Friday, November 27, 2015

`A Nation Defined by and Consisting of Poets'

Bill Brandt (1904-1983) was a German-born English photographer who documented his adopted home for more than half a century. He was prolific, and specialized in photographing working-class subjects and nudes, but the volume that occupies me is Literary Britain (Cassell and Company, 1951). From the title I assumed it would contain photographs of mid-century writers, but few people of any era or occupation show up in Brandt’s pictures. Rather, he most often shoots building or landscapes associated with England’s great writers, starting with Chaucer and Langland, and running through W.H. Hudson, Rupert Brooke and Shaw, or with their work. The photos are black and white, and often heavily shadowed. The mood is elegiac and only indirectly celebrative. Brandt seems to be saying, “Look at what we once had.” For Kipling he photographs a darkened section of Hadrian’s Wall, little more than a long stretch of rubble. Accompanying the picture is an excerpt from Puck of Pook’s Hill, part of which reads: 

“A little curtain wall, no higher than a man’s neck, runs along the top of the thick wall, so that from a distance you see the helmets of the sentries sliding back and forth like beads. Thirty feet high is the Wall, and on the Picts’ side, the North, is a ditch, strewn with blades of old swords and spear-heads set in wood, and tyres of wheels joined by chains.” 

It’s typical of Kipling that he writes of the distant past in the present tense, an echo of Brandt’s photographic method. The Picts are an ancient pre-Celtic people who lived in what is now Scotland. The Romans first noted them in 297 A.D., when they and the Irish attacked Hadrian’s Wall, begun in 122 A.D. For Thomas Hardy, Brandt photographs cows grazing among the stones, standing and fallen, of Stonehenge, accompanied by a passage from Tess of the D’Urbervilles: 

“The band of silver paleness along the east horizon made even the distant parts of the Great Plain appear dark and near; and the whole enormous landscape bore that impress of reserve, taciturnity and hesitation which is usual just before day. The eastward pillars and their architraves stood up blackly against the light, and the great flame-shaped Sun stone beyond them.” 

One of the most striking of Brandt’s photographs, devoted to the Brontës, shows the churchyard at Haworth. In the background, obscured by trees, is the church and rectory, and in the foreground, as close as tiles on a floor, are horizontal grave stones. All are heavily inscribed but illegible in the photo. On the adjoining page is an excerpt from a letter Charlotte Brontë wrote to Ellen Nussey: 

“There have I sat on the low bedstead, my mind fixed on the window through which appeared no other landscape than a monotonous stretch of moorland, a grey church-tower rising from the centre of a church-yard so filled with graves that the rank weeds and coarse grass scarce had room to shoot up between the monuments.” 

The only conspicuous absences I note in Brandt’s pantheon are Defoe, Gibbon, Sterne, Hazlitt, Conrad and Beerbohm.  The one entry that moved me to reread the complete work it’s taken from accompanies a photograph of the old rectory at Somersby, where Tennyson was born in 1809. The passage is drawn from In Memoriam: CII. Here is the final stanza: 

“I turn to go: my feet are set
To leave the pleasant fields and farms;
They mix in one another's arms
To one pure image of regret.”

Brandt’s book of photographs confirms my sense that England, for civilized men and woman, for those who cherish civilized virtues, is home. No other nation has spawned so much literary genius across such a span of centuries. Bryan Appleyard said as much several years ago in Poetry and the English Imagination”: 

“Poetry has no serious contenders as the English national art. Ah, it is often said, but Shakespeare wrote plays. And so he did. But consider these plays. Hamlet is a weird drama made magnificent by a torrent of peerless poetry, and I have always thought of it as a long poem whose cosmic structure seems to pivot on the words `We defy augury’. Shakespeare is the greatest playwright on earth, but he is heaven’s poet. And the list of his poet-compatriots – Chaucer, Browning, Dryden, Wordsworth, Clare, Donne, Auden, Tennyson, Keats, Pope, Herbert, etc. etc. – closes the case. We are a nation defined by and consisting of poets. To deny this is to deny England.”

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