For The Eve of St Agnes – John Keats at his very best

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This is just a quick post, as today is St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was

The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold; The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass, And silent was the flock in woolly fold:

That, of course, was not me. The words are by John Keats, the poet who has inspired me and saved me in equal measure. The Eve of St Agnes was written approximately 200 years ago, so this is its bicentenary, and just over two years later the author would be dead, aged just 25.
 
There are stanzas in the poem that are filled with, I think, the most beautiful lines ever written. Today, on St Agnes’ Eve (when, if you are a virgin, and really keen, you can eschew the delights of Tinder, go to bed early without eating and lie, looking only ‘heavenwards’, to encourage a vision of the man of your dreams) I just wanted to encourage you to read aloud the following (stanzas 23 and 24), and let the sensuous imagery roll around your mouth and off your tongue…
 
 Out went the taper as she hurried in; 
       Its little smoke, in pallid moonshine, died: 
       She clos’d the door, she panted, all akin 
       To spirits of the air, and visions wide: 
       No uttered syllable, or, woe betide! 
       But to her heart, her heart was voluble, 
       Paining with eloquence her balmy side; 
       As though a tongueless nightingale should swell 
Her throat in vain, and die, heart-stifled, in her dell. 
 
       A casement high and triple-arch’d there was, 
       All garlanded with carven imag’ries 
       Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass, 
       And diamonded with panes of quaint device, 
       Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes, 
       As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings; 
       And in the midst, ‘mong thousand heraldries, 
       And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings, 
A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings. 
 
Read the whole poem HERE. John Keats was a courageous and strong young man, a genius, his life cut short by tuberculosis. For the next two years, until the bicentenary of his death in 2021 (when my own book about the great man comes out) the Keats 200 project will be marking the anniversaries of his best-known work, most of the poems written in 1819. Do take a look and find out more – Keats’s letters and poetry will inspire and warm your soul.
 
(The painting is by pre-raphaelite William Holman Hunt, for whom Keats was the perfect subject – full of luscious colours)
 

And they are gone: ay, ages long ago/ These lovers fled away into the storm.

Black dogs and Lost Generations – Andy Farr, artist.

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Silent Witness by Andy Farr

Towards the end of last year my book, Shell Shocked Britain, prompted one of those serendipitous conversations that link creative projects together and potentially enhance them both. I was contacted by Andy Farr, an artist based in Coventry. His recent work has focused on ‘conflict’, most particularly as a result of war but also including the trauma caused by terrorism,  domestic abuse and the inner conflict that can lead to serious mental ill health.

I went to meet Andy in the glorious surroundings of Gloucester Services (which are actually quite plush). It was good to talk about how the personal stories of men and their families in Shell Shocked Britain might influence art.  He is collecting stories to inspire his latest project –   a body of work that will express the pain exhibited by those narratives of war; from the “shell shock” of the Great War through to the combat stress experienced by service personnel in the 21st century. An exhibition is planned for Nottingham in September and then, all being well, his work will ‘tour’ a number of other venues.

 

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The Response – Andy Far

This new work will extend the fabulous images Andy produced for the Lost Generations project, funded by Arts Council England and the Grimmitt Trust. During Lost Generations, he collaborated with young people across the UK to make the reality of WW1 relevant to today, something I have always been keen to do. My greatest fear at the moment is that the commemorative period will stop, suddenly, in November as we remember the Armistice; the legacy of the war and the importance of continued work to ensure members of the armed forces are supported if the trauma of 21st-century engagements becomes overwhelming, might once more fade away, as it did after 1918.

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100 Summers – Andy Farr

Young people have so many challenges to face today, and competition for their attention becomes ever more difficult, even when the subject is as important as this one. Working collaboratively with students of music, art and drama in this way has clearly worked for Andy. I hope his new project will have a similar impact and continue to ensure that the legacy of war is highlighted. I am currently studying the long-term impact of evacuation on the children of WW2 and it is clear that the horrors of the continuing wars in the Middle East will have a dramatic impact on the future mental health of those involved.

 

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Another day at the office – Andy Far

Mental health is also something important to Andy, who left a well-paid job, requiring an exhausting commute in order to pursue a career as an artist. His series of paintings entitled ‘Black Dog’ vividly depict modern mundanity, the stresses of a deskbound job, and the journies we make to get there. How far away is humanity from that tipping point when our connection to the world around us becomes totally reliant upon interactivity with some sort of screen? How much pressure is it possible to place on themind and brain (surely amounting to much the same thing) before we simply fall off the edge of the precipice, as so many men did in the trenches of the First World War? That endless merry go round? The black dog is waiting for us, all of us. Even those who think themselves immune…

 

CarouselSo do take a look at Andy’s work on his website – www.andyfarr.com – where you can see a moving video detailing more of the work undertaken for the Lost Generations project and find out more about what inspires Andy to choose the subject matter of his work.

