Category Archives: Calendary Literature

Advent and Christmas Songs: Fairest Lord Jesus

It’s the 4th Sunday of Advent, the day before Christmas Eve, the snow is falling again outside my parents’ home in a suburb north of Copenhagen. All my presents are ready and wrapped, and I feel so content and happy. I thought I’d share some holiday cheer by posting one of my favorite Christmas carols, the German hymn “Schönster Lord Jesu“, also known in English as “Fairest Lord Jesus“.

Now, this may seem a strange choice for any potential German or English readers out there. In the German and English version, the song is not a carol at all, it is simply a hymn and may be sung all year round. I, however, am mostly familiar with the Danish version by poet B.S. Ingemann, “Dejlig er jorden”.

Ingemann was same poet who did the translation of “Silent Night” (which I mentioned here), and like with “Silent Night” Ingemann took some liberties with the material at hand, but in the case of “Schönster Herr Jesu” he did a much better job, I think. What he did was that he turned the hymn into a Christmas carol, albeit in a very simple, discreet manner. He maintains the essence of the German lyrics, which is to praise eartlhy loveliness and praising the heavenly splendor (the English version is mostly devoted to the praising of Jesus). However, in the last stanza Ingemann links it all to one glorious moment in time, that is, the hour when the lord was born and the shepherds learned of their salvation from heavenly angels. The Danish lyrics go, directly translated:

The earth is lovely, God’s heaven is glorious,
Beautiful is the pilgrimage of our souls!
Through the fair kingdoms on earth,
We walk towards Paradise, singing!

Times shall come, times shall roll over us
Generations shall follow the passing of generations
The tone from heaven shall never cease
In the happy pilgrimage of the soul.

The angels first sang it to the shepherds in the field
Beautifully from soul to soul it rang:
“Peace on earth! Man, rejoice!
An eternal savior is born onto us!”

Effective, yet simple. It is difficult to think of a more striking imagery of heavenly beauty on earth than that of the lowly shepherds being visited by angels, and I like how Ingemann doesn’t try to wrap things up in a conclusive fourth stanza. The words of the angels are allowed to stand alone, along with the image of the shepherds and the angels. “Dejlig er jorden” is a Danish Christmas classic, although the Swedes have embraced the carol as well, using it sometimes as a funeral hymn. It does seem appropriate for such a purpose: Whenever we are singing it, walking around the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, joined hands as per Danish custom, the second stanza marks a moment of quiet reflection for me, a reminder of loved ones who have passed away, but also of the life and joy that has yet to come. I am not a Christian, and I cannot truly believe that there is a heavenly note that will sound on earth till the end of time. But I love to be alive in a world that is able to conjure up an idea as beautiful as that – a note ringing from heaven! – and there are plenty earthly things to be happy about. This Christmas Eve, walking around my parents’ Christmas tree, I am sure the verse about the “passing of generations” will make me think affectionately of the baby that my brother’s wife is expecting, a little boy who is to be born early in the new year, making my parents grandparents and me an aunt for the first time. And maybe I will also be thinking a little bit about the little Christmas tree I have waiting for myself and  my boyfriend when we return from our respective families to celebrate our first Christmas together in his apartment, in which I moved in in October this year. The earth is indeed lovely.

My Christmas tree

Hélas Avril

Edited because I wrote “Matteo DE Perugia” the entire way through the first time around. I suck.

Just a little season-appropriate music for you all to enjoy: Matteo da Perugia’s “Helas, avril”.

I first heard this piece when I was working for a Copenhagen sinfonietta in the autumn of 2010. The ensemble toured Sweden with a programme that included a re-composed version of da Perugia’s song. I had the responsibility for all the practicalities of the concerts, I was fresh out of the university and nervous that I would screw up somehow, but this song stopped me in my tracks and made me forget everything around me for a moment. I have returned to the piece several time since. It conveys such a beautiful sadness, and with that ancient tonality that always induces in me a sense of something distant and otherwordly. I regret that I’m not able to link to my favourite recording of the piece, namely that by ensemble Mala Punica. There’s a kind of modern sound to their interpretation of the song, and I miss that in the above recording which seems to strive towards a medieval atmosphere. It’s a matter of taste of course, but I do think that the modern sound and ensemble Mala Punica’s focus on the soloist’s voice do a good job at bringing out the secularity of the song, which is indeed a love song.

The lyrics present a persona who is infnitely sad despite the loveliness of the month of April, because he misses his beloved. As an earlier blog post betrays I have studied French medieval poetry a bit, and I remember learning that spring was frequently referred to by medieval European troubadours in their love songs as the season of love. I like how in “Helas avril” the joys of Spring are so directly contrasted by the inner life of the lovelorn protagonist.

You can read lyrics are, translated by Michel Chasteau:

April, alas, your sweet return has brought me
greater pain than I can well express,
seeing you so fair, so fresh and merry
bedecked with flowers, happy and carefree,
filled with scents of joy, while all I have
is memories of love, regrets and tears.

How eagerly would I go to meet sweet death
in this your season, ending thus my life
in defiance of Fate
and its power,

Since in your span I cannot see my lady,
And there is nothing I desire to see
apart from her
And that’s the truth

Your sight brings me the greater grief because
I feed distress wit inner agitation.
So do I pine, and must for ever pine
Until I see her noble form once more
And May will find me still complaining
if Mercy does not come to my assistance.

April, alas…

Apropos of modern interpretations of this song, the phrase “Hélas, avril” also appears in “La Javanaise” by the wonderful Serge Gainsbourg:

I have no idea if the lyrics are a reference to the 15th century song, but I like to think that they are. A casual medieval poetry quote would add even more swag to Gainsbourg than he already had, if that’s even possible.

Christmas Descriptions in the Works of Astrid Lindgren

Merry Christmas, dear readers.

I think Astrid Lindgren must have loved Christmas. There are Christmas descriptions in almost all of her book series; Pippi Longstocking, Emil of Maple Hills, Madicken of June Hill, the Six Bullerby Children, and Lotta on Troublemaker Street all celebrate the holiday in her books and their Christmas preparations and celebrations are always carefully described. In this December 24th post I will discuss the Christmas descriptions found in Madicken of June Hill and Emil of Maple Hills, two Christmas descriptions that I’ve always loved dearly.

From the book “Look, Madicken, it’s snowing!”

