Flitting

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In Scots, “to flit” means to move house. Scots is full of great words that were once common in many English dialects, and thinking about flitting – the process and the word – brought to mind John Clare’s great poem of the same name today. This is a poem that perfectly captures the strangeness of relocation (I sit me in my corner chair / That seems to feel itself from home) but it is the lines about weeds and wildflowers that are most often in my head as I potter about my familiar paths with Bruce. Today, the final stanzas particularly struck home.

I love the verse that mild and bland
Breathes of green fields and open sky,
I love the muse that in her hand
Bears flowers of native poesy;
Who walks nor skips the pasture brook
In scorn, but by the drinking horse
Leans ‘oer its little brig to look
How far the sallows lean across,

And feels a rapture in her breast
Upon their root-fringed grains to mark
A hermit morehen’s sedgy nest
Just like a naiad’s summer bark.
She counts the eggs she cannot reach
Admires the spot and loves it well,
And yearns, so nature’s lessons teach,
Amid such neighbourhoods to dwell.

I love the muse who sits her down
Upon the molehill’s little lap,
Who feels no fear to stain her gown
And pauses by the hedgerow gap;
Not with that affectation, praise
Of song, to sing and never see
A field flower grown in all her days
Or een a forest’s aged tree.

Een here my simple feelings nurse
A love for every simple weed,
And een this little shepherd’s purse
Grieves me to cut it up; indeed
I feel at times a love and joy
For every weed and every thing,
A feeling kindred from a boy,
A feeling brought with every Spring.

And why? this shepherd’s purse that grows
In this strange spot, in days gone bye
Grew in the little garden rows
Of my old home now left; and I
Feel what I never felt before,
This weed an ancient neighbour here,
And though I own the spot no more
Its every trifle makes it dear.

John Clare, The Flitting, 1833

To get to grips with this wonderful poem, you need to think about it in terms of Clare’s own “flit” between the villages of Helpston and Northborough, as well as the political context of the land enclosures that redefined the face of England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For this I recommend my good friend John Barrell’s book, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place (1972)

Ode to my Socks

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 A comment from CinOz in response to the previous post pointed me towards this wonderful Pablo Neruda poem, which I thought you’d enjoy reading.

Ode to my Socks

Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder’s hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin,
Violent socks,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
keep fireflies,
as learned men collect
sacred texts,
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.

Pablo Neruda. Trans. by Robert Bly.

Washing Day

I’ve really enjoyed reading your comments about Steamies. So many interesting snapshots of women’s lives – so different, but all connected by the necessary business of laundry! I was very struck by how so many of your comments were written from a child’s perspective: an outsider, while the bustling work of women went on around you. This reminded me of Anna Laetita Barbauld’s poem Washing Day, which I thought I’d reproduce here for those of you who don’t know it.

For many years, I did not get on with this poem. I felt that it was in some way responsible for the pigeonholing of eighteenth-century women as domestic writers. I disliked its ‘prattling’ muse, and I disliked the fact that it was about, of all things washing – how very inconsequential! Barbauld is a tremendous writer, and I felt strongly that she needed to be known more for her political works. After all, any woman who could write a pamphlet with the title Sins of the Government, Sins of the Nation deserved to be taken seriously. But, after a decade or so immersed in the Eighteenth Century, my thoughts about this poem totally changed – not coincidentally, around the same time that I started knitting again. I realised that Washing Day was a brilliant poem, with all of Barbauld’s brilliance, on a subject that was no less worthy of attention than the many other topics she tackled in her writing. The poem itself was not to blame for the pigeonholing of eighteenth-century women writers — rather, that was the fault of several generations of male academics and editors. The beginning of the poem is mock-epic in tone, but I don’t think that this trivialises its subject matter in the least. I love its material, textile details: the wet sheets on the line; the grandmother in the process of knitting a stocking. It is an important poem for being written from a child’s perspective, as well as for its descriptions of women’s work and household routines. And I really think that, in the last few lines, the transformation of the child’s soap bubble into the Montgolfier hot-air balloon – before the poem itself goes POP and disappears – is one of the most gobsmacking, imaginatively defining, moments of eighteenth-century poetry. I hope you enjoy it.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Washing Day (1797)

