Saturday, April 4, 2009

First Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay

It is not an unforgettable story but there seems to be one within it and I have yet to see a more emotive and touching use of the two interjections of ah and oh in a poetic context.

In a dictionary there is not much difference in their meanings but the manner in which they have been used here they come over with completely different nuances. These are perhaps the limits beyond which Epicureanism cannot be taken and where pain and pleasure become so intertwined that they lose their separateness.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

First Fig

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--
It gives a lovely light.

I am living a more than full life that will cut short the natural span of my being but ah my enemies you have no reason to be happy in it and oh my friends do not be sorry for me. Look at the lovely light that I am shedding around me for it is a source of envy for my foes and an occasion for my well-wishers to rejoice.

  • Postscript

Although I had interpreted 'But ah, my foes' in relation to envy but my subconscious self was somehow less than happy with it and in a half awake state in my bed I kept on thinking about it and the more I thought I felt that the 'source of envy' was not an appropriate and adequate expression to describe it for it negated the inherent joy, sadness, and compassion which envelope these verses - the joy at the beautiful light she radiates within her and all around her, sadness that it will not last the night, compassion for her enemies who are blind to it and she tells her friends to celebrate it rather than be sorry for her.

The Invisible Man (1911) by G K Chesterton

On Wednesdays it is the fruit market day although to be honest with three stalls hardly visible in the plethora of other stalls, it is not much of a fruit market especially since I have seen six days a week fruit markets - the whole area covered with stalls bulging with fruit from all over the world at prices well, let me leave it there. And if you stuck to one stall, occasionally you got special deals, once I got a load of strawberries complete with plastic containers at a price which in a local supermarket would have set me back by quite a large amount.
Since it is only on one day of the week there is no rapport between the sellers and the buyers. There is no recognition, not even an inkling of a fleet
ing welcome. Nonetheless, as the saying goes, something is better than nothing although my enthusiasm has considerably waned for the place. Initially when I moved to this area I used to visit it regularly although now I find it almost a chore.

On Thursdays
it is the farmers' market which also duplicates as an antiques market. There are more antiques stall there than other stalls and they have a wide range of offerings - stamps, coins, old prints, books, old envelopes and postcards old crockery and cutlery and so on. It is really amazing the range of items people collect. Once I started collecting carrier bags but had to give it up because of the insoluble logistic problem that the bags storage posed

I go there for old books and honey, genuinely fresh honey. On some days squeezed out of the beehive only a day earlier and the person minding the stall is an old style gentleman. The trading is unhurried and free from commercial pressure. He is well informed on the subject and talking to him to which he is not averse adds to information about the product you are going to consume. Last time when I remarked about a 'best before date' on a bottle, he told me, that it was following regulations although honey discovered in Egypt believed to be ancient was still found to be edible. It is not always available but when it is I try to buy a few jars of acacia honey. It has mild flowery taste and it does not crystallise although we never have it long enough to see whether it does or not. And I was really surprised to learn from him that the bee farm does not have acacia trees in its immediate vicinity and it therefore takes its bees to an area where these trees grow and that is how the farm produces acacia honey and hence a somewhat higher price.
I could add perhaps as an aside here, there are such noticeable differences in the behaviour of different stall holders in an open market tha
t it could be a meaningful area of study for a doctoral dissertation in Sociology. Perhaps one of the correlates could be the nature of the wares that they sell. The sellers of perishable goods, fruit and vegetables, are propelled by an urgency and deal with their customers accordingly. The booksellers on the other hand sit there reading and would attend to you when addressed directly. One may stand there browsing for as long as one wishes without eliciting any visible reaction from them

There are usually four bookstalls, two are mostly old books and the others carry an amalgam of the new and the old. Occasionally, one can find small assortments of books with other bric-a-brac on other stalls as well.

I am not a regular collector of the first or early editions but have bought a few in the past after reading an article on the subject.

On one of the stalls I saw a copy of The Poetical Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson. It was not a collectors' edition since the first edition was published in 1884 and this one, issued in December 1893 was the eighteenth reprint. But we had a collection of poems, the Victorian Narrative Verse, in our undergraduate years and one of the poems that I have never forgotten is Morte d'Arthur because of the following lines and so I bought it. In spite of its age it is a beautiful book reminiscent of a time when books were the prerogative of a privileged few. Paperbacks were unknown and the authors did not have to rely on marketing departments to get famous.

These lines are part of a dialogue between Sir Bedivere and King Arthur after the knight has flung the Excalibur far into the middle mere and has helped fatally wounded Arthur to the barge.

