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Seeing Joyce

Tuesday 12 June 2012 at 16:31

This year’s ‘Bloomsday’ – 108 years after Leopold Bloom took his legendary walk around Dublin on the 16th June 1904 – is the first since the works of James Joyce entered the public domain. Frank Delaney asks whether we should perhaps now stop trying to read Joyce and instead make visits to him as to a gallery.

Photograph Joyce had made in Zurich, 1915, and sent to Michael Healy, Nora's uncle. Source: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

In 1931, Stanislaus Joyce wrote to his older brother, James, a letter that echoed with many voices.

I cannot read your work in progress. The vague support you get from certain French and American critics I set down to pure snobbery … What is the meaning of that rout of drunken words? … You want to show that you are a superclever superman with a superstyle.

It wasn’t the younger sibling’s first complaint, nor even the most bitter; as brother of the more famous Jim he had spoken out far more abusively at earlier, similarly “obscure” moments in the Joycean career. Nor was Stanny’s the only such complaint; in fact such allegations and dismissals would become more or less general. This time, the “work in progress” became Finnegans Wake (1939), a book that has defeated most of its would-be readers wholly and all partially, but that same frustrated opprobrium had begun with Ulysses (1922) and in due time would discolour everything that Joyce wrote.

To accept the general impeachment of James Joyce is never to know vast delight. The majority has ruled for a long time – Joyce is “difficult,” Prince of the Unintelligibles, out-Steining Gertrude and that’s that, no further argument.

If, out of sensitivity, out of respect, you find yourself reluctant to blame the artist himself, you could, if you wished, turn on the academics. Sneer at them, “Well, they certainly took Joyce at his word when he said ‘My work will keep the professors busy for three hundred years’.” Indeed. Hammer them further; didn’t they then make him exclusive, intensify his arcane reputation, isolate him from the common reader because they were hunting down all those recondite doctorates in his thickets? And, as every dog and Derrida knows, the more obscure the thesis the more summa the cum laude.

However, why yield to either frustration or cynicism, especially in the face of such great art? Since Joyce believed that his writing both synthesized and transcended other disciplines, specifically painting and music, why not look for him somewhere over there? Indeed, why not wonder whether Joyce only needs a little pathfinding, a little extra scrutiny?

Joyce playing the guitar in Trieste, 1915. The photograph is by Ottacaro Weiss, a friend who was apparently "scandalized" by his Joyce's guitar playing skills. The guitar is now on display at the James Joyce Museum in Martello Tower.

There’s a lot to be gained when you (sort of) set a thief to catch a thief. An artist from one discipline can refresh how we see a fellow-artist from another. Shaw on Rheingold; “Let us not forget that godhood means to Wagner infirmity and compromise, and manhood strength and integrity.” Henry James remarked upon Sir Christopher Wren’s “insincere recesses and niches” at St. Paul’s.

James Joyce attracted painters. Brancusi painted a portrait of the artist as an older man – one slender whorl and some thin tangential lines (prompting Joyce’s father to say, “Well – Jim has changed a bit since I saw him”). Matisse provided stunning illustrations for an edition of Ulysses (though by taking his inspiration from Homer he annoyed Joyce – who probably didn’t stop to think about Matisse’s language skills).

And there was one other artist, admittedly minor, who, for those seeking to understand Joyce, made the greatest of all differences. In 1918, an English painter, Frank Budgen (1882-1971), met James Joyce at a party in Zurich. Both were aged 36 and within their first conversation Joyce responded to Budgen’s natural sensitivity and felt safe with him. Rare compliment, he then showed Budgen his work in progress of the day – the first three chapters of Ulysses, four years before the book would appear in print.

If there can be a natural kinship between painters and writers, Budgen, the perfect reader, proved it. To Joyce’s “difficult” material he brought his own sense of how any artist must render life. In a memoir, James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses (1934), he described the great modernist’s prose from his own artistic vantage: “It is like an impressionist painting. The shadows are full of colour; the whole is built up out of nuances instead of being constructed in broad masses; things are seen as immersed in a luminous fluid; colour supplies the modeling and the total effect is arrived at through a countless number of small touches.”