Andy is a storyteller in art. His work takes the static memorial and brings it vividly to life and forces us to make the links between the past and the present that are the very best way to ensure future conflicts are avoided. For myself, as a parent, the images of the young people transposed onto the well-known images of the Great War have had as much, if not more, impact than the originals.

My thanks to Andy for allowing me to use these images on my blog. Do go to his website www.andyfarr.com and see them enlarged and further explained.

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Delicious drowsiness’ – John Keats on the importance of sleep…

Keats and sleep
The Moon & Sleep by Simeon Solomon

I have often written of the relevance of the poet John Keats to readers in the 21st century – in fact, I am publishing a collection of pieces on that theme (mainly drawn from this blog and those posts written for The Wordsworth Trust) shortly. So when I was sitting ruminating on my rather odd sleep patterns of late, who should I once again turn to? You’ve guessed it…

‘Delicious drowsiness’ is a comment made by Andrew Motion in his fabulous biography, Keats, where he discusses a sonnet – To Sleep –  written by the poet in April 1819 (a year in which his genius developed rapidly). It has always been a favourite of mine, as the language is, I think, delicious. Read it aloud, or under your breath and feel the words in your mouth, and on your lips…

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
      Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
      Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
      In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,
Or wait the “Amen,” ere thy poppy throws
      Around my bed its lulling charities.
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,—
      Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
      Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.

 

Technically Keats was working with, but not adhering strictly to, the Shakespearean sonnet form and the language used is gentle and the vowels long, creating that ‘delicious drowsiness’ Motion refers to. There is some debate about the meaning, and whether it refers to death, as well as or instead of, sleep. Certainly, the words ’embalmed’ and ‘casket’ can be suggestive of finality, as can the shutting of the eyes in the early lines;  the still recent death of his brother Tom was on Keats’s mind throughout that great year of poetry.  This sonnet can also be seen as reminiscent of some of the lines in Keats’s Ode to a Nightingaleparticularly  the sixth stanza:

 

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
         I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
         To take into the air my quiet breath;
                Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
         To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
                While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
                        In such an ecstasy!
         Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
                   To thy high requiem become a sod.

 

Melancholy, but accepting of death; longing for a painless end, drifting off to the sound of the nightingale. Such is the end he would have wanted for his brother.
However, since my early teenage years and discovery of Keats as ‘my’ poet, I have always thought of this poem as a hymn to sleep as relief from anxiety and worry.  My lifelong struggles with anxiety (well documented on this blog) continue, so I cling to lines such as ‘Then save me, or the passed day will shine/Upon my pillow, breeding many woes’  and ‘Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole’ as indicative of Keats’s ability to describe an eternal truth. How many of us have not experienced at least one night when sleep won’t come, and all the worries of our world come marching in, magnified and determined to disrupt our rest still further? We thump our pillow in frustration, toss and turn and long for something that will help us nod off – whether it be a book, hot drink or a sleeping tablet (that poppy with its ‘lulling charities’).

Sleep and Keats
Sleeping in Poppy Field, E. J. HARRINGTON

The beginning of the poem, rather than a reference to death, makes me think of that wonderful sleep of childhood, when a story is told, the light is turned out, and some magic makes our eyelids heavy and ensures any worries disappear.
Sleep is a time for healing. Physically it is vital to our health and well-being. It can also offer us a brief respite from the concerns of everyday life. It can be a joyful feeling, shared in the arms of someone we love. Observing it in our children can be, outside that natural sense of relief at the peace we craved after a long day, a deeply moving experience, highlighting the innocence of the young, and their (hopefully) carefree existence.

 

But in To Sleep, it is the last line that has always sent a shiver down my spine – of pleasure rather than fear. Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards/And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul rival those other great lines in the second stanza of Nightingale…

 

O for a beaker full of the warm South,

         Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
        And purple-stained mouth
and those in The Eve of St Agnes:

 

  And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
       In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
       While he forth from the closet brought a heap
       Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
       With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
       And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;

 

… for their sheer sensuousness, and the pleasure they offer the reader willing to speak them aloud (in private if you must!). Don’t you agree? Have you others to rival these?
There are a number of memorable descriptions of sleep, or the longing for it, in Keats’s poetry and it is, I think, something we would all do well to turn to at times when our own conscience ‘burrows’, like that mole, under our mattresses and denies us that longed for unconsciousness.
      

Albert and The Somme: From Idealism to Realism by Pamela Davenport

large3As we approach the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, it becomes more important than ever to recognise the sacrifices that were being made by the troops fighting at the Front. There were hundreds of thousands of casualties, and whilst researching Shell Shocked Britain, it became clear that post war estimates of approximately 60, 000 shell shock victims in that offensive alone, is still a significant underestimate. Many survived the battle only to return home undiagnosed, and mentally shattered. I am always interested in hearing stories from those who know something of the war-time experience of the men and women in their family, and here is a particularly interesting piece by No wriggling favourite Pamela Davenport, who has sought to understand her ancestor’s experience the better by studying art works of the period.

