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Saturday, June 18, 2016

To Be Young Was Very Heaven—Part III: Fragments of Past and Present Destruction

Tuesday, July 20

Sari and I went jogging this morning. We were accosted by several sloppy-looking creatures but ran on and none were too much a nuisance. And breakfast was on time.

After breakfast our whole group zoomed down to the Tate Gallery. We saw a Blake exhibit—Prof. Rich had had us read extensively in Blake’s poetry—and the permanent exhibit of J.M.W. Turner’s and William Constable’s paintings. Prof. Dansie had given us a very fine lecture on Constable and Turner and their techniques.

I wanted to just sit and gaze at a few works. I can’t seem to absorb so much so fast and wonder how others can say they’ve seen a painting when they look while they are walking on to the next one. Granted, some paintings do not seem to demand as much as others. But good art demands study, I think. I wanted time to examine brush strokes, to observe color groups, line patterns, organization and placement of detail. I wanted to see a painting up close as the artist would have in painting it, and back a ways to marvel how different it becomes with distance. Most of all, I wanted to have just a bit of experience with each painting I examined, so that somehow each experience added to the others would make the sum of my time in the gallery of lasting benefit to my intellect, my mind, and my spirit, and to my growth in each of those areas. If I couldn’t learn something about painting, about viewpoint, and about life, then I felt I would be wasting time walking past dozens of pictures in dozens of rooms, and no more than that.

Therefore I saw only a few paintings today. I saw the Blakes, a few Turners and Constables, and a Gainsborough today. I bought postcards of those I liked, though there was no postcard of Constable’s Greensward, which I especially liked. I sat in the lobby writing my thoughts until Sari joined me, and then Roseanne, Claudia, Diane, and Sven.

In the lobby a middle-aged American couple from New York came and sat by us. In conversing with them, we heard two most amusing absurdities: that since the wife was a schoolteacher (2nd grade, elementary school) she knew, of course, that Shakespeare did not write all those plays, and that many of the paintings in this place would never hang in New York museums or galleries because they simply weren’t good enough. I said politely, “Oh, really? That’s interesting.” I did not laugh. Sari told me later she wanted to smack them.

It was time for the group to race to Westminster Abbey. I thought if we ran one more place I’d scream. I was beginning to hate racing through crowded streets with all the noise, traffic, and moist heat. Oh! for a mountain where the sky is dark blue and where people don’t bother you if you want to savor life slowly. But the Abbey is beautiful, and the spirit there is undeniable. I wrote a poem there in the late afternoon.

While we were touring, we heard that two terrorist bombs went off, one in Regent’s Park, and one in Hyde Park, killing a number of people and wounding many. It was the work of the IRA, we learned later. Over the loudspeaker in the Abbey a priest led everybody in saying the Lord’s Prayer for those injured and for the families of those killed. I was seated on a tomb, automatically joining in the prayer while staring at the marble tomb across the aisle in the side chapel where several of us were lingering. The IRA keeps up this terrorism as part of their struggle against Britain. It is terrible.
In these vaulted aisles
My eyes are drawn up to God
But His house is empty—
Where, Owner, have you gone?
You are enshrined in the abbey in my heart,
And yet, Your peace you’ve left here,
Like sweet incense lingering in the air
After the fire is gone.
We call, we hear our brothers call:
United voices murmuring prayers,
Echoes dying into vaulted silences.
One day those voices shall not be entombed
But rise triumphant through the stone,
Through the sky, through the clouds,
To sing their conquering hymn
When, absent Owner, You reclaim all that is Yours.
Then shall these tombs unlock,
And prayers after bombings cease—
Then shall all in this house draw their eyes up to God
Who will be seen.

Sari and I poked around after the touring was over, reading all the inscriptions in Poet’s Corner, then sitting and listening to the organ playing. We walked across the street and got tickets to Cats, a favorite of us both to which we already know all the lyrics, and then we found seats in Grandma Lee’s Diner to eat sandwiches and salads and discuss things. We don’t like rushing through the tourist sites. We feel that this is not the core purpose of a literary tour when we hoped we would be doing things to give us greater understanding of the writers and their writings. We wish we were somehow living in London this week, not racing on a breakneck tour from morning to long after dark, continually exhausted. Then again, living slowly and deliberately (do we hear Thoreau?) is impossible in such a big city and given our time limit.

