A Regency Romance (2)

At last, 11 days late, THE CAPTAIN’S WALLFLOWER has been released in the UK, but what do I care, I’m happy riding a hobbyhorse until I fall off….

journaldesmodesFrench fashion plate from Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1797, showing a lady riding sidesaddle, wearing a red and black “spencer” jacket with matching bonnet. Image from the irresistible Dames a la Mode

The Victorians and Edwardians revised Regency style for a contemporary audience, fed up with stuffy Victoriania, and in doing so drained the real Regency of its blood and guts, replacing Romanticism with romanticism, sense and sensibility with archness.

Maguerite,Countess_of_Blessington

 Supremely self-aware, the Countess of Blessington shares a candid moment with her portraitist Thomas Lawrence (Oil on canvas, 1814. Image: WGA) While enjoying her sexual charms, he notes her vitality and intelligence (she was a novelist, journalist and literary hostess). There’s nothing arch or simpering about the woman or the artist.
Lawrence was a celebrity flirt: every portrait session with him, whether you were a man or a woman, was a Regency Romance in itself.

Fictional Regency heroes, like their historical models, incarnate the classical ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body. They are likely to have been trained on the playing fields of Eton, or Harrow, and fought at Trafalgar or Waterloo.

Snobbery is inherent to Regency Romance, but it is pervading film and theatre nowadays, too,  answering an atavistic patriarchal need whether we like it or not..

An actor of over 50 years’ experience remarked to me the other day, after we’d rolled our eyes at all those Old Etonians monopolizing the best acting parts: “They teach charm at Eton”.  It recalls the “Company of Youth”, the notorious Charm School of the Rank Organization in the 1940s and 50s. It is the equivalent of mass produced “antiqued” or “chateau” furniture.

Class-consciousness separated Keats from public school-boys Byron and Shelley, causing a gulf that only Shelley tried to bridge.

It’s reassuring to know that both the poetic rebel Shelley and the military hero/reactionary Conservative politician Wellington hated being at Eton.

The myth of the perfect English hero was consolidated in late Victorian fiction, partly by the Hungarian-born Baroness Orczy in The Scarlet Pimpernel, and explains the success of public school type actors today.

Sir Percy Blakeney is an invented 18th century, not Regency figure, but his characteristics are the same: masculine strength under a  metrosexual exterior.

Ambivalence is essential to the Regency hero’s sex appeal – and a sense of humour.

Sexual attraction combined with rom-com plot is essential to Regency Romance, but so is an arcane, or snobbish, element contained in the jargon, which you have to understand if you are to master the etiquette and be accepted into the ton along with the always charmingly unconventional heroine. Regency Romance palliates the reader’s own social anxieties. If you can succeed at that assembly room ball, you can succeed anywhere. Continue reading

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The fate of this blog

girl withcagerippl

Rippl-Rónai, Girl with Cage 1892 Oil on canvas Magyar Nemzeti Galéria, Budapest.
Image: WGA

This is Beetley Pete‘s fault. Before that, it was Sarah of FND‘s fault. She handed me the bird in the gilded cage. I don’t even know if I want a blog, and I sure as hell don’t know where I should be going with it. I’ve carried it around in my head for three years, and now I don’t know where to put it.

Supposing the bird has fled or died, and I’m just lugging an empty cage? I really don’t have anything to say. I try to have the Last Word, and Beetley Pete squeezes another one out of me.

The moment a blog starts singing about itself, is the moment the blanket should be put over it.

But the painting is fascinating. That’s the saving grace of scavenging the web for a shiny image to illustrate a dull thought: serendipity. Like Vermeer, József Rippl-Rónai describes the deep spaces in corners we feel but cannot see.

They make you hear eternal whisperings (Keats’ words, not mine, of course) in the most ordinary looking rooms, only the sound in Rónai’s interiors is so much louder, building to a roar. His intense background offers no comfort to the human figure, at odds with her environment in a recognizably modern way. Where are we going?

