‘Bodies without Histories’: Poems and Memories

Botticelli, 'Madonna of the Book,' 1480

Botticelli, ‘Madonna of the Book,’ 1480

I should have written a post for National Poetry Day yesterday, but life got in the way, so it’s here today instead.

It’s long, but a lot of the length comes from two pieces of poetry I wanted to post.  Apparently, today, it would be de rigueur for me to write an enthusiastic blog post, not about poetry, but about my first visit to Oxford’s new manuscript library. I have been, and it is lovely, and yes, you can look out over the Oxford skyline, and yes, the stairs are excitingly futuristic and look very Battlestar Galactica, and yes, I am (just!) old enough to have looked up my first manuscripts in the old five hundred year old library built by Duke Humfrey and I am sad that no one else will get to do that now. But, Sjoerd Levelt and David Rundle have both written lovely, eloquent pieces on the subject.

Their research places them in a chain of known and named readers in this library: Professor Rundle works partly on Duke Humfrey, the fifteenth-century aristocrat who had it built, and Dr Levelt works on John Selden, book collector and historian, for whom the ‘Selden end’ of the old manuscripts reading room is named. Both of them made interesting points about what it was like to handle manuscripts belonging to these men in the very same space where those manuscripts were kept and read hundreds of years ago. You could stand in the room and imagine the exact same physical experiences – the same manuscripts in your hands, the same light slanting through the same windows – that those men had in the past. 

Memory has a corporeal aspect in some of my favourite poems, and functions a bit the way that long-lived libraries do, to let dead voices come to life again through shared books.

Start with The Wasteland. Before I had the foggiest idea what Eliot was talking about, let alone where half of these archaic-sounding lines were stolen from, bits of the poem stuck out in a non-English rhythm.  “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.” Those lines are actually from Dante’s Inferno: “si lunga tratta/ di gente, ch’ i’ non averei creduto/ che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta” (‘such a long train of people, that I would not have believed that death had undone so many’). Before that, they look towards Virgil’s Aeneid, which Dante draws on to imagine his crowd of thronging dead, and from which he borrows his imagined guide through Hell, the poet Virgil. His crowd echoes that of Virgil, who describes how “omnis turba ad ripas effusa ruebat,/ matres atque viri, defunctaque corpora vita/ magnanimum heroum, pueri innuptaeque puellae …” (‘all of this crowd were rushing to the banks [of the river Styx]: mothers and men, bodies devoid of life, great-hearted heroes, boys and unmarried girls …”). In turn, Virgil’s Latin is taken from Homer’s Greek in the Odyssey, where, after Odysseus summons the dead up from Hades with a libation of blood, αἱ δ’ ἀγέροντο/ ψυχαὶ ὑπὲξ Ἐρέβευς νεκύων κατατεθνηώτων/ νύμφαι τ’ ἠίθεοί τε πολύτλητοί τε γέροντες” (‘then the spirits of the dead came, thronging, from Erebus: young wives and youths, old men who had suffered much …’)

The Greek takes us in a loop back to the modernist poets, for Pound – Eliot’s contemporary and friend – begins his Cantos with a loose translation of the same Greek lines with which this book of the Odyssey begins, which then echo forward into Latin, Italian and then Eliot’s English. Each subsequent re-use of an older text reanimates that text, just as Homer’s dead are brought back to speak to Odysseus in the first place.

I absoutely love the way these poems form a conversation. And I feel hugely lucky to have got to study all of them. It’s on my mind because I’m going back to teach some of the courses where I first met some of these writers (and places are evocative, even for feministy women). But, then, a little bit of me feels as if it’s not my conversation,  just as it’s not my library – I’m a visitor on the edge of a conversation carried out between men and in the male voice. Much as I love those male voices, I wondered how we could think about women immortalised in poems and memories.

