a pedestal. Out of all English poets of Romanticism, Keats was the most lyrical, the one who emphasised the greatness of beauty. This ideal brought him together with the Pre-Raphaelites. It is very likely that Waterhouse had Keats’s and not Boccaccio’s version of the story in mind when he painted this painting. A tale of sad love was perfect for a Pre-Raphaelite canvas; before Waterhouse, both Rossetti with his infatuations with Dante’s Beatrice and her death, and Millais’ with his paintings such as ‘A Huguenot’ tackled the subject.

Keats’s poem “Isabella” is absolutely beautiful, but these verses are perhaps my favourite and tell us about the growing love between Isabella and Lorenzo:

“Parting they seem’d to tread upon the air,

 Twin roses by the zephyr blown apart

Only to meet again more close, and share      

 The inward fragrance of each other’s heart.

She, to her chamber gone, a ditty fair

 Sang, of delicious love and honey’d dart…”

Keats’s verses and the Pre-Raphaelite canvases both possess sensuality in abundance: Keats’s rich, delicate yet passionate descriptions match perfectly with the vibrantly coloured, richly textured and emotionally charged paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Out of all the stories I’ve read from “Decameron” this one is my favourite because underneath the sad tale of love scenario, which always appeals my romantic whimsy, it has a strong dark and macabre mood. I mean, the girl weeps and adoringly gazes at the pot of basil, knowing that the head of her lover is buried in it. Can you imagine the head which used to belong to a beautiful man she loved slowly rotting in the pot, his hair mingling with the roots of basil… It’s eerie and kind of revolting, and I say this with a creepy smile on my face because it appeals to me at the same time. John Keats, on the other hand, focused on the sensuality of the story and its melancholy, veiling it in beauty: rose petals, zephyrs, soft lips and sad gazes, everything is ripe, warmth, fragrant, in bloom. And this is how he ends the poem:

“And so she pined, and so she died forlorn,

Imploring for her Basil to the last.

No heart was there in Florence but did mourn

In pity of her love, so overcast.

And a sad ditty of this story born

From mouth to mouth through all the country pass’d:

Still is the burthen sung—“O cruelty,

“To steal my Basil-pot away from me!”

So, happy birthday, John Keats!

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Book Review: Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas

21 Oct

I just finished reading a fascinating book: Reinaldo Arenas’s beautiful memoir Before Night Falls. Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), the self proclaimed “bad poet in love with the moon” (in Spanish: “Mal poeta enamorado de la luna”) was a gay Cuban poet, novelist and playwright who fled to the United States in 1980.

The sea; turquoise blue and whispering thousands of secrets in every wave that rhythmically kisses the soft and golden sand of the beach. Photo found here.

Reinaldo Arenas… When I whisper his name, I hear the murmur of the sea, and that ‘r’ melts on my tongue like pure golden honey… Arenas… And ‘arena’ means ‘sand’ in Spanish.

How did I came to know about Arenas? Well, it all started one warm crimson night in August when I first watched the film Before Night Falls (2000) based on his autobiography, starring Javier Bardem as Reinaldo. The film struck a chord with me; there was something poignant about the talented boy from the provincial area arriving to Havana to study agronomy, the boy who was at the same time naive and enraptured by the new and exciting possibilities that the big city offered. The sea, ahhh, the clear and warm sea in colours of turquoise and teal, the endless sandy beeches, and the vibrant architecture of Havana with colourful but decaying buildings with iron fences and palm trees everywhere…  And I’ll be honest, just gazing at Javier on the screen was nice too! I soon found myself daydreaming of Havana and I couldn’t get Reinaldo Arenas out of my head, so I read some of his poetry. His famous Auto-epitaph, written in New York in 1989, is just mind-blowing:

“A bad poet in love with the moon,

he counted terror as his only fortune :

and it was enough because, being no saint,

he knew that life is risk or abstinence,

that every great ambition is great insanity

and the most sordid horror has its charm.