Seen thus, Joyce’s work changes for ever. No longer do we have to read what multiple critics called “tormented prose.” The myriad disdainers, whose negatives ranged from “vulgar” and “foul” to “psychic disintegration” – they fail. As Budgen saw him, Joyce’s higher purpose gleams like dawn.

Through Budgen’s lens, not only may we now excuse Joyce the dense layers of reference, often six deep in the use or placement of a single word, we may relish them. Instead of fighting him phrase by phrase, we can trust him image by image as we see one art relating to another – literature rendered as painting. It’s like stumbling into a field of diamonds – hard, brilliant flashes of light everywhere. In short, Frank Budgen alters James Joyce’s state by making him a writer whom we see rather than merely read.

Sketch of 'Poldy', Leopold Bloom, from Joyce's notes.

That Joyce was ever thus can be discerned early. The first paragraph of his first generally published work, ‘The Sisters’, in Dubliners (1914) contains this sentence, a painting in itself: “If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind, for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse.”

Every story in the collection offers similar illustrative prose; “When she got outside the streets were shining with rain and she was glad of her old brown raincloak” (Clay). The head of a man who has fallen lies in “a dark medal of blood” (Grace). Or, straight from Renoir, “She was a slim, growing girl, pale in complexion and with hay-coloured hair.”

It’s possible to pass off the many bright phrases in Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) as “Show: Don’t Tell,” the creative writing school ideal. The impressionism doesn’t truly kick in until Ulysses; thereafter it dominates and does so in ways both brilliantly technical and artistically profound – and occasionally parodic. For example, in a technique vital to painting, the shift between light and shadow, Stephen Dedalus, under the sunny daylight of the most famous June morning in literature, walks along Sandymount Strand – with his eyes closed. Once the image is in place, literature then takes the meaning up, up and away – “walking into eternity,” thinks Stephen.

And yet, when the book was published in February 1922, and was at the moment the most famous book in the world, that same ‘Proteus’ chapter, with its now-notorious “ineluctable modality of the visible,” was the downfall of so many would-be readers.

Why didn’t they ask Budgen? Take the first of his three crucial remarks: “It is like an impressionist painting. The shadows are full of colour; the whole is built up out of nuances instead of being constructed in broad masses.” Use that observation to interrogate a later chapter in Ulysses, ‘The Wandering Rocks’.

It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. Lunch has been taken, Hamlet has been dissected within the Library and another landscape with figures is about to be painted. We’ve already had strong hints of this kind of canvas; Stephen steps away from a crowded bathing-place; a funeral proceeds across town; Mr. Bloom peregrinates among people and streets towards his lunch. Now, in ‘Wandering Rocks’, we are about to view the city as L.S. Lowry and his stick-figures. Or the Breughels or Averkamp, those Low Countries scenes of teeming villages. Or a Renoir afternoon.

Within the first few hundred words, we observe a grave and serious priest, who gives a blessing to a one-legged sailor, meets and greets the wife of an M.P., and chats to three little schoolboys.

Across the canvas strides a dancing teacher in “silk hat, slate frockcoat with silk facings, white kerchief tie, lavender trousers, canary gloves and pointed patent boots.”

Next we see Mrs. McGuinness, “stately, silver-haired,” with “a fine carriage… like Mary, Queen of Scots.” And on it goes; more schoolboys, “satchelled” this time; shopkeepers; a police constable; “two unlabouring men” lounging against the window of a pub; “a bargeman with a hat of dirty straw” – the book at this moment almost ceases to have characters; rather they become members of a painted day.

Colourised photograph of Sackville Street in Dublin, circa 1900. As I was Going Down Sackville Street was a novel by Joyce's friend (and inspiration for Ulysses' Buck Mulligan), Oliver St. John Gogarty - titled after an Irish Ballad which Joyce sang for Gogarty in 1904.

