Month: November 2015

Outside of Time: Play in Nature

The second concept I wish to reflect on from the CHE collaboratory is more nebulous; the relationship between play, nature and time. I was interested, in particular, with the idea of a separation between children and adults signified by both their relationship to nature, and their natural inclination towards play.

Ros King’s paper on Play and National Identity in Renaissance England encompassed, in its broad scope, play as an evolutionary trait in humans and animals. She suggested that play was a means for experiencing the environment and building a familiarity with it that gave a survival advantage. In physical play both children and animals test and explore the limits and capabilities of their bodies and the material world around them, increasing their spacial awareness. Ros discussed the connection between physical sensations and memory, which evokes nostalgia for childhood experiences.

Jack Tan’s paper on Dickens explored the idea of access to nature as a key element of play. The character of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations refers to herself as a woman who “has never seen the sun” since Pip was born. She further suggests that play is something that belongs to children, and not to the realm of “men and women.” This reflects a change in attitudes to both childhood and the ‘outdoors’ in Victorian mentalities.

As we saw in other papers on medieval and early modern sources; adult play was often something that took place outside, with hunting as a prime example of direct engagement with the natural world. However the Victorians were, more so than their predecessors, ‘indoor people’ as a result of urbanisation and changing forms of work and recreation. Additionally, they had an elevated awareness of childhood as a time both separate and sacred, and this is reflected in Dickens’ many child characters who are often denied this ‘golden age’ of childhood by circumstance, but still retain its inherent innocence.

This idea of childhood play as a state outside of time and connected with idealised nostalgia and immersion in nature reflects the biblical Eden or classical Arcadia. Indeed, the Victorians frequently projected this longing for a state of innocence before sin onto childhood. Concurrently there is a growing romanticism of the ‘countryside’ and rural pastimes as timeless and innocent. Like the literary fairies of the period, nature is attached to the realm of childhood and made innocent, where previously it was wild and dangerous. The childhood golden age of the Victorians exists at once in the distant past of nostalgia and in a realm outside of time, as inaccessible by adults as Barrie’s Neverland.

Bob White mentioned Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village which, although an 18th cent example, evokes this sentiment perfectly:

Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheared the labouring swain,
Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid,
And parting summer’s lingering blooms delayed,
Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease,
Seats of my youth, when every sport could please,
How often have I loitered o’er thy green,
Where humble happiness endeared each scene!

Skye M. W.

St. Cecilia’s Day, 2015

image: A Young Girl in a Field, Ludwig Knaus (1829-1910)

Poetry as Play

Over the past two days I’ve been fortunate enough to attend the Centre for the History of Emotions collaboratory; Play of Emotions. The conference featured guest speakers and UWA researchers discussing the nature of ‘play’ in all its varieties through literature, history and art. To attempt to summarise the diverse themes and material covered would be overly ambitious, so I am going to focus on two ideas that recurred through more than one paper, and opened new lines of thought for me.

The first of these themes is poetry as play. Andrew Lynch’s paper on the vocabulary of play in Middle English introduced the idea of reading poetry as a form of play, citing Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, in which the narrator seeks a diversion from his insomnia by reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Til now late, this other night,
Upon my bedde I sat upright
And bad oon reche me a book,
A romaunce, and he hit me took
To rede and dryve the night away;
For me thoghte it better play
Then playen either at ches or tables.

(Chaucer, The Book of the Duchess, lines 45-51.)

Kirk Essary’s paper on Erasmus and Ovid’s Nux further explored this idea, with the study of poetry as a form of humanist educational play preferable to frivolous games. Erasmus plays with Nux in his commentary and his lightness of interpretation treats the text as both a serious subject with deeper meanings and an amusing source of scholarly pleasure.

It is interesting that both Erasmus and Chaucer use Ovid as an example of enjoyable, playful poetry. I wonder if this partially due to the nature of the texts, which Chaucer describes as ‘fables’ and ‘a wonder thing.’ Perhaps Ovid’s tales could be seen in this light as fairy stories, particularly from a Christian perspective, and thus more enjoyable and less serious than historical or biblical texts. This is not to say their value is diminished however, as Erasmus clearly sees Nux as a worth the attention and study of young minds.

Bob White’s paper, Playful Keats, explored evidence of the poet’s childhood memories in A Song About Myself and his ability to assume a childlike perspective in Ode on a Grecian Urn. A Song About Myself is reminiscent of nursery rhymes and Jennifer Radden suggested it may have been included in later books as such a rhyme. It’s certainly true that many of us first encounter poetry through childhood play, in skipping rhymes and games like ‘Ring Around the Rosie.’ In childhood, poetry can be educational but it is almost always a game, amusing and pleasurable.

