Swinburne, Cheese Fritters, and Movies
Hello, and welcome to another exciting installment of The View From Atherton Court! In this series, I do things I am vaguely uncomfortable with (like talking about myself on the Internet, almost as if this were an actual blog or something), because I am feeling chatty, what with all this social isolation stuff and all. Not that I am really very socially isolated; as I imagine is the case with many others, I have noticed that I am in closer touch with many of my friends now than I’ve been in years. Just, you know, digitally.
But anyway! Today I am going to babble briefly about Swinburne, then cheese fritters, then movies I’ve watched lately. There will be no pie update, because we’ve been taking a bit of a break from the all-pie diet.
Let’s get this digital party started.
Swinburne’s Greatest Hits
…is… could Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) actually be my favorite poet? It is possible. He really might be. Yes. I am going to go with yes. A.C. Swinburne is my favorite poet. You know, saying that, I feel much better? It doesn’t sound nearly so bad, now it’s out in the open. Wow. Right. This talk-therapy stuff really works, if you give it a chance. Swinburne. Favorite poet. Ha-ha!
I first encountered Swinburne in Appleby’s End, by Michael Innes, which is possibly my favorite mystery novel. A character quotes as follows (from Atalanta in Calydon):
|Time, with a gift of tears;|
|Grief, with a glass that ran;|
|Pleasure, with pain for leaven;||5|
|Summer, with flowers that fell;|
|Remembrance fallen from heaven,|
|And madness risen from hell;|
And I thought that was pretty neat. This eventually led to my looking into the subject of whether I might find other bits of Swinburne to be equally neat. I discovered that I did, in fact, like several of his poems. And Alec and I have been on a bit of a Swinburne binge this week, so I thought I’d share some of my favorite Swinburne poems with you. They are in no particular order. A lot of Swinburne’s poetry benefits from being read aloud, so you could try that.
By the way, I am approaching this subject from the perspective of a fan, not a scholar.
The Garden of Proserpine
I love this poem, and it does not particularly depress me. That said, it is a poem in praise of oblivion, so you might want to skip this entry if that sounds sort of unbearably blah.
Here are a couple of excerpts:
I am tired of tears and laughter,
And men that laugh and weep;
Of what may come hereafter
For men that sow to reap:
I am weary of days and hours,
Blown buds of barren flowers,
Desires and dreams and powers
And everything but sleep.
And, much later in the poem, we get this bit:
From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
Now, I’d heard that bit about “even the weariest river/Winds somewhere safe to sea” before, because it gets quoted rather a lot. I wonder, indeed, if Swinburne himself is quoting some yet earlier source here. It is, as always, totally possible. So anyway, I’d heard that bit before. I had no idea, however, that such a seemingly comforting sentiment came from this poem, which offers only the bitterest of comforts.
And now, a couple of interesting links.
Link the First: you can hear this poem set to what I will inexpertly call punk rock music, by clicking here.
Link the Second: Alec has recently discovered that you can kind of sing this poem to the tune of Stand to Your Glasses Steady, at least as recorded here.
By the way, Stand to Your Glasses Steady is an amazing song, soaked in historical significance. It was much sung by soldiers in WWI, for reasons that will probably be pretty evident to you if you give it a listen. Again, like The Garden of Proserpine, Stand to Your Glasses Steady can be either depressing or uplifting, depending on how it strikes you. So, if you’re in the mood for unmixed levity, I wouldn’t listen to it at the moment. Save it for later. Anyway, it is a beautiful song, and one that Alec and I sing a lot, at Atherton Court. In fact, Alec is in the shower, and I can hear him humming it now.
On a lighter note: Alec is often discovering that you can sing x to the tune of y. His best discovery in this line so far is that you can sing the Gilligan’s Island song to the tune of Amazing Grace, and vice versa. Try it.
The Higher Pantheism in a Nutshell
One, who is not, we see: but one, whom we see not, is:
Surely this is not that: but that is assuredly this.
What, and wherefore, and whence? for under is over and under:
If thunder could be without lightning, lightning could be without thunder.
Doubt is faith in the main: but faith, on the whole, is doubt:
We cannot believe by proof: but could we believe without?
The whole poem is, I think, a parody of learned argument. It is fun, and has a couple of really first-class bits of imagery, which seem to glow all the more vividly out of the rather dry linguistic setting of the language of learned argument, which is the language of most of the poem. And it closes as follows:
God, whom we see not, is: and God, who is not, we see:
Fiddle, we know, is diddle: and diddle, we take it, is dee.