He lived for life’s sake, which means seeing death

as a daily occurrence on which we wager

a splendid body or our entire lot.

He knew the best things are those we abandon

— precisely because we are leaving.

The everyday becomes hateful,

there s just one place to live – the impossible.

He knew imprisonment offenses

typical of human baseness ;

but was always escorted by a certain stoicism

that helped him walk the tightrope

or enjoy the morning’s glory,

and when he tottered, a window would appear

for him to jump toward infinity.

He wanted no ceremony, speech, mourning or cry,

no sandy mound where his skeleton be laid to rest

(not even after death did he wish to live in peace).

He ordered that his ashes be scattered at sea

where they would be in constant flow.

He hasn’t lost the habit of dreaming :

he hopes some adolescent will plunge into his waters.”

It’s hard to put in words what this poem meant to me in those warm afternoons of August I spent soaking in the golden rays of sun and daydreaming of the tropical sea, and what it still means to me. There is one line that’s particularly poignant to me and I dare say it’s almost burned in my mind: “Sólo hay un lugar para vivir – el imposible.” (There is just one place to live – the impossible.)

This painting by Hermenegildo Anglada Camarasa (1871–1959) has absolutely nothing to do with the book, but if I had to chose one painting to describe my feelings upon reading the book, this would be it: bloom, vibrancy and ecstasy!

It took me only a few pages to realise that the book I am holding in my hands is a very special book, so I read it slowly, savouring every page. Arenas’s writing is so flowing, brutally honest and poetic despite the grittiness of his life. If I had to describe the book in short, I would say: sea, sex, madness for living and writing, and fighting Fidel Castro’s regime. The book starts with memories of his childhood; he was brought up by a single-mother and lived with her large family. He described his mother as a very beautiful and a very lonely woman. Despite their material poverty, he, along with other children, discovered beauty all around them; in the morning fogs, in silent nights in the village, and especially in soil. He writes about an almost primordial connection to the soil; he ate soil as a child, his first crib was a hole in the ground dug by his grandmother, he made mud castles, and in the end the dead body would rot in the soil and become reborn as a flower, a tree or some other plant. Still, the thing that enraptured him the most was the sea which was a constant presence in his life. The sea, with its rhythmic play of waves and its blueness, spoke of freedom. This is what he says about the sea later in the book: “The sea was like a feast and forced us to be happy, even when we did not particularly want to be. Perhaps subconsciously we loved the sea as a way to escape from the land where we were repressed; perhaps in floating on the waves we escaped our cursed insularity.

Winslow Homer – A Garden in Nassau, 1885

Here are some quotes about his childhood fascination with the trees:

“I used to climb trees, and everything seemed much more beautiful from up there. I could embrace the world in completeness and feel a harmony that I could not experience down below.”

“Trees have a secret life that is only revealed to those willing to climb them. To climb a tree is to slowly discover a unique world, rhythmic, magical and harmonious, with its worms, insects, birds, and other living things, all apparently insignificant creatures, telling us their secrets.”

And here is one about his mother; the lingering sadness and disappointment of her life is so poignant:

“Before getting to my mother’s house, I would always think of her on the porch or even on the street, sweeping. She had a light way of sweeping, as if removing the dirt were not as important as moving the broom over the ground. Her way of sweeping was symbolic; so airy, so fragile, with a broom she tried to sweep away all the horrors, all the loneliness, all the misery that had accompanied her all her life…”

Colourful architecture of Havana. Photo found here.

