Tag Archives: Sadness

Edna St. Vincent Millay: Summer Sang In Me a Little While, That In Me Sings No More

9 Sep

One of my favourite poems these days is “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why” by the American poetess Edna St. Vincent Millay, originally published in November 1920. In this poem Millay looks back at all the “lips her lips have kissed” and she tries to remember where and why those kisses have occured. She compares the beating of the rain against the window to the ghosts of her memories, or ghosts of her dead (failed) love relationships, haunting her. In her heart “there stirs a quiet pain” when she realises that she cannot remember the names or the faces of the “lads” who will not shout out for her at night. The loves, just like summer, were vibrant but transitory and fragile, and unlike summer will not return next year. I feel like this is a moment of sobering up. After being drunk on life and drunk on love, she is alone and in a wistful, reflective mood, the rain outside her only companion. Now, summer has passed, love has passed, and she compares herself to a lonely tree in winter which used to be full of birds chirping and is now solitary, with no leaves or birdnests, utterly forgotten… Where does love go when it goes away? Were the kisses, now nought but pale memories, worth it in the end?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, 1854, watercolour

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Charles Burchfield – In a Deserted House and Bruce Springsteen’s Downbound Train

7 Jun

In the moonlight, our wedding house shone
I rushed through the yard
I burst through the front door, my head pounding hard
Up the stairs, I climbed
The room was dark, our bed was empty
Then I heard that long whistle whine
And I dropped to my knees, hung my head, and cried…”

Charles Burchfield, In a Deserted House, ca. 1918-1939

I find myself listening to Bruce Springsteen’s song “Downbound Train” a lot these days. It was in June five years ago that I first discovered it and it also happens the song was released on the 4 June 1984, so with all these little “anniversaries”, I thought it would be nice to write a little tribute to it, in a way. What instantly attracted me to the song was its sad tune and Springsteen’s wailing voice while he is singing about a love that is lost… The song’s opening lines instantly struck a chord with me: “I had a job, I had a girl/ I had something going, mister, in this world/ I got laid off down at the lumber yard/ Our love went bad, times got hard” because they express contrast of good times versus bad times; he had something good and now it’s gone. The protagonist, having lost his job and then a woman he loved, also lost a sense of security and stability. The dream is gone and now there’s a dark, rainy cloud that seems to follow him everywhere. Now he single; alone and lonely, working at miserable jobs where it always seems to rain.

After reading the lyrics, carefully, as if they were a poem, I was struck by this little tale of misery. It almost feels like a short story and not a song because it tells a tale, as Springsteen’s songs often do. The song’s protagonist, a lonely working class guy, is telling us a story of his life and its troubles from the first person; he was working at the lumber yard, then at the car wash and in the end of the song he’s “swinging a sledgehammer on the railroad”. This day to day realism is interwoven with his longing for the woman who one day “packed her bags”, bought a train ticket and left him behind. The culmination of the poem is a wonderful, nocturnal, moonlit scene where the guy hear the voice of a woman he loves calling out to him and he returns to the scene of their marital bliss, a house which is now empty and sad; “the room was dark, her bed was empty” and then he drops to his knees and cries, and later we find out he is working at the railroad now, the very same railroad where the train passed by; the train that his wife took to leave him behind.

“I had a job, I had a girl
I had something going, mister, in this world
I got laid off down at the lumber yard
Our love went bad, times got hard
Now I work down at the car wash
Where all it ever does is rain
Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?
She just said, “Joe, I gotta go
We had it once, we ain’t got it anymore”
She packed her bags, left me behind
She bought a ticket on the Central Line
Nights as I sleep, I hear that whistle whining
I feel her kiss in the misty rain
And I feel like I’m a rider on a downbound train
Last night I heard your voice
You were crying, crying, you were so alone
You said your love had never died
You were waiting for me at home
Put on my jacket, I ran through the woods
I ran ’til I thought my chest would explode
There in a clearing, beyond the highway
In the moonlight, our wedding house shone
I rushed through the yard
I burst through the front door, my head pounding hard
Up the stairs, I climbed
The room was dark, our bed was empty
Then I heard that long whistle whine
And I dropped to my knees, hung my head, and cried
Now I swing a sledgehammer on a railroad gang
Knocking down them cross ties, working in the rain
Now, don’t it feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?”
*