To his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren Albert Edward Davenport was a distant and cold person, preferring to spend the time after work in his local public house rather than at home. Little is known about Albert, except that he had joined the army in 1908, but never completed his 7 years’ service. Instead he was “bought out” of the army by his mother Emma two years later and returned to his family’s terraced home in Bury Lancashire. Four years later the world was turned upside down and Albert would be on the move again.

By August 1914 it had become inevitable that Britain would join forces with the Allies against a German Army that was determined to dominate Europe. When the war commenced, Britain was the only major European power not to have a mass conscripted army. In a wave of patriotic fervour, thousands of men were encouraged to volunteer for service in Lord Kitchener’s new armies. With nationalistic feeling strong, many British soldiers departed for training with a copy of Rupert Brooke’s poems tucked into their kitbags. Military service and death was seen as both heroic and noble.

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Meanwhile in Bury, Lancashire, Albert now aged 28, was a painter and decorator and a father of 4 children. He enlisted in October 1914, as a volunteer in the 2nd 5th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Whether he was attracted by Kitchener’s recruitment strategies, the valiant words of Rupert Brooke, or the fact that soldiers serving overseas would be able to claim additional money for his wife and dependants, it is difficult to know. By 6th October 1914 he packed up all his troubles in his ‘old kit bag and smiled, smiled, smiled’, as he headed off into the unknown.

unknown drummer and buglerAlbert, like other new recruits, would have had three months basic training, which was intended to build up physical fitness and confidence, instilling discipline and obedience, as well as teaching basic military skills. This image of the unknown Drummer and Bugler from the 2nd 5th battalion, provides a brief glimpse into the lives of young soldiers who were unprepared for the horrors to be faced on The Western Front. By May 1915 Private Albert Edward Davenport 200845, was on the way to France and possibly the greatest and most terrifying adventure of his life.

2016 marks the centenary of The Battle of The Somme, which was fought between 1st July and 1st November 1916 and was one of the bloodiest battles in history. On the first day alone Britain suffered more than 20,000 fatalities and over 57,000 casualties. It is difficult to imagine how the heroic sentiments, which had been displayed in 1914, could rest easily with the terrible devastation experienced on the Western Front. Although news would have reached Albert’s family about events in France, little is known of his life on the Western Front, as no letters or photographs survive. But Albert did survive this battle.
The overwhelming loss of life which was experienced in the Battle of the Somme was partly as a result of the German army proving to be more experienced in the tactics of defence against Allied offensives. This proved to be costly to the British and Allies on the Western Front and added significantly to the length of the campaign.

As they retreated in November 1916, the Germans left desolation in their wake. Not a shelter that might serve as a billet, not a road or a bridge, not a blade of grass or a wisp of hay that would feed horses; this was truly vandalism on a gargantuan scale. It is difficult to imagine how Albert coped with the havoc and destruction of both his battalion and the landscape.

To gain some insight into Albert’s experiences between 1915 – 1917, I have chosen the art of two of the most distinguished artists of this remarkable era of social and political change. In contrast to Brooke’s patriotic sonnets, as years of devastating losses and with no clear resolution to endless fighting, there was a general change in mood from idealism to realism. Many war artists offered a harsh realistic visual depictions of the death and destruction that resulted from combat. A current exhibition at The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester highlights some of the graphic images produced by C.R.W Nevinson and Paul Nash. The paintings convey the pathos at the plight and experience of the ordinary soldiers who became nameless heroes. Their “Visons of the Front 1916-1918” do not glorify war and were intended to shock public reaction to the losses in battle. These shocking images still resonate as much today as they did 100 years ago.

Both Nash and Nevinson emerged from a remarkable group of artists from the Slade School of Art and like many other artists, writers and poets ended up on the Western Front. Both saw themselves as messengers of the terrifying realism on the Western front. It must have been a sense of cruel irony that the destruction and depravity of the battle field fed the imagination of these incredible artists.

“I realise no one in England knows what the scene of the war is like. They cannot imagine the daily and nightly background of the fighter. If I can, I will show them…”

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© IWM (Art.IWM ART 518)

In Nevison’s painting Paths of Glory (above) the starkness and irony is apparent. The viewer is presented with the sight of two dead soldiers lying in the battlefield mud. It is difficult to identify or identify with these unnamed heroes, as their faces are obscured and their bodies merge with the murky earth. A death in a waste land, a dreadful sense of a loss of identity and a waste of young lives. It is little wonder the official censor of paintings and drawings, Lieutenant – Colonel A N Lee censored this painting, what type of message would the sight of rotting and bloated British soldiers convey to the British public? But these were the type of images which Albert would be faced with.