(NOTE: as I do not have access to English translations of Astrid Lindgren’s books, the English translations of the Swedish books below are all my own)

Portrait of the Writer as a Little Girl – Christmas in June Hill
Madicken of June Hill books have always been my favourites among Astrid Lingren’s works. Lindgren confirmed to be inspired for the character of Madicken by a childhood friend, but I also think that an authobiographical trait is very much visible in the series: I think that it’s possible to read the Madicken books as the story of the cultivation of a young writer’s voice.

Madicken is an upper-middle-class girl, living in Småland in a house called June Hill during the time of World War I with her father, editor-in-chief at a local newspaper, her mother, her younger sister Elisabeth, and their maid Alva. And Madicken definitely has the makings of a writer: She’s emotional, she has a vivid imagination, she’s passionate about books and stories, and one of the first things we learn about her is that she “gets her ideas quicker than a pig can blink”. The main conflict of the Madicken books is, however, that Madicken has not yet learned how to manage her creative abilities and her flair for storytelling, and Madicken often gets herself into trouble. A recurring theme in Madicken is the fact that things rarely turn out in reality the way one imagines them, or the way they play out in fiction. One famous example is her jumping from a wood shed with an umbrella, inspired by stories she has read about WWI soldiers jumping with parachutes – with the result of her getting rather a concussion.

Madicken is somewhat like Ian McEwan’s Briony Tallis in this way; she sees possibilities of fiction everywhere in her surroundings. This is what gets her into trouble – and sometimes into real danger – but it’s also what makes her an intriguing and amusing heroine.

This is apparent in the Christmas descriptions in the Madicken books. In December, Madicken is characteristically enthusiastic about having everything play out the way she’s imagined, and it’s important to her that the aesthetics of Christmas permeate her entire world. Accordingly, Madicken inspects the Christmas preparations in her home carefully:

“Yes, now Christmas may come to June Hill, everything is ready to receive it. Every nook is clean, there are white, newly starched curtains at every window, there are candles in every candlestick, in the kitchen the new patchwork quilts are brightening up everything, on the walls the copper pots and pans are shining with all their might, and the iron rod under the cooker hood has been decorated with curly crêpe paper of red and green, festive like Christmas itself.”

Another illustration from “Look, Madicken, It’s Snowing!”

Madicken is satisfied with all this, and on the day of Christmas Eve she savours every little sensory impression of it, like the smell of the lacquer used to seal the wrapped Christmas gifts:

“She explains Elisabeth how nice it would be, if one could put a little bit of the lacquer scent into a tin along with all the other lovely Christmas scents. Then you would have a can to sniff all year, until it would finally be Christmas again.”

A can containing all the scents of Christmas is of course an impossible notion, but this is typical of Madicken and her lyrical disposition: She wants so much to capture the moment that it almost becomes too much for her. It’s the same urge that gave her her near-fatal concussion in an earlier chapter, and while she doesn’t bring herself into danger in the Christmas chapter, her pursuit of the true Christmas spirit does leave her very upset towards the end of Christmas Eve:

The day of Christmas Eve is long, but it ends after all. The candles burn out, everyone has had their presents, everyone has cracked nuts, everyone has eaten apples and Christmas sweets, and everyeone is too tired to dance around the Christmas tree again. Then Madicken suddenly hides her face in her hands and bursts into to tears: ‘Oh, now it’s over! To think that it’s over so soon!'”

Significantly, Madicken is also dismayed as she visits her neighbours, the teenage boy Anders and his poor parents the Nilssons, the day before Christmas:

“…[she finds] Anders lying on his knees, scrubbing the floor! He stops abruptly as Madicken enters. ‘I was just mopping up something’, he explains. But he has already scrubbed half of the floor. (…) Madicken takes a look around. Apart from that there isn’t much Christmas preparation visible. The curtains and the chrocheted shelf trimmings haven’t been cleaned, everything looks as it always does, and it shouldn’t on the night before Christmas Eve, Madicken thinks.
‘Haven’t you tidied up yet?’ she asks.
Anders looks confused.
‘Tidied up? How do you mean?’
Madicken doesn’t really know what to say.
‘Well, it’s… it’s Christmas tomorrow.’
‘Ah, yes, well, that’s all taken care of!’ says Anders, ‘Come and see!’
He leads the way into the small room next to the kitchen. Here is a paper cloth hung up on the wall, full of bearded Christmas gnomes.
‘How do you like that?’ he asks triumphantly. ‘Father and mother haven’t seen it yet, but they’ll be gaping when they see it – you can bet on that!’
Madicken thinks that the paper cloth with the bearded gnomes is nice, but it only spreads Christmas cheer in one little spot. Madicken wants for the Christmas cheer to spread everywhere.

As emphatic a character as she is, there is something let-them-eat-cake-ishly spoiled about upper-middle-class Madicken’s scrutiny of poor Anders’ home. Astrid Lindgren seems aware of this, and while she definitely celebrates Madicken’s artistic streak, she doesn’t let her protagonist get away with this privileged purely aesthetic approach to her surroundings. Madicken’s father is the editor of the local newspaper and is depicted as a highly socially conscious person who makes sure that Madicken understands that there is a big, harsh world outside her cherished June Hill – a world with which she needs to deal. “I think the children ought to know that there are many different kinds of people in this world,” he says at one time, as Madicken’s mother voices her concern that Madicken is spending so much time with Anders and his alcoholic father, “Then maybe they will learn that they’ll learn that they shouldn’t be to quick to bring out the heavy armour”. In another Christmas-related chapter we learn that Madicken’s father always takes Madicken for a walk around the poorer parts of the town on Christmas Eve:

“The church bells are chiming so that they can be heard all over the town as Daddy and Madicken walk out. They take the same route as always on Christmas Eve. Down crooked, narrow alleys past houses that are (…) so low that Madicken can scrape the snow off of the roof if she wants to make a snowball. The streets are dark, but almost all the houses are lit. The people who live there probably don’t have blinds, or maybe they don’t care that you can look right through their windows into their rooms.
‘And we are impertinent enough to be peeking through their windows,’ says daddy. ‘I’m sure you can tell that they don’t really have what we have at June Hill in there?’
No, they certainly do not! But it still looks kind of cosy, Madicken thinks. In some places anyway. Even if it is a bit cramped and poor and even though there isn’t much furniture and not much room for all the children, playing and romping about in there. They do seem to have tried to decorate the house for Christmas, you can tell. But in some places it looks too miserable.
‘I wouldn’t want to live in there.’ says Madicken.
‘I’m sure you would’t.’ says daddy.”