Sari and I went back to the Abbey for Evensong, which was beautiful. Pipe organs have it all—once you hear a pipe organ with all the stops out, rattling the stained glass windows, shaking the stone walls, and even vibrating the heavy stone floors, you never want to hear anything else. It is the most inspiring sound.

We joined our group down at the theatre to see Amadeus. But Sari and I arrived so early that we walked across to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square and sat on a bench to watch the people. It was peaceful and relaxing, and it was just what we had been talking about. We actually strolled.

The play was startling in its premise: did Salieri really poison Mozart? Certainly he seemed to try his hardest to suppress his rival’s music. Mozart, as depicted in this play, deserved some level of suppression—what a brat! But what, nevertheless, a genius. What sublime music! Some of our group didn’t like the play because of the vulgarity in Mozart’s character and the strong language. Yes, some of the things Mozart screamed out were raw, but it was all part of the characterization of evil genius that, in Salieri’s view, deserved to be “rubbed out.” How dare God give a divine gift to such a vulgar creature, he kept asking. Only the godly, Salieri thought, deserved to create godlike music. The play was all from Salieri’s point of view. I liked it very much. It was most intriguing.

Wednesday, July 21

Our group took the tube to Hampstead Heath to the house where John Keats lived, and where he met Fanny Brawne. When they were engaged, he found out he had tuberculosis (consumption), so after that he lived in one part of the house (the two houses adjoining) and she in the other, and they never met in person again. They would write letters to one another every day and see each other through the panes of windows or French doors, or the greenhouse walls. His last few months of life were spent in Rome where his friends took him in a desperate attempt to save his life—they knew he’d never survive another English winter.

The house is as I like seeing houses—it looked as if those old inhabitants could come back and walk right in to continue their lives there. In such places I found it easy to imagine his life, his work, and the themes he wrote about.

Restless after reading the letters displayed in the Chester Room, I wandered out to the gardens to see what good compositions I might frame for photographs. Sneaking into the shrubbery beside the famous plum tree’s descendant, I caught a pensive pose of Sari on a bench across the lawn, her face framed by roses and hydrangeas. A fat black cat appeared from a hedge, flattening herself along the ground, stalking a bird hopping about among the foxgloves. I stalked the cat as she stalked the bird. Poor puss was much irritated by my scaring away the bird. I stood still to gain, if possible, the favor of the Cat. She was disdainful for a few minutes so that I should understand she was not one to be trifled with, but then she condescended to allow herself to be coaxed within ear- and chin-scratching distance, and then she abandoned dignity to rub about my legs, purring.

Claudia came by, pounced on and swooped up Cat, who found such immediate intimacy much too much to be borne. She was let go right away—an irritated Cat is not to be held. She stayed around us long enough to have her picture taken and then stalked off.

We all walked over the heath to Kenwood Manor House. The walk led us across Hampstead Heath, along a meadow, into a wood, through more fields, and another wood. This was just what I wanted. Nancy, Claudia, and I took a different path from the rest of the group. We ran across a meadow of tall grass into which we completely disappeared whenever we tripped and fell, which seemed to happen oftener than necessary because it was fun. We sang traveling songs, concluding with “The Sound of Music” as we came through the wood, past a lake, up over the brow of a hill, and upon the manicured lawn leading to the manor house. All that seemed to be missing was the chime from the church. We were sure there would be larks singing in the night.

The house contained art treasures: a Rembrandt self-portrait, a Gainsborough landscape and a portrait, a Jan van de Meer, a van Dyck, and I think a van Eyck. The library was completely architected and decorated by Robert Adam whose fireplaces are so beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like this. I could have stayed in this library forever. It was a long oval with four white pillars free-standing in the neo-classical style, moldings gilt with gold around the tops of the walls. Neoclassical paintings decorated the ceiling, and of course glass-fronted bookcases from floor to ceiling filled with leather bound books, some of them very, very old. The room was nearly two stories in height. On the meadow side were floor to ceiling windows with divided panes. Bright wood floor planks, a dark red rug, deep chairs, and pastel color on the walls completed the room. I wanted to sit down immediately and start reading!

