In Unconsciousness by Alice Dunbar Nelson

Alice Dunbar-NelsonThere was a big booming in my ears, great heavy iron bells that swung to-and-fro on either side, and sent out deafening reverberations that steeped the senses in a musical melody of sonorous sound; to-and-fro, backward and forward, yet ever receding in a gradually widening circle, monotonous, mournful, weird, suffusing the soul with an unutterable sadness, as images of wailing processions, of weeping, empty-armed women, and widowed maidens flashed through the mind, and settled on the soul with a crushing, o’er-pressing weight of sorrow.

Now I lay floating, arms outstretched, on an illimitable waste of calm tranquil waters. Far away as eye could reach, there was naught but the pale, white-flecked, green waters of this ocean of eternity, and above the tender blue sky arched down in perfect love of its mistress, the ocean. Sky and sea, sea and sky, blue, calm, infinite, perfect sea, heaving its womanly bosom to the passionate kisses of its ardent sun-lover. Away into infinity stretched this perfectibility of love; into eternity, I was drifting, alone, silent, yet burdened still with the remembrance of the sadness of the bells.

Far away, they tolled out the incessant dirge, grown resignedly sweet now; so intense in its infinite peace, that a calm of love, beyond all human understanding and above all earthly passions, sank deep into my soul, and so permeated my whole being with rest and peace, that my lips smiled and my eyes drooped in access of fulsome joy. Into the illimitable space of infinity we drifted, my soul and I, borne along only by the network of auburn hair that floated about me in the green waters.


But now, a rude grasp from somewhere is laid upon me, pressing upon my face. Instantly the air grows gloomy, gray, and the ocean rocks menacingly, while the great bells grow harsh and strident, as they hint of a dark fate. I clasp my hands appealingly to the heavens; I moan and struggle with the unknown grasp; then there is peace and the sweet content of the infinite Nirvana.

Then slowly, softly, the net of auburn hair begins to drag me down below the surface of the sea. Oh! the skies are so sweet, and now that the tender stars are looking upon us, how fair to stay and sway upon the breast of eternity! But the net is inexorable, and gently, slowly pulls me down. Now we sink straight, now we whirl in slow, eddying circles, spiral-like; while at each turn those bells ring out clanging now in wild crescendo, then whispering dread secrets of the ocean’s depths. Oh, ye mighty bells, tell me from your learned lore of the hopes of mankind! Tell me what fruit he beareth from his strivings and yearnings; know not ye? Why ring ye now so joyful, so hopeful; then toll your dismal prophecies of o’er-cast skies?

Years have passed, and now centuries, too, are swallowed in the gulf of eternity, yet the auburn net still whirls me in eddying circles, down, down to the very womb of time; to the innermost recesses of the mighty ocean.


And now, peace, perfect, unconditioned, sublime peace, and rest, and silence. For to the great depths of the mighty ocean the solemn bells cannot penetrate, and no sound, not even the beatings of one’s own heart, is heard. In the heart of eternity there can be nothing to break the calm of frozen æons. In the great white hall I lay, silent, unexpectant, calm, and smiled in perfect content at the web of auburn hair which trailed across my couch. No passionate longing for life or love, no doubting question of heaven or hell, no strife for carnal needs,—only rest, content, peace—happiness, perfect, whole, complete, sublime.

And thus passed ages and ages, æons and æons. The great earth there in the dim distance above the ocean has toiled wearily about the sun, until its mechanism was failing, and the warm ardor of the lover’s eye was becoming pale and cold from age, while the air all about the fast dwindling sphere was heavy and thick with the sorrows and heartaches and woes of the humans upon its face. Heavy with the screams and roar of war; with the curses of the deceived of traitors; with the passionate sighs of unlawful love; with the crushing unrest of blighted hopes. Knowledge and contempt of all these things permeated even to the inmost depths of time, as I lay in the halls of rest and smiled at the web floating through my white fingers.


But hark! discord begins. There is a vague fear which springs from an unknown source and drifts into the depths of rest; fear, indefinable, unaccountable, unknowable, shuddering. Pain begins, for the heart springs into life, and fills the silence with the terror of its beatings, thick, knifing, frightful in its intense longing. Power of mind over soul, power of calm over fear avail nothing; suspense and misery, locked arm in arm, pervade æonic stillness, till all things else become subordinate, unnoticed.

