Monday, December 31, 2012

Now and In England

Extract from Four Quartets (Quartet No. 4: Little Gidding) by T.S. Eliot

Last season's fruit is eaten
And the full-fed beast shall kick the empty pail.
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice. ....

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

Hear the whole poem read by Eliot himself here.

Happy New Year and New Beginnings to all readers of Midatlantic!  

Monday, December 24, 2012

It snowed and it snowed

Illustration by Edward Ardizzone

"A Child's Christmas in Wales" by Dylan Thomas is one of the most evocative accounts of the magic of a childhood Christmas. Here is one of my favorite passages:

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.
But here a small boy says: "It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea."
"But that was not the same snow," I say. "Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely -ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards."
"Were there postmen then, too?"
"With sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully. But all that the children could hear was a ringing of bells."
"You mean that the postman went rat-a-tat-tat and the doors rang?"
"I mean that the bells the children could hear were inside them."
"I only hear thunder sometimes, never bells."
"There were church bells, too."
"Inside them?"
"No, no, no, in the bat-black, snow-white belfries, tugged by bishops and storks. And they rang their tidings over the bandaged town, over the frozen foam of the powder and ice-cream hills, over the crackling sea. It seemed that all the churches boomed for joy under my window; and the weathercocks crew for Christmas, on our fence."

Here is Dylan Thomas reading the whole short book in his inimitably mellifluous - and surprisingly unWelsh - voice.

Wishing all the readers of Midatlantic a peaceful and joyous Christmas!


Monday, December 17, 2012

Versed in Sorrow

Prince Sigismund of Prussia (1864-1866)

Letter from Crown Princess Victoria of Prussia to her mother Queen Victoria on the death of her 18-month old son Sigismund from meningitis, June 19 1866

"Your suffering child turns to you in her grief, sure to find sympathy from so tender a heart - so versed in sorrow. The Hand of Providence is heavy upon me....

My little darling, graciously lent to me for a short time to be my pride, my joy, my hope is gone - gone where I can not recall him! Oh spare me the details - spare me telling you how -and when - and where my heart was rent and broken; let me only say that I do not murmur or repine. God's will be done.

What I suffer no one can know - few knew how I loved! It was my own happy secret-the long cry of agony which rises from the inmost depth of my soul reaches Heaven alone.

I wish you to know all - you are so kind, darling Mama - that you will wish to know all about the last terrible days - I cannot describe them.

I am calm now - for Fritz's sake [her husband] and my little ones' - but oh! How bitter is the cross.

I kiss your dear hands and wish I could be in your dear arms.

Your broken-hearted child, Victoria."

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Bones Beneath

Hoar Frost, Andrew Wyeth

"I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape - the loneliness of it - the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it - the whole story doesn't show." Andrew Wyeth

This is how fiction should be – hinting at what lies beneath the story rather than making all of its glories visible to the naked eye. Let the reader use her imagination to see what else might be there. There will always be readers whose minds will jib at the first sign of uncertainty and say, “Wait, how old is this character? What year is this happening? Where exactly are we?” but that’s an occupational hazard. If they have confidence in the writer, they'll read on and trust that meaning will seep up slowly from the bare bones of the prose.
This means that it's also incumbent on the writer to trust her readers to reach that understanding all by themselves and thus refrain from over-explaining. It’s a fine line but a crucial one. Too much information can be deadly for art.