This scene made me think of Charles Burchfield’s delightful watercolours of houses and abandoned places such as the room in the watercolour above “In a Deserted House”. The grey colour scheme of the watercolour gives it a gloomy, lonely mood that is further expressed in the details such as the tattered wallpapers, torn at parts, a cold fireplace; there’s no one to sit there and enjoy the fire. Now only a cold breeze visits the house and passes through it as a ghostly breath of the past. In the song there is a reference to the bed which isn’t painted in the watercolour but I feel like the mood of the watercolour matches the mood of the scene. Burchfield’s paintings are described as the “catalogue of tattered dreams: abandoned towns with their false-fronted ramshackle facades, sitting on the edge of vast prairies, decrepit Victorian rowhouses, resembling tooth-less old women, the barren wastes left by industries once robust.” (American Encounters: Art, History and Cultural Identity) Abandonment and decay, a poetic sadness, are some things that linger through Burchfield’s artworks, mostly watercolours, and I feel the same vibe from some of Springsteen’s songs such as the “Downbound Train”, “The River” or “The Stolen Car”. Watercolour “In a Deserted House” and the song “Downbound Train” both deal with the motif of what-could-have-been; the house now empty, desolate and cold could have been warm with sunlight, laughter and a fireplace, just as the dark room in the wedding house in the song could have been a place of happiness and love. Both express a sense of something lost, something gone that cannot be recaptured.

I believe every promise I hear. I’ve never achieved anything. I’ve never been useful or precious to anyone…

3 Jun

Part of Adele’s monologue from the film “The Girl on the Bridge” (1999) starring Vanessa Paradis as Adele.

Natalia Vodianova as Jean Shrimpton, The Great Pretender, Vogue US, May 2009 by Steven Meisel

“Some people are born to be happy.
I get conned every day of my life.
I believe every promise I hear.
I’ve never achieved anything.
I’ve never been useful
or precious to anyone, or happy,
or even really unhappy.
I guess you’re unhappy
when you lose something
but I’ve never had anything
except bad luck.
How do you see your future, Adele?
I don’t know.
When I was little,
all I wanted to do was grow up.
As fast as I could.
But I can’t see the point of it all.
Not anymore.
Getting older.
I see my future like a waiting room
in a big train station,
with benches and drafts.
Outside, hordes of people run by
without seeing me.
They’re all in a rush,
taking trains and cabs…
They have somewhere to go,
someone to meet…
And I sit there, waiting.
Waiting for what, Adele?
For something to happen to me.”

Alexander Pushkin: All that is left is apathy and grief…

17 Nov

Julia Margaret Cameron, Sadness, 1864

Don’t Ask Me Why

Don’t ask me why, alone in dismal thought,
In times of mirth, I’m often filled with strife,
And why my weary stare is so distraught,
And why I don’t enjoy the dream of life;

Don’t ask me why my happiness has perished,
Why I don’t love the love that pleased me then,
No longer can I call someone my cherished–
Who once felt love will never love again;

Who once felt bliss, no more will feel its essence,
A moment’s happiness is all that we receive:
From youth, prosperity and joyful pleasantry,
All that is left is apathy and grief…

Vincent van Gogh – Die in the Summertime

29 Jul

“Every time I stare into the sun
Trying to find a reason to go on
All I ever get is burned and blind…”

(Chris Cornell, Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart)

Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, July 1890

Exhausting heat of summerr day. Golden wheat against the electric blue sky. A crooked, brown path through the wheat that leads to nowhere. Crows flying aimlessy, low above the wheat field – without direction, without control. Their hoarse cawing disturbs the otherwise heavy silence in the field. No trace of wind. The sky is turning a darker shade of blue with each passing moment. This is not the tender, soft baby blue sky from a Monet painting. This is not a tame wheatfield. These wild, energetic, passionate brushstrokes are not for the faint of heart. Thick, quick, short strokes are a work of an artistic maniac who is led by emotions that arose from a soul as troubled and dark and deep as a waterwell. Dark clouds are pressing down down to the ground and it all feels dense and claustrophobic.

