Brantwood Senilia

In heaven I mean to go and talk to Pythagoras and Socrates and Valerius Publicola. I shan’t care a bit for Rosie there, she needn’t think it. What will grey eyes and red cheeks be good for there?
— John Ruskin, letter to Susan Beever, from Assisi, Sacristan’s Cell, June 25, 1874

To-day, being my sixty-first birthday, I would ask leave to say a few words to the friends who care for me, and the readers who are anxious about me, touching the above-named illness itself. For a physician’s estimate of it, indeed, I can only refer them to my physicians. But there were some conditions of it which I knew better than they could: namely, first, the precise and sharp distinction between the state of morbid inflammation of brain which gave rise to false visions (whether in sleep, or trance, or waking, in broad daylight, with perfect knowledge of the real things in the room, while yet I saw others that were not there), and the not morbid, however dangerous, states of more or less excited temper, and too much quickened thought, which gradually led up to the illness, accelerating in action during the eight or ten days preceding the actual giving way of the brain.
— John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera Letter 88 (February 8, 1880)

Too fast and far again! by much; the impetus of phrase running away with me.
— John Ruskin, additional note no. 54 to Modern Painters Vol. 2 (1883 revised ed.)

                           My dear little birds,
      before me on my desk this morning
where I sit preparing tomorrow’s lesson
      lies a copy of The Witches’ Rout by Agostino de’ Musi — 
                           Agostino Veneziano your teachers will call him — 
            wherein a carriage made of dragon bones
and drawn by two naked figures
     is depicted making topsy-turvy progress through a jungle
scattering goats & geese & winged skeletal reptiles
      and there, look now, there atop it all the witch squats
            as one at stool — manly forearm,
muscular shoulder, pendulis mammis — 
                                        the narrow dugs it is
                                        her business to possess — 
filthy hair streaming contra natura — 
      out in a headwind of mephitic vapors    ...    
                           Time out of mind such creatures have impressed
            the dreams of those who live, as it were, by watchfires,
            fearful of neighbors, fearful that the law
            they hammered into whatsoever shape as pleased them
            may yet prove versatile — 
                  their sensual rites & ceremonies,
                  novelties & conceits;
                  their pharisaical holiness    ...    — 
and this is but a scholar’s imitation you will say, rude work
though of  a fine school — a fine school be it allowed, and good enough
to lose itself  beside the master’s — 
                           & yet
                           & yet

                                 steady the hand that hovers over
                                       the acid-bitten cliché
                                 steady the elbow
                                       behind this
                                 engraving on paper

Fro spot my spyryt þer sprang in space

                                                    so now

 

Piazza Sta Maria del Pianto, Rome (1840). A pensive study of old clothes sun-sipped dry in the Jews’ quarter, hanging out of a marble architrave smashed & built into a piece of Roman frieze moldering into broken brickwork projected over wooden windows propped on gray entablature. A vestige of yet-legible inscription: nomine fortuna. No important lines, no beauty of object. A pendent hodgepodge of contrasted feeling cheesecaked into picturesque febrility. An episode. A grief in, as it were, parenthesis. A match without a marriage, as after news of an engagement. A church embedded sans façade among the common sort of houses. A succor from St. Peter’s mere bewilderment & worry. Graphite heightened w/ touches of white body color on gray-green paper.



Beresford Chapel, Walworth: a bare, oblong,
low-ceilinged barn, each brick-arched window filled
with small-paned glass requiring iron bars
threaded like halves of cobweb to stay true.
No traceries, no clustered shafts, no vaulting.
No fantasies. No perpendicular flights
of aspiration. Clean lines, and severe.
Pews shut-in with partitions of plain deal
and neatly brass-hatched doors. No pulpit, merely
a stout, four-legged box of well-grained wainscot,
but decorated with a velvet cushion — 
crimson, with golden tassels at the corners — 
which formed my one resource, for when I tired
of Dr. Andrews’s sermon I could watch
the colors texturing the folds & creases
each time he thumped it. Beresford. That’s where
we worshipped: Papa, Mama, and I.
Poor preparation, this, for Rouen! Rouen
wardered by groups of solemn statuary
clasped by stems of sculpted leafage crowned
by fretted niche & fairy pediment
like inextricably meshed gossamer;
Rouen with her surge & foam of pious chivalry
breaking on crystal cliffs to stand revealed
as every hidden thing shall be, insatiable at prayer
or pillage, lending grace to English rudeness,
venom to Italy’s cunning    ...    Rouen with all
her avarice & intricacies, gargoyles
open-mawed, molten, drenching ornament
down spires vertiginously pinnacled — 
insanae substructiones! Inutiles domos! — 
yet piping pastoral songs of innocence — 

 
The Palazzo Contarini-Fasan, Venice (1841). Higgledy terraced structures the colors of ice creams & sorbets w/ no bland tinting. No calligraphic decoration. Graphite, watercolor & body color. A thorough spell in the vernacular. Stone filigree spidering rhythmic tessellations w/ some scratching out. Details that become a refuge. Detail that becomes a refuge. A long-drawn replica in which new life may even now be in the offing. A sulky grandeur, by the bye. A naughty jailer. A determined postulant. A barber-pole mooring post. A dipped oar tilting  for trouble. The Doge’s tottering state stepping off on gray paper.


