Yearning for Wonderland

There is such a place as fairyland - but only children can find the way to it...until they have grown so old that they forget the way. Only a few, who remain children at heart, can ever find that fair, lost path again...The world calls them singers and poets and artists and story-tellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland. ~ L.M Montgomery

Absence of My Muse

Honestly, I didn’t think I was doing so little on my blog until I looked at the post listings and realized I had -one- post for August so far, on the 6th. At my best, I was averaging a post every day and a half. To go a week with only one…

There’s a multitude of reasons, but they may all point to the same thing. My darn Muse has departed for climes less balmy. (It has been agitatingly, soul-sucking hot for the last few weeks: the kind of heat that leaves you languidly lolling about on the veranda, fanning yourself limpidly as the linen sticks to your back.) So my Muse has left for a quick jaunt around the countryside and I am left here staring at my computer screen with the following options: 1) watch an episode of The Tudors, 2) read any of the stack of lovely new books on my bedside table, 3) play Plants vs. Zombies, that blessed time-suck.


It isn’t from lack of time off (just finished 3 days off, which may be one culprit). I have lots of projects vying for my attention: Super Secret Spy Girl, rehearsals for The Laramie Project, Blogcritic reviews, etc, etc.

My brain is a bit parched and it has nothing to do with the heat. It’s rather too many wonderful ideas crowding in, trying to fight their way to the fore; it’s not so much time management as it is time muddlement.

Thalia, Muse of Comedy

So today I present the Muses, since mine is not present: Clio (History), Calliope (Epic Poetry), Urania (Astronomy), Euterpe (Song & Elegiac Poetry), Erato (Love Poetry), Melpomene (Tragedy), Thalia (Comedy), Terpsichore (Dance), Polyhymnia (Hymns). Not to be confused with the Graces, the Muses were a little more workaday and useful. Nine muses, nine arts, all the root of the word “museum” and “amuse” and “musing” and other muse-like words.

“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.” – Homer
Oliver Rhys, A Seated Muse

Ever noticed that Muses tend to be young, beautiful ladies? Fickle as well, apparently. That comes with Muse-hood. I’m fairly certain that my Muse tends to the plainer side, with milkish skin, but can look otherworldly at the right angle. She definitely has freckles and likely a penchant for ribbons.

Jan Vermeer, The Allegory of Painting (Detail – Clio)

Muses are generally invoked at the beginning of epic poetry, a convention followed by writers for centuries:

O lady myn, that called art Cleo,
Thow be my speed fro this forth, and my Muse,
To ryme wel this book til I haue do;
Me nedeth here noon othere art to vse.
ffor-whi to euery louere I me excuse
That of no sentement I this endite,
But out of Latyn in my tonge it write. – Chaucer

Muses are also a convenient scapegoat, as I illustrated at the beginning of the post. No writing? No muse. No performing? No muse. No singing? No muse. It’s even more dangerous when flesh and blood women are elevated to Muse status, as in Jane Morris for Dante Gabriel Rossetti of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Jane’s marriage to William Morris was jeopardized by her affairs with Rossetti, who married his other muse, Elizabeth Siddal (who later overdosed on laudanum). Read more in Francine Prose’s excellent study of real-life muses: Lives of the Muses.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Blue Silk Dress (Model: Jane Morris)
Jane Morris (photo) and Jane (painting) – Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood

So, Muse, any time you would like to return…you know where my door can be found. What do you do to invoke your muse? And what do you do when she does not appear?

Serendipity

Is there any more happy accident than serendipity?

For once, the dictionary is no help. It describes serendipity as (n) the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident. It is a pat description, but little explains that shivery feeling that true serendipity creates. Serendipity is where coincidence and destiny intersect. 

The word was coined by Horace Walpole (1717-92) in a letter to Mann (dated Jan. 28); he said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip,” whose heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” (dictionary.com)

Perhaps I am a Princess of Serendip. My father has always been a strong believer in serendipity. He told me to look for it and be ready when it comes. I have always kept one eye to the happenstance that leads to consequence.



My latest experience with serendipity has been a startling one. This blog is newish and I am continually refining the design, to make it more pleasing to the idea and easy to read. I find big chunks of text without pictures to be exhausting, much like Alice (“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations!”).

To that end, I had added an image of this painting to the sidebar:

Casper David Friedrich, Woman at the Window

I had actually never seen this painting before, in any of my art history classes. I was familiar with the artist, Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840). Below is his most famous work, which is in every art history textbook under Romanticism.

Casper David Friedrich, The Wanderer

I remembered the way this painting had made me feel, its capture of infinite possibilities. I wondered if the artist had other works that featured a woman and that same sense of yearning. So I googled his name and found the window painting and put it up. I was thrilled at how it looked on the page and complemented the wallpaper of the vintage photo of the girl at the window (which incidentally I found at a curiosities shop in Adare, Ireland). So I arranged it and promptly forgot about it…

Until four days later when my mother called and left a mysterious message on my voice mail. She sounded odd. When I called her back, she asked when I had put up the painting on my blog. When I told her, she was silent. Then she said, “I just bought you a book with that painting on the cover. I just saw that painting.”