Sari and I explored until we found the gate house where we could purchase lunch and rejoin our friends. We had roast lamb and potatoes with mint sauce and cheesecake. It was delicious! Then we went into the flower gardens, imagining that Darcy and Elizabeth, or Emma and Mr Knightly could appear around a corner of the shrubbery any minute. It was perfect.

The lunch dictated another brisk walk into town to use up those calories. Sari, Roseanne, Claudia, Nora, Nancy, and I got side-tracked on the way to the tube station by a Laura Ashley dress shop. Nora and I watched while the others tried on dresses. The girl minding the shop was amused by my taking pictures of the others in front of the mirror when they came out of the dressing rooms. My friends were not amused when they discovered what I was up to.

Our brisk walk resumed as far as the tube station, and then from Paddington Station to Niki House. We had supper of fruit and bread before settling down to an evening of napping (Roseanne and Sari) and writing (me); theatre (Claudia, Diane, Nancy, and Nora) at the Barbican where they saw A Winter’s Tale performed by the RSC; and whatever the others were doing (the Whites, the Dansies, the Riches, and the young men). I had a message to phone my aunt in Oxford, so I found Polly and learned how to use the pay telephone box. My uncle told me that my aunt had crashed her bicycle into a curb and had bumped her head, so she was in hospital for observation for the night. I should call back tomorrow to make plans to meet up. I hadn’t seen this aunt since I was seven years old and had never met her husband.

Thursday, July 22nd

This morning we went to a house near the British Museum that Charles Dickens had lived in. It has been partly made into a museum; there are no rooms furnished, just stuffed with furniture, and cases containing letters, drawings by Boz, jewelry, miniatures, books, clothing, and what-have-you. The room I liked best was littered with ladders and boards and wallpaper samples. I think it is meant to become a period room. In it I stood at the window, looking out on the street, and that way I could furnish it behind me in my imagination, seeing all before me (ignoring cars) that Dickens might have seen, in every weather. The back garden was lovely to glimpse through a partly stained-glass window—the red geraniums in the garden complemented the red poppies in the panes.

We walked to the British Museum from there. And there were so many wonderful things!—the Beowulf manuscript! the Elgin Marbles! the Sutton Hoo burial treasure! one of the original copies of the Magna Carta! There were signatures of William Shakespeare, pages of Jane Austen manuscript, pages of Jane Eyre, Thomas Hardy, Milton, that blue scrap on which Coleridge woke and wrote “Kubla Khan” with no need for revision as it was inspired directly by an opium dream. Maybe it was even the truth.

Sari and I were entranced by rooms of jewelry with Babylonian, Greek, Arabic, early Celtic, and Britannic treasures. I walked into a room of clocks and fell instantly in love. There were three rooms of clocks! They were every imaginable shape and size, performing incredible feats and giving every piece of information anybody could desire. A ship clock of gold pitched and rolled on the hour as from its hold a miniature bellows blew pipe-organ blasts while the crew turned round in dances and the flags waved.

While Sari and I were floating around in enchanted happiness at everything, we discovered Diane sitting despondent in the lobby downstairs, bored nearly to tears and lamenting her husband’s absence. Funny thing about this husband, whose existence was never mentioned until we got here to Britain, there are several different stories floating through our group about him. Sari and I got the tale of a poor slob who is presently in the Colorado State Penitentiary. Some of the others heard a tale of his being held prisoner in Iran or somewhere that the State Department couldn’t reach him. Prof. Rich heard yet another tale, much less exciting than the first two. In that tale, the mysteriously missing husband was working in Alaska for the summer. We think Diane, who doesn’t otherwise say much and seems to be a discontented sort of person, wants attention and has chosen this way to get it. The husband is certainly a source of speculation and wonder for most of the group. Sighing, kind Sari sat down to cheer up Diane.

I left them and sat on a bench at the end of the long hall of Elgin Marbles to write poetry. I have to admit I was not writing poetry purely out of inspiration from some poetic Muse. We were assigned to write papers on just about everything we saw, with a total of fifteen one-page papers due at the end of the term. But the other alternative was to produce a body of poetry comparable to the fifteen papers. I decided I wanted to write the poetry. We were supposed to use several different styles and to draw inspiration from the poets we were reading. [I put the original poetic works in my photo album, but here I am not willing to copy them and thus make my efforts more pathetic than they already are.]
Elgin Marbles #1 (Parade)
I see your horses and warriors
parading side by side;
now two, now up to seven
ride abreast in Grecian splendor—

But I hear nothing except fading echoes
of hall-muffled footsteps:
those who come to see you
and who move because you are frozen.