The Muses are turned gossips; they have lost
The buskin’d step, and clear high-sounding phrase,
Language of gods. Come, then, domestic Muse,
In slip-shod measure loosely prattling on
Of farm or orchard, pleasant curds and cream,
Or drowning flies, or shoe lost in the mire
By little whimpering boy, with rueful face;
Come, Muse, and sing the dreaded Washing-Day.
–Ye who beneath the yoke of wedlock bend,
With bowed soul, full well ye ken the day
Which week, smooth sliding after week, brings on
Too soon; for to that day nor peace belongs
Nor comfort; ere the first grey streak of dawn,
The red-arm’d washers come and chase repose.
Nor pleasant smile, nor quaint device of mirth,
E’er visited that day: the very cat,
From the wet kitchen scared, and reeking hearth,
Visits the parlour, an unwonted guest.
The silent breakfast-meal is soon dispatch’d
Uninterrupted, save by anxious looks
Cast at the lowering sky, if sky should lower.
From that last evil, oh preserve us, heavens!
For should the skies pour down, adieu to all
Remains of quiet; then expect to hear
Of sad disasters–dirt and gravel stains
Hard to efface, and loaded lines at once
Snapped short–and linen-horse by dog thrown down,
And all the petty miseries of life.
Saints have been calm while stretched upon the rack,
And Guatimozin smil’d on burning coals;
But never yet did housewife notable
Greet with a smile a rainy washing-day.
–But grant the welkin fair, require not thou
Who call’st thyself perchance the master there,
Or study swept, or nicely dusted coat,
Or usual ‘tendance; ask not, indiscreet,
Thy stockings mended, tho’ the yawning rents
Gape wide as Erebus, nor hope to find
Some snug recess impervious: should’st thou try
The ‘customed garden walks, thine eye shall rue
The budding fragrance of thy tender shrubs,
Myrtle or rose, all crushed beneath the weight
Of coarse check’d apron, with impatient hand
Twitch’d off when showers impend: or crossing lines
Shall mar thy musings, as the wet cold sheet
Flaps in thy face abrupt. Woe to the friend
Whose evil stars have urged him forth to claim
On such a day the hospitable rites;
Looks, blank at best, and stinted courtesy,
Shall he receive. Vainly he feeds his hopes
With dinner of roast chicken, savoury pie,
Or tart or pudding:–pudding he nor tart
That day shall eat; nor, tho’ the husband try,
Mending what can’t be help’d, to kindle mirth
From cheer deficient, shall his consort’s brow
Clear up propitious; the unlucky guest
In silence dines, and early slinks away.
I well remember, when a child, the awe
This day struck into me; for then the maids,
I scarce knew why, looked cross, and drove me from them;
Nor soft caress could I obtain, nor hope
Usual indulgencies; jelly or creams,
Relique of costly suppers, and set by
For me their petted one; or butter’d toast,
When butter was forbid; or thrilling tale
Of ghost, or witch, or murder–so I went
And shelter’d me beside the parlour fire:
There my dear grandmother, eldest of forms,
Tended the little ones, and watched from harm,
Anxiously fond, tho’ oft her spectacles
With elfin cunning hid, and oft the pins
Drawn from her ravell’d stocking, might have sour’d
One less indulgent.–
At intervals my mother’s voice was heard,
Urging dispatch; briskly the work went on,
All hands employed to wash, to rinse, to wring,
To fold, and starch, and clap, and iron, and plait.
Then would I sit me down, and ponder much
Why washings were. Sometimes thro’ hollow bowl
Of pipe amused we blew, and sent aloft
The floating bubbles, little dreaming then
To see, Mongolfier, thy silken ball
Ride buoyant through the clouds–so near approach
The sports of children and the toils of men.
Earth, air, and sky, and ocean, hath its bubbles,
And verse is one of them–this most of all.


(Antonio Carnicero Y Mancio, Ascent of the Montgolfier Balloon in the Gardens of Aranjuez, 1784)

winter afternoons

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –



Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –



None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –



When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –



Emily Dickinson

Herbsttag

Herbsttag

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiel den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird Es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.
Rainer Maria Rilke (1902)

I am fond of this seasonally-appropriate poem by Rilke, but have never found an English translation that I like completely. Stephen Mitchell’s is perhaps one of the most familiar:

Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.
Trans. Stephen Mitchell (1982)

Though I like the ‘warm transparent days’, and the sense of the imperative in the second stanza, that ‘huge’ in the first line totally ruins the cadence, and the final stanza has some terrible lines in it (I am thinking particularly of “whoever has no house now, will never have one” – with that comma pointing to nothing but the translator’s own syntactical struggle).

