EYEWITNESS: The End of Zeppelin L31, I October 1916

Michael MacDonagh

I saw last night what is probably the most appalling spectacle associated with the war which London is likely to provide – the bringing down in flames of a raiding Zeppelin.

I was late at the office, and leaving it just before midnight was crossing to Blackfriars Bridge to get a tramcar home, when my attention was attracted by frenzied cries of ‘Oh! Oh! She’s hit!’ from some wayfarers who were standing in the middle of the road gazing at the sky in a northern direction. Looking up the clear run of New Bridge Street and Farringdon Road I saw high in the sky a concentrated blaze of searchlights, and in its centre a ruddy glow which rapidly spread into the outline of a blazing airship. Then the searchlights were turned off and the Zeppelin drifted perpendicularly in the darkened sky, a gigantic pyramid of flames, red and orange, like a ruined star falling slowly to earth. Its glare lit up the streets and gave a ruddy tint even to the waters of the Thames.

The spectacle lasted two or three minutes. It was so horribly fascinating that I felt spellbound – almost suffocated with emotion, ready hysterically to laugh or cry. When at last the doomed airship vanished from sight there arose a shout the like of which I never heard in London before – a hoarse shout of mingled execration, triumph and joy; a swelling shout that appeared to be rising from all parts of the metropolis, ever increasing in force and intensity. It was London’s Te Deum for another crowning deliverance. Four Zeppelins destroyed in a month! . . .

On getting to the office this morning I was ordered off to Potter’s Bar, Middlesex, where the Zeppelin had been brought down, about thirteen miles from London. These days trains are infrequent and travel slowly as a war economy. The journey from King’s Cross was particularly tedious. The train I caught was packed. My compartment had its twenty seats occupied and ten more passengers found standing room in it. The weather, too, was abominable. Rain fell persistently. We had to walk the two miles to the place where the Zeppelin fell, and over the miry roads and sodden fields hung a thick, clammy mist. . .

I got from a member of the Potter’s Bar anti-aircraft battery an account of the bringing down of the Zeppelin. He said the airship was caught in the beams of three searchlights from stations miles apart, and was being fired at by three batteries also from distances widely separated. She turned and twisted, rose and fell, in vain attempts to escape to the shelter of the outer darkness. None of the shells reached her. Then an aeroplane appeared and dropped three flares – the signal to the ground batteries to cease firing as he was about to attack. The airman, flying about the Zeppelin, let go rounds of machine-gun fire at her without effect, until one round fired into her from beneath set her on fire, and down she came a blazing mass, roaring like a furnace, breaking as she fell into two parts which were held together by internal cables until they reached the ground.

The framework of the Zeppelin lay in the field in two enormous heaps, separated from each other by about a hundred yards. Most of the forepart hung suspended from a tree. . .

The crew numbered nineteen. One body was found in the field some distance from the wreckage. He must have jumped from the doomed airship from a considerable height. So great was the force with which he struck the ground that I saw the imprint of his body clearly defined in the stubbly grass. There was a round hole for the head, then deep impressions of the trunk, with outstretched arms, and finally the widely separated legs. Life was in him when he was picked up, but the spark soon went out. He was, in fact, the Commander, who had been in one of the gondolas hanging from the airship. . .

With another journalist I went to the barn where the bodies lay. As we approached we heard a woman say to the sergeant of the party of soldiers in charge, ‘May I go in? I would like to see a dead German.’ ‘No, madam, we cannot admit ladies,’ was the reply. Introducing myself as a newspaper reporter, I made the same request. The sergeant said to me, ‘If you particularly wish to go in you may. I would, however, advise you not to do so. If you do you will regret your curiosity.’ I persisted in my request. . .

Explaining to the sergeant that I particularly wanted to see the body of the Commander, I was allowed to go in. The sergeant removed the covering from one of the bodies which lay apart from the others. The only disfigurement was a slight distortion of the face. It was that of a young man, clean-shaven. He was heavily clad in a dark uniform and overcoat, with a thick muffler round his neck.

I knew who he was. At the office we had had official information of the identity of the Commander and the airship (though publication of both particulars was prohibited), and it was this knowledge that had determined me to see the body. The dead man was Heinrich Mathy, the most renowned of the German airship commanders, and the perished airship was his redoubtable L31. Yes, there he lay in death at my feet, the bugaboo of the Zeppelin raids, the first and most ruthless of these Pirates of the Air bent on our destruction.

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Published in: on February 10, 2010 at 5:51 PM  Comments (1)  
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A Reporter with the Vietcong, 1965

The Vietnam War: A Reporter with the Vietcong, near Hanoi, 10 December 1965

James Cameron

Relentless US bombing of North Vietnam was a feature of the Vietnam War.

Through the daylight hours nothing moves on the roads of North Vietnam, not a car nor a truck. It must look from the air as though the country had no wheeled transport at all. That, of course, is the idea, it is the roads and bridges that are being bombed; it is no longer safe after sunrise to be anywhere near either.

In the paddies the farmers are reaping their third harvest of the year, which has been particularly abundant. They move among the rice with their sickles, bowed under a shawl of foliage, the camouflage that gives everyone a faintly carnival air, like so many Jacks-in-the-Green.

At the corners of the paddies stand what look like sheaves of corn and are stacks of rifles. The roads stretch long and empty, leading from nowhere to nowhere.

Then the sun goes down and everything starts to move.

At dust the roads become alive. The engines are started and the convoys grind away through the darkness behind the pinpoints of masked headlamps. There are miles of them, heavy Russian-built trucks, anti-aircraft batteries, all deeply buried under piles of branches and leaves; processions of huge green haystacks. North Vietnam by day is abandoned; by night it thuds and grinds with movement. It is a fatiguing routine: working by day and moving by night.

In this fashion I drove down to what is called the ‘fighting areas’ in the central province of Thanh Hoa. It was a wildly theatrical landscape: a plain studded with strange little precipitous mountains, as though a shower of meteorites had fallen; it was like riding in a Soviet-made Jeep through the middle of a Chinese watercolour. . .

The great showplace of Thanh Hoa is the famous Ham Rong bridge. It has been attacked more than 100 times, by at least 1000 aircraft; it is scarred and pitted and twisted and the area around is a terrible mess, but the bridge still carries the road and the railroad. It lies between two very steep hills, and must be extremely difficult to hit; it would need a very steep and oblique bombing run . . .

At the village of Nanh Ngang, hard by the bridge, I was presented to Miss Nguyen Thi Hang, who is a Labour Hero and a People’s Hero, and is clearly adjusted to a measure of local celebrity as the nation’s Resistance pin-up. She once led a delegation to Moscow.