Centuries drift away, and the giddy, old reprobate—earth, dying a hideous, ghastly death, with but one solitary human to shudder in unison with its last throes, to bask in the last pale rays of a cold sun, to inhale the last breath of a metallic atmosphere; totters, reels, falls into space, and is no more. Peal out, ye brazen bells, peal out the requiem of the sinner! Roll your mournful tones into the ears of the saddened angels, weeping with wing-covered eyes! Toll the requiem of the sinner, sinking swiftly, sobbingly into the depths of time’s ocean. Down, down, until the great groans which arose from the domes and Ionic roofs about me told that the sad old earth sought rest in eternity, while the universe shrugged its shoulders over the loss of another star.

And now, the great invisible fear became apparent, tangible, for all the sins, the woes, the miseries, the dreads, the dismal achings and throbbings, the dreariness and gloom of the lost star came together and like a huge geni took form and hideous shape—octopus-like—which slowly approached me, erstwhile happy—and hovered about my couch in fearful menace.


Oh, shining web of hair, burst loose your bonds and bid me move! Oh, time, cease not your calculations, but speed me on to deliverance! Oh, silence, vast, immense, infuse into your soul some sound other than the heavy throbbing of this fast disintegrating heart! Oh, pitiless stone arches, let fall your crushing weight upon this Stygian monster!

I pray to time, to eternity, to the frozen æons of the past. Useless. I am seized, forced to open my cold lips; there is agony,—supreme, mortal agony of nerve tension, and wrenching of vitality. I struggle, scream, and clutching the monster with superhuman strength, fling him aside, and rise, bleeding, screaming—but triumphant, and keenly mortal in every vein, alive and throbbing with consciousness and pain.


No, it was not opium, nor night-mare, but chloroform, a dentist, three obstinate molars, a pair of forceps, and a lively set of nerves.

Anne_Vallayer-Coster

Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744–1818), Still-Life with Tuft of Marine Plants, Shells and Corals, oil on canvas, Height: 130 cm (51.2 in). Width: 97 cm (38.2 in), 1769, Louvre Museum, Paris

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Richard Dadd’s Master-Stroke

Richard Dadd by Richard Dadd, etching, 5 7/8 in. x 4 1/2 in. (149 mm x 114 mm), 1841, National Portrait Gallery, London

Richard Dadd by Richard Dadd, etching, 5 7/8 in. x 4 1/2 in. (149 mm x 114 mm), 1841, National Portrait Gallery, London

The nineteenth century group of English artists known as The Clique was progressive in its philosophy of contemporary art and rejected the academy. They preferred painting scenes of everyday life and believed in creating art to be appreciated by people rather than judged by institutions. They were critical of the Pre-Raphaelites and felt them to be too self-consciously unconventional in their paintings. Ironically, the founding member and central figure of The Clique, Richard Dadd, would become most well known for a very eccentric work that was far from genre painting. In 1843, Dadd, who had become delusional, believed his father to be the Devil and killed him. He was placed in an asylum where he was encouraged to paint, and it is there that he created his visionary masterpiece, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.

Richard Dadd (1819–1887), The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, oil on canvas, 54 × 39.5 cm (21.3 × 15.6 in), 1855–64, Tate Britain, London

Richard Dadd (1819–1887), The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, oil on canvas, 54 × 39.5 cm (21.3 × 15.6 in), 1855–64, Tate Britain, London

The painting was commissioned by a steward at the hospital where Dadd resided and took nine years to make. Though it is regarded by most as his seminal work, the artist himself considered it incomplete.

 

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August 1914

Stanley Spencer, Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916, oil on canvas, 1828 mm x 2184 mm, 1919, Imperial War Museum, London

Stanley Spencer, Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916, oil on canvas, 1828 mm x 2184 mm, 1919, Imperial War Museum, London

August 1914
By Isaac Rosenberg

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

Three lives hath one life—
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone—
Left is the hard and cold.

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields,
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

Paul Nash, Wire, watercolour, chalk, and ink on paper, 73.5 x 86 cm, 1918, Imperial War Museum, London

Paul Nash, Wire, watercolour, chalk, and ink on paper, 73.5 x 86 cm, 1918, Imperial War Museum, London

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Olive Schreiner’s Solitary Plain

Olive Schreiner

The following are excerpts from the first chapter of The Story of an African Farm (1883) by Olive Schreiner:

 

 

 

 

The Watch.

The full African moon poured down its light from the blue sky into the wide, lonely plain. The dry, sandy earth, with its coating of stunted karoo bushes a few inches high, the low hills that skirted the plain, the milk-bushes with their long finger-like leaves, all were touched by a weird and an almost oppressive beauty as they lay in the white light.

In one spot only was the solemn monotony of the plain broken. Near the centre a small solitary kopje rose. Alone it lay there, a heap of round ironstones piled one upon another, as over some giant’s grave. Here and there a few tufts of grass or small succulent plants had sprung up among its stones, and on the very summit a clump of prickly-pears lifted their thorny arms, and reflected, as from mirrors, the moonlight on their broad fleshy leaves. At the foot of the kopje lay the homestead. First, the stone-walled sheep kraals and Kaffer huts; beyond them the dwelling-house—a square, red-brick building with thatched roof. Even on its bare red walls, and the wooden ladder that led up to the loft, the moonlight cast a kind of dreamy beauty, and quite etherealized the low brick wall that ran before the house, and which inclosed a bare patch of sand and two straggling sunflowers. On the zinc roof of the great open wagon-house, on the roofs of the outbuildings that jutted from its side, the moonlight glinted with a quite peculiar brightness, till it seemed that every rib in the metal was of burnished silver.

Sleep ruled everywhere, and the homestead was not less quiet than the solitary plain.

The Sacrifice.

The farm by daylight was not as the farm by moonlight. The plain was a weary flat of loose red sand, sparsely covered by dry karoo bushes, that cracked beneath the tread like tinder, and showed the red earth everywhere. Here and there a milk-bush lifted its pale-coloured rods, and in every direction the ants and beetles ran about in the blazing sand. The red walls of the farmhouse, the zinc roofs of the outbuildings, the stone walls of the kraals, all reflected the fierce sunlight, till the eye ached and blenched. No tree or shrub was to be seen far or near. The two sunflowers that stood before the door, out-stared by the sun, drooped their brazen faces to the sand; and the little cicada-like insects cried aloud among the stones of the kopje.

Jean-François Millet (1814–1875), The Sheepfold, Moonlight, oil on panel, 45.3 cm (17.8 in). X 63.4 cm (25 in), between 1856 and 1860, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Jean-François Millet (1814–1875), The Sheepfold, Moonlight, oil on panel, 45.3 cm (17.8 in). X 63.4 cm (25 in), between 1856 and 1860, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

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Samuel Palmer’s Shadowy Vision

Self-portrait, c. 1825

Self-portrait, c. 1825

Samuel Palmer’s (January 27, 1805 – May 24, 1881) best paintings and graphic work were a reflection of the natural world filtered through his rich, shadowy imagination. Palmer himself was very much a product of the Romantic era in which he lived. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Milton were among his major literary influences, while Turner stands out as one of the strongest forces in painting to have an effect on his development. Above all of these, though, it was perhaps William Blake who became the most important. While Blake’s work could be seen as more purely visionary, Palmer stood firmly in both the natural and the imagined world. At various times throughout his career, the imagery in his work might sway more one way than the other, but the visionary landscapes that mark both early and late periods in his life are the ones that maintain their power and have a continued presence even in contemporary painting.

Samuel Palmer, Early Morning, brown ink and sepia mixed with gum arabic, 18.8 x 23.2 cm, 1825, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Samuel Palmer, Early Morning, brown ink and sepia mixed with gum arabic, 18.8 x 23.2 cm, 1825, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Samuel Palmer, Late Twilight, brown ink and sepia mixed with gum arabic, 18 x 23.8 cm, 1825, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Samuel Palmer, Late Twilight, brown ink and sepia mixed with gum arabic, 18 x 23.8 cm, 1825, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

The shadows in Samuel Palmer’s paintings convey a deep sense of mystery, the same profundity he once experienced as a young boy and tried to convey in his work throughout his life:

When less than four years old I was standing with my nurse, Mary Ward, watching the shadows on the wall from branches of an elm behind which the moon had risen. I have never forgot those shadows and am often trying to paint them.
                                                                                                                                – Samuel Palmer

 

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Tale of the Heike

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Minori: Taira no Tomomori, woodblock print, Edo period 1845-46

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Minori: Taira no Tomomori, woodblock print, Edo period 1845-46

The Heike Monogatari, or Tale of the Heike, is a legendary prose narrative that depicts the epic battle between the Taira, or Heike, and the Minamoto, or Genji, clans. During what is known as The Genpei War, the two groups were battling for control of Japan in the late 12th century. In the great climactic naval battle at Dan-no-ura, the Taira are defeated, which leads to the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate, and nearly 700 years of shogun rule. As the end draws near for the heroes of the Taira, most famously Taira no Tomomori, they weigh themselves down with armor and even anchors and leap together into the sea. The legend has been retold and portrayed many times in literature, art, theater, and film. Below are some of Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s famous Ukiyo-e woodblock prints on the subject, along with an excerpt from the original English translation by A. L. Sadler (1918–1921).

 

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Tamomori tied to a huge anchor ready to cast himself into the sea, woodblock print, Edo period c. 1840’s

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Tomomori tied to a huge anchor ready to cast himself into the sea, woodblock print, Edo period c. 1840’s

Then Shin-Chunagon Tomomori-no-Kyo, who had been watching how the day was going, at length saw that nothing remained but to put an end to his life, and calling his foster-brother Iga-no-Heinaisaemon Ienaga, he said: ” Is it not time to fulfil the promise we made? ” ” Certainly; ” replied Ienaga. And he assisted Tomomori to don two suits of armour, afterwards doing the same himself, and the two leaped into the sea clasped in each other’s arms. Some twenty samurai who were with them at once followed them into the waves; but Etchu-no-Jirohyoye Moritsugu, Kazusa-no-Gorohyoe, Akushichi-byoye Kagekiyo and Hida-no-Jirohyoye managed to elude the enemy somehow and escape. And now the whole sea was red with the banners and insignia that they tore off and cut away, so that it looked like the waters of the Tatsuta-gawa when it is flecked with the maple leaves that the wind brings down in autumn, while the white breakers that rolled up on the beach were dyed a scarlet colour. The deserted empty ships rocked mournfully on the waves, driven aimlessly hither and Hither by the wind and tide.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The Ghost of Tomomori, woodblock print, Edo period c. 1840’s

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The Ghost of Tomomori, woodblock print, Edo period c. 1840’s

Kuniyoshi HeikeganiThere is a species of crab in the waters of Japan called Heikegani whose shell resembles a human face, and it is believed that these are the reincarnation of the fallen Heike.

 

 

Books…
Ten Foot Square Hut & Tales of the Heike
Ukiyo-E Master #01: Samurai Ghost and Monster Wars: Supernatural Art by Kuniyoshi
Drawings by Utagawa Kuniyoshi from the Collection of the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden

 

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Hardy’s Queen

One of the best of all of Thomas Hardy’s descriptive passages and undoubtedly one of the greatest character portraits in all of modern literature, here in its entirety is Book First, Chapter VII of Hardy’s Return of the Native:

Queen of Night

Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman. Had it been possible for the earth and mankind to be entirely in her grasp for a while, she had handled the distaff, the spindle, and the shears at her own free will, few in the world would have noticed the change of government. There would have been the same inequality of lot, the same heaping up of favours here, of contumely there, the same generosity before justice, the same perpetual dilemmas, the same captious alteration of caresses and blows that we endure now.

