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Friday, 6 September 2013

Going down The Keats Road

The Golden Triangle (Butleigh to the left)

In my previous post, Fecundity and Desire – a flirtation with the concept of a sadomasochistic landscape - I began ruminating about To Autumn before admonishing myself. DON’T GO DOWN THE KEATS ROAD! I wrote in my notebook.
But why ever not? To avoid kitsch and cliché, I suppose, but I like to think I’m cute enough to give the former a wide berth and, as a Latin Catholic, I think the former should be embraced, not eschewed. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense, even if I felt a little like Aragorn – or maybe Legolas – traversing the Paths of the Dead; would walking The Keats Road open a can of worms or a Pandora’s Box?
Well both, as it happens, but not until I’d entered The Golden Triangle.
Enough already! Let me explain.
My first port of call was obviously To Autumn, even though summer was fighting tooth and nail and to maintain its grip on the year. Fighting tooth and nail but not quite succeeding; it took a while for the mist to clear the Cathedral City and when it did the ‘swelling gourds’ and ‘fruit with ripeness to the core’ were all too evident. Summer had tucked her bat under arm and was heading back to the pavilion. 

Season of mists ...
But To Autumn isn’t just a sensual elegy to the passing of the year, it invokes a contested landscape; how you perceive it depends on whose side you’re on. Jerome McGann accuses Keats of deliberately ignoring the political landscape of 1819 - the poem is ‘an exercise in political reactionary’. Rather than addressing social and political unrest Keats devotes himself to ‘the idealised view of nature’. McGann’s criticisms have been refuted by, amongst others, Andrew Motion but he has a point. When academics start lamenting the decline of peasant rebellions in Latin America the prospect of any sort of rural revolution in the English countryside seems impossibly remote; in the deserted or Anglo-Saxonised villages of continental Europe, too. Does To Autumn give the middle classes permission to perpetuate this rural idyll, sanitised and made banal?

... and mellow fruitfulness
As if by magic, the Keats Road led me to The Golden Triangle in search of an answer. The Golden Triangle, to the uninitiated, is a product of modern mythology, though I’m not sure whether Keats would have approved or not. Its points lie in the South Somerset villages of Butleigh, Barton St David and Baltonsborough, none of which, according to local hearsay, have ever possessed any sort of council housing. Its fame – or, perhaps, infamy – is enhanced – or exacerbated – by the influence of the £33,000-a-year Millfield School, sometimes mocked – perhaps unfairly - as an educational establishment for the ‘sporty but thick’. Academic prowess or no, its presence pushes up already-inflated house prices by another percentage point or no.
The result? A pastiche, in places, though not of Poundbury proportions; we must be thankful for small mercies. Somerset rural chic has a dynamic of its own, the peasant replaced, to a certain extent, by the artisan and the academic and a steady flow of creative refugees fleeing the capital. And now we have a Waitrose in Wells I expect to see more of them on my doorstep.
More of them on my doorstep. What on earth am I saying? I am one of them.
From agriculture to astrology: what would Keats say?
Whilst studying Geography and Landscape Studies at Weymouth University (aka Dorset Institute of Higher Education) back in the eighties, my best friend – then a dedicated Marxist - refused to enter stately homes and country houses because they effectively celebrated poverty, inequality and the abuse of power; he wanted them all pulled down. I wonder what he’d make of the Golden Triangle, the hovels of the peasantry now sought after by Guardianistas and neo Kulaks at inflated prices. I like them but then again, I tutor their children so I’m part of the same system. 

Organic peasant chic: the old and the new
Meanwhile there has emerged a current of rural functionalism that has shaped the landscape of the Golden Triangle in the last few decades, village infilling and small housing estates; homes for locals and the less well-off. It started with bungalows but has progressed – if I can use that participle – to become more ‘Somerset’. It’s less bland, but it’s still bland and it tries too hard to be both less bland and more ‘Somerset’; I left the Golden Triangle wondering when – and where – the new Somerset might emerge because we sure as hell can’t go on rebranding the past, Golden Age or not.