Worn somewhat, and not a little weary,
Sandro’s uncommon Fortitude, in this
his first recorded work. Consider it
a moment, if you please, before you pass
hurriedly on to see The Birth of  Venus
next door, and notice that Sandro began
where you perhaps will end: with weariness.
Would you have guessed that Fortitude allows
(allows? approves of!) reverie? See how
her fingers play in restless idleness
or nervousness about her sword hilt
(sword or mace? I’ve lost my notes about her    ...    ).
She is no match, it may be, for the trials
that are to come, yet see her armor shine
in readiness, her gentle fingers apt
to grip her sword (or mace) should she be called.
Lips pursed and eyes averted, she has smiled,
and not a little ruefully, at her fate
from time to time. She has no smile today.
Her quality must be borne daylong, lifelong.
To flaunt it ever is not to possess
it quite. See Pollaiolo’s Virtues pose
and attitudinize: thus they perform
their various meanings. Fortitude must
contain — must be — all that she stands for. Go,
see whatever the Uffizi has
to tempt you; but remember Fortitude
whose battle did not begin today,
nor yesterday, nor on the Sunday last.
Many a day has passed since it began.
They are so wedded to their righteousness,
those lesser Virtues, quite incapable
of  being tempted. They would not dare risk
complacency. She would be lost without it.
But sword or mace? Go now. It is no matter.
I will not need you until tomorrow morning.

 
Ravine at Maglans (1849?). Deeper brown on brown. A limestone precipice stepped with horizontal cleavages to overlook the void. No water but a dream of water years back, far down, running harum-scarum strong enough to turn a mill. A spate become a thread. A visit out of season. A torrent bed of what must have been snow-melt now entirely dry. No stones crumble but flow, subside, rhythmic as cloud, as high-built, as unsubstantial over the long haul. Quartz strips ribboning a treed crevasse fringed w/ curled & unfurled fronds. Leaves shook to palsy by the noon wind’s spite. A rock fissured. A great fault. A graphite rock fissured in brown ink & ink wash heightened w/ flesh-toned body color on white paper.


Last night St. Ursula sent me her dianthus
out of her bedroom window, with her love — 
living dianthus, and a single dried
sprig of  her other window flower, vervain    ...    
how many flowers are named in Genesis?
Good answer! Not one. Plenty of trees, however.
It was a poet planted flowerbeds
that Eden might be filled with tremulous,
frivolous petals — I dare say he was right,
they were made to be noticed! And to see
a poppy husk fall from a bursting flower
is to know something of the life to come
once the body has turned to dust & ashes,
even as our dying breath aspires
toward our Father’s house    ...    as for the trees,
what can we learn of noble constancy
more than we find in the pure laurel leaf,
so numerable, so sequent and serene?
 
open the envelope
petals & may
spill on the table
where I remain
preparing the lesson
 
bruise-edged rose petals
cling to my fingers
dust motes dancing
gnats in a sun-shaft
myrrh, or a snuffbox?
 
write to me, tell me
who do you dance with
oftenest, often?
gray eyes & red cheeks
useless in heaven
 
undowered, garlanded
with no forget-me-nots:
compassed about
with the forgetfulness
of all the world
 
honor unwon
kind words unsaid
good deeds undone:
none of these, none
touch me more nearly

Now, if  I say “St. Ursula has sent me
a pot of pinks!” some will say I have gone
heartily, headily mad, but all it means
is that the flowers I received of  late
(from the hand of whatsoever friend or stranger)
helped greatly in my work, and afterward
reproved me in their own way for its failure.
But how much love of mine have others lost
because one poor sick child would not receive
the part of love that yet belongs to her!

Think now, sweet milkmaids of Albion
whose face is your fortune, think of one
lying still there, nearly a skeleton,
and ask yourselves: We have a little sister
and she has no breasts: what shall we do for our sister
in the day of  her espousals?

 
South Side of the Basilica of St. Mark’s, Venice, from the Loggia of the Ducal Palace (c.1851). An eerie vantage. A capricious helter-skelter variety of application, quickening details of watercolor passing  for time-veined marble scaled-up from a daguerreotype. An echo’s volume. Shadows lilt & flourish over chessboard floor tiles. A kind of hectic color. Disallowance of perspective. Sculpted relief without recession. Megrims & mysteries; conceits & divertisements. The uncapped St. Jean d’Acre’s pillar giving on to the southern portico. A Byzantine capital. A sonata on a virginal. Graphite & watercolor heightened w/ white on three jointed pieces of paper.