At one point he moved from his little village to the city of Holguín, and in 1963 he won Fidel Castro’s scholarship and moved to Havana to study at the School of Planification. Later he studied literature and philosophy at the Unversidad de La Habana, but left the course without completing a degree. Ever since he first visited Havana, Arenas felt drawn to it, he felt it is the place to be: a big vibrant city where no one knows your name, a place far away from the poverty of the countryside. There he meets many interesting people: bohemians, painters, eccentrics and fellow writers such as Eliseo Diego and Lezama Lima. Arenas’s time spent in the sixties Havana was a vibrant and a happy period of his life, filled with sexual escapades, swimming, spending evenings at the famous cabaret Tropicana. There were three things he enjoyed in the early sixties: his typewriter, countless young men (fulfilling lust was a path to liberty because it was anti-regime), and the full discovery of the sea. Arenas wrote that sitting down and writing was a special experience and that the rhythm of his typing would inspire him and chapters would come like waves of the sea, first strong and wild then silent and slow. Many pages are devoted to descriptions of his writing and wild parties where everyone brought their notebooks, wrote poems or chapters of novels which they would then read to each other and, of course, made love. As Reinaldo said: literature and passion went hand in hand.

But things changed in the late sixties when Reinaldo’s openly gay lifestyle and his writing fell out of favour with the Communist regime. He had to hide his manuscripts and his novels were published abroad with the help of his French friends. In 1974 he was arrested and sent to prison. After he escaped from prison and tried to flee Cuba he was arrested again and sent to the notorious prison called El Morro Castle where he lived in gruesome circumstances. There’s a great scene in the film where in the middle of a dirty prison cell and loud inmates, Reinaldo is shown writing. Nothing could stop him from creating; hunger, imprisonment, illness. Creative expression was everything. While he was in prison he organised French lessons and helped his inmates by writing love letters to their girlfriends or wives. If you’re looking for self-pity, you won’t find it on any page of Before Night Falls.

Peder Severin Krøyer,Summer evening at the South Beach, 1893

Winslow Homer – Sponge Fishermen, Bahamas, 1885

And here is an explanation for the book’s title ‘Before Night Falls’ (original: Antes que anochezca: autobiografía):

‘Being a fugitive living in the woods at the time, I had to write before it got dark. Now darkness was approaching again, only more insidiously. It was the dark night of death. I really had to finish my memoirs before nightfall. I took it as a challenge.’

There is such a romanticism about Reinaldo’s life; the way he was never spiritless despite the hardships, imprisonments and betrayals of people he considered to be friends. It seems like nothing could really get him down, and he never wasted time but wrote, wrote and wrote. He lived for his writing, everything else came second, and despite his relatively short life his oeuvre proves his fruitfulness as an artist. Particularly interesting was to read about the creation of his novel “Farewell to the Sea” (Otra vez el mar). I honestly can’t even remember how many times he wrote that novel but every time the manuscript would get lost, stolen, burnt, you name it. And you know what he did? He started writing it again.

In 1987 Reinaldo was diagnosed with AIDS. On 7th December 1990 he died after an intentional overdose on alcohol and drugs. His decision to end his life instead of passively waiting for death is summed in this quote: “I have always considered it despicable to to grovel for your life as if life were a favor. If you cannot live the way you want, there is no point in living.”

In this photo you can see the man himself.

To close this ode to Reinaldo, here is another interesting thing, an interview from 1983 which you can read here. Here is a fragment from the beginning, the interviewer’s impression of Reinaldo: “Though I was nervous about meeting the great man, one of Cuba’s most admired writers, Arenas immediately put me at ease. “Encantado,” he said, smiling and taking my hand. Forty years old at the time, he had thick, curly black hair and enormous, sad eyes…”

I was especially interested to hear about his writing process and choosing different styles of writing for different scenes:

“If there’s a moment—as in my novel “Farewell to the Sea”—where you want to satirize all the uniforms, swords, and so forth of a dictator, you can do a caricature of the baroque. If you’re describing the characters’ nightmares, that may be the time for surrealism. All of these techniques or styles can come into play as you realize your vision. (…) But there’s a moment for every style. That’s why I advocate an eclectic technique.”

I loved this book because I felt as if I was on a journey with Arenas, through space and time. I loved it because of its wild and sincere yearning to live life to the fullest, to write and create and breathe and be excited by the sight of the sea for the thousandth time. In his last letter, Arenas wrote: “I end my life voluntarily because I cannot continue working … I do not want to convey to you a message of defeat but of continued struggle and of hope. Cuba will be free. I already am.

