[ilds] RG Bitter Lemons -- Tree of Idleness & Swallows Gather

James Gifford odos.fanourios at gmail.com
Wed Jul 18 19:19:04 PDT 2007

Hello all,

I must admit that I'm plagiarizing my wife when I write some of this, 
but since she came up with the ideas while we were chatting about 
_Bitter Lemons_   last Spring, I don't feel all that guilty.  Grant 
credit to Lindsay Parker for my comments on the poem here.

To reiterate my (apparently only) point again, I don't think we've yet 
exhausted the epigraphs for _Bitter Lemons_, and Charles' quotation of 
the poem that bears the same name as one of the chapters in the 'novel' 
drives this point home.

In reference to Charles' email below here (which has the full poem "Tree 
of Idleness"), my gut instinct the first (and most recent) time I read 
this was for a Keatsian "then": "when I...  I...  when... ... ... ; Then 
I...!"  The first line of "Tree of Idleness" has one of those moments I 
would dwell on endlessly, either in the classroom or the bar.  "I shall 
die one day I suppose" -- wow.  To take what some would consider the 
central dilemma to the human condition (none of us gets out of here 
alive), qualify is with "I suppose," and wrap the whole thing up with a 
succession of personal pronouns (this is all predicated on a notion of 
the "I," which is precisely the thing dying) is a heady mix indeed. 
When we speak the line, do we add a caesura of sorts before that "I 

But how does that relate to the poem and its epigraphs?  Well, we start 
_Bitter Lemons_ with an immediate invocation of the island's colonial 
and imperial history, as on place acquired by another.  Durrell updates 
that with a historical reference to the Suez Canal, which no 
contemporary reader would move past without shifting place or recrossing 
his/her legs in the chair, with noticeable discomfort...  And when we 
get to this chapter, sharing a name with an already published poem, what 
comparisons arise?

Durrell's "deadness" in the face of rising civil strife is "more or less 
dead," which is not how I would describe most deaths: give or take a 
little bit, he was dead...  The qualifications of this spectre of death 
pervade the poem, but with another problem more closely related to 
_BL_'s epigraphs and background:

"The lack of someone spreading like a stain."
  -- Eve's stain?  Let's not forget that 'stain' is 'bruised' in the 
poem, again returning to the theme of injury.

"A ragged banana-leaf outside and here
On the sill"
  -- the last time I checked, the banana was not an indigenous species 
to Cyprus.  Tying this image to himself in the opening stanza strikes me 
as significant, such as a Cornish farmer growing corn in Scotland... 
After all, who is on that sill along with the "ragged" foreign species 
of plant, watching the locals?  I think it's the author...  Durrell 
certainly felt himself to be a transplanted species of fauna now making 
Cyprus his home, so the transplanted banana leaf seems to mirror him, 
yet it is both aloof from and unable to be with the life below under the 
tree, in perfect idleness.  Durrell is instead observing and writing 
from his distance on high, recalling his own mortality -- and let's not 
forget how "Cities, Plains, People" opens with the call to "perfect 

The oddities I can't fully resolve in this poem nor the novel (hence 
making both more rich than a simple story) is what to do with the brown 
(Cypriot) fingers moving in darkness in tandem to Durrell's finger's 
typing the poem.  These figures are also not idle, so Durrell the 
mortality-riddled writer has found someone with whom he has something in 
common, and it's someone he does not observe with the power of seeing 
and observing without being seen (think of any 'sniper' film you've ever 
seen).  A gaze indeed...

Does this mean his artistic expression is his own sublimation of the 
destructive urges of the "terrorists"; are they engaged in the same 
struggle through different means; why would he align his fingers with 
those that search in the dark for his own life while he writes about 
theirs; why tie the typing to kissing, especially with those foreign 
lips/fingers moving over one's own bed; and why is it before the 
pastoral shepherds, which somehow suggests the rural or landscape 
figures escape the politics?  Perhaps Durrell would be happier in the 
rural life he enjoyed on Corfu rather than his more urbane and political 
life on Cyprus.

And perhaps more; how does all of this tie into the Suez Crisis?  Many 
fingers are moving here and at this point in time.

I have only hunches for these questions, but I think they lead to rich 
readings regardless of any clarity in the biography.  Whatever Durrell 
may have biographically felt, he has a rich notion of ambiguity in a 
text, and he made it rich indeed.  As he wrote, good writing should 
pullulate with ambiguity (Lindsay pointed that line out to me as well, 
but I rather like it).

So, my question is, how does the word "No" in the poem relate to the 
rest of _Bitter Lemons_ as a 'novel' or "The Tree of Idleness" as a 
chapter?  I have a theory, but I don't want to muddy the water first by 
stating it...  I'll only admit that I see the feeling of futility in it, 
but my hunch is that it provokes something more.

Moreover, how does the implored silence at the end of this poem relate 
to the "better leave the rest unsaid" in the poem that ends _Bitter 
Lemons_?  I don't think they're quite the same silence, but they point 
to the same problems.  And why are the typewriter keys "worn"?  We know 
Durrell regularly mocked writing poetry at the typewriter rather than by 
hand in a notebook, so why set up this image here only to give the 
typewriter keys a "worn" nature?  I suspect it's thematic rather than 
serious advice for young writers...


slighcl wrote:
> Dear Reading Group:
> The next chapters in /Bitter Lemons/ open for consideration will be "The 
> Tree of Idleness" and "The Swallows Gather."
> Best of evenings--
> Charles
>             *THE TREE OF IDLENESS [from Collected Poems: 1931-1974
>             (1985), Faber and Faber]*
>             I shall die one day I suppose
>             In this old Turkish house I inhabit:
>             A ragged banana-leaf outside and here
>             On the sill in a jam-jar a rock-rose.
>             Perhaps a single pining mandolin
>             Throbs where cicadas have quarried
>             To the heart of all misgiving and there
>             Scratches on silence like a pet locked in.
>             Will I be more or less dead
>             Than the village in memory's dispersing
>             Springs, or in some cloud of witness see,
>             Looking back, the selfsame road ahead?
>             By the moist clay of a woman's wanting,
>             After the heart has stopped its fearful
>             Gnawing, will I descry between
>             This life and that another sort of haunting?
>             No: the card-players in tabs of shade
>             Will play on: the aerial springs
>             Hiss: in bed lying quiet under kisses
>             Without signature, with all my debts unpaid
>             I shall recall nights of squinting rain,
>             Like pig-iron on the hills: bruised
>             Landscapes of drumming cloud and everywhere
>             The lack of someone spreading like a stain.
>             Or where brown fingers in the darkness move,
>             Before the early shepherds have awoken,
>             Tap out on sleeping lips with these same
>             Worn typewriter keys a poem imploring
>             Silence of lips and minds which have not spoken.
>             1955/1955
>             Author's Note
>             The title of this poem is taken from the name of the tree
>             which stands outside Bellapaix Abbey in Cyprus, and which
>             confers the gift of pure idleness on all who sit under it.

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