In 1920, for Carlo Linati, the Italian translator of his play Exiles (1918), Joyce produced The Linati Schema, a breakdown of the chapter’s nineteen segments, in which many characters recur. He listed the chapter’s concerns as “Objects, Places, Forces, Ulysses,” called the “technic” of the chapter a “shifting labyrinth between two shores,” and defined the “organ” of the piece “as “blood.” All through the ‘Wandering Rocks’ chapter the corpuscles of Dublin’s lifeblood pulse along the veins and arteries of the city.

In general, Joyce threw down many deliberate, almost sadistic challenges, not least to the “formal,” that is to say, sequential use of language. But if Ulysses is Impressionism, it can’t drag you back to its old ways. As such, it passes all Budgen’s tests, not least “the whole is built up out of nuances instead of being constructed in broad masses.” Few characters in most chapters receive great dramatic roles, and yet they all tell the story of the sixteenth of June 1904 in Dublin. Yeats wasn’t meaning to condescend when he referred to the book’s content as “the vulgarity of a single Dublin day” – he also meant vulgus, the crowd.

Twenty years before Joyce was born, the American painter, Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), wrote to a friend, “In a big picture you can see what o’clock it is, afternoon or morning, if it’s hot or cold, winter or summer, and what kind of people are there, and what they are doing, an why they are doing it.” Eakins, not an impressionist, rather a near-complete and Rembrandt-ish realist, might have been writing about all of Dubliners, a great deal of A Portrait of the Artist and many if not most of the eighteen chapters in Ulysses.

When Joyce published his two largest works, critical attention went to the monologue intérieur in Ulysses and the dream-capturing of Finnegans Wake. The former settled down as his book of the day, the latter his book of the night. All that dismay at Ulysses gave way to the desperation at “the Wake.” This was truly beyond everything.

Yet Finnegans Wake takes care of the rest of Budgen’s observations. The book behaves differently – same painter, different technique; yet again “the whole is built up out of nuances instead of being constructed in broad masses.” Budgen may have thought that he was referring to Ulysses, but the Wake was already under way when he wrote his invaluable memoir. And that novel (if such it is) is truest of all to the third part of Budgen’s opinion – “things are seen as immersed in a luminous fluid.”

Photograph taken of Joyce by C. Ruf. in Zurich, ca. 1918, the year he was to start work on Ulysses and met Frank Budgen.

This is where Budgen nails it. There is simply no point in trying to read Finnegans Wake by any conventional methods. Indeed, doing so would dishonor Joyce and his intention to capture the spirit’s nocturnal mechanisms, as Ulysses had the diurnal.

Best to take that phrase of Budgen’s at its face value and immerse oneself in the book’s fluid. When you read in the old way, even with conscious sound, the Wake (as Ulysses does) changes before your eyes. It becomes a dreamlike book of the dead, whose power inside Joyce’s spirit was so great that he had no choice but to use a dismembered language. Joyce was putting these sentences down on the page long before he knew of the world’s newest and widest-used language: call Finnegans Wake a binary code of literature.

But again, and at the risking of banging the drum too loud and too often, read it not as language; read it as, say, a gift of tongues or as music or as that benighted creature, the “prose poem.” And then as painting – and this time add Abstract to the Impressionists. It’s not just the sounds of the words; it’s the shapes.

Here are some examples of the text, plucked at random (Faber, 1975). The opening paragraph: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay…” can be a sweep of colour from the south of France. And who have we here – Jackson Pollock? “The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner- ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur- nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy.” Let’s have one more, the briefest of glimpses, a corner of a canvas and yet touchingly complete: “My great blue bedroom, the air so quiet, scarce a cloud. In peace and silence.” Taken together, this admittedly minuscule sample of three quotations is at least a sinew in Budgen’s argument.

Finally, poetry is the magnifying glass of literature’s art. Yeats called it “hammering my thoughts into unity.” Though he wrote so few, James Joyce’s verses distil his painterly claim. Read Pomes Penyeach (1927), his collection of “penny apples” (he couldn’t resist punning on pommes) and you can see his brushstrokes.