This very dramatic painting was painted on the 10th July 1890, and is, unfortunately, not the last painting Vincent van Gogh painted, although it is one of his best and one of his most emotionally raw. Vincent died on the 29th July 1890 and there is a tendency to see this painting as Vincent’s suicide note because of the obvious ominous, disturbed mood, and while I agree with that I think it also shows the very thing that Vincent strove to capture on his painting; all the life, energy and vibrancy that was inside him, despite the depression, in his own words: “What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. (…) Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners…”

This brooding wheatfield was a visual expression of a huge stream of feelings swelling up inside the artist; the feeling of enormous, incurable loneliness and immense sadness. It might be unusual to use yellow to portray sadness, but this is not the cheerful, harmless yellow we might find in a painting by Fragonard. The ripeness of the field may also symbolise the ripeness of the artist’s life and after ripeness comes either death or decay. The crows add to the ominous feeling of dread and the arrival of death, or the end. As is typical for the paintings he made in the summer of 1890, he used a double-canvas and this horizontally elongated canvas helps in creating the dramatic mood because the sky is pressing down to the field whereas in a vertically elongated painting the sky would have much more space to breathe and shine. It is also important to note that the unusual long form of a painting was typical for the Japanese Ukiyo-e prints which Vincent loved, admired and took inspiration from. This form was just one of the many ways in which he experimented with his art and used the Japanese influence. The final days of Vincent’s life were days of extreme sadness and extreme creativity and this painting, although not his last one, is the explosion of this creativity.

The title of the post comes from the Manic Street Preachers’ song “Die in the Summertime” from their third album “The Holy Bible” (1994):

“Scratch my leg with a rusty nail, sadly it heals
Colour my hair but the dye grows out
I can’t seem to stay a fixed ideal
Childhood pictures redeem, clean and so serene
See myself without ruining lines
Whole days throwing sticks into streams
I have crawled so far sideways
I recognise dim traces of creation
I want to die, die in the summertime, I want to die”

Different Faces of Autumn; Groovy Landscapes and Wistful Faces

13 Oct

I love autumn for its richness, warm colours, falling leaves and its mystery, at the same time I loathe it because it’s the doorway to months of quiet, grey dreariness and winter’s misery. Whether you love autumn or hate it, I feel that no other season of the year has the power to touch us in such a peculiar and poignant way. Anguish of transience weighs on my soul as I gaze at the leaves falling down and the trees becoming more bare as each day passes. There’s something final about it, a sense of ending… No other season has such bittersweet duality; golden afternoons and dark overcast days, leaves rustling under foot and morbid silence of a hard, dry soil; the last ecstasy of colours and sights, and the most dreary sense of an end.

George Bellows, Romance of Autumn, 1916

George Bellows is mostly remembered in relation to the Ashcan group of artists and he was known for portraying the grim reality of the big city, but his painting “Romance of Autumn” is intensely vibrant and groovy and brings out this whimsical, warm side of autumn. The painting shows a woman in white and a man in blue climbing over the rocks and in front of their eyes a magical landscape painted int the most exquisite, intense, uplifting, electrifying magical colours; purples, electric blue, pink, orange and blue. Each colours shines and smiles as in a dream. The gesture of the girl holding the man’s hand seems symbolic; she is helping him climb up the rocks and see for himself the fantastical landscape that she is seeing, she is inviting him to step into the autumnal fantasy with her. This is the dream, this is the autumn seen through rose-tinted glasses.

O. Louis Guglielmi, Connecticut Autumn, 1937

Guglielmi was born in Cairo, spent his early childhood in Milano and Geneva, and in 1914 destiny took his over the ocean. His painting “Connecticut Autumn”, painted in the depressing decade of 1930s, shows a very different face of autumn; the face of desolation, decay and poverty. Despite of their warm orange and yellow colours, the buildings beside the road look desolate and abandoned. The whole scene reeks of alienation, as if no human foot had stepped there for a long time. Unused blocks of marble lie around idly, useless and forgotten just like the town itself. No one needs monuments any more, nothing to celebrate and glorify. The figure of the angel is the only figure out of all the marble blocks. The thin trees in the distant edges of the painting look dead and unreal, and the young boy is the only living thing in this desolate landscape. His childhood innocence and naivety are a shield from reality. Decay and depression of his surroundings cannot touch him. He is flying his kite under the mournful gaze of the forgotten marble angel. But again the hope and optimism are crushed, for his kite gets tangled in the power lines. The sky is darkening and the angel is motionless and silent.