But it is possible to make a difference, so Madicken’s father’s message seems to be, by relating to the poverty around you and recognising it, and, possibly, bearing witness to it. And Madicken’s father’s dry response notwithstanding there’s no sense of reproof from Lindgren. Madicken may not master her own narrative voice quite yet, but her sense of lyrical beauty and her childish sensitivity to her surroundings makes her capable of recognising things that the adult world would overlook or dismiss as irrational. In a later chapter in the book revolving around Mrs Nilsson’s selling her body to science, Madicken is the only person to see how gravely Mrs Nilsson is troubled by this action. And in the Christmas chapters, too, Madicken manages to spread some joy – like when she gives Anders a Christmas present and is able to respect and delight in the modest Christmas celebrations of the Nilsson family:

The Nilssons are in the kitchen as usual, and Mr Nilsson is on the kitchen bench as usual. But the kitchen is unusually birghtly lit. The new lamp, but Anders’ eyes almost shine more brightly every time he looks at it. He ill not take his eyes off the lamp. He hardly even notices Madicken and Elisabeth. But Mr Nilsson nods at htem from the bench.
‘Here’s the little Madicken and the little Elisabeth of June Hill, and they have arrived at exactly the right moment!’
He points to the lamp.
‘How do you like that? How do you like this glorious item that my son has purchased? What light! What pleasance!’
‘Yes, it’s pretty.’ says Madicken.
‘Look into the little room! How do you like the funny littile Christmas gnomes with which my son has decorated the wall? And the Christmas tree that he has got just to make his old father happy, how do you like that? Anders, Anders, you are a good son!’
Mrs Nilsson is sitting as close to the lamp as she can, drinking coffee. Now she puts down the cop and pats Anders on his head.
‘As if he didn’t do it for his mother as well! Yes, you are surely a good boy, little Anders.’
Anders is embarrassed by all this praise and turns towards Madicken and Elisabeth.
‘What did you want by the way?’
Madicken produces the present that she has kept hidden behind her back.
‘I just wanted to give you a Christmas present, Anders.’
‘Me?’ says Anders. ‘A Christmas present? How come?’
Mrs Nilsson clasps her hands in horror. ‘A Christmas present for Anders! Oh, but we forgot about that!’
She looks reproachfully at Mr Nilsson on the bench. ‘Did you by any chance remember to buy a Christmas present for Anders?’
Mr Nilsson is silent and glares grumpily at Mrs Nilsson. Finally he says, with some annoyance:
‘I may have both a house and a farm, but I’m still a little short on cash at the moment. So I couldn’t get Anders a Christmas present this year. Are you sad about that, Anders?’
Anders doesn’t look sad in the least.
‘Never mind about that, we have the lamp!’
‘And Madicken’s Christmas present.’ Elisabeth reminds him.
‘Gee, yes, that’s right, I got a Christmas present from Madicken.’ says Anders.
He opens the present and finds the harmonica. Mr Nilsson is jubilant.
‘A harmonica, I must say! Now you can play something pretty for your old man, can’t you, Anders?’
It isn’t a fine or expensive harmonica, but Anders can still make it play a few melodies.
And Madicken and Elisabeth walk away happy and relieved.
“It was nice in there.” says Elisabeth.
‘Yes, it was.’ says Madikcen. ‘And what a nice lamp, I wish we had a lamp like that.’

The progress of a country boy
Moving on to another Lindgren character, Emil of Lönneberga, we find a very different description of Christmas. Emil is not the child of a newspaper editor, he’s the young son of a farmer, living with his parents, his little sister Ida, a maid and a farm hand on his father’s farm Katholt. Emil is infamous in the parson for his mischief which time and again enrages his father and sends him to the farm woodshed where he is to atone for his misdeeds. The thing is however, that Emil never means to misbehave. He always means well, but like Madicken he has a knack for getting into trouble.

Emil – one of Björn Berg’s illustrations for the Emil books

The similarities between Madicken and Emil don’t go much further than this, though. Being a handy, practical farmer boy Emil is much more in tune with the elements and the conditions of nature than Madicken the editor’s daughter, and the imagery and plots of the Emil books tend to have a baser, more textural sense to them than the ones in the Madicken novels. In one book, Emil accidentally swallows a coin of his father’s and it is described that Emil dutifully paid back his debt after nature had taken its course with the coin in question. Another plot is kickstarted as Emil “has a stomach ache and had to go to the outhouse” one night. And the plot of one of the most dramatic stories focuses on the aggressive blood poisoning of the farmhand, Alfred. That’s the way it goes in the Emil stories. Bacteria invade people’s bloodstreams, and people have bowel movements. The third-person narrator of the Emil books is also notably unceremonious, recounting the stories in a language that is closer to that of an oral than of a written narrative tradition.

Emil as portrayed by young Jan Olsson in the Swedish series based on the books

Thus it is not surprising to find that the Emil Christmas chapter is devoid of Madicken’s preoccupation with a certain Christmas atmosphere. Emil isn’t overly excited as the holidays approach, and when Christmas Eve finally comes along, it is described in two simple sentences, without any superlatives:

“Emil and [his little sister] Ida went home, and then it was Christmas Eve. It was very nice at Katholt that evening as well as on Christmas Day.”

Similarly, as Emil rides a sleigh to church on Christmas morning, Emil is not lost in thoughts about the beauty of the snowy landscape the way Madicken probably would have:  He is merely satisfied that the Katholt horses prove to be faster than than the horses dragging the neighbouring sleighs. At a farm in Småland, Sweden, Christmas is mostly a time for taking stock. Through the year, the farms have strived to accumulate enough for the winter and now the result is contemplated with satisfaction. Not an aesthetic satisfaction with fancy garnish like white newly starched tablecloths and fragrant hyacinths, but of solid things, like heavy, filling traditional fare in the pantry:

“Now everyone at Katholt was busy, because at Katholt Christmas was celebrated with a vengeance. First there was the big clean-up. Lina and Lingon-berry Maja knelt on the icy bridge by the Katholt brook and did the laundry until Lina was crying and breathing on her freezing fingers. Then the Christmas hog was slaughtered, and once that was done there was almost no room left in the kitchen, said Lina, because of all those black puddings and Cumberland sausages and oatmeal sausages and minced sausage, and potato sausage and salamis taking up space along iwth hams and headcheeses, and pork roastes and I don’t know what all. Juniper ale was also a must for Christmas. Emil’s mother brewed it in the big wooden vessel in the scullery. And pastry and breads needed to be bake, enough to make a person’s head swim, rye bread and treacle bread and fine black bread and saffron bread and ordinary white bread and gingerbread and a special kind of small, delicious cakes in the shapes of pretzels and puff pastry cakes, yes, it is impossible to mention all of it. Candles were also required. Emil’s mother and Lina spent an entire night making candles, big candles and small candles and Thee Kings Candles, for now Christmas was almost there. Alfred and Emil harnessed Lukas [the horse] and drove into the woods to get a Christmas tree, and Emil’s father went to the barn to get two sheafs of oat that he had saved for the sparrows.
‘It’s sheer madness,’ he said, ‘but the sparrows should know that it’s Christmas, too.'”

Indeed they should. Emil and his family certainly aren’t materialists after all. If Christmas is the time of year to showcase what goods one has produced out of the earth’s soil, it is also the time of year to give thanks to remember the ones that nature has been less kind to in the year that has passed. The birds – but also the old, poor, and lonely paupers of the village who reside in a measly, crowded little workhouse run as a charitable institution by the parish counsil. Emil’s mother prepares a special basket full of food for these poor people.

Unfortunately, the paupers’ strict matron, a mean old woman called the Commander, sees fit to eat all the food by herself, and when Emil finds out about this, he decides to take matters into his own hands. While his parents are out away at a Christmas party in the village, Emil prepares and hosts an extravagant Christmas feast for the paupers all by himself. Significantly, the feast takes place on December the 26th, boxing day. Emil’s wellmannered little sister anxiously asks Emil if giving away their parents’ food won’t count as mischief, but Emil assures her that the feast is something “that God’s angels will clap their hands at, as much as they must have been crying at the wretched Christmas that the paupers had to endure.”

This is probably as poetic as it gets, and there seems to be a recognition that the paupers will have less use for this kind of pretty imagery than for good old fashioned, solid food. Emil certainly understands that getting some food into the paupers is more important than any idea of heavenly reward, as the loquacious narrator informally lets us know:

“…when [the paupers] entered the kitchen at Katholt, prepared for the holidays as it was, and lit by five big Three Kings Candles that Emil had lit, the shimmer of which were mirrored in the newly polished copper saucepans hanging on the walls, so that everything was bright and shiny, they were at first completely silent, and old Nitwit Jokum thought that he had gone to heaven. (…) But then Emil said: ‘Now we will have a Christmas feast!’ And a Christmas feast it was. Emil and Alfred and little Ida helped each other carrying in all they could manage from the pantry. And I feel you should know what was on the table in the Katholt kitchen on Boxing Day when everything had been brought in.
There was:
A dish of black pudding
A dish of Cumberland sausage
A dish of headcheese
A dish of paté
A dish of smoked sausage
A dish of meatballs
A dish of veal cutlets
A dish of pork roast
A dish of oatmeal sausage
A dish of potato sausage
A dish of salted meat
A dish of slightly salted ox tongue
A dish with the big Christmas ham
A dish with the big Christmas cheese
A bowl with herring salad
A tray with rye bread
A tray with treacle bread
A tray with fine black bread
A pitcher of juniper beer
A pitcher of milk
A roaster of rice pudding
A kind of cheese pudding
A bowl of prunes
A  bowl of whipped cream
A bowl of strawberry jam
A bowl of ginger pears and
A roasted whole hog, decorated with sugar icing.

That was all, I think. I can’t have forgotten more than three things, four at the most, oh, well, let’s say five just in case, but to be on the safe side, but then I’m sure I must have remembered everything.”

If the Madicken books are about an aspiring writer learning how to use her artistic streak constructively, the Emil books are about learning how to be a good person. But Astrid Lindgren never assumes a moralistic adult voice in her children’s books. She celebrates Madicken’s artistic streak, and I find it significant that in the Emil books it seems to be Emil’s surroundings who need to learn to understand Emil’s good deeds – and not Emil who needs to learn how to please his surroundings. As the Emil narrator discloses, Emil later grew up to be elected head of the parish counsil, so we know the rest of the world eventually caught on. Lindrgen had that rare talent for speaking on behalf of child protagonists in a manner that has nothing overbearing or patronising in it, and her Christmas descriptions are no exceptions. Christmas is often described as a the children’s holiday, and Lindgren takes the consequence of this in her children’s books and depicts Christmas as a time when children have a chance of showing adults the way.

Top 5: Favourite lullabies in classical music

I meant to post this for Mother’s Day yesterday, but got delayed. Here it is now – dedicated to my wonderful mother who deserves a gold medal for having put up with me when I was a perpetually screaming baby who refused to sleep, ever. She has continued to be incredibly patient with me during the following 28 years, and I am eternally grateful to her.

5. “Sov du dyreste guten min” (Solveig’s lullaby) by Edvard Grieg

A lovely, tranquil lullaby. The Norwegian lyrics describe a mother holding her sleepy baby boy:

“Sleep, my most precious boy
I shall cradle you, I shall watch over you
The boy has been in his mother’s arms
The two have played together for all the life-long day

The boy has slumbered by his mother’s breast
All of the life-long day. God bless you, my joy!
The boy has been lying so close to my heart
All of the life-long day. Now he is so tired.

Sleep, my most precious boy.
I shall cradle you, I shall watch over you
Sleep, sleep.”

The sunny, peaceful atmosphere of the song is contrasted by the dramatic context of the song: It actually isn’t sung by a mother to her sleepy infant song, but to Peer Gynt by Peer Gynt’s beloved and faithful Solveig, to whom Peer returns after having lived through a series of fantastic adventures and a close-call encounter with Satan himself. Peer Gynt is most likely dying while Solveig sings to him, although this is left ambigious by Henrik Ibsen in his original play.

4. “Mädel, mach’s Lädel zu!” from Wozzeck by Alban Berg

Perhaps one of the most unsettling lullabies ever, if it can even be categorized as a lullaby. Wozzeck’s wife Marie sings this song to her young son while admiring a piece of jewelry that her lover has given her:

“Girl, close the shutters
A gypsy lad is on the prowl
He will lead you off by the hand
To his far-off gypsy land”

The lullaby perfectly sums up the general feeling of fear and uncertainty that embues Büchner’s Woyzeck  as well as Berg’s opera. This is exactly the kind of song haunted, doomed and just generally screwed-up Marie would sing to her (SPOILER ALERT!!1) soon-to-be orphaned son.

Also, it is an example of a 12-note aria that I actually know by heart. And by “an example of a”, I really mean “the only”. So.

3. “Sol deroppe” by Niels W. Gade / Peter Heise
The lyrics for this one was a poem written by Hans Christian Andersen as part of a series of songs about Agnete and the Merman. I have to say that I generally think that Andersen was kind of a clumsy poet – he was much, much better as a writer of short stories and fairy tales, which was of course the genre eventually brought him international acclaim.

But this song is really very lovely. It’s a lullaby, written for the character of Agnete, who is singing to one of the seven sons that she has had with the merman. A mer-child, if you will, but I’m not going to go into any speculations as to whether or not such a child would have gills or grow up to develop insane fish mating rituals because that would just totally spoil the romance. But the lyrics are really lovely, and I like how they subtely hint at the fact that Agnete is not completely at peace with her life under the sea – when soothing her child, she painstakingly compares every under-water phenomenon surrounding her to the phenomena of the world she used to live in on the shore:

The sun up there is sinking
Sleep, my child, and grow big and strong!
You shall ride on the wild mer-horse
The meadow grows so prettily beneath the wave

The whales with their broad fins
hover over you like great clouds
The sun and the moon shine through the water
You shall have both of them in your dreams

Hush-a-by! I bore you in pain
Be my joy forever, year by year
You have drunk Life by my heart
to my heart each of your tears will flow

Sleep, my child, I am sitting by your crib
Let me kiss your eyes shut.
When one day my eyes are closed
Who will be your mother then?

Original Danish lyrics here

Two different melodies exist for the song – one by Peter Heise and one by Niels W. Gade. I was unable to find an online recording of the song, but you can hear the Heise version here, and the Niels W. Gade version here. The gentle Heise melody works better as a lullaby, but the more sophisticaed version by Gade probably works better if sung as a lied, so I like them both.

2. “Dormi, amor mio” from Madame Butterfly by Puccini

I actually didn’t even think I liked Madame Butterfly until only last year. All that waiting…! And why would I even care about a painfully naive teenage girl and her asshat American faux husband? But then I saw it live in a theatre for the first time ever, and in a production that I really liked, and I was moved. I still think the main characters are absolute idiots, but I think that Puccini’s music more than makes up for this, beautiful as it is. My favourite part is the coro muto, but I also really like Cio-Cio San’s lullaby, sung to her aptly-named half-american toddler Sorrow:

Sweet, thou art sleeping,
Cradled on my heart;
Safe in God’s keeping,
While I must weep apart.
Around thy head the moonbeams dart:
Sleep, my beloved!

(Translation by R. H. Elkin via

Just like the earthly imagery mixed with that of the sea in Agnete’s lullaby, Puccini mixes the harmonies of Japanese folk songs with what appears to be religious lyrics of the western world when singing to her Japanese-American little boy, with whom she must soon (SPOILER ALERT!!!!1!) part forever. It never fails to make me sniffle.

1. “Bow thy corolla, thou bloom”by Carl Nielsen

We have already seen, in the Grieg lullaby, how sleep and death can be closely interwoven in a cradle song, and I think this is an important point. Any mother who has ever checked on her sleeping baby to see if it’s still breathing will recognise the fear of losing her child, and I wonder if the baby, too, doesn’t on some level fear that it will perish while sleeping? I struggled with insomnia from infancy all through my childhood; a stubborn, insistant insomnia that didn’t go away until I was in my teens and got overpowered by that obligatory adolescent fatigue and laziness. I later found out that severe childhood insomnia is a common trait among children who, like myself, were suffering while inside their mother’s womb due to a difficult pregnancy. These children fear sleep because they are afraid of letting go – they feel certain that they will die if they do.

This is why I’m so fond of this particular lullaby, in which the lyrics hint at the image of not just the cradling of a weary child, but the soothing of a person who is dying. This tendency becomes especially clear in the third stanza which, in an almost startling manner, features the image of a slumbering child as a comparison rather than as a description. The mention of the night drawing near coupled with the encouragement to humble prayer, too, always struck me as ominous, and the melody lingers somewhere ambigiously between the minor and the major, with a crescendo rising in the fifth to eighth bar of each stanza. Eventually, however, it’s the feeling of soothing, the prospect of peaceful sleep, that takes over, and my inner fearful, tired little infant loves this.

I know that an English translation of the song exists, but I have been unable to find it, so here it is in my own direct translation:

Bow thy corolla, thou bloom
Let it descend into the leaves
Await with closed petals
The blissful peace of night

The night, mild and quiet,
is  drawing near – oh, bow and pray
Sleep beneath golden stars
Sleep yourself blessed and sound

Sleep like a child that is rocked
Gently in its mother’s arms
Awaking only partly to sigh
with a smile its mother’s name.

Calendary Literature – February – Street of Your Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen Part II

I apologise for this post being so late. Part of the reason has actually been that I’ve been wanting to post something else – something to show my sympathy for what has been happening in Japan lately. But I could come up with absolutely nothing. So let me just say this: I am so unbelievably sorry for all the victims of this catastrophe. There is little we can do to prevent disasters like these and all I can say is that I hope that we, the human race, will continue to get better to at least be there for each other and help each other when tragedy strikes. And to promise that I will do whatever I can in this respect.

About part II of my post, well, better late than never, I hope: Here’s part II of my Calendary Literature/Women’s Day entry on Tove Ditlevsen’s Street of Your Childhood (“Barndommens gade”). Part I is here.

In this post I’d like to quote a paragraph from the childhood chapters (translated by yours truly). Ester and her beloved, shrewd friend Lisa have gone out doing a version of “trick-or-treating” that Danish children do for Shrove-tide.

Still from the movie adaptation of the novel. A young Sofie "The Killing" Gråbøl and Louise Fribo as Ester and Lisa.


“The baker woman laughs and throws buns to the festive kids who barge into the store. It doesn’t matter that some of them have already been there once, it’s only when they go to collect treat there for the fifth og sixth time that they are told off. Now, you, the little one with the nose, I think you’ve had enough now!