So here she is, as my way of saying thank you to the great bloggers and readers out there – the ghostly Girl with Cage.

Nothing, or the Magic Pin Board

Part ten of Nothing

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.” Shakespeare (Hamlet)

The most personal of Gijsbrechts’ deceptions casually pins down all art, and individual identity, as a coat of arms on a plain wooden board. A musical instrument, the tools of his own craft of painting, even himself, in a miniature self-portrait, are stuck there, a declaration of THIS IS ME, all in vain, until somebody three and a half centuries later looks at them.

GijsbrechtsTrompe_l'oeilviolin art

Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’oeil with violin, painters implements and self-portrait, oil on canvas, 1675,
Royal Castle, Warsaw. Image: Wikipedia

We should be so lucky, to create anything so well-made that it lasts beyond a moment on the web. Most of it is worthless, read or not. Words, words, words as a fictional Danish prince said in around 1602.

There is nothing deep here, on this blog, only a brazen attempt to create the illusion. I don’t know much about Nihilism and Existentialism, and can seldom untangle a metaphysical conceit, but, as I like the sound of the words, I’m content to use them as labels for states of mind, alluding to concepts without fully understanding them, just like a monkey would, and now with WP technology I can tag them, separating them with commas, meaninglessly. “Words are wise men’s counters….but they are the money of fools” (Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651).

I blog profitlessly, in every sense.  I shouldn’t be here at all; I should be out, trying to earn a living, not flirting with dead men and downloading old pictures. “Vanity of vanities! all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, King James Bible version, 1611).

wood

wood by Martin Hübscher Photography  © August 2014

Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts began his adventure in still-life and trompe l’oeil in Antwerp, then found customers in the German cities of Regensburg and Hamburg, before he was appointed court painter in Copenhagen where he decorated the King’s Kunstkammer, one of the greatest of all European cabinets of curiosities, with his illusions of illusions; no job or position ever lasted, he always moved on, itinerant artist in search of the same theme, first to Stockholm, and then back to Germany, to Breslau, now the Polish city of Wroclaw, and then, almost full circle, he returned to Flanders, ending up in Bruges. On the way, he broke the fourth wall.

kms3076

Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’Oeil. A Cabinet of Curiosities with an Ivory Tankard, 1670
Image: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Gijsbrechts painted a series of representations of cabinets of curiosities, with closed or half open doors revealing the eclectic objects inside, for the Perspective Chamber of the real cabinet of curiosities of the Danish kings, a sort of site-specific art installation, except none of the objects were real.

Visitors to the Chamber were unwittingly entering a stage-set. In one of the paintings, they were given a glimpse back-stage. The door opens on to nothing, Lord Rochester’s “Great Negative”, the beginning and end of everything, into which all our words and illusions must “undistinguished fall”, where the cosmos itself started and will end.

That is the rational end, but for most of us it is not the end of illusion. We are unable or unwilling to grasp finality in our minds. When we look at the picture, we are tempted to jump into the grey empty space on another adventure of the imagination, through a portal to another world.

Gijsbrechts’ tricks with our eyes were intended to entertain, no more, but few things, let alone people, turn out exactly as intended. Some of us spending too much time looking at his painted half open-doors, might find, like Keats looking at the Grecian Urn, an art form “dost tease us out of thought”. Is it something, or nothing?

Unable to encompass the magnitude, or the littleness, of what art and history is telling me, bemused by all their illusions, this blogger is like one of those people described by Hobbes in Leviathan as “birds that entering by the chimney, and finding themselves enclosed in a chamber, flutter at the false light of a glass window, for want of wit to consider which way they came in.”