Marco Calderini (Italian, 1850-1941), Gardens of the Palazzo Reale, Turin, c. 1890-1910

This painting by an Italian painter Marco Calderini quite realistically portrays the loneliness of parks in autumn; when rains descend, the trees are bare, the skies are grey, and you can’t even sit on a bench because it’s wet so you linger around the desolate park, like a ghost, circling the statues and avoiding the puddles, and you cannot help but fantasise of the days, not so long ago, when the grass was green, the flowers bloomed and golden sunlight was coming through the lush tree tops. You cannot help but think of mortality and transience when you see that the trees are wet, dark and bare and the air is cold as the grave. Born, lived and died in Turin, Calderini’s oeuvre is filled with romanticised landscapes with poetic moods. Painting “Gardens of the Palazzo Real” is at once realistic and poetic. This is exactly how parks and gardens look like after autumn rains, and yet no one can deny the romantic wistfulness and loneliness that the scene shows.

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Autumn Regrets, 1882

John Atkinson Grimshaw was a master of portraying cold, lonely autumn streets where golden light of the street lamps falls on the damp pavements, wetness and mists. The painting “Autumn Regrets” perfectly portrays the wistfulness of autumn and that “what’s done is done” feeling. The woman is sitting on a bench, she is dressed in black and both her clothes and her pose speak of her deep thoughts and regrets. All around her the soil is being transformed into a golden-orange carpet of chestnut leaves. The wind seems to be whispering “This is the end, beautiful friend…” Regrets flood our hearts and minds so easily in autumn; we could have done more, and we could have done things better, or at least differently. But what is done is done, now the flowers bloom no more and every new leaf which falls from the tree is like a confirmation of the ending. Autumn has a way of getting under our skin, whether we like it or not. Autumn is a feeling, a state to be in, not just one of four seasons. And to end:

This is the autumn: it — just breaks your heart!
Fly away! fly away! —
The sun crawls along the mountain
And rises and rises
And rests with every step.
How the world became so withered!
Upon worn, strained threads
The wind plays its song.
Hope fled…

(Nietzsche, In the German November, 1884)

Karl Nordström – Field of Oats

29 Aug

“Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

(Shakespeare, Sonnet 18)

Karl Nordström, Field of Oats at Grez-sur-Loing, 1885

Something about this landscape by a Swedish Impressionist painter speaks to my soul. A field of oats is a seemingly simple, almost humble motif, but this landscape has a poetic and gentle beauty which speaks of deeper feelings. I love the vastness of the field, painted in soft shades of green and yellow, and the way nearly the entire canvas is the field itself; it makes me feel as if I am a part of the oat field, in their embrace. Nordström beautifully captures the oats that have soaked in all the summer sun and are now ripe and ready to be harvested. Touches of vibrant blue and red add a playful touch to the gentle greenness. It is pleasant to think of blue cornflowers and crimson poppies growing among the oats and enjoying the sunny, carefree, summer days. Larks are flying in the upper right corner and a small figure of a reaper with his scythe appears to be harvesting the oats; how tiny he is compared to the vastness of the field and nature.

Nordström painted this oat field in a commune Grez-sur-Loing in north-central France which was a popular hot spot fir many artists at the time; Nordström met his wife Tekla Lindeström, who was an engraver, there and a fellow Swedish Carl Larsson also met his future wife there. Even though this painting precedes Vincent van Gogh’s painting “The Sower” (1888) by three years, I see it as a sort of closer to Van Gogh’s painting where a farmer, with a rising bright and shining yellow sun in the background, is planting the seeds and in this painting they are ripe and ready to be harvested. In Nordström’s painting, the farmer’s scythe is almost symbolic of death, for the summer is nearing its end and very soon the very fields where the oats grew and danced in the wind will be nothing but a vast muddy nothingness, only a few broken stems will rise from the autumnal mists. These days my thoughts are tinged with sadness; one more summer is passing and I know that once gone, it will seem like a distant dream. I know that, in winter dreariness, I shall scarcely be able to imagine the sun’s warm touch on my skin. I feel like I spend a thousand years waiting, yearning, craving summer, only to enjoy it for a second until it quickly vanishes. Persephone must feel the same way, sighing longingly, as she descends again to the darkness of the underworld…

William Quiller Orchardson – Le mariage de convenance

22 Jun

“Mariage de Convenance” and “The First Cloud” are two out of three painting that William Quiller Orchardson painted on the subject of an unhappy marriage.