Ah, Nephelidia. I urge you to read this one aloud. Indeed, I challenge you to try to read it aloud. It is quite a tongue-twisting piece of delightful nonsense. I first encountered this one in a collection of parodies, and that book, at least, asserted that this was Swinburne’s self-parody. And, I mean, that has almost got to be true, because it takes everything about Swinburne’s poetry—the sense of rhythm, the sense of word sounds, the melancholy and vaguely sexual themes—and dials them up to eleven, with the meaning removed.
Here is a sample:
…Gaunt as the ghastliest of glimpses that gleam through the gloom of the gloaming when ghosts go aghast?
Nay, for the nick of the tick of the time is a tremulous touch on the temples of terror,
Strained as the sinews yet strenuous with strife of the dead who is dumb as the dust-heaps of death:
Surely no soul is it, sweet as the spasm of erotic emotional exquisite error,
Bathed in the balms of beatified bliss, beatific itself by beatitude’s breath.
This one has such a zip to it, when you read it aloud. I will give you my three favorite stanzas. Two of them occur together; the third one occurs later on, and closes the poem.
|If you were life, my darling,|
|And I your love were death,|
|We’d shine and snow together|
|Ere March made sweet the weather||20|
|With daffodil and starling|
|And hours of fruitful breath;|
|If you were life, my darling,|
|And I your love were death.|
|If you were thrall to sorrow,||25|
|And I were page to joy,|
|We’d play for lives and seasons|
|With loving looks and treasons|
|And tears of night and morrow|
|And laughs of maid and boy;||30|
|If you were thrall to sorrow,|
|And I were page to joy.|
|If you were queen of pleasure,|
|And I were king of pain,|
|We’d hunt down love together,|
|Pluck out his flying-feather,|
|And teach his feet a measure,||45|
|And find his mouth a rein;|
|If you were queen of pleasure,|
|And I were king of pain.|
I think that is just… really nice. In a slightly naughty way, I think, unless I am reading too much into that last stanza. Anyway, doesn’t Sting quote this one? I think he does. I know I’ve heard the phrase “the king of pain” in one of his songs. And the man was, I think, an English teacher before he got all famous and got to appear in just a pair of gold underpants in Dune and all that.
And now, cheese fritters.
Alec made cheese curd fritters, based on this recipe. They were pretty good, but not, like, cheesy at all. Which, being a problem cheese-eater, I found somewhat disappointing. I think we should have added more spice, also. It was very like funnel cake, actually.
That’s it. On to movies.
House of Usher (1960)
A gloriously adequate Roger Corman take on the Poe story. I did like Vincent Price here, not only because he usually does liven up most of the movies he’s in, but because of the make-up he wears in this one. Alec and I theorize that it is a make-up designed to make him look younger (so as to plausibly play the brother of the young, doomed heroine), but it has the additional effect of making him look strangely unlike himself. He does not look like the young Vincent Price of, say, Laura. He looks like an altogether different person. Also, no mustache. Also, I liked his outfits.
Vincent Price plays Roderick Usher. He lives in a crumbling mansion (it literally falls apart throughout the film) with his sister Madeline and a loyal family servant. Suddenly, a young man comes to the door, claiming (truthfully) to be Madeline’s fiancée! This strikes Roderick as too ridiculous to even be addressed. Madeline is cursed. The Ushers are cursed. They will all die soon. This will be a good thing, in Roderick’s opinion. No Usher should go around having babies. That will just mean more cursed Ushers, and therefore more suffering for everyone.
But Madeline and fiancé-pants (whose name I forget; he has one of those handsome-yet-forgettable faces, too) have other views. Specifically, they think it would be awfully nice to get married and live and stuff, instead of dying quite soon when the family mansion finally collapses on them. This conflict quickly turns pretty nasty, what with people getting prematurely locked up in coffins and that sort of thing.
Anyway, like I said, it was adequate. I liked some things about it, mostly to do with Vincent Price’s character. Other things were sort of meh. You could watch it. You could also not watch it.
I’d never seen Alien before. Now I have. It was pretty darn good, which is not a surprise. I have very little to say about it, though. This is partially because, though I’d never actually seen the movie before, I already knew all about it, because references to it are everywhere.
The inhabitants of a small Irish island are under attack by horrible squid-like aliens who want to drink their blood. But the aliens are allergic to alcohol. We follow two officers of the Garda, an alcoholic man and a workaholic woman, as they try to cope with the alien invasion—primarily by getting everyone on the island as plastered as possible.
I enjoyed Grabbers quite a bit. It was in many ways pretty classic material—with many references to the Alien franchise—but with this fascinating twist, that everyone is drunk, for the best of reasons, through most of the movie. Especially the straight-laced female lead. She gets drunkest of all, for reasons that probably make sense but that I didn’t altogether follow—something about how she is the healthiest person present. Anyway, I bought that she was drunk—which must be difficult, acting-wise.
