Wednesday, 21 August 2013

From Prague: appointments to keep in the past

On 21st August 1968, forty-five years ago today, Russian tanks rolling into Wenceslas Square signalled an abrupt end to the Prague Spring, that brave attempt to liberalize communism in Czechoslovakia. I recall the day vividly: the newsreel footage of people staring in dismay and disbelief at the tanks as they lumbered up the Square towards the National Museum; on the front page of the evening papers the face of the Czech leader, Alexander Dubcek, who had been seized by the Soviets. Thanks to the immediacy of TV news, it was no longer possible to shrug this off as merely a local difficulty in “a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”. The world had come a long way in the thirty years since Chamberlain’s infamous dismissal of Czechoslovakia and the Czechs.

   More than twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall I still have a curiosity about the former Iron Curtain countries, and two days ago I was myself in Wenceslas Square. If I list the shops and coffee houses to be found there – M&S occupying an impressive Jugendstil building, Debenhams, Costa, Starbucks – the evidence of a post-communist world seems irrefutable. What strikes me is how the memory of the Cold War and its meaning for the people who lived in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and all points east and north seems to have faded – as it certainly has in the west.  The only clear evidence I saw all week of an affection for the past was a breezy blue Lada heading out of the city with a sign on its rear window:  ‘Made forty years ago in the Soviet Union’.

   There’s nothing new about this, of course. Indeed, only a few months after the Russian army ousted Dubcek, a young Prague student set himself on fire in front of the National Museum and became the first martyr of the Prague Spring. His name was, of course, Jan Palach. Today a cross on the ground  marks the spot, literally, where his act of self-immolation took place.

   Palach didn’t die immediately.  In the hospital where he was treated, Jaroslava Moserova talked to him about his motives:

‘The reason why he did it was quite clear. It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation, but the demoralization which was setting in, that people were not only giving up, but giving in. And he wanted to stop that demoralization.’

You could say Palach succeeded. Czechoslovakia became the focus of the West’s attention. Vaclav Havel, the imprisoned dissident playwright, became second only to Alexander Solzhenitzyn as the most prominent literary opponent of communism. Tom Stoppard (himself Czech by birth) set two of his most overtly political plays, Professional Foul (1977) and Cahoot’s Macbeth (1978) in Prague. Miroslav Holub, the Czech poet, was called by Ted Hughes ‘One of the half-dozen most important poets writing anywhere’. His books were banned after the invasion, he lost his job as a scientist at the university and he was forced to make a public self-denunciation of his own writing.

From Wenceslas Square I make my way to the crowded Old Town Square, with its famous clock, and thence to the much quieter Zidovské Mesto, the former Jewish Ghetto of Prague, passing the Old-New Synagogue in search of the Old Jewish Cemetery. I feel uneasy about Holocaust tourism: I have no desire to see Auschwitz, though nearly twenty years ago I visited Sachsenhausen, the huge death camp located on the north-eastern edge of Berlin, with its main entrance at the end of a suburban street. I was apparently the only visitor that afternoon, and the sheer emptiness of the place was overwhelming. By contrast, the Old Jewish Cemetery is unbelievably crowded: it was for centuries the only place where the Jews of Prague could bury their dead and, the guide books say, they were buried there up to twelve deep. Glimpsed today through a small grille in a locked gate, the overgrown jumble of gravestones – truly, a heap of broken images – offer their own troubling testimony. I ask myself why I have so wanted to visit this place, and I think the answer (or a part of it) is because it’s nearly thirty years since I first started to read and to lecture on Primo Levi, whose books – The Drowned and the Saved especially – made me ask myself questions about literature and history I am still struggling to answer.