It’s been a long train of thought that’s led me here, and, look, guess what, at the last post, all those words, all those pictures of dead princes and poets, their monkeys and dogs, all those letter racks and skulls and fruit pieces, they’ve all been in vain, and I’ve blogged my way to dusty

NOTHING

The Character of Light

enchanted castleClaude Lorrain, Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid, 1664
National Gallery. Image source: National Gallery

“You know the Enchanted Castle, – it doth stand / Upon a rock, on the border of a Lake, /
Nested in trees….” (Epistle to Reynolds)

(FINAL) PART EIGHT

Claude’s Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid, inspired by Apuleius’s story, which Keats sourced for his Ode to Psyche, is a late work of the painter’s, an elegant baroque fantasy with less than the usual “incessant observation of nature” and quality of “Brightness [that] was the excellence of Claude, brightness independent on colour…the evanescent character of light”[1] that Constable valued above all other artistic attributes.

The picture’s shortcomings, its dark, sleeping stillness, as if waiting for someone to step in and breathe life into it, gave literary advantages to Keats. The glimpse of the stone towers and colonnades nested above a foaming sea left him with more “room for Imagination” [2] to improvise a philosophical fairy tale to entertain a sick friend [3] and, later, to develop a recurring motif in his work.

He woke up the painting from its two centuries’ sleep and called it The Enchanted Castle. He rebuilt it repeatedly in his fertile year of 1819. The “marble balustrades”, “polish’d stone”, “diamond paved lustrous long arcades” and “crystalline pavilions” dominate the dreamscape of The Fall of Hyperion, the precious fragment containing his beliefs and doubts about the value of art and poetry distilled from the previous two years of his writing life. He remembers the Elgin Marbles in the motionless postures of the Titans, Saturn and Moneta: “Like sculpture builded up upon the grave / Of their own power. ”

The white heifer from the Epistle to Reynolds is sacrificed another two times, in Ode to a Grecian Urn and The Fall of Hyperion. The narrator’s blissful vision the moment before he is tolled back to his sole self in Ode to a Nightingale by the spell-breaking word “forlorn” is of the Enchanted Castle overlooking the sea.

The fragrant woodland landscape of the Enchanted Castle is where the dreamer, the feeling man, aspires to become a poet who can “‘Labour for mortal good'”. In his attempt to “usurp this height”, [3] Keats’ experiments in poetry were not infallible. He also had to earn a living; and he was getting ill. (Those of us wanting our young poet/prophet to be perfect, prefer to keep Otho, and The Cap and Bells out of our thoughts, only daring to admit them in parenthesis.) During his last year of “posthumous existence” that produced no new poetry, he was still consumed from within by “all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem”, and of feeling “the identity of every one in the room” [4] with the same intensity that made a newly created god shriek in pain.

The gap remained, the aching voids between form and expression, imagination and experience, objectivity and subjectivity, universality and the personal. The dialectic irradiates his writing, an intellectual light diffused over the lush landscape. He argues with his own poetry.

ClaudeLorrainSeaportwiththeEmbarkationofSaintUrsula wiki versionClaude’s Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula, oil on canvas, 1641. National Gallery, London –
“in no other picture have I seen the evanescent character of light so well expressed.” John Constable, Second Lecture at the Royal Institution, 1836. Image source: Wikipedia.

The “wide arched grace” of Lamia‘s marble palace, an artifice inside an artifice, decorated with “creeping imagery” of trees, reminiscent of Claude’s feathery foliage, is the setting for the battle between rationality and sensual imagination that ends in a world “empty of delight”.

Even more difficult to face than the truth that sexy, brilliant, passionate Lamia is a serpent, is that self-important, negative Apollonius is right. Art must include the real world in its grasp, or it is useless. Denial of reality is self-poison. The inextricable contrarieties of life must be endured if we are to enjoy happiness, rather than spoil each rare joyful moment with regret that it must pass. The dreamer in The Fall of Hyperion is advised to bear: “The pain alone; the joy alone; distinct”. 