And it isn’t like being drunk is all fun and games. It has consequences. Little things, like accidentally setting the pub where everyone is holed up on fire.
Anyway, it was fun to watch a bunch of very, very drunk people trying to fight off an alien invasion. It is a new twist on an old premise, and I liked it.
The Undead (1957)
Okay. This one we saw many weeks ago, and I just forgot to mention it. I am going to be telling you all about this insane and wonderful film, so if you plan to watch it, I’d stop here.
Right. The Undead is a Roger Corman thing, and it is… splendid. Just splendid. But let me get one thing out of the way at once: there are no undead in it. No zombies or vampires or anything. I have no idea why it is called The Undead.
We begin with a scientist of some sort, who picks up a woman off the street and regresses her into a past life through hypnosis. The woman (whose name I think is Diana?) finds herself a disembodied advisor to her past self, a woman named Helene, who is about to be executed as a witch. The jailor is currently trying to put the moves on her. But with Diana’s advice, Helene escapes him. She also escapes the jail and goes on the run.
Helene has a lover, a man named Pendragon (which, by the way, no-one in this movie can pronounce, but whatever). He is trying to find and save her. Oh, and, though Helene herself is not actually a witch, most of the other people in the film are. One of them is a very beautiful witch (played by Alison Hayes, who also played the 50-foot woman in the movie of that name) who has her eye on Pendragon. Shenanigans ensue. At one point, she runs amok with an axe. She needs a head, see, for the Black Mass that night…
There is a very odd gravedigger character (he has been driven mad, apparently by witchcraft) who keeps on singing weird, morbid versions of common childrens’ rhymes. I liked him a lot.
But! The movie gets really strange when the scientist (remember him?) suddenly decides that he can totally go back to the past, too, and does that. He does not seem to care about what happens to Diana/Helene or to anyone else, but he takes a malicious pleasure in watching the events unfold firsthand.
We meet the Devil, briefly. Pendragon is about to sell him his soul, but the wandering scientist shows up, and advises him to rent it instead. For, say, a month or so. What he means by this is a bit unclear.
Eventually, Helene allows herself to be executed, in a moving scene. No, really, I thought it had real emotional weight. You see, because of time shenanigans, if she lives now, when she is supposed to die, she will never be reincarnated. All of her future selves plead with her for their lives. It is actually pretty intense.
This movie is full of inconsequent, slightly random strangeness.
Atherton Signs Off
That’s it for this week, folks! Do you like Swinburne? Had you heard Stand to Your Glasses Steady before? What do you think of it? Or cheese fritters? Or Sting? Or any of the movies I have just mentioned? Have you a favorite poet? Do you prefer your poems structured or unstructured, and how do you feel about rhyme? Did any of my excerpts appeal to you? Have you ever realized that you could sing something to the tune of something else? If so, what was the something, and what the something else?
Stay sane, stay healthy, and say hi in the Comments section!
Wow, this is a lot! Let’s see…
I like a lot of poetry so I wouldn’t be able to pick a favorite, but I do tend to prefer structure and rhyme and alliteration and such, so that it sounds different from ordinary prose. After all, so-called poetry that consists of ordinary writing with enjambment is really just an inefficient use of paper. Swinburne is not in my top 10, because I feel like he has really good lines embedded in poems that are over-all a bit tiresome to me. I am not familiar with “Nephelidia” though, which looks pretty incredible. I dare Alec to find a tune he can sing *that* to!
Not quite singing, but you can rap Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” most excellently in the style of Run-D.M.C. or other golden-age-style hip-hop artists of the 1980’s, with the second voice coming in on the emphasized words at the ends of the lines…
In XanaDU did Kubla KHAN
A STATEly pleasure dome deCREE… How I wish I could do the human beat-box.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Sting quoted Swinburne. He has a lot of fabulously literate lyrics.
Ha! I take your point about the paper. Well put!
I see what you mean about Swinburne. I actually feel as you described about most poetry–that I am always wading through the tiresome stuff to get at the gems. I feel that, for me, Swinburne’s gems are shinier, and there’s less other stuff to wade through, than is the case with most other poets. Then again, I haven’t even tried to tackle, in any serious way, his very, very long poems. Because I’ve scanned through bits of them, and they seem to have less fun in them than his shorter works. As I have said, I approach Swinburne as a fan and not a scholar. And I’m not one of those completist-style fans, who feel that they must explore every corner of a thing. No sirree! I skip around.
I love your point about “Kubla Khan.” We have tried it out loud and thoroughly agree with your assessment there.
Sting is very literate, isn’t he?