Civilising influences

Sir Kenneth Clark.

Sir Kenneth Clark.

In this month’s issue of The New Criterion, Drew Oliver offers “Why Civilisation Matters,” a consideration of the classic television series written and presented by Sir Kenneth Clark in 1969. It’s a worthwhile overview of a very worthwhile series (and the series itself is currently available on Blu-Ray). Mr. Oliver argues especially for the series’ more, shall we say, “theological” foundation:

If Clark’s disaffected contemporaries (he notes that even in Roman times there were advanced thinkers who “thought it fine to gang up with the barbarians”) found his historical observations vaguely antique in the 1960s, they seem rather more precocious fifty years later when the Middle Eastern migrant crisis is in the headlines daily. But his simple summary of what constitutes Western civilization must have seemed, to the malcontents, even more impudent. He declares in episode two that it could be “convincingly argued that Western civilization was basically the creation of the Church.”

I wrote about the series myself in this July 20, 2015, post about several BBC series of the 1970s and 1980s.

Ash Wednesday

Ash-WednesdayTomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and Ash Wednesday is also the poem with which, in 1930, T.S. Eliot announced in his verse his 1927 conversion to Anglicanism. It is, appropriately, named after the holiday which marks the beginning of Lent and, more specifically, the beginning of Christ’s 40-day sojourn in the desert prior to starting his ministry. There, while enduring a fast, Christ was three times tempted by Satan, and three times Christ resisted the temptations.

The narrator of Ash Wednesday spends the poem enduring his own unique set of temptations — not, this time, as an un-believer, but as one who has made the initial leap into Christian faith; he is now on the other side of belief. His early prayers are stutters, but what stutters they are. The poem is not informed by the mature faith of the Four Quartets, but rather the hesitant first steps of the neophyte.

This is also the first revelation of Eliot’s mature voice: No longer the fragmented pieces of “Prufrock” or The Waste Land, the six parts of Ash Wednesday are more explicitly philosophical. Even conceptions of time and place (and concepts of the “word” — see especially the first extraordinary stanza of the fifth section) are transfigured into abstractions that echo among themselves and each other. Ash Wednesday is a poem that begins to reveal its full significance only after several careful readings — just one or two will not do.

You can find Eliot’s own recording of the poem here. The poem itself is below.


Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.


Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.


At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitful face of hope and of despair.

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jagged, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the figs’s fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.


Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary’s colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary’s colour,
Sovegna vos

Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing

White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile


If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.


Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth
This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

On newsstands now

PAJ_112PAJ, the journal on which I serve as Assistant Editor, celebrates its 40th birthday this month with the release of its first issue for 2016 — in a spanking new redesign, too. This issue features the text of Richard Maxwell’s play Isolde (which enjoyed a pair of successful New York runs last year), an essay about utopian thinking in performance from Carol Becker, and Tom Walker’s memoir of his time with the Living Theatre. In addition, PAJ 112 celebrates the upcoming 100th birthday of critic Eric Bentley with the republication of his 1985 essay for the journal, “Writing for a Political Theatre.” PAJ 112 is available online here, and should be in better bookstores soon.

Speaking of Eric Bentley, American Theatre editor Rob Weinert-Kendt interviewed him recently for the February 2016 issue of that magazine. The venerable critic muses upon Brecht, his career, and other matters in a wide-ranging discussion, which you can find here.

Friday roundup: Yes Minister

Derek Fowlds, Sir Nigel Hawthorne, and Paul Eddington in Yes Prime Minister.

Derek Fowlds, Sir Nigel Hawthorne, and Paul Eddington in Yes Prime Minister.

This week Edward Mendelson’s essay about T. S. Eliot in the New York Review of Books caught my eye, and I looked forward to Marilyn Nonken’s concert this coming Monday at (le) Poisson Rouge.

Marilyn was out of town this week, leaving me to my own devices (believe me, I’ve earned this afternoon’s zweigelt respite at Cafe Katja), and when the wife’s away, the husband will — well, in my case, the husband will watch television and read. Late Shakespeare may well be a literary comfort in my middle age, as my reading of The Tempest attested, but when the girls were finally in bed I wasn’t quite up to paper and ink and turned instead to Yes Minister, the BBC series about politics that ran in the 1980s. It and its sequel Yes Prime Minister have since been hailed, and quite rightly too, as two of the great television comedies of all time, and just in 2014 Graham McCann wrote A Very Courageous Decision: The Inside Story of Yes Minister, chronicling the production and subsequent reputation of the series. It’s available on DVD (Yes Minister here, and Yes Prime Minister here) and all the episodes are currently streaming on the Hulu service.