Keats, the striving writer, was never satisfied that he had found the solution – “ever must I moan, / To question Heaven and Hell and Heart in vain” [5]. Keats was a suffering artist, without affectation; complacency is the death of any artist, “sublime or low”. [6] When we were young, hot for certainties, [7] some of us glided over the question marks in Keats, treating them as if they are the rhetorical flourishes of a Regency ghost – a big mistake, because they are nothing of the sort, they are questions, to be delivered with urgency; they complete the counterpoint; they are part of his chiaroscuro. He described his profession as  “straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness”. [8]

Towards the end of his lifelong study of nature, Monet’s transcendental, increasingly abstract Nymphéas in the series begun during the early casualties of the First World War, are still real water lilies, “material sublime”, painting them being another word for feeling, a Keatsian twilight fusion with Essence.

monetsunsetMonet, Water Lilies, Sunset, after 1914.
Oil on canvas, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Image source: WGA
Given to the French Nation by Monet in 1922
“The pain alone; the joy alone; distinct” (The Fall of Hyperion)

In trying to trace “the shadow of a magnitude” [9], poetry of art, like any other religion, offers us salvation, or, failing that, perspective. Even when we are beyond cure, it brightens our darkness, like a star dying into life, or the subtlest play of scattered light on shade.

The poet-painter controls the field of vision. We all feel better when we have control, when we see a pattern. Viewing an Enchanted Castle in close-up, or led under its imitation marble arches into the wreathed trellises of the interior, we are dazzled into believing it is a private theatre for our fantasies, an exquisite virtual world, architecture for introspection.

Valeriani design for a stage setGiuseppi Valeriani: Set of designs for a stage set, 17th Century.
The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
“A rosy sanctuary will I dress / With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain” (Keats, Ode to Psyche)

The poetry of art offers us rescue from a vile world through mediation, not denial, of external realities. The wide shot of ‘Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid’ shows us that the gleaming towers are on the promontory of a wild sea, subject only to the laws of nature and reality, where, without the redemptive powers of imagination and reason, our individual hopes and fears, loves and ambitions “to nothingness do sink.” [10]

The Enchanted Castle is where the poetic soul is made, the place where, in a Turner or Claude painting or Keats poem, self is dissolved by imagination into light. And, yes, penetrating this evanescence is a death-wish, to die upon the midnight with no pain, the kind of fantasy-death without cough, fever, haemorrhage, and sickening belief of having failed, for which Keats yearned and did not have, a sensation as sweet as sex, or drinking wine, knowing the taste of joy will turn to poison in an instant, and drinking again, because truth is beauty.

At this apex of feeling, the poet/painter is tolled back to “self-concentration”,[11] and, by starting the careful selection and combination of forms and colours, “patent yellow or white lead”[12] for sunlight, learned from patient study of art and nature, renews his cycle of creativity.

As for the rest of us, without his “magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas”, [13] where on earth would we be?

[1] Constable, Lecture II, p307
[2] Keats referring to the Camposanto frescoes in Letters, pp 187-8, a selection edited by Robert Gittings, OUP 1970.
[3] The Fall of Hyperion
[4] Keats, Letters
[5] Letters, 14 February 1819
[6] The Fall of Hyperion
[7] George Meredith, Modern Love, (1862) in one of literature’s truest and most quoted aphorisms “Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul / When hot for certainties in this our life!—”
[8] Letters
[9] Keats, On Seeing the Elgin Marbles
[10] Keats, When I have fears
[11] Letters
[12] Constable, Lecture II, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, p307
[13] Ode to a Nightingale

Into the core

PART SEVEN OF THE CHARACTER OF LIGHT

At the end of his career, Keats, the poet of sensations and melodic rhymes, the mellifluous word-painter of altering moods, the worshipper of Beauty and believer in salvation through imagination, accepted that art of pure subjectivity was not going to harmonize humanity with its existence. “Only the dreamer venoms all his days.” [4]

Apollo in Hyperion realizes that his gift for “melodious” raptures about nature’s beauty – “the sun, the sun! / And the most patient brilliance of the moon!”–  is only good enough for a half-god, a demi-poet. “Where is power?” he demands.

To answer the poet-god’s question, Keats had to admit fact and reason into his “sensual life of verse”, just as he admitted them into daily life, even diagnosing the symptoms of his own death. “I know the colour of that blood”. [3] The alternative was to be nothing but “a dreaming thing” [4].