The first medieval poem that sprang to mind when I thought about women, poetry, memory and loss was this one (anonymous, for what it’s worth, ok, I admit I think here anon was a man, despite writing about a woman). Here are the opening lines, with a facing translation:

I
Perle, plesaunte to prynces paye,
Pearl, pleasing to a prince’s taste,
To clanly clos in golde so clere
To enclose cleanly in bright gold
Oute of Oryent, I hardyly saye,
From the Orient, I dare swear
Ne proved I never her precios pere.
I never found her precious peer.
So rounde, so reken in uche araye,
So round, so beautiful in every setting
So smal, so smothe her sydes were,
So small, so smooth, her sides were
Queresoever I jugged gemmes gaye
Wheresoever I judged beautiful gems
I sette hyr sengeley in synglure.
I set her apart, unparalleled.
Allas, I leste hyr in on erbere;
Alas, I lost her in a garden
Thurgh gresse to grounde hit fro me yot.
Through the grass to the ground, it slipped from me.
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
I linger, wounded by love-frustration
Of that pryvy perle withouten spot.
For that special pearl, without a spot.IISythen in that spote hit fro me sprange,
Since it sprang from me in that spot,
Ofte haf I wayted, wyschande that wele
I have often waited, wishing for the joy
That wont was whyle devoyde my wrange
That once was wont to dispel my woe
And heven my happe and al my hele.
And raise my heart and happiness.
That dos bot thrych my herte thrange,
This only pierces my heart sorely,
My breste in bale bot bolne and bele.
My breast burns and swells in anguish.
Yet thoght me never so swete a sange
Yet, I never thought of so sweet a song
As stylle stounde let to me stele;
As that still moment let steal over me,
Forsothe, ther fleten to me fele
Indeed, many things flooded over me,
To thenke hir color so clad in clot.
To think of her colour, covered in earth.
O moul, thou marres a myry juele,
Oh mould, you mar a merry jewel,
My privy perle wythouten spotte.
My own pearl, without a spot.

The whole poem is much longer, and it has a gorgeously complicated, repetitive, architectural structure to it. As it unfolds, we realize that the reason the man speaking refers to this pearl as ‘she’ is because the precious stone represents a woman whom he loved and who is now dead and buried – ‘lost’ in a garden that is a graveyard, her ‘colour so clad in clot’, clothed in clods of earth.

I find this a poignant evocation of grief – especially the speaker’s contrast between the ornate beauty of the lost pearl and the gruesome glimpse of the woman’s burial, ‘clad in clot’. However, there’s no denying that even though the dead woman, the lost pearl, belongs to a poetic tradition as old as that which Eliot traces back to Homer, her precious, passive, untouchable body belongs to a wider tradition of representing chaste, beautiful women as perfect in their proximity to death. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne writes a brilliant (and disturbing) description of this kind of medieval attitude:

“Chaste female spirituality is … located in bodies without histories, locked away both from outer event and physiological change. … This writing-out of women is part of a thematic preoccupation with their death in the literature of chastity.”

[quoted from Wogan-Browne, ‘Chaste bodies: frames and experiences,’ in Framing Medieval Bodies, eds. Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 24-42 (p. 24)]

On the surface, all of this is true of Pearl, just as it is of the earlier text to which Wogan-Browne refers. The repeated line referring to a pearl ‘without a spot’ echoes the medieval scriptural interpretations of the perfect female beloved as one who, like the Virgin Mary has no ‘spot’ of sin. In death, she is enclosed in the grave, ‘clad in clot,’ yet this enclosure only continues that more beautiful enclosure imagined in the first lines, where she was ‘clos[ed] in gold’. 

Admittedly, this is a complex poem. It won’t let me construct some neat theory about the ways in which dead men are memorialised through poems that let them speak again, while women, in death, are passive and silent. And I’m glad I can’t.  However, I still read those lines and wish I had something later to look towards, the way you can look from Dante to Eliot or Homer to Pound. And so, that’s where the second poem I want to quote comes from. It’s by a modernist, contemporary with Pound and Eliot, and she deserves to be better known. This is a piece from her long epic poem, Trilogy.

Raphael, Madonna del cardellino ('Our Lady of the Goldfinch'). 1505-6

Raphael, Madonna del cardellino (‘Our Lady of the Goldfinch’). 1505-6

We have seen her
The world over,

Our Lady of the Goldfinch,
Our Lady of the Candelabra,

Our Lady of the Pomegranate,
Our Lady of the Chair;

we have seen her, an empress,
magnificent in pomp and grace,

and we have seen her
with a single flower

or a cluster of garden-pinks
in a glass beside her;

we have seen her snood
drawn over her hair

or her face set in profile
 with the blue hood and stars;

we have seen her head bowed down
with the weight of a domed crown,

or we have seen her, a wisp of a girl
trapped in a golden halo;

we have seen her with arrow, with doves
and a heart like a valentine;

we have seen her in fine silks imported
from all over the Levant,

and hung with pearls brought
from the city of Constantine;

we have seen her sleeve
of every imaginable shade

of damask and figured brocade;
it is true,

the painters did very well by her;
it is true, they never missed a line

of the suave turn of the head
or subtle shade of lowered eye-lid

or eye-lids half-raised; you find
her everywhere (or did find),

in cathedral, museum, cloister,
at the turn of the palace stair.

