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Posts Tagged ‘nineteenth century’

The Vale of Soul-Making

July 25, 2014 | by

How Keats coped with fever.

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Tuberculosis seemed to pursue Keats his whole life.

In 1821, three months after he learned of Keats’s death, Percy Shelley wrote Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, in which he described the poet as a delicate, fragile young flower of a man:

Oh gentle child, beautiful as thou wert,
Why didst thou leave the trodden paths of men
Too soon, and with weak hands though mighty heart
Dare the unpastured dragon in his den?

That dragon was a cruel critic who had mocked Keats’s literary ambitions—John Gibson Lockhart, who, writing under the pseudonym Z, had scolded Keats as if he were a child, insisting in a review of Endymion that “it is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop, Mr John, back to the ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.’ ” Lockhart had classed Keats among the Cockney School of politics, versification, and morality, known—at least by readers of Blackwood’s Magazine—for its “exquisitely bad taste” and “vulgar modes of thinking.” In Shelley’s formulation, it was this bad review that sent Keats to an early grave, and gazing back through history, one begins to accept this two-part narrative of Keats’s legacy. The fallen poet had lived a life of abstractions—he was not only an aesthete, but the aesthete—and he had been, as Byron quipped, “snuffed out by an article,” too beautiful and frail for this harsh world.

But Keats was immersed in the realities of life; his poetry and letters reveal an allegiance to radical politics as well as a concern with economic and scientific issues. Far from childlike and apolitical, he’s now thought of as having been “dangerous … a poet who embodied and gave voice to the anxieties and insecurities of his times … a poet whom the establishment would be obliged to silence,” as the scholar Nicholas Roe puts it. We often overlook, for instance, that Keats spent six years studying medicine, successfully earning a license to practice in London from the Society of Apothecaries—hence Lockhart’s insult about the “plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.” To think that he was “snuffed out by an article” trivializes the intense pain he experienced as his lungs were slowly consumed by tuberculosis, robbing him of his work, his love, and his life at the age of twenty-five.

The myth of the frail genius is attractive, even to contemporary readers, because of its quintessential Romanticism. But the truth is that Keats’s writings—especially when they seem fanciful or escapist—are grounded in real-world concerns. And nowhere is this more evident than in the letters and poems of his that deal with feverish suffering. Read More »

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Le Pater

July 24, 2014 | by

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In 1899, Alphonse Mucha, a progenitor of Art Nouveau, published Le Pater, an illustrated edition of the Lord’s Prayer embellished in his sinuous, faintly occult style. Mucha, who was born today in 1860, made only 510 copies of the book, which he considered his masterwork. According to the Mucha Foundation,

Mucha conceived this project at a turning point in his career … [he] was at that time increasingly dissatisfied with unending commercial commissions and was longing for an artistic work with a more elevated mission. He was also influenced by his long-standing interest in Spiritualism since the early 1890s and, above all, by Masonic philosophy … the pursuit of a deeper Truth beyond the visible world. Through his spiritual journey Mucha came to believe that the three virtues—Beauty, Truth and Love—were the ‘cornerstones’ of humanity and that the dissemination of this message through his art would contribute towards the improvement of human life and, eventually, the progress of mankind.

Whether or not you buy into Mucha’s spiritual ambition—and I must admit that I don’t—his illustrations are striking in their depth and detail, with a certain haunted, diaphanous quality that would be imitated, if never duplicated, throughout the twentieth century, right on up to those ponderous Led Zeppelin “Stairway to Heaven” black-light posters that continue to grace all too many dorm rooms. As the artist Alan Carroll explains,

in the 1870s and 1880s, so many American artists went to study in Paris (e.g. Sargent, Whistler, Cassatt, Eakins, Homer) because American academic training at the time was generally considered so inadequate. Combine this with a mesmeric American fascination with the Old World, and we can begin to see why Mucha’s early trips to the States were so rapturously received. And yet Mucha seemed reluctant to lap up the attention that the gentry and grandes dames of American Society were determined to bestow. Indeed, he was sick and tired of his obligations, as evidenced in a hilariously melodramatic letter he wrote in 1904: “You’ve no idea how often I am crushed almost to blood by the cogwheels of this life, by this torrent which has got hold of me, robbing me of my time and forcing me to do things that are so alien to those I dream about.”

Something of that crushed-to-blood quality comes through in Le Pater, whose fascination with the otherworldly is predicated on a kind of desperation: There must be something more, right?

You can see more of Le Pater on Carroll’s blog, Surface Fragments.

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Bayou Medicine

July 23, 2014 | by

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The swamp doctor also stabs bears, apparently.

Given the ungodly humidity, today seems as good a day as any to peruse an 1858 volume whose full title is The Swamp Doctor’s Adventures in the South-West; Containing the Whole of The Louisiana Swamp Doctor; Streaks Of Squatter Life; and Far-Western Scenes; in a Series Of Forty-Two Humorous Southern And Western Sketches, Descriptive Of Incidents And Character, by John Robb (“Madison Tensas, M.D.” and “Solitaire”) author of “Swallowing Oysters Alive, etc.”

Oh, the glories of the public domain! Here’s a sordid bit from a chapter called “The Mississippi Patent Plan for Pulling Teeth”:

I had just finished the last volume of Wistar’s Anatomy, well nigh coming to a period myself with weariness at the same time, and with feet well braced up on the mantel-piece, was lazily surveying the closed volume which lay on my lap, when a hurried step in the front gallery aroused me from the revery into which I was fast sinking.

