Sunday, May 29, 2016

a memorandum book

“We take a new route to California, never travelled before this season; consequently our tour is over a new and interesting region,” wrote Charles Stanton to his brother Sidney in a letter-addendum that he dated August 3, 1846. There he was, at the town of Independence in Missouri, preparing to start on the Oregon Trail. “How clean the sun when seen in its idea,” Wallace Stevens says, “Washed in the remotest cleanliness of a heaven | That has expelled us and our images …” – the heaven of text – being a reaction to something that is in time and space, not of the same material as itself, “The poem is the cry of its occasion,” but also “Part of the res itself and not about it” -- both from and of. De Quincey’s snow-forest is not snow, it is, theatrically, Solitude on a stage, this snow shining with a promising impervious beauty, not like the firework-burned snow that I travelled through a few days ago as I passed the turnoff to the lake where people from the Donner Party died one after the other in a landscape of snow until they became a fable of disaster and of the hubris of Lansford Hastings, the author of a book called The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, 1845, which contained a sentence outlining the route that held them up before they reached the Sierra Nevada ranges. People point the blame at him but it is unfair, says Kristin Johnson, author of Unfortunate Emigrants: Narratives of the Donner Party, 1996, because the survivors themselves, interviewed or writing memoirs, “hardly mention Hastings, except in passing.” They blamed themselves, she says, not the author of a sentence that they often had not read.

A friend of mine who was raised in Reno has told me that the people there spend a long time on the Donner Party in their high school history classes, even taking trips across the Nevada-California border to the Donner Memorial State Park, where a plaque on a statue tells you that the snow during the unusually cold winter of 1846 was twenty-two feet deep.

There is a photograph of a man sitting under trees in a forest with chopped-off portions high above his head: this was the depth of the snow and the Donner Party chopped them, here he is sitting to say that their chop was of the res and he is about the chop, afterwards: he is illustrating, they are separate, and so are you, looking.

In concordance with Hastings’ description the Donners and their people decided not to follow the established east-west route that ran north around the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah. Instead they went by a southern track across seventy-five miles of bleak alkaline, a choice that, years later, caused the newspaper journalist Charles McGlashan to put these words in his book, The History of the Donner Party: a Tragedy of the Sierra, 1880: “Each jagged cliff, or pointed rock, or sharply-curved hill-top, hung suspended in air as perfect and complete as if photographed on the sky,” a sentence that I consider accurate.

The route that Hastings briefly mentioned in his Guide was not one that he had tried out himself at the time that the book was published; however when he tested it later he was successful – but when he wrote it he did not know.* “The most direct route,” he said, “for the California emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, at Fort Bridger; thence bearing West Southwest, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of St. Francisco, by the route just described.” His tone of declaration is similar to the one in the poem “found … written on the leaf of a memorandum book by the side of [John] Denton's lifeless body” (History of the Donner Party) and I wonder how much it is the general public tone of that century in English.

Oh! after many roving years,
How sweet it is to come
To the dwelling-place of early youth
Our first and dearest home.
To turn away our wearied eyes,
From proud ambition’s towers,
And wander in those summer fields,
The scene of boyhood’s hours.
But I am changed since last I gazed
On yonder tranquil scene,
And sat beneath the old witch-elm
That shades the village green;
And watched my boat upon the brook
As it were a regal galley,
And sighed not for a joy on earth
Beyond the happy valley.

I wish I could recall once more
That bright and blissful joy,
And summon to my weary heart
The feelings of a boy.
But I look on scenes of past delight
Without my wonted pleasures,
As a miser on the bed of death
Looks coldly on his treasures.

The poem was printed in the California Star newspaper on February 13, 1947, as the Donner Party story was receiving its first round of publicity from journalists. I am unable to find any unbiased source that can tell me proofishly that the poem was written by Denton as he was sitting alone waiting to die in the snow (he might as well have written it weeks before: who knows) but I see that McGlashan wants it to be understood as the “cry of its occasion” when he adds, “The pencil with which it was written lay also by the side of the unfortunate man.” The gap between the impetus and the composition needs to be very short: this is his reading of the Wallace Stevens poems, which he must have seen before they were published. Jesse Quinn Thornton, putting a preface in front of the poem when it appeared in the Star, supports McGlashan’s understanding of Stevens by placing the imaginative and physical processes immediately next to one another.

