What are hard things to describe in a story or poem? The political state of the nation; climate change; the atrocities of war; sex without bathos; metaphysical conjecture or the sub-atomic building blocks of existence? All ambitious themes. All worthy of the attempt. Yet it’s toward ‘smaller concerns’ that I’d gravitate: very human and, by comparison, almost minutiae, set against those grand, and potentially grandiose, narratives.
Dogs, babies and flowers would be on my list. These are subjects that require a rare empathy, charge of imagination and an intuitive leap of faith. Too few writers have attempted and succeeded in convincing me that they can pull it off. After many years of reading for me only three writers have come through, Thomas Mann, D.H.Lawrence and Edith Scovell.
Firstly dogs. I have to admit to having read very few full-length books about canine adventures. Putting my childhood memories of the written and celluloid heroism of Lassie (the wonder dog!) to one side there is J.R.Ackerley’s memoir My Dog Tulip (described by Christopher Isherwood as “the greatest masterpiece of canine literature”). It’s a very good book but deserves an essay all to itself. No, instead I’ve chosen Thomas Mann’s 1918 short story, A Man and his Dog, which you’ll find in the Penguin edition of Mario the Magician and Other Stories.
A Man and his Dog concerns Mann’s relationship with a dog call Bashan – a German short-haired pointer. Some critics have said this work is as much about the mind of its author as well as a dog’s psychology. Certainly it’s an affectionate account of Mann’s love and respect for the canine. Bashan is a “manly” looking, hunting dog whose owner calls by whistling “in two notes, tonic and lower fourth, like the beginning of the second phrase of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.” (Thomas Mann, always so magnificently passionate, in his novels, about preserving high Western culture, can’t resist such a reference even in his ‘doggy tale’).
There’s a lovely moment in A Man and his Dog when Mann finds it difficult to write for Bashan is very much an attention seeker.
“(Bashan) would smudge my freshly written page with his broad, hairy hunter’s paws. I would sharply call him to order and he would lie down on the floor and go to sleep. But when he slept he dreamed, making running motions with all four paws and barking in a subterranean but perfectly audible sort of way…For this dream life was obviously an artificial substitute for real running, hunting, and open-air activity; it was supplied to him by his own nature because his life with me did not give him as much of it as his blood and senses required.”
The owner both adores and reprimands his dog, especially about his hunting prowess and stamina. Mann is very funny when he’s arguing with himself over whether Bashan would be handled better by another owner. The dog whines at Mann as if to say he’s a “rotten master.” At other times Mann calls Bashan a “murderer” for eating a mouse and then lavishes praise on his hunter pose. “like a clumsy peasant lad, who will look perfect and statuesque as a huntsman among his native rocks.” A Man and his Dog conveys power and authority, submission and control, master and slave relations and peasant and aristocrat associations in the hunting grounds (beautifully described) of post-WW1 German gentry. I have never read such a powerful and fluid account of a slipping in and out of consciousness between a man and his dog. In this profound love/hate bond Mann astutely understands their differences and similarities playing off each other
“Animals are more primitive and less inhibited in giving expression to their mental state – there is a sense in which one might say they are more human: descriptive phrases which to us have become mere metaphor still fit them literally, we get a fresh and diverting sense of their meaning when we see it embodied before our eyes.”
I’m personally more of a cat lover than a dog lover but Thomas Mann convinced me, admittedly in the guise of the over-masculine hunter / gather role, of our long deep connections with the canine. Yet one day I will have to seek out a literary description of the hunter character of the cat. As far as I can discover Mann didn’t investigate the feline consciousness. Maybe that was too independent and aloof for his sense of patriarchal control?
And so onto babies. I’ve greatly admired writers who can convey the sensibility of a new born baby (It’s much ‘easier’ to write about older children or teenagers). For me only D.H.Lawrence and Edith Scovell have realised this well.
Lawrence will always be a controversial novelist for some readers. Yet even his detractors admit he had extraordinary powers to detect the poetic thingness of things, both animate and inanimate: making so much live and project their existence on the page. Lawrence had a great sympathy for all forms of life. Exploring his Collected Poems you can find accounts of rabbits, gazelles, snakes, cats, fish and babies.