She is a pert, trim young woman in her late twenties, dressed in the regulation white blouse and broad black trousers; she is pretty, as some 99.9 per cent of all Vietnamese girls are pretty. To have her photograph taken was clearly no great novelty for her.

Miss Hang commands the women’s corps of the Nanh Ngang militia, and she put them through their paces for me—a mock alert, a covey of most nubile little girls popping into foxholes and pointing their rifles at the sky, with Miss Hang gesturing upwards, exactly as in her pictures.

It all seemed so palpably make-believe—this vital bridge defended by a chorus of sweet little girls; I felt awkward and rueful.

And then, in the middle of the performance, as I walked back from the river to the village – the alarm went in all truth, and the war game was real after all, in the sighing howl of jets overhead, the thud of ack-ack, and for all I know, for I could not be sure, a tiny volley from Miss Hang’s young ladies in the foxholes.

The aeroplanes were not after us this time, but streaking homeward south. The village took cover philosophically, but by the time the children were herded into the earth dugouts, the flight was, doubtless, miles away.

There were several such raids while I moved about the country, and it is fair to try to analyse one’s reaction. It is not easy. What supervened, I think, was not the emotion of fear (for I was in no particular danger) nor high-minded horror—there was somehow a sense of outrage against civility: what an impertinence, one felt, what arrogance, what an offence against manners. These people in North Vietnam are agreeable, shy people, and very poor. Will this sort of thing blow Communism out of their heads?

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Published in: on January 24, 2010 at 12:57 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyewitness: Suttee, C. 1650

Suttee, 1826

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier

It is also an ancient custom among the idolaters of India that on a man dying his widow can never remarry; as soon, therefore, as he is dead she retires to weep for her husband, and some days afterwards her hair is shaved off, and she despoils herself of all the ornaments with which her person was adorned; she removes from her arms and legs the bracelets which her husband had given her, when espousing her, as a sign that she was to be submissive and bound to him, and she remains for the rest of her life without any consideration, and worse than a slave, in the place where previously she was mistress. This miserable condition causes her to detest life, and prefer to ascend a funeral pile to be consumed alive with the body of her deceased husband, rather than be regarded by all the world for the remainder of her days with opprobrium and infamy. Besides this the Brahmans induce women to hope that by dying in this way, with their husbands, they will live again with them in some other world with more glory and more comfort than they have previously enjoyed. These are the two reasons which make these unhappy women resolve to bum themselves with the bodies of their husbands; to which it should be added that the priests encourage them with the hope that at the moment they are in the fire, before they yield up their souls, Ram will reveal wonderful things to them, and that after the soul has passed through several bodies it will attain to an exalted degree of glory for all eternity.

But it should be remarked that a woman cannot burn herself with the body of her husband without having received permission from the governor of the place where she dwells, and those governors who are Musalmans, hold this dreadful custom of self-destruction in horror, and do not readily give permission. On the other hand, it is only childless widows who can be reproached for not having loved their husbands if they have not had courage to burn themselves after their death, and to whom this want of courage will be for the remainder of their lives a cause of reproach. For widows who have children are not permitted under any circumstances to bum themselves with the bodies of their husbands; and so far from custom obliging them, it is ordained that they shall live to watch over the education of their children. Those to whom the governors peremptorily refuse to grant permission to burn themselves pass the remainder of their lives in severe penances and in doing charitable deeds. There are some who frequent the great highways either to boil water with vegetables, and give it as a drink to passers-by, or to keep fire always ready to light the pipes of those who desire to smoke tobacco. There are others among them who make a vow to eat nothing but what they find undigested in the droppings of oxen, cows, and buffaloes, and do still more absurd things.

The governor, seeing that all remonstrances with women, who are urged to burn themselves even by their relatives and by the Brahmans, fail to turn them from the damnable resolution which they have taken to die in so cruel a fashion, when his secretary indicates by a sign that he has received a bribe, at length allows them to do what they wish, and in a rage tells all the idolaters who accompany them that they may ‘go to the devil’.

Immediately on permission being obtained, all kinds of music are heard, and with the sound of drums, flutes, and other instruments, all go to the house of the deceased, and thence, as I have said, accompany the body to the margin of a river or tank, where it is to be burned.

All the relatives and friends of the widow who desires to die after her husband congratulate her beforehand on the good fortune which she is about to acquire in the other world, and on the glory which all the members of the caste derive from her noble resolution. She dresses herself as for her wedding day, and is conducted in triumph to the place where she is to be burned. A great noise is made with instruments of music and the voices of the women who follow, singing hymns to the glory of the unhappy one who is about to die. The Brahmans accompanying her exhort her to show resolution and courage, and many Europeans believe that in order to remove the fear of that death which man naturally abhors, she is given some kind of drink that takes away her senses and removes all apprehension which the preparations for her death might occasion. It is for the interest of the Brahmans that these unhappy women maintain the resolution they have taken to burn themselves, for all the bracelets which they wear, both on arms and legs, with their ear-rings and rings, belong of right to the Brahmans, who search for them in the ashes after the women are burned. According to the station and wealth of the women, the bracelets, ear-rings, and rings are either of gold or silver; the poorest wear them of copper and tin; but as for precious stones, they do not wear them at all when going to be burned.

I have seen women burned in three different ways, according to the customs of different countries. In the Kingdom of Gujarat, and as far as Agra and Delhi, this is how it takes place: On the margin of a river or tank, a kind of small hut, about twelve feet square, is built of reeds and all kinds of faggots, with which some pots of oil and other drugs are placed in order to make it burn quickly. The woman is seated in a half-reclining position in the middle of the hut, her head reposes on a kind of pillow of wood, and she rests her back against a post, to which she is tied by her waist by one of the Brahmans, for fear lest she should escape on feeling the flame. In this position she holds the dead body of her husband on her knees, chewing betel all the time; and after having been about half an hour in this condition, the Brahman who has been by her side in the hut goes outside, and she calls out to the priests to apply the fire; this the Brahmans, and the relatives and friends of the woman who are present immediately do, throwing into the fire some pots of oil, so that the woman may suffer less by being quickly consumed. After the bodies have been reduced to ashes, the Brahmans take whatever is found in the way of melted gold, silver, tin, or copper, derived from the bracelets, ear-rings, and rings which the woman had on; this belongs to them by right, as I have said.