Yes Minister and its sequel detail the career of a British politician, Jim Hacker, in his ministerial and prime ministerial posts in the British government. He is aided (if that’s the word) by two permanent civil servants, Sir Humphrey Appleby, his Permanent Secretary, and Bernard Woolley, his Prinicpal Private Secretary and Sir Humphrey’s protégé. On its surface, the series was a masterly satire of the workings of government as it muddled through various domestic and international crises such as labor strikes and nuclear proliferation; it may also be the only television comedy in history to be guided by economic theory. Sir Antony Jay, who created and wrote the series with Jonathan Lynn, explained that the macroeconomic theory of public choice economics, most eminently promulgated by James M. Buchanan in the 1960s and for which Buchanan eventually won the Nobel Prize in the 1980s, guided much of the plot and character motivations of the series:

The fallacy that public choice economics took on was the fallacy that government is working entirely for the benefit of the citizen; and this was reflected by showing that in any [episode] in the programme, in Yes Minister, we showed that almost everything that the government has to decide is a conflict between two lots of private interest — that of the politicians and that of the civil servants trying to advance their own careers and improve their own lives. And that’s why public choice economics, which explains why all this was going on, was at the root of almost every episode of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister.

As Alistair Cooke described it when Buchanan won the Nobel, “Public choice embodies the homely but important truth that politicians are, after all, no less selfish than the rest of us.” It is true — and it’s true for more than politicians; it’s true of managers and supervisors of any power structure.

The satire of Yes Minister over the years has dated somewhat (though how little it has dated is remarkable), but not its caustic and comic observations of management and power in bureaucracies and organizations — and certainly not its writing or performances. Jay and Lynn produced some of the most hilariously literate dialogue of the century in any medium, and Paul Eddington as Hacker, Nigel Hawthorne as Appleby, and Derek Fowlds as Woolley turned in supple, nuanced, exquisite performances (not an easy thing, given some of the bureaucratic doublespeak at which Jay and Lynn were masters).

It’s hard to select highlights from the series — nearly every episode has quotable moments — but here are two from Yes Prime Minister. In the first, Hacker’s predecessor as Prime Minister has submitted a chapter of his memoirs for government clearance, a chapter which contains embarrassing but true anecdotes about Hacker’s earlier political career. Hacker, ever sensitive to attacks on his self-image, rages about the chapter and argues for its suppression at a Cabinet Meeting. This presents his Prinicpal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley, charged with writing the official minutes for the meeting, with a moral and ethical conundrum, and he seeks the advice of Sir Humphrey:

As it happens, though, the question becomes moot. Yes Minister had its excellent moments of physical comedy too (one episode, “The Key,” was a bedroom farce set, instead of in a bedroom, in the Prime Ministerial offices at 10 Downing Street). One of them is Hacker’s reaction to the news of his predecessor’s death, which means the memoirs will never be completed or published; and if Paul Eddington is mugging here, it is mugging of the highest, most superlative order:

Upcoming: Marilyn Nonken’s Spectral Salon

posterThis Monday, February 1, at 7.30pm, my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken will offer a variety of French and American spectral music for solo piano at (le) poisson rouge. The “Spectral Salon” features music by French composers Tristan Murail (Les travaux et les jours, written for Marilyn in 2002) and Hugues Dufourt (“Meeresstille”) as well as premieres of other more recent American works written for her, including ­­ Richard Carrick‘s “la touche sonore sous l’eau” (2015) and Mikel Kuehn‘s “… blue circles streamed, like rainbows in the sky” (2015). For any spectral music enthusiasts who have a taste for country and western (and who doesn’t?), she’ll also perform Christopher Trapani‘s tribute to Hank Williams, “The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky” (2005). Advance tickets run from $15 (standing) to $20 (seated) and from $20-$25 the day of the show. Reservations and more information at this lpr page for the event.

polanskyYou can also enjoy Marilyn’s recent rendition of Larry Polansky‘s “Three Pieces for Two Pianos,” which she performs with the legendary Joseph Kubera. The piece is available on the new album of the same name from New World Records; you can purchase that here.

Below you’ll find a sample of what you’ll hear on Monday night — the first movement of Murail’s Les travaux et les jours, which appears on Marilyn’s Tristan Murail: The Complete Piano Music.