Edward Gorey

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Edward Gorey-the Fraught Settee
The gloriously eccentric American illustrator and writer Edward Gorey saw his singular body of work as ‘literary nonsense’ in the tradition of Carroll and Lear. Renowned for meretricious cross hatching, mordant wit and the macabre relish that he depicts the peculiar and sometimes sinister goings on in the rarefied atmosphere of the Victorian/Edwardian fantasy realm where he seemed to spend his whole imaginative life in, with the exception, of course, of frequent excursions to the ballet, Edward Gorey, in my opinion, is the sole twentieth century heir to the title of nonsense.

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Edward Gorey-the Object Lesson
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Edward Gorey
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Edward Gorey
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Edward Gorey-Gashlycrumb Tinies
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Ogdred Weary-the Curious Sofa

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Jabberwocky

Jabberwocky-John Tenniel 1871
Jabberwock-John Tenniel 1871

The only extant work of Looking-Glass World literature, Jabberwocky is undoubtedly the masterpiece of nonsense.

After stepping through the mirror and encountering the White King and Queen, Alice discovers a book. While initially mystified by its contents, Alice realises that it is a Looking-Glass Book and to be able to read it she must hold it up to the mirror. Alice’s reaction to the poem is an excellent summation of its abstract power; “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas-only I don’t exactly know what they are!”

Later Alice encounters the semantician Humpty Dumpty (see my post Glory for further details on their meeting), who deciphers the more unusual coinages of the first stanza. However, considering Humpty’s cavalier attitude to the exact meaning of words and Alice’s subsequent dismissal of Humpty as most unsatisfactory, combined with the markedly different interpretations that Carroll had previously stated leaves the poem eluding traditional, concrete definition.

Nonsense as a form would be used frequently by various Modernist movements, notably Dada and the Italian Futurists, yet they tend to lack the deftness of touch of either Carroll or Lear.

Jabberwocky

 

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son
    The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
    The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
    Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
    And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
    The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
    And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
    The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
    He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
    Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
    He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.

Lewis Carroll-1871

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Jabberwocky creatures round the sundial-John Tenniel 1871
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Mervyn Peake-Jabberwock

Auguries of Innocence

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the Vision of the Last Judgement-William Blake 1808
William Blake was widely derided during his lifetime. William Wordsworth said, “There was no doubt that this poor man was mad” and this view of poor, mad Blake seems to have been the accepted wisdom, even among the Romantics.

However Blake also mixed with major radical figures who would have an immeasurable influence on the history of ideas. For long periods Blake’s main employer and only source of income was the radical bookseller Joseph Johnson, who introduced Blake to Thomas Paine, author of Rights of Man, William Godwin, the godfather of anarchism, and Mary Wollstonecraft, the first feminist and author of Vindication of the Rights of Women, as well as advocates for the abolition of slavery. Although Blake would remain on the periphery of this circle due to his humble background, lack of formal education and visionary tendencies, it cannot be doubted that he shared their radicalism and belief in equality and freedom, especially sexual freedom.

As can be seen from Auguries for Innocence, Blake saw our relations to the natural world as another example of injustice and tyranny. Taking several occult ideas regarding the microcosm/macrocosm (To see a world in a grain of sand) and the Swedenborgian theory of correspondences (the basic relationship between two differing levels of existence), Blake presents in randomly assembled couplets a damning indictment of humanity’s casual cruelty, which, as he views the universe as interconnected, have far-reaching and reverberating consequences across time and in other realms. However Blake, with his belief in the innate divinity of humanity that would become apparent if we cleanse the doors of perception and escape the prison of the senses five, doesn’t despair. He knows that we can do better.

Auguries of Innocence

 

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.

A dove-house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell thro’ all its regions.
A dog starv’d at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.

A horse misused upon the road
Calls to heaven for human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.

A skylark wounded in the wing,
A cherubim does cease to sing.
The game-cock clipt and arm’d for fight
Does the rising sun affright.