In the Kingdom of Bengal women are burned in another manner. A woman in that country must be very poor if she does not come with the body of her husband to the bank of the Ganges to wash it after he is dead, and to bathe herself before being burned. I have seen them come to the Ganges more than twenty days’ journey, the bodies being by that time altogether putrid, and emitting an unbearable odour. There was one of them who came from the north, near the frontiers of the Kingdom of Bhutan, with the body of her husband which she had conveyed in a carriage, and travelled all the way on foot herself, without eating for fifteen or sixteen days, till she arrived at the Ganges, where after washing the body of her husband, which stank horribly, and bathing herself also, she had herself burned with him with a determination which surprised those who saw it. I was there at the time. As throughout the course of the Ganges, and also in all Bengal, there is but little fuel, these poor women send to beg for wood out of charity to burn themselves with the dead bodies of their husbands. A funeral pile is prepared for them, which is like a bed, with its pillow of small wood and reeds, in which pots of oil and other drugs are placed in order to consume the body quickly. The woman who intends to burn herself, preceded by drums, flutes, and hautboys, and adorned with her most beautiful jewels, comes dancing to the funeral pile, and ascending it she places herself, half-lying, half-seated. Then the body of her husband is laid across her, and all the relatives and friends bring her, one a letter, another a piece of cloth, this one flowers, that one pieces of silver or copper, asking her to give this from me to my mother, or to my brother, or to some relative or friend, whoever the dead person may be whom they have most loved while alive. When the woman sees that they bring her nothing more, she asks those present three times whether they have any more commissions for her, and if they do not reply she wraps all they have brought in a taffeta, which she places between her lap and the back of the body of her dead husband, calling upon the priests to apply fire to the funeral pile. This the Brahmans and the relatives do simultaneously. There is, as I have remarked, but little wood in the Kingdom of Bengal; so as soon as these miserable women are dead and half burned, their bodies are thrown into the Ganges with those of their husbands, where they are eaten by the crocodiles.

I should not forget here an evil custom which is practised among the idolaters of the same Kingdom of Bengal. When a woman is delivered, and the infant, as often happens, is unwilling to take its mother’s breast it is carried outside the village and placed in a cloth, which is tied by the four corners to the branches of a tree, and is thus left from morning to evening. In this way the poor infant is exposed to the crows, which torment it, and some have been found whose eyes have been torn out of their heads, which is the reason why many idolaters are seen in Bengal who have but one eye, and others who have both injured or altogether gone. In the evening the infant is taken to try whether it is willing to suckle during the following night, and should it happen that it still refuses the breast, it is taken back on the following day to the same place; this is done for three days in succession, after which, if the infant is unwilling to take the breast, in the belief that it is a demon, they cast it into the Ganges, or some other river or tank which is nearer at hand. In places where there are many monkeys these poor children are not so exposed to the attacks of crows, for this reason, that as soon as a monkey discovers a nest of these birds he climbs the tree, and throws the nest on one side and the eggs on the other. On the other hand, there are among the English, Dutch, and Portuguese charitable persons who, moved to compassion for the misfortune of these infants, remove them when they are thus exposed and hung in a tree and take care to have them brought up as I have once seen an example of at Hugly; this is done in the places near their factories.

Let us see now what is the practice along the coast of Coromandel when women are going to be burned with the bodies of their deceased husbands. A large hole of nine or ten feet deep, and twenty-five or thirty feet square, is dug, into which plenty of wood is thrown, with many drugs to make it burn quickly. When the hole is well heated, the body of the husband is placed on the edge, and then his wife comes dancing, and chewing betel, accompanied by all her relatives and friends, and with the sound of drums and cymbals. The woman then makes three turns round the hole, and at each time she embraces all her relatives and friends. When she completes the third turn the Brahmans throw the body of the deceased into the fire, and the woman, with her back turned towards the hole, is pushed by the Brahmans, and falls in backwards. Then all the relatives throw pots of oil and other drugs of that kind, as I have said is elsewhere done, so that the bodies may be the the sooner consumed. In the greater part of the same Coromandel coast the woman does not burn herself with the body of her deceased husband, but allows herself to be interred, while alive, with him in a hole which the Brahmans dig in the ground, about one foot deeper than the height of the man or woman. They generally select a sandy spot, and when they have placed the man and woman in the hole, each of their friends fills a basket of sand, and throws it on the bodies until the hole is full and heaped over, half a foot higher than the ground, after which they jump and dance upon it till they are certain that the woman is smothered.

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[Note: Suttee, properly known as sati, was officially banned by the British in 1829 but has never been completely stamped out. About 40 cases have been reported since Indian independence in 1947, mostly in the northwest state of Rajasthan, home of the traditional Rajput warrior caste. One instance in 1987 became a cause celebre, with some Indian women, believe it or not, demanding the right to immolate themselves. Gives new meaning to that old Hindu chant, I’m a Hunka Hunka Burnin’ Love.]

Published in: on January 21, 2010 at 12:56 PM  Leave a Comment  
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George Bernard Shaw at Mother’s Funeral

George Bernard Shaw

GBS at his Mother’s Funeral, 22 February 1914

George Bernard Shaw

Why does a funeral always sharpen one’s sense of humor and rouse one’s spirits? This one was a complete success. No burial horrors. No mourners in black, snivelling and wallowing in induced grief. Nobody knew except myself, Barker & the undertaker. Since I could not have a splendid procession with lovely colors and flashing life and triumphant music, it was best with us three. I particularly mention the undertaker because the humor of the occasion began with him. I went down in the tube to Golders Green with Barker, and walked to the crematorium; and there came also the undertaker presently with his hearse, which had walked (the horse did) conscientiously at a funeral pace through the cold; though my mother would have preferred an invigorating trot. The undertaker approached me in the character of a man shattered with grief; and I, hard as nails and in loyally high spirits (rejoicing irrepressibly in my mother’s memory), tried to convey to him that this professional chicanery, as I took it to be, was quite unnecessary. And lo! it wasn’t professional chicanery at all. He had done all sorts of work for her for years, and was actually and really in a state about losing her, not merely as a customer, but as a person he liked and was accustomed to. And the coffin was covered with violet cloth – no black.

I must rewrite the burial service; for there are things in it that are deader than anyone it has ever been read over; but I had it read not only because the parson must live by his fees, but because with all its drawbacks it is the most beautiful thing that can be read as yet. And the parson did not gabble and hurry in the horrible manner common on such occasions. With Barker & myself for his congregation (and Mamma) he did it with his utmost feeling and sincerity. We could have made him perfect technically in two rehearsals; but he was excellent as it was; and I shook his hand with unaffected gratitude in my best manner.

At the passage ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,’ there was a little alteration of the words to suit the process. A door opened in the wall; and the violet coffin mysteriously passed out through it and vanished as it closed. People think that door the door of the furnace; but it isnt. I went behind the scenes at the end of the service and saw the real thing. People are afraid to see it; but it is wonderful. I found there the violet coffin opposite another door, a real unmistakable furnace door. When it lifted there was a plain little chamber of cement and firebrick. No heat. No noise. No roaring draught. No flame. No fuel. It looked cool, clean, sunny, though no sun could get there. You would have walked in or put your hand in without misgiving. Then the violet coffin moved again and went in, feet first. And behold! The feet burst miraculously into streaming ribbons of garnet-colored lovely flame, smokeless and eager, like pentecostal tongues, and as the whole coffin passed in it sprang into flame all over; and my mother became that beautiful fire.

The door fell; and they said that if we wanted to see it all through, we should come back in an hour and a half. I remembered the wasted little figure with the wonderful face, and said ‘Too long’ to myself; but we went off and looked at the Hampstead Garden Suburb (in which I have shares), and telephoned messages to the theatre, and bought books, and enjoyed ourselves generally. . .

The end was wildly funny: she would have enjoyed it enormously. When we returned we looked down through an opening in the floor to a lower floor close below. There we saw a roomy kitchen, with a big cement table and two cooks busy at it. They had little tongs in their hands, and they were deftly and busily picking nails and scraps of coffin handles out of Mamma’s dainty little heap of ashes and samples of bone. Mamma herself being at that moment leaning over beside me, shaking with laughter. Then they swept her up into a sieve, and shook her out; so that there was a heap of dust and a heap of calcined bone scraps. And Mamma said in my ear, ‘Which of the two heaps is me, I wonder!’

And that merry episode was the end, except for making dust of the bone scraps and scattering them on a flower bed.

O grave, where is thy victory?

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Published in: on January 17, 2010 at 12:00 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyewitness: Finding Robinson Crusoe

Mâs a Tierra Island

Robinson Crusoe Found, 2 February 1709

Woodes Rogers

Selkirk, prototype of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, was a shoemaker’s son who ran away to sea and joined a band of buccaneers. He was put ashore in September 1704 on the uninhabited Mâs a Tierra Island in the Juan Fernandez cluster, 400 miles west of Valparaiso, Chile.

[Spelling and punctuation are faithful to the original.]

Our pinnace return’d from the shore, and brought abundance of craw-fish with a man cloth’d in goat-skins, who look’d wilder than the first owners of them. He had been on the island four years and four months, being left there by Captain Stradling in the Cinque-Ports. His name was Alexander Selkirk, a Scotchman, who had been Master of the Cinque-Ports, a ship that came here last with Captain Dampier, who told me that this was the best man in her; so I immediately agreed with him to be a mate on board our ship.

‘Twas he that made the fire last night when he saw our ships, which he judg’d to be English. During his stay here he saw several ships pass by but only two came in to anchor. As he went to view them he found them to be Spanish and retired from ’em, upon which they shot at him. Had they been French, he would have submitted, but chose to risque dying alone on the Iland, rather than fall into the hands of the Spaniards in these parts, because he apprehended they would murder him, or make a slave of him in the mines; for he fear’d they would spare no stranger that might be capable of discovering the South Sea. The Spaniards had landed before he knew what they were, and they came so near him that he had much ado to escape: for they not only shot at him, but pursue’d him into the woods, where he climb’d to the top of a tree at the foot of which they made water, and kill’d several goats just by, but went off again without discovering him. He told us he was born at Largo in the county of Fife, Scotland, and was bred a sailor from his youth. The reason of his being left here was a difference betwixt him and his captain. . . . He had with him his clothes and bedding, with a firelock, some powder, bullets, and tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a Bible, some practical pieces, and his mathematical instruments and books.

He diverted and provided for himself as well as he could; but for the tirst eight months had much ado to bear up against melancholy, and the terror of being left alone in such a desolate place. He built two huts with piemento trees, cover’d them with long grass, and lin’d them with the skins of goats which he killed with his gun as he wanted, so long as his powder lasted, which was but a pound, and that being near spent, he got fire by rubbing two sticks of piemento wood together upon his knee. In the lesser hut, at some distance from the other, he dressed his victuals, and in the larger he slept, and employed himself in reading, singing Psalms, and praying, so that he said he was a better Christian while in this solitude, than ever he was before, or than he was afraid he should ever be again. At tirst he never eat anything till hunger constrain’d him, partly for grief, and partly for want of bread and salt; nor did he go to bed till he could watch no longer. The piemento wood, which burnt very clear, serv’d him both for firing and candle, and refresh’d him with its fragrant smell. He might have had fish enough, but could not eat ’em for want of salt, because they occasion’d a looseness; except Crawfish, which are there as large as lobsters and very good. These he sometimes boiled, and at other times broiled as he did his goats flesh, of which he made very good broth, for they are not so rank as ours; he kept an account of 500 that he kill’d while there, and caught as many more, which he marked on the ear and let go. When his powder fail’d he took them by speed of foot; for his way of living, and continual exercise of walking and running, clear’d him of all gross humours, so that he ran with wonderful swiftness thro the woods, and up the rocks and hills, as we perceiv’d when we employ’d him to catch goats for us. We had a bull dog which we sent with several of our nimblest runners to help him in catching goats; but he distanc’d and tir’d both the dog and the men, catch’d the goats and brought ’em to us on his back. He told us that his agility in pursuing a goat had once like to have cost him his life; he pursue’d it with so much eagerness that he catch’d hold of it on the brink of a precipice of which he was not aware, the bushes having hid it from him so that he fell with the goat down the said precipice a great height, and was so stun’d and bruised with the fall that he narrowly escap’d with his life, and when he came to his senses found the goat dead under him. He lay there about 24 hours and was scarce able to crawl to his hut which was about a mile distant, or to stir abroad again in ten days. He came at last to relish his meat well enough without salt or bread, and in the season had plenty of good turnips which had been sow’d there by Captain Dampier’s men, and have now overspread some acres of ground. He had enough of good cabbage from the cabbage trees and season’d his meat with the fruit of the piemento trees, which is the same as the Jamaica pepper, and smells deliciously. He found there also a black pepper called Maragita, which was very good to expel wind, and against griping of the guts. He soon wore out all his shoes and clothes by running thro the woods; and at last, being forced to shift without them, his feet became so hard that he ran everywhere without annoyance, and it was some time before he could wear shoes after we found him. For not being used to any so long, his feet swelled when he came first to wear ’em again. After he had conquer’d his melancholy he diverted himself sometimes by cutting his name on the trees, and the time of his being left and continuance there. He was at first much pester’d with cats and rats, that had bred in great numbers from some of each species which had got ashore from ships that put in there to wood and water. The rats gnaw’d his feet and clothes while asleep, which obliged him to cherish the cats with his goats flesh; by which many of them became so tame that they would lie about him in hundreds, and soon deliver’d him from the rats.