Sir William Quiller Orchardson, Mariage de Convenance, 1884

A quiet family drama is taking place in these sumptuous Victorian interiors. Nothing is as it seems in the posh circles of the two-faced Victorian society. Secrets are hidden behind the red-brick facades, glass windows and thick crimson red damask curtains. A rich and disillusioned old husband is sitting at the head of the table in an elegant dining room. His bored and miserable young wife is sitting across the table. While the servant is serving the husband, the wife seems uninterested in the dinner. Her pose makes her seem wistful and emotionally distant and her thoughts are far away from the content of that fancy porcelain plate. The table is filled with food and drink, she is dressed in the latest fashion, her husband is clearly wealthy and she could have anything her hearts desires, but she is not happy. No laughter or chatter colour the evening, no smiles or traces of intimacy. Boredom is hanging like a cloud over their dining room table and neither of the two know how to connect with the other.

The allegorical cloud I just mentioned shows up in the title of the next painting, “The First Cloud”, painted in 1887. Once again we see the perfectly elegant and sumptuous Victorian interior with two elegant figures; the husband and his young wife. But the evening must be a miserable one indeed, for they are as distant emotionally as they are on the canvas. He is standing on the carpet by the fireplace, gazing out longingly at her, as if he is hopeful for some kind of connection, a glance from her pretty eyes, a sweet word or two. But the lady in an elegant evening gown isn’t the least bit interested in him; she is standing by the window and looking out, at the world, at the bustle of the streets, at the passing carriages, for everything is more interesting than day to day life with her husband. Her silhouette in that pale pink gown looks graceful, but instead of a sensual mood she seems cold. The fancy chambers feel like silk cages and a captive bird does not sing.

It’s hard not to sense a certain tension and unease between the pair. The dull palette of beige, rusty red and brown colours seems to mirror the dullness of their lives, and the vastness of their elegantly decorated rooms and the empty space between them is purposefully here to accentuate the loneliness and distrust that has grown and is growing between them. Orchardson used his friend, a fellow artist, Tom Graham, for the figure of the man. Orchardson painted many scenes set in Regency era and some previous eras, but the canvases on which he depicted his own time have proved to be his most popular works because they reflect the spirit of the times and the contrast between the outward appearance of things and the true essence; loveless marriages and unhappiness behind a facade of wealth.

Sir William Quiller Orchardson, The First Cloud, 1887

Henry Kirke White – The Dance Of The Consumptives

26 May

Today I wanted to share some a beautiful and eerie fragment of an unfinished drama called “The Dance of the Consumptives” written by a rather obscure English poet Henry Kirke White (1785-1806) said to have been written n his earlier phase though I am not sure how old he would have been exactly because he died so young as it is. You can read the whole text of this eccentric unfinished drama here.

Henri Le Sidaner, Ronde des jeunes filles, crayon graphite, 1897

These lines specifically have been haunting me for some time now, but now, at last, the perfect imagery came to my mind. The drama is about death arriving dressed as consumption to flush a young girl’s cheek and take her away to the other world. Dancing young girls in drawings of the French painter Henri Le Sidaner perfectly fit the mood of the drama. With their pale attire and fluid, ghostly forms they almost looks like ghostly maidens who fell prey to the consumption and have now arrived to welcome a new soul into their eerie, ghostly circle dance:

In the dismal night air dress’d,
I will creep into her breast:
Flush her cheek, and bleach her skin,
And feed on the vital fire within.
Lover, do not trust her eyes,—
When they sparkle most, she dies!
Mother, do not trust her breath,—
Comfort she will breathe in death!
Father, do not strive to save her,—
She is mine, and I must have her!
The coffin must be her bridal bed!
The winding-sheet must wrap her head;
The whispering winds must o’er her sigh,
For soon in the grave the maid must lie:
The worm it will riot
On heavenly diet,
When death has deflower’d her eye.

Henri Le Sidaner, La Ronde, c 1900

Marie Laurencin: More Than Dead – Forgotten

16 May

Last week I wrote about the wonderful French painter Marie Laurencin and her paintings of wistful, dreamy girls in soft pastel colours. Today I thought I’d share a poem that Laurencin wrote in 1917 and it’s called “La Calmant”, translated in English as “The Sedative”. To go with the melancholy verses I chose Laurencin’s painting of a girl called Valentine. I love her face expression, the way she placed her head on her hand, and again, those gentle, pastel shades of pink, lavender and yellow typical for Laurencin’s artworks.

Marie Laurencin, Valentine, 1924

The Sedative (La Calmant):

More than annoyed
Sad.

More than sad
Unhappy.

More than unhappy
Suffering.

More than suffering
Abandoned.

More than abandoned
Alone in the world.

More than alone
Exiled.

More than exiled
Dead.

More than dead
Forgotten.