Friday, 29 August 2014

The Duchess of Richmond's Ball on the Eve of Waterloo

These stanzas are taken from a much longer poem by Lord George Byron entitled Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. This a book length poem - so not for the faint hearted. I have shortened the several stanzas concerning the Eve of Waterloo to just two,  because it is these two which are most captivating, at least  for me. The first stanza vividly conjures up that ball hosted on 15 June 1815 in Brussels by the charming socialite,  the Duchess of Richmond. All the officers of any importance including the Duke of Wellington had been invited. It must have been a glittering occasion - the ballroom lit by a mass of candles - the officers in their dress uniform and the ladies in all their finery. 

There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium's capital had gathered then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men.
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage bell;
But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!
Did ye not hear it? — No; 'twas but the wind,
Or the car rattling o'er the stony street;
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when youth and pleasure meet
To chase the glowing hours with flying feet.
But hark! — that heavy sound breaks in once more,
As if the clouds its echo would repeat;
And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before;
Arm! arm! it is — it is — the cannon's opening roar!

The Battle of Quatre Bras (painted by Lady Butler)

In the 1970 classic film "Waterloo" in which Christopher Plummer plays the Iron Duke it depicts the Duchess of Richmond's ball brilliantly with the military bands, the Scottish dancing, and the ceremony of the occasion . Here are some stills from that film.

Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington in the 1970 film - 'Waterloo' 

The Duchess of Richmond's  Ball  (from the 1970 film 'Waterloo')
Some poetic license has been employed as in actual fact the ball was hosted on the eve of the Battle of Quatre Bras fought on 16 June 1815 two days before the Battle of Waterloo.

The Duchess of Richmond's Ball by Robert Hillingford (1870s)

It was whilst the Duke of Wellington was attending the ball that a messenger arrived from Marshal Blucher with news that Napoleon's army had crossed the border and were advancing towards Brussels. Officers hurriedly left and the next day the army was leaving Brussels heading south to bolster British  and Prussian positions at and around Quatre Bras which were facing the advancing French army.

But let us return to the poem where Byron sets the scene so well that we could almost be there :

 There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium's capital had gathered then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men.
A thousand hearts beat happily;

What a fabulous line that follows (below) depicting the romance of the occasion and what a vivid description of the music :

and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again

Then we are interrupted by the sound of the gun, the foe is approaching and the officers must make their leave to do battle on the morrow.

But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!

Arm! arm! it is — it is — the cannon's opening roar!

Poetic license again as the cannonading had not yet commenced nor would it until the following day when the Prussian Army under Blucher which were on the left flank, were attacked and after a short and brutal battle suffered a defeat and had to withdraw and regroup. 

The British led Anglo-Dutch  army at Quatre Bras (literally 'four roads' or 'Cross Roads') on the right flank were attacked by Marshal Ney  who had some 42,000 men outnumbering the British who initially were defending the cross roads with only 6,000 men. Marshal Ney did not press home the attack fast enough and British reinforcements from  the direction of Brussels allowed Wellington to hold the position.

The following day Wellington withdrew his army to Waterloo where he intended to make a stand and …………….the rest as they say is history ! 

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Oh ! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

I am minded of the flight of Icarus when reading that amazingly inspirational poem "High Flight" by John Gillespie Magee, which so well describes the exhilaration and the wonder of high flying.

John Magee was an American who joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. He wanted to support Britain in its hour of need during World War 2 at a time when the Americans had not yet entered the war. He was based in Britain in 1941 flying Spitfires.


High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds, 
– and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,

I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless falls of air...

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never lark, nor ever eagle flew – 

And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

(John Gillespie Magee)

The poem is very impacting with its powerful images. It's opening line  "Oh ! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth" conjures up images of the free spirit, unshackled, soaring the skies and playing among the clouds and ends with that powerful line "put out my hand and touched the face of God".

John Magee was born in Shanghai in 1922 to an American father and a British mother who worked as Anglican missionaries in China. He was educated at Rugby School in England and then finished his schooling in the United States where he won a scholarship to Yale. However Britain and Canada were at war with Germany in September 1939 and Magee instead of going up to Yale chose instead to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force whilst still only eighteen years old in October 1939.

In 1941 he was posted to England joining a spitfire squadron. In September 1941 he flew at a very high altitude of 30,000 feet on a test flight for a new model of the Spitfire. He must have found it exhilarating  and this gave him the inspiration for his famous poem.

Shortly after this he wrote to his parents and scribbled down the poem on the back of the letter. He wrote "I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed".

Three months later in December 1941, just a few days after the United States had entered the war,  John Magee was killed in a collision whilst flying his Spitfire over Tangmere Air Field in  Sussex. At the enquiry which followed a local farmer reported that he saw the Spitfire pilot struggling to get out of his aircraft but he was too close to the ground for his parachute to open. He died aged nineteen as did the pilot of the other aircraft Ernest Griffin.

The original hand written poem is now held by the Library of Congress. The poem was quoted by President Reagan in 1986 during a presidential address following the explosion and disintegration of the Challenger space shuttle.

Russell Crowe well recited the poem in the 1994 film "For the Moment".