Here is a more recent translation by Mary Kinzie:

After the summer’s yield, Lord, it is time

to let your shadow lengthen on the sundials

and in the pastures let the rough winds fly.

As for the final fruits, coax them to roundness.

Direct on them two days of warmer light

to hale them golden toward their term, and harry

the last few drops of sweetness through the wine.

Whoever’s homeless now, will build no shelter;

who lives alone will live indefinitely so,

waking up to read a little, draft long letters,

and, along the city’s avenues,

fitfully wander, when the wild leaves loosen.
Trans. Mary Kinzie (2008)

Probably the only thing I like about this is its stand-out final line. But, even there, the language is too fluid and melodic – there is an irritable melancholy about Rilke’s poem. Perhaps I’m being unfair – my own understanding of German is pretty poor – but I can certainly see how difficult it is for a translator to retain the poise and tone of the original in modern English. Despite its thees and thous, I actually much prefer this version from 1916:

LORD: it is time. The summer was so grand.
Upon sundials now Thy shadow lay,
Set free Thy winds and send them o’er the land.

Command to ripen those last fruits of Thine;
And give them two more southern days of grace       
To reach their perfect fullness, and then chase
The final sweetness into heavy wine.  

Who now is homeless, ne’er will build a home.
Who now is lonely, long alone will stay,
Will watch and read and write long letters gray,       
And in the long lanes to and fro will roam
All restless, as the drifting fall-leaves stray.
Trans. Margarete Münsterberg (1916)

I like the ‘grand’-ness of the summer, and the ‘days of grace’, and yet that hanging ‘gray’ in the tenth line completely ruins it for me.

I still have a certain fondness for Macintyre’s 1956 translation, which was my first encounter with the poem (and which I rediscovered today, among my rescued books):

Lord, it is time. The summer was too long.
Lay now thy shadow over the sundials,
and on the meadows let the winds blow strong.

Bid the last fruit to ripen on the vine;
allow them still two friendly southern days
to bring them to perfection, and to force
the final sweetness in the heavy wine.

Who has no house now will not build him one
Who is alone now will be long alone,
will waken, read, and write long letters
and through the barren pathways up and down
restlessly wander when dead leaves are blown.
Trans. C.F Macintyre (1956)

. . . and yet there’s much that seems wrong here, too. I’m not sure how that ‘groß’ in the first line of the original could suggest that the summer was “too long'” I’m not over-keen on the “friendliness” of the southern days, and though the final stanza is more pleasing to me than either Mitchell’s or Kenzie’s translations, wouldn’t the ‘when’ in the final line be better rendered as ‘while'; and why not just get rid of the “him” in the eighth line? (I rather like the line as “who has no house now will not build one”).

I could show you many more translations (Robert Bly’s is truly appalling), but here’s a final version from Walter Arndt, which seems almost form-perfect.

Lord it is time: Great was the Summer’s feast.
Now lay upon the sun-dials your shadow
And on the meadows have the wind released.

Command the last of fruits to round their shapes;
Grant two more days of south for vines to carry,
To their perfection thrust them on, and harry
The final sweetness into the heavy grapes.

Who has not built his house will not start now
Who now is by himself will long be so,
Be wakeful, read, write lengthy letters, go
In vague disquiet pacing up and down
Denuded lanes, with leaves adrift below.
Trans. Walter Arndt (1989)

I find the second stanza distractingly awful with its ‘thrusting’ perfection, but really rather like the final stanza, which not only makes syntactic sense, but properly captures that self-absorbed unease which sits at the heart of the poem. I also much prefer ‘lanes’ than either ‘boulevards’ or ‘avenues’, though ‘avenue’ does seem a better direct translation of ‘alleen’. I’m not aware of the nuances of ‘avenue’ in German, but the tree-lined approach to a country estate seems far too grand for the poem’s distinctly urban malaise. (But does disquiet really need that ‘vague’?) Anyway. Does anyone have another preferred translation? And what do the German speakers think?

braid claith

broadcloths

Since I wrote that piece about the Yorkshire woollen trade for The Knitter a while ago, I’ve had broadcloth on my mind. Broadcloth is a traditionally woollen, and and quintessentially British fabric. As the woven wool trade developed through the Sixteenth- and Seventeenth Centuries, broadcloth, in its several grades, kinds, and colours was popularly produced in the West Country, the West Riding of Yorkshire, and in the Scottish Borders. By the early Eighteenth Century, it was spoken of in hallowed terms, as if it alone clothed Britain’s economic backbone. The broadcloth trade is at the heart of Daniel Defoe’s Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, and John Dyer went several steps further in the scale of broadcloth celebration in his massive, georgic encomium, The Fleece (1757). You can also see the immense national pride that this fabric inspired here, in a commercial sample book from 1770. The annotation above the scrap of Kersey broadcloth reads: “the most perfect cloth made in this kingdom.”