“And I wish that the baby would tack across here to me
Like a wind-shadow running on a pond, so she could stand
With two little bare white feet upon my knee
And I could feel her feet in either hand
Cool as syringa buds in morning hours,
Or firm and silken as young peony flowers.
That’s the conclusion of the poem, Baby Running Barefoot. We have the movement of the baby delicately expressed (“Like a wind-shadow running”) and her feet, on the adult’s knee, that when touched feel like lilacs or “firm and silken” peonies – representing romance and prosperity. It’s as if the baby is bestowed with a firm foundation on which to flourish and develop.
And then there’s A Baby Asleep after Pain.
“My sleeping baby hangs upon my life
Like a burden she hangs on me;
She who has always seemed so light,
Now wet with tears and pain hangs heavily,
Even her floating hair sinks heavily
As the wings of a drenched, drowned bee
Are a heaviness, and a weariness.”
Lawrence beautifully conveys the weight of a baby held by its mother or father. And this is a baby asleep after some upset. Unlike the dead bee, of wet wings, the baby will awake soon, renewed by sleep to forget what hurt it so. In both poems a metaphorical connection is made with flowers and insects so that the baby is innocently placed in a protective world of nature. Lawrence, often a pantheistic and visionary writer, able to inspire or hector, doesn’t need to shout out loud about what he sees here only tenderly and quietly observe.
Edith Scovell (1907-1999) was one of the great, unsung female poets of British poetry. Her sensibility is not so much feminist but feminine guided by a careful, compassionate precision. Her unerring eye for detail ranges over poetry about the sea, flowers, childhood and old age. In her Selected Poems we find Poems on infancy where for me are two of the greatest poems ever written about a baby. The First Year and A Baby’s Head have a perception and insight that equals and often surpasses D.H.Lawrence. I love the sense of wonder at birth expressed in these two questions that make for verse three of The First Year.
“What should you do, new born, but fall
Asleep, in sleep disclosing all?
What can you do but sleep, an hour from birth,
Lacking an answer yet to give to earth?
These metaphysical questions set up the mystery of the first year of birth, presenting them like a philosophical proposition. Yet this is no cold enquiry but a journey of warmth and discovery. Mother places her finger in the baby’s palm – “closed again (as they must) on mine, to a bud” sensing the baby’s helplessness and immaturity. She arrives at a state where “I am absorbed and clouded by a sensual love / of one whose soul is sense and flesh the substance of Her spirit; and her thoughts, like grass shadowed by the wind’s flight.”
Scovell evokes Walt Whitman with his praise of lush grass in A Song of Myself without ever being Whitmanesque in style, instead alluding to The Bible (“For all flesh is grass and the glory of man like flowers”). The core of this poem is to be found in Stanza six. The poem’s title The First Year – is a time when a baby isn’t yet fixed in its comprehension of the world: no babyish word or action is attempting to make sense of things. The questions pile on.
“Whom do I know? Who learns from me to kiss, to play?
Who answers sound with sound and looks with eyes of friend?
Strange that this long first year of life, this standing day
In which you are set like stone in ring, in which we meet, will
more than end;
“Will drop far out of sight, and you become another,
Sister and stranger to this self, changed without motion,
Caught in acquirements, calling things names, calling me mother,
But lost this lucid year, dropped out of sight, this key dropped
in the ocean.
Those last lines “this key dropped in the ocean” is an exquisite finishing off to the baby’s first year, now redundant, in order to prepare for the coming of less pure years: its growing up, the assuming of a social identity, first with mother, and then with the larger world beyond. Scovell conveys regret at the passing of this unique time.
In A Baby’s Head she describes with a lyricism, devoid of sentimentality, the baby’s face in order to speculate on her future looks. “In fifty years if you have beauty it will be / Words written on your face, abstract as history.” Yet in the poem’s final verse Scovell pulls back to admire once more her child’s head in the present.
“Only for a moment your cavernous human brow
Will dwell in the word of sense as naturally as now,
Beautiful with no meaning, but that it commands
Those to love, who hold you in their hands.”
Alongside of Lawrence Edith Scovell shares a mystical perception of the world. You sense that behind appearances is a spirit animating our behaviour. Both treat what is really beyond words with deeply tender words. Unlike Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight its baby subject is not one that stirs an excited, though anxious, concern of a father for the future welfare of his child. Coleridge’s baby Sarah will grow up. As will Lawrence’s baby (the imaginary one?) and Scovell’s (the real one). And all three poets are impelled to celebrate and reflect the glow of a new presence in the world.
