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Friday
Nov122010

In Which We Can Talk To Each Other Like This Forever

I Wish You Were Here In The Sunshine

The letters of the poets Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams begin as those of an admirer to an icon, and end as a dance of equals. Levertov was a young, married poet developing her powers while the legendary Williams had just suffered his first stroke when Levertov wrote to him for the first time. Other figures swirl and move through this artistic relationship, and despite a massive age difference (40 years), some element of romance remains. As his body failed him Williams' mind raced to keep up with its active heights, when the physician-poet made new forms using his iron-clad grasp of the language. The female poet that considered his advice sage above all others was struggling to realize her life would not follow so easily from mastery of her art. The mystery then, is of what is occuring at the edges of their letters, where two people seem to suffer together without explaining or having to explain the cause to themselves. - A.C.

This is the first letter Denise ever wrote to Bill:

Dear William Carlos Williams,

I stopped myself from writing to you for a long time because of a self-conscious idea that it might seem my motive was to draw attention to myself, collect your autograph, or something like that. But I've decided this is silly. If a man is a force in one's life, as you are in mine & my husband's, if his work has given not only great pleasure & excitement but is felt to enter the fabric of one's thinking and feeling & one's way of trying to work, he certainly ought to know it. So, thank you.

I got the address from Bob Creeley.

yours sincerely,

Denise Levertov Goodman

October 1951

My dear Denise Goodman,

A man should be able to react "big" to his admirers, it's due them, they do not throw their praise around carelessly. And so I always feel mean when I look into the back of my own head and see what a small figure I make to myself. I am not what they think. I am not the man I should be for THEIR sakes, they deserve something more. It is in fact the duty of the artist to assume greatness. I cannot. What a fool.

I can't believe even what I know be the truth of my own worth. When an individual says he or she "lives" by what I exhibit I get a sudden fright. But at the same time if I myself live by certain deeds why should not others do the same? But we are so weak, what we do seems the worst futility. I am willing to go down to nothing but I don't want to feel I'm dragging anyone down with me.

Here I sit in my little hole like a toad. Thank you for your letter.

Faithfully yours,

W.C. Williams

November 13th 1951

By 1953, Levertov was regularly sending Williams her poetry, including what appears to be a version of her classic poem, "A Story, A Play," which he goes on to quote at length in his response letter.

Dear Denise:

There is something wrong, but easily cured, with the beginning of your first poem. Omit the first line. That aside I am as much as ever impressed with you. There's something indescribably appealing to me in what you write and I think appealing to anyone who reads you with attention. I'd like to be able to indicate more clearly what it is but so far it has escaped collaring. That I suspect is exactly what you want. It is a problem that eludes me.

You need a book of your closely chosen work. I think, if you thought out and selected your choice very carefully, it would be one of the most worthwhile books of the generation. It would have to be a small book squeezed up to get the gists alone of what you have to say. Much would have to be omitted. You may not be old enough yet to know your own mind for it would have to be a thoughtful, adult book of deep feeling that would reveal you in what may not want to be revealed. I am curious to know what you are thinking — you never say. But you reveal more by your poems than can be easily deciphered and that is what draws a reader on. Perhaps you will never be able to say what you want to say. In that case you make me feel that the loss will be great.

levertov

A small closely chosen book is what I want to see packed with the power of your self-denials, your repressions — which would be revealed in the beauty of whatever it is a lover and a poet discovers in his heart. Things that cannot from the necessary reticenses of a sensitive person, cannot be expressed but in a poem. It is the tension within ourselves that drive us to confess what is wrung from us.

Sappho must have been a powerful wench to stand what would have torn a woman apart otherwise. The tensions she must have withstood without yielding have made her poems forever memorable. You can say it was her fine ear that did it but she would not have been as voluble as she appears to have been without the other. Hers must have been a sound constitution in the first place. She was probably worn thin with the intensity of her longings which she refused to have beaten.

The dread word has been spoken.

Cut and cut again whatever you write — while you leave by your art no trace of your cutting — and the final utterance will remain packed with what you have to say. The stream does not ripple or at best go wild save by the swiftness of its flow as well as by the obstruction it encounters. But in the end you must say whatever you have to say, without honesty completely outspoken you will not succeed in moving yourself or the world.

'And the Minotaur will devour.
it's life against death, and
                       death wins
and will uproot the rocks, too, for pastime.'

'Deformed life, rather:
the maskfaced buyers of bric-a-brac
are the detritus only - of a
ferocious energy -'

                      'A monster.
Greed, is it? Alive, yes - '

'Whose victims
multiply quicker than it eats
& stubbornly
            flourish in the shadow of it.
'

Whoever wrote that, for it is only quoted, knew what he was doing. It can stand alone, without explanation and no matter what the connotation, and it will constitute a poem.

Pardon this screed, something set me off as it does whenever I have a letter from you. Chuck it away when you have done reading it.

Regards to your husband. Love from Floss and myself.

Yours

Bill

August 23rd 1953

Denise wrote the following letter after a visit with Bill and his wife Florence Williams. Denise and her husband Mitch Goodman were in Guadalajara at the time. After WCW passed in 1963, Denise continued to write to his widow until Florence's death in 1976.

Dear Bill,

That was a wonderful afternoon I had with you. I've thought of it very often in the confused weeks since then — almost 2 months. Now I'm beginning to feel clearer in the head. I was in a daze at first; partly because of the new country - so different from any place in Europe. And partly because not very long before leaving N.Y.  I had fallen in love - with someone who loved me - & though I knew I was going away and would very likely never see him again, & that had to be so because of Mitch and Niki, it wasn't until I was in the plane, and thereafter, that I really did know it.

But I have a fearful resilience; and a good marriage; so here I am, alive & kicking. (More or less.) It's sunny all day every day, there's a wonderful luxuriance of delicate flowers with an iron will to grow out of the dusty cracked ground, & we have a brand-new house on the edge of town, where the prairie begins; & cowboys and cattle & donkeys & Indians, on foot or sometimes on bicycles, with huge loads on their heads, pass by all day. Guadalajara is rather Americanized - has glossy super-markets, etc., & is growing like mad — but it has old houses too, & beautiful jumbled-up markets full of strange smells and bright colours.

We have to pay much more rent than we expected - older houses we looked at didn't have a place for Nik to play, or were too small. But we like the house, and the lower cost of food, schooling etc will make it come out alright I think.

We heard that John Herrmann was living just outside of town in a place called Thaquepaque. I'd never been able to get hold of a copy of "What Happens" but remembering your praise in the autobiography we thought we'd go & pay our respects. We finally tracked down the house but he was out. We'll try again another day - though someone afterwards told us that he's in pretty bad shape, has been ill. We saw his little blond son, about 2 1/2 years old, or 3 maybe.

Nik has started at the American school here. It's not a good school, but we tried out a Mexican private school first & that was worse, & at least he feels a little less strange in this one, & likes his teacher. Most of the children are Mexican & so is the teacher but the tuition is in English (of sorts). In the afternoon he digs up the yard here with a friend he's made — they're making a system of canals (there's a convenient faucet on the garden wall, meant for a hose, which we don't yet have).

I don't speak much Spanish yet but have been reading some, with a dictionary.

I have a table by a window, and a view. In the foreground workmen are building a house - one of the workmen is about ten years old, & has trouble getting up a ladder with a bucket of cement on his head & the grown men tease him, & he answers back in a little treble voice — but he seems to have a pretty good time too. In the distance are mountains.

I wish you were here in the sunshine. I love you dearly. The most.

I reread the Fall of Tenochtitlan in Mexico City where we spent a few days before coming here. We brought all our copies of your books along, except A Voyage to Pagany which got put away by mistake. Aside from you, we have Stevens' collected poems, a good deal of D.H. Lawrence, the Viking 5 vol. poetry anthology, The Golden Bough, Don Quixote — & not much else. Oh, the Cantos & the "A.B.C. of Reading." And some books by Paul Goodman, pretty wild.

I'll put in a few poems. I feel as if I could work well here — started right in. Mitch has had to finish off a travel article so he hasn't got back to any real work yet but he mailed it yesterday &  thinks he'll be able to settle down to work now; he needs to get his breath and stop worrying about money.

I did write to Marianne Moore, but she couldn't see me — wasn't well. Do you remember, you wanted me to go?

With love from

Denise

March 12th 1956

in 1906 with a donkey

WCW wrote back with the following:

Dear Denise:

Maybe it's just as well that you have — saved yourself to go on writing verse though you may regret it. There's no way to know what that beast of love may not do to one. Without the drive to write, and write, and write against all that may occur to stop you nothing matters. Regret is as good a goad as anything else. If you had been overwhelmed by love nothing may have come of it but satiety - unless you had gone on from love to love. Writing always better and better, more pointedly, with your eyes wider and wider poen and words cleaner, more stripped of the inessential, cleared of every redundancy alone will give you any lasting satisfaction. It may be that women are different from nen in that, they have to strip themselves barer than men do, the history of Sappho seems to indicate it - nothing held back, absolutely nothing, complete incontinence, but the cost is exorbitant. Women can rarely do it, they are physically ruined.

Not that they should not be but the cost is more than they can endure. And nothing less than completely laying themselves bare is any good. They frequently do as Sappho did, is reported to have done, turn to love of individuals of their sex — though Sappho turned to a sailor at the end — presumably a young sailor. What could she do, men apparently proved impossible to her. They only wanted the one thing soon exhausted. But she was to be satisfied with only the greatest subtleties which existed only in herself. Only the putting down of the deeply felt poem in its infinite and resourceful variety could relieve her. No man could give her what she required. The poet that is not in essence a woman as well as a man can know the  divisions of the words can amount to anything.

But the physical satisfaction of indulging yourself or herself to the ultimate implies so many dangers that most women fail to indulge themselves enough. Better to be a writer with the imagination taking on the load.

Hope you met John Herrmann, sorry to hear he is not well. So he has a child. Good for him. I'm glad you like Guadalajara, they say it is a beautiful city. The poems are not as good as the ones you read to us the last time you were here — what can we expect. Keep writing.

Yours,

Bill

June 13th, 1956

Dear Denise,

"Compost" is a fine poem, thank you for calling it to my attention. From now on it occupies a niche in my consciousness. But that only reinforces the main drawback for me in all of Whitman's poems, even the greatest of them and I include "Compost", now that you have called it to my attention, among one of his most important shorter poems.

The mark of his times was on Whitman, he had rejected the older prosody but had nothing to take its place but a formlessness which has laid him open to attack on formal grounds. When you see what the young poets are writing today, Whitman might never have existed instead of founding a memorable school that should have gone influencing the writing of poems to this day.

Maybe it is best so, a great poet is strongly an individual and not to be copied but if he does not link up with the prosodic process in some way he seems to me to have lost his major opportunity.

The intellectual enlightenment that this poem signalizes is tremendous. That should be enough, you might say, to commend it to our admiration. The art of the poem must keep pace with the intellectual life of the times in which we live. A play which I saw last week which was on the verge of closing its doors because there were not enough people interested in seeing it was Waiting for Godot. Without qualification I find it the greatest play of a generation. It was an uproarious comedy with tragedy breaking through mostly in the acting, which was superb, but also in the idea itself. The comedy was laid on with a trowel. God it was beautifully done!

I could go on raving about that play for the rest of my life but I want to call your attention to a phenomenon of the moment in NY. That play all but failed but another play, referred to in an accompanying letter (which you can destroy), is all the vogue. You can imagine, from the title, why that is. This sort of snobbism will go on forever as long as women are desirable under their clothes. It has no relation to poetry or perhaps (we do not know) to the subtle poems of Sappho, that delightful bitch. Which brings me back to Whitman: The art of the poem requires order but in our day a new species of order, a new measure, consonant with our time. My complaint against Whitman is that he failed to realize this. He discovered nothing.

The poems you enclosed, you are right, are much better than the last time. One or two of them are up to your best work. But not the last, longest one, "Le Bateleur", which I can't see. Glad you are getting to know John Herrmann, I always liked him. Give him my love and tell him he has always occupied a special place and a distinguished place in my memory. I'd love to see him again. I hope he recovers his health completely for from all I hear he has been seriously ill.

Write again, the life you are living in Mexico sounds fascinating especially Oaxaca where you are heading. Take care of yourself. Saw some paintings of a young New Jersey painter who lives about 40 miles from us in country district about Lake Hopatcong that are quite marvellous today; thrilling work, actual records of life but not abstracted for a patterned to appeal to a geometric unity. Watch him, his name is Henry Niese. Love.

Bill

Dear Denise:

Your new lot of poems at their best show the ability with the words that I have come to look for from you, the same mastery of the rhythmic structure. At the same time it reinforces my knowledge that poetry is a most difficult art. It requires constant attention to detail and a conscience that lays in wait to trip us up at the smallest lapse from perfection. "The Lovers" is a beautiful piece of work. "Tomatlan", that attempts more, is also a good work which I very much like but it is not as sharply cut as I'd like to see.

One word too much in such short poems as this damages the whole effect. Without showing it all such short poems have to be cut to the quick. One redundant word overburdens the line intolerably.

The test of the artist is to be able to revise without showing a seam. In "The Lovers" you yourself state that the poem as I saw it had been revised. That proves that you have the right knowledge of what you're doing. It often is no more than a question of knowing what to cut. And in the process of cutting, part of the same gesture, the new word, the insight in your own meaning will suddenly flash across your mind.

Practice, practice, practice! must be the practice of the artist. You have to write (as you must know) practically in your sleep and leap out of bed day or night when the inevitable word comes to your mind: it may never come again. You know all this but it can bear repeating, I am talking as much to myself as I am to you.

All the best passages we have ever written come to us in the flash of an — sometimes we lose them (it must be admitted) by revision, but that is a chance that has to be taken.

I return your script to show you what I would do to it — and never forget that as between writers there are no secrets. All I have is yours as far as I can make it so. I don't expect that you will agree with me. Good luck.

Best,

Bill

"The Springtime" is also a well made poem.

W.

June 25th, 1956

Dear Bill,

Thank you very much for those 2 letters & for making that poem. I absolutely agree about the cuts — it's like someone trying to make a 'realistic' drawing & just not seeing they've got the nose too long, or whatever. Until someone points it out at last. Did you mean, I wonder, to send the 4th part of the poem or not? You didn't, anyway. Maybe you though it was OK?

I wish I could have seen Waiting for Godot. I'm going to read it, anyway, but that's something different. Also there's a book of 3 stories, by the same man, I've seen it here at a store which sells French books, which we're going to buy on the strength of what you say about Godot.

The last memorable theater I saw was The Dybukk in a little cellar-like theatre on E. 3rd St. somewhere; where the stage is in the middle, audience on 2 sides, & the actors were obliged to climb onstage, like boxers, from the ailes. It was another world, and given with complete intense conviction. And before that in 1948 in April, Jean-Louis Barrault's production of Kafka, not The Castle, the other one, dramatised by Gide I think, altho' I could understand only about 1/2 at most — because of the sense of there being no slack to take up, and of things happening simultaneously at different levels, as in a string quartet. (And indeed the set was built so that that was physically true.)

Other plays I've seen, including Shakespeare (because it's played with such embarrassment and consciousness of "playing Shakespeare") even when I've enjoyed them, have usually seemed no more than versions of conventional novels "acted out" — nothing specifically theatre about them. Some sense of what it could be I've gotten from Artaud (tho' sometimes he seems quite incoherent — or perhaps it's just that I can't keep up with him) and from that scene where the sailors dance on the moonlit deck in Moby Dick — and from "A Dream of Love" - but how I wish I could see it!

I showed John Herrmann your message and he was very pleased & said he must write to you. But it seems he finds it just about impossible to write letters. The little boy, Juanito, was 4 the day after Nik was 7, & we went to the party. And Juanito has been over here to play several times. They like each other in spite of the age difference.

Mitch's novel was just turned down by Random House after a nine week wait. Mitch has gone downtown to relieve his feelings. (We received the agent's letter this morning.) There isn't much one could do to relieve one's feelings in Guadalajara except to drink tequila and he's not much of a drunk, or go to the movies. So I guess he went to the movies.

Lee (Leland) Bell (that painter about whom I wrote to you & whose show you then went to see, a year or so ago,) and his wife also a good painter, received McDowell Fellowships and are there now. I'm very pleased because they really needed something like that.

I've been reading a book on Ecology which interested me very much - the place of the predators especially. And some Fabre, insects.

We are looking forward to Kora in Hell which Ferlinghetti tells me will be out in October.

Love to you & Floss

Denise

August 22nd, 1956

Dear Bill,

It certainly was good to hear from you. I hope you won't feel disappointed in Mitch's article when Floss reads it to you — the thing, it is strictly commercial, has to be, written to a market, and he would hate anybody, and you in particular, to think of it as an attempt at a piece of genuine writing. I wish he wd. show you some of his real stuff — the only legible copy though is with Ivan von Auw, the agent. It keeps coming back from publishers with notes saying, "great talent" etc. etc. "but not for us" — "however we'd be happy to see his subsequent work" etc.

At the moment he is away on a trip to Guatemala, Yucatan, and the W. Indies, also for Atlantic Monthly. The Guatemalan Tourist Commission gave him a car & driver & paid all bills for a week or 10 days & he went to remote mountain villages & saw Indians proud and beautifully dressed, as they are not here. He'll be home in a week or so — I'm looking forward to hearing about all the other places he's seen, of which Havana seems to have been the worst and Haiti the best, after Guatemala & Yucatan.

At that point the milk boiled over.

Enclosed are a few new poems. Ferlinghetti seems about ready to send off the poems he's chosen, from what I sent him, to the printers. Jonathan Williams is also doing a book for me, and Al Kresch will do a litho for it. Jonathan put me on his list & sent that out before I even knew what he was up to, & he's going out of business (he says) after he's through with his present titles — so now it's now or never — but I wish he could have waited till next year. I'm afraid of not having enough good poems for him; and I don't want to pad it.

I think the Ferlinghetti book will be good, tho', and I look forward to sending you the first copy he sends me.

Tomorrow I'll go downtown to look for The New Yorker. Good!

Did you ever read Stanislavsky's An Actor Prepares and My Life In Art? The former, a very exciting book in spite of its rather wooden prose, seems to me to have so much in it that's applicable to other arts besides acting; & the latter, which I'm just reading, is full of amusing very Russian anecdotes as well as showing an interpretive artist's development step by step. I also just read The Idiot for the first time.

Denise

Dear Bill

First — it's too late to wish you a happy birthday but I do wish you a happy year, with good health & lots of work. I didn't forget the 17th but couldn't make up my mind whether what I'd got to send was suitable or not — i.e. whether you'd be able to read it. In the end I decided to send it anyway (with love) in the hope that if you weren't able to read it to yourself you would be able to find someone Spanish-speaking to read it to you. I was afraid you'd have to pay duty on anything other than a book.

A few days ago I had a letter from a N.Y. painter, Nell Blaine, telling me about a sort of anthology she & some other people are getting up, of poems, & reproductions of contemporary paintings, and asking me to ask you if you would contribute. The painters included are mostly good — Lee Bell, whose show you went to see after I wrote about it, for one — Helion, Kerkam (a rather neglected older man), Albert Kresch, etc. But the poets, or at least those who are editing it, aren't much good I think; a little clique — John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara — rather slick. So I don't want to be the one to ask you. However I took the liberty of sending your address — I hope that's alright. She'd undoubtedly have gotten it from someone else anyway. Grove Press is going to publish it. I think the section of paintings will be very good.

We saw some short Lorca plays here a couple of weeks ago, very very well done by a young group, El Caballito. Also some early renaissance things something after the style of Everyman or The Shepherd's Play; & 3 modern French plays (in Spanish) — by Tardieu, Neveux & Ionesco. All were short, & done with wonderful crispness and freshness. They call their programs "Poesia en Voz Alta." Absolutely no ranting — (except in an arrangement by Octavio Paz of "Rappacini's Daughter," of Hawthorne, with dreadful scenary by Leonora Carrington — the one poor item). They are the poeple who, if it weren't for the language barrier, damn it, could do A Dream of Love.

All this makes it sound as if our Spanish were much better than it is.

We finally got hold of Waiting for Godot, & liked it very much. But it needs to be seen — it's so hard to pace one's reading properly — rushing through what on the stage would be long pauses full of meaning.

Mitch's agent is our Godot. Right now it's 14 weeks since the book came back from one publisher & was sent to another — & not a word.

Olson's second book of The Maximus Poems arrived yesterday. At a glance it looks to me much better than the first lot, which seemed to me to need cutting. I have very varying feelings about Olson. Sometimes he seems terrific & at others incredibly bad and self-deluded. Have you read this book?

With love to Floss & to you

Denise

Denise Levertov died in 1997. You can purchase the collected correspondence of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams, edited by Christopher MacGowan, here. You can find more photos of Williams here and listen to him reading here.

"Passengers" - Trap Tiger (mp3)

"Aside" - Trap Tiger (mp3)

"Aside II (The Wild Hunt)" - Trap Tiger (mp3)

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Thursday
Nov112010

In Which This Supreme Art Was A Sunset

The Glory of Venice

by WHITTAKER CHAMBERS

One day during the Renaissance — that cultural convulsion by which the modern world was born from the Middle Ages — the rulers of Venice met to debate an offer of murder. For a consideration the Archbishop of Trebizond had volunteered to poison Marsiglio da Carrara, the ruler of Padua. The minutes of the meeting survive. For the Republic of Venice, the first modern state and the most stable and efficient government in Europe between the fall of Rome and the rise of Britain, left the most massive and detailed secret files in history.

"Inasmuch," say the official minutes, "as the said archbishop offers to poison Marsiglio da Carrara by means of Francesco Pierlamberti of Lucca, and wishes to travel in person with the said Francesco that he may assure himself of the actual execution of the deed; but for this purpose he requires a poison, which he charges himself to have made by a capable poison master if the money be supplied him. Be it resolved that for making the poison, for necessary expenses, and for buying a horse for the said archbishop — for his own is dead — the sum of 50 ducats out of our treasury be given to the archbishop and his companion. Francesco Pierlamberti. Ayes 10; noes 5, doubtful 1."

Modern readers to whom the weapons of Renaissance politics are unfamiliar may be shocked to learn that for more than 500 years Venice employed an official poisoner; that at various times Venice attempted to poison the Holy Roman Emperor, the King of Hungary, two despots of Milan, the Sultan of Turkey, Charles VIII of France, Pope Pius IV and the Czar of Russia.

They may be further surprised to know that Venice invented bacterial warfare. In 1649 she sent a physician with a flask containing buboes to spread bubonic plague among the Turkish army in Crete. "Veneossissima ac resurgens vipera," a French ambassador once called her, "a very venomous and indestructible viper."

In part this passion for poison as an instrument of policy was a custom of the times (insanity from poisoning was so common that the Renaissance had a name for it — erberia). In part it was due to the republic's peculiar position — a cluster of sea islands at the head of the Adriatic, through the ages threatened by Franks, Lombards, the Papacy, Milan, Genoa (Venice's great naval rival), France, Spain, Hungary, the Byzantine empire and the furious lunges of the Ottoman Turks. In part it was a heritage of that gorgeous East for whose commerce and culture Venice, during the centuries of her greatness, was the golden gate to Europe.

For Venice was almost as much an Eastern as a Western city. The aura of Asia was over her as the fragrance of spice is said to envelop the Spice Islands, spreading far out to the sea. It gleamed in the brilliant tessellation of her piazzas and the Byzantine mosaics of her church walls. It glowed in gold, jewels and marble from that cathedral — St. Mark's, ornate like a Byzantine crown — in which the unmatable styles of Gothic and Byzantine meet, and as in a baffling marriage, blend.

Eastern violence and despotism were implicit in her government, a close oligarchy of patrician merchants run by the Council of Ten, whose motto was "Secretezza et Iterum Secretezza" ("Secrecy, and Then More Secrecy"). The council's life-and-death decisions were usually without appeal and beyond review. Its nocturnal police were the sinister Signori di Notte (Lords of the Night). Its agents, the dread Sbirri, commonly made arrests by muffling their victims' heads in their cloaks before whisking them into prison. The Orient was incarnate, too, in the doges, the dukes of the Venetian Republic, whose dignity was imperial but who more and more tended to be resplendent figureheads and presiding ornaments of the state's sumptuous pageantry.

In the 15th and 16th Centuries the long latent esthetic genius of Venice ignited from the Italian Renaissance an Oriental sunburst of color and an Oriental voluptuousness, fleshly and fluent. These combined with a vigor born of seafaring and a sense of space and tumultuous motion born of wind and waves. This whirled Venetian painting to heights rarely attained in the history of art.

The sumptuousness of the forms which was so much a part of the glory of Venice had flowered from 12 mud banks. Venice was born in the agonies of Rome's death. (It died, 14 centuries later, the oldest state on earth, in the birth pangs of modern Europe at the hands of the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte.) Her founders were displaced persons, Roman fugitives from the Huns. About 450 they fled, in the shipwreck of their world, to the marshy Venetian islands and joined the handful of original settlers, simple fisherman, saltmakers and perhaps a few patricians who hoped to ride out the collapse of civilization near what, in quieter times, had been their seaside villas.

On clear days the refugees could see across the Lagoon the source from which the land of their refuge had come — the blue line of the Alps. The 12 mud banks have been washed down through the ages from these mountains by the rivers of north Italy's fertile plain.

The key to Venice's greatness was her destitution. Everything had to be brought to the islands - vegetables, fruit, grain, cloth, wood (and later stone) for building. While the rest of Europe shattered into a thousand quarreling feudal castles, concerned chiefly with fighting and farming, Venice looked seaward and lived by the only means she had — trade.

Unlike the mass of medieval men, the Venetians were never tied to the soil. Venice knew no serfs. She scarcely knew the Middle Ages, remaining throughout those battlemented times Europe's one great city which never built a wall. So her people, despite the paternalistic despotism of their government, felt the freedom of seafarers who can never be regimented because they are always on the move. They kept for 1,000 years the independence of mind of those who daily mix with men of other nations and creeds. They kept, in form at least, the government of a republic. Other Italian city-states came under the power of individual despots and fell, after the Renaissance, in the rising surge of European nationalism. But Venice kept the flexibility of a government in which many of the people retained the right, if not the real power, to govern themselves.

At first the Venetians traded with the mainland in light, shallow boats which, with the addition of the slender beak and stern post, graceful as the curve of lifting waves, would one day become gondolas. But the open sea was the buoyant highway. Beyond its tossing horizon lay the rich bazaars of Antioch and Alexandria and the golden domes of Constantinople, opulent capital of the Byzantine Empire, of which Venice at first was a nominal dependency.

In time her galleys, powered by wind or banks of rowing slaves and grouped in convoys for protection, drove down the Dalmatian coast, into the mouth of the Nile, through the Bosphorus and her merchants planted a trading post in the Crimea.

She has been called "a joint stock company for the exploitation of the East." For 500 years Venice lived for little else. Trade was the pulse of policy and trade tempered for Venice the crusading enthusiasms of medieval Europe. Moslems and Christians alike were her customers. Trade made Venice prefer peace to war, which was itself but a reflex of trade and which she waged fiercely when she had to. Trade defined her foreign policy, which consisted in supporting her weakest neighbor until he became strong enough to threaten her, at which she abandoned him.

Discovery was a thrust of trade, which drove her merchants to some of the most famous explorations in history. It drove the three most famous of the merchants — Marco Polo and his father and uncle — to open up to the incredulous Middle Ages the wonders of Kublai Khan's China, India and unheard of Cipango (Japan). When, in the age of discovery, Columbus stumbled upon a new world, his portentous miscalculation was largely based on the dog-eared copy of Marco Polo's travels, which he kept always by him.

Her empire came to Venice not like Britain's in what has been called "moments of absentmindedness" but as a calculated commercial risk. She acquired Istria for wood for her ships. She acquired Dalmatia to control the coastal pirates. She acquired Aegean islands, the Morea and Crete in the shipwreck of Byzantium, which she helped the crusaders to conquer in order to reinforce her monopoly of Eastern trade. To secure her food supply she eventually acquired possessions on the Italian mainland, extending from Lake Como on the west to the mouth of the Po on the south.

All these territorial treasures, widely separated by the sea, were threaded together by her shuttling ships, which she standardized (for Venice knew about standardization before Henry Ford) so that her trading galleys were quickly convertible to ships of war. Her galleys were built in the Arsenal, which was the dynamo of Venetian sea power.

Dante, seeing in a vision the lake of burning pitch in Hell, could think of only one comparison:

Quale nell Arzana de' Veneziani

Bolle l'inverno la tenace pece...

As in the Arsenal at Venice,

in winter they boil the sticky pitch...

During the Renaissance, in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Arsenal was the world's biggest industrial plant, manufacturing everything from nails to cannons, turning out complete ships on its assembly line. "As one enters the gate," wrote a Spanish visitor in 1436, "there is a great street on either hand with the sea in the middle, and on one side are windows opening out of the houses of the Arsenal, and the same on the other side. And out came a galley towed by a boat, and from the windows they handed out to them, from one the cordage, from another the bread, from another the arms, and from another the ballistas and mortars, and so from all sides everything that was required. And when the galley had reached the end of the street, all the men required were on board, together with the complement of oars, and she was fully equipped from end to end. in this manner there came out 10 galleys fully armed, between the hours of 3 and 9."

In 1570, during the war with the Turks, the Arsenal turned out 100 fully outfitted galleys in 100 days. Four years later, when King Henry III of France dropped in, he was shown a galley with only the keel and ribs in position. Then he sat down to a two-hour feast. When he got up the galley, now completely constructed, equipped, armed and manned, was launched in his presence.

If this dynamo hummed with the shipbuilding that floated Venetian power, the city hummed with the life that depended on the ships. The Rialto, the main bridge over the Grand Canal, was the hub of commercial Venice. The surrounding wharves, streets and piazzas teemed with the most cosmopolitan population in the world — Turks, Byzantine Greeks, Cretans, French, Spanish, English, Russians, Germans, even a delegation of Japanese. The docks were piled high with Venetian export goods — salt and salt fish, wooden utensils, wrought iron, damask and cloth of gold for which the city was famous, woolen goods, gold and silver filigree work and the wonderful Venetian glass from the little island of Murano, the most beautiful glass that Europe has ever produced.

Carpaccio's Healing of a Madman, 1494

The galleys, moored in the heart of the city, unloaded the spoils of Europe, Asia and Africa — silks, satins, cotton goods, furs, spices and sandalwood from as far away as Timor, and marble looted from the temples of Greece or Syria for the churches of Venice.

This tide of wealth rose on the docks of Renaissance Venice and flooded the lives of Venetians with an unparalleled prosperity. It was visible in the characteristic Venetian manner — the air of authority, luxury and indolent well-being in the city's gorgeous trappings and, above all, in the magnificent panoply of the official festivities.

One of these festivities occurred whenever a new doge was installed. on that occasion the craft guilds, each in a different costume, marched past the doge, two by two, in ostentatious parade. The furriers were dressed in ermine. The clothes of the 10 master sailors were decorated with vermilion stars. The master weavers of gold cloth were dressed in cloth of gold and garlands of pearls, and the master glassmakers in fur-trimmed scarlet. The goldsmiths wore garlands and necklaces of gold and silver, pearls, sapphires, emeralds, diamonds, topazes, jacinths, rubies. The clothmakers carried trumpets, cups of silver and jars of wine, and the comb and lantern makers carried lanterns filled with live birds.

But the most impressive festival of the Venetian year was the wedding of Venice and the sea, La Sposalizio, held on Ascension Day — originally to commemorate the victory of Doge Pietro Orseolo II over the Dalmatians in the year 1000. The doge would appear on his official barge, the Bucentaur, rowed by young merchant princes. Thousands of gondolas and other craft would follow in his wake to the Lido, the sandy spit at the edge of the Venetian Lagoon.

The Bishop of Castello rowed out to meet the doge and offered him peeled chestnuts, red wine and a bunch of red roses in a silver vase. After prayers the bishop blessed a gold ring. The doge then rose from his seat, threw the ring into the Adriatic and cried, "Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique dominii Serenissimae Republicae Venetae" (We wed thee, Sea, in sign of the true and perpetual domination of the Most Serene Venetian Republic). After Mass the doge held a great reception and official feast. The Piazza San Marco became the scene of a great fair, where the reveling went on uninterruptedly for eight days.

From all over Europe men came to see the city whose merchants in power and luxury were the peers of Europe's monarchs. Dante, on the long inferno of his exile from Florence, wandered beside her canals. Petrarch, humanist, sonneteer, sometimes called "the first modern man," visited Venice and in grateful memory bequeathed her his incomparable collection of ancient manuscripts and books, for which Venice built the world's first public library.

Benevenuto Cellini, swinging between murder and masterpieces of silverwork, was her guest. Pietro Aretino, "the scourge of kings" and prototype of today's columnist, penned from Venice the wittily scandalous personal attacks for which the great men of the Renaissance paid him to desist. In Venice he was safe from the daggers of outraged victims and the rack of the Inquisition, since Venice never permitted the Church a free hand on her soil. Manuel Chrysoloras and the other Eastern scholars who taught Italy to read Homer in the original entered the West through the water gate of Venice.

Few of them lingered long, for Venice was not, like Florence, a conflagration of the mind. But they brought to the splendid, worldly, commercial city of the sea the turmoil of the mind which we call the Renaissance. For like nearly everything else, the Renaissance too was imported into Venice.

Every great civilization is no more than the effort of the men who briefly compose it to arrest and perpetuate in art, in literature, in politics, in religion, their vision of the meaning of life. To medieval man the meaning of life had been salvation. He looked about him, and the logic of his judgment seemed to him irrefutable: the world being what it was, happiness here was difficult and transitory. not all but much of the energies of his mind were directed to achieving life beyond this world.

Renaissance man also looked about him and his cry of exultation was epitomized by the greatest of Renaissance poets, Shakespeare, in lines that might have been uttered at the Creation: "...This goodly frame, the earth...this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire! What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like angel! In apprehension how like a god!..."

This revolutionary shift in viewpoint came slowly. There are roots of the Renaissance in the Middle Ages. Medieval traces lingered into the Renaissance. But by the 14th century the Middle Ages had grown tired. They were exhausted by their prodigious effort to create a new civilization from the debris left by fallen Rome, exhausted by the effort of the medieval mind to capture God in abstract definitions, exhausted by their piety. Men did not forsake the Church, but they sought a new authority for their yearnings and thought that they had found it in the half-effaced or forgotten literary, architectural and sculptural remains of Greece and Rome. In their longing they prospected as eagerly for these classical treasures as men now prospect for oil.

The Italian earth was full of buried statues. The monasteries were filled with buried works of classical greatness — Plato, Homer, Lucretius, Horace, Cicero, Tacitus, Apuleius — evidences of a lost world of light, reason and luxury. The ancient seed stirred in the ancient Italian soil and, like the harvest of the dragon's teeth, there burst forth, at this contact with the Hellenic and Roman past, Renaissance man.

Violence and individualism were the mode of the Renaissance. Often invididualism took the form of a criminal passion for political power. Borgias, Medici, Carraras, Visconti and Sforzas quite literally waded through blood to make themselves masters of some city and its countryside, no bigger than an American county. But there was also violence in the consuming passion with which literary men and scholars threw themselves into the study of classical Latin and Greek or devoured the ancient authors, seeking to produce a new classical literature of Ciceronian elegance and a philosophy that would blend Christianity and Plato. There was violence in the effort of individual men to pack multiple careers into one lifetime. Lorenzo de' Medici was a statesman, financier, poet, musician, Hellenist, playboy. Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini was a scholar, a poet and a politician who finally became a pope. Leonardo da Vinci was a painter of the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, a military engineer, a scientist and aeronautical experimenter.

Renaissance man aspired to be "l'uomo universale" (the universal man). "Men," said Leon Alberti with the voice of modernity, "can do all things if they will." This optimism led to monstrous excesses and magnificent achievements. It also led to an unusual human equality. In the Renaissance world of uncommon men a talented peasant was rated the superior of a dull duke and was treated as such.

This violent enfranchisement of the mind and prowess of the individual man was the meaning of the Renaissance. As creative imagination, it found a supreme expression in painting. In this art the greatness of the Renaissance and the greatness of Venice flowed together.

The imagination of Venice was practical and fully occupied by the arts of governing men, seafaring and sumptuous living. To the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance she added little. But there is a genius of place, and Venice was caught by a visual music of the sea and air. The water sucked at the mooring posts, lapping the stone stairs of the docks. Over the city, air quivered like liquid glass and blazes with lights reverberated by the sea or softened into mist which deposited salt crystals on the tinted facades of the palazzi. Sometimes the sky was tumultuous with such storms as ships sustain on the open sea. Always, in immense contrasting silence, the clouds sailed, like fleets, out to the Adriatic.

This color saturated Venice from the sky and water. And while the city went about her daily, worldly tasks of buying and selling, it entered, like the beauty born of murmuring sound, into her stony face as each palazzo, bridge and ship rode above its shadow in the still canals. This dreamy presence beside the water shimmered into incomparable life in the art of seven great painters: Gentil and Giovanni Bellini, Carpaccio, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese.

There is an art of irreducible simplicities: tragic, as man reviews his fate in the light of the qualities of nobility, justice and compassion that are his claim to greatness; ironic, as with courage, the quality that makes it possible for him to persist at all, he reviews the absurdity of his dilemma. This is the art of Giotto and Michelangelo. But there is another art — an art of the grace of opulence, of the fully ripened character of the full-blown flesh, of the fruit sun-seasoned to bursting, of life without the implications of fate. Of this art, adult and autumnal, the Venetians were the masters.

This supreme art was a sunset. By the 17th century the conquest of Byzantium by the Turks had shut off Venetian trade with the East. With the opening of the new sea route to Asia and the New World, Venice lived more and more on small change and past greatness. She did not go down at once. Anchored on her islands, she swung with the currents of history in which she no longer played a decisive role. For two more centuries she listed, settling as a doomed ship settles until, when Napoleon arrived and Wordsworth wrote his obituary sonnet, she sank.

"Men are we," Wordsworth wrote, that is to say, the only living creatures which conserve in memory the cultures that have made us what we are. The shade of Venice's greatness has merged with history's deeper shadows. The panoply, the lavish life, the teeming trade, lie with her galleys fathoms deep in time. But the memory of the Sea-born City haunts us still, like the luminous streak left by an oar at night or Dante's tremolo del mar — the tremulous play of light and waves at sea.

Whittaker Chambers died in 1961.

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Wednesday
Nov102010

In Which We Find The Ideal Mad Men Replacement

Maids, Gays, and the Assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo

by ELEANOR MORROW

Downton Abbey

creator Julian Fellowes

It was long overdue for Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes to be given the tools to a castle of his own. His place is Downton Abbey in 1912, where he reimagines the world of Jane Austen a century later as a far more realistic and wonderful place than those who wrote during the time of its existence could possibly understand.

The result is the complicated partitions of Downton Abbey, an hour-long serial that has more characters than any show ever done in prime time. Even a decade ago it would have taken an act of God to bring the soapy pleasures to our TV screens. Happily, the series that just completed its first season on England's ITV is already out on DVD, and plans are in the works for it to eventually come to NBC as a miniseries. (You can also download the second episode here.)

Much as Avatar ruined the budding romance between James Cameron and Sigourney Weaver, so too did the actual sinking of the Titanic shake things up at this ancient estate. Gifted with three lovely daughters, Robert Crawley (the magnetic Hugh Bonneville) sees the first two male heirs of his family perish in that maudlin disaster, and his distant relation, civil lawyer Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), becomes the inheritor of a massive fortune he never asked for.

John CrawleyThis lighthearted premise has adorned novels since Ms. Austen was in diapers, but the way it plays out is unlike any in British fiction. The real source of Downton's immense wealth is the Earl's monied American wife Cora (Elisabeth McGovern). Since the purpose of the Earl's marriage in the first place was to solidify the financial standing of the estate, it's now subject to English laws, which means that the Earl's first born daughter Mary (the weird-looking Michelle Crockery in star-making role) is shit out of luck when it comes to her future now that her fiance is holding hands with Kate Winslet in the deep.

Matthew and Mary CrawleyWhen we read novels that take place at the end of the English empire, we feel an affection for the customs of the period. The servants of Downton by and large don't share this optimistic view of the cosmos. The inclusion of the trials of the servant class was what make Gosford Park one of Robert Altman's most touching and vital films, and there are really no better protagonists than maidservants, butlers, and footmen.

As in Downton Abbey's literary opposite numbers, the real protagonist of the show is a heroine — Mary's maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt). Most of the experienced servants are given perilously complex portraits, and Anna is no different. Her love story with the estate's new arrival, former soldier turned manservant John Bates (Brendan Coyle) constitutes a breakthrough performance for both of them, and with record audiences, the show has already been renewed for a second eight episode season.

The show's second offering deals with how uncomfortable the country solicitor who will inherit Downton feels upon the ubiquitous presence of his manservant. Matthew Crawley is a spirited capitalist, and surely the idea of having a servant of one's own should feel strange to most of us. Downton Abbey's servants learn of this truth and others as they intuit the unfolding of events far better than their masters. But there Fellowes does an exciting dance, where he proves that the idea of the wise yet lowly individual's sagacity is purely an illusion of the masters themselves.

Mistakes were made. Downtown Abbey looks back at this period with something like the careful ministrations of Trey Parker's Captain Hindsight.

How silly the death of one duke and his wife seems a hundred years or so later, where we can see it for what it wasn't rather than what it was! Something the European Union took from us is the ability to imagine these places making war on another again, as if it were the first time we had observed it from across the Atlantic.

The show's first season ends with the onslaught of the War to End All Wars, the most significant event in history about which most Americans know almost nothing about. Men in the movies are always returning from war, so it is somewhat exciting and macabre to see a young man, in this case the wonderfully manipulative homosexual footman, go to one.

Americans dispense with their history when it is irrevelant to the present; the men and women of England have an empire to look back on and sigh appreciatively. What if we were watching the fall of the primacy of our civilization, dressed up in colorful attire and made fragnant by the mere passage of time? It is impossible for an American to truly understand these attitudes, because when she walks into a church she can be sure it is no more than four hundred or so years old.

Mary's aunt, called the Dowager Countess of Grantham, is played by the very familiar Maggie Smith. When she learns that her niece has been divested of the Downton fortune, she quickly springs into action to wed Mary to the new heir. Unlike the girl's overbearing Earl of a father, the Dowager Countess accomplishes her aims indirectly, and even while painting her as something of an antagonist to Matthew Crawley's equally headstrong mother, the show can't resist pointing out that she is the one in control. It is a mastery of the disappearing world.

Comparisons to Mad Men are inevitable and complimentary; but Julian Fellowes is no Matthew Weiner. (Almost everything has to be compared to Don Draper, or else how would we know what it is?) The 61-year old screenwriter penned romance novels in the 1970s under female pen names, and he desperately wants us to love the men and women in this milieu. In fact, the show is so redemptive that when one of the characters fails us, we might make excuses for them as we would with our own child.

In a way, of course, that is what is comforting about classics like Emma and Pride and Prejudice besides the gainful employment they offer to Colin Firth. The love affair between classically acted and styled hopefuls cannot really compare to a truer love between an audience and its wayward heroine, who is stranded on a dangerous road, lacking the proper footing for her horse. To talk your way out of such challenges represents the exact reason young people get in them in the first place.

To us, Downton Abbey is an even more foreign conglomeration than for the country that originated it. The dialogue is the best on television; the garish sets are unlike anything done outside of pay cable. In their arms we are transported: the dancing, the hunting, the endless meals might as well be taking place in sub-Saharan Africa, or on the moon. Here is a place where no secret remains for long, where we can go and escape into a life more sheltered than our own.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. She last wrote in these pages about the show Skins. She tumbls here.

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