16 May 2016 1:38pm
Iain Hamilton Finlay - The world has been empty since the Romans, 1985. Tate Gallery.
I coincidentally read two quotes saying much the same thing in the last week. The first, in an article about Seamus Heaney’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, book VI, comments on:
“the ... tendency among 20th-century poets to recuperate epic in the register of the humdrum, a tendency Seamus Heaney once neatly characterised by saying, ‘if Philip Larkin had ever composed his version of The Divine Comedy he would probably have discovered himself not in a dark wood but a railway tunnel halfway on a journey down England.’” - Colin Burrow, LRB, 2016(Funny that this also perfectly describes the great children’s books of the 1970s - Elidor, The Owl Service, The Dark is Rising.)
Of course, Philip Larkin would never have dreamt of composing a version of the Divine Comedy. That’s so much more a Seamus Heaney/Tony Harrison/Ted Hughes-type endeavour.
“I think that in this age, which has probably lost what I may call the epic sense, as it lives in villas and flats instead of castles and goes in tweeds in place of chain mail - for us, I think, it is easier to discern the secret beauty and wonder and mystery in humble and common things than in the splendid and noble and storied things ... we, it appears, are to learn of high things, if at all, through little things and things of low estate.
If we are to see the vision of the Grail, however dimly, it must no longer be in some vaulted chamber in a high tower of Carbonneck, over dreadful rocks and the foam of a faery sea. For us, the odour of the rarest spiceries must be blown through the Venetian blinds of some grey, forgotten square in Islington; the flame that is redder than any rose must come shining ... over the mantelpiece in the Canonbury lodging house. And be it remembered, I regard these old tales as true tales, true very likely in the very letter, and true now as ever” - Arthur Machen - The London Adventure, 1924, Three Impostors Press p.55-57
Are we also, in 2016, to see the vision of the Grail, however dimly? I like the entirely Quixotic idea of attesting to the literal truth of these stories, with music or art. Discovering their fugitive contours within the shapes of other, humbler, things: the chance glimpse of uncanny reflections in a bus windscreen, and so on, etc. etc.
I wonder if this is because I have a sense that the world is empty, and has been for a long time.
‘The world has been empty since the Romans. But the memory of the Romans fills it. They go on prophesying liberty.’ - Louis Antoine de Saint-Just (1767–1794) - legal architect of Robespierre’s terror. :)