“He travels after a winter sun,/Urging the cattle along a cold red road”. Or, “A birdless heaven, seadusk, one lone star/Piercing the west”. And, hell, he’s almost pre-Raphaelite! “A waste of waters ruthlessly/Sways and uplifts its weedy mane”.

In the Carpaccio Room at the Venice Accademia, several gigantic canvases add up to nothing short of a massive literary work. Carpaccio could have called the collection, “Venetian Life and Other Stories.” Apply the same principles to Joyce and there aren’t rooms enough, nor galleries.

In the end it may all come down to the practical. Commentators have argued for Love as the one dominant element in everything Joyce wrote. There has even been a thought that if all the typos and misssteps in Ulysses could ever have been corrected, the central word in the text would be “love,” and intentionally so.

Perhaps – but Light trumps it. Page by page almost, we are never too far from the sun or the moon or the candle or the lamp or the air itself as a light source. And with good reason.

Throughout his life, Joyce suffered from poor and often painful eyesight. His eyes aged faster than he did and by his mid-forties he had endured multiple surgical procedures. In today’s terms, he’d probably qualify as legally blind. Did intensifying glaucoma impel him to his pen-dancing, pointillist-ism? Deformity, too, has its place in art.



Frank Delaney, writer and broadcaster, lives in the United States, where he deconstructs Ulysses in brief weekly podcasts on his website: www.frankdelaney.com


Links to Works








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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/06/12/seeing-joyce/


William Cheselden’s Osteographia (1733)

Monday 11 June 2012 at 21:37

With its novel vignettes and its use of a camera obscura in the production of the plates, William Cheselden’s lavishly illustrated Osteographia or the Anatomy of the Bones, is recognized as a landmark in the history of anatomical illustration.

Read more about the Osteographia in Monique Kornell’s article for The Public Domain Review.

(All images via the National Library of Medicine. See their website for more images and scans of the original pages).














































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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/06/11/cheseldens-osteographia-1733/


San Francisco Earthquake Aftermath (1906)

Sunday 10 June 2012 at 13:56



Haunting footage on the streets of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake which devastated much of the city, left more than 300,000 people homeless and killed over 3000. The earthquake was the first natural disaster of its magnitude to be documented by photography and motion picture footage. This film appears to be made by amateurs who attached a camera to a car driven around the city. Noticeable is the huge amount of people out sightseeing amid the rubble. See also this Edison newsreel showing scenes of the rescue operation and clearup. And see “A Trip Down Market Street” which shows the streets of San Francisco only 6 days prior to when the earthquake hit.

Download from Internet Archive

Note this film is in the public domain in the US, but may not be in other jurisdictions. Please check its status in your jurisdiction before re-using.










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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/06/10/san-francisco-earthquake-aftermath-1906/


A Manual of Gesture (1875)

Wednesday 6 June 2012 at 16:30


A Manual of Gesture, embracing a complete system of notation, together with the principles of interpretation and selections for practice, by Albert M. Bacon; 1875; J. C. Buckbee, Chicago.

Based heavily on Gilbert Austin’s Chironomia of 1806, this book by Albert. M. Bacon explores the art of hand gestures, particularly in relation to effective public oratory – all complete with a system of notation and many practise examples with which to hone one’s skills. As Bacon states in the preface: “Agreeable sounds and harmonious action — one addressing the ear, and the other the eye — combine to perfect the orator.”

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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/06/06/a-manual-of-gesture-1875/


Transit of Venus (1882)

Tuesday 5 June 2012 at 15:27



The etching above shows William Crabtree in 1639 making what is thought to be one of the very first observations of the ‘Transit of Venus’, when the planet Venus crosses the face of the Sun. There would be three more such occurrences before the event of 1882 shown in the images below. Rather than using wet bromo-iodide plates to capture the image as was done for the Transit of Venus in 1874 only 14 years earlier, these images from 1882 were made on dry collodion emulsion plates – a much more practical method. The Naval Observatory and Transit of Venus Commission sent 8 parties around the world to observe each of the transits; the results of which were important for determining the scale of the solar system. Of the hundreds of images created during the 1882 American expeditions only 11 plates still survive.