The poet and the dreamer are distinct,
‘Diverse, sheer opposite, antipodes.
‘The one pours out a balm upon the world,
‘The other vexes it. (The Fall of Hyperion)

His alchemical metaphors to illustrate his theory of “soul-making” in his letters to friends contain correct terminology, of “touchstones” and “essence”; the transformation of Apollo in Hyperion, and the quest to become the perfect poet in The Fall of Hyperion have elements of the legendary search for the secrets of the universe, trying to save the present through rediscovering the lost wisdom of ancient cultures.

alcymistbyjosephwright xsJoseph Wright, The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the ancient chymical astrologers
oil on canvas, exhibited 1771, reworked and dated 1795. Joseph Wright Gallery, Derby Museum.
Image source: © 2014 Derby Museums Trust.
“…a silver lamp, whose phosphor glow
Reflected in the slabbed steps below .” (Lamia)

The irony in a lot of Keats’ statements apparently dismissing all mechanical explanations of phenomena – and drinking “confusion to mathematics” – has been overlooked. Dead poets are assumed to be in perpetual earnest, never taking time off to make jokes. The mysticism of Rosicrucianism remained attractive to many intellectuals throughout the Enlightenment, more cogently than now, when it is more like a branch of entertainment.

When Keats drew analogies between the poet and “some watcher of the skies”,[5] Continue reading

I would speak

“…..every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue.”
(Keats, The Fall of Hyperion – A Dream)

turner sunriseTurner, Norham Castle Sunrise, 1845, Oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London. Image source: WGA
“Oh God, not another f******* beautiful day”. (Alice de Janzé quoted in White Mischief, novel by James Fox, 1982, and in the film adaptation, 1987, screenplay by
Michael Radford and Jonathan Gems.)

At the climax of Hyperion, tremors are passing through golden-haired Apollo’s classically beautiful body like electric shocks . He shrieks while “Creations and destroyings, all at once / Pour into the wide hollows of my brain”. Empathizing with all this random suffering and emotion is too much for a god to bear, let alone an artist or poet, striving to render teeming images exactly as they were when originally experienced.

Empathy, though it is taught as a social box-ticking tool nowadays [Like] or confounded with entertainment, as a self-gratifying, vicarious thrill, is a physical sensation, an instinctive response, not a moral virtue that deserves congratulation. It is only as good as the thing created from it, whether that is a work of art or a compassionate act.

In private life, if you are feeling empathy for someone you love who is suffering, you suffer, too. It is not like acting a role: you hurt. At some point you might lose yourself in your intensity of feeling, and break down. There’s no doubt that writing and painting, and performing, are therapeutic ways to find your identity again, metamorphosis of the de-created into a creator. There’s no doubt that publication helps further in building self-esteem; the evidence is here, on WordPress.

This post has arrived at the brink of artistic and human catastrophe, the gap between aspiration and achievement, delusion and suspension of disbelief. Intensity of emotion is seldom commensurate to quality of art. Feeling how someone else feels is a poetic gift to a writer, a painter, or an actor, only if they have the technique to use it, the rare ability to pull the sword out of the stone.

If art means anything at all, simply having a go yourself, “à se donner carriére”, [1] as Delacroix put it, isn’t the answer.

Two hundred years later, we have twisted the Romantic revolution in artistic self-analysis into self-gratification. Self-taught or schooled, an artist or writer has to learn their craft; they must study past masters, not be an imitator of imitators; they must observe and reflect nature, not just themselves, and, according to Keats’ theory, if they are to fully understand the universe they portray, they must undergo fusion.

PART SIX OF THE CHARACTER OF LIGHT
“Another word for feeling”

Keats gave up being a surgeon, and through poetry became a physician of the soul. Personal bereavement is at the heart of many of his mature poems; as a professional writer he was seeking to achieve more than self-therapy. The poem itself should interact with readers like a medicine. He tested the psychoanalytical possibilities of literary forms further than any of his Romantic contemporaries and successors.

