I was familiar with the name Ronald Blythe from reviews in the London Times Literary Supplement, but I recently picked up a small book of his, The Bookman's Tale, as part of my Lenten readings. Blythe, from Suffolk in England, is known as "Britain's greatest living rural writer," and The Bookman's Tale consists of short chapters in which Blythe relates the progress of his work (often having to do with the poet and Anglican priest George Herbert), his friendships, including with the writer Vikram Seth (who bought and is renovating George Herbert's house), Marina Warner, Imogen Holst (daughter of the composer), and lots of local folks. Blythe reports of evensong, of house calls by plumbers and other workmen, of books he is reading. His thoughts on the letters of W.H. Auden (like Blythe, an Anglican) made me want to order them from Amazon. I learned where T.S. Eliot got the inspiration for Little Gidding. He writes of Chaucer's pilgrims as if they were Suffolk neighbors. Well, no doubt Chaucer portrayed real people.
A couple of days ago I read his chapter on "The Great Essex Earthquake" and was thinking of a way to post something about it. A month ago I had posted on earthquakes, drawing on Bodmer's problematic category of "the turbulent" (das Ungestüme) as it relates to the sublime. Earthquakes and other catastrophes, as I wrote, are unlike "the great in nature." The latter refers to natural phenomena the extent of which is too large for us to grasp at first sight. These would include the heavens above, the oceans, natural grandeur (e.g., the Grand Canyon, the Swiss Alps). Despite our inability to get hold of their extent, they don't literally knock us over. Moreover, these phenomena are accessible to study by us, as modern science shows. The turbulent, however, literally disarms us and indeed is occasionally annihilating. Thus, earthquakes, such as recently occurred in Japan and New Zealand. The turbulent allows us no freedom, unlike the great and the beautiful, to which we are free to react or even to ignore.
The events of the morning of September 11, 2001, represent the turbulent. The very issue of freedom arose after the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen called the attacks "the biggest work of art that there has ever been." In comparison with the attacks, he said, his own compositions were as nothing. Of course, as he also said, the people affected (the ones, for instance, jumping from the Towers) had not "come to the concert." Thus, the difference between art -- a realm of freedom -- and real life. Such catastrophes are not theater. In real life we are often affected by things over which we have no control.
So, what did Ronald Blythe say about the Great Essex Earthquake of April 22, 1884? He mentions that a local photographer happened to be around on the "lovely spring day" and was thus able to record the after effects. No deaths, but the property damage was extensive. "A thousand roofs slid to the ground; 20 churches were in ruins. Three entire villages went to wreckage. Boats were thrown from the harbours on to the shore. There was a noise that nobody would ever forget. There was a blinding dust, and there was the pathos of what would later be the exposed interior, the wallpapered rooms hanging in the air, the fires blazing in the suspended grates, the unmade bed."
Mr. Damant, the photographer, "hurried around with his fine plate camera." Ronald Blythe writes that one of his favorite photos shows an "elegantly grouped picture of the Rector of Langenhoe and his friends standing in the ruins of his church clasping umbrellas and gently smiling." There then follows a paragraph that seems apropos to today, a reminder of the fragility and also the resilience of our civilization. Perhaps it is this fragility to which Bodmer was presciently alluding with his category of the turbulent:
"They had curiously prophetic expressions, which would appear again and again during the next century, shaken looks that hid the shock, the automatic grin. And the strange stench of fallen architecture. All this would repeat itself -- all over the world. And human beings would stand and stare at the swift demolition of their achievements as the dust settled, and would look so differently from how they felt."
Picture credit: Hornbeam