Finally arriving at flowers I’ll digress to my childhood and my mother. My family didn’t grow up with a garden but a very floral-naked backyard. Whenever a relative called round, usually on a Sunday afternoon, with a bunch of flowers, to chat, Mother was pleased. I felt strongly indifferent to cut flowers in a glass vase, banged down, by father, on the kitchen table. Mother wished for a garden and I would transplant, in my head, Wavertree Botanical Gardens (Or at the very least a patch of roses) to the yard.
I had close access to excellent parks in Liverpool. However the cultivation of a garden first struck me most when as a teenager I read the remarkable poems of Andrew Marvell. In his case flower imagery could be seen as a highly refined order, a lost Eden or even function as military metaphor – A Garden: written after the Civil War. Yet many years later it was Scovell and Lawrence’s flower poems that I found much more human and inviting.
Four Scovell poems have made an indelible mark. Summer Night, Night Flowering Jasmine, The Evening Garden and Shadows of Chrysanthemums. Instead of attempting a careful exegesis of them (I haven’t the space in this essay) I will only take the last four lines of The Evening Garden to sum up Scofield’s achievement.
“The lighted room is small.
Now we exist; and now we fashion
A garden and a girdling wall,
Our salient into wild creation.”
With the dual meaning of salient as angle or projection Scofield states her perspective on nature and the flower kingdom of her garden to be a “wild creation” of flowers that continues to fascinate similar to the roses in Eliot’s Burnt Norton that “had the look of flowers that are looked at.” We may create a barrier between ourselves and the garden. Yet Scovell’s wall is a girdling one suggesting girdle, a woman’s corset, and the mark, left on a tree trunk, after the removal of a ring of bark. This is an encircling of the feminine with nature, a need to hold back a higher world of flower-beds. The wild is tamed and cultivated: now its night and the gardeners have left to continue their existence in a small lighted room. We’ve fashioned what of nature we can and the flowers, that cannot speak, may look back at us.
I have to admit that one of the supreme flower poems Lawrence’s Bavarian Gentians does cheat: for though it realistically describes the gentian it is its symbolic power to illustrate death which is highlighted. In this poem the reader is drawn down into the unconscious power of a tiny flower with its torch-like petals.
Lawrence’s great poem is so resonate with meanings that I have to include it intact.
“Not every man has gentians in his house
in soft September, at slow, sad Michaelmas.
Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the day-time, torch-like with the smoking blueness of
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto’s dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter’s pale lamps give off
led me then, lead the way.
Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower
down the darker and darker stairs, where darkness is awake upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,
among the splendour of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on
the lost bride and her gloom.
This is late Lawrence and is often viewed as a poem about the approach of death – D.H.L. was dying of tuberculosis. Yes, I suppose so, but it’s also a highly generalised poem about death symbolising the end of summer and an edging towards winter. It’s Michaelmas (the 29th September) and on the cusp of autumn.
Bavarian Gentians descends into “the passion of dense gloom” revealed by the small torches (gentians) of darkness whose blue darkness (never hopefully turning to black?) reveals in the unconscious “the lost bride and her groom.” Why lost? Will death finally marry the feminine and masculine inside us? Yet it’s her groom. Which could mean partner or complement, a last configuration of both sexes, as Persephone, the goddess of spring and the queen of the underworld, becomes “a darkness invisible.”
And in this subterranean darkness the gentian assumes a mythopoeic force, a torch to guide you to “the passion of dense gloom.” Here I love the duality of the word passion. This could be the sufferings of Christ from his last supper to his death on the cross but also passion as anger or an ardent love or affection. I’d go with the latter two definitions over the former, for if there is one word that describes D.H.Lawrence’s writings it’s passionate. And here he is, with a sombre passion, transforming Bavarian gentians (epitomising sweetness, passion charm and ‘flowers of victory’) into dark aides leading him to his and the poem’s ending.
A dog, a baby and a flower. Three daunting subjects to be creative about or simply watched, enjoyed, perhaps only tolerated, as they forcefully confront most of us, if we are fully awake, on a daily basis. I shall watch out for cats too.