(All images taken from the Naval Oceanography Portal, a website of the The United States Naval Observatory).





Below are some images from the 1874 and 1882 expeditions in progress. (See more here).



























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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/06/05/transit-of-venus-1882/


Development of a Salamander (1920s)

Monday 4 June 2012 at 14:27



Early biological silent film, made sometime in the 1920s, which uses time-lapse photography to show the development of a salamander from egg to larvae. From the Department of Anatomy at Yale University.

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Note this film is in the public domain in the US, but may not be in other jurisdictions. Please check its status in your jurisdiction before re-using.










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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/06/04/development-of-a-salamander-1920s/


Shin-Bijutsukai – Japanese Design Magazine (1902)

Friday 1 June 2012 at 12:04


Shin-Bijutsukai, The new monthly magazine of various designs by the famous artists of to-day; 1902; Unsodo, Kyoto

Turn of the century Japanese design magazine, gifted to the Smithsonian Museum by Robert W. Chanler. See a gallery of selected pages here in the PDR images collection.

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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/06/01/shin-bijutsukai-japanese-design-magazine-1902/


Japanese Designs (1902)

Friday 1 June 2012 at 12:01

Selected pages from Shin-Bijutsukai, a Japanese Design Magazine, issues from 1901 and 1902.

(All images extracted from the magazine via Internet Archive which you can also see in its wonderful entirety here in the PDR Texts collection).













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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/06/01/japanese-designs-1902/


Coloured Engravings of the Fugger Family

Thursday 31 May 2012 at 14:14

Throughout the course of the 15th and 16th century The Fugger Family from Augsburg became became one of Europe’s most powerful merchant dynasties. They replaced the de’ Medici family as probably Europe’s most influential family, taking over many of the Medici assets as well as their political power and influence. Ennobled at the beginning of the 16th century, the Fuggers began to withdraw step by step from business during the second half of the century and as the 1600s began adopted an aristocratic lifestyle. Jakob Fugger, who died in 1525, is considered to be one of the richest persons of all time, and is today referred to as Jakob Fugger ‘the rich’. The series of images below are a selection from the Fuggerorum et Fuggerarum. Quae in familia natae. Quaève in familiam transiervnt. Quot extant aere expressae imagines, a limited edition of highly elaborate coloured engravings, published exclusively in 1593 and 1618 for the family members which they depicted. The work was commissioned by Philipp Eduard Fugger and carried out in the most part by the Augsburg engraver Dominicus Custos (see also his Atrium Heroicum)

(All images from the Bayerische Landesbibliothek Online via Wikimedia Commons. See the Wikimedia Commons link for more info on persons depicted and higher resolution images).














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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/05/31/coloured-engravings-of-the-fugger-family/


The Krakatoa Sunsets

Monday 28 May 2012 at 15:18

When a volcano erupted on a small island in Indonesia in 1883, the evening skies of the world glowed for months with strange colours. Richard Hamblyn explores a little-known series of letters that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins sent in to the journal Nature describing the phenomenon – letters that would constitute the majority of the small handful of writings published while he was alive.

Lithograph from 1888 showing the Krakatoa eruption, author unknown.

During the winter of 1883 the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins descended into one of his periodic depressions, “a wretched state of weakness and weariness, I can’t tell why,” he wrote, “always drowsy and incapable of reading or thinking to any effect.” It was partly boredom: Hopkins was ungainfully employed at a Catholic boarding school in Lancashire, where much of his time was spent steering his pupils through their university entrance exams. The thought that he was wasting his time and talents weighed heavily upon him during the long, brooding walks he took through the “sweet landscape” of Ribblesdale, “thy lovely dale”, as he described it in one of the handful of poems he managed to compose that winter. He was about to turn forty and felt trapped.