   Another part of the answer is to be found in W G Sebald’s Austerlitz:

And might it not be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak? (Penguin ed. 2002, trans. Anthea Bell, p.360)

I have written elsewhere about this novel and its importance for me. Austerlitz is a solitary wandering scholar in search of his past and his real identity; he finds it at last in Prague. Here he had been born; from here he had been sent, aged four and travelling alone, on one of the last kindertransport trains to get safely out of Czechoslovakia. If you have never yet read Austerlitz, it’s not too late. Re-reading the book this week, I’m struck by how Sebald’s description of the occupation of Prague by Nazi forces in the Second World War anticipates the occupation of the city by Soviet troops in 1968 – and not just his account of the tanks rolling across the Vltava river but of their effect on the inhabitants of the city:

Next morning, at first light, the Germans did indeed march into Prague in the middle of a heavy snowstorm which seemed to make them appear out of nowhere. When they crossed the bridge and their armoured cars were rolling up the Narodní a profound silence fell over the whole city. People turned away, and from that moment they walked more slowly, like somnambulists, as if they no longer knew where they were going. (p.242)

   Just beyond the walls of the Old Jewish Cemetery, I come by chance on a memorial to Jan Palach: a small face on a large bronze oblong. Only his name and the date of his protest are given – nothing else is needed. At the top of the plaque is engraved the lion rampant, symbol of Czech national identity.  Palach’s love for his country is matched by his country’s admiration for him. The same can be said about the great Czech composer Dvorak. Sure enough, just across the road, outside the Rudolfinum Concert Hall, is a statue of my favourite composer.

   To Dvorak I owe the strongest of all my memories of 21st August 1968. By an ironic coincidence, the Promenade Concert in the Albert Hall that evening featured Mstislav Rostropovitch, the great Russian cellist, performing Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. I had gone to hear what is perhaps the finest of all Czech symphonic works, and I’d queued outside the Albert Hall, reading in the Evening Standard the first accounts of events in Wenceslas Square. Once inside, I stood as close to the orchestra as I could get, feeling myself to be a proper Promenader at last. When Rostropovitch appeared, there was booing and barracking from some in the audience; he looked shocked and disconcerted as he settled himself to begin. And then, while he played, tears streamed down his face. I saw them: I was there.

Adrian Barlow

[Illustrations:  (i) The spires of the Our Lady Before Tyn, Old Square, Prague; (ii) The Old Jewish Cemetery; (iii) memorial to Jan Palach.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Short measures (v): Robert Herrick’s Old Wives

     Holy-Rood come forth and shield
     Us i' th' Citie and the Field :
     Safely guard us, now and aye,
     From the blast that burns by day;
     And those sounds that us affright
     In the dead of dampish night.
     Drive all hurtfull Feinds us fro,
     By the Time the Cocks first crow.

I came across this poem only recently, and rather to my surprise: I thought I knew Herrick’s work better than that. What I actually came across were the first two lines, inscribed in a panel of stained glass in an hotel on the south coast. I didn’t recognize them, and had no idea who had written them or why they were there. ‘Who?’ is easily answered; ‘Why?’ perhaps more difficult.

The poem is one of the more than 2,500 that go to make up Robert Herrick’s Hesperides, published in 1648. Herrick reminds me of Betjeman: like Sir John, he misses the old days; he casts an unashamedly lustful eye on girls he fancies; he has a rather ambiguous relationship with the Church of England (Herrick was a country parson, but has none of the angst or fervour of his contemporaries Donne and Herbert); above all, perhaps, he writes poetry which must have seemed out of date to his contemporaries, excited as they were by the experiments of the Metaphysical Poets – just as Betjeman persisted in writing poetry as if he’d never heard of Modernism.

Indeed, there’s something wilfully, almost radically, out of date about this poem. It’s called ‘The Old Wives’ Prayer’, the very title suggesting something old fashioned, far-fetched, not to be taken seriously. The title warns us that the words are those of the Old Wives, but one guesses Herrick enjoyed putting them on paper. With its first word invoking the ‘Holy-Rood’, the poem turns its back on the poet’s own Anglicanism: by the 1640s the Church of England was firmly in the grip of Puritan iconoclasts such as William Dowsing, who were stripping churches of any remaining vestiges of superstitious images – of which the Cross was deemed to be the worst. So to offer a prayer to the Cross, seeking its protection from ‘all hurtfull Feinds’, must have seemed like asking for trouble.  Which is indeed what Herrick got: in 1647 he was ejected from his west country parish (and not reinstated until after the Restoration of Charles II).