As a poem it is both inspiring and uplifting. It is also sad that the pilot and poet met his death in the skies that he loved so dearly not long after writing this poem. He was one of many young men who gave their lives in the service of their country at a time of war.  In addition to John Magee there was also the loss of the pilot of the Oxford Trainer, Ernest Griffin, with whom he collided. Two brave men who took to the skies  - lest we forget.


Friday, 22 August 2014

In Bruegel's Icarus for instance

Perhaps for want of trying on my part, I never liked W.H Auden's poetry very much with one or two exceptions and one of which is his poem Musée des Beaux Arts. In this he contemplates the works of the Old Masters and the messages they were imparting and, focusing in particular on Brueghel's rendition of Ovid's story of Icarus - the boy who tried to fly, but flew to close to the sun, the wax melting his wings and he fell into the sea.

About suffering they were never wrong, 
The Old Masters; how well, they understood 
Its human position; how it takes place 
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; 
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting 
For the miraculous birth, there always must be 
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating 
On a pond at the edge of the wood: 
They never forgot 
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course 
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot 
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse 
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away 
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may 
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, 
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone 
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green 
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen 
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, 
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I like Auden's simple laconic description  - "where the dogs go on with their doggy life". It really says it all without really saying anything. It would not work so well with horses, cats or pigs. The cats go on with their catty life !  

I particularly like the commanding assonance which demands our attention in the opening line of the second stanza  - "In Breughel's Icarus for instance".

Breughel was a dutch painter - one of the "Old Masters" who was born in 1525 and died aged 44 in 1569. He was painting at the time of the Renaissance. His paintings are quite striking.

The Peasant Wedding

Netherlandish Proverbs

The blind leading the blind
WH Auden's poem leads us to re-look at the Ovidian myth of Daedalus and Icarus. The story is told by the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC - AD 18), better known to posterity as Ovid. The story is found in Metamorphoseon libri  or translated from the Latin "Books of Transformations" better known to us as The Metamorphoses. This magnum opus contains fifteen books and 250 myths. Many of these myths figure in the works of the Old Masters. The story of Icarus and Daedalus is found in Book viii.

Daedalus a wily architect had been exiled to Crete and placed in the service of King Minos who ordered him to build a labyrinth to contain the Minotaur, half beast and half man. Theseus, King of Athens, arrived in Crete to slay the minotaur. King Minos's daughter Ariadne fell in love with Theseus and persuaded Daedalus to reveal the secret of the labyrinth which allowed Theseus to slay the beast and make good his escape from the labyrinth. When King Minos heard this he imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in the labyrinth.

Daedalus in plotting his escape from exile in Crete, made for him and his son Icarus a set of wings made from feathers and bound with bees wax. He told his son not too fly to close to the water nor too high. He then :

"kissed his son and, as the future showed,
This was a last farewell - then he took off.
And as a bird who drifts down from her nest
Instructs her young to follow her in flight,
So Daedalus flapped wings to guide his son.
Far off, below them some stray fisherman,
Attention startled from his bending rod,
Or a bland shepherd resting on his crook,
Or a dazed farmer leaning on his plough
Glanced up to see the pair float through the sky,
And taking them for gods, stood still in wonder.

By this time Icarus began to feel the joy
Of beating wings in air and steered his course
Beyond his father’s lead: all the wide sky
Was there to tempt him as he steered toward heaven.
Meanwhile the heat of sun struck at his back
And where his wings were joined, sweet-smelling fluid
Ran hot that once was wax.  His naked arms
Whirled into wind; his lips, still calling out
His father’s name, were gulfed in the dark sea.
And the unlucky man, no longer father,
Cried,   “Icarus, where are you, Icarus,
Where are you hiding, Icarus, from me?”
Then as he called again, his eyes discovered
The boy’s torn wings washed on the climbing waves.
He damned his art, his wretched cleverness,
Rescued the body and placed it in a tomb,

And where it lies the land’s called Icarus".  

Daedalus warned Icarus not to go to close to the sun but Icarus did and the sun  melted the wax which bound his wings and he dropped into the green sea  and that was that.

Lanscape with the Fall of Icarus

The landscape is classic or Arcadian so often depicted in the works of the "Old Masters". The sun is indeed shining brightly, the plough-man is busy ploughing his plot, the shepherd tending his flock and the fisherman is casting his line.  The sails on the expensive delicate ship are billowing  - everybody is busy doing what they are doing and life goes on but not for Icarus whose white legs are seen disappearing into the green sea. 

Here's another painting by Brueghel also in Musée des Beaux Arts

Winter Landscape with a bird trap

 Could this be the painting that WH Auden had in mind when he wrote the lines:

"there always must be 
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating 
On a pond at the edge of the wood"

In the Ovidian myth the plough-man, the shepherd and the fisherman are indeed present and they bear shocked witness to the flight and the plight of Icarus, unlike in the painting, where they are too busy except perhaps for the shepherd who is simply looking away. 

WH Auden published his poem in 1938 at a time when war clouds were gathering over Europe. We can picture him standing in front of the painting in contemplation of our indifference to suffering and how so often we turn away like the shepherd.