Such was his state of mind when the Krakatoa sunsets began. The tiny volcanic island of Krakatoa (located halfway between Java and Sumatra) had staged a spectacular eruption at the end of August 1883, jettisoning billions of tonnes of ash and debris deep into the earth’’s upper atmosphere. Nearly 40,000 people had been killed by a series of mountainous waves thrown out by the force of the explosion: the Javan port of Anjer had been almost completely destroyed, along with more than a hundred coastal towns and villages. ““All gone. Plenty lives lost”, as a telegram sent from Serang reported, and for weeks afterwards the bodies of the drowned continued to wash up along the shoreline. Meanwhile, the vast volcanic ash-cloud had spread into a semi-opaque band that threaded slowly westward around the equator, forming memorable sunsets and afterglows across the earth’’s lower latitudes. A few weeks later, the stratospheric veil moved outwards from the tropics to the poles, and by late October 1883 most of the world, including Britain, was being subjected to lurid evening displays, caused by the scattering of incoming light by the meandering volcanic haze. Throughout November and December, the skies flared through virulent shades of green, blue, copper and magenta, “more like inflamed flesh than the lucid reds of ordinary sunsets,” wrote Hopkins; “the glow is intense; that is what strikes everyone; it has prolonged the daylight, and optically changed the season; it bathes the whole sky, it is mistaken for the reflection of a great fire.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1866, detail from a photo by Thomas C. Bayfield. National Portrait Gallery

In common with most other observers at the time, Hopkins had no idea what was causing the phenomenon, but he grew fascinated by the daily atmospheric displays, tracking their changing appearances over the course of that unsettled winter. At the end of December he collated his observations into a remarkable 2,000-word document, which he sent to the leading science journal, Nature. The article, published in January 1884, was a masterpiece of reportage, a heightened prose poem that mixed rhapsodic literary experimentation with a high degree of meteorological rigour:

Above the green in turn appeared a red glow, broader and burlier in make; it was softly brindled, and in the ribs or bars the colour was rosier, in the channels where the blue of the sky shone through it was a mallow colour. Above this was a vague lilac. The red was first noticed 45º above the horizon, and spokes or beams could be seen in it, compared by one beholder to a man’s open hand. By 4.45 the red had driven out the green, and, fusing with the remains of the orange, reached the horizon. By that time the east, which had a rose tinge, became of a duller red, compared to sand; according to my observation, the ground of the sky in the east was green or else tawny, and the crimson only in the clouds. A great sheet of heavy dark cloud, with a reefed or puckered make, drew off the west in the course of the pageant: the edge of this and the smaller pellets of cloud that filed across the bright field of the sundown caught a livid green. At 5 the red in the west was fainter, at 5.20 it became notably rosier and livelier; but it was never of a pure rose. A faint dusky blush was left as late as 5.30, or later. While these changes were going on in the sky, the landscape of Ribblesdale glowed with a frowning brown. (from G. M. Hopkins, “The Remarkable Sunsets”, Nature 29 (3 January 1884), pp. 222-23)

Hopkins was a gifted empirical observer with a near-forensic interest in the search for written equivalents to the complexity of the natural world. Such interest in the language of precision was shared by many scientists at the time, science, like poetry, being an inherently descriptive enterprise. Anyone who reads the official Royal Society report on the Krakatoa sunsets (published in 1888) will find flights of poetic prose to rival those of Hopkins, who described such language as “the current language heightened and unlike itself,” a dynamic written form that was particularly suited to the expression of what he called “inscape”: the distinctive unity of all natural phenomena that gives everything in nature its characterising beauty and uniqueness. The force of being that holds these dynamic identities together he termed “instress”, instress being the essential energy that enables an observer to recognise the inscape of another being. These post-Romantic notions formed a kind of personal poetic creed, a logocentric natural theology that was rooted in the work of Duns Scotus, the medieval Christian philosopher.

Photograph taken in 1928 of the destroyed Krakatoa island resurfacing, forming what is known now as 'Anak Krakatau', or 'Child of Krakatoa'. Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT).