Bungalows and rural functionalism in The Golden Triangle
 Next post: Landscape and Negative Capability 
Meanwhile, back in Über-Somerset ...
Jerome McGann: Keats and the Historical Method in Literary Criticism, MLN (1994)
Andrew Motion: Keats, University of Chicago Press (1999)
Nicholas Roe: John Keats and the Culture of Dissent, Clarendon Press (1998)

Friday, 30 August 2013

Fecundity and Desire

It is, I suspect, a symptom of the depths to which modern urban life has sunk to that, to a man and a woman (but mostly the latter), we dream of some rural idyll in the depths of the countryside where the splendid prospect of isolation and a simpler means of existence acts in stark contradiction to our busy, cluttered lives. That is, whenever we have time to dream, for in these days of corporate identity even these private acts of rebellion have been seized upon by a ubiquitous mediocrity.
María Inés de la Cruz The Woodlanders (with apologies to the late Mr Thomas Hardy), Virgin Black Lace 2004
The Carteresque landscape - full of erotic menace
Here’s a confession that’ll immediately lose me half my (admittedly meagre) readership and probably have me up before the courts martial of progressive geography and liberation theology: I have an unnatural – some might say morbid – fascination with feudalism. A fatal attraction; that which ought to repel me lures me into its baited, decadent trap, like a moth to a flame.
It’s been a suppressed yearning, only daring to raise its shaggy-haired head above the parapet on rare occasions. Like the weekend just gone when I ventured out into the erotically-charged landscape of Cranborne Chase. Something about wandering across and through this pastoral landscape brings out my inner sado-masochist; not the kinky fetishism of a bit of slap and tickle but a full-blooded, full-on sado-masochism that’s as cerebral as it is sexual. More Angela Carter than E L James.
In fact, it’s all Angela Carter and absolutely no E L James.
The Chase is the perfect backdrop for indulging these daydreams, walking the perfect ritual to conjure up images of fecundity and desire; it’s not dissimilar to saying the Rosary; the rhythm of my booted feet like the cadence of a Hail Mary, repeated over and over again. Both act as a conduit that translates one from the mundane to the metaphysical. It takes me not so much back in time – to some faux halcyon-haloed rural golden age – but out of time. I am the land, the land is me.
The forest is always encroaching, like a game of ‘What’s the time, Mr Wolf?’ You turn your back for a minute and next thing you know it’s stolen another couple of metres on you. In Angela Carter’s The Erl-King, a maiden wanders into the woods and is seduced by a personification of the forest, a ‘tender butcher’ with ‘white pointed teeth’. She’s intimidated by the forest, terrified she’ll ‘diminish to a point and vanish’. Yet she describes their relationship as ‘two halves of a seed, enclosed in the same integument’. She is both seduced and repulsed my him as his touch both ‘consoles and devastates’ her.
‘Watch your back!’ warns my guardian but I’m no innocent Red Riding Hood; no passive victim, more victim as aggressor. The Chase brings out the wicked feudalist in me and dream myself the Lady Squire, a woman whose earthly benevolence belies a dark side. A woman who demands her droite de seigneure but toys only briefly with the groom and saves all her lust for the bride.
Then, as I emerge from the wood and approach another isolated country house the reverie makes a volte-face and I’m the Lady Squire’s trembling maid, suffering her anger in a delicious mélange of fear and anticipation whilst she admonishes me:
You fail the to realise that as far as this part of the world is concerned, democracy and liberalism are mistrusted as modern concepts that have never really caught on in the popular imagination. On the contrary, people trust and respect authority. They like rules, they know where they are, where they stand in the scheme of things. I think you will find that any attempt to subvert my jurisdiction will be met with contempt and disbelief. Think about it, which of us has the greater honour and integrity? You, a jumped up, common or garden whore, one of the great unwashed – or me, the Lady Squire? As far as everyone here is concerned, I am democracy.
María Inés de la Cruz The Woodlanders (with apologies to the late Mr Thomas Hardy), Virgin Black Lace 2004
See what I mean about being given the could-shoulder by my disillusioned acolytes? I know I shouldn’t give these visions credence but I don’t try very hard to expel them from my imagination; the faster I walk, the harder I pound my feet on the sun-baked tracks, the more lucid and focused they become. Reminds me of St Jerome, an early Father of the Church, whose detailed descriptions of women’s clothing and exposed flesh turned his condemnations into pornographic exhortations. Like self-flagellation, the greater the pain and the punishment, the more profound the pleasure.
The earth in late August feels like it’s slipping away in a post-coital ecstasy; having shagged itself senseless spring and summer long, it’s turned onto its side to enjoy a last cigarette before falling into a lengthy, blissful sleep. I recite a few lines from Ode to Autumn, the ones about watching the last oozings of the cyder press hours by hours but then write in my notebook: DON’T GO DOWN THE KEATS ROAD.
Don’t go down the Keats Road. Now there’s an imperative on which to ruminate during my next hike ...