The little one with the nose, that’s Lisa of course. She is wearing her father’s overcoat, put up with safety pins and a huge cardboard nose with a moustache under it, bopping up and down when she talks. Hot on her heals follows Ester, wearing one of mother’s old carnival outfits, a kind of crinoline sewn out of checkered crêpe paper. Over her face she is wearing a grinning clown mask, the top of which is stuffed up under her red beret. It is nice to be hidden underneath the warm cardboard mask. It helps to guard her against the sharp february wind and it leaves her fo once shielded against the kind of looks that seem to undress her and force their way into her innermost secrets. No one can tell if she is blushing behind her mask and nobody looks at Ester more than they look at the other kids. The poor face cannot insult anyone today. What is the matter with that face anyway? The street disapproves of it, its features are too vulnerable and yet there is something in its look that make people want to hit it. And then even the vaguest shadow of an evil thought instantly puts its startled, guilty mark on it, like a quiet lake quivering every time the smallest of bugs stirs in its depths. How good it feels to be hiding behind a grinning cardboard mask. Laugh a little, cry a little, get hurt, feel a little bad – no one knows, no one can tell. The mash grins its stiff grin perpetually, as it has been made to do. And quickly and dizzyingly, as if drunk, the inhibitions disappear. The usual, unblissful tendency towards acquiescence vanishes…


Ester drags Lisa with her down Istedgade, up Saxogade, and suddeny wildly towards Vesterbrogade. Aww, whaddarewe going here for, says Lisa sullenly, you’re a crank, they ain’t gonna give us nothing here anyway. She shrinks a little and seems insignificantly small here in the wide, bright street. The magnificient, perky Lisa vanishes, she who is always running through the narrow streets, smart, quick and always capable of taking care of herself – a little poor kid is left in her place, dressed up like poor people’s children usually do for shrovetide, with a collecting box squeezed into one of her dirty fists. (…)

But hidden behind her mask, Ester enjoys everything as if she were a spectator at the movie theatre. She doesn’t care whether people are staring at them and laughing. Behold, here are the rich people, she thinks and opens up all her senses. Here they are, those who smell nice and wear nice fur coats so that their faces are always warm, no red noses and cold-ridden open polypus mouths. An unspeakable longing captures her, gentle and full of hope. It must be possible to become rich one day, to be pretty and to smell nice and be good. For Ester really does want to be good. But first a great, loving hand must stroke her over the strained features and take away their coldness and their shame. And it would be best if it could enter even further into her and brush away the mean words and the sorrows from the mind like the good teacher erasing the incorrect arithmetical problem from the blackboard. A sudden, intense euphoria fills her. Now she has the courage to do anything, now the impossible must be able to happen. She will lift herself out of the framework of her being and apprach new suns. -“

Driven by this sudden prowess, Ester takes a reluctant Lisa into a posh flat complex, excited at the prospect of actually getting to meet some of the rich people among whom she wants so desperately to belong. Things look up as a lady greets them heartily at one of the doors. She is amused by their appearance and decides that the two girls should come in and sing to her husband, who is asleep in their bedroom. (It is a custom that Danish children sing songs in order to receive their shrovetide treats).

“What the – uh – phew – the sleeping man wakes up startled and sits up in his bed. He stares as if he were seeing ghosts. What on earth kind of a pair are you two? he says with a comical desperation, are you out of your minds, barging in to wake up an honest citizen at this time of the morning? Helga, he yells, who are these creatures? Can you please come in here and release me from this little morning prank of yours?

The little lady pokes her head into the room, laughingly. Oh, they woke you up, she says, what a pity. Then she sits on the edge of the beds and looks merrily at Ester and Lisa who are staring back thunderstruck from behind their masks. Lisa sniffles because she is getting warm and she pulls up her cardboard nose while she wipes the real one underneath it with the back of her hand. The man laughs: Why, what a pair, he says, do you know any other songs? Sure , Lisa is almost herself again now that she no longer suspects the man to be a police officer. Police officers are her eternal and only fear, she is certain that they have supernatural powers that allow them to see straight through people. We know lots of songs. They whisper to each other to decide which one to sing, and then they start, fast and completely out of tune.


The song has six long stanzas and they lady and the gentleman are almost suffocating from surpressed laughter at hearing the ballad of the poor Inger who is abandoned and later dies, all in the slowest fashion possible.

When they are finally through, the lady says: That was certainly a nice song, now come with me and I will give you a little something for your collecting boxes. But Ester, who has been brought into just the right mood by the song, does not want to leave, not at all. We know even more songs, she shouts and puts forth one foot and starts by herself [on another ballad].

Yes, yes, that’s very nice, says the man and now he has suddenly stopped laughing, but get out of here now. The little lady touches Esters arm with a soft little hand with red polished nails. Ester blushes, because the lady touches her reluctantly, as if touching a rat. And now it is completely impossible for her to leave because she wants to shake off the emerging stunned feeling. It was all so nice for a moment there, wasn’t it? She is wrapped in the warm coat of welfare and outside the February cold and the fear of darkness awaits her. Now Lisa is pulling at her checkered crêpe sleeve, saying: Come on, Ester, we have to get home. Ester pushes her away. I know more songs, she repeats stubbornly, with a scared, beating heart and unable to understand why she can’t leave. But she needs to know a little about these people, she wants to explain something to them, bare her little soul to them. To know how it is possible to be like them. With their eyes full of ease and laughter. She wants to tell them: But I am not a rat – behind my socks full of holes and my miserable mask, behind my terribly guilty conscience and behind this frayed crêpe paper that was once my mother’s carnival costume, there has to be something, a material that might be shaped, that might make it possible – but instead she repeats, very quietly and startledly: I know lots of other songs. But the man’s gaze turns hard and the little lady looks perplexed. I have to leave now, says everything within her that is still connected to reason. But she doesn’t leave. Instead she assumes once again a pose, one foot in front of the other and sings with a shrill, trembling voice [another ballad] – Get out of here now, shouts the man and retrieves one striped leg from the bed. Lisa runs off quickly, but Ester stands still, pale as death. And then the mask falls off of her and she looks straight into the man’s face with confused, glassy eyes. He takes her roughly by the arm and leads her through the long hall. Out you go, you, he says and brings her up short outside the door, alone in front of the closed door. Before she has come to her senses, the door is opened again and the little lady puts a quarter of a krone into her collecting box. You should have just left when we told you to, she whispers, now my husband is angry.

Lisa is long gone. Ester descends the stairs slowly, and she is mortified and devastated, lonely and bitter in her dawning realisation of the world’s utter indifference with her destiny.”

It is a central chapter in the novel, in that the conflict of it reverberates in the critical situations that Ester finds herself in throughout the book: The longing to be rid of everything that defines her and to escape into a world of beauty, the arbitrary guilty conscience, the masculine figure who is angry or amused with Ester rather than truly loving and accepting, and the heartbreaking awkwardness of Ester. There is much of the unreasonable poverty of the working class in this chapter, and I’m sure Tove Ditlevsen, having endured a working class childhood of her own, wanted it that way.

But I’m always left wondering whether she knew how universal the conflict is at the same time: The highly sensitive individual that strives to find itself deserving of something great and beautiful that will make everything cruel and harsh in its past seem like a reasonable backstory rather than meaningless humiliation or suffering. Certainly that’s what I keep returning to the novel for, as much as for the description of an early 20th-century Denmark that I thankfully never experienced first-hand. I highly recommend the book.

Calendary Literature – February – Street of your Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen – Part I

Today is Women’s Day and I wanted to mark it by bringing this post which I originally intended for my “Calendary Literature” this past February. So now I’ve decided to kill two birds with one stone and make it a “Calendary” and a Women’s Day post. However, I don’t have the time to finish the post tonight, so I’ll divide it into two parts and post part II ASAP.

My post shall be about a prominent Danish woman and artist, Tove Ditlevsen.

Tove Ditlevsen was a Danish writer, born in 1917. She was born in one of the poor quarters of Copenhagen, the daughter of working class parents, but managed to grow up to become an immensely popular writer and editor of a correspondance column, offering advice especially to women. Her oeuvre tends to be frowned upon by scholars and she has a reputation of being a bit of a trivial writer whose writing appeals mostly to young, insecure girls. Suffering from depressions, Tove Ditlevsen sadly ended her life in March 1976, with an overdose of sleeping pills. She was followed to her grave by hundreds of devoted fans.

While I think it would be wrong not to recognise that Ditlevsen put her heart and soul in everything she ever wrote, I have to agree that some of her works have a banality to them. Her poems in particular often come dangerously close to sounding like verses in school girls’ autograph books. Her short stories have great character depictions and a lovely prose, but their form has a tendency towards the schematic and predictable that distracts from the pleasure of reading them somewhat.

As a writer of novels, however, Ditlevsen shone. In her novels, Ditlevsen’s language escapes the tendency towards trite rhymes and metres that her poetry tends to suffer from. The extended and complex nature of the novel form seems to make Ditlevsen lose track of the schematic, predictable way of thinking that is to be found in her compact short stories.  And thus I think that her most famous novel, Street of Your Childhood (1943) is grossly underrated within Scandinavian literature. A few aspects of Esther’s adult life differ significantly from Tove’s, but the novel is widely known and accepted to be highly autobiographical, although the main character is named Esther instead of Tove . Like Tove, Esther is a poor working-class girl from Copenhagen, growing up from late childhood, through teenage and into early adulthood in the 1920s-30s. A central theme in the book is the idea that the main character is unable to escape the social burden of her poor upbringing. The close relationship between Tove and Esther was also emphasized in a 1986 movie adaptation of the movie. You can see the trailer here, and you may be amused to see a very young Sofie Gråbøl – Sarah Lund from The Killing – as Esther:

But it would be wrong to dismiss the novel as merely a study of Ditlevsen’s troubled mind. Nor would it be right to characterise the novel as simply a social-realistic testimony to the plight of the working class in early 20th century Denmark. The beauty of Ditlevsen’s novel is that it is hard to label with just one genre. Social commentary blends beautiful with an almost psychoanalytic introspection which in turn blends with a detached and sometimes almost laconic character study of Esther. Finally, the childhood street as a metaphor works wonderfully as a metaphor and binds the different passages of the novel together in a lyrcial way that almost brings to mind the sweeping interludes of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Street of your Childhood leaves you with a poignant insight into an important historic period, but also with a main character that has crept under your skin.

In part II of this post, which I will post as soon as possible, I will provide a few examples of this (translated into English) – so stay tuned!

And happy Women’s Day.

Calendary Literature – November – Jane Eyre

I’ve talked before about my love for Jane Eyre, and the novel is going to be the subject of my “Calendary Literature” category this month as well.

Movie still from the upcoming Jane Eyre adaptation


Jane Eyre always reminds me of the month of November. Which is no great mystery, really; the story begins in November:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.

The said Eliza, John, and Georgiana were now clustered round their mama in the drawing-room: she lay reclined on a sofa by the fireside, and with her darlings about her (for the time neither quarrelling nor crying) looked perfectly happy. Me, she had dispensed from joining the group; saying, “She regretted to be under the necessity of keeping me at a distance; but that until she heard from Bessie, and could discover by her own observation, that I was endeavouring in good earnest to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner– something lighter, franker, more natural, as it were–she really must exclude me from privileges intended only for contented, happy, little children.”

“What does Bessie say I have done?” I asked.

“Jane, I don’t like cavillers or questioners; besides, there is something truly forbidding in a child taking up her elders in that manner. Be seated somewhere; and until you can speak pleasantly, remain silent.”

A breakfast-room adjoined the drawing-room, I slipped in there. It contained a bookcase: I soon possessed myself of a volume, taking care that it should be one stored with pictures. I mounted into the window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk; and, having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement.

Folds of scarlet drapery shut in my view to the right hand; to the left were the clear panes of glass, protecting, but not separating me from the drear November day. At intervals, while turning over the leaves of my book, I studied the aspect of that winter afternoon. Afar, it offered a pale blank of mist and cloud; near a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.

I remember reading the novel for the first time and being sucked right into the novel by this very first image, and I think this is no coincidence. By using the image of a “physically inferior” little girl seating herself in the window-seat, crossed-legged “like a Turk”, with the curtains draw to shield her from the outside world, and cradling a book in her lap on a November day, Charlotte Brontë efficiently draws us into the novel, accurately and quickly depicts the character of our heroine and allows us to identify with her. Below I shall try to explain how and why.