For Hopkins, inscape and instress lay at the heart of his religious and poetic practice, as well as being vital means of apprehending the natural world. In a journal entry for 22 April 1871, for instance, he records “such a lovely damasking in the sky as today I never felt before. The blue was charged with simple instress, the higher, zenith sky earnest and frowning, lower more light and sweet.” Note that he felt the damasking as well as saw it, and note, too, his calibrated descriptions of the banded blues of the sky, the higher “earnest and frowning”, the lower “more light and sweet.” His journals are full of such poetic quantifications, which he used as notes towards a quintet of articles that he published in the journal Nature, all on meteorological subjects. The first two, published in November 1882 and November 1883, were letters describing anti-crepuscular rays (cloud-shadows that appear in the evening sky opposite the sun), while the following three were all on the subject of the Krakatoa sunsets, which had evidently furnished the melancholy Hopkins with a much-needed source of distraction.

He was not alone in his interest; all over the world, writers, artists and scientists responded to the drama of the volcanic skies. The poets Algernon Swinburne, Robert Bridges and Alfred Tennyson (then poet laureate), wrote lengthy descriptive strophes prompted by the unearthly twilights, although, as the historian Richard Altick pointed out, “the only good poetry that resulted from the celestial displays is found in Hopkins’ prose” (Richard D. Altick, “Four Victorian Poets and an Exploding Island”, Victorian Studies 3 (March 1960), p. 258). This is a fair assessment, though I do have a sneaking fondness for Tennyson’s blank-verse approximation of the cadences of Victorian popular science:

Had the fierce ashes of some fiery peak
Been hurl’d so high they ranged about the globe?
For day by day, thro’ many a blood-red eve . . .
The wrathful sunset glared . . . (“St. Telemachus”, pub. 1892)

Visual artists also found themselves extending their colour ranges in awed emulation of the skies. Painter William Ascroft spent many evenings making pastel sky-sketches from the banks of the Thames at Chelsea, noting his frustration that he “could only secure in a kind of chromatic shorthand the heart of the effect, as so much of the beauty of afterglow consisted in concentration.” He exhibited more than five hundred of these highly-coloured pastels in the galleries of the Science Museum, in the repository of which they remain to this day, little known and rarely seen.

Three of the hundreds of sketches carried out by William Ascroft in the winter of 1883/4 - used as the frontispiece of The Eruption of Krakatoa, and Subsequent Phenomena: Report of the Krakatoa committee of the Royal Society (1888), ed. by G.J. Simmons.

In Oslo, by contrast, the sunsets helped inspire one of the world’s best-known paintings: Edvard Munch was walking with some friends one evening as the sun descended through the haze: “it was as if a flaming sword of blood slashed open the vault of heaven,” he recalled; “the atmosphere turned to blood – with glaring tongues of fire – the hills became deep blue – the fjord shaded into cold blue – among the yellow and red colours – that garish blood-red – on the road – and the railing – my companions’ faces became yellow-white – I felt something like a great scream – and truly I heard a great scream.” His painting The Scream (1893), of which he made several versions, is an enduring (and much stolen) expressionist masterpiece, a vision of human desolation writhing beneath an apocalyptic sky, as “a great unending scream pierces through nature.” As it happens, the final eruption of Krakatoa on 27 August 1883 was the loudest sound ever recorded, travelling almost 5,000 km, and heard over nearly a tenth of the earth’s surface: a great scream indeed.

As for Hopkins, the publication of his Krakatoa essay coincided with the welcome offer of a professorship in classics at University College Dublin. He left Lancashire for Ireland in February 1884, relieved to have made his escape. It didn’t last. Homesick, lonely and overworked, Hopkins succumbed to his worst depression yet, his misery traced in the so-called “terrible” sonnets of 1885 (“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”). He died of typhoid fever in June 1889 (aged 44), and was buried in an unmarked grave. Only his close friend Robert Bridges was aware of his greatness as a poet, and the bulk of his work remained unpublished until 1918. In fact, apart from a handful of minor poems that had appeared in obscure periodicals, the five Nature articles were the only works that Hopkins published in his lifetime.




Richard Hamblyn’s books include The Invention of Clouds , which won the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize; Terra: Tales of the Earth (2009), a study of natural disasters; and The Art of Science (2011), an anthology of readable science writing from the Babylonians to the Higgs Boson. He is a lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London.


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Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/05/28/the-krakatoa-sunsets/