Here we move from reading to writing poetry as a form of play. I was fascinated by Bob’s suggestion that Ode on a Grecian Urn might have been written from the perspective of a child. It immediately brought to mind Kenneth Grahame’s The Golden Age and Dream Days, two books I consider to capture the child’s perspective more perfectly than anything else in English. I was captivated by the idea of Keats writing from this point of childlike wonder, with poetry itself as a means of generating wonder. There is an animism in both the Ode and Nux that is generally attributed to children.

Unfortunately, I feel that playfulness is not something we associate with poetry in the 21st century. Nursery rhymes and childrens’ games are seen as separate from ‘real’ poetry, and analysis of poetry takes this seriousness for granted. Indeed, poetry is so professionalised that many express embarrassment at their own amateur ‘attempts.’ There is a modern notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ poetry, which is perhaps only evaded by comic poetry. This is so very different to earlier attitudes. During the 19th century anyone might compose poetry as a diversion or even as part of a parlour game and there seems to be far less shame involved in sharing this ‘word play.’ Perhaps the loss of playfulness in both the reading and writing of poetry has contributed to the gradual decline in its popularity over the past century.

Skye M. W.

Festa della Madonna della Salute, 2015

image: Ring of Roses, Frederick Morgan (1847-1927)

Reflecting on Possession

Think of this – that the writer wrote alone, and the reader read alone,
and they were alone with each other

A.S. Byatt

After semester is over I can enjoy the luxury of reading for pleasure again, and the first book I picked up this month was A.S. Byatt’s Possession. I read The Children’s Book in January last year and had been meaning to follow up with Possession ever since. However I’m glad I waited as it was exactly the right time to read it now, tying in both with the creative writing work I did this semester and the reading I have been pursuing on intellectual friendships.

Possession is the story of literary researchers Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, and their discovery of a hidden romance between two Victorian poets. It is epistolary, in part; several chapters are made up of the letters between the poets and the diaries of Victorian women who knew them. Additionally, Byatt includes the poems of these two fictional writers, which display an impressive level of craft on the author’s behalf, as they are beautiful even on their own. I was particularly taken by The Garden of Proserpina (a nod to Swinburne?) and The Fairy Melusine. The alliterative description of The Thirsty Fountain’ is so cold, liquid and green you can almost taste it:

A rounded rock stood low among the curl
Of dim-discerned weeds, whose fronds were stirred
By many little springs that bubbled up
And seeped through coiling strands and stirred the plane
Of the dark water into dimpling life.
The rock was covered with a vivid pelt
Of emerald mosses, maidenhairs and mints
Dabbling dark crowns and sharply-scented stems
Amongst the water’s peaks and freshenings.

I was again overwhelmed by Byatt’s deep familiarity with myth and folklore and her ability to weave both into a text that is entirely realist whilst still satisfying the desire for wonder and magic usually fulfilled by fantasy. She displays her wide reading with name dropping which pleases me, in this instance, because she references obscure writers like Angela Brazil and Walter de la Mare, whose work was once very popular but little known now. Possession is a bookish book, it assumes a familiarity with classical and northern myth, with Victorian literature and art, with Arthurian legend and English folklore. It drops into Latin or French and does not always translate, nor does it explain itself in any way. If it were not set almost entirely within my field of study and interest I would find myself baffled. Fortunately it serves like a chocolate box of all my literary and scholarly pleasures, so I cannot help but enjoy it.

As to the romance, I must admit to some slight disappointment, not owing to tragic conclusions, but because I was deeply interested in the character of Christabel LaMotte. She was written, to begin with, as such an independent, resourceful and determined woman in control of herself and capable of resisting societal and biological pressures, but at the turning point of the narrative she gives in and is drastically weakened for the rest of the book. However, I can acknowledge that Byatt is using Christabel’s ‘fall’ to comment on the place of women in Victorian society, and to parallel the story of Melusine. I do wonder at the choice of title, it could almost have been Obssession instead, for the motivation of almost every character is of that nature.

Possession won the Man Booker Prize in 1990, which I find extraordinary, as it seems such an indulgently esoteric book (and I say this as highest praise.) However I am encouraged by this to read more Booker prize winners, and to to explore mythic allusions within realism in my own work.

Skye M. W.

St. Margaret’s Day, 2015

(image: The Beguiling of Merlin, Edward Burne-Jones)