I see this book as a gift from Reinaldo, it gave me hope and assured me in my opinion that there is nothing more elevating than suffering and struggling for art.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning – I think of thee!–my thoughts do twine and bud

9 Aug

Here’s a beautiful poem by a Victorian poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning, part of her series of sonnets called “Sonnets from the Portuguese”. Composed during her secret courtship with a fellow poet Robert Browning, these poems witness their blooming love and weren’t originally intended to be published. All sonnets I’ve read are very beautiful, but this one captured my attention recently.

George Cochran Lambdin, Reverie – Sunset Musings, 1860

XXIX. I think of thee!–my thoughts do twine and bud

I think of thee!–my thoughts do twine and bud
About thee, as wild vines, about a tree,
Put out broad leaves, and soon there’s nought to see
Except the straggling green which hides the wood.
Yet, O my palm-tree, be it understood
I will not have my thoughts instead of thee
Who art dearer, better! Rather, instantly
Renew thy presence; as a strong tree should,
Rustle thy boughs and set thy trunk all bare,
And let these bands of greenery which insphere thee,
Drop heavily down,–burst, shattered everywhere!
Because, in this deep joy to see and hear thee
And breathe within thy shadow a new air,
I do not think of thee–I am too near thee,

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.

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)

Ode to Pushkin’s Tatyana, from ‘Eugene Onegin’

17 Apr

If you were given a chance to travel through time, and if you decided upon visiting the countryside Russia of the late 1820s, you might be lucky and, whilst walking through a peaceful forest enjoying the delight which a birdsong can bestow upon one’s ears, you might stumble upon a peculiar young lady who finds tranquillity in the woods and serenity by the lake; a solitary maiden whose friends are books, flowers and birds, and who feels more at home surrounded by tall soulful trees than in the candlelit salons full of people; a lady who is introverted and timid on the outside, but is full of warmth, passions and feelings on the inside; this creature delicate as a fawn is Tatyana Larina – Pushkin’s wonderful literary creation and the love interest of Eugene Onegin, the Byronic Hero of Russian literature.

Lidia Timoshenko (1903-1976), Tatyana and Onegin Years Later

“Eugene Onegin” is Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse, first published in 1833, although the current version is that of 1837. It is representative of Russian literature of Romanticism and Pushkin spent ten years writing this lyrical masterpiece which has been called by V.G. Belinsky as ‘the encyclopedia of Russian life’, and indeed it covers a broad scale of topics; pointlessness of life, love and passion, death, provincial life, superficiality of the upper classes, rigidity of etiquette, conventions and ennui. The main character is the ‘mad and bad’ or rather cynical and bored Eugene Onegin, a cold and world-weary nobleman who had, at the beginning of the novel, inherited an estate after his uncle’s death and arrives at the countryside. He is bored with his social life in St Petersburg, filled with superficial chatter, games, flirtations, balls and dinner parties; he finds this cycle tedious and repetitive and therefore hopes to find something fresh and interesting in the countryside. Onegin is exactly the kind of person who will shit all over things you love just because he feels no passion for living at all, and mock things you adore because he finds value in nothing.

He is a ‘superfluous man’, which is Pushkin’s literary creation based on the demonic Byronic hero. A Superfluous man is full of contradictions, he feels superior to his surroundings and yet he does nothing to use his potentials and talents but chooses to walk aimlessly through life, prone to self-destruction, haunted by a strong sense of the boredom of life. Lermontov’s character Pechorin in ‘A Hero of Our Time’ is another example of a superflous man and was directly inspired by Pushkin’s Onegin. May I add that in the film Onegin (1999), Onegin is played by the wonderful Ralph Fiennes and I think he played him perfectly, you can feel the cynicism and ennui in his voice. So, if you’re not inclined on reading the novel, you can spare two hours of your life and watch the film which happens to be on Youtube. In the film, Tatyana is played by the gorgeous Liv Tyler.