           Up my spirit leapt, so glad
           to shed this gross flesh and have done!
           My ghost, given up by the grace of God,
           was led where marvels are counted common.
           I climbed to where cliff-top meets cloud — 
           vertiginous heights no man has known — 
           my soul drawn on toward a wood
           decked with countless jewels & stones.
           It is hard to credit a sight so fine
           as the wash of  light in which they shone:
           woman never wove a gown
           so dearly adorned, so lit with splendor.

           In splendor, cliffs of crystal stood
           crisp as ice, clear & clean.
           At their foot, a forest spread:
           the trees were touched with a red-blue sheen
           and leaves of  burnished silver slid
           quivering to & fro between
           limbs that shimmered like blue jade
           each time a light-gleam touched the scene.
           The gravel underfoot was strewn
           with gems, and the sun seemed quite outshone
           by those precious, oriental stones
           so dearly adorned, so lit with splendor.

           The splendor of the grove was such
           that my grief left me — it lifted clear;
           the fragrance of the fruit so fresh,
           I found I needed no other fare.
           Birds flew together, branch to branch
           like flecks of flame — now here now there;
           no human symphony can match,
           nor voice nor string delight the ear
           with such a song: they blessed the air
           with a sweet accord that swooned & shone
           with harmonies you will never hear
           but there where all is lit with splendor.

           So adorned in splendor was
           that forest where I met my fate,
           a cunning man could not devise
           a fitting way to tell of it.
           Climbing pear trees, apple trees;
           browsing wonders — pretty sport!
           And soon the flowers & fields & hedgerows
           turned beautifully intricate
           with burns & water gardens. Bright
           as burnished gold the fellside shone
           where I trailed a stream that ran with light,
           dearly adorned & lit with splendor.

           But a greater splendor was yet to come:
           a riverbank of  beryl ablaze
           where water swept & swirled in a foam
           of  hurrying murmurs & confused airs.
           The stream bed glinted with a gleam
           like sunlight filtered through stained glass
           or winter starlight, when it may seem
           we’re all alone when the clouds pass.
           Each pebble bright as Hesperus:
           sapphire, emerald — each one shone
           with a light too bright for similes,
           dearly adorned & lit with splendor.

 
Study of Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas (185354). A living witness. A verticality more smooth than the water over wch it rears. Glib-channeled water rushing; dry rock dripping — fluid, labial rock, less still than the wildflowers & feathered grasses that cling in unguessed cracks & overhang. Mapped lichens. Lampblack, body color. A cumbrous slab. An unobtrusive majesty. A happenstance long sought before seen, loved long before understood. A lesson of devotion to be found always, found but once. An obstinacy gladdened by the river’s flux, the ice floe’s pluck & laving. Pen & ink over graphite on wove paper w/ some scratching out.


In Santa Croce, here we are
well quit of restoration, for who cares
about this slab with its poor bit of sculpture?
An old man in the deeply-folded cap
worn by the scholars & gentlemen of  Florence
c.1300–1500, dead,
a book upon his breast, and over it
his hands lie folded. At his feet, the legend:


temporibvs • hic • svis • phylosopye •
atq • medicine • cvlmen • fvit • et magister
galilevs • degalileis • olim • bonaivtis • qvi
etiam • svmmo • inmagistratv • miro •
qvodam • modo • rem • pvblicam dilexit
cvivs • sancte • memorie • bene acte •
vitepie • benedictvs • filivs • hvnc • tvmv
lvm • patri • sibi • svis • & • posteris • edidit


The worn face, still the old man’s perfect portrait — 
though one struck out by a master’s chisel
at a venture, just so, with a few rough touches;
the falling drapery of  his citizen’s cap
subtle beyond description, with the choice of folds
exquisite in its ornamental pattern;
the carpet he lies on almost uninjured,
elaborate with fringe & frond
relieving the severity of the figure    ...    
and see now, see how the cushion’s nearly-perfect tassels
balance to fill the angles of the stone — 

 
Study of a Peacock’s Breast Feather (1873). A single plume, painted of its natural size. One iridescent throb transitioning from the active plume’s obliquity to the decorative’s dualed symmetry. An uncertain correspondence w/ a heart-shaped flower petal. A cold thrill: a pang as of a nice deep wasp sting. Moss green moving via jade to emerald, indigo to lapis lazuli: as much as is allowed, having neither hocus-pocus nor heaven to dip a brush in. A heraldic emblem; watch & ward against incipient commodity. A lost key to a blue box for blue girls w/ gray eyes. Watercolor & body color on paper.