On every side extends a boundless waste of trackless snow. He reclines against a bank of it, to rise no more, and busy memory brings before him a thousand images of past beauty and pleasure, and of scenes he will never revisit. A mother's image presents itself to his mind, tender recollections crowd upon his heart, and the scenes of his boyhood and youth pass in review before him with an unwonted vividness. The hymns of praise and thanksgiving that in harmony swelled from the domestic circle around the family altar are remembered, and soothe the sorrows of the dying man, and finally, just before he expires, he writes:

"Simple and intimate to the last degree, yet coming from the heart," Thornton says, "When the circumstances are considered in connection with the calamities in which the unhappy Denton was involved, the whole compass of American and English poetry may be challenged to furnish a more exquisitely beautiful, a more touching and pathetic piece." But. "After many roving years," etc, was not Denton's poem: it was the words to a song by Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797 – 1839), or almost those words -- a few changes -- "weary eyes" in Bayly instead of "wearied eyes," "trees and flowers," instead of "boyhood hours" -- Denton was remembering lines that he had probably heard people singing, once upon a time, maybe when he was at home in England (he was born in Sheffield) -- part of an oeuvre that some critic in the Spectator on February 10, 1844, described in a summary: "This reflex of the feeling of the amiably genteel is visible through every part of [Bayly's] composition. Except in sportive effusions upon inconstancy, the morals he points are unexceptionable; but they are those of society at large -- nothing above its opinion, nothing lower than what the mass would avow [...] his ideas are level to the apprehension of all his readers: the intellect is never tasked to understand him; the mind need not be raised to follow him, or at least not raised above the thickness of a carpet."

*Dr Henry Heimlich uses Heimlich manoeuvre for first time, aged 96.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

demonstrates vacuums

When he wants to frame his argument against British crowds then he goes to the wilderness in Canada to live in a cottage with a considerable library as if he were at home in the Lake District, and he does not live in burrow, or nest, or cliff-face palace or amazing velvet ball lined with mirrors, but in his normal home, a cottage, and let me imagine (though no proof) that he sees himself wearing his usual daily clothes in that setting, not a dress or a ruff, not an incredible shawl, but the same trousers he always wears, though maybe warmer: perhaps he mentally gives himself a coat.

… there are daily
reports of people overriding
the most exotic restraints
to become ordinary. The armless woman
uses her toes to make woodburn kittens.
The blind man demonstrates vacuums
and sells lots of them, as convinced
of lint as the next person. Shall I go on?

Kay Ryan, To Explain the Solitary from Elephant Rocks, 1996. Adam Lindsay Gordon was addicted to horse riding in the northern hemisphere and then he was the same way in the southern hemisphere when his father sent him to South Australia equipped with a letter of introduction to the mounted police; but then he became a published poet where he was not one before, so there was a difference to his life (the difference was the publishing since he had written poems privately, personally, previously), he made life easier for the compilers of Inspirational Quotes by inventing the lines, "Life is mostly froth and bubble | Two things stand like stone | Kindness in another's trouble | Courage in your own" for Ye Wearie Wayfarer His Ballad - in Eight Fyttes, 1867, and still he rode dangerously, falling off his horse onto his head; and continued to ride in steeplechases, a favourite sport of his from childhood onwards -- one school expelling him when he wagged class to compete in races and the law nearly locking him up at seventeen when he fetched back the impounded horse that he had rented for a race -- and steeplechasing had already been imported south by the time he got there, but racing was more dangerous in Australia, he said when he wrote an article about it for the Australasian in 1868, and not fruitfully dangerous, he asserted, just bang-about for no sane reason that he could see. “Steeplechasing is of course intended to be a dangerous pastime, but the sport is scarcely enhanced by making it as dangerous as it can be made.”

This much at least will scarcely be gainsaid, our horses (to say nothing of their riders) seldom last long at cross-country work. The continual hard raps on heavy redgum or stringy bark rails, coupled with the constant jarring shocks caused by landing on a soil baked by an Australian sun, is enough to cripple the strongest knees and wear out the toughest sinews in a very few seasons.

The range of weights should be changed, he says, and the races should be shifted to a different time of year to ensure that the earth is soft. (I am finding all of this in Henry Kendall's 1892 Lindsay Gordon memoir.) The normalcy of the season needs to yield to the normalcy of malleable ground, and then – what? – gentlemen can join. “I think we should get a better and more respectable class of riders, for there are gentlemen here that would ride their own horses if they could.” You are allowed to feel that he has carried over with him, in his molten impressions, a form of society that will allow the words “gentleman,” “better,” “respectable,” “own,” to function as an argument. The gods on Olympus are unoriginally emotional but they transform into gold and can fly. Last weekend I watched an East Coast artist who was installing his work in Las Vegas put a multicoloured sculpture in front of a patterned wall and wonder if the look was “too Circus Circus,” a critique that everybody around him understood.