He likewise tam’d some kids, and to divert himself would now and then sing and dance with them and his cats; so that by the care of Providence, and vigour of his youth, being now about 30 years old, he came at last to conquer all the inconveniences of his solitude and to be very easy. When his clothes wore out he made himself a coat and cap of goatskins, which he stitch’d together with little thongs of the same that he cut with his knife. He had no other needle but a nail, and when his knife was wore to the back, he made others as well as he could of some iron hoops that were left ashore, which he beat thin and ground upon stones. Having some linen cloth by him, he sow’d himself shirts with a nail and stitch’d ’em with the worsted of his old stockings, which he pull’d out on purpose. He had his last shirt on when we found him in the island.

At his first coming on board us, he had so much forgot his language for want of use, that we could scarce understand him, for he seemed to speak his words by halves. We offer’d him a dram, but he would not touch it, having drank nothing but water since his being there, and ’twas some time before he could relish our victuals. He could give us an account of no other product of the Island than what we have mentioned except small black plums, which are very good, but hard to come at, the trees which bear ’em growing on high mountains and rocks.

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Here’s a bit more information on the subject that I trust some will find interesting:

In 1704, a 28-year-old Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk found himself in a fix. He had taken up privateering—piracy with an official seal, in other words—and had spent too much time cooped up on a galley with an irascible captain. Selkirk made a potentially catastrophic decision following his demotion after a squabble with the captain about the seaworthiness of their ship. He asked to be put ashore on the island pictured above. Though remote, the 36-square-mile island contained large stores of good water from which passing ships would replenish their supplies, and Selkirk apparently figured that it would not be long before another ship came along.

Selkirk had been in trouble before. He had gone to sea in the first place to escape punishment for “indecent carriage,” and local court records show that Selkirk and his kin were often hauled before the bench for fighting and public drunkenness. He had, as they say, issues with authority, and, once aboard ship, a tendency to scrap with his shipmates. He was moody and irascible, though he was also a devout reader of the Bible and a human jukebox of hymns.

Selkirk would remain on his island for about five years. Then, 300 years ago, in 1709, Selkirk was rescued by a British ship commanded by Woodes Rogers, author of the piece above, who was himself a privateer.

Ten years later, in 1719, the ever-enigmatic writer Daniel Defoe, who must have recognized something of himself in Selkirk, brought forth Robinson Crusoe.

When archaeologist Daisuke Takahashi explored what is now called Robinson Crusoe Island in 1994–95, he found that Selkirk had made a comfortable place for himself in a saddle below tall mountains about a mile from the sea, where he could keep an eye out for passing vessels and threats alike. As Takahashi writes, “the site at Aguas Buenas . . . is adjacent to a good supply of fresh water—a vigorous stream that tumbles down the valley to the sea in Cumberland Bay. The surrounding forest still provides many things to eat and in Selkirk’s day was probably full of goats.”

The Spanish had introduced the goats to the island a century earlier; the people did not remain long on that first attempt to settle, but the goats endured and live on the island still. In the 19th century, Chileans arrived, and about 600 people live on the island today, many employed in fishing and lobstering.

Rogers would become governor of the Bahamas in recognition of his success as a privateer for the English crown, and he suppressed the last of the pirate trade in the Caribbean.

Selkirk died aboard the HMS Weymouth off the coast of Ghana on December 13, 1721, having signed up for another stint at sea.

Defoe died on the run from creditors, having made and lost many fortunes besides the one he earned from Robinson Crusoe. And Selkirk’s island home is part of an extensive Chilean national park, named a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 1977 in recognition of its rare evergreen rainforest.

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Published in: on January 15, 2010 at 1:07 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyewitness: The Bombing of Dresden, February 1945

Dresden before the bombing

The Bombing of Dresden by Margaret Freyer, survivor

Dresden, noted as one of the world’s most beautiful cities—’Florence on the Elbe’—was almost completely destroyed during 13-14 February 1945 by 800 British and US aircraft.

I stood by the entrance and waited until no flames came licking in, then I quickly slipped through and out into the street. I had my suitcase in one hand and was wearing a white fur coat which by now was anything but white. I also wore boots and long trousers. Those boots had been a lucky choice, it turned out.

Because of the flying sparks and the fire-storm I couldn’t see anything at first. A witches’ cauldron was waiting for me out there: no street, only rubble nearly a metre high, glass, girders, stones, craters. I tried to get rid of the sparks by constantly patting them off my coat. It was useless. I stopped doing it, stumbled, and someone behind me called out, ‘Take your coat off, it’s started to burn.’ In the pervading extreme heat I hadn’t even noticed. I took off the coat and dropped it.

Dresden after the bombing

Next to me a woman was screaming continually, ‘My den’s burning down, my den’s burning down,’ and dancing in the street. As I go on, I can still hear her screaming but I don’t see her again. I run, I stumble, anywhere. I don’t even know where I am any more. I’ve lost all sense of direction because all I can see is three steps ahead.

Suddenly I fall into a big hole – a bomb crater, about six metres wide and two metres deep, and I end up down there lying on top of three women. I shake them by their clothes and start to scream at them, telling them they must get out of here – but they don’t move any more. I believe I was severely shocked by this incident; I seemed to have lost all emotional feeling. Quickly, I climbed across the women, pulled my suitcase after me, and crawled on all fours out of the crater.

To my left I suddenly see a woman. I can see her to this day and shall never forget it. She carries a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire. It’s only my eyes which take this in; I myself feel nothing. The woman remains lying on the ground, completely still. Why? What for? I don’t know, I just stumble on. The fire-storm is incredible, there are calls for help and screams from somewhere but all around is one single inferno. I hold another wet handkerchief in front of my mouth, my hands and my face are burning; it feels as if the skin is hanging down in strips.

On my right I see a big, burnt-out shop where lots of people are standing. I join them, but think, ‘No, I can’t stay here either, this place is completely surrounded by fire.’ I leave all these people behind, and stumble on. Where to? But every time towards those places where it is dark, in case there is no fire there. I have no conception of what the street actually looked like. But it is especially from those dark patches that the people come who wring their hands and cry the same thing over and over again: ‘You can’t carry on there, we’ve just come from there, everything is burning there!’ Wherever and to whomsoever I turn, always that same answer.

One of hundreds of such pyres

In front of me is something that might be a street, filled with a hellish rain of sparks which look like enormous rings of fire when they hit the ground. I have no choice. I must go through. I press another wet handkerchief to my mouth and almost get through, but I fall and am convinced that I cannot go on. It’s hot. Hot! My hands are burning like fire. I just drop my suitcase, I am past caring, and too weak. At least, there’s nothing to lug around with me any more.