Your horses: did they snort and blow, and neigh?
Was there music? Did you sing? or chant?
Were there drums? Laughter? Shouts of premature triumph
as you planned to live forever conquering?

You are silent now—were you silent then,
riding only to the sound of the horses’ hoofbeats
and the quieted weeping of women who suspected
as you left that your glory was going forever?

Elgin Marbles #2
They lie in fragments,
A torso here—
Arms, legs, not even those
Are whole,
And last Tuesday
The mounted guards at Buckingham
And the military band in Regent’s
blew apart too.
But these are marble statues
Meant to preserve the figures
And events
Forever, did you say?
These are not eternal
For some bomb has ripped them
limb from limb
Destroyed even their death-in-life
Preserved state,
And scattered forever
A harmony of history.
The bomb exploding
Is Time—
The detonator
the nature of Man.

Sari’s efforts to cheer up Diane resulted in a major change of plans. Diane had not been interested in anything we found entertaining so far, until Sari told her about Cats, and then she was avid to get a ticket. We tried, but we could not get a ticket anywhere. So I sacrificed and sold her mine. I told Sari that when I called my aunt and uncle back again, I would see if I could take the bus to Oxford that night and spend it with them, meeting up with the group when they got there tomorrow. If that didn’t work out, I could always go with some of the others to the park to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I called my aunt and found out that she had had to stay in hospital overnight because she had bumped her face on the pavement when her bicycle crashed, but she said it was more embarrassing than anything else, and she was fine. She said she would love to have me come visit, but unfortunately the house was still unsettled and there was no place to put me up for the night, so I should come in the morning with my group and then meet her at the museum later in the day when she had her lunch break. Then, depending on which I’d rather do, rejoin my group or spend the rest of the day with her, she’d take the afternoon off. I was glad to hear how happy she sounded at the idea of spending the afternoon with me, and I chose that. Although we talked as fast as we could, the telephone box kept demanding more 10p coins, and I ran out in the middle of her description of her work. But the important things were arranged.

Accordingly, I sent Sari and Diane off to see Cats and joined the others in heading to Regent’s Park for the Shakespeare play. We went the wrong way in the tube for the length of one station before Sven and I noticed the mistake, and then we got turned around the right way. We weren’t late anyway.

The play, by the same company that we saw before, was not quite as good in this production. Several of us afterward said that we kept wanting more out of the Lysander-Hermia-Helena-Demetrius actors. They seemed to lack the liveliness the play demands. The park also grew cold after sunset, so we were a bit uncomfortable. But we heard others around us as we left voicing the same kind of disappointment, so it wasn’t entirely due to our physical discomfort.

In the dark we lost all sense of direction and proportion. We had no idea which way we should go to our tube station! We followed people walking and finally broke down and asked an older couple for directions. They told us to follow them to their car, from which they were able to point us to the nearest tube station, which turned out to be Marlybone. Fortunately, those of us together that night had the tube lines all memorized, so there was no discussion of which line to take to get back to our hotel. We felt like pros.

When Sari and Diane got home, Sari was predictably ecstatic about the production of Cats. But Diane was disappointed—it wasn’t as good as Sari had promised, and she complained about having wasted her money in having to pay me for my ticket. I glared at her, but she didn’t appear to understand that she was in danger of having me wring her neck for her. She went on complaining. Sari and I exchanged a look and we both sighed.

To be continued . . .
Here is the next episode: Part IV: Weekend out of London
the Coronation Chair and the Stone of Scone beneath
Sitting room in the Keats House
Foxgloves in the Keats garden
The Keats yard
Hampstead Heath
Hampstead Heath
Modeling a Robert Adam fireplace!

the Beowulf manuscript!!
Louis XV chess set
Resurrection clock

Sutton Hoo goblet
Sutton Hoo lyre
Sutton Hoo gold
Elgin Marbles

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