kersey

As well as the rampantly nationalist discourse that surrounds it, two other things interest me about eighteenth-century British broadcloth. First, it is always spoken of as a no-frills fabric: an unfussy and functional textile, that is nonetheless of exceptional quality. Second, it is most often celebrated as an outergarment, and particularly in association with the act of walking. In John Gay’s Trivia, or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London, for example, Kersey Broadcloth is the only thing the London pedestrian should wear to protect him from the vagueries of city Winter weather:

. . . who would wear
Amid the town the spoils of Russia’s Bear?
. . .Let the loop’d Bavaroy the Fop embrace,
Or his deep Cloak be spatter’d o’er with Lace.
That Garment best the Winter’s Rage defends,
Whose ample Form without one Plait depends;
By various Names in various Counties known,
Yet held in all the true Surtout alone:
Be thine of Kersey firm, though small the Cost,
Then brave unwet the Rain, unchill’d the Frost.

Gay’s Kersey broadcloth coat appears repeatedly in Trivia: a symbol of his national identity, his connection to the city, and his first-hand knowledge of London. Broadcloth saves the pedestrian narrator from rain and snow; from the ravages of gout (broadcloth makes him a determined walker in all weathers), and from the temptations of political and court corruption. He would rather have “sweet content on foot / Wrapt in my virtue, and a good surtout,” than rattle by in an ornate, Frenchified coach, detached from the life of the street.

ferg1

Broadcloth was a feature of the eighteenth-century Scottish life of the street as well. In fact, for me, the fabric’s everyday associations with city walking, with urban sociability, and with a general lack of pretension are best summed up in Robert Fergusson’s great Edinburgh poem, Braid Claith. (1772). I reproduce it here in full for you because 1) I doubt many of you will have seen it and 2) it is just so good. (If your knowledge of Scots is patchy or nonexistent, you will find a convenient translation tool here. )

Braid Claith

Ye wha are fain to hae your name
Wrote in the bonny book of fame,
Let merit nae pretension claim
To laurel’d wreath,
But hap ye weel, baith back and wame,
In gude Braid Claith.

He that some ells o’ this may fa,
An’ slae-black hat on pow like snaw,
Bids bauld to bear the gree awa’,
Wi’ a’ this graith,
Whan bienly clad wi’ shell fu’ braw
O’ gude Braid Claith.

Waesuck for him wha has na fek o’t!
For he’s a gowk they’re sure to geck at,
A chiel that ne’er will be respekit
While he draws breath,
Till his four quarters are bedeckit
Wi’ gude Braid Claith.

On Sabbath-days the barber spark,
When he has done wi’ scrapin wark,
Wi’ siller broachie in his sark,
Gangs trigly, faith!
Or to the meadow, or the park,
In gude Braid Claith.

Weel might ye trow, to see them there,
That they to shave your haffits bare,
Or curl an’ sleek a pickly hair,
Wou’d be right laith,
Whan pacing wi’ a gawsy air
In gude Braid Claith.

If only mettl’d stirrah green
For favour frae a lady’s ein,
He maunna care for being seen
Before he sheath
His body in a scabbard clean
O’ gude Braid Claith.

For, gin he come wi’ coat threadbare,
A feg for him she winna care,
But crook her bonny mou’ fu’ sair,
And scald him baith.
Wooers shou’d ay their travel spare
Without Braid Claith.

Braid Claith lends fock an unco heese,
Makes mony kail-worms butterflies,
Gies mony a doctor his degrees
For little skaith:
In short, you may be what you please
Wi’ gude Braid Claith.

For thof ye had as wise a snout on
As Shakespeare or Sir Isaac Newton,
Your judgment fouk wou’d hae a doubt on,
I’ll tak my aith,
Till they cou’d see ye wi’ a suit on
O’ gude Braid Claith.