“I was glad of it”

You’re not supposed to like the month of November, and you’re not supposed to long for bad weather. And by all accounts , the particular November day described in the novel is a bleak, unpleasant one (“dreary”). And yet, Jane Eyre likes it. It’s pouring outside, and our protagonist is “glad of it” and by way of this declaration, Jane Eyre is immediately separated in the reader’s mind from her strong, healthy cousins and, indeed, from any sentimental notion one might have of children frolicking happily in the fields ( with “a more attractive and sprightly manner– something lighter, franker, more natural”, as Mrs. Reed puts it). Our protagonist, the use of November as a backdrop lets us know, is an unusual, slightly perverse sort of person. She’s a person who sees a grey, cold, heavy down-pour and declares that she is “glad”.

And as the novel will show us; this is exactly what makes Jane Eyre an interesting and sympathetic character.

“I was absorbed, sir: yes, and I was happy”
Much later in the novel, there’s a scene in which Mr Rochester studies some artwork that Jane Eyre has produced while a student at the Lowood institution:

These pictures were in water-colours. The first represented clouds low and livid, rolling over a swollen sea: all the distance was in eclipse; so, too, was the foreground; or rather, the nearest billows, for there was no land. One gleam of light lifted into relief a half-submerged mast, on which sat a cormorant, dark and large, with wings flecked with foam; its beak held a gold bracelet set with gems, that I had touched with as brilliant tints as my palette could yield, and as glittering distinctness as my pencil could impart. Sinking below the bird and mast, a drowned corpse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn.

The second picture contained for foreground only the dim peak of a hill, with grass and some leaves slanting as if by a breeze. Beyond and above spread an expanse of sky, dark blue as at twilight: rising into the sky was a woman’s shape to the bust, portrayed in tints as dusk and soft as I could combine. The dim forehead was crowned with a star; the lineaments below were seen as through the suffusion of vapour; the eyes shone dark and wild; the hair streamed shadowy, like a beamless cloud torn by storm or by electric travail. On the neck lay a pale reflection like moonlight; the same faint lustre touched the train of thin clouds from which rose and bowed this vision of the Evening Star.

The third showed the pinnacle of an iceberg piercing a polar winter sky: a muster of northern lights reared their dim lances, close serried, along the horizon. Throwing these into distance, rose, in the foreground, a head,–a colossal head, inclined towards the iceberg, and resting against it. Two thin hands, joined under the forehead, and supporting it, drew up before the lower features a sable veil, a brow quite bloodless, white as bone, and an eye hollow and fixed, blank of meaning but for the glassiness of despair, alone were visible. Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds of black drapery, vague in its character and consistency as cloud, gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge. This pale crescent was “the likeness of a kingly crown;” what it diademed was “the shape which shape had none.”

“Were you happy when you painted these pictures?” asked Mr. Rochester presently.
“I was absorbed, sir: yes, and I was happy. To paint them, in short, was to enjoy one of the keenest pleasures I have ever known.”

I’ve always felt that this was one of the things that draws Mr Rochester towards Jane. Why? Well, because let’s take a moment to ponder Mr Rochester’s relationship baggage, shall we? Rochester’s wife was someone who succumbed to the darker sides of life: In her frail mental state, she let it swallow her. His next conquest, Celine, seemed unwilling to deal with anything remotely grave or serious. In Jane, Rochester finds a woman who is capable of confronting hardship and madness and yet not to become maimed by it.  Rochester is made aware of this ability of hers when he is shown her artwork with sinister motifs which she was nevertheless happy while producing. But I think that we, as readers, catch a glimpse of this strength in Jane as early as in the very first chapter when Jane describes her state of mind on a dreary November day when Jane was reading about sceneries not unlike the ones she would draw herself later in her life:

“Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland, with “the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions of dreary space,–that reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulation of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concentre the multiplied rigours of extreme cold.” Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children’s brains, but strangely impressive. The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking.”

Rather than succumbing to this desolute atmosphere, young Jane delights in it, seated in the window-seat, with the scarlet drapery on one side and the window glass “protecting, but not separating me from the dreary November day.”

“I returned to my book”
Which brings me to the function of the November scenery as a means of making the reader identify with Jane Eyre.

I can’t help thinking that there must be at least a little bit of a meta involved when a writer start out her novel by having her protagonist sit down to read a book. Charlotte Brontë cleverly makes us identify with her moody, unattractive child heroine by placing her in the exact same position as we, as readers, are in: Book in hand/lap, eyes fixed on the pages, reading intently.

And I think that the late autumn backdrop serves here to give us a glimpse of what is in store for us if we decide to stick with the novel: A novel in which we can’t rely on outward beauty. Our protagonist is a plain child, and the weather is awful outside. If we want anything out of the novel, we will have to look inward and read closely, following young Jane Eyre’s gaze into the pages of a book on a rainy November day.

These pictures were in water-colours. The first represented clouds low and livid, rolling over a swollen sea: all the distance was in eclipse; so, too, was the foreground; or rather, the nearest billows, for there was no land. One gleam of light lifted into relief a half-submerged mast, on which sat a cormorant, dark and large, with wings flecked with foam; its beak held a gold bracelet set with gems, that I had touched with as brilliant tints as my palette could yield, and as glittering distinctness as my pencil could impart. Sinking below the bird and mast, a drowned corpse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn.

The second picture contained for foreground only the dim peak of a hill, with grass and some leaves slanting as if by a breeze. Beyond and above spread an expanse of sky, dark blue as at twilight: rising into the sky was a woman’s shape to the bust, portrayed in tints as dusk and soft as I could combine. The dim forehead was crowned with a star; the lineaments below were seen as through the suffusion of vapour; the eyes shone dark and wild; the hair streamed shadowy, like a beamless cloud torn by storm or by electric travail. On the neck lay a pale reflection like moonlight; the same faint lustre touched the train of thin clouds from which rose and bowed this vision of the Evening Star.

The third showed the pinnacle of an iceberg piercing a polar winter sky: a muster of northern lights reared their dim lances, close serried, along the horizon. Throwing these into distance, rose, in the foreground, a head,–a colossal head, inclined towards the iceberg, and resting against it. Two thin hands, joined under the forehead, and supporting it, drew up before the lower features a sable veil, a brow quite bloodless, white as bone, and an eye hollow and fixed, blank of meaning but for the glassiness of despair, alone were visible. Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds of black drapery, vague in its character and consistency as cloud, gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge. This pale crescent was “the likeness of a kingly crown;” what it diademed was “the shape which shape had none.”

“Were you happy when you painted these pictures?” asked Mr. Rochester presently.

“I was absorbed, sir: yes, and I was happy. To paint them, in short, was to enjoy one of the keenest pleasures I have ever known.”