                          whirrrrrrr-r-r-r-r-r-r
                   pink! pink! pink! cherry-erry-erry
             pew-pew-pew-pew-poor-pew-pew
the chaffinches chirp but feebly; this June snow
      discomposes them
                                              Coniston
             bright as glass
                          ill-cast
             by an undiscerning hand
                                       wave-lines
             showing like flaws in planes of fine crystal

   unsteady, unstill
   troubling & troubled

             What is it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven?
     Child, according to this morning’s Spectator
’tis nothing but the filtration of money from above downwards — 
             an oft-observed phenomenon
                          concessum propter duritiem cordis
                                             a thing allowed
                   and properly recorded in our holy book of double entry
             I mean St. Usura’s Gospel of  Filth
                   wherein we learn his doctrine of arithmetic
                                             that 2 + 2 = 5    ...    
                              O we are so humane,
                                    forsooth, we are so wise,
                              that whereas our ancestors had tar barrels for witches
                              we have them for everybody else — 
                              and we will have our cauldrons cooled, please Hecate,
                                          after Mr. Darwin’s theory
                                             with baboon blood!
                                          Occulted by daylight
                              we will drive the witches’ trade ourselves
                 as, once, I saw a boy with his basket of rotten figs
                       poor little costermonger
      before the south façade of the Ducal Palace
                       stooping to cry Fighiaie! Fighiaie!
                                             Inibito a chiunque il vendere frutti cattivi
                                             19th June, 1516
                                            (i.e. before that nobody thought of doing so)
        as, more than once, I have seen the girls at the windows: poor girls
              at the windows, in the alleyways,
        in the slums by the Euston Hotel, by the railway lines,
                      take Camden Rd. toward the canal basin, lift your eyes,
                      do but lift your eyes as you leave the hall, gentlemen,
                      and you will mark them, they hold themselves
                      liberally, knowing our likings, poor girls, nothing to sell
                      but everything; nothing to sell
                      but themselves I dewyne,
               fordolked of luf-daungere too fast & far,
      boiled to rags by morbid violence — No
            they cannot touch me for coyning
               me so misby — so misby — so misby
                                                         me wish me was a clergyman
                                                         tellin lies all day
                            & Flint — & Tukup — & But — 
                      cujus sancte memorie
                                      those rich-left heirs
                                            Fighiaie!

O Love,
      sane as the proud flesh
            about a healing wound
                  in the side of my nation

that yet may pass
      at a crisis
            into morbific substance,
                  let this man work.

O Love,
      give us work
            and set us to it,
                  for we are corrigible:

O fettle us
      for we are not
            after all entirely corrigible
                  & stay our hand

when we would set our soul upon a cast:
teach us how to give & hazard all
we hath upon your coming, for the soul
cannot be bargained otherwise — only lost.
Impregnable to our economies
whatever the deceiver promises,
the soul is not for sale. And now, the cost
                  diligently accounted for, the sum
                  entered in the ledger, see this bound
                  and shelved in sequence where it may be found
                  by any who enquire, should any come    ...    

         Love sets no term. Love schedules its appearances
         according to no clock of ours:
         to moon-bewildered waves we each of us receive
         our summons, unreluctant. Let walk upon them
         all who can.

                                     ...    came Phaedra then, and Procris,
                                next Ariadnè, fairest of all,
                            whose daddy’s mind was a slaughterhouse
                      bright Ariadnè
                      whom Theseus once from Crete
                      to the tilled acres of sacred Athens led — 
                      nor had he the joy of  her, his heart’s desire,
                      poor Ariadnè
                      fair, moon-bewildered — 
                                false Dionys̄us witnessed against her;
                                Artěmis slew her    ...    


                  O, feed her with apricocks & dewberries,
                  with purple grapes, green figs & mulberries

Is she not with me here among the hawthorn blossom?

     Diodati, a year with no summer,
          and the world was void — 
               þe fyrre in þe fryth
                     — she was the Universe

                              At dusk
pipistrelles flit like black rags torn at the edge
     bonfire cinders
     riding the vortex
     spiraling circuits
     all round the terrace
     all day have I sat here
     preparing the lesson

My dear little birds, did you not see the gleam of sunshine yesterday?

Hadst thou but seen her in it
     bareheaded, barefoot
between the laurels & the primrose bank

 
Moss & Wild Strawberry (1873). Gentle, hesitant line. A suggestion in the genitive. A secret in midsummer. A slackening deft moss nested in cleaved stone. Traces of body color on gray-blue paper trefoiled w/ dewy sequins. Seekings. Rooting a subtle declivity in the rock revealed now by a berry’s posture. A gaze darkening where lines triangulate palely. A beckoning. A suggestive gesture.
More Poems by Paul Batchelor