Category: Favourite Authors

Art is much, but Love is more: The Brownings

I was delighted to come across this Brain Pickings article in which Maria Popova mentions how the Brownings’ story ‘remains one of the grandest and most beautiful true love stories in the human record’.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/09/25/robert-browning-i-love-you/

Guess now who holds thee?”—”Death,” I said. But there
The silver answer rang—”Not Death, but Love.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese, No. I

I admire Elizabeth Browning in many ways. First, for her poetry that is richly allusive and layered with spiritual and philosophical overtones in places and straightforward and full of candour at others, that reveals a poet’s heart that was concerned not only about love and beauty but also sought to speak for the suffering humanity around her. Next, for her strength of character which helped her to survive a suppressed childhood that had rendered her an invalid, by seeking and finding strength in literature. Above all, I admire her as the heroine of one of the most beautiful love stories of all time.

I read her verse novel Aurora Leigh for the first time as an undergraduate. I read it in a week as though in a trance, enchanted with the prose poetry and surprised at the familiarity of the cycle of stages that the protagonists go through – the brash idealism of early youth, the need to own a cause and fight for it, the obstacles they face from the world, the decisions they take impulsively out of their beliefs, the mistakes they must make and the consequences they must face before they come to the Voltarian realisation that the same truth holds good for each of us. For all of us. We must cultivate our garden.

One of the first things that I did after moving to London was to make a pilgrimage to the Marylebone Parish Church, a place that I had dreamed of visiting for several years. I spent some time in the pew, closing my eyes to the hymns and imagining myself in Victorian England, witnessing a secret marriage. Then I found my way to the little chapel that I had gone to visit. The Browning room was much smaller than I expected, littered with toys and baby strollers. Behind an elevated platform, a stained glass window flanked by angels proclaimed that the poets had been married there. Elizabeth and Robert Browning looked down curiously from the walls at the reader who took selfies with them and then proceeded to sit down and read from Aurora Leigh and some of the sonnets from the Portuguese.

Art is much, but love is more.
O Art, my Art, thou’rt much, but Love is more!
Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God
And makes heaven.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Aurora Leigh, Book IX.)

I think that Aurora and Romney Leigh are one of the few perfect couples in literature, two independent thinkers who loved each other and yet set out on separate paths as artist and philanthropist and finally returned to each other in a reconciliation of art and love. The last few passages from Aurora Leigh echo the perfect partnership that the Brownings shared in literature and life.

The Perfect Man and Muriel Spark

“How do you know when you’re in love?’ she said.
‘The traffic improves and the cost of living seems very low.”

Muriel Spark

I had long given up all hope of ever finding the perfect man when I finally met him. He told me in gentle, erudite tones that he found ‘re-reading Muriel Spark to be pure gold’.

I murmured that I adored Dame Muriel, trying to control my eyelashes that fluttered as they drank him in. With tired face and messy hair, he was no Rupert Brooke. But he had the widest smile, kindest expression and gentlest voice as made mundane pleasantries sound like poems. Every glance, every gesture, his every word was pure gold.

I wished myself six years back in time when we might have walked into each other on a cold winter morning in another, my part of the world.  I wanted to walk with him along the banks of the Cherwell, listening to the birds and talking about Dame Muriel’s fiction – the possibilities bloomed in a vision of pure gold.

I felt neither regret at parting from him, nor longing to turn back once, though I spied him from the corner of my eye and thought that he looked like an angel in a crumpled cerulean shirt, as our eyes met inadvertently for a fraction of a second before I turned away. I had lived a lifetime within those few minutes of pure gold.

He vanished from my thoughts as I talked with my friend afterwards. But later as I walked by the Cherwell, he beamed at me from the dappled autumn sunlight, and I heard him in the whispers of the breeze that caressed my face. Imprints on the mind and heart, impressions of pure gold.

By the banks of the Cherwell, I sat down and wept, more out of joy for having seen him than because I knew that I would never see him again. Those moments were akin to the joy that descends upon a girl when she tries out a diamond tiara that she can ill afford to buy. But those moments were enough, for they were pure gold.

