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Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
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Thursday, 10 July 2014

Re-introducing Blessed Jane

Recently I’ve been off Jane Austen. Not her fault. She simply became inescapable on telly which is how most newer fans identify her. Far too many versions of P&P although the P&P sequel, Death Comes To Pemberley, was a moderately entertaining TV Christmas special.

An interactive Austen session at Hay put me back on track and I'm presently re-reading Mansfield Park. For those who only know P&P, MP will come as quite a shock; for one thing the heroines are polar opposites. Feistily forward Elizabeth Bennett has little in common with MP's timid, self-effacing Fannie Price.

Only a year separates the novels yet MP includes much more real-time narrative. Given a good idea (the multi-motivated visit to Sotherton, the unsanctioned amateur dramatics) Jane lets the dialogue - and the action - run, page after page. Thus there's less need for those visible contrivances whereby A is transported to B, or C "accidentally" meets D.

And then there's Mrs Norris, a Gorgon who is almost too realistic. Am I glad I was born into the twentieth century!

No more shilly-shallying with dubious doggerel. For me this is good:

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made,
And crumbling roads
That turned on sudden hidden villages.

Now over these small hills they have built the concrete
That trails black wire;
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude, giant girls that have no secret

Reasons why. I love the compression and the palindromic echo of the first two lines. The choice of “turned on” in line four. The simile in line eight and the way “secret” is picked up again and somehow reversed. OK, it’s just descriptive, there’s no philosophy. But that’ll do, Pig.

Stephen Spender


  1. I just ask myself why he says 'no secret' instead of 'different secret' or any synonym for different.

  2. First stanza: "secret was", second stanza: "no secret". I imagine CR will approve of this complaint about a corrupted landscape. The first stanza is much more appealing rhythmically...beautiful in fact. The second not quite so lovely. Possibly not a coincidence.

  3. I like the contrasting imagery and mood of the stanzas. They create warring images that tell more than the words. Lots of contrasting words buzzing around my brain, but two keep coming back 'round and 'round: charming and vulgar.

    I like Mike's description, too: corrupted landscape.

  4. Ellena: I think the point Spender is trying to make is that the pylons - modern, man-made and functional - offer nothing of interest ("no secret") whereas the hills have accumulated centuries of untold history.

    MikeM: A good point. In choosing this extract I was in two minds as to whether to go for just the first stanza or the first two. Including the second helped explain Spender's reasons for writing the poem even though the second stanza is far less satisfactory poetically than the first. I agree with your final speculation. Given Spender was completely in control in the first stanza I think we can agree that the subsequent "flatness" was intentional.

    Crow: Like most poets Spender is for "nature" and against intrusive artefacts. A later stanza talks about the future:

    This dwarfs our emerald country by its trek
    So tall with prophecy
    Dreaming of cities
    Where often clouds shall lean their swan-like neck.

    I'd have preferred something other than "swan-like".

  5. Fannie Price? FANNIE PRICE?? Names were really something once weren't they. Look at Titty in Swallows and Amazons ... so much more fun!

  6. Blonde Two: The years roll by and the word fannie gets a new meaning which means it is lost forever to modern novels. Mind you, even back then it never seemed like a name a star-struck male lover would savour and repeat to himself in private. There is after all a direct link with fan, the thing you agitate to keep yourself cool. Nothing seductive there.