Caspar David Friedrich, Elbschiff in Early Morning Fog, 1821

Second character to be introduced in the novel is Vladimir Lensky; a hopeless romantic and an idealist, a proud and polite young man, carried away by the romantic spirit of the times, but his character, I feel, is adorned with more sentimentality than deep feelings, his poetry and his love for Olga are as shallow as a puddle after rain which dries with the first rays of sun, and he is so naive, but forgive him, he is only 18 years old! This is how the narrator (or Pushkin) describes him:

Vladimir Lensky, is the man

Handsome, young, a Kantian.

Whose soul was formed in Gottingen,

A friend of truth: a poet then.

From misty Germany he brought

The fruits of learning’s golden tree

His fervant dreams of liberty

Ardent and eccentric thought,

Eloquence to inspire the bolder,

And dark hair hanging to his shoulder.

And here’s a description of his poetry, I can’t help but being amused by Lensky. You should see him in the film, singing Schubert in the forest, giving his heart and soul to it, although the effect is pathetic and Onegin mocks him later on, saying that ‘Poor Schubert, his body barely in the grave and and his work is being butchered by amateurs’ and stating that Lensky is ‘desecrating Schubert’:

He sang of love, to love subjected,

Clear and serene his tune…

He sang of parting and of sorrows,

Misty climes, and vague tomorrows,

Of roses in some high romance;

Sang of all the far-off lands

Where on quiet desert strands,

His living tears obscured his glance;

At eighteen years he had the power,

To sing of life’s dry withered flower.

Mikhail Nesterov, Girls on the Banks of the River

Lensky is madly in love with Olga Larina, a charming and pretty younger sister of Tatyana. She is frivolous and coquettish, blonde and fair, with an ability to charm with her looks and singing, but inside she is empty, her feelings are superficial and calculated; her mad love seems fleeting for after Lensky died in a duel, it did not take her long to forget him and marry another man. She is like a porcelain doll; if you break her, you’ll find nothing inside.

Always humble, always truthful,

Always smiling as the dawn,

Like the poet’s life as simple,

Sweet as the kiss of love, that’s born

Of sky-blue eyes, a heavenly blue,

Flaxen hair, all gleaming, too,

Voice, manner, slender waist,

Such was Olga…you can paste

Her description here from any

Novel that you choose to read,

A charming portrait, yes, indeed,

One I adored, but now it bores me.

Reader, I’ll enhance the vista,

Let me describe her elder sister.

Fired by longing, circumstance,

In solitude her heart was burning,

Crushed by adolescent gloom,

Her soul was waiting…but for whom?

And now let’s finally talk about the elder sister, my dearest and sweetest Tatyana Larina, a character for whom I felt affection immediately, and re-read parts about her many times, and found I can relate. Wistful, melancholic and dreamy, forever lost in her thoughts, you will find her wandering the forest, picking flowers, or sitting by the window daydreaming while others are chatting and laughing, and a book is always in her hands. This is how Pushkin describes his heroine:

So, she is called Tatyana.

Not a beauty like her sister,

Lacking rosy cheeks, the manner,

To attract a passing lover.

Melancholy, wild, retiring,

Like a doe seen in a clearing,

Fleeing at the sign of danger,

To her family a stranger.

She never took to caressing

Her father, mother, not her way

To delight in childish play,

With the others, sweetly dancing.

But often to the window glued

She’d sit all day in solitude.

Alexander Brullov, Portrait of Pushkin’s wife Natalia, 1831

Tatyana was withdrawn and shy even as a child. When her sister Olga and other children played tag or sang, she would wander the meadows on her own, preferring the company of her thought to the loudness of the crowd. Unlike other girls, she had interest in dolls. Taking care of dolls was meant to prepare girls for their future roles of mothers, but Tatyana was a stranger to all childhood’s silliness and playfulness, and daydreams seem to fill her days from very early on:

Her dearest friend was reverie,

From the cradle, the slow stream

Of placid dull rusticity

Enriched by meditative dream.