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© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2242)

Nash’s experience as an officer on the Western Front and an official war artist completely transformed the way in which he painted. His early work was romantic and light hearted. By 1917, as he travelled towards Belgium, he began to note changes in the landscape. In one of his most famous paintings, The Menin Road (above) we are drawn into a completely ruined landscape with an apocalyptic sky, a wasteland of mud and standing water. This is really a strange disturbing and alienating place. The scene shows a place of chaos, irrevocable change and wreckage. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could survive physically, emotionally and psychologically from this experience. It is estimated that over 750,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed in the trenches surrounding Ypres, but Albert wasn’t one of them.

Albert was to see action at Hallencourt, the 4th phase of The Somme and the first phase of the third battle of Ypres, but this was not an enviable European tour. Having survived the Battle of the Somme Albert was promoted to corporal in March 1917, but six months later he received an honourable discharge under the category “No longer physically fit”, and awarded the Silver War Badge.

Although awarded 3 medals, the Star Medal, the Victory Medal, the British Medal, Albert, a weary but resolute British Tommy, did not return to a “Land for Heroes”. Instead Albert returned to a country which had lost a generation. Wilfred Owen’s haunting elegy Anthem for Doomed Youth is a judgement on the experience of war, the impact on the “sad shires” and those who were left to mourn.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Albert returned to his family a changed man, dying aged 71 years in 1953. He never mentioned his experiences in France and Belgium, post-traumatic stress syndrome was a condition which was not recognised in 1918. But Albert would ruefully reflect and contemplate on “each slow dusk a drawing- down of blinds” and the many young men who became doomed youths.

Sadly his war records and his medals are missing, but it is thanks to the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum in Bury that I have been  able to provide some insight into Albert’s army life.

Guest post by Pamela Davenport: The Models & Muses of the Pre Raphaelites: Annie Miller

Back in January I was thrilled to welcome Pamela Davenport, a fellow lover of all things art and literature, as a guest blogger on No wriggling.  Millais – A compassionate portrait of Opheilia was such a success and, she assures me, an enjoyable experience for her,  that she has written another piece about the Pre – Raphaelite Brotherhood for me to share with my readers. Perhaps it would be fairer to say this post is about one of the ‘sisterhood’ of  women used (and, perhaps, abused) by the artists in that Bohemian group – one of, as Pamela says, the ‘bohemians and stunners’,  Annie Miller. Once again, I must thank Pamela for all the research she does to tell us more about this fascinating period in British art.

Annie MillerIn my previous guest blog I explored the way in which Millais, the golden boy of The Royal Academy, used inspiration from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet to produce a beautiful visual portrayal of the last moments of Ophelia’s life. The models and muses became an important part of the work of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). So how were these supermodels of the nineteenth century discovered? Annie Miller was there at the beginning of the Brotherhood and no doubt helped to shape their art. But how did Annie get her lucky break?

Born into poverty and orphaned as a child, she was brought up by her aunt and uncle, a laundress and a shoe maker, in the slums of London. With her wild and filthy hair and covered in vermin, William Holman Hunt, an original member of the PRB, saw a beauty to be rescued by a knight errant, from her life of poverty. Hunt wished to transform Annie, Pygmalion-style, and set about educating her. However, did he ever intend to marry her?

Annie made her first appearance as the model in The Awakening Conscience, 1853 (above). If one looks closely there are references to Annie’s relationship to William in the painting. and the sense that this woman is kept as a mistress, rather than a wife. However, there was always an ambiguity about their stormy relationship. After one of their many rifts, William repainted the face, using his wife Fanny Waugh. William considered himself Annie’s saviour, but he never proposed or showed much interest in her after a lengthy absence in the Middle-East. I like to think that she was fiercely independent; after all she came from an era when love was not a first priority, making a match was.

So what would you do if the man who pays your bills, pays for your education, and controls your life clears off to the Holy Land, with no promise that he would return, let alone marry you? In this case absence certainly did not make Annie’s heart grow fonder. Was this the wake-up call Annie needed? Apparently Annie had a mind of her own and in Hunt’s absence she was seen out socially with different men, including both Rossetti brothers, Dante Gabriel and William, and the artist George Boyce. Just as Henry Higgins lost his power and influence over Eliza Doolittle, Annie spread her wings and turned away from the staid and solid Hunt and sought a world of excitement

Although there are some Hunt images of Annie, there are admittedly more by other people, mostly Rossetti. Ah Rossetti, I wondered when we’d come to you! Although he helped her financially, Hunt also had to give his permission for her to sit for other artists, and the “bad boy” Rossetti was not one of them. Rossetti – yes there is a romantic view of him, this bohemian who probably was more exciting than the dour William Hunt;the man about town with his dark flowing hair, whose art and poetry contained sensuality and realism that captured the bohemians and stunners on his canvases.