There is always the next life, as my friend Millie would say. In my next life perhaps, on a joyous spring or balmy summer day, I will walk with him along the banks of the Cherwell with the birds singing to us as we talk about the novels of Dame Muriel. From across time and space, I can see that those moments, all of them will be pure gold.

The Great Universal Paradox

Out of the many wicked and wonderful books of Fay Weldon, I like the collection A Hard Time to be a Father best. It has a number of little gems including one of the wisest short stories that was ever written.

Happy Birthday, Fay Weldon. (Sep 22)

“I called this story ‘Falling in Love in Helsinki’, not ‘out of love’ because although it’s true I fell out of love with Andreas, out of love with love (which is a real blight), somehow I fell into love with life. Or with God, call it what you will, there in that chapel. Anyway, sufficiently enamoured of just the sheer dignity of creation to realise I shouldn’t offend it the way I had been doing. I think everything’s going to be all right now . . . As for GUP, the Great Universal Paradox, that’s real enough. What I marvel at now is how happy so many of us manage to be, so much of the time, in spite of it.”
Falling in Love in Helsinki: A Hard Time to be a Father by Fay Weldon.

Another Treasure-Trove of Lectures

Listening to these lectures on critical theory and reasoning by Marianne Talbot has been so much more enjoyable and enlightening than any of the standard textbooks on the subject that I have read.

https://mariannetalbot.co.uk/critical-reasoning/

The site contains the podcasts of a number of other lecture series by Professor Talbot including philosophy for beginners, formal logic, causation, and ethics. I have only gone through the critical theory lectures so far, and recommend it to anyone who wishes to get a clear understanding of the basics of the subject. I wish someone had pointed me to this page much earlier.

Fiction as Panacea

Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I repeat this to myself whenever I fall sick. Which is worse, a physical malady like a painfully sore throat or a bout of food poisoning that renders one unable to speak and function normally, or the darkness that descends upon the mind and shuts everything else out, rendering it cold and numb? It is easy to say that physical illness is easier to manage compared to clinical depression but when I fall sick, I find that unpleasant, long-forgotten memories tend to return to the mind, which then makes it susceptible once again to the chilling darkness. Somewhat like the sentiments that Rupert Brooke expresses in this poem on seasickness.

The damned ship lurched and slithered. Quiet and quick
My cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick;
And could think hard of only one thing—you!
You, you alone could hold my fancy ever!
And with you memories come, sharp pain, and dole.
Now there’s a choice—heartache or tortured liver!
A sea-sick body, or a you-sick soul!

Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw.
Do I remember? Acrid return and slimy,
The sobs and slobber of a last years woe.
And still the sick ship rolls. ’Tis hard, I tell ye,
To choose ’twixt love and nausea, heart and belly.
Rupert Brooke, A Channel Passage

Out of the many ways to heal, literature is the best of all, perhaps; to write, and to read good fiction.

On Heroes

I was talking to an elderly lady whose late father had been an officer in the British Raj. In his library, she had come across a book about a certain Indian politician of the past century. She spoke highly of this man and assumed that he was still regarded as someone on a pedestal in India. Now I had grown up listening to several school speeches on his many virtues. The teachers composed and sang songs about his greatness. As idealistic undergraduates, we had once celebrated his birthday in the hostel. Roads around the country are named after him. My great-uncles named their houses after him. I had been repulsed reading the vitriol spewed on him by a foul-mouthed leftist poet who sang the praises of his contemporary leftist politician in the same breath. Then I had chanced upon the truth about both of these politicians who had been hailed as leaders in their time and wasn’t sure who was the worse of the two.

Naturally I did not mention any of this to the lady. I merely said that notwithstanding the ideals that fake historians had attached to his name and his many statues, everyone now knew who and what he really was and the chap who once had something of a halo about the very mention of his name, had very few fans left in the country. At which she looked nonplussed.

Reminded me of a poet who had been one of my heroes in a past life. I never cared much for his pedestrian prose, but his poetry had once connected to me like nothing else had. Through the influence of my Professors and classmates, I had come to see this poetry too for what it was. A few years ago, I used to attend literary festivals across the country just to hear him speak, though I stopped after the third one, having found that his interviews focused more on personal anecdotes rather than literary discussion, besides being tediously repetitive. Recently I was sitting in a pub with friends and someone mentioned that this poet was speaking at a venue a few hundred metres away. It didn’t seem relevant anymore, after being exposed to the work of a hundred other writers, better and greater than him.