I stumbled on towards where it was dark. Suddenly, I saw people again, right in front of me. They scream and gesticulate with their hands, and then – to my utter horror and amazement – I see how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground. I had a feeling that they were being shot, but my mind could not understand what was really happening. Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of lack of oxygen. They fainted and then burnt to cinders. I fall then, stumbling over a fallen woman and as I lie right next to her I see how her clothes are burning away. Insane fear grips me and from then on I repeat one simple sentence to myself continuously: ‘I don’t want to burn to death – no, no burning – I don’t want to burn!’ Once more I fall down and feel that I am not going to be able to get up again, but the fear of being burnt pulls me to my feet. Crawling, stumbling, my last handkerchief pressed to my mouth. . . I do not know how many people I fell over. I knew only one feeling: that I must not burn.

Then my handkerchiefs are all finished – it’s dreadfully hot – I can’t go on and I remain lying on the ground. Suddenly a soldier appears in front of me. I wave, and wave again. He comes over to me and I whisper into his ear (my voice has almost gone), ‘Please take me with you, I don’t want to bum.’ But that soldier was much too weak himself to lift me to my feet. He laid my two arms crosswise over my breast and stumbled on across me. I followed him with my eyes until he disappears somewhere in the darkness.

I try once more to get up on my feet, but I can only manage to crawl forward on all fours. I can still feel my body, I know I’m still alive. Suddenly, I’m standing up, but there’s something wrong, everything seems so far away and I can’t hear or see properly any more. As I found out later, like all the others, I was suffering from lack of oxygen. I must have stumbled forwards roughly ten paces when I all at once inhaled fresh air. There’s a breeze! I take another breath, inhale deeply, and my senses clear. In front of me is a broken tree. As I rush towards it, I know that I have been saved, but am unaware that the park is the Bürgerwiese.

I walk on a little and discover a car. I’m pleased and decide to spend the night in it. The car is full of suitcases and boxes but I find enough room on the rear seats to squeeze in. Another stroke of
good luck for me is that the car’s windows are all broken and I have to keep awake putting out the sparks which drifted in. I don’t know how long I sat there, when a hand suddenly descended on my shoulder and a man’s voice said, ‘Hello! you must get out of there.’ I got such a fright, because obviously someone was determined to force me away from my safe hiding place. I said, with great fear in my voice, ‘Please, allow me to stay here, I’ll give you all the money I’ve got on me.’ (If I think about this now it almost sounds like a joke.) But the answer I got was ‘No, I don’t want your money. The car is on fire.

‘Good God! I leapt out immediately and could see that indeed all four tyres were burning. I hadn’t noticed because of the tremendous heat.

Now I looked at the man and recognized him as the soldier who had put my arms across my chest. When I asked him, he confirmed it. Then he started to weep. He continued to stroke my back, mumbling words about bravery, Russian campaign. . . but this here, this is hell. I don’t grasp his meaning and offer him a cigarette.

We walk on a little way and discover two crouching figures. They were two men, one a railwayman who was crying because (in the smoke and debris) he could not find the way to his home. The other was a civilian who had escaped from a cellar together with sixty people, but had had to leave his wife and children behind, due to some dreadful circumstances. All three men were crying now but I just stood there, incapable of a single tear. It was as if I was watching a film. We spent half the night together, sitting on the ground too exhausted even to carry on a conversation. The continuous explosions didn’t bother us, but the hollow cries for help which came continuously from all directions were gruesome. Towards six o’clock in the morning, we parted.

I spent all the daylight hours which followed in the town searching for my fiance. I looked for him amongst the dead, because hardly any living beings were to be seen anywhere. What I saw is so horrific that I shall hardly be able to describe it. Dead, dead, dead everywhere. Some completely black like charcoal. Others completely untouched, lying as if they were asleep. Women in aprons, women with children sitting in the trams as if they had just nodded off. Many women, many young girls, many small children, soldiers who were only identifiable as such by the metal buckles on their belts, almost all of them naked. Some clinging to each other in groups as if they were clawing at each other.

From some of the debris poked arms, heads, legs, shattered skulls. The static water tanks were filled up to the top with dead human beings, with large pieces of masonry lying on top of that again. Most people looked as if they had been inflated, with large yellow and brown stains on their bodies. People whose clothes were still glowing. . . I think I was incapable of absorbing the meaning of this cruelty any more, for there were also so many little babies, terribly mutilated; and all the people lying so close together that it looked as if someone had put them down there, street by street, deliberately.

I then went through the Grosser Garten and there is one thing I did realize. I was aware that I had constantly to brush hands away from me, hands which belonged to people who wanted me to take them with me, hands which clung to me. But I was much too weak to lift anyone up. My mind took all this in vaguely, as if seen through a veil. In fact, I was in such a state that I did not realize that there was a third attack on Dresden. Late that afternoon I collapsed in the Ostra-Allee, where two men took me to a friend who lived on the outskirts of the city.

I asked for a mirror and did not recognize myself any more. My face was a mass of blisters and so were my hands. My eyes were narrow slits and puffed up, my whole body was covered in little black, pitted marks. I cannot understand to this day how I contracted these marks, because I was wearing a pair of long trousers and a jacket. Possibly the fire-sparks ate their way through my clothing.

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Published in: on January 14, 2010 at 12:39 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Hemingway on German Inflation, 1922

 

4,200 Billion Marks = $1.00 US

 

19 September 1922

Ernest Hemingway

During the immediate post-war years the value of the German mark deteriorated, largely as a result of reparation payments. In 1922 the exchange rate fell from 162 marks to the US dollar to 7000. By November 1923 it was down to 4200 billion marks to the dollar.

Kehl, Germany: The boy in a Strasburg motor agency where we went to make some inquiries about crossing the frontier, said, ‘Oh yes. It is easy to get over into Germany. All you have to do is go across the bridge.’

‘Don’t you need a visa?’ I said.

‘No. Just a permit stamp to go from the French.’ He took his passport out of his pocket and showed the back covered with rubber stamps. ‘See? I live there now because it is so much cheaper. It’s the way to make money.’

It is all right.

It is a three-mile streetcar ride from the centre of Strasburg out to the Rhine and when you get to the end of the line the car stops and everyone piles out to herd into a long picket-fenced pen that leads to the bridge. A French soldier with a fixed bayonet loafs back and forth across the road and watches the girls in the passport pen from under his steel-blue helmet. There is an ugly brick custom house at the left of the bridge and a wooden shed at the right where the French official sits behind a counter and stamps passports.