Monday, May 9, 2016

breaking away into the wide world

“[W]e have been homesick practically all the time.” Thirty years homesick: why is she here, Ada Cambridge? Richer, she would have gone home. De Quincey doesn’t imagine that his other self in Canada is homesick; it is difficult to picture when you are not in it; being like the true temperature of snow. “Doubtless, if we had settled in an English parish, we should have bewailed our narrow lot,” Cambridge writes, “should have had everlasting regrets for missing the chance of breaking away into the wide world.” You can’t believe it, reading the rest of this chapter. Writing doubtless, she means, I doubt. Now she remembers the place where she would have lived with her clergyman if they had stayed, a “beflowered house,” “a tiny hamlet of a parish […] that haven of dignified peace and ease.” “[M]an is content with his lot; harmony is achieved,” says Virginia Woolf while she is describing the life of the Rev. James Woodforde of Weston Longueville in her Two Parsons essay, from The Common Reader: Second Series, 1935.

Surely, surely, then, here is one of the breathing-spaces in human affairs — here in Norfolk at the end of the eighteenth century at the Parsonage. For once man is content with his lot; harmony is achieved; his house fits him; a tree is a tree; a chair is a chair; each knows its office and fulfils it. Looking through the eyes of Parson Woodforde, the different lives of men seem orderly and settled. Far away guns roar; a King falls; but the sound is not loud enough to scare the rooks here in Norfolk. The proportions of things are different. The Continent is so distant that it looks a mere blur; America scarcely exists; Australia is unknown. But a magnifying glass is laid upon the fields of Norfolk. Every blade of grass is visible there. We see every lane and every field; the ruts on the roads and the peasants’ faces.

“[O]ur parishioners dropped curtseys to us on the road,” recalls Cambridge, ”and” – not straight-faced – or straight and not at the same time – “felt honoured beyond measure when we went to see them.” In de Quincey, “Profound solitude cannot now be had in any part of Great Britain […] in England it is possible to forget that we live amongst greater agencies than those of men and human institutions. Man, in fact, ‘too much man,’ as Timon complained most reasonably in Athens, was then, and is now, our greatest grievance in England. Man is a weed everywhere too rank. A strange place must that be with us from which the sight of a hundred men is not before us, or the sound of a thousand about us.” His islands are noisy with humans, but the birds in Australia are either quiet or crying out inhumanly, if songs can be taken as, in some way, human.

They are rhymes rudely strung with intent less
Of sound than of words,
In lands where bright blossoms are scentless,
And songless bright birds;
Where, with fire and fierce drought on her tresses,
Insatiable Summer oppresses
Sere woodlands and sad wildernesses,
And faint flocks and herds.

That poem is the source of the songless birds and scentless flowers in the first chapter of Cambridge's book. It is A Dedication: to the Author of ‘Holmby House’,* by Adam Lindsay Gordon, whose marble bust is in Westminster Abbey and whose old cottage features an extensive variety of local craft work of the highest quality in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens near Lake Wendouree. If The Boscombe Valley Mystery was published in 1891 and Gordon died in 1870, then it is possible that he lived in Ballarat at the same time as the murderer Black Jack. “His only daughter died while he was in Ballarat and although a daredevil on a horse and an accomplished rider he led a tragic life. His poetry with its rolling rhythm survives him,” states the webpage for the Adam Lindsay Gordon Cottage at In 1889 Banjo Paterson wrote a patriotic poem against Gordon’s birds and flowers.

"A land where dull Despair is king
O'er scentless flower and songless bird!"
But we have heard the bell-birds ring
Their silver bells at eventide,
Like fairies on the mountain side,
The sweetest note man ever heard.

Song of the Future. See also, CJ Dennis, The Golden Whistler, 1933. “Literary nationalists have always been indignant with Adam Lindsay Gordon for referring, inaccurately, to Australia’s ‘bright birds’ as songless:” Roger Covell, Australia’s Music, 1967. The Cambridges migrated in the same year that A Dedication was published, in Gordon’s book Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes, which was also the year of his death, at the age of thirty-seven, on the day after publication, when he went away privately with a gun and killed himself in a grove of bayside tea-trees. “At last, one morning in December 1839, the Rector took his gun, walked into the beech wood near his home, and shot himself dead,” Woolf wrote in Two Parsons. The parson in that sentence of course is not Woodforde. Whenever I think of that essay I remember the words, “and shot himself.” Ada Cambridge sailed overseas in April; Bush Ballads was printed on the 23rd of June (and A Dedication had not been printed before, because it was the actual dedication page of the book) meaning that Cambridge did not come to Australia believing that the birds would not be able to sing, even though the first chapter of Thirty Years in Australia leads you to believe that she did. Her corrective statement, “none of which, actually, is the rule,” is not a record of a discovery, it is a mode of alignment with pro-Australian literary forces.