With their voluptuous figures and loose luxuriant hair, Annie and other ‘stunners’ became an emblem of female sexuality , with a suggestion of loose morals. These breath-taking works, with their hidden secrets, high spirits and high aspirations, challenged Victorian morals and conventions. To me, Rossetti and his relationships with his muses and models became more interesting than any soap opera. In particular I found his relationship with Annie Miller fascinating. With her amazing blond hair and her curvaceous figure Annie had caught the eye and imagination of many artists and Annie soon became seduced by the glamour of the artists’ studios and the ‘reality show’ fame attached to the role. Just like Eliza Doolittle she never knew what made her role so exciting and why her heart took flight!

Annie as helen
Woman in Yellow – Dante Gabriel Rossetti

As with many Pre-Raphaelite women, Annie became the object of Rossetti’s infatuation and desires.  He used her as a model incessantly while Hunt was away. Unfortunately Rossetti was married to Elizabeth Siddal at the time and his obsession caused arguments and friction between Lizzie and Rossetti. Whether from sexual jealously or something deeper, it is thought that Lizzie felt her role as Rossetti’s muse was threatened. Was this really a love triangle? It certainly adds an interesting dimension to the drama. After Lizzie died, in 1862 Annie posed for Rossetti for two stunning paintings, Woman in Yellow (above) and Helen of Troy, showing how she had become briefly the supermodel of the nineteenth century.

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Helen of Troy

This image of Helen of Troy clearly demonstrates the Pre Raphaelite hallmark of women, with the rippling hair, full lips, the hair ornaments and jewellery. No wonder Mrs Gaskell referred to Rossetti as “not mad as a March hare, but hair mad”.  The loose luxuriant hair can be viewed as an emblem of female sexuality, but did this necessary equate to loose morals?

In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms; And none but thou shalt be my paramour!”

Although Annie has been immortalised on canvas there have been some critics who did not view her as the beautiful Helen of Troy. So why did Rossetti choose Annie to be his model for this radiant paining?  Does the poem Rossetti wrote to complement the painting, Troy Town, provide any more insight, with its emphasis  on love, desire and beauty?

Undeniably Annie came from a lowly background, so perhaps subconsciously Rossetti was elevating her status just as Holman Hunt had tried to do.

Just as the tabloid media now has a ‘field day’ with celebrities, there have been many people who viewed Annie’s lifestyle judgmentally, assuming that she was rather too free with her favours. This has been reinforced by several dramatic portrayals in the twentieth century, which included Ken Russell’s Dante Inferno in 1967, the Love School in 1975 and Desperate Romantics in 2009. Would it be more realistic to state that Annie was aware that her modelling career was short lived and that these  friendships were more to do with self-preservation?

By 1863, Annie’s career was on the wane as Rossetti, ever fickle with his emotional attachments, replaced Annie with the gregarious Fanny Cornford.  Finally Janey Morris, the wife of William, with her lean pale face and her mass of long dark brown hair, represented an alternative beauty to the ‘stunners’. The bohemian lifestyle was left behind as Annie chose a more sedate lifestyle and moved to Hampstead.

Like Eliza Doolittle, Annie married and settled down with Thomas Thomason, in Shoreham by Sea, employing a cook, housemaid and parlour maid. Annie and Thomas had one daughter who recalled her mother as “being lovely and ladylike, wearing exquisite handmade shoes and kid gloves”.

Annie overcame many barriers, from a Victorian childhood living in poverty with no hope for the future, to posing as the face that launched a thousand ships as Helen of Troy. Her relationship with Holman Hunt caused rifts and conflicts and eventually ties between them were severed. But Annie was assertive and she stood up to him and amazingly lived her own life on her own terms, as much as any woman in her position could do in such a restrictive and stifling era. “ I’ll never know what made it so exciting, why all at once my heart took flight, I only know when he began to dance with me I could have danced, danced, danced all night”.

Annie Miller was a fascinating woman, especially during an era when the social structure of society was different and the position of women in society was one of that being defined by the men in their lives.

What a journey Annie had travelled from the dirty unhygienic slums of London to the quiet Sussex coast. Annie lived until 1925 when she died at the age of 90.

0a9a86fPamela Davenport is an experienced Higher and Further Education teacher, who has substantial experience working with children and young people in social care, community and educational settings. Pamela has undertaken 8 European visits, to Germany, Belgium, Spain and Finland, as part of the British Council’s Erasmus/Socrates Teacher Mobility Project. Writer on Social Care Values in Practice, Human Development Across The Lifespan, Working in a Multi-cultural Society, The Invisible Child, The Rights of Children and co-author for Teacher’s Handbook for HUGS Charity. She is a passionate lover of art and literature, in particular Shakespeare, the Romantics, the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, The Impressionists and Picasso.
Join her on twitter @pameladav3 and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pameladav

It isn’t all roses & chocolates: the love of ‘La Belle Dame…’

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John William Waterhouse – La Belle Dame sans Merci 1893