Her tender fingers never held

A needle, never once excelled,

Her head above the silk inclined,

In working something she’d designed.

Now with greater concentration,

She reads the sweet romances,

Finds a deeper fascination,

In those soft seductive glances!…”

Instead, books and nature were her friends. I’ve known it from experience that a book can be a source of delight and inspiration more than a human being can, and a sight of flowers or a tree can fill one’s soul with more kindness than a common person can. And daydreams, I assure you, can fill you with as much feelings as real events can, but they never leave the bitter taste in your mind like cruel reality does. Tatyana knows that too! And literature, novels about romances in particular (just like those read by Emma Bovary) proved an amusement and a diversion for her already vivid imagination:

From the first she craved romances,
Her great delight, she loved them so,
Whatever chapter most entrances,
In Richardson or in Rousseau.

Naturally, soaked in those novels for days, Tatyana begins to see herself as a heroine and lives through the books for a person who reads lives not one but many lives. And when she closes the book, a reality check; a quiet birdsong, a soft breeze through the birch trees, smell of grass, distant murmur of a river, yes, she is still in the countryside, not in a Medieval castle in Switzerland or a beautiful mansion in England:

And sees herself the heroine

Of all the authors she admires,

Clarissa, Julie, or Delphine;

Wanders among forest choirs

With some dangerous volume roams,

Through its pages swiftly combs,

To find her passion, and her dream,

Her overflowing heart, love’s gleam.

She sighs and in herself possesses

Another’s joy, another’s sorrow…

Source: here. Could this be the way Onegin’s mansion looked from afar, in a frozen Russian fairytale landscape?

Pushkin even writes about the types of heroes Tatyana daydreams about. Never ever, underestimate the power a book can have a on a person who is lonely or has a wild imagination:

All the British Muse’s lumber

Now disturbs a young girl’s slumber,

Her idol, someone to admire,

Is the blood-sucking Vampire,

Melmoth, Maturin’s traveller,

The Corsair or the Wandering Jew,

Nodier’s Jean Sbogar too.

Lord Byron with a shrewd despair,

Displays a hopeless egotism

As saturnine romanticism.

Isaac Levitan, Autumn Landscape, 1880

Pushkin tells us that Tatyana finds refuge in long walks, seeking comfort in nature which soothes the torment of love:

Haunted by love’s pain, Tatyana,
Takes to the garden, walking
Eyes downcast, till her languor,
Prevents her from even moving.
Her breast heaves, her cheeks aflame,
Burning suddenly with shame,
The breath on her lips is glazed,
A roaring in her ears, eyes dazed…
Night falls, and the moon patrols
The vault of heaven. Near her room,
A nightingale, from woodland gloom
Its rich sonorous cadence rolls.
Tatyana, in the darkness lying,
To her nurse is softly sighing.

I am in love’ Tatyana sighs,
In a soft whisper, gives a moan.
‘Dear, you can’t be well,’ replies,
The nurse. ‘It’s love. Leave me alone.
Meanwhile, the sad moon dreams,
On the girl’s pale beauty gleams,
Shines above, its tranquil light….
And all the world lies still, below,
Bathed in the moon’s enchanted glow.

Speaking to no one, confiding in no one, only the moon and the nurse know her secrets. But Tatyana decides to act upon her dreams and confess her love in a letter. This is how it starts, the famous “Tatyana’s letter”:

I write to you – is more required?

How can I possibly explain?

It’s in your power, if desired,

To crush me with a cold disdain.

