Shards, Sweepings, Stealings, Sayings, Secrets

The Thorn Of Passion

I go dreaming down roadways
of evening. Emerald pine-trees
golden hillsides
dusty oak-leaves!…
Where does this road go?
I go travelling, singing,
into the road’s far distance…
– evening falls slow –
‘I bore in my heart
the thorn of passion:
Drew it out one day
And my heart is numb.’

And suddenly all the land
was silent, mute and sombre,
meditating. Sound of the wind
in the riverside poplars.

Evening’s more shadowy
and the turning road
that faintly whitens
blurs, in vanishing.

Lament, my song turns to:
‘Gold thorn, so sharp
Could I but feel you
lodged in my heart.’

Antonio Machado

Tangible, Intangible

“It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.” Frank O’Hara


A few years ago I enjoyed very much Jostein Gaarder‘s philosophical bestseller Sophie’s World, so I turned to his novel Maya recently with a feeling of great expectation. In the end I was disappointed. Although Gaarder‘s ideas about time, evolution and the meaning of the universe are always fascinating, the plot was so fantastically convoluted and self-referential that the ending was bound to be a letdown. Also many of the characters were little more than mouthpieces for the author’s own philosophising. However, there were many striking passages in the book, and here is one. The English novelist, John Spooke, is talking to some assembled hotel guests at dinner about how we often introduce ourselves to others — that is with vanity, boastfulness and defensiveness:

“‘Good!’ the Englishman repeated. ‘A virtual requisite for such introductions is the desire to show oneself off to the best possible advantage, whether in matters of sex, status, financial affairs, social connections or special achievements and skills. The art is not merely to reveal one’s most advantageous facets, but to do it in the most casual, disguised or unintentional way possible. For man is not merely a social animal. He is above all a vain creature, vainer, I assume, than any other vertebrate. Look how wonderful and clever I am, we say. I hope you realise I’m not just one of the crowd. I’ve got two grown-up sons, you know, both at college, and a teenage daughter who wants to be an actress or an artist. Oh, really, well our daughter recently married the mayor of Liverpool’s son, he was absolutely crazy about her. You can also see that I’m pretty well off. Oh, yes, our name’s the same as the steel company, that was my great-grandfather, you know. Well, I’ve dipped into Derrida, naturally, and for the past few days I’ve had a book by Baudrillard on my bedside table. And then there’s art; actually, we have a small Monet in the bedroom, and a Miró in the sitting room, and, as a a matter of fact, we’ve just hung a baroque mirror over the fireplace…'”

I wonder if some of us felt a slight, uncomfortable feeling of recognition on reading this?

On the Camino, thank God,  one’s social standing and material possessions are of little interest to one’s fellow walkers and pilgrims. Everyone has better and more interesting things to talk about.

Rimbaud At Twenty-Three

“Situations have ended sad, relationships have all been bad; mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud …” Bob Dylan You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go

At the end of 1877, a twenty-three year old Rimbaud returned from Italy via Nice to Charleville, his home town in the French Ardennes.

“In the last three years, Rimbaud had spent about fifteen months at home and about twenty-one at sea or on the road. He had visited thirteen different countries — excluding coastlines seen from the deck of a ship — and travelled over 32,000 miles. He already had more than enough material for his anecdotage. He had worked as a pedlar, an editorial assistant, barman, farm labourer, language teacher, private tutor, factory worker, docker, mercenary, sailor, tout, cashier and interpreter, and he was about to add a few more jobs to the list. On almost every occasion, he had done something for which he was not previously qualified.

Though he lacked the most ordinary qualification of all —  the baccalauréat — he had a working knowledge of five languages, had seen more sights and experienced more interesting intoxications than an English lord on the Grand Tour, published a book, been arrested in three countries and repatriated from three others. The most he ever earned from his writing had been a free subscription to a magazine, but he had left behind a body of work that would one day open up new regions of the mind to poetic explorers. He had begged, been to jail, committed approximately twelve imprisonable offences with impunity, and survived war, revolution, illness, a gunshot wound, his own family and the Cape of Good Hope. He had been on intimate terms with some of the most remarkable writers and political thinkers of the age.”

Graham Robb Rimbaud

Enfant Terrible

“One is born a poet and one dies a businessman.” Romanian Proverb

I’ve just finished reading Graham Robb‘s magnificent biography of Rimbaud (1854-1891), the enfant terrible of French literature. There have been other biographies of him before, but many have distorted or misinterpreted the true facts of Rimbaud‘s amazing life. In his revisionist biography Robb sets the record straight about Rimbaud in all his delinquent, drunken, drugged, dishevelled glory. We all know little clichéd titbits about his life — the homosexual relationship with Verlaine, which culminated in Verlaine firing two pistol shots at Rimbaud, one shot wounding him in the wrist; the absinthe drinking; the drug taking; the debauchery — but Robb‘s biography is the first to reach a fair approximation of the truth.