I have written a number of posts highlighting some of the world’s most beautiful love poetry.  Many are under the banner of ‘Love Songs you wish you had written…’, a meme I took from the wonderful Dad Poet, David J Beauman. Some of the poems I have chosen in the past are full of longing, or are wistful. Some are simply dedicated to a chosen one, or highlight the very simplicity and ordinariness of life in a comfortable, loving relationship. I am in one such, so it has been, I suppose, more natural to choose poems that praise something most of us search for, more or less successfully, throughout our lives. A few have been more cynical, or tempered with the sense of an ending, but I don’t think any have focused on the unhappy or even destructive consequences of a disastrous affair and I thought it might be time to redress the balance a little. After all, St Valentine’s Day is not for everyone. The poem I have chosen today might convert many to the joys of singledom, for example……

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats  (published version, 1820)

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
Alone and palely loitering;
The sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever dew;
And on thy cheek a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads
Full beautiful, a faery’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long;
For sideways would she lean, and sing
A faery’s song.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look’d at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew;
And sure in language strange she said,
I love thee true.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gaz’d and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes–
So kiss’d to sleep.

And there we slumber’d on the moss,
And there I dream’d, ah woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cry’d–“La belle Dame sans merci
Hath thee in thrall!”

I saw their starv’d lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

This is one of John Keats’s most famous poems, subject to a myriad interpretations, linked to his love for Fanny Brawne, his fears about the destructive nature of passion (particularly on his poetic ambitions) and his incipient decline into the latter stages of the tuberculosis that was to kill him in 1821. It can be read as full of ‘double entendres’ – sitting a woman on his ‘pacing steed’, garlanding a ‘fragrant zone’ and enjoying much sighing and moaning, suggestive of a night of passion. Or you can read it as a gothic tale of a cruel “beautiful lady without mercy” as the French translation of the title suggests. In any event, it is, in my opinion, a brilliant, tightly structured ballad that creates intense atmosphere and offers a clear warning to those beguiled by passion and romance –  if only our nameless knight had seen the kings and princes already abandoned by their cruel lover- ‘I saw their starved lips in the gloam,/With horrid warning gapèd wide,’.

I have written about how Keats has influenced artists through the ages – from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood , through to graphic novelists, comic-book  writers and contemporary film-makers, but to day it may be seen as one for those who are rather sick of the hearts, flowers and sickly sentimental commercialism that often seems to accompany St Valentine’s Day. Have a good day anyway……

 

 

 

Millais – A compassionate portrait of Opheilia – a guest post by Pamela Davenport

Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896
Ophelia 1851-2 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Today on No Wriggling I am thrilled to host a guest piece by Pamela Davenport, a fellow lover of all things art and literature and, like me, an author on The Wordsworth Trust blog. Find out more about her at the end of the post, and let us know how you feel about this painting and the work of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. We would love to hear from you.

While at University in the mid-1980s, I made regular visits to Manchester City Art Gallery and became fascinated with the ‘boy band’, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. So many questions came to mind, amongst them – where did they get their vision, creativity, insight and most of all inspiration? I soon discovered that literature was an important aspect of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, taking their inspiration from the Romantic Poets, including Keats as well as Ovid and Shakespeare. The three original members of the group, the charismatic Rossetti, the serious theorist Hunt and Millais with his prodigious talent, become known as The Young Ones who wanted to modernise art.  Led by Rossetti this unique band became known for their pranks, midnight jaunts around London’s streets and pleasure gardens and late night drinking sessions.

MilliasThis Band of Brothers, with their “military” action against the art establishment, was brought together with the intention of painting serious subjects taking inspiration from the artists of the middle ages and the great works of literature. This revolutionary artistic group was to be faithful to nature and paint outdoors, and in this Shakespeare’s plays offered ideal subject matter. Not only does Shakespeare describe beautiful natural scenes, but he writes scenes of emotional and moral complexity. This juxtaposition of art and literature totally captivated me.

It was his fascination with the females in Shakespeare’s plays that is obvious in Millais’ work. From the beautiful, rich and intelligent Portia, in the Merchant of Venice to the witty, fun, loyal, ingenious and decisive Rosalind, in As You Like It, Millais clearly adds depth and character to his compositions. But it was the image and the story of Ophelia which took my breath away when I first saw the painting in the Tate.

Initially I was drawn to Arthur Hughes’ interpretation of Ophelia’s contemplating death. This delicate pale young girl, with long fair hair, with a crown of reeds and flowers on her head and dressed in white drapery intrigued me. With her deep sorrowful expression Ophelia is seated in the centre of the painting in a dark, swampy woodland setting. But nothing could compare to Millais representation of this Shakespearean heroine. It was like stepping out into sunlight, with the clarity of colour and heartfelt emotion that made my heart skip a beat.

I have seen various productions of Hamlet and what has always struck me is that  through his poetry and prose, Shakespeare with his universality, and his realism, can  create drama from human emotion. This is particularly apparent in Hamlet. Ophelia’s portrayal is a passive, sexually vulnerable posture, linking to Hamlet’s association of “woman” with “fragility” and Laertes calling Ophelia a “document in madness”.