Every wolf’s and lion’s howl
Raises from hell a human soul.

The wild deer, wand’ring here and there,
Keeps the human soul from care.
The lamb misus’d breeds public strife,
And yet forgives the butcher’s knife.

The bat that flits at close of eve
Has left the brain that won’t believe.
The owl that calls upon the night
Speaks the unbeliever’s fright.

He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be belov’d by men.
He who the ox to wrath has mov’d
Shall never be by woman lov’d.

The wanton boy that kills the fly
Shall feel the spider’s enmity.
He who torments the chafer’s sprite
Weaves a bower in endless night.

The caterpillar on the leaf
Repeats to thee thy mother’s grief.
Kill not the moth nor butterfly,
For the last judgement draweth nigh.

He who shall train the horse to war
Shall never pass the polar bar.
The beggar’s dog and widow’s cat,
Feed them and thou wilt grow fat.

The gnat that sings his summer’s song
Poison gets from slander’s tongue.
The poison of the snake and newt
Is the sweat of envy’s foot.

The poison of the honey bee
Is the artist’s jealousy.

The prince’s robes and beggar’s rags
Are toadstools on the miser’s bags.
A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.

It is right it should be so;
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro’ the world we safely go.

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

The babe is more than swaddling bands;
Throughout all these human lands;
Tools were made and born were hands,
Every farmer understands.
Every tear from every eye
Becomes a babe in eternity;

This is caught by females bright,
And return’d to its own delight.
The bleat, the bark, bellow, and roar,
Are waves that beat on heaven’s shore.

The babe that weeps the rod beneath
Writes revenge in realms of death.
The beggar’s rags, fluttering in air,
Does to rags the heavens tear.

The soldier, arm’d with sword and gun,
Palsied strikes the summer’s sun.
The poor man’s farthing is worth more
Than all the gold on Afric’s shore.

One mite wrung from the lab’rer’s hands
Shall buy and sell the miser’s lands;
Or, if protected from on high,
Does that whole nation sell and buy.

He who mocks the infant’s faith
Shall be mock’d in age and death.
He who shall teach the child to doubt
The rotting grave shall ne’er get out.

He who respects the infant’s faith
Triumphs over hell and death.
The child’s toys and the old man’s reasons
Are the fruits of the two seasons.

The questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to reply.
He who replies to words of doubt
Doth put the light of knowledge out.

The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar’s laurel crown.
Nought can deform the human race
Like to the armour’s iron brace.

When gold and gems adorn the plow,
To peaceful arts shall envy bow.
A riddle, or the cricket’s cry,
Is to doubt a fit reply.

The emmet’s inch and eagle’s mile
Make lame philosophy to smile.
He who doubts from what he sees
Will ne’er believe, do what you please.

If the sun and moon should doubt,
They’d immediately go out.
To be in a passion you good may do,
But no good if a passion is in you.

The whore and gambler, by the state
Licensed, build that nation’s fate.
The harlot’s cry from street to street
Shall weave old England’s winding-sheet.

The winner’s shout, the loser’s curse,
Dance before dead England’s hearse.

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.

Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

We are led to believe a lie
When we see not thro’ the eye,
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.

God appears, and God is light,
To those poor souls who dwell in night;
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.

Tyger Tyger

The Tyger, written and illustrated by William Blake
The Tyger-Written and Illustrated by William Blake from Songs of Experience 1794

The Tyger which was first published in 1794 in  William Blake’s Songs of Experience  was later merged with Blake’s previous collection of 1789 Songs of Innocence as Songs of Innocence and of Experience, showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. As with all of Blake’s work it was illuminated and printed by himself.

The Tyger is probably the most famous of Blake’s poems and justifiably so. It is a magical distillation of Blake’s major themes and metaphysics in a short poem of six, four line stanzas with a miraculous melding of form and content. It is in my opinion, the one poem in English literature that comes closest to achieving absolute perfection.