But if this longing you’ve inspired

Awakes the slightest sympathy,

I know you won’t abandon me…

Although she had barely talked to him, and he showed no particular interest or affection towards her, Tatyana found herself over night besotted by this strange, brooding aristocrat with a flair of St Petersburg around him. In his figure and the few words they’re exchanged, she saw all the heroes that she’d spent her short life fantasising about; “Werther – born to be a martyr”, Grandinson, Cottin’s Malek-Adhel, de Krudener’s de Linar, and the lover too of Rousseau’s Julie Womar:

“A single image as it were:

The foolish dreamer sees them whole

In Onegin’s form, and soul.

Gustave Leonarde de Jonghe, Girl With a Rose, 1878

It’s easy to understand why she felt about Onegin the way she did, if you think of her lonely and boring existence in the countryside, with a mother and a sister who neither understand her nor try to do so because they are of entirely different natures. Vain, selfish and coquettish Olga can never dream of experiencing the depth of Tatyana’s feelings, and likewise Tatyana can never even dream of indulging in light amusements and flirtations which seem to fill Olga’s days. Pushkin warns us that, while Olga’s love is more a fleeting coquetry, Tatyana loves with all seriousness:

Tatyana is no cool coquette,
She loves in all seriousness,
Yields to it like a child, as yet
Full of innocence and sweetness.

Up to meeting Onegin, Tatyana has spent her life wandering around, reading about romances and exciting adventures, yet never experiencing anything of the sort, and now, all of a sudden, a stranger comes to their lonely countryside and stirs her soul. She thinks of him day and night, and finds no rest until, in the letter, she writes everything that lies on her soul. All that her shyness has prevented her mouth from saying, the hand dared to write, scrawling with black ink on paper, under moonlight, offering her life to a man she barely knows, and seals it with wax before sending it.

But her passionate outburst of feelings was welcomed with coldness from the other side. When they meet at the party, she anxiously awaits him in the garden, and he – oh, that dreadful Onegin! – he disdainfully returns the letter to her, advising her to restrain her feelings in the future, to shun her affections and act with reserve and coldness because another man, one not as ‘kind-hearted’ as he was, would surely take advantage of her naivety and innocence. Onegin mercilessly ‘with a cold disdain’ crushed the feelings of this delicate wild flower. When I was reading this, I thought: What a brave thing to do, what a straightforward gesture, especially for a woman of her time, and what a hard thing it must be to write someone a love letter, but after reading about Onegin’s cruel respond, I’ve learnt that it is unwise, and maybe reason should, in this case, prevail over sensibility. Jane Austen seemed to think that too because her heroine Marianne Dashwood was in a way punished for her sensibility.

Why Tatyana fell in love with Onegin is a mystery to me, I find him fascinating as a literary character but he is nowhere near the romantic heroes she’s read about. I suppose she must have felt that underneath that cold, cynical exterior there must lie a heart full of feelings and that she might awaken them, but she was wrong because Onegin is selfish to the core and is not even capable of love. Her daydreams and inexperience seem to have made her a poor judge of character. This is how Onegin felt upon receiving the letter:

Yet now, receiving Tanya’s note,
Onegin’s heart was deeply moved;
The tender style in which she wrote,
The simple girlish way she loved.
Her face possessed his memory,
Her pallor, and her melancholy,
He plunged, head first, into the stream,
A harmless, and delightful dream.
Perhaps the ancient flame of passion,
Thrilled him in its former way,
Though he’d no wish to betray
A soul so trusting, in that fashion...

Oton Iveković, Landscape, 1901

This is part of what Onegin tells Tatyana as reasons why they could never be happy together:

‘I was not born for happiness,
All such is alien to my mind;
Of your perfection too, no less
Am I unworthy, you would find.
Believe me (conscience is my guide)
Wed, the fire would soon have died;
However I wished to prove true,
Habit would cool my love for you.
Then you would weep, yet your tears,
Your grief, would never move my heart,
But madden me, spur me to depart.
What thorns, not roses, through the years
Would Hymen strew along our way,
Many a night, and many a day?

Onegin was actually very kind towards her, because I don’t think she could truly be happy with a man like that.

