Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sylvia Townsend Warner -- and Goethe!

When the house has cleaned itself at last
Of its diurnal human,
When the black man and the blind woman
Both have groped their way into the dark
And the dwindling watchman has gone by,
I have heard him waken, and sigh.

I have heard the bedstead twang and creak,
And the bed-curtains swaying,
And he sprawled down on his knees, praying:
O Jesu pie, salvum me fac!
Whether that same Jesu heard him or no,
My ears attended to his woe.

The above poem, "Dr. Johnson's Cat," is by Sylvia Townsend Warner (b. 1893), a writer who has long intrigued me. It is not untypical of Warner to write from the point of view of an animal or even a witch, as in her first novel, Lolly Willowes, when, Lolly, to escape the importuning of a well-meaning relative, turns herself into one. The opportunity to post something about Warner arrived with the current issue (January 2, 2009) of the Times Literary Supplement, in which Ali Smith, an English novelist and short story writer, reviews new editions of poems by STW. (Come to think of it, Ali Smith also writes from unexpected points of view, for instance, that of a dead person in Hotel World.)

There is often a hint of maliciousness in Warner's short stories, which can be delicious or off-putting. Suffice it to say that she is not predictable. One of my favorite stories is "A Widow's Quilt," in which a married woman begins making one while her husband is very much alive. On the other hand, I find Warner's stories about "fairy life," Kingdoms of Elfin, too whimsical for this Enlightenment scholar. Penelope Fitzgerald (who wrote a wonderful novel about Novalis, The Blue Flower) spoke of Warner's "affinity with whatever it is that defies control." Fitzgerald went on to say that she did not mean sin or magic, "for she [STW] regarded both of these as perfectly amenable, but what she liked to call 'the undesigned.'" Warner belongs in Thomas Hardy country, which I suppose has quite disappeared in England. As a young woman she worked as a musicologist, part of a committee that was searching and editing Tudor music, and she traveled alone throughout England collecting this manuscript material.

After reading Ali Smith's review, I went back to the letters between STW and the novelist William Maxwell, who had been her editor at the New Yorker, the magazine that published many of her short stories. Here is a short example of Warner's writing that is so appealing, from a report on a visit to the Villa d'Este:

We got there so early in the morning that we had it all to ourselves, painted rooms, and cypresses and fountains, and gardeners snipping at box-hedges. I realised that such fountains come out of the same vein of Italian genius as the immense crystal chandeliers that fly like swans in the roofs of baroque churches and hang in a ladder all the way up the transepts of St Peter's. The water that falls in a fringed curtain from the goblet fountain is not so much water-works as water-sculpture.

I never fail to check indexes for Goethe in whatever book I am reading, and, lo and behold, there were several entries. Here is what she writes, in November 1973:

What I love about Wilhelm Meister is what I loved about Werther and Elective Affinities -- that what seems like historical reconstruction is really just ordinary social detail to Goethe. Scenes, pictures, costumes, that remind me of paintings were to him simply the way things were. The beginning drags -- perhaps because I am reading it in the evening before bedtime, and I am not fond of Goethe's sermonizing [!], but I do like the people. I am at the place where he finds (Oh most unlikely device!) in the scarf that he tore from Marianne's neck the note from her elderly protector -- in short not very far along. Faust and the novels are the only works I haven't read in German, way back in my youth. Dichtung und Wahrheit was what I loved, though I also liked the plays. The eighteenth century love of generalities I find rather tedious unless they are Gibbon's generalities, in which case I have to lie down on the floor so I can laugh more comfortably. But I wouldn't dream of not finding out what happens to Wilhelm.

By the way, "the black man" in the poem about Dr. Johnson was Francis Barber, a Jamaican boy adopted by Samuel Johnson in the 1750s and to whom he, indeed, felt like a father. A novelistic account of their relationship can be found in Caryl Phillips Foreigners, which does a pretty good job of re-creating the 18th century.

No comments: