Thursday, 14 February 2013

Forget-Me-Nots ~ a Victorian Book of Love, by Cynthia Hart, Tracy Gill and John Grossman

In the 1990s I was an avid fan of Cynthia Hart's Victorian calendars, so when she published this little book on the history of the Victorian Valentine, I had to have it.
It's full title is 'Forge-Me-Nots ~ a Victorian Book of Love' and it tells the story behind the Valentine tradition.  It documents how the typical young, strait-laced Victorian men and women used the complicated symbolism of flowers and visual metaphors to express their feelings for one another.  Lovers would create their own cards and love tokens for their sweethearts, be they simple paper hearts or elaborate, bejewelled creations of ribbons and pearls.
In the era that invented Christmas card, the humble Valentine was taken to new heights.

Every page of the book is crammed full of flowers and lace, arranged on the page in the découpage tradition; each image and object a contemporary piece that has been lovingly treasured down through generations, for our enjoyment today.

Love poems are interspersed throughout, from contemporary poets like Emily Dickinson and  Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  The factual information too is very interesting.  For example, did you know that as well as Valentine cards, the Victorians kept autograph books, that they would have family and friends sign, in which they might often place pressed flowers, plaited hair and other mementoes to keep their friends memories alive?

In today's world of digital photography and social networking sites, it is easy to forget how in the Victorian period, long separation often made it difficulty to keep a mental memory of a loved one alive.  Collecting signatures in an autograph book was a desperate act against time and distance, a vain attempt to hold someone close, even when they were far away.

'Forget-Me-Nots' is a special book for me, it's name evoking all that is best about Valentine's Day.  It is the one day every year that is given over to the idea of love; be it love of a child, parent, friend or partner.  That alone has to be a good thing.  The simple thought of remembering loved-ones annually on 14th February, really appeals to me.  We remember the symbolic meaning of flowers: the red rose signifies eternal love; the daisy, loyalty; the purple tulip, forever love.  How often do we, as a population, dip, en masse, into metaphor?  I think this alone is worth celebrating.

Valentine's Day does not need to be a glitzy, commercial affair; such a thought would horrify the sensible Victorians.  But I do think it is a tradition worth keeping, and this little Valentine's Day treasury helps keep the magic of February 14th alive.  Even though the book has been sitting on my shelf for some twenty years now, it is a St. Valentine's Day treat that I will return to again and again, and now that I have shared it, I hope you will too.  Happy St. Valentine's Day.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A Valentine for Sylvia Plath ~ Ariel revisited

It is the eve of St. Valentine's Day and I have been dreaming of Sylvia Plath. She died fifty years ago this week, on February 11th, 1963. One cannot help but note the poignancy of the date; how this poet, who wrote so much about the affairs of the heart, should die so close to the feast of St. Valentine.  That Plath suffered from mental illness all her life, is undeniable, but the unique way she looked at the world was also her gift. In her final book of poetry, published two years after her death, Plath deals with many issues, but somehow, she keeps returning to one theme: love.

'Ariel' is an outstanding publication, beginning with one of my favourite Plath poems, 'Morning Song'. In this poem she celebrates the love between mother and child, and those precious moments of bonding in the early months of a child's life.  What a fitting poem to begin a collection. But Ted Hughes, Sylvia's ex-husband and renowned poet, must take the credit for that, as it was he who collected Plath's poems together, arranged them and oversaw this posthumous publication in 1965.  Other poems such as 'Nick and the Candlestick' and 'The Arrival of the Beebox' deal with a similar theme.  Hughes fittingly dedicated the book to their children, Frieda and Nicholas, knowing, I am sure, that Plath would have wanted it that way and recognising that these poems read like a long goodbye letter to her little ones.  Image after image helps to unravel the inner-workings of their mother's mind, a gift to any bereaved child.

How extra-strange it must have been then for Hughes to see his wife's genius leap from the pages of these poems, recognising, finally, that she had perfected her voice as a poet, and earned her place on the world stage of writers.

Plath was nothing if not a personal poet, her poems drip with minute details of her life and on reading her biography, the reader can appreciate the poems all the more.  The breakdown of her marriage to Hughes is well documented and one cannot help but think of him when we read the poems in this collection.  He so often is a real presence in them, casting a long shadow of regret and unhappiness cross the page. As often, in matters of the heart, love and anger are often intimate bed-fellows. In poems like 'Elm' or 'Poppies in July', she speaks of pain and sorrow, and we think of lost love and Ted Hughes.

 The collection also contains poems about Plath's complicated relationship with her father, 'Daddy' being the most famous of all. In this poem she rages against her father's ghost, for abandoning her when he died. Love here is inverted, and we can measure how much she loved her father by the utter devastation she feels at his departure.  The irony of course cannot be lost on us as readers, considering how history repeated itself for Plath's own children.

'Ariel' ends with a poem entitled 'Words' and again we must praise Hughes for this editorial decision, because, ultimately, all that remains of a poet when she is gone, are her words.

She writes, 'Words dry and riderless, the indefatigable'.

Like Shakespeare, Plath seemed acutely aware of the legacy she was leaving behind in her work, and perhaps she found some comfort in that thought during her final days.