Turning my head as the office door opened, my eyes fell on the well-developed proportions of a huge flatboatsman who entered the room wearing a countenance, the expression of which would seem to indicate that he had just gone into the vinegar manufacture with a fine promise of success.

“Do you pull teeth, young one?” said he to me.

“Yes, and noses too,” replied I, fingering my slender moustache, highly indignant at the juvenile appellation, and bristling up by the side of the huge Kentuckian, till I looked as large as a thumb-lancet by the side of an amputating knife.

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Brazen Towers

July 1, 2014 | by

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Francis Thompson at nineteen. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“The Summer looks out from her brazen tower,
Through the flashing bars of July.”
—Francis Thompson, “A Corymbus for Autumn”

By the time he died of tuberculosis in 1907, the forty-seven-year-old Francis Thompson had found respect and moderate success as a poet. A favorite of G. K. Chesterton, and later both J. R. R. Tolkien and Madeleine L’Engle, Thompson gave us the phrases “with all deliberate speed” and “love is a many-splendored thing,” which would become the title of a 1952 novel, a ludicrous film, a hit song, and, later, a soap opera. The latter is especially apt; Thompson had a dramatic and difficult life.

The son of a Lancashire physician, Thompson studied medicine himself, but in 1885 moved to London to try to make it as a writer. Instead, he developed a serious opium addiction and started sleeping rough on the streets of Charing Cross, occasionally selling matches and newspapers to make a little money. He would claim later that, on the brink of suicide, he was saved from ending it by a vision of the poet Thomas Chatterton. More materially, he was, he said, helped by an anonymous prostitute, who gave him money and lodging before conveniently disappearing, Thompson would say, because, in classic hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold fashion, he feared that associating with her would hurt his burgeoning career. (Needless to say, he would go on to write about her romantically in many poems.)

Here’s what we know for sure: after reading a manuscript Thompson had sent them, the editors Wilfrid and Alice Meynell took him in, ran his work, and would later help him publish a book. (It probably didn’t hurt that Thompson had been raised Anglo-Catholic; the Meynells were active in Oxford Movement circles.) The Meynells even paid for Thompson to do a stint in Our Lady of England Priory, a sort of Victorian rehab.

Of course, by then years of neglect and addiction had taken their toll. Thompson was never physically robust, and died after years of illness. In a final act he might have appreciated, his onetime home, which bore a Blue Plaque, came to an appropriately depressing end: in March of this year, an engineer accidentally hit the house with a cherry picker, and it proceeded to promptly collapse. (Watch the video here.)

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Wiltshire Words

May 30, 2014 | by

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Longleat, Wiltshire: Morris's County Seats, 1880. From Volume II of The County Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, by Francis Orpen Morris.

In 1893, George Edward Dartnell and the Reverend Edward Hungerford Goddard published Glossary of Wiltshire Words—it is, as intuitive readers will have guessed, a glossary of words used in the county of Wiltshire. The “Folk-speech,” as the authors call it, is full of evocative terms, some of them familiar—jumble and caterpillar—and others entirely puzzling. (Evidence suggests that Wiltshire residents were often puzzled; they have about three dozen words for the condition.) The best entries tend to be common words with new definitions. Smart, for instance, used to mean “a second swarm of bees”; goggles was “a disease in sheep.”

Here are a few of the most novel words with annotations from the authors. Read More »

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Strindberg’s Landscapes

May 14, 2014 | by

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Flower by the Shore, 1893

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Vågen VIII, 1901

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The Town, 1903

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Wonderland, 1894

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Tallen, 1873

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The White Horse, 1892

Fact: August Strindberg could paint. Though he was always more renowned for his plays and novels, he was a prolific artist, producing more than one hundred works over the course of his life. In their brooding expressionism, his paintings were every inch as forward-thinking as his contemporaries—he counted Gauguin and Munch among his friends—and his work received enough notice that in 1894 he published an essay on his methods in a Parisian journal.

Strindberg, who died today in 1912, had an array of interests: at various points, he turned to painting, photography, telegraphy, theosophy, alchemy, and Swedenborgianism, a sect of Christianity that denied the Holy Trinity. The plenitude of his hobbies made him, depending on whom you asked, a polymath, a dilettante, or an insane person.

Strindberg tended to paint only in times of grave crisis, when he found himself too distraught to write. Maybe accordingly his landscapes are seldom sylvan, his seascapes seldom serene, and his skies seldom sunny. In 2001, Cabinet published a well-observed essay by Douglas Feuk about Strindberg’s vatic art:

In his paintings there is always a “motif”—often stormy skies, agitated waves, perhaps a lonely rock by the sea. But these landscapes or seascapes are still half-embedded in the material, like a world in the process of being created. Boundaries and differences are fluid: Air might have the same density as stone, and the rock seems mysteriously fused with the water—as if they were all but different manifestations of the same matter. In fact, the tactile surface in Strindberg's paintings is at times emphasized so much that not only does it provide an image of nature, it also, in part, gives the impression of being nature. In the painting High Sea, for example, there are sections that Strindberg has blackened with a burner, but also patches of a brownish-gray, rough structure that seem to be not so much painted as oxidized, or in other ways created by some elementary process of nature.

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