Sunday, May 4, 2014

on a violet bud her pillow’s laid

I followed the readwomen hashtag earlier this year but they did not discuss Dorothy Wordsworth, nor did they discuss Margaret Cavendish the Duchess of Newcastle, so I gave them up: no ancients for them, no writers who were really dedicated to the idea of being dead, none of those post-even-rotting ones who were most severely (in Chesterton's words) subjected to the tyranny of those who just happen to be walking around.

Too many pulses! Cruel!

The pulse is the drumbeat of tyranny!

Then I'll write something, I thought tyrannously (like Lovelace in Clarissa insisting that he only wants to see Clarissa because he loves her -- poor lady, sighs everybody else while he commits variations on, But I love her, I'm helping): I have read Cavendish's book The Blazing World (1666), and that is enough to make me feel like a thrusting expert, going by the maxim that people who don't know very much are usually the most confident; knowledgeable people recognise the qualifiers and the modifiers.

(Fiction deserves to be full of qualifiers and modifiers, no one knowing the fictional territory better than the person who is creating it, and therefore Henry James is the most correct writer who has ever lived).

The Blazing World begins with a kidnapped Lady, caught in a Tempest, who sails to a land beyond the North Pole, “not onely driven to the very end or point of the Pole of that World, but even to another Pole of another World, which joined close to it,” where she meets Worm-men who talk to her about philosophy and science. “[S]he was made Empress.” Cavendish was thinking of other Ladies. “But, by reason most Ladies take no delight in Philosophical Arguments, I separated some from the mentioned Observations, and caused them to go out by themselves, that I might express my Respects, in presenting to Them such Fancies as my Contemplations did afford.“ She grew up at home with her sisters and her mother – brothers usually off elsewhere, father dead -- shy and loved and loving everyone around her, this family her bedrock as anybody can read in her True Relations of my Birth, Breeding, and Life.

I was so bashful when I was out of my mother's, brothers', and sisters' sight, whose presence used to give me confidence — thinking I could not do amiss whilst any one of them were by, for I knew they would gently reform me if I did; besides, I was ambitious they should approve of my actions and behaviour — that when I was gone from them, I was like one that had no foundation to stand, or guide to direct me, which made me afraid, lest I should wander with ignorance out of the ways of honour, so that I knew not how to behave myself.

She was dreamy. Virginia Woolf, reading the Life, pictured her staring at the ground as she walked and wondering “whether snails have teeth.” “Pictured” is a strange word. The author of The Blazing World is interested in snails, worms, nits, lice, moths and maggots.

The Empress wondring that there could be living Animals without Blood, to be better satisfied, desired the Worm-men to inform her, whether they had observed Blood in all sorts of Worms? They answered, That, as much as they could perceive, some had Blood, and some not; a Moth, said they, had no Blood at all, and a Lowse had, but like a Lobster, a little Vein along her back: Also Nits, Snails, and Maggots, as well as those that are generated out of Cheese and Fruits, as those that are produced out of Flesh, had no blood.

Cavendish was curious, said Woolf, but she was not disciplined, she imagined, she did not reason, she found a thought that interested her and she wandered around with it fancifully; she was interested in fairies, she wrote poems about Queen Mab.

Her bed a cherry stone, is carved throughout,
And with a butterfly’s wing hung about;
Her sheets are of the skin of Dove’s eyes made
Where on a violet bud her pillow’s laid.

How do I not picture the mutilated dove?

Here's another way of putting it: how did the poet not picture the mutilated dove?


  1. Yes, how do you get to "the skin of Dove’s eyes" at all? It's at once beautiful language and horrific imagery.

    And well put about Henry James. The more he considers what he's doing, the more he hesitates, buttressing and signposting away his forward motion until he's almost standing still.

    1. It's as if the Flintstones went so far into its own joke that the characters started ripping the hearts out of dinosaurs on camera and using them for nightlights. Wait a moment, says the audience. What exactly have we been watching all these years?

    2. Wallace Stevens, being useful: "Metaphor creates a new reality from which the original appears to be unreal." (Adaiga, 1957)

  2. i found the readwomen hashtag problematic as well for the reasons you mention. & the classical problem that a wellmeaning idea easily can turn into somehting welldemeaning....
    also i have a christina stead book new and not read, the beauties and the furies. do you like it

    1. I like it but it's not her strongest book. She was always testing herself out on different structures (interconnected short stories like the Decameron in one book, picaresque monologue in another book) and in Furies she sets up a sort of loveless love-triangle, with a man and a woman and another man who is a superhuman, energetic devil-trickster. The author falls in love with the devil-trickster and the book goes lopsided. It's as if you took Mephistopheles out of Faust and put him in Madame Bovary. I think the devil-trickster works better in her next book, House of All Nations, where she gives him a huge cast of other people to play with and makes him a charismatic banker.

    2. When I say "I like it," I think I mean that I was glad to read it, because I'm glad to read anything she writes, but it wasn't satisfying. I wasn't grateful. When I read The Man Who Loved Children then I'm grateful.

      The devil-trickster turns up again in A Little Tea, A Little Chat, but this time he's a pathetic seducer who tries to convince people that he's pitiful and witty.