But as it is the season of the Valentine, and the anniversary of Plath's death, let us consider how Plath lived and loved with passion. She was the candle burning at both ends, beautiful and fierce to behold, yet bound to burn out all the sooner because of that. So let us end, as we should, with Plath in her own words:

Letter in November
by Sylia Plath

Love, the world
Suddenly turns, turns colour. The streetlight
Splits through the rat's tail
Pods of the laburnum at nine in the morning.
It is the Arctic,

This little black
Circle, with its tawn silk grasses -- babies hair.
There is a green in the air,
Soft, delectable.
It cushions me lovingly.

I am flushed and warm.
I think I may be enormous,
I am so stupidly happy,
My Wellingtons
Squelching and squelching through the beautiful red.

This is my property.
Two times a day
I pace it, sniffing
The barbarous holly with its viridian
Scallops, pure iron,

And the wall of the odd corpses.
I love them.
I love them like history.
The apples are golden,
Imagine it ---

My seventy trees
Holding their gold-ruddy balls
In a thick gray death-soup,
Their million
Gold leaves metal and breathless.

O love, O celibate.
Nobody but me
Walks the waist high wet.
The irreplaceable
Golds bleed and deepen, the mouths of Thermopylae.
(Ariel 1965)

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Surprise Book Club ~ sisterly love

It was my turn to host the book club.  I asked my sister to do a little baking for it, cheating I know, but I figured that if my guests knew what my baking was like, they would not complain if I bent the rules.
My sister, Ally, elder than me by just two years, has always had a passion for surprising people.  Her children are the lucky benefactors of her kindness these days, but I still remember my 13th birthday party, not for the embarrassing hair styles or the horrific 1980s fashion, but the surprise party that Ally organised for me.  

We lived some miles from the school and my friends never really found their way to our house - it was a bus ride away.  But this was nothing to Ally.  She rounded them up after school and took them to a neighbours house, where they were stowed until I was lured away and they could be safely manoeuvred into my house to take up their positions.  
And I was truly surprised, screams, tears, the works. My 13th birthday was the best of my childhood by a long-shot. How can you repay a sister for that?

This all came back to me when my sister arrived, just minutes before my book club guests, brandishing a tray of cakes and a smile.  It was a particular smile she was wearing that day ... one that screams out with anticipation.  When she unveiled the cakes, I was gob-smacked.  
She had made ten little cupcakes, each with a book on top made of sugar icing.  Each book was complete with cover and artwork from the original title.  They were ten of my all-time favourite books: 'Wuthering Heights', 'Pride and Prejudice', 'Birdsong', 'The Book Thief' etc.   She had done it again - winded me with her kindness, staggered me with her thoughtfulness.

And while I was clearing up the empty wine glasses, and my friends were safely returning home, I thought of my sister and how I was ever going to repay her... 
But do you know what, I think I've just made a start! xx


Remembered Kisses - an Illustrated Anthology of Irish Love Poetry~ Ed. by Fleur Robinson

Ten years ago, when I was newly married and expecting my first child, I bought this very special book for my husband on St. Valentine's Day.  Each year, he and I buy each other a book of poetry on the 14th February, it is the only annual tradition which has lasted over the years.  The little book shop where I found this particular volume has long since closed down, but I have not forgotten it.

I was hot and bothered with my ever-growing bump and was almost ready to leave the shop when a helpful shop assistant took pity on me and came to my aid.
'I'm looking for something for my husband, for Valentine's Day', I said.  'He likes poetry'.  She offered me a collection of various books, all with serious, dour-looking covers, but nothing said 'love', to me.

So I moved to the 'art interest' section of the shop.  Perhaps a book on the Impressionist painters, I thought.  But the books looked so large and heavy, as art books always do.  I thought of my pinching shoes and my thickening ankles.  I didn't think I could face hauling a giant tome all the way home.

I would have to come up with an alternative idea, breaking the tradition, just this once.

But then, I saw a a title, 'Remembered Kisses', peeking out me.  When I pulled the book from its hiding place, I felt the surge of joy that I am sure you too, dear reader, have known: the pleasure experienced on finding the perfect book.

The book was a collection of Irish love poems, each one paired with a complementary painting by an Irish artist, which explains why it was categorised as an art book in the first place.

I fairly skipped home that day, bump and all, rejoicing at my find.

Yeats, Mahon, Heaney, they are all here, as are Lavery, O'Conor and Orpen.  Great poets and painters alike; a sensory heaven for the poetically minded.  Every time you open a page, the reader is presented with a beautifully delineated image and a finely crafted poem, each one adding layers of meaning to the other, regardless of whether poet or painter ever intended it that way.

This is a book to dip into and to marvel at.  It is said that Ireland is a place of saints and scholars.  I know nothing of that, yet this book reads as a testament to the many wonderful artists and poets that Ireland has given birth to over the years.  The theme of the poems and paintings reflect the themes of Ireland itself: a country coming to terms with its colonial history and its emergence as an independent state; its violence and its passion; its personal triumphs and national failures.

Yet each poem and every painting presents something unique and ultimately very personal, an artists experience of the world around them, making this anthology an especially important account of life through the discerning eye of master analysts; an diary in words and pictures, of Irish live over the last 300 years.

But for me, every time I pick up this beautiful, richly presented volume, I always remember the manner in which I came upon it, and think to myself that sometimes the best things in life are found in the most unexpected of places.