da Vinci, study of the Madonna, c. 1484

da Vinci, study of the Madonna, c. 1484

We see her hand in her lap,
smoothing the apple-green

or the apple-russet silk;
we see her hand at her throat,

fingering a talisman
brought by a crusader from Jerualem;

we see her hand unknot a Syrian veil
or lay down a Venetian shawl

on a polished table that reflects
half a miniature broken column

O yes – you understand, I say,
this is all most satisfactory,

but she wasn’t hieratic, she wasn’t frozen,
she wasn’t very tall;

she is the Vestal
from the days of Numa,

she carries over the cult
of the Bona Dea,

she carries a book but it is not
the tome of the ancient wisdom,

the pages, I imagine, are the blank pages
of the unwritten volume of the new;

all you say, is implicit,
all that and much more;

but she is not shut up in a cave
like a Sibyl; she is not

imprisoned in leaden bars
in a coloured window;

she is Psyche, the butterfly,
out of the cocoon.

H. D. shows how this woman, the Virgin Mary – central to Western Art History – is seen in the eyes of painters and viewers as a conflation of exchangeable images of femininity, now one woman, now another, now pictured like this, now like that. These Madonnas, with their precious stones and beautiful settings, their enclosure in picture frames or even ‘trapped in a golden halo’, patently share in the same iconographic tradition of the medieval pearl-maiden. A poet like Pound or Eliot might have made her literary and artistic predecessors speak, but instead, H. D. offers a corrective to their view. She strips away all of the rich, evocative tradition and insists on her own poetic authority to define her Madonna. This Madonna is not a (female) ‘body without history,’ nor a (male) speaking voice reanimated, but a move towards something new. 

I hope you like the poems. 

Note

The titles H. D. gives to her Madonna are the titles of paintings, mostly by Raphael. I have to admit, I don’t really warm to Raphael. I always visualised this poem with vague images of da Vinci Madonnas. Sorry! I have absolutely no idea whether or not H. D. could have read the medieval poem Pearl. The imagery is drawn from many of the same sources, but Pearl wasn’t especially well known when H. D. was writing. 

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4 thoughts on “‘Bodies without Histories’: Poems and Memories

  1. Will you be posting a reading list for your courses?. I’d like to read more from the period, and a little structure would be useful.

    • Sure, if you’d find them useful. I’m not sure how comprehensive they are, since they are supplemented by reading lists by college tutors, but I’ll put them up once I’ve started circulating them.

  2. I loved this post: thank you. I want to see the new library!
    To what extent is it really true that the ‘conversation’ less completely owned by women than by men? Certainly, most of the medieval books whose authorship we know about are attributed to men (though not all; for example, Julian of Norwich may have dictated rather than written the Shewings, but, as you said in your last post, the clear rhythm
    and thoughts of the woman’s speech are there. ) But how much do we actually know about the origins of works that were compiled and scribed by men?
    It seems to me that the crowd flowing over London Bridge (or to the Styx etc) is so vast that it has become almost ungendered, classless, depersonalised. It is the great mass of humanity who are part of the passing of cultural awareness down the generations. We look back and incorporate the understandings and images of the past into our own thinking and maybe writing. Our thoughts, new and our own, are affected by the poems we have read, the stories we have heard, the libraries we have sat in…..
    Men, at least in the past, have produced most of the books, but women have probably done more of the verbal transmission. Those medieval mothers you describe, teaching their children to read, would, at least sometimes, have been sharing with the child their delight in an evocative phrase, helping the child to notice the echoes of an old story in a newer one, sometimes expressing new ideas in words that would eventually find their way into a manuscript in Duke Humfrey’s . The fact that the volumes in the manuscript collection are mostly attributed to men is perhaps not too significant. They only got written because of that great crowd of influences. The voices in the conversation are not necessarily male.
    So why did HD, in the twentieth century, find it expedient to conceal her gender? Perhaps that is more of an issue. Surely it is true in Britain today that women have at least as much opportunity as men to put their own name to their own words?
    I expect this is bad feminism and worse scholarship: but I’m not a scholar, I just enjoy the conversation and the images.

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