Thomas Francis Dicksee, Ophelia, Oil on canvas, 141.6 x 101 cm, 1873, Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service, UK

Thomas Francis Dicksee, Ophelia, Oil on canvas, 141.6 x 101 cm, 1873, Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service, UK

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The Seven Thrones of Jami

The Haft Awrang, or Seven Thrones, is a classic of Persian literature that spans seven books and was written by poet Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami between 1468 and 1485. In the mid sixteenth century, Prince Sultan Ibrahim Mirza commissioned an illuminated version of the work which became a masterpiece of Persian miniature painting. Referred to as the Freer Jami, it now resides in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Scene from The Haft Awrang by Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami, opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, folio: 35.9 x 23.2 cm, 1556-65, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Scene from The Haft Awrang by Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami, opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, folio: 35.9 x 23.2 cm, 1556-65, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Scene from The Haft Awrang by Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami, opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, folio: 35.9 x 23.2 cm, 1556-65, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Scene from The Haft Awrang by Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami, opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, folio: 35.9 x 23.2 cm, 1556-65, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Scene from The Haft Awrang by Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami, opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, folio: 35.9 x 23.2 cm, 1556-65, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Scene from The Haft Awrang by Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami, opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, folio: 35.9 x 23.2 cm, 1556-65, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Book…

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Ruskin on Landscape

John Ruskin

John Ruskin (8 February 1819 – 20 January 1900) believed that the purpose of landscape painting was to represent the human condition via our surroundings, or as he put it, “The interest of a landscape consists wholly in its relation either to figures present—or to figures past—or to human powers conceived.”

 

The following are excerpts from lectures on the subject given by Ruskin to his students at Oxford in 1871, taken from the book Lectures on Landscape, Delivered at Oxford in Lent Term, 1871:

 Landscape painting is the thoughtful and passionate representation of the physical conditions appointed for human existence. It imitates the aspects, and records the phenomena, of the visible things which are dangerous or beneficial to men; and displays the human methods of dealing with these, and of enjoying them or suffering from them, which are either exemplary or deserving of sympathetic contemplation.

I have limited, you have just heard, landscape painting to the representation of phenomena relating to human life. You will scarcely be disposed to admit the propriety of such a limitation; and you will still less be likely to conceive its necessary strictness and severity, unless I convince you of it by somewhat detailed examples.

Here are two landscapes by Turner in his greatest time—Vesuvius in repose, Vesuvius in eruption.

One is a beautiful harmony of cool color; and the other of hot, and they are both exquisitely designed in ornamental lines. But they are not painted for those qualities. They are painted because the state of the scene in one case is full of delight to men; and in the other of pain and danger. And it is not Turner’s object at all to exhibit or illustrate natural phenomena, however interesting in themselves.

 

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775‑1851), Bay of Naples (Vesuvius Angry), shown in the book as Vesuvius in Eruption, watercolor on paper, 176 x 284 mm, c.1817, Williamson Art Gallery & Museum

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775‑1851), Bay of Naples (Vesuvius Angry), shown in the book as Vesuvius in Eruption, watercolor on paper, 176 x 284 mm, c.1817, Williamson Art Gallery & Museum, *Vesuvius in Repose is in a private collection, and no image is currently available.

He does not want to paint blue mist in order to teach you the nature of evaporation; nor this lava stream, to explain to you the operation of gravity on ponderous and viscous materials. He paints the blue mist, because it brings life and joy to men, and the lava stream because it is death to them.

Only natural phenomena in their direct relation to humanity—these are to be your subjects in landscape. Rocks and water and air may no more be painted for their own sakes, than the armor carved without the warrior.

The physical conditions there are so numerous, and the spiritual ones so occult, that you are sure to be overpowered by the materialism, unless your sentiment is strong. No man is naturally likely to think first of anatomy in painting a pretty woman; but he is very apt to do so in painting a mountain. No man of ordinary sense will take pleasure in features that have no meaning, but he may easily take it in heath, woods or waterfalls, that have no expression. So that it needs much greater strength of heart and intellect to paint landscape than figure: many commonplace persons, bred in good schools, have painted the figure pleasantly or even well; but none but the strongest—John Bellini, Titian, Velasquez, Tintoret, Mantegna, Sandro Botticelli, Carpaccio and Turner—have ever painted a fragment of good landscape.

Brantwood, the home of John Ruskin from 1872 to 1900.

Brantwood, the home of John Ruskin from 1872 to 1900.

Books…

John Ruskin, Lectures on Landscape (WorldCat link)

 

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