[ilds] The Tree of Idleness
michaelhaag at btinternet.com
Thu Jul 19 08:24:54 PDT 2007
The Tree of Idleness does seem to be one of those poems where Durrell
is surveying the whole of his life. James points to the connection
between the idleness of this poem and the 'perfect idleness' of Cities,
Plains and People, an earlier resume of his existence. Charles' remark
that this poem is 'a trauma case' strikes me as being what this poem is
When Durrell writes 'I shall die one day I suppose', he is not
supposing that he will die one day, rather the supposing refers to
where he will die:
'I shall die one day I suppose / In this old Turkish house I inhabit'.
This is Durrell still in his early days on Cyprus. When exactly the
poem was written, I do not know, but the bound volume bearing the title
The Tree of Idleness of which this poem is a part was published in
March, I think, 1955. So the poem was written on Cyprus in 1953 or
1954. Durrell did not take up his government post until the summer of
1954, and EOKA violence did not erupt until 1 April 1955. This poem
does not appear to have been written under the cloud of those political
events which gave rise to the poem Bitter Lemons.
Durrell's sentiment about dying there in that house in that village,
the village of Bellapaix, brings to mind a letter he wrote to Henry
Miller on 20 November 1953 (see Durrell-Miller Letters 273-4) in which
he says 'I insist on dying along this holy and pre-Xian shore'. He is
referring to the Mediterranean. Durrell had arrived in Cyprus earlier
that year and must have felt relieved, after Belgrade, and before that
Argentina, to be on the shores of the Mediterranean again. He has
returned to that place where he feels at home, even where he felt
Bananas do grow in Cyprus and Greece, and they grow in India. They are
not indigenous to any of those countries. I do not see that Durrell is
making a political point here.
My attention is caught by the lines, 'Will I be more or less dead /
Than the village in memory's dispersing / Springs ...?' Again, I doubt
that this has anything to do with James' reference to 'rising civil
strife' as there was as yet no significant strife. Instead it reminds
me of Durrell equating death with loss of memory, or equating memory
with life, which is one of his themes in Nunquam. The word 'No' in the
poem is immediately explained: 'No: the card-players in tabs of shade /
Will play on'; life in the village will continue, even as 'the aerial
springs / [will] Hiss', that is memory will be dispersed. It is as
though individual memory, and individual lives, will pass, but the
greater existence, the Mediterranean existence along 'this holy shore'
will continue, and Durrell finds some comfort in planting his body
there and being part of that.
So what about the trauma that Charles mentions? I do not want to get
into this much, but the giveaway for me is the last line of the first
stanza, 'On the sill in a jam-jar a rock-rose'. Like Durrell's other
objects, for example the rings, the black eye patch, in Justine, they
cry of meaninglessness when they have no associations, when they are
not given a story.
> *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.
> 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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