Pushkin takes a moment to ponder on who is to be blamed for this unfortunate misunderstanding:

Why then consider Tanya guilty?
Because her simplicity, it seems,
Is ignorant of deceit, and still she
Believes completely in her dreams?
Or because her love lacks art,
Follows the promptings of her heart?
Because she’s trusting, and honest
And by Heaven has been blessed,
With profound imagination,
A fiery will, a lively mind,
A soul for passion’s fires designed,
A spirit tuned to all creation?
Surely, then, you can forgive,
A fierce desire to love and live?

Clock is ticking; cold, bitter and lonely Russian winters are passing, and Tatyana is on her way to become an old maid. She still has feelings for Onegin, maybe secretly hopes that he might change his mind and come back to her, but Onegin isn’t coming back and the pressure of her mother is becoming too much:

Tatyana’s bloom is all but gone,
She, more pallid, and more silent!
Nothing can provide distraction,
Or stir her soul, no incitement.
Whispering solemnly together,
Neighbours shook their heads, forever
Sighing: ‘It’s high time she was wed!’…
Enough. It’s high time that instead,
I painted over this sad scene,
And portrayed love’s happiness,
Though, dear Reader, I confess
I’m overcome, by pity I mean;
Forgive me: I’ve loved from the start
My Tatyana, with all my heart.

And so Tatyana was married to another man, a general. She doesn’t love him but tolerates him. Years pass, Pushkin brings the reader on a journey from the countryside to the glamour of St Petersburg. We are at a ball; musicians are playing a charming tune, candles are flickering, couples are dancing… Onegin is there too; equally bored and cynical as he was years ago, but something or someone captures his attention; a beautiful woman, in the film shown wearing a gorgeous red gown. The woman carries an air of dignity and seriousness around her – it is Tatyana, now grown into a wise, mature, confident woman, who stands gracefully by her husband’s side. Onegin is mad with passion, he writes her letters full of declarations of his love and adorations, but she doesn’t respond: she is a married woman after all, and a faithful one too. He takes a certain perverse delight in reawakening the strong feelings that she had, not with ease, managed to tame and lull to sleep. When he happens to steal a moment of privacy with her, he proposes that they elope together and fulfil their love, but now she is the winner in this chess game of love, she tells him it is too late for their love, that he had his chance and now she will remain faithful to her husband. It is a poignant scene in the film, as she tells him through tears that she waited for him but he is too late. Onegin just doesn’t get it because nothing matters to him; he wants her because he can’t have her.

In the end, Tatyana is left as a lonely, unhappy woman in a sad, but tolerable marriage, and Onegin, having killed Lensky in a duel early on, and crushing Tatyana’s affections years ago, is left completely alone, and that is his ultimate punishment. The acts of killing Lensky, that innocent, dreamy idealist, and rejecting Tatyana’s love, Onegin symbolically ‘kills’ the innocence that crossed his life path. And Tatyana is suppose to represent the wideness of the Russian soul and was seen as a symbol of an ideal woman. She also embodies Gogol’s concept of a ‘Slavic soul’: a melancholic soul of a dreamer and thinker, a mysterious and sad soul. A sense of darkness, sadness and tragedy hovers over most of Slavic literature like a rainy cloud. It is immensely interesting to me that in both novels; Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Lermontov’s The Hero of Our Time a duel takes place and the superfluous man wins while the romantic idealist dies, but in reality both Pushkin and Lermontov died in duels. Wicked destiny!

I first read Eugene Onegin exactly three Aprils ago, but I remember it vividly as if it was yesterday; those three or four magical nights when I flipped through the pages, relishing in the lyricism and musicality of the verses, loving the character of Tatyana and being highly amused by Onegin’s cynicism and his conduct with Lensky. In my little room, under the warm, yellow light of the lamp, in the flowery and exuberant nights of spring, a whole new world and sensibility came to life. Although I’ve enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second half, because the story gets really sad and full of hopelessness after Onegin rejects her, I must say that it still remains one of my favourite books.