Rimbaud wrote his extraordinary poems between his mid-teens and early twenties. After that he rejected poetry and applied himself to relentless journeying, taking short-term colonial posts in north-east Africa: hazardous occupations such as gun-running and other dubious trades. He could be cruel, egocentric, self-serving and duplicitous — but that’s artists for you. He also happened to be a genius — or, at least, he was for a short while in his youth.

In his lifetime Rimbaud saw hardly a collection of his verse published. Though charismatic, he often provoked suspicion, confusion and envy among his artist friends and contemporaries — he was misunderstood  because his uniquely imaginative way of thinking and writing was way ahead of what everyone else was doing. Now, of course, he’s become a legend, a poetic god venerated like some Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain rock-idol who died “before he got old”.

After turning his back on poetry, he did a lot of walking…

“By now his body was tuned to long distances, though not always capable of covering them. Like verse or music, walking was a rhythmical skill, a combination of trance and productive activity. Delahaye’s description of the athletic pedestrian suggests a special state of existence, a happy delegation of responsibility to blood and muscle: ‘His long legs calmly took formidable strides; his long, swinging arms marked the very regular movements; his back was straight, his head erect, his eyes stared into the distance. His face wore an expression of resigned defiance, anticipating everything, without anger or trepidation.'” Graham Robb Rimbaud

… and always had the urge to travel on…

“If I had the means to travel without being forced to stay and work for a living, I’d never be seen in the same place for more than two months. The world is very big and full of magnificent lands that would take more than a thousand lives to visit.” Arthur Rimbaud

150 years ago it seemed easier to travel with little money, easier to make do with less. There were fewer formalities — border controls and bureaucracy was more lax — and you could “get away with things” more than you can today, eg adopt aliases, and find work without lengthy interviews and carefully-crafted CVs. Some people always seemed willing to take pity on you, take you in, look after you for a while — or they did with the young, charismatic Rimbaud, at any rate.


The roots of “Symbolism” can be found in Baudelaire, but this style of French poetry found its apogee in later poets such as Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé. Symbolist poets rejected plain meanings and matter-of-fact descriptions, and commonly used dream-like images in order to express the spiritual or the Ideal. These writers were often “Decadent” poets too, or poètes maudits — cursed, lonely, self-destructive, and obsessed with death and decay.

As well as poetry, music also was undergoing radical changes. It may seem difficult to believe now, but Claude Debussy‘s impressionistic compositions were completely revolutionary at the end of the nineteenth century. (Incidentally, his piece Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was inspired by  one of Mallarmé‘s poems, and his piece Clair De Lune by one of Verlaine‘s.) Music and poetry — and indeed painting — were very much interlinked in the salons of the Symbolists.

Another Symbolist preoccupation was with synesthesia, or the intertwining and deliberate confusion of the senses — a process no doubt aided by drinking copious amounts of absinthe, that deadly and mind-altering alcoholic bomb widely available at the time. Baudelaire‘s poem Correspondences drips with synesthesia: “Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants, / Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies…” (“There are perfumes that are fresh like children’s flesh, / Sweet like oboes, green like meadows…”)

However, the wildest and most original poet of them all, who led the most extraordinary life and wrote two of the most startling poems to emerge from that time — Le Bâteau Ivre (The Drunken Boat) and Une Saison En Enfer (A Season In Hell) — was Arthur Rimbaud. But more of Rimbaud in the next post…

Partir Pour Partir

One of the finest poems in Baudelaire‘s Les Fleurs Du Mal, and certainly one of my own favourites, is his poem Le Voyage. In it Baudelaire writes that our travels through life, even travels to far and exotic places, ultimately leave us bored, despairing and disillusioned, and full of bitter wisdom (amer savoir). We can never find the ideal in life; we can only find it in death. Yet the very beauty of Baudelaire‘s stanzas show us that art, at least, may help us along this fraught earthly path strewn with chimerical wonders and examples of flawed and cruel mankind.

I love the fifth verse, which describes the true way to travel: “Mais les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-là seuls qui partent / Pour partir; cœurs lègers, semblables aux ballons, / De leur fatalité jamais ils ne s’écartent, / Et, sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!” (“But the real travellers are only those / Who leave for leaving’s sake; hearts light as air, / They never do their destiny oppose; / Not knowing why, they always say: I dare!”

(Translation by Joanna Richardson.)

