Thursday, February 02, 2012

`The Honey of That Old Discipline'

Seasoned readers have learned to wait for happy convergences among the books they’re reading. Against the Darkening Sky is Janet Lewis’ third novel, published in 1943 and set in Depression-era California, in the Santa Clara valley. Mary Perrault and her husband have four children and live in respectful balance with the natural world, devotedly tending their gardens and orchards. In the novel's first sentence, Mary sits on the front steps admiring her flowers. In the first chapter, she treats a rash on her neck with an infusion made from wormwood leaves picked in a nearby field, and gathers fallen plums for a visiting friend:

“Their feet sank a little in the loose ground, for the orchard had been plowed in order to kill the weeds, and no grass was growing under or between the small trees. It was a household orchard, not a commercial one; -- two fig trees, an early peach and a late-ripening one, long red plums, a quince tree loaded with heavy furred green fruit, and the tree with the little round yellow plums for which Mrs. Perrault was looking. The leaves and the fruit were dusty.”

Mary represents a traditional, endangered, largely self-sufficient way of life, one rooted in practical knowledge handed down by family and friends, not unlike the domestic routine established by Lewis and her husband, Yvor Winters, at their modest home in Los Altos. Mary is a PTA mother, not a precursor to the nature-romanticizing counterculture. Love, tradition and a willingness to work hard, not ideology, sustain her and her family. Late in the novel, thinking of her children, Mary condemns “the incoherent civilization, the moral wilderness emerging from the physical wilderness.”

At the same time I’ve been reading selections from Poly-Olbion, a poem of almost 15,000 lines written by Michael Drayton (1563-1631).  It’s a survey of the geography and history of Great Britain composed in alexandrine couplets. As poetry, it’s often clunky, veering close to prose, but the subtitle suggests both its grandiosity and charm: A Chorographicall Description of Tracts, Rivers, Mountains, Forests and other Parts of the Renowned Isle of Greate Britaine with intermixture of the most Remarquable Stories, Antiquities, Wonders, Rarityes, Pleasures, and Commodities of the same: Digested in a Poem.

Drayton lovingly catalogues the birds (“even the echoing Ayre / Seemes all compos’d of sounds.”), flowers, fish and trees of Great Britain. Like Mary Perrault, he damns the destruction of the natural world, in particular the trees:

“Foreseeing, their decay each howre so fast came on,
Under the axes stroak, fetcht many a grievous grone,
When as the anviles weight, and hammers dreadfull sound,
Even rent the hollow Woods, and shook the queachy ground.”

And this:

“Joves Oke, the warlike Ash, veyn'd Elme, the softer Beech,
Short Hazell, Maple plaine, light Aspe, the bending Wych,
Tough Holly, and smooth Birch, must altogether burne:
What should the Builder serve, supplies the Forger's turne;
When under publike good, base private gaine takes holde,
And we poore woefull Woods, to ruine lastly solde.”

Drayton notes that many trees have been cut down and burned to smelt iron:

“These yron times breed none, that minde posteritie,
Tis but in vaine to tell, what we before have been,
Or changes of the world, that we in time have seen;
When, not devising how to spend our wealth with waste,
We to the savage swine, let fall our larding mast.
But now, alas, our selves we have not to sustaine,
Nor can our tops suffice to shield our Roots from raine.”

Late in Against the Darkening Sky, when Mary Perrault attends a funeral, her thoughts also turn to the corruption of values:

“There was hardly anything about a funeral such as this which she did not dislike, small items which summed up a discreet commercialism. Yet, it was not entirely the fault of the morticians....The fault lay in the lack of faith, the lonely and independent lives--every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost--the shifting communities whose constant change made it impossible for anyone to live as she had lived as a girl, in a community as in the center of a family.... It was the loss of faith that grieved her the most. About her own children, growing up in this world, could they have, as she now had, security of faith without a literal belief in the things which she had been taught as a girl? All the honey of that old discipline was now hers, distilled in many precious and life-giving phrases, but how could she convey to [her daughter] Melanie what these phrases now meant to her?"


zmkc said...

Fascinating. For a start, in my ignorance, I had thought the phrase 'Great Britain' a modern construct - and yet here it is being used in the 16th century. As well, the post raises questions about faith and context, too complex to go into here but terrific food for thought. I will go away and ponder them now.

William A. Sigler said...

Wormwood is the active (and amazingly effective) ingredient in the detox I'm currently taking - so it's nice to know some continuities still exist with traditional cultures. As for the more literary "happy convergences" I'm reminded of William Blake, or more specifically the beginning of the biography of him by GK Chesterton, one of the few critics astute enough to navigate his dualistic mind, where he says, by way of explaining why he started Blake's life with an account of Genesis instead, that "all the biggest events of Blake's life would have happened before he was born." We are forever, as I am on the train this morning, moving forward looking backward.