[ilds] BITTER LEMONS the poem

Denise Tart & David Green dtart at bigpond.net.au
Fri Feb 18 23:38:26 PST 2011


I agree fully with you that the Bitter Lemons refer to the bitter experience of Durrell's time on Cyprus; the Greece he loved turned nasty. I don't think that we need to go into all that sweet sour stuff.  Lemons have a symbolic meaning in Greece. Girls want to the gods to 'lemon them' - give them breasts. so the lemon as a voluptuous expression of sexuality and the Greek landscape which Durrell loved so much becomes bitter due to bitter experience (Durrell Carried a revolver during his last months on Cyprus).

Now, jumping to 'habits half a life time dead' which drew little response, I had a thought, chardonnay inspired I must confess, along the following lines: in 1957 Durrell was 45 years old, half a lifetime before that he was 22/23 and the year 1935, about the time he arrived on the island of Corfu. There is something reflective here, sometime dating to this time, some mode of thought or being. Perhaps the 'dry grass under foot' bringing back better memories of his Corfiot life. But the word revises is interesting. the habits will not be the same again; changed by experience Larry will return to serious writing, as he attempted on Corfu, only he will much better at it this time... and indeed many would say he was much better, the Quartet and Bitter Lemons (novel) coming out that year..

Darkness, vehemence - this is Cyprus during Enosis??  contrasting Rhodes - the sunny Colossus...

Cleary a collision with island reality that Durrell does not want to go into but the Greek sea, the sea eternal, washes over all, sighing softly upon the truth of our doings but not wishing to speak of them...

David Hanwood Chardonnay

From: Ozlem Ince 
Sent: Friday, February 18, 2011 12:52 AM
To: ilds at lists.uvic.ca 
Subject: Re: [ilds] BITTER LEMONS the poem

Lemons are a good sequel to the "sea, sand and sun" trinity associated with the islands. Morocco has its tangerins as well...Durrell might have wanted to express his "bitter" experiences, but not in a personal way. So, he used the word bitter in conjunction with lemon, to avoid any personal statement..

From: Bruce Redwine <bredwine1968 at earthlink.net>
To: ilds at lists.uvic.ca
Cc: Bruce Redwine <bredwine1968 at earthlink.net>
Sent: Wed, February 16, 2011 11:22:08 PM
Subject: Re: [ilds] BITTER LEMONS the poem

Anne and Ken, 

It's useful to study Durrell diction which shows how he goes about creating his inner "world."

Re "bitter lemons" as a variety of lemons, did LGD know colloquial eastern Arabic?  Does Cyprus have this variety?  Does Durrell ever refer to "sweet lemons" and enable a comparison?  I only find references to "bitter lemons" in this book.  Perhaps he has the bitter variety in mind.  Perhaps all these questions are true, although the fact that sweet lemons have little "commercial value" would argue against the distinction.  Aside from the questionable validity of my comment on "bitter," I'm suggesting that Durrell creates his own semantic field in this poem, one which relies on repetition, redundancy, and contradiction — all of which have meaning within the context of "habits half a lifetime dead" or not.

I wonder if the skin of the "sweet lemon" is dark.  Perhaps someone can comment.

The bitter-sour distinction is correct.  I find, however, no references to "sour" in Bitter Lemons but twelve to "sweet."  Old LD definitely had a sweet tooth.  Whether he confused sour with bitter, as I do, is open to debate.

I also find it interesting that the darkness at the end of Bitter Lemons (1957) turns to light at the beginning of Clea (1960).  The novel opens thus:  "The oranges were more plentiful than usual that year.  They glowed in their arbours of burnished green leaf like lanterns, flickering up there among the sunny woods."  So, instead of "dark globes" we have bright "lanterns" of fruit.  In my mind's eye, the islands are the same, Cyprus, where Justine was written, where I see Darley residing in exile.  This fits a stage in Durrell's life.  Things were must sunnier for him in 1960.


On Feb 16, 2011, at 11:15 AM, Anne R Zahlan wrote:

  In response to this comment and just for the record:

    2.  "Bitter Lemons" — the title is redundant.  When are lemons not bitter?  I'll make the bold statement that Durrell indulges in redundancy for a reason, which is more than simple emphasis.  I link redundancy to repetition, a certain obsessiveness.

      In fact there are "sweet lemons" (see below).  In colloquial eastern Arabic, the following terms exist "lemon helou" sweet lemon(s) and "lemon hamoud" sour lemon(s).
    Sweet Lemon (C. limetta Risso)–a general name for certain non-acid lemons or limettas, favored in the Mediterranean region, In India, they are grown in the Nilgiris, Malabar and other areas. The fruits are usually insipid, occasionally subacid or acid. The seeds are white within and the tree is large, resembling that of the orange. One cultivar, called 'Dorshapo' after the plant explorers, Dorsett, Shamel and Popenoe, who introduced it from Brazil in 1914, resembles the 'Eureka' in most respects except for the lack of acidity. Another, called 'Millsweet', apparently was introduced into California from Mexico and planted in a mission garden. It was reproduced at the old University of California Experiment Station at Pomona. Neither is of any commercial value.

