Lost and confined in an equal solitude

The post-war period was a time when everyone imagined themselves to be poets and everyone imagined themselvesto be politicians; everyone supposed that one could, and indeed should, make poems out of everything, after so many years in which it had seemed that the world had been paralysed and struck dumb and reality lay on the far side of a sheet of glass, in a vitreous, crystalline and wordless stasis.  Novelists and poets had fasted during the fascist years, there not being many words around that they were permitted to use, and the few that had gone on using words had picked them with the greatest possible care from the meagre lexicon of crumbs that still remained.  During the fascist era, poets found themselves reduced to expressing only the arid, enclosed and sibylline world of dreams.  Now there were many words in circulation once again, and once again reality seemed within reach, and those who had fasted for so long threw themselves joyfully in the harvest.  And the harvest was universal because everyone decided to join in, and this caused a confusion between the language of poetry and the language of politics which seemed to have become mixed together.  But then reality turned out to be no less complex and hidden and indecipherable and enigmatic than the world of dreams, and it proved still to li on the far side of a sheet of glass, and the illusion of having shattered that glass turned out to be ephemeral.  Then many people turned away, disheartened and dejected, and fell back again into a bitter fast and a deep silence.  So the post-war period was gloomy and full of dejection after the joyful harvest of the early days.  Many withdrew and cut themselves off once more, either in the world of their dreams or in any work that would earn them enough to live on, work undertaken at random and in haste and that seemed petty and grey after so much excitement; and in any case, everyone forgot about that brief, illusory involvement in the life of their neighbour.  Undoubtedly for many years no one practised their own trade any more, but everyone thought that they must and should take on a thousand others at the same time, and some years went by before everyone took up their own trade and accepted the weight of it and the daily toil and the daily solitude, which is the only way that we have of participating in the life of our neighbour, lost and confined in an equal solitude.

Ubi Sunt in Old English

The Ubi Sunt sensibility hovers throughout Old English poetry but only in The Wanderer (92-96) does it take a form  – and rhetorical refrain – so close to the more familiar neiges d’antan of Villon.

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?

Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?

Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga!

Eala þeodnes þrym! Hu seo þrag gewat,

genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.


Where has the horse gone? Where the warrior? Where the treasure?

Where the seats of feasts? Where are the hall joys?

Oh, the bright cup! Oh, the mailed warrior!

Oh, the prince’s glory! How that time departed,

grew dark under the night helmet as if it hadn’t been

(tr. Robert E. Bjork)


Tolkien lends a modified version of these lines to Aragorn in the Two Towers as he speaks of Rohan – “Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?”

Fate of the mead-mad man

From the Old English poem, Fortunes of Mortals (translated Robert E. Bjork)

Sum sceal on beore     þurh byreles hond
meodugal mæcga;     þonne he gemet ne con
gemearcian his muþe     mode sine,
ac sceal ful earmlice     ealdre linnan,
dreogan dryhtenbealo     dreamum biscyred,
ond hine to sylfcwale     secgas nemnað,
mænað mid muþe     meodugales gedrinc. (51-57)

One through beer from the cupbearer’s hand will
become a mead-mad man; then he will know no measure,
will not give boundary to his mouth with his mind,

but he must very wretchedly yield up his life,
endure great misfortune bereft of joys,
and people will say he killed himself, well decry
the drinking of the mead-mad man with their mouths
Meodugal – here alliteratively rendered mead-mad – is a compound of mead (meodu) and an adjective (gal) defined with the Latin equivalent luxuriosus (immoderate, wanton, self-indulgent).  The root of that adjective is the same that yields geil (lit. horny) in modern german, and I can’t help wanting break the alliteration in favor of the anachronistic ‘mead-horny’ – on parallel with the similar split in sense of French-derived ‘besotted’ (‘madly impassioned for’ and ‘drunk’)
It’s a shame Malcolm Lowry never worked this passage into Under the Volvano as fortune of the mezcal-mad man

Today I read two lira

[Lucio] had learnt to read at the same time as me, but I had read heaps of books and he had only read a few because he read slowly and got bored; all the same when he was at our house he used to read, because every now and then I would get tired of playing and throw myself down on the lawn with a book.  Then Lucio would go and boast to my brothers that he had read a whole book, because they always teased him about reading so little.  “Today I read two lira.” “Today I read five lira,” he would say proudly, showing them the price written on the flyleaf.

Natalia Ginzburg, The Things We Used to Say, tr. Judith Woolf.

Overheard at the Uffizi

Again from Melville’s Journal Up the Straits:

“It’s as bad as too much pain: it gets to be pain at last” Heard this broken latter part of sentence from wearied lady coming from Ufezzi (sic) Palace. – She was talking no doubt about excess of pleasure in these galleries.”

This feels a pedestrian version of Stendhal’s response – now known as Stendhal Syndrome – to first arriving at Santa Croce:

Mon émotion est si profonde qu’elle va presque jusqu’à la piété … J’étais déjà dans une sorte d’extase, par l’idée d’être à Florence, et le voisinage des grands hommes dont je venais de voir les tombeaux. Absorbé dans la contemplation de la beauté sublime, je la voyais de près, je la touchais pour ainsi dire. J’étais arrivé à ce point d’émotion où se rencontrent les sensations célestes données par les beaux-arts et les sentiments passionnés. En sortant de Santa Croce, j’avais un battement de cœur, ce qu’on appelle des nerfs à Berlin ; la vie était épuisée chez moi, je marchais avec la crainte de tomber.


My emotion was so profound that it came near piety … I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, and the proximity of the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty, I saw it at hand, I touched it so to speak… I reached the point where we encounter the celestial sensations granted by the fine arts and impassioned feelings.  On leaving Santa Croce, I felt a fluttering in my heart, what they call ‘nerves’ in Berlin; Life was drained from me, I walked on but with fear of collapsing.


The comparison leads me to a hierarchy of aesthetically inflicted sufferings:

1)Stendhal syndrome – a genuine swooning from contact, nearly religious in nature

2)That of Melville’s sufferer – call it aesthetic exhaustion, a running through of your mind’s resources and resulting exhaustion; mental as much as physical, from over-exposure and over-stimulation

3)The average visitor  – who sustains memories of wrist-ache from too many selfie-stick selfies and possibly a back-ache as well from violently leaning over me in the process

Sir, he was impertinent to me, and I beat him.

The following throwaway remark appears in one of Borges’ lectures on English literature (collected and edited as Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature):

There was a legend, or story, that Johnson had an argument with a bookseller and felled him with a blow, not with a cane but with a book, a folio volume, which makes the anecdote more literary and also testifies to Johnson’s great physical strength, for such manuscripts are difficult to handle, especially in the middle of a fight.

Boswell’s account is a mere sketch since the event took place before he and Johnson came together, but it – if Boswell can be trusted in such matters – confirms the essential reality of what Borges takes more as symbol-laden exaggeration.

1742: AETAT. 33.]—In 1742 he wrote . . . ‘Proposals for Printing Bibliotheca Harleiana, or a Catalogue of the Library of the Earl of Oxford.’ He was employed in this business by Mr. Thomas Osborne the bookseller, who purchased the library for 13,000l., a sum which Mr. Oldys says, in one of his manuscripts, was not more than the binding of the books had cost; yet, as Dr. Johnson assured me, the slowness of the sale was such, that there was not much gained by it. It has been confidently related, with many embellishments, that Johnson one day knocked Osborne down in his shop, with a folio, and put his foot upon his neck. The simple truth I had from Johnson himself. ‘Sir, he was impertinent to me, and I beat him. But it was not in his shop: it was in my own chamber.’

Sadly, it must remain unclear whether Johnson deserves praise for his dexterous handling of a full folio.