All the dissolving that goes on in his poems is not hyperbole; he is practising (with or without the help of drugs) self-hypnosis. He is also deconstructing the craft of writing. For Keats, as part of creating a believable alternative reality, the poet had to go beyond self-expression to empathic loss of self in his subject.

The insoluble artistic contradiction at the end of this process, is that in creating the actual feeling of feeling in a poem, or a painting, or a novel, or a play, whatever you do, it remains an artefact. Having exalted poetic Imagination as the saviour of human suffering, Keats became increasingly doubtful about its healing powers.

constablesunsetConstable, Coast Scene at Brighton: Evening, oil painting, ca. 1828 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
          “….colours from the sunset take:
From something of material sublime
Rather than shadow our own soul’s day-time
In the dark void of night.”
(Keats, Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds)

Constable painted this ode to the dying day while his wife Maria was seriously ill with tuberculosis. She died about six months later. Is it necessary for us to know this biographical detail to appreciate the artwork? No. Any artwork lives or dies on its own merits, not its backstory. If the artist had wanted to paint a mourning picture of himself by her deathbed, he would have done. Instead, he identifies his feelings with his subject, nature.

And we must be careful here. We can intuit as much as we like from a bit of historical research, but if we seek truth, rather than rely on empathy, we must admit that we do not really know what Constable was feeling; we cannot rely on letters and memoirs, any more than we can rely on our own texts and emails, to reveal anything under the surface.

We project narratives on to his work, of the heartbroken husband, the devoted single father of seven children, when all we should be doing is looking at the man’s art.

Sunrises and sunsets are the diurnal opportunity for all of us to grasp the natural sublime; we feel the truth of Keats’ “pleasant pain” when we look at them. They are such powerful phenomena, that even when we are too world-weary or depressed to be excited by them, we resent the implicit reproach of their beauty. In this mood we think, like Alice de Janzé faced with the infinite pink and orange of a Kenyan sunrise, “Not another f******* beautiful day”. Continue reading

red life, dreaming nights

sunsetBonington, Sunset in the Pays de Caux, 1828, watercolour. Wallace Collection, London. Image source: WGA
Delacroix praised his long dead friend Bonington’s “astonishing ability”, “that  lightness of touch which, especially in watercolors, makes his works a type of diamond which flatters and ravishes the eye, independently of any subject and any imitation.” [1]

Richard Parkes Bonington has been called “the Keats of painting” – if only it were that simple, we could wrap this up now in relief. Yet another marvellous boy, his vivid output and early, painful death of tuberculosis aged 25 resemble Keats’ own art and life. There’s poetry in Bonington’s brushwork, the liquid freshness of colours, the delight in shadow and light. His technical genius was in hiding technique, so that with him all the spontaneity for which other Romantics strove looks effortless. His pictures are more than just pretty; he was a painter’s painter, loved, as Delacroix said, by all who knew him.

The absence of perplexity and detail in his work is refreshing, but not Keatsian – not the mature Keats of Hyperion. His paintings are like pictures inside a Keats poem, impressions brightening up the dark walls of an Enchanted Castle, or the Chamber of Maiden-Thought in the “Mansion of Many Apartments”. [2]

FII and MargueriteBonington, Francois I and Marguerite de Navarre, c.1827. Wallace Collection. Image source: Wikipedia
“The brain, new stuff’d, in youth with triumphs gay/ Of old romance…” Keats, The Eve of St Agnes

Keats wanted to anatomize the veins of a living hand as much as luxuriate in the ephemeral, drugged visions of “dreaming nights”. Keats the trained surgeon, Constable the amateur geologist, one a pantheist, the other Anglican, wanted to go beyond communion with nature through their senses to “Tell…how came I thus, how here?” as Milton’s Adam had. “We see nothing truly till we understand it”, Constable declared. “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature.”

Part Five of THE CHARACTER OF LIGHT Continue reading