The Rhine is swift, yellow and muddy, runs between low, green banks, and swirls and sucks at the concrete abutments of the long, iron bridge. At the other end of the bridge you see the ugly little town of Kehl looking like some dreary section of Dundas [Toronto].

If you are a French citizen with a French passport the man back of the counter simply stamps your passport ‘sortie Pont de Kehl’ and you go across the bridge into occupied Germany. If you are a citizen of some other of the allied countries the official looks at you suspiciously, asks you where you are from, what you are going to Kehl for, how long you are going to stay, and then stamps your passport with the same sortie. If you should happen to be a citizen of Kehl who has been in Strasburg on business and is returning to dinner—and as Kehl’s interests are bound up in Strasburg’s as all suburbs are to the city they are attached to, you would be bound to have to go to Strasburg on business if you had any kind of business at all—you are held in line for fifteen to twenty minutes, your name is looked up in a card index to see if you have ever spoken against the French regime, your pedigree taken, questions put to you and finally you too are given the same old sortie. Everyone can cross the bridge but the French make it very nasty for the Germans.

Once across the muddy Rhine you are in Germany, and the German end of the bridge is guarded by a couple of the meekest and most discouraged-looking German soldiers you have ever seen. Two French soldiers with fixed bayonets walk up and down and the two German soldiers, unarmed, lean against a wall and look on. The French soldiers are in full equipment and steel helmets, but the Germans wear the old loose tunics and high peaked, peacetime caps.

I asked a Frenchman the functions and duties of the German guard.

‘They stand there,’ he answered.

There were no marks to be had in Strasburg, the mounting exchange had cleaned the bankers out days ago, so we changed some French money in the railway station at Kehl. For 10 francs I received 670 marks. Ten francs amounted to about 90 cents in Canadian money. That 90 cents lasted Mrs Hemingway and me for a day of heavy spending and at the end of the day we had 120 marks left!

Our first purchase was from a fruit stand beside the main street of Kehl where an old woman was selling apples, peaches and plums. We picked out five very good-looking apples and gave the old woman a 50 mark note. She gave us back 38 marks in change. A very nice-looking, white-bearded old gentleman saw us buy the apples and raised his hat.

‘Pardon me, sir,’ he said, rather timidly, in German, ‘how much were the apples?’

I counted the change and told him 12 marks.

He smiled and shook his head. ‘I can’t pay it. It is too much.’

He went up the street walking very much as white-bearded old gentlemen of the old regime walk in all countries, but he had looked very longingly at the apples. I wish I had offered him some. Twelve marks, on that day, amounted to a little under 2 cents. The old man, whose life’s savings were probably, as most of the nonprofiteer classes are, invested in German pre-war and war bonds, could not afford a 12 mark expenditure. He is a type of the people whose incomes do not increase with the falling purchasing value of the mark and the krone.

With marks at 800 to the dollar, or 8 to a cent, we priced articles in the windows of the different Kehl shops. Peas were 18 marks a pound, beans 16 marks; a pound of Kaiser coffee, there are still many ‘Kaiser’ brands in the German republic, could be had for 34 marks. Gersten coffee, which is not coffee at all but roasted grain, sold for 14 marks a pound. Flypaper was 150 marks a package. A scythe blade cost 150 marks, too, or 18 3/4 cents! Beer was 10 marks a stein or 1 3/4 cents.

Kehl’s best hotel, which is a very well turned-out place, served a five-course table d’hôte meal for 120 marks, which amounts to 15 cents in our money. The same meal could not be duplicated in Strasburg, three miles away, for a dollar.

Because of the customs regulations, which are very strict on persons returning from Germany, the French cannot come over to Kehl and buy up all the cheap goods they would like to. But they can come over and eat. It is a sight every afternoon to see the mob that storms the German pastry shops and tea places. The Germans make very good pastries, wonderful pastries, in fact, that, at the present tumbling mark rate, the French of Strasburg can buy for a less amount apiece than the smallest French coin, the one sou piece. This miracle of exchange makes a swinish spectacle where the youth of the town of Strasburg crowd into the German pastry shop to eat themselves sick and gorge on fluffy, cream-filled slices of German cake at 5 marks the slice. The contents of a pastry shop are swept clear in half an hour.

In a pastry shop we visited, a man in an apron, wearing blue glasses, appeared to be the proprietor. He was assisted by a typical ‘boche’-looking German with close-cropped head. The place was jammed with French people of all ages and descriptions, all gorging cakes, while a young girl in a pink dress, silk stockings, with a pretty, weak face and pearl ear-rings in her ears took as many of their orders for fruit and vanilla ices as she could fill.

She didn’t seem to care very much whether she filled the orders or not. There were soldiers in town and she kept going over to look out of the window.

The proprietor and his helper were surly and didn’t seem particularly happy when all the cakes were sold. The mark was falling faster than they could bake.

Meanwhile out in the street a funny little train jolted by, carrying the workmen with their dinner-pails home to the outskirts of the town, profiteers’ motor cars tore by raising a cloud of dust that settled over the trees and the fronts of all the buildings, and inside the pastry shop young French hoodlums swallowed their last cakes and French mothers wiped the sticky mouths of their children. It gave you a new aspect on exchange.

As the last of the afternoon tea-ers and pastry-eaters went Strasburg-wards across the bridge the first of the exchange pirates coming over to raid Kehl for cheap dinners began to arrive. The two streams passed each other on the bridge and the two disconsolate-Iooking German soldiers looked on. As the boy in the motor agency said, ‘It’s the way to make money.’

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Published in: on January 12, 2010 at 11:03 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Rimbaud

In his study of French modern poets, published in the Little Review, Ezra Pound emphasized the significance of Rimbaud and his place as a pioneer of the then new poetry. Although Rimbaud died in 1891, at the age of 37, and although he wrote practically nothing the last fifteen years of his life, it was only much later that French poets and critics awakened to the precocious achievement of this most mysterious figure of modern French literature. “The thing that stuns me,” Ezra Pound confessed, “is how so much could have escaped me when I read him five years ago. . . . I wonder in what other poet will we find such firmness of coloring and such certitude.” Mr. Pound continues:

“Laforgue conveys his content by comment, Corbiere by ejaculation, as if the words were wrenched and knocked out of him by fatality; by the violence of his feeling, Rimbaud presents a thick suave color, firm, even. . . .

“Rimbaud does not endanger his intensity by a chuckle. He is serious as Cézanne is serious. Comparisons across an art are always vague and inexact, and there are no real parallels; still it is possible to think of Corbiere a little as one thinks of Goya, without Goya’s Spanish, with infinite differences, but with a macabre intensity, and a modernity that we have not yet surpassed. There are possible grounds for comparisons of like sort between Rimbaud and Cézanne. . . . The actual writing of poetry has advanced little, or not at all since Rimbaud. Cézanne was the first to paint, as Rimbaud had written.”