Intricate as a Heap of Vermicelli

From the back half of Melville’s Journal Up the Straits, as he makes it to Padua:

Wednesday April 1st. Rainy day. To the famous caffe of Pedrocci. Worth of its fame, being of great size and well furnished. Got a grave dark guide & started with great-coat &umbrella to see the sights – To the town hall. Wonderful roof (India) To the ….. palace to see the “Satan & his host.” Fine attitude of Satan. Intricate as heap of Vermicelli.  Church of St. Antony & Shrine. Superb. Crutches & pictures. Bronze bas-reliefs. Goliath & David. &c. Promenade. – The Brenta flowing round it. Pleasant aspect of Brenta winding through town. To Giotto’s chapel. – The Virtues and Vice. Capital. The Scriptural pictures. – The Arena

The editor of my edition notes of “Satan and his host” that Melville is “pretty certainly referring to Giotto’s Last Judgment” and seems to assume he misidentified the Scrovegni chapel as an unknown palazzo, even though he later accurately identifies both it and its contents.  And at first glance I could just possibly see describing Giotto’s Satan as “intricate as a heap of Vermicelli,” if only for the writhing limbs of the damned.

Giotto’s Last Judgment
A heap of vermicelli

But I dug about some and found a better explanation in a work called Savage Eye: Melville and the Visual Arts, where the author identifies the unnamed palace as Palazzo Papafava and the work mentioned as Agostino Fasolato’s ~1750 La Caduta degli Angeli Ribelli (The Fall of the Rebel Angels).  Not only does the title match better (who ever refers to the damned as part of Satan’s host?) and the identification salvage Melville from confused redundancy but the work itself far more resembles a heap of vermicelli.

A larger heap of vermicelli

The work  – with a fuller description and history here – now resides in nearby Vicenza at the Gallerie di Palazzo Leoni Montanari.




From Melville’s Journal Up the Straits

Early in his 1856-7 trip through Europe and the Holy Land, Melville, then in Constantinople, records the following scene:

-Saw a burial.  Armenian. Juggling & incantations of the priests – making signs &c. – Nearby, saw a woman over a new grave – no grass on it yet. Such abandonment of misery! Called to the dead, put her head down as close to it as possible; as if calling down a hatchway a cellar; besought – “Why don’t you speak to me? My God! – It is I! Ah, – speak – but one word!” – All deaf. – So much for consolation. – This woman & her cries haunt me horribly. (29)

Compare with his mindset as described by Hawthorne a few weeks earlier on their meeting in England:

Melville has not been well, of late; … and no doubt has suffered from too constant literary occupation, pursued without much success, latterly; and his writings, for a long while past, have indicated a morbid state of mind…. Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated”; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists — and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before — in wondering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting.  He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.

Since Melville didn’t seem to have a guide with him at the time of the graveyard scene – he generally notes the rare instances where he hires a local guide -and I can’t imagine his understanding her cries, I have to think the actual words and, in consequence, some of the emotion of the scene were his own invention.  From there I can’t help but connect their effect on him and his existing preoccupations with the revelation about Bartleby’s earlier work at the end of Bartleby the Scrivener.

There would seem little need for proceeding further in this history. Imagination will readily supply the meager recital of poor Bartleby’s interment. But ere parting with the reader, let me say, that if this little narrative has sufficiently interested him, to awaken curiosity as to who Bartleby was, and what manner of life he led prior to the present narrator’s making his acquaintance, I can only reply, that in such curiosity I fully share, but am wholly unable to gratify it. Yet here I hardly know whether I should divulge one little item of rumor, which came to my ear a few months after the scrivener’s decease. Upon what basis it rested, I could never ascertain; and hence, how true it is I cannot now tell. But inasmuch as this vague report has not been without certain strange suggestive interest to me, however sad, it may prove the same with some others; and so I will briefly mention it. The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.


In this light, Bartleby’s dead letters duties and the strain they cause him are the same as Melville’s own feelings in the graveyard, only infinitely multiplied (and bureaucratized) through a Danaides touch.