*Holmby House: a Tale of Old Northamptonshire, 1860, was written by G. J. Whyte-Melville, 1821-1878. One of Gordon's favourite writers, according to Henry Kendall's A Memoir of the Life of Adam Lindsay Gordon: the Laureate of the Centaurs, 1892. When Gordon mailed Whyte-Melville a copy of his book Sea Spray and Smoke Drift, 1867, the other man sent a letter to say that if he rode as well as he wrote then he would "put him up in any steeplechase for which I had a likely winner."

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

the everlasting sense of living amongst forms

When Ada Cambridge in the fin de siecle writes, “Geoffrey Hamlyn was my sheet anchor, but did not seem to be supported by the scraps of prosaic history obtainable,” she is remembering how it was before she migrated to Australia in 1870 with her husband, who was being sent to a position in a southeast country town. His friend had written them a letter “reporting the place not wild at all, but quite like home,” though this friend had seen nothing outside Melbourne (two hundred and thirty kms from the place where they would be living) and knew “no more than we of the mysterious Bush, which I thought of as a vast shrubbery, with occasional spears hurtling through it.” Her retrospective conclusion is analogous to that of Weitemeyer, the poor Hamburg carpenter. “When we had assimilated all the information available, our theory of the life before us was still shapeless. However, we were young and trusting, and prepared to take things as they came.” De Quincey in his Autobiography Continued From 1803 – 1808, 1835, describes his own migration to “the woods of Lower Canada” where he saw himself in his late teens living in a spot he had already picked out, “a cottage and a considerable library, about seventeen miles from Quebec.”

My object [in planning the migration] was simply profound solitude, such as cannot now be had in any part of Great Britain--with two accessary advantages, also peculiar to countries situated in the circumstances and under the climate of Canada: viz. the exalting presence in an under-consciousness of forests endless and silent, the everlasting sense of living amongst forms so ennobling and impressive, together with the pleasure attached to natural agencies, such as frost, more powerfully manifested than in English latitudes, and for a much longer period. I hope there is nothing fanciful in all this. It is certain that in England, and in all moderate climates, we are too slightly reminded of nature or the forces of nature. Great heats, or great colds (and in Canada there are both), or great hurricanes, as in the West Indian latitudes, recall us continually to the sense of a powerful presence, investing our paths on every side …

“[T]he silence and grandeur of solitude impressed a sacred awe upon her heart.” Radcliffe, Udolpho, 1794. Dorothy Richardson’s Miriam had the same sensation at a ski resort. Reacting against Great Britain, de Quincey imagines the rewards of the migration logically existing; the opposition engenders the picture, not knowledge, because he does not know Canada, never migrated, knows neither “great colds” nor “great heats,” and is in the same state of ignorance as a tourist who thinks they can walk from the Mandalay Bay to the Wynn in the middle of June without a hat. “These things we did believe in, because all our authorities mentioned them,” says Cambridge, remembering the books she once read about “the physical characteristics of the country, there were but the scentless flowers, the songless birds, the cherries with their stones outside (none of which, actually, is the rule, and I have found nothing to resemble the description of the latter), and the kangaroo that carries its family in a breast-pocket” – she believed in it, as de Quincey can still believe, as he writes his memoir, that the migration might have been as he imagines it, and somewhere a Cambridge who has never migrated is imagining her own migration to the land where the “strange contrasts to the rest of the world which it affords [are] enumerated and commented upon--its cherries with their stones growing outside--its trees, which shed their bark instead of their leaves--its strange animals--its still stranger population--its mushroom cities--and, finally, the fact that the approach to human habitations is not announced by the barking of dogs, but by the barking of trees” – quoted from John Lort Stokes’, Discoveries in Australia, With An Account Of The Coasts And Rivers Explored And Surveyed During the Voyage Of H.M.S. Beagle, In The Years 1837-38-39-40-41-42-43 by Command Of The Lords Commissioners Of The Admiralty, 1846 – Stokes the original source of the cherries rumour -- though he tell us that he already knew “from the best authorities” before he landed on the continent that “within the heart of Australia, nature seems to delight in contradiction” – and so expected the things that he saw, not the precise forms, but the nature of them: the contradictions.

The birds we observed were common to other parts of the continent, being a few screaming cockatoos, parrots, and quails, and near the water a small white egret. There was nothing of interest to recall our memories to this first visit to a new part of Australia, save a very large ant's nest, measuring twenty feet in height. This object is always the first that presents itself whenever my thoughts wander to that locality.