My mother had just returned from New York City, where she spent the weekend. She and her best girl friend headed off to The Met, as any artistically-minded traveler would do. There, she was attracted by a special exhibition called Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century. One painting in particular caught her eye – she said it reminded her of me – and it was actually the featured painting in the exhibit. She sat there for a long time looking at it, the patinated greens of the dress and the soft brushwork. She loved it so much that she had to buy the exhibition catalog, which featured it on the cover, for my birthday. She knew I would love it too. She almost bought the poster, but the color match wasn’t true enough. I’m sure you’re following along, dear reader. The painting was this:

Casper David Friedrich, Woman at the Window

 And the exhibit was here: Metropolitan Museum: Rooms With a View, The Open Window in the 19th Century


It was no doubt rather a shock to load up my blog when she got home and see that exact painting pop up. It startled her so much that she left the cryptic message on my phone. Cue shivery feeling.

My mother and I are very compatible in our tastes, so it’s no surprise that we would both love such a dreamy, Romantic painting. What I cannot seem to explain is how, completely independent of each other, we both found a painting that we had never seen before in the same moment.


“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” – Hamlet

Thoughts on "La Belle Dame"

Who has not tried to hold onto something that slipped away? This poem speaks in a mournful throb of something precious lost forever.

“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is commonly translated as “The beautiful lady without pity/mercy”, although “thanks” is the literal translation of “merci”. I think the idea of ingratitude is actually far more interesting than pitilessness: her procession of devotees pay single-minded homage and yet she seemingly cares not…or does she?

The narrator speaks of her eyes twice: “Her hair was long,/her foot was light,/And her eyes were wild” and then, later, “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.” As described, there is a hint of regret in her eyes, of sadness for yet another lover abandoned. Is it because she feels more strongly for the narrator or that she is doomed to always lead her knights astray? This is the one moment in the poem where the coquette slips. If truly without pity, mercy or gratitude, why the lady’s sadness?

Though the poem seems straightforward, there are enigmatic layers within each stanza. He made her garlands of flowers as she sings to him faery songs, a traditional token of courtly love. She feeds him faery nourishment, “relish sweet,/And honey wild,/and manna dew“. Keats later references the “starv’d lips in the gloam” of the wraiths, an indication of lack of substance to her nourishment. It could also be read as love-starved. One common result of heartbreak in Romantic literature is wasting away from lack of love.

Keats did not originate the idea of “La Belle Dame” – it dates back to Medieval courtly love poetry. The theme of the beautiful faery creature who heedlessly breaks hearts is the mirror opposite of the lady who waits patiently at her tower window for her love or quietly pines away (see The Lady of Shalott).

Keats himself considered this poem dashed off: “I have for the most part dash’d of[f] my lines in a hurry – ” (Letter to George, Weds 21 April 1819). Nevertheless, it is considered one of the most classic English Romantic poems and was a great influence on the Pre-Raphaelites in particular (see paintings from previous post and sketch below by Dante Gabriel Rossetti).

For a far more scholarly interpretation of the sources of “La Belle Dame”:
http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/sym4int.htm

 Read more Keats and other Romantic poets at: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/66

Poem by John Keats, post by me. All material copyright.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight, 
Alone and palely loitering;
The sedge is withered 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 lilly 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 looked 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.
And there we slumbered on the moss, 
And there I dreamed, ah woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dreamed
On the cold hill side. 
I saw pale kings, and princes too, 
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cried--"La belle Dame sans merci
Hath thee in thrall!"
I saw their starved 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 withered from the lake,
And no birds sing. 
 
Poem by John Keats. 
Paintings by Frank Dicksee, Frank Cadogan Cowper, John William Waterhouse
For a great analysis of the poem, read here: 
http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/belle.html  

Letter from my Mother – Libraries and Dream ‘Spanses

My mother wrote this in response to my post: The Library’s Whispers . It was so beautifully written, I could not relegate it to a mere comments page; it deserves a post of its own. 
And though she says I was ‘forcibly deposited’, I cannot consider my soul misspent when it’s clear that mine was attracted to this century by a shining soul such as hers.
~~~
My darling daughter was somehow abducted by aliens and forcibly deposited in the late twentieth century.  For that I willingly apologize, as who was to know that her soul was to be misspent here? Alas, how could I not also traverse this century?
Anna has a “blithe spirit”, a heightened “sense and sensibility”, often misspent on the hordes of common creatures of earth. I should rather like to put her in a library such as she has described and have her close…not only to visit that vast ‘spanse of library knowledge and dream works, but to daily visit that soul and spirit that is Anna.
My wish for her is to break the boundaries of common understanding and discover a life where she is free to write and enchant generations of young women who share the same aching desire to escape some of the harsh mundanity of this world.
She has so much to offer and it is her “obligation, nay, her duty” (finger pointed in the air) to interpret the goodness of the world and to discover the romantics of the 21st Century that exist in us all.
~~~