Some critics find Fergusson’s account of eighteenth-century town life snide, but to me his bienly-clad Edinburgh pedestrians — their exuberance, their vim, and the witty confidence with which they are portrayed — seem entirely affectionate. Fergusson writes of a decent wool coat as a passport to urban sociability and ordinary respectability: the garment in which the working people of the city are clad on their day off, “ganging trigly” through the Meadows or the Park. And, as braid claith appears in the poem as a sort of no-frills identity enabler — transforming lowly caterpillars into lovely butterflies — so, as a subject, it seems to inspire Fergusson to butterfly-like levels of ability with his vernacular: one can but admire the sheer chutzpah of a poet who can successfully rhyme “snout on” with “Isaac Newton.”

ferg2

I am very fond of Fergusson’s poetry, as you can probably tell. I am also fond of
David Annand’s
memorial, which, if you are visiting Edinburgh’s Old Town, you can find toward the bottom of the Royal Mile, outside the churchyard in which Fergusson is buried. I’ve been thinking about Fergusson’s poetry this week, and took a walk over to the Canongate to visit him a few days ago. I love the youth and energy of the memorial: suitably characteristic of both the poetry and the man (Fergusson sadly died at the age of 24). But the best thing about Annand’s Fergusson to me is that he is so clearly a man of the street: a poet, and a pedestrian. He gangs trigly down the Canongate, his coat fluttering in the breeze, perhaps on his way to join his fellow eighteenth-century Edinburgh walkers on their Sunday promenade around Holyrood Park. His coat may be bronze, but it looks like braid claith to me.

unpicking

When thinking about process, there is nothing more instructive than unpicking someone else’s stitches.

stitches

I found a beautiful hand-embroidered cloth on ebay. I have plans for it. The plans involve deconstructing and transforming it into something else. I began by undoing the slip stitches of its heavy, worn cord edging.

cord

Then I started to unpick the tiny stitches which attach the embroidered front to the cloth’s very fine silk back. The silk is faded but luminous, alive with copper and green.

cutstitches

The secrets written in the cloth began to reveal themselves. Neatly folded hems. Pale green silk thread that moved through the cloth like clockwork. An outer layer of heavy cotton satteen. An inner layer of lining satteen, fresh and bright because unseen for decades. Embroidery worked through both layers. Each thread end carefully woven and hidden. The back of the work faultless in its steady execution.

back

. . .and just as mesmerising as the front.

front

It was then that my fascination with the little mysteries of this cloth changed into a something else. I felt a sense of privilege and respect — in unpicking the stitches I was re-living the work of their making, admiring the skill of a talented needlewoman. But my act was also one of trespass: me and my snipping embroidery scissors were destroying a once-whole thing. And as I, blithe, curious, surgeon-like, began to examine the cloth’s insides, I uncovered the truth of its age: the satteen was of a certain kind, and a little older than I’d imagined. I was an historical vandal, cutting through the threads of time.

In cutting someone else’s threads, as in wearing someone else’s clothes, there is the frisson of encounter. We don’t know and will never know the person who made or wore the thing, but they are speaking to us nonethless, in the movement of their hand through the stitches, or in the the shape of their body left in the garment. There is something deeply uncanny in the silence of cloth and clothes: the trace of an unknown and never-to-be-known physical presence. (One does not buy second hand shoes, because one shies away from the ghost of the foot inside.) As I unpicked the stitches, then, a simple encounter between me and the cloth changed into a more complex one between me and its maker. Because I was un-making a made thing my act seemed an intimate one, but it was an empty intimacy, an intimacy with no content. The embroidered cloth was both speaking and not speaking: of a someone living in those stitches and of the silence of the grave.

Wallace Stevens’ brilliant poem, The Emperor of Ice Cream, (1922) has much to say about the dumb intimacy of embroidery — and of death. Stevens describes the covering of a woman’s corpse with a cloth she embroidered when alive.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam
(lines 9 – 15)

Here the corpse is, like the cloth she embroidered, an everyday material object. She reminds us of death’s easy finality. Yet she also suggests the mute compassion of the world of things. We feel the weight of her hands on the lost knobs of the well-worn dresser; her fingers quick movement through the stitches of the cloth that decorates her dead countenance. She does not speak, all we can know is her corpse and her cloth. And it is in the relationship between these two material objects that the essence of the poem (perhaps another object in itself) lies. Gaudy embroidered fantails will never cover death, but each small act of making is an end in itself, capturing the (perhaps pointless) vitality of the human. Now get back in the kitchen (says Stevens) and enjoy your ice-cream.

cloth

Having unpicked my thoughts I will get on with the uncanny work of unpicking.

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