It seems odd that Colin Burrow should find Odysseus’ weeping shockingly limp-upper-lipped (LRB, 27 June) when, presumably as a consequence of the stresses and exigencies of the heroic life, communal bingeing on grief, preferably ministered to by women, seems after slaughter and pillage to have been the Homeric warrior’s most characteristic activity. (In the instance Burrow cites, it is what prompts Odysseus’ host to suspect that he may be something more than a mere inglorious passing traveller.) In the Odyssey’s first notable instance of weeping, when Helen spots the young Telemachus’ resemblance to Odysseus, her husband, Menelaus, blubs for his lost friend, Telemachus for his lost father and the young Peisistratus for his lost older brother, killed at Troy by Memnon, son of the shining dawn. Meanwhile Helen, who started it all, mixes an all-day anti-depressant into their drinks so that after their gorging on grief, dinner won’t be a total wash-out. In perhaps the most memorable instance, when Odysseus tells Circe he and his men are off home to their wives and she warns him that they must first make a detour via the Underworld, he weeps and rolls around all over her bed while she waits patiently to give him sailing directions. The following day, when he gives his crew the news, they all weep so hard that no one sees Circe completing their packing for them, stowing the sacrificial animals aboard their black ship. In the instance Burrow mentions, by the way, both he and Chapman seem to miss the most obvious element of pathos in the woman’s weeping on her fallen husband’s body, which is that in the intensity of her grief she does not even notice the soldiers beating her off him with spear staves so that they can carry her off into slavery.
James Wood believes (mistakenly, I think) that Derwent May’s Critical Times: The History of the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ is a ‘melancholy record of lost opportunities’ (LRB, 27 June). He goes on to cite The Rainbow, which the TLS failed to notice, perhaps because of the controversy surrounding its publication and prosecution. This might give the impression that the journal failed to recognise Lawrence’s genius. In fact, according to May, ‘of all the major writers of the war years and afterwards, it must be said that Lawrence was best served by the Lit Supp.’ May’s researches show that A.C. McDowall, one of the founding reviewers of the journal, ‘understood what was best in Lawrence’, and he was perhaps instrumental in Lawrence’s receiving TLS reviews (generally favourable) of most of his work. The TLS was also among the first few to notice Lawrence’s talents as a poet and playwright.
Institute of English Studies, London WC1
The ideas about nationalism in Edwin Morgan’s poem ‘Louis Kossuth’ (LRB, 6 June) have left me uneasy. I looked Kossuth up in Misha Glenny’s The Balkans. After the Revolutions of 1848, the Government of which he was a member tried to obtain some independence from Austrian domination. However, he was unhappy about extending to other ethnic groups the political and cultural freedoms he wanted for ethnic Hungarians. ‘In March of that year,’ Glenny writes, ‘the Serbs presented a petition to the Hungarian Government, demanding the restoration of autonomy for the Orthodox Church and the recognition of Serbian as a state language. In exchange, the Serbs said they would back the Hungarian struggle against Vienna. Kossuth dismissed their demands with a brusque warning that “only the sword would decide this matter.”’
Macfarlan, the man who, in Morgan’s poem, meets Kossuth in Glasgow and argues for the importance of social conditions above nationalism, doesn’t cut the most positive of figures. He is described as ‘a skelf of a man’: ‘skelf’ means a ‘splinter’. This is hardly flattering alongside Kossuth’s sons (‘good-looking’ representatives of Hungarian ethnic purity). Kossuth in the last stanza does not seem perturbed by his memory of Macfarlan. The final line, as Kossuth gets up to close the shutter, has the heroic feel to it of soldiers rushing to close the castle gates against an invader. If these impressions that I get from the poem are Morgan finding in Kossuth a kindred nationalist spirit, then that is very sad. Macfarlans are in short supply these days.
As David Blackbourn says, Russian outrages in Germany in 1945 were a taboo subject in the GDR (LRB, 27 June). I recall a broadcast of an East German production of Lohengrin on Radio 3, I think in the early 1980s. I followed it with a libretto (the 1952 Reclam edition) and noticed that it was uncut except for two lines in Lohengrin’s farewell in Act 3, Scene 3: ‘Nach Deutschland sollen noch in fernsten Tagen/des Ostens Horden siegreich nimmer ziehn!’ (‘Even in the most distant future, the hordes of the east will never advance victorious into Germany’). Evidently this was thought likely to provoke the wrong reaction; but did West German opera houses cut these lines too?
The word ‘pochle’, used by Tom Paulin in The Invasion Handbook, is used on Clydeside as a verb to indicate that something has been achieved by dishonest means, as in ‘you pochled those figures’ (Letters, 27 June). People who used such means were even referred to as ‘pochlers’. Given the strong relationship between the Clydeside and Northern Ireland, I don’t doubt that the word is in common use in both places (see the Glasgow Patter website).
Incidentally, there is no entity called the State University of North Carolina but there is a North Carolina State University at Raleigh as well as North Carolina University up the road at Chapel Hill. They are referred to there as ‘NC State’ and ‘NCU’. Their alumni have been known to say unkind things about each other. When I lived in North Carolina the levels of academic achievement among some students on sports scholarships at NC State had become scandalously low and faculties were asked to come up with suitable courses for them. ‘Rocks for Jocks’ was the Geology Department’s suggestion.
Adventures of a Messiah
Richard Popkin writes of Sabbatai Sevi donning a fez (LRB, 23 May), but the fez was only widely known as Ottoman headgear from the 1820s, when Sultan Mahmud II made it a part of the uniform of the reorganised Ottoman Army. Gershom Scholem speaks only of turbans.
I am far from being an apologist for Middlesbrough, which on its day is as grim as any place in England, but I wonder if I am alone in detecting a little metropolitan snobbishness – and laziness – in Iain Sinclair’s casual invocation of the town in relation to Stephen Byers’s resignation (LRB, 27 June). Even if one took the view that ‘a train ride back to his constituents in the North-East’ was some sort of ‘ultimate humiliation’ – why? – I don’t see what that would have to do with Middlesbrough, a place some forty miles away from Wallsend. One may as well assume Picketts Lock is the same as Camden Lock, or conflate Lea Valley Regional Park and Richmond Park. But, this being London, Sinclair seeks to distinguish every aspect of Lea Valley and celebrate its individual characteristics: the same courtesy is not extended to the provinces, which can all be lumped together as we wish. And if we’re going to disrespect the place, we might as well have the decency to spell it right. Whatever else the town may be, it isn’t ‘Middlesborough’.
All Mouth and …
No claims that it is the ‘original’ or ‘proper’ version, but for its succinctness ‘Red hat, no drawers’ is my favourite.