An incandescent fall


Down he came from up,
and in from out,
and here from there.
A long leap,
an incandescent fall
from magnificent
to naked, frail, small,
through space,
between stars,
into our chill night air,
shrunk, in infant grace,
to our damp, cramped
earthy place
among all
the shivering sheep.

And now, after all,
there he lies,
fast asleep.


(Luci Shaw) 


I wish I could remember that first day,
First hour, first moment of your meeting me, 
If bright or dim the season, it might be
Summer or Winter for aught I can say;
So unrecorded did it slip away,
So blind was I to see and to foresee,
So dull to mark the budding of my tree
That would not blossom yet for many a May.
If only I could recollect it, such
A day of days! I let it come and go
As traceless as a thaw of bygone snow;
It seemed to mean so little, meant so much;
If only now I could recall that touch,
First touch of hand in hand – Did one but know!

(Christina Rossetti)

On Emma

Counting from its actual publication date of December 1815, or from the date on the frontispeice of 1816, Emma is now 200 years old. Looking back through these pages I find I haven’t had much to say about it, but I’ve read it about as often as the others, and more than Northanger Abbey, which I never read at all. The book’s first line describes its heroine as ‘handsome, clever and rich.’ It’s not too much of a stretch to say that that description fits Emma as well as it does Emma. This novel is handsome: it shares with Persuasion the elegance and assurance of Austen’s mature style. It’s also very clever, in more ways than one, and richly sown with secrets: the more you look, the more you see. The use of games and charades is one kind of cleverness, but there’s another kind altogether in the way the storytelling works. It’s easy to miss how cleverly Austen uses Emma’s consciousness (which Emma herself fondly thinks penetrating) as a mask for the real machinations of the plot and the true motives of the other characters. Even after many readings, it’s Emma’s version of Frank and Jane that we see—Jane as cold and insipid, Frank as silly and trifling—though there are plentiful clues that she’s wrong about both. It’s Emma’s mind that not only unfolds but shapes the story, and cajoles the reader into missing exactly those clues that Emma herself misses too. And unlike a detective novelist, Austen is completely inconspicuous, almost impassive, in planting her clues. 

John Mullan in The Guardian points out how many clues are buried in Miss Bates’s long monologues (which many readers will probably skip). He goes as far as to say Austen here invented the free indirect style that came to characterise the modern novel. This novel does feel modern, because of Emma’s plainspoken inner monologue and because Emma herself is so flawed. Compared with Pamela or Evelina, the virtuous, one-dimensional heroines of eighteenth-century novels, she’s much more real and rounded, much more modern. As Austen said about her: “I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” Emma is likeable, though, in spite of her flaws, and she grows more likeable the less she is self-deceived. Like Pride and Prejudice, the plot of this novel hinges on the heroine’s self-knowledge. With Emma’s dawning self-awareness comes truer perception (for herself and us) of the others around her.

Mullan also points out how all but imperceptibly Austen uses a character like Mr Perry, who never speaks a word of his own, to reflect the other characters. Something similar happens with Miss Nash. Harriet looks up to Miss Nash, but the attentive reader, conditioned by Emma’s rigid class consciousness, will notice how pitiful Miss Nash’s claims are: a teacher in a boarding school, on the vertiginous edge of gentility, desperately in love with Mr Elton but with less chance even than Harriet of his ever reciprocating. She only ever appears in Harriet’s reports, never in person; her principal role is to make Harriet look pathetic. Harriet is another cleverly drawn character, whose abysmal vacuity is given in a few lines. Mr Wodehouse and Mrs Elton, even Mr Weston and Mr John Knightley, are comic creations, subtly but sharply drawn.

In a novel about perception or the failure to perceive, one of Austen's most incisive observations is the rarity of true discernment. Mr Weston’s main flaw—a frustrating one for Emma—is his lack of discrimination. He gives equal weight to the company and opinions of people so widely different as Miss Bates and Emma herself. Mrs Elton (nee Hawkins), properly despised by Emma, is liked and lauded by all the rest of the village. Here is her introduction: “A week had not passed since Miss Hawkins’s name was first mentioned in Highbury, before she was, by some means or other, discovered to have every recommendation of person and mind; to be handsome, elegant, highly accomplished, and perfectly amiable [and] in addition to all the usual advantages of perfect beauty and merit, was in possession of an independent fortune, of so many thousands as would always be called ten.” Common report so blurs true character, common chatter so elevates the commonplace, that it’s no wonder a deception like Frank and Jane’s can be practiced so easily. Emma’s is not the only blindness. 

Charlotte Brontë objected to Emma that it lacked passion, that it was only concerned with “delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people.” What Austen so cleverly achieves in the new narrative style of this novel is to show how deceptive those surfaces can be, how the interplay between surfaces and inner lives both constructs and conceals realities, and how appearances and perceptions are the charades we all play. 

The Snowy Day

Among other things out from the library at the moment, we have The Snowy Day: Ezra Jack Keats' Caldecott-winning picture book from 1962. It's a simple story. An African American child, Peter, enjoys the snow. He makes snowmen and snow angels, makes tracks and takes a stick to beat a snow-shower down from a tree. He takes a snowball home in his pocket, but it melts in his warm house, where his warm mother pulls off his cold, wet socks. He dreams of more melting snow, an end to the white world he's just discovered, but in the morning, the snow is there still. He takes a friend and sets out again into another snowy day. That's all. 

This book was groundbreaking at the time, which speaks to how desolately white the children's book landscape must then have been. But the sad thing is, it still feels groundbreaking. It still feels unusual to see a black child as the main character (not the offsider) in a story that's just about unalloyed joy. And that is what this story is about. It's about beauty, innocence, wonder, the romance of childhood freedoms and childhood feats. It's not about justice. It's not about diversity or equality.

And yet, it is about those things. It's about the world we'd have if they'd already arrived. In this world, they don't need to be named or won. They're the air a child like Peter breathes, the transfigured landscape on which he sweeps his angel arms, makes his tracks.

All the fragile blue flowers

I've been thinking about all the writers and poets I've outlived. The ones who didn't make it into their late 30s, or even their early. Christopher Marlowe, Anne Brontë, Percy Shelley all died at 29. Joseph Plunkett was 28. Keats died eight months shy of turning 26. There are others. The ones who left glory behind them having lived barely a third of their due time.  Enough and not nearly enough. 

Keats comes up in Mary Oliver's quartet "The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac," about her experience of cancer. Being 80, what she calls "the fortunate platform of many years," Oliver knows about the brevity of life. In the first of the poem's four parts, she names cancer the hunter who entered the forest of her body without a sound. In the third, she urges the reader who hasn't begun to live to think of Keats, who thought he had a lifetime. The poem moves from the shadow of death to the brighter shadow of life. In the end, it's the tiniest things that speak loudest, hold hardest. It's not the silent hunter but the fragile blue flowers that catch the breath and set the heart beating.

Here are the second and fourth parts, which I find the most moving. Listen to Mary Oliver read the whole poem here.

The question is,
what will it be like
after the last day?
Will I float
into the sky
or will I fray
within the earth or a river—
remembering nothing?
How desperate I would be
if I couldn't remember
the sun rising, if I couldn't
remember trees, rivers; if I couldn't
even remember, beloved,
your beloved name.

Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat,
all the fragile blue flowers in bloom
in the shrubs in the yard next door had
tumbled from the shrubs and lay
wrinkled and faded in the grass. But
this morning the shrubs were full of
the blue flowers again. There wasn't
a single one on the grass. How, I
wondered, did they roll or crawl back
to the shrubs and then back up to
the branches, that fiercely wanting,
as we all do, just a little more of