Wine And Hashish

“It is time to get drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk; get drunk without stopping! On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, as you wish.” Baudelaire

For Baudelaire, art and beauty were like wine, or the hashish he smoked with Honoré de Balzac and Théophile Gautier (Gautier — who popularised the idea of “art’s for art’s sake”): they got you high, but they could also crash you into the depths of despair. This sense of ambivalence, this interplay of opposites, pervades the whole of Baudelaire‘s life and the whole of his brilliantly innovative collection of poems, Les Fleurs Du Mal. In his life Baudelaire vacillated between his carnal, creole mistress Jeanne Duval, la Vénus Noire, and his unattainable muse Apollonie Sabatier, la Vénus Blanche. In Les Fleurs Du Mal he differentiated between “Spleen”, the everyday world of ennui, melancholy and imperfection, and “Ideal”, the immaterial world of spirit, of unsullied beauty.

Nowhere is this dichotomy, this complementarity, better shown than in Baudelaire‘s great poem Hymne A La Beauté (Hymn To Beauty) from Les Fleurs Du Mal. He directly and intimately addresses the personification of Beauty: “Viens-tu du ciel profond ou sors-tu de l’abîme, /  Ô Beauté? Ton regard, infernal et divin, / Verse confusément le bienfait et le crime, / Et l’on peut pour cela te comparer au vin.” (“Come you, o Beauty, from the sky profound / Or the abyss? Infernal and divine, / Your glance sheds sin and blessing, and confounds, / And you can be compared in this with wine.” Note the contrasts between the sky and the abyss, the divine and the infernal, the sin and the blessing — and the comparison with wine, Baudelaire‘s favourite intoxicant.

The poem continues in this paradoxical way for six more stanzas: “Tu contiens dans ton œil le couchant et l’aurore; / Tu répands des perfums comme un soir orageux; / Tes baisers sont un philtre et ta bouche une amphore / Qui font le héros lâche et l’enfant courageux.” (“Your eyes contain the dawn and crepuscule, / You scatter fragrance like a stormy eve, / Your mouth’s an amphora, your kiss a phial / Which makes the hero shy, the infant brave.”)

“An artist is an artist only because of his exquisite sense of beauty, a sense which shows him intoxicating pleasures, but which at the same time implies and contains an equally exquisite sense of all deformities and all disproportion.” Baudelaire

(The translation of Hymn To Beauty is by Joanna Richardson from her book Baudelaire: Selected Poems, Penguin Books, 1975.)


One journey ends; another one begins. Though all journeys are related, and one journey amplifies another. My new literary journey will take me back to the France of the nineteenth century, the era of Romanticism. I’ve travelled there before, but paths already taken become new paths when walked again. There are often so many new things to discover that the journey seems completely fresh. Such is the constant fascination and appeal of landscape and literature, of life and living.

Romanticism dominated French literature during the first half of the nineteenth century — and not only French but British and German literature too. The towering literary figure in France at that time was Victor Hugo. However I’m going to skirt gingerly round this monumental genius for the moment, and start with the sensitive and dissolute Charles Baudelaire, who shook Romanticism and turned it on its head. Baudelaire — one of the greatest and most influential of all French poets. Although essentially “romantic”, he mixed romanticism with naturalism, developing a new aesthetic creed which took in not only the sensual and the exotic, but also the sordid and the corrupt. He recognised that all these opposites  — good and evil, the sublimely spiritual and the grotesquely physical, the sacred and the profane — were equally part of life. There was no getting away from it. Except in death.

Baudelaire’s whole life and work can be seen as a spiritual odyssey. And the culmination of this spiritual odyssey was his collection of poems Les Fleurs Du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), Baudelaire‘s masterwork.

Lao Tzu

Nowhere is the paradoxical nature of Taoist thought better exemplified than in Lao Tzu‘s Tao Te Ching. There have been many Chinese to English translations of this classic work — over one hundred, I believe. I own a very small number of these, including the Richard Wilhelm edition, but my favourite is the crystalline, minimalist translation by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo. The poet Gary Snyder wrote of the latter: “Of the many translations I have read in English this is unquestionably the best.”

“Recognize beauty and ugliness is born. / Recognize good and evil is born. / Is and Isn’t produce each other. / Hard depends on easy. / Long is tested by short. / High is determined by low. / Sound is harmonized by voice, / After is followed by before. / Therefore the Sage is devoted to non-action, / Moves without teaching, / Creates ten thousand things without instruction, / Lives but does not own, / Acts but does not presume, / Accomplishes without taking credit. / When no credit is taken, / Accomplishment endures.”

“Crippled becomes whole, / Crooked becomes straight, / Hollow becomes full, / Worn becomes new, / Little becomes more, / Much becomes delusion. / Therefore Sages cling to the One / And take care of this world; / Do not display themselves / And therefore shine; / Do not assert themselves / And therefore stand out; / Do not praise themselves / And therefore succeed; / Are not complacent / And therefore endure; / Do not contend / And therefore no one under heaven / Can contend with them. / The old saying / Crippled becomes whole / Is not empty words. / It becomes whole and returns.”

Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching