GEORGE FREDERIC WATTS (February 23, 1817 – July 1, 1904)
The greatest painter of the Victorian Age.
It isn’t always obvious, but you can’t have a beginning without an end, an Edwardian age without a Victorian one, the birth of a Beaton without the death of a Watts. A new era without saying goodbye to the old one. The start of a war without the end of peace. How you measure these things, however, how you measure Time, the ends and the starts, is a matter itself of Time and Place.
Inspired by my friend David over tea on Sunday, I picked up Anne Carson‘s “Men in the Off Hours” last night at the BHPL and started in at the beginning with “Ordinary Time: Virginia Woolf and Thucydides on War” and it is so beautiful and so full I would do no service to you or anyone by trying to explain the connection here except to say there is one. It is easy to be mean about bad writing; about the kind that takes your breath away, however, a lot more difficult.
David and I were talking about cliché – how, like so many other things in this world, you know it when you see it, and in writing how it’s so much a matter of what you know, what you’re trying to do and have done already, and what you’ve read, whether you are young and inexperienced or old, or how as a writer it is a matter of how close you can get to the pain and as a reader how far you can get with certain books before abandoning them. “You can finish a book and throw it across the room,” my friend said, “but throwing it across the room after the first page is a bad sign.”
Gertrude Stein, writing in Wars I Have Seen, talks about the time when the language was young, when a poet could say O Sun O Moon O Stars and that was enough, it sufficed; the words themselves were magical. But then the language gets worn down and old and you say the same words and the magic isn’t there anymore.
Is it all about being young? “Reason and strength belong to the beginning,” Carson writes, and then quotes Thucydides who says, “For at the beginning men all take hold more sharply.” But they are talking about war, and the beginning of war. When a war starts is not the same, presumably, as a cliché. 100 years ago World War One began, with an archduke and his wife being assassinated, with a mad anarchist pulling the trigger and triggering the chain of commitments in the Entente Cordiale signed in 1904, and so you could say it all began with the signing of the Entente Cordiale, or with something else even older, the death of another age, or with the birth of a new generation of young men taking hold of ideas about war and glory and turning them into clichés, if they weren’t already; oh Rupert Brooke, oh poppies In Flanders Fields. Or with something even older still. Oh Thucydides, oh death where is thy sting?