About the time his first volume of poems appeared, in 1873, Jean Arthur Rimbaud disappeared, never again to take an interest in poetry. His life is summarized by Professor Lcwisohn in this manner: with the colonial troops of Holland, deserted and wandered through Java. He returned to Europe, traveled with a circus, but finally, helped by his family, departed definitely for the Orient, oblivious of the life of letters, living his literature, merchant in strange lands, purveyor of weapons to the Negus of Abyssinia, dying of a tumor of the knee in Marseilles whither he had gone to visit his family.”

This brief summary, unfortunately, gives the American reader no adequate idea of the amazing mystery and the fascinating problem of Jean Arthur Rimbaud’s strange life. Recent revelations published in the Mercure dc France, however, recount the story of his amazing precocity. Marcel Coulon states that the boy seemed to assimilate knowledge and languages in half the time of a normal child. At ten his mind was as mature as that of a youth of twenty. He was heartily disliked by his teachers and the townsfolk of Charlcville. His nature was diabolic. He sent his poems to Paul Verlaine, who replied to the boy in enthusiastic terms. Arthur planned to run away and join the Parnassian poets in Paris. At last he succeeded. He tried to “beat his way” on the provincial train and was arrested. Once he was sent home.

But finally the boy-poet did appear before Vcrlainc’s group. They had expected to see a man. Instead, a boy looking as tho he had escaped from a reform school stood before them. To follow the account of M. Coulon, Rimbaud “sponged” on the Vcrlaines, was silent, caustic, and scornful, and often, at the gatherings of the poets, impudent to his “betters.” It is recounted that the great Hugo praised him as “a child Shakespeare.” Rimbaud, with his characteristic surliness, called Hugo an “old windbag.”

A large Rimbaud literature has been produced in recent years. His old schoolmaster, his townsfolk, Madame Isabelle Rimbaud, Madame Verlaine, and innumerable others have spread information and misinformation about this boy-poet who in the early twenties deserted literature and civilization. At the time his name was introduced to the English public by George Moore the Rimbaud myth had grown to enormous proportions. He had become a bête noire [detested person], an imaginary figure of uncanny diabolism. Lepelletier called him Verlaine’s evil genius. It is true that Rimbaud started the quarrel between Verlaine and his wife. Verlaine and Rimbaud went to London together. Both were born tramps. They starved, but soaked themselves in alcohol. When they returned to Brussels and Rimbaud decided to go his own way, he was shot by the drunken Verlaine, who served a term in the prison of Mons for the crime. Yet, as Paterne Berrichon points out in his biography of Rimbaud, the most beautiful of Verlaine’s poems were written after he had felt the vibrant influence of Rimbaud, who was a miraculous alchemist in words. All of “Sagesse” was written in this prison. Verlaine willingly admitted his debt to Rimbaud’s originality. In literary disputes, whenever his opponent exclaimed, “Dante, Shakespeare, Racine! Goethe!” Verlaine would reply: “But you forget Arthur Rimbaud!”

Having sown his literary wild oats, Rimbaud returned home and then entered into a number of vocations. He was for a time a teacher in Germany. It is said that he sold key-rings in Paris and was even a longshoreman in Marseilles. This Gavroche [a fictional character from Hugo’s Les Misérables] of literature became truly, as a recent biographer notes, a sort of Peer Gynt—a more complete and more perfect Peer than Ibsen’s. Finally he buried himself in Africa. Before the age of twenty-three he had already joined the Dutch troops and had gone with them to Java and Sumatra. He had acted as interpreter for a French circus touring Scandinavia. His literary and poetic originality had completely transformed itself into daring adventure and vagabondage. In his twenty-fifth year, we read, he mocked at the literary achievements of his adolescence. Rimbaud never confessed why he abandoned poetry, tho many explanations have been offered. His sister, Isabelle Rimbaud, declared that poetry was part of her brother’s nature, but that it was only by prodigious will-power and for superior reasons that he held himself indifferent to literature. He was completely disdainful of fame. Neither his talent, his family, the charm of his native land, nor the attractions of European society held him.

Years after his disappearance the faithful Verlaine collected his verses and published them. Rimbaud, buried in the dark continent, had thought these follies of his youth were lost. He went into a towering rage upon hearing that his name was attracting attention in Paris. Until 1880, he was a trader in coffees and perfumes, “. . . and found repose in some place that pleases me. . . . But who knows how long my life may drag out in these mountains? And then to disappear among these tribes without ever being heard of again. . . . You speak to me of political news. If you only knew how indifferent I am to all that! For more than two years I haven’t seen a newspaper. All those debates are incomprehensible to me at present. Like the Mussulmans, I know that what happens happens, and that is all.”

In 1886 Rimbaud organized a caravan to carry guns and munitions into Abyssinia, to be sold to the emperor Menelik. The expedition was a failure. The hardships he was forced to undergo then and afterward resulted in the tumor of the knee which finally brought about his death in a Marseilles hospital, whither he had hastened in 1891. His complete poetical works were published four years later. Subsequent revelations of the extraordinary genius of Arthur Rimbaud have practically wiped away the sinister reputation the earlier critics had given him. Paterne Berrichon claims that he used the thirty-seven short years of his life in a superhuman and miraculous manner. At 16 he was a great poet and esthetic pioneer, the greatest stimulating influence of Verlaine’s poetic genius. Later in Africa, in an entirely different role, he won the love and respect of primitive tribes, mainly through his uncanny power of language and understanding.

Few of Rimbaud’s poems have been translated and published in English. Paul Scott Mowrer and Ludwig Lewisohn have both chosen “The Sleeper in the Valley,” written at the age of 15, as an example of Rimbaud’s mastery of the sonnet. Here is Ludwig Lewisohn’s version:

There’s a green hollow where a river sings
Silvering the torn grass in its glittering flight,
And where the sun from the proud mountain flings
Fire—and the little valley brims with light.
A soldier young, with open mouth, bare
head,
Sleeps with his neck in dewy water cress.
Under the sky and on the grass his bed.
Pale in the deep green and the light’s
excess.
He sleeps amid the iris and his smile
Is like a sick child’s slumbering for a
while. Nature, in thy warm lap his chilled limbs
hide!
The perfume does not thrill him from
his rest. He sleeps in sunshine, hand upon his
breast, Tranquil—with two red holes in his right
side.

Published in: on December 30, 2009 at 11:03 AM  Leave a Comment  
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