The poem seems quite unselfconsciously to turn a prayer into a spell: with its short seven-syllable lines, its insistent rhythm (Dum-di dum-di dum-di dum) and still more insistent rhyming couplets, it combines the language of the prayer book (‘now and aye’ – now and for ever) with the incantation of a nursery rhyme - ‘By the time the cocks first crow’.  It works, as short poems so often do (see Short measures (i): William Blake and Eternity’s sunrise) by juxtaposing opposites. In the first line, ‘come forth’ signals attack, while ‘shield’ suggests defence.  Next, town and country - the city and the field - appear side by side.  After that, ‘the blast that burns by day’ is set against ‘the dead of dampish night’.

I was puzzled at first by ‘blast’. Poetically, this word usually suggests cold, not heat. Shakespeare, in The Rape of Lucrece, refers to the ‘northern blast’, and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land has that chilly echo of Andrew Marvell (who was Herrick’s contemporary):

But at my back, in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of dry bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

However, I have just come across a very modern use of ‘blast’ in the Herrick sense. It’s in ‘Composition’, a poem by Jo Shapcott:

And I sat among the dust motes, my pencil
(blue) sounding loud on the page, and
a blast of sun hit a puddle

and a distant radio told the news.

(You can find this poem in Jo Shapcott’s latest collection, Of Mutability, a title of which Herrick would have approved heartily.)

Herrick’s last line has, for me at least, a clear echo of the ghost in Hamlet, which ‘faded on the crowing of the cock’, and indeed the whole poem repeatedly conjures Shakespeare:

… it is old and plain;
The spinsters and the knitters in the sun,
And the free maids that weave their thread with bones,
Do use to chant it. (Twelfth Night)

Not only that, but the seven-syllable lines of the poem exactly match Puck’s final speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Now until the break of day
Through this house each fairy stray…

which in turn mimics the speech patterns of Oberon, the fairy king:

We the globe can compass soon,
Swifter than the wand’ring moon.

None of this is coincidence. Herrick belonged, by temperament if not by time, to the great age of English fairy writing, the age that encompassed Spenser, Drayton, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson (Herrick’s hero, and the author of The Masque of Oberon); he was its last survivor. Indeed, Edmund Gosse, who did much to re-establish Herrick’s reputation in the 19th century, described him as the ‘last laureate’ of Fairyland.

If this all sounds not just fanciful but fey, it’s worth remembering that writers of the Enlightenment took what Dryden called ‘the Fairy Way of Writing’ entirely seriously. Here is Joseph Addison, in The Spectator (No. 419; 1712):

There is a very odd turn of thought required for this sort of writing, and it is impossible for a poet to succeed in it, who has not a particular cast of fancy, and an imagination naturally fruitful and superstitious. Besides this, he ought to be very well versed in legends and fables, antiquated romances, and the traditions of nurses and old women, that he may fall in with our natural prejudices, and humour those notions which we have imbibed in our infancy.

By the time Addison wrote this, Herrick was long dead and even longer out of fashion, but I think the essayist has here described exactly the character both of Herrick and of ‘The Old Wives’ Prayer’, a poem I am glad to have stumbled on by chance in a New Forest hotel, inscribed in stained glass, no doubt as a good luck charm.

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: late 19th century stained glass by Oscar Paterson, in The Beach House Hotel, Milford; photo © the author

Short measures is a very occasional series in which I discuss a short poem (no more than twelve lines - shorter than a sonnet, therefore). Alas, for copyright reasons I can rarely publish a complete 20th. century poem or one by a living author. Suggestions for future poems to include in the series are always welcome.

I have blogged once before about Herrick: World and time: To Sycamores