    ----- Original Message -----
    From: Bruce Redwine
    To: ilds at lists.uvic.ca
    Cc: Bruce Redwine
    Sent: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 1:28 PM
    Subject: Re: [ilds] BITTER LEMONS the poem


    The full title of "Loeb's Horace" is "On First Looking into Loeb's Horace" (1943), an allusion to Keats's sonnet, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" and those "realms of gold."  The late Peter Porter called it Durrell's greatest.  It's difficult.  I've published and commented on this before, as has James, so I won't repeat.  Our readings are just about diametrically opposed, which attests, I think, to the poem's greatness.

    Here are some notes on "Bitter Lemons," an easier poem to understand, as far as "easy" ever applies to LGD.  It's another great poem and one of my favorites.

    1.  The poem appears at the end of the book of the same title, so it's only natural to take it as coda and summa.  But just as the book leaves a lot "unsaid," particularly in biographical detail, so does the poem.

    2.  "Bitter Lemons" — the title is redundant.  When are lemons not bitter?  I'll make the bold statement that Durrell indulges in redundancy for a reason, which is more than simple emphasis.  I link redundancy to repetition, a certain obsessiveness.

    3.  "The dark globes of the fruit."  Fruit is not specified, but the reader naturally assumes that to be lemons.  But when are yellow lemons "dark," especially in the light of the "moon's cool fevers?"  And when are fevers ever "cool?"  Durrell likes paradox, oxymoron, contradiction.

    4.  The use of "dark" recalls the "dark crystal" imagery of Prospero's Cell (pp. 11, 133), The Greek Islands (p. 21), and "Letter to Seferis the Greek" (l. 11).  In this regard, I'd even include The Dark Labyrinth.  Dark has special meaning for LDG.  He sees darkness in light, something similar to Milton's "darkness visible."

    5.  "Beauty, darkness, vehemence" — what do these nouns refer to?  A whole line of abstractions, the kind of thing poets are not supposed to do.  Isn't "be specific" the thing usually taught in Writing Poetry 1A?   A couple of years ago Michael Haag pointed out to me that similar words appeared earlier in the Epilogue to Reflections on a Marine Venus:  "the dark vehement grace of E."  E refers to Eve Cohen, Durrell's second wife, and Eve figures in the background of Bitter Lemons, but she goes "unsaid," unless you want to pick her out of the "dementia" of Turner's Venice at the beginning.  To understand LGD fully you have to absorb just about everything he wrote.  He cross-references himself.

    6.  Finally, note the repetition of the two concluding lines, "Keep its calms like tears unshed."  The lines beautifully mimic the action of waves, "the Greek sea's curly head."  Moreover, the rhymes of unsaid/unshed repeat and underscore the hidden aspects of the poem.  The poem "Bitter Lemons" suggests to me that Lawrence Durrell is hiding a lot of personal pain and using poetry as a means of catharsis.


    On Feb 15, 2011, at 10:53 PM, Ken Gammage wrote:

      Apparently I don’t have “Loeb’s Horace” in my Dutton paperback The Poetry of Lawrence Durrell (1962). However, I do have “BITTER LEMONS,” – and yes, I agree that this poem is about hiding or suppressing feelings: pain, sadness, memories, emotions. “Better leave the rest unsaid," - he wants to be understated, and yes he is bitter. "Keep its calms like tears unshed.” He doesn’t want to cause any more trouble. But still – even understated, even hiding something: the poem leaves a powerful impression. I don’t know more about it at the moment: when it was written in relation to the book. But knowing what we know about the subject matter, it is terribly sad.
      -- Ken

      From: ilds-bounces at lists.uvic.ca [ilds-bounces at lists.uvic.ca] On Behalf Of Bruce Redwine [bredwine1968 at earthlink.net]
      Sent: Thursday, February 10, 2011 11:40 AM
      To: ilds at lists.uvic.ca
      Cc: Bruce Redwine
      Subject: [ilds] CPC and LGD


      The way you "inhaled" Cavafy on a rainy night was the way I first read Durrell in 1958.  The two are very different poets, however.  Cavafy is better at infusing his feelings into everyday objects, as in "The Afternoon Sun" and "In the Evening."  In contrast, I think Durrell uses his poetry to hide his emotions, "Bitter Lemons," for example, or "Loeb's Horace."  A poem I like, H. R. Stoneback's "Meditation on an Old Photograph IX:  Larry and Sparrow in the Dark Garden at Sommières — June 1986," in the current issue of Deus Loci, owes more to Cavafy than to Durrell, I think.  That I find ironic, given the publication, the title, and the appearance of Durrell himself.


      On Feb 9, 2011, at 8:51 PM, Ken Gammage wrote:

        I don’t think we need be overly concerned about whether Durrell is popular at the moment. Ephemera is popular. Whole genres of human endeavor in the arts go out of popular favor - like Jazz, which was last truly popular music (in the U.S. at least) in the 1940s, before bebop became too challenging for many listeners. For Jazz fans, as well as LD fans, this should be irrelevant. There are many other topics to address on the list. What about the 1987 BBC-TV series My Family and Other Animals, with Anthony Calf portraying Larry Durrell? I would like to see this again – I may have seen some of it on VHS at the time. What of C.P. Cavafy? There is much more to be said about his role as muse to the Quartet. I picked up the Rae Dalven translation on a rainy night in Berkeley a few years ago – and inhaled it! I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and read a whole book by a single poet before, rapt. But I still like Durrell’s translation of “The Afternoon Sun” in Clea the best.

        -- Ken


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