In his book, Madness and Civilisation, Foucault considers the links between water and madness. He discusses how drowning was associated with the feminine, female fluidity rather than male aridity.  If the drowning of Ophelia is considered, it represents the truly feminine death which is represented in many dramas of literature, art and life. Thus water becomes symbolic of the liquid woman whose eyes are drowned in tears as her body is slowly deprived of life.

It is Shakespeare’s representation of his female characters that is both interesting and thought provoking, especially in the way in which he represents Ophelia. As the character evolves it appears that she is defined by and wholly at the mercy of the male figures in her life. Although Hamlet is not totally to blame for the tragedy of the play, his innocence must be questioned if we consider the death of Ophelia. Hamlet’s attitude towards Ophelia swings from undying love and cruelty, as in Act 3 scene 1 “You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old shock but we shall relish of it: I loved you not”. This suggests that Hamlet used Ophelia as part of his revenge plan. In Act IV Scene v it becomes apparent that Ophelia can no longer cope with the dilemma and conflict she has had to endure. “Look at my flowers, there’s rosemary, that’s for remembering….pansies…. they’re for thoughts…..”, as melancholy descends.

Although we never get to see Ophelia in the stream we do have Gertrude’s description to Laertes of the drowned Ophelia in Act IV Scene VII in the brook, “There with fantastic garlands did she come, Of crow-flowers, nettles, daises and long purples……When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook, her clothes spread wide….”

In his representation of Ophelia Millais clearly conveys her ethereal beauty. Millais’ painting is almost frighteningly realistic, with vivid colours of nature, her billowing dress and chaotically floating hair and flowers. This is how I always visualised Ophelia’s tragic death, in my imagination this work of art perfectly complements Gertrude’s description. Ophelia is shown holding her arms out in the shape of a cross, with the ivy in the painting symbolising Ophelia’s melancholy and decay.

Millais places Ophelia in exotic surroundings which are enhanced by bright colours and thick brush strokes to paint trees. Apart from the inert passivity of Ophelia, a closer look at her posture and face conveys the moment of death as an almost orgasmic ecstasy. The painting shows a clever use of symbolism and colour clearly represents Ophelia’s descent into madness and the tragic loss of her life, as she lies “Mermaid-like awhile they bore her up…… As one incapable of her own distress,…Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, Pulled the poor wretch from her melodies lay to muddy death”.

I have returned to this painting many times and see something new each time. The way in which Millais interprets and captures Ophelia’s expression as she is retreating into her madness, lying motionless and emotionless obvious of her fate, is pure understated drama. The painting is regulated in a way to highlight the natural details of the scene. The grassy water plants and the bed of weeds in which she floats look almost like a piece of exquisite embroidery. Driven insane by the murder of her father by Hamlet, Ophelia is portrayed singing in her madness as she drowns. To me this truly captures Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death.

When I first introduced my daughter to this wonderful picture she was drawn to the flowers and the wild life. Most of the flowers are included because they are mentioned in the play or are symbolic. Millais began the background in July 1851 at Ewell, Surrey with the main aim of close observation of nature. Millais observed these flowers growing wild over a period of five months, hence there are flowers that bloom at different times of the year. Looking closely at the painting there is a robin in the branches of the willow tree, which refers back to the line, “For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy”, which Ophelia sings as she loses her mind in Act IV Scene V. Birds are symbolic of the spirit. It could be a reference to Ophelia floating down the river and her spirit flying away. A poignant and beautiful creative work, a timeless tribute to Ophelia.

Once the background was completed Millais moved into his studio, where his model Lizzie Siddall was required to pose in a bathtub, with the water begin kept warm by lamps underneath, over a 4 month period. My daughter was fascinated by the story, and this started her own  fascination with English Literature as well as a love for art.

0a9a86fPamela Davenport is an experienced Higher and Further Education teacher, who has substantial experience working with children and young people in social care, community and educational settings. Pamela has undertaken 8 European visits, to Germany, Belgium, Spain and Finland, as part of the British Council’s Erasmus/Socrates Teacher Mobility Project. Writer on Social Care Values in Practice, Human Development Across The Lifespan, Working in a Multi-cultural Society, The Invisible Child, The Rights of Children and co-author for Teacher’s Handbook for HUGS Charity. She is a passionate lover of art and literature, in particular Shakespeare, the Romantics, the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, The Impressionists and Picasso.
Join her on twitter @pameladav3 and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pameladav

On sitting down to watch Withnail and I once again….

downloadApologies to John Keats for mangling the title of his poem on King Lear, but it seemed very appropriate. This blog has always covered an eclectic mix of subjects to say the least, breaking basic rules of blogging (know your niche, focus, give readers what they want etc) but one thing I rarely talk about is film. Yet I had ambitions – I took an Arvon Course on screenwriting eight years ago, when Jane Campion had recently stolen my thunder and come up with an idea for a biopic of John Keats that wasn’t about Keats and announced Bright Star. So I was hoping to focus on adapting a short story I had written about my great-uncle (that went on to inspire my book, Shell Shocked Britain) into a short film. On the first evening the course leaders went round the gathered company asking each of us to name our favourite film.