Then loudly cried bold Sir Bedivere
"Ah! my Lord Arthur, w
hither shall I
Where shall I hide my forehead and my
And slowly answer
ed Arthur from the

The old order changeth, yielding place
to new,
And God fulfils Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the

I have often thought about the last line as to when a good custom turns into an instrument of corruption.
he proposition in this context is not general for the poet has not used a but one because he has a specific custom in mind. It is the dissolution of the Round Table and the end of Camelot. Had they continued they would have exercised a corrupting influence on the community at large and would have constrained the development of society making it debased and corrupt.
But on a global level the question remains, is it possible for a good custom to corrupt the world? Or should we look at it as poetic imagination?

There is a newspaper cutting pasted on the inner back cover of this boo
k where one W. S. Lily in the Fortnightly Review thus interprets these lines. In his citation the words 'yielding place to new' appear as 'giving place to the new'.

His poetry is a perpetual "Sursum Corda" -ever elevating our thoughts to what is noble and pure, and the Eternal Source of all nobleness and purity. He has told us in lines unsurpassed, as Taine thought, by any writer since Goethe for calm and majesty, how "the old order changeth, giving place to the new." Yes, the old order changeth. We live amid a "dust of system and creeds." Much has gone during the last hundred years that men once thought durable as the world itself.

In his commentary Lily has not even touched upon the core assertion "Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.' He has continued in the same vein propelled by the force of his own wor
ds but enough of these philosophical musings. If a visitor to this blog has something pertinent to say on the subject perhaps they would illuminate us by sharing their thoughts through a comment.

There is another Tennyson poem from my undergraduate years which has been lurking in the shadows of my mind - The Beggar Maid.

Her arms across her breast she laid;
She was more fair than words can say;

Bare-footed came the beggar maid
Before the king Cophetua

I am not at all sure why I remembered this poem for no pictures we
re published with the poem in our course book but there it was so I looked it up on the internet and found two great paintings, one by Sir Edward Burne-Jones and the other by Edward Blair Leighton. The Leighton painting is fresh bright and colourful and it is extremely beautiful in all its detail but the one by Burne-Jones in primary colours with a dusky sheen has an oneiric quality about it and the beggar maid in her meagre clothing, a pleasing countenance and expressive eyes is a more endearing portrayal of the Tennyson lyrics.

As shines the moon in clouded skies,
She in her po
or attire was seen:
One praised
her ancles, one her eyes,
One her dark
hair and lovesome mien.

On the oth
er stall I saw the same collection in The Globe Edition. Originally published in 1889, this reprint was dated 1908 and the book with an age of over one hundred years was in excellent condition and was definitely a bargain for the price. Moreover it had an index which is missing in the 1893 reprint. Incidentally, if you wish to preserve a book you also buy a cheaper edition, say, a paperback for reading. But one thing that made up my mind was a sticker on the inside cover. It is a copy awarded to a pupil as a prize for gymnastics. The inscription by the headmistress is a fine example of penmanship and the ink used has only slightly dimmed after the passage of so many years. The school is no more possibly merged with some other institution in later years. I wondered whether the prize was presented in a school assembly or it was a more open affair when parents and perhaps grandparents and other relatives were also invited where they were sitting basking in the glory of their offspring's public recognition and no doubt the experience would have been a topic of conversation in the larger family and the neighbourhood for quite a while.

While browsing through the books at the stall I spotted a paperback edition of The Penguin Complete Father Brown (1981) by G. K. Chesterton. Since I was thinking of including The Invisible Man in my blog I offered to buy it and that is a bookseller for you, he halved the marked price without me asking only because a while earlier I had bought a collectors' edition of a Kipling from him.

The Invisible Man is one of the stories from The Innocence of Father Brown.

It is a detective story with a difference. The detective is a priest and his companion a
reformed criminal. The priest-detective carries no baggage - he does not preach religion, cannot be regarded as glamorous nor does he have a quirk or idiosyncrasy of behaviour to make him remarkable. Nor does he have a physical characteristic to distinguish him from his fellow humans. The person committing the crime is not invisible in science fictional terms. He is seen by four pairs of eyes yet still remains invisible. It is where lateral thinking comes into play and makes this story memorable.

The story can be read at a number of sites. Here is one of them.

Note: The above Leighton painting is picture of a reproduction made by, copied above subject to permission. The Burne-Jones painting I have taken from where the full text of The Beggar Maid can also be read.
There are other paintings as well depicting the beggar maid and and king
Cophetua but these two appear to be far better known.