At the time of writing tigers would still have possessed a near mythical status. It is possible that Blake may have seen a tiger cub that was exhibited in a travelling rarity show, hence the childlike and rather cuddly tiger depicted in the plate. The poem is a different matter altogether though. The beauty and the ferocity of the Tyger prompt Blake to question the idea of a benevolent God and leads to a vision of the sublime.

Blake’s Tyger is a Platonic Ideal Form which explains the idiosyncratic spelling. The poem opens with a reiteration, pointing towards the symmetry which plays such an important part in the poem. The rest of the line and the next highlights the duality of the Tyger, who shines with the intensity of the sun (blazing bright) and its nocturnal nature (in the forest of the night). The following couplet that completes the stanza asks what kind of creator could fashion such a violently amoral animal, a question that is reiterated with greater force in the fifth stanza when Blake wonders, Did he who made the Lamb make thee? . The Tyger companion piece in Songs of Innocence  is The Lamb, an animal that has obvious connotations to Christ. The sixth and final stanza repeats the opening stanza with one important difference, dare replaces could in frame thy fearful symmetry.

Blake developed his own personal mythology and his view of God the Creator was idiosyncratic and complicated to say the least. He equated the Old Testament Jehovah with the Gnostic demiurge whom he called variously Urizen and Nobodaddy in his writing. The Ancients of Days is his most famous artistic representation of the Divine Architect of the material universe.

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William Blake-The Ancient of Days 1794

The Principle

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Valentine Hugo-1948

I propose a motion:
To elucidate the principle
Of absolute pleasure;
You may demur and say,
Well, that it is incompatible
With the fundamental nature
Of ultimate reality,
Or at least suggest
Tabling an amendment.
But just give me a night,
To capture a moment
An imitation of eternity,
To turn you on—To turn you out:
Upside down, round and round,
Within 360 seconds
I would take you
Beyond the Seventh Heaven,
Transport you higher still
To the abyss of the Empyrean,
That realm of fire
That burns deep inside
Between your spreading thighs,
I will accept the invitation
Of your parted lips
And swollen nipples:
Then pause— —
— — just for a while,
Not longer than a series
Of hammering heartbeats,
Because I’m cruel like that
And I want to be sure,
That you want me
As much as I need you,
So that when we
Are finally indivisible,
And I have seeded you
With the light of supernovas
And the unbearable heat
Of a million blazing suns
You come —
— not with a scream
But with the softest
And most heartrending of sighs
For after such pleasures,
There will be no sequels
And no tomorrows
Of such agonising intensity.

Mirror Image

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Helmut Newton 1973

I look at you and all I can see
Is myself
Encased in the feminine form
My long lost imaginary twin
And I know that when you stare
So deeply into me
You are looking
Through a glass darkly
So that when we touch
We make love in a mirror
Dissolving on the other side
The place where all polarities
Are resolved, indeed
Made redundant.

Sun and Moon
Female and Male
Day and Night
Cease to exist

And there is no longer
A discrepancy between
Desire and decision
For our bodies
Is a binary code of attraction
A series of
OOOOO’s and IIIII’s
Eyes and oh’s,
Combined to complete
A sequence of absolute pleasure
Breathing the heavy musky scent
A smile of weighted lust
Plays on our devouring lips
As our bodies yield and the flesh merges
Together as identities blur and fade
Into the suggestive sculpture
Of an unmade bed

The Tarnished Mirror

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I obliquely glimpsed you
On the other side
Of the tarnished mirror.

You lay coiled
Unmoving, focused
On something unseen.

Your glaciated skin
Gleamed in the half-light
I was seized by longings
Both supple and violent
To make your flesh
Flower with bruises
And to reach the nexus
Where all sensations
Are interchangeable
Until I could finally
Assuage all the terrors
Of fulfilled desires

I obliquely glimpsed you
On the other side
Of the tarnished mirror.