Now this was a challenge to me as I rarely sit down to watch a movie. My husband and I have very different tastes and although I will happily watch a two-hour episode of Inspectors Morse, Lewis or Montalbano, I am not a ‘movie night’ kind of gal.  I often lose patience mid way through a DVD, and trips to the cinema are infrequent. I do love some films –  Little Miss Sunshine, Lost in Translation and the aforementioned Bright Star; Love Actually is a favourite at Christmas largely because Emma Thompson is so brilliant in it, and at the same time of year the Muppet Christmas Carol is an annual treat.

Continue reading “On sitting down to watch Withnail and I once again….”

Love poems you wish you had written 2015 – #1 John Donne

JohnDonneLast year I followed the example of the fabulous David J Bauman over at The Dad Poet and posted some of my favourite love poetry. I had a great time rediscovering some old favourites and finding new work that moved me; poetry that really had the power to distil emotions and make me cry out (internally anyway!) ‘Yes!!’

So this year, I thought I would do something similar, but with poems nominated by friends on social media. I have always maintained that those who say ‘I don’t like/get poetry’ just haven’t found the right poet for them, so I do hope something on this blog inspires you to take a closer look, for Valentine’s Day on the 14th, and onwards.

The first poem of the week was nominated by Lorna Fergusson, over at Fictionfire, and seconded by Emma Darwin. It was published nearly 400 years ago, but it still has the power to send (pleasurable) shivers down the spine…..

The Good-Morrow
By John Donne

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

This is a wonderful evocation of the sensual and spiritual aspects of the love between two people, and as the film Fifty Shades of Grey hits the screen, I posit the idea that Donne is sexier by far than anything E L James came up with. The lines For love, all love of other sights controls/And makes one little room an everywhere is so quietly passionate that the intensity of the emotion expressed can escape you. Makes me go all warm inside and conjures up an illicit weekend away – 48 hours and never leaving the room…….

I thought I would also offer a reading of the poems I post on here, if possible, and on YouTube I found my favourite actor, the lovely Kenneth Branagh, reading it. Do let me know what you think, and if you have favourite love poems of your own.

Enjoy 🙂

Who needs Glastonbury? The Keats House Festival 2014

keatshseAs many of those who read my blog regularly will know, I am a Londoner born and bred, not moving away from the city until I was 25 and and retaining my love of my roots even as I live now in Somerset, which I reached via Brighton, sometimes referred to as ‘London by the Sea’. I return to central London regularly for research trips or events, but rarely find myself as far out as the North London suburbs which I remember so well from childhood.

I was not a rebellious teenager, far from it. As I have recently written for The Wordsworth Trust blog, I fell in love with the words of a dead poet when my friends were finding more to identify with in the lyrics of Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet, or Boy George.  John Keats may have been little more than five feet tall, but his personality was as large and vibrant as any new romantic.

So it is with a sense of deep frustration at my inability to attend that I alert you to a wonderful festival that is taking place in Hampstead, London from this Saturday, 7th June, until the 15th. Keats House (which I always think of as Wentworth Place) is celebrating the 200 years since Keats wrote his first poem, as a teenager studying to be an apothecary.

Although the weather does not promise to be kind, for this weekend at least, the House and garden will host a range of events for adults and children to inspire and delight. There will be writing workshops and family fun days and the terrific actors  Simon Russell Beale and Dame Janet Suzman will read a selection of Keats’s poetry (although I do wish they would have younger actors reading his words, to capture something of his own voice).

Daljit Nagra, the latest Keats House poet in residence.
Daljit Nagra, the latest Keats House poet in residence.

Keats House has a poet-in-residence, and the wonderful Jo Shapcott will be handing over the baton to Daljit Nagra and both will take workshops during the week to help you find your own poetic inspiration. It isn’t all about Keats; there is dancing, screenwriting, censorship and ‘Poeticabotanica’. And afternoon tea with Keats. Bliss.

I would have been particularly keen to attend ‘Writing the Frontiers of Life, Death and Sickness’ on the 11th,  where Sam Guglani, Jo Shapcott, and award-winning poet, novelist and playwright Philip Gross ‘explore and celebrate the interactions between poetry and medicine today’. This is a subject that fascinates me. To ignore the influence of Keats’s long study of medicine on his poetry is to miss so much of what was important to him, and what traumatised him and changed his perspective on what it meant to be alive.

So I can’t be there, but if you are in London over the next few days why don’t you take a look at the website The Keats Festival 2014 and see if there are any tickets available? You can doff your cap to the great man for me and learn a little more about his lasting legacy to us all.