Reading is various (as usual). My fears came true, & I’ve been sucked into what is for me the enormous pleasures of Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf has just fallen with the Balrog off the bridge of Khazad-Dûm, which means it’s time for a breather. My own enjoyment of Tolkien, I find, has not been much altered by Peter Jackson’s really quite successful film versions. I have my cavils about his presentation of characters – Frodo’s really much too young, & there’s no reason to play Pippin & Merry for laughs, but on the other hand Jackson’s made it possible for me to visually imagine Aragorn for the first time time – but the real problem with Jackson’s movies is that he’s bent on turning what is essentially a quest novel into an action epic, so much of the 3 films end up revolving around a big set battle scene: the death of Boromir in Fellowship, Helm’s Deep in Towers, & the Pelennor Fields in Return – this is blown entirely out of proportion in comparison to its scope in the novel. Think about it: the vast battles of Helm’s Deep & the Pelennor Fields, which occupy maybe 45 minutes apiece in the latter 2 films & cost zillions of dollars in special effects & thousands of extras – in Tolkien, they fill respectively 16 and 11 pages of text.
On the other hand, Michael Moorcock’s Mother London (1988) is turning out to be a pretty rivetting read, despite the fact that practically nothing happens in the book: it’s a series of vignettes, scenes, arranged in a kind of whirlygig anti-chronological sequence over 4 decades – an arrangement which I’ve given up trying to sort out, though I suppose it could be done.
The big discovery for me on holiday was Algernon Charles Swinburne (who, admittedly, I’d read around in a number of times over the last couple decades, but never head-on). I’d been thinking a bit about ACS, particularly in regards to something Ron Johnson said to me maybe 20 years ago, when we discussing Zukofsky’s “A”-22 & -23, & he was extolling their sound values, their “music.” Yes, I said, playing grad-student-devil’s-advocate, but can’t you say the same for Swinburne? “Oh sure,” sez RJ, “but Swinburne’s music is like eating Turkish delight. Zuk is like gnawing a marrow-bone.”
I’m happy to admit that I love Turkish delight, both in its debased, chocolate-covered English candy-bar form & in the original levantine shape. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this “delicacy,” it’s basically a gummi-like candy made of sugar & corn starch, wth rosewater flavoring & sometimes a bit of almonds on top. So, remembering Ron’s saying, I took down my old Caracanet selected Swinburne the other day & launched in.
And found myself entranced. ACS is indeed the laureate of diffuseness, as somebody once said: he makes Shelley at times read like an Objectivist. But there can be an aesthetic of diffuseness, as well – lots of Whitman qualifies, not to mention recent Ashbery. But Swinburne is an astonishing formal master, & there’s a tasty undercurrent of pain and bondage – not to mention an intoxicating overcurrent of rank sensuality – that quite fascinating. Dig these stanzas from Laus Veneris, Swinburne’s version of the Tannhäuser story:
So lie we, not as sleep that lies by death,
With heavy kisses and with happy breath;
Not as many lies by woman, when the bride
Laughs low for love’s sake and the words he saith.
For she lies, laughing low with love; she lies
And turns his kisses on her lips to sighs,
To sighing sound of lips unsatisfied,
And the sweet tears are tender with her eyes.
Ah, not as they, but as the souls that were
Slain in the old time, having found her fair;
Who, sleeping with her lips upon their eyes,
Heard sudden serpents hiss across her hair.
Their blood runs round the roots of time like rain:
She casts them forth and gathers them again;
With nerve and bone she weaves and multiplies
Exceeding pleasure out of extreme pain.
Her little chambers drip with flower-like red,
Her girdles, and the chaplets of her head,
Her armlets and her anklets; with her feet
She tramples all that winepress of the dead.
Her gateways smoke with fume of flowers and fires,
With loves burnt out and unassuaged desires;
Between her lips the steam of them is sweet,
The languor in her ears of many lyres.
Her beds are full of perfume and sad sound,
Her doors are made with music, and barred round
With sighing and with laughter and with tears,
With tears whereby strong souls of men are bound.