You lay coiled
Unmoving, focused
On something unseen.

The Flowers of Evil: Litanies Of Satan

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Eliphas Levi-Baphomet Goat-1856

As well as containing erotic poems that led to Baudelaire being prosecuted for insulting public decency, Les Fleurs du Mal contained the blasphemous Les Litanies de Satan (The Litanies of Satan). The English Pre-Raphaelite poet and pornographic writer Algernon Charles Swinburne cited it as the key to Les Fleurs du mal.

Ever since John Milton had cast Satan as the sombre, brooding, archetypal rebel in Paradise Lost, writers had begun to show more than a little sympathy for the devil. Blake had shrewdly remarked ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.’  Gothic novels and the Romantic writers, in particular Lord Byron, produced one Satanic hero after another to great popular demand. The apotheosis of this trend can be seen in the unforgettable character of Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

What is remarkable in Baudelaire’s poem is the presentation of Satan as the Lord of the despised and oppressed, or to use Marx’s memorable phrase in The Communist Manifesto (published in 1848), ‘the wretched of the earth.’

The above illustration is from Dogme et Rituel la Haute Magic (Dogmas and Rituals of High Magic) by the French occultist Eliphas Levi, a contemporary of Baudelaire who is justifiably known as the father of modern occultism. It is not known, though it is often rumoured, whether they ever met. They certainly shared affinities and both would greatly influence the Symbolist and Decadent movements.

Litanies of Satan

Wisest of Angels, whom your fate betrays,
And, fairest of them all, deprives of praise,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

O Prince of exiles, who have suffered wrong,
Yet, vanquished, rise from every fall more strong,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

All-knowing lord of subterranean things,
Who remedy our human sufferings,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

To lepers and lost beggars full of lice,
You teach, through love, the taste of Paradise.

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You who on Death, your old and sturdy wife,
Engendered Hope — sweet folly of this life —

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You give to the doomed man that calm, unbaffled
Gaze that rebukes the mob around the scaffold,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You know in what closed corners of the earth
A jealous God has hidden gems of worth.

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You know the deepest arsenals, where slumber
The breeds of buried metals without number.

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You whose huge hand has hidden the abyss
From sleepwalkers that skirt the precipice,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You who give suppleness to drunkards’ bones
When trampled down by horses on the stones,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You who, to make his sufferings the lighter,
Taught man to mix the sulphur with the nitre,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You fix your mask, accomplice full of guile,
On rich men’s foreheads, pitiless and vile.

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You who fill the hearts and eyes of whores
With love of trifles and the cult of sores,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

The exile’s staff, inventor’s lamp, caresser
Of hanged men, and of plotters the confessor,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

Step-father of all those who, robbed of pardon,
God drove in anger out of Eden’s garden

Satan have pity on my long despair!

Prayer

Praise to you, Satan! in the heights you lit,
And also in the deeps where now you sit,
Vanquished, in Hell, and dream in hushed defiance
O that my soul, beneath the Tree of Science
Might rest near you, while shadowing your brows,
It spreads a second Temple with its boughs.

The Flowers of Evil: The Balcony

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Frederic Bazille-La Toilette 1870
It is impossible to overestimate the influence  of Charles Baudelaire upon modernity. The entire Symbolism/Decadent movement that so dominated the 19th Century fin-de-siecle in Europe owed its very existence to Baudelaire.

Baudelaire’s importance extends  far deeper that the creation of one transitory artistic school however. Although he didn’t invent the concept of dandyism (that honour belongs to Beau Brummel), his example gave it a wider cultural currency that eventually resulted in the carefully constructed persona of the ultimate aesthete and wit, Oscar Wilde. His wanderings around the Parisian streets led to Walter Benjamin formulating a new type of man, the flaneur. The figure of the flaneur  recurs frequently in Benjamin’s massive, unfinished magnum opus The Arcades Project. The spirit of the Baudelairean flaneur guided the Surrealists in their impromptu flea-market jaunts and nocturnal adventuring. The Situationist International (see Moving Images) took the flaneur a step further and the central tenets of the SI, Unitary Urbanism and psycho-geography are based upon the needs of this recently evolved city-dweller.

