Saturday, 30 April 2016

Anticipating May

"May is Mary's month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season -- 

Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?

Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
Is it opportunist
And flowers finds soonest?

v.9:  Well but there was more than this:
Spring's universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfed cherry

And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all --

This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ's birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation."

The May Magnificat  Gerald Manley-Hopkins
Images from The Wilton Diptych c. 1395   ©  National Gallery London

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Sweet Swan of Avon, 23rd April 1616

Reader, looke  Not on his Picture, but his Booke
(Folger Shakespeare Library)

Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

"To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us
Sweet Swan of Avon! What a sight it were
To see thee in our water yet appear,
And make those flights upon the banks of Thames
That so did take Eliza, and our James!
But stay, I see thee in the hemisphere
Advanc'd and made a constellation there!
Shine forth, thou star of poets, and with rage
Or influence, chide, or cheer the drooping stage;
Which since thy flight from hence hath mourn'd like night,
 And despairs day, but for thy volume's light."

Ben Jonson,  from the dedication to Shakespeare's First Folio, published 1623

The Swan Fountain  1996, celebrating  Stratford's 800th Anniversary (sculptor Christine Lee)

The river at Stratford upon Avon

Monday, 18 April 2016

A grace for London Taverns

"Long since, in King James's time, I have heard my uncle Danvers say (who knew him) that he lived without Temple Bar, at a comb-maker's shop about the Elephant and Castle*.  In his later time he lived in Westminster, in the old house under which you pass as you go out of the churchyard into the old palace; where he died.

A Grace by Ben Jonson, extempore, before King James:
'Our king and queen, the Lord-God bless
The Paltzgrave, and the Lady Bess,
And God bless every living thing
That lives, and breathes, and loves the king,
God bless the Council of Estate,
And Buckingham, the fortunate.
God bless them all, and keep them safe,
And God bless me, and God bless Raph.'

The king was mighty inquisitive to know who this Raph was.  Ben told him 'twas the drawer at the Swan tavern, by Charing Cross, who drew him good canary.  For this drollery his majesty gave him a hundred pounds."

Brief Lives  John Aubrey

 The Workes of Benjamin Jonson, Folio edition 1616
Folger Shakespeare Library

* "In the south suburbs, at the Elephant,
Is best to Lodge: I will bespeak  our diet,
Whiles you beguile the time and feed your knowledge
With viewing of the town: there shall you have me." 

Antonio in Twelfth Night, Act III

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

"Golden lads and girls"

The first performance of Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare's less familiar plays, took place in the month of April, 1611.  It was the first Shakespeare play I saw performed professionally, at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1958, with two friends from school.  We stayed in a very uncomfortable B&B and queued for tickets each day, taking turns if only two cheap seats were available.  This strange fairytale melodrama, with a preposterous plot, shifted between Roman Britain and "Augustan" Rome (with Frenchmen and ducats), including key scenes at Milford Haven in Wales.  

Posthumus and Imogen  Henry J. Ford (Folger Shakespeare Library)

The leading lady was Dame Peggy Ashcroft, already fifty, but totally memorable as a radiant and youthful Imogen on stage.    "She is alone the Arabian bird,…"

I was lucky enough to see another memorable production at the Globe Theatre in 2001, with just six actors, including Mark Rylance and Abigail Thaw.  Staged like  a modern ballet, with dazzling choreography as the six players exchanged places and characters, as well as lines, it brought the text to the fore, although for me it lacked the enchantment of the Stratford Peter Hall production.

Cymbeline at the Globe Theatre  (reviewed in The Guardian newspaper)

But it was witty and playful, even more so when the emergency understudy, who had to read his lines that day,  had his book snatched from him by Rylance and was left speechless.
 "…Speak, man; thy tongue
May take off some extremity, which to read
Would be even mortal to me.
….Please you, read; "

Sunday, 3 April 2016

April swallows*

"As we head back home, the children trailing their bikes behind them, the sunlight catches a small bird as it flies over the grassy field by Perry Road. It is a shape at once familiar, yet strangely unfamiliar, for I haven't seen it for almost half a year.  It is a returning swallow: my first of the spring…..

Years ago I stood on the volcanic island of Surtsey, off the south coast of Iceland, an island so new that it didn't even exist when I was born.  As I tried to come to terms with this disconcerting notion, I saw a swallow hawking for insects under sunny blue skies.  It was a true pioneer -- swallows do not even nest in Iceland -- pushing the boundaries of its range to seek out new places to live and breed.

Surtsey Island

Over the years I have watched swallows crossing the Sahara Desert in Morocco, and the Negev Desert in Israel; alongside big game in the Masai Mara and Okavango Delta; at Cape May in New Jersey, and Punta Tombo in Patagonia.  In all these far-flung places I have experienced the same sense of wonder.  How can this tiny bird, weighing barely half an ounce, cross the world's continents with such ease?

 That same wonder grips me today, long after the swallow has flown out of sight; and I await with delicious anticipation the return of 'our' swallows, currently somewhere to the south.  One day, during the next week or two, I shall hear that familiar twitter, as they swoop down to land on the telegraph wires beside our home.

Later that day, as I collect the Sunday papers from the village stores, I mention my swallow; and am told that Mrs Puddy has beaten me to it, having seen her first swallow here on the first day of the month."

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds   Simon Moss

[*Browning's lines run: "And after April, when May follows, and the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!"]

Friday, 1 April 2016

Thoughts for April

"Eight for the April Rainers": In the old "Dilly Song",  they are often interpreted as the Hyades star cluster in the constellation of Taurus, the Zodiac sign for April.

 In Greek myth the Hyades are rain nymphs, the sisters of Hyas, the son of Atlas. They wept so copiously in their grief at his death that Zeus turned them stars.

Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with colour and ducks,
The zoo of the new

Whose names you meditate--
April snowdrop, Indian pipe,

Stalk without wrinkle,
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.

Sylvia Plath 1963

Snowdrops in winter,  Winifred Nicholson 1969

© trustees of Winifred Nicholson