It appears that there can be no heroes in the age of the internet.

Four Crores of Poems

Recently I found myself explaining the meaning of the word crore (Indian term for ten million) more than once in course of conversation, which reminded me of a classic Tamil poem from primary-school days, by the poet Avvaiyar whose quote:
What we have learned is as much as a handful of earth
What we are yet to learn is as much as the entire world
is exhibited at NASA.

Avvaiyar was an enigmatic poet who is said to have lived a thousand, two thousand, or three thousand years ago, no one knows for sure. Very little is known about her, including her real name. Like the name Lao-Tse (who is alleged to be an ancient Tamil mystic) implies ‘Old Master’, Avvai is a generic term for a woman with the suffix ‘yar’ indicating respect. She is believed to have been a wandering minstrel who travelled by foot through the realms of Tamil Kings of yore and blessed, praised, counselled, and even saved them through her poetry. What has survived of Avvaiyar over the millennia is her poetry, among the most famous of it being a set of alphabetical aphorisms for young children that impart moral lessons through terse phrases. And some interesting stories about her trysts with the Kings of the age, fellow poets and citizens, all of whom celebrated her erudition and wisdom.

One of these stories is about a competition in which all the poets of the land were called forth to submit four crores of poems. As an impoverished poet who was desperate to win the prize struggled to write as many poems, it is said that Avvaiyar composed these stanzas in a few moments and gave it to him. I have attempted to translate from the Tamil, but the beauty of the original verse remains elusive, as the rhythm of the words and the way they blend together to create meaning at multiple levels.

Them who do not respect you –
To never set your foot
upon their threshold
Now that is worth a crore

Those who do not urge you
to dine beneath their roof –
To avoid eating at their home
Now that is worth a crore

To expend a crore, and more
to be in the company of
those who are noble-born
Now that is worth a crore

Even when offered crores,
To sway from the truth –
To stand firm by your word
Now that is worth a crore

Avvaiyar (Ancient Tamil Poet)

On Metapoems

Metapoems are almost as alluring as metafiction. Perhaps even more, considering that poetry is said to be the purest of all art-forms.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50986/paradoxes-and-oxymorons

“I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.”
John Ashbery, Paradoxes and Oxymorons

Novels too.

Effervescent Verse

“Bloody men are like bloody buses —
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.”
― Wendy Cope, Serious Concerns

The world needs more poets like Wendy Cope. While I am all for the avant-garde experimentalists who write in obscure paragraphs of footnotes reflecting morosely on the ideas that weigh down their verse, many of my favourite poets tend to rhyme, at least most of the time. But I love reading Wendy Cope more for the humour that bubbles above her rhymes, that often masks sad and wise observations on life.

This link came up in my twitter feed in honour of her birthday:
https://interestingliterature.com/2017/02/17/10-of-the-best-wendy-cope-poems-everyone-should-read/

One of the many joys of being single is the ability to empathise with and laugh at her poems on the single life like A Christmas Poem. The brisk, dismissive tone is both funny and poignant, far more than the sentimentality in Flowers or The Orange. And yet, the ‘head does its best but the heart is the boss’, says Cope (Waterloo Bridge).

“Someone to stay home with was all my desire
And, now that I’ve found a safe mooring,
I’ve just one ambition in life: I aspire
To go on and on being boring.”
― Wendy Cope, Being Boring

Her poems are anything but.

Poetry as Birdsong

More than once I have tried to record the sounds of birds singing on a spring dawn. Most often I have tried this while sitting in a tiny college room behind my beloved Banbury road. But each time, the recording comes out as but a frail echo of the original sounds, reiterating yet again that something as pure as birdsong can only be experienced in the moment.

In the spring I had the pleasure of listening to Liz Berry reading her poems in the characteristic Black Country accent. It was as soothing as listening to birdsong on an early spring morning. Poetry that touches the audience’s heart and connects them with the pure and pristine part of their minds, which is the pinnacle of all great art.