Beyond shaping some of the major artistic and intellectual currents of the 19th and 20th Century, Baudelaire presence can be felt in Punk (with his dried green hair and urgent provocations) and dominated Goth (Dreams of Desire 5 (That Look).

His influential art criticism (and the inspiration he provided to visual artists, see The Sleepers) and his re-definition of the poet as cultural agitator and arbitrator paved the way for Guillaume Apollinaire (In The Zone) and Andre Breton (The Pope of Surrealism).

Baudelaire’s fame largely rests upon his volume of poetry, Le Fleurs Du Mal. First published in 1857 it immediately caused a scandal. Baudelaire’s originality lay not in the versification (which is traditional) but in the explicit, morbid subject matter.

Below is a translation of one of his finest love poems, Le Balcon, inspired by his muse and mistress of twenty years, the ‘Venus Noire’, Jeanne Duval (she was a Creole of Haitian-French heritage).

The Balcony

Mother of memories, mistress of mistresses,
you who are all my pleasures and all my duties,
you will remember the beauty of our caresses,
the sweetness of the hearth, the charm of the evenings,
mother of memories, mistress of mistresses.

On evenings lit by the glowing coal-fire
and evenings on the balcony, veiled with pink mist,
how soft your breast was,
how kind to me was your heart!
Often we said imperishable things
on evenings lit by the glowing coal-fire.

How beautiful the sun is on warm evenings!
How deep is space! How powerful the human heart!
As I leant over you, oh queen of all adored ones,
I thought I was breathing the fragrance of your blood.
How beautiful the sun is on warm evenings!

The night would thicken like a wall around us,
and in the dark my eyes would make out yours,
and I would drink your breath, oh sweetness, oh poison!
And your feet would fall asleep in my brotherly hands.
The night would thicken like a wall around us.

I know how to evoke the moments of happiness,
I relive my past, nestling my head on your lap.
For why would I seek your languid beauties anywhere
except in your dear body and your oh-so-gentle heart?
I know how to evoke the moments of happiness!

Will those sweet words, those perfumes, those infinite kisses
be reborn from a chasm deeper than we may fathom
like suns that rise rejuvenated into the sky
after cleansing themselves in the oceans’ depths?
Oh sweet words, oh perfumes, oh infinite kisses!

 

Translation Peter Low 2001

Hy-Brasil

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We have left everyplace
Always a new destination
Our origins are obscure
It was all so long ago
Home was never a place
That could be called home
Just somewhere to flee from
As far and fast as possible
But when we had arrived
Our memories led us astray
Days under a liquid sky
Besides a limpid sea
Glowing gold tinted sun
Held hands in all innocence
Why did we ever leave?
To witness devastation
Ravages of war and famine
The swollen river bursting
Its banks to flood fields
And carry away houses
With all their contents
Of loving living;
To traverse uninhabitable
Glaciated mountains,
To voyage across vast
Scorched earth deserts
And worst of all by far
The suspicious gazes
In every face we meet
Silently saying clearly
That here you don’t belong
You are a stranger here
And strangers aren’t welcome
You will never understand
Our ways and customs
Our rituals and rites
You may be able to
Translate signs and symbols
But the meaning is lost
It will always elude you
You have to be born
And bred in these lands
All émigrés will be exiled
Go back from whence
You came; let us be
In peace, just go back.
We remained undeterred
We travel ever onwards
Somewhere out there is
An Eden yet untouched
A garden grove pristine
The lost long ago but
Never forgotten paradise
Within our hearts
Awaiting us finally
The distant possibility
Of journeys end.