"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wednesday Wonder Question I: Bishop and Orwell?

Monday’s “Today in Bishop” quotation from her poem “Varick Street” has prompted me to wonder whether George Orwell happened to read it when it was published in The Nation in the March 15, 1947 issue: there is a striking similarity between its haunting refrain “And I shall sell you, sell you, sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me” and the lyric quoted more than once in his Nineteen Eighty-Four:

“Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me.”

Orwell scholars have traced this couplet back to the lyrics of a song made popular by Glenn Miller in April, 1939, a few months before the beginning of the Second World War; the music was by Hal Kemp, the words by J. And H. Kennedy:

“Underneath the spreading chestnut tree
I loved him and he loved me
There I used to sit up on his knee
´Neath the spreading chestnut tree
There beneath the boughs we used to meet
All his kisses were so sweet
All the little birdies went „tweet-tweet“
´Neath the spreading chestnut tree
He said „I love you“, and there ain’t no if‘s or but’s
I said „I love you“, and the blacksmith shouted „Chestnut!“
Underneath the spreading chestnut tree
There he said he’d marry me
Now you oughta see our family
´Neath the spreading chestnut tree."

One can imagine that this scat on Longfellow’s famous “Village Blacksmith” would have appealed to the Bishop who was to write “In the Village.” Might not both Orwell and Bishop have been drawing upon it as a subtext?

Bishop mentions Orwell at least once in her correspondence, in a letter to Kit and Ilse Barker from May 24, 1953, in the midst of an account of her reading of Charles Dickens:
“Well, while you read Lorna Doone I’ve been here in bed reading Dickens. I really never had, very much, and I have polished off Martin Chuzzlewit, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, his U.S. travels (guaranteed to raise my fever). How can Orwell say he was just being fair? – but then Orwell was never in the U.S., and Edmund Wilson says he asked if it wasn’t true that English had deteriorated so much there that we had no separate words for insects but called them all ‘bugs’ – and now am in A Tale of Two Cities.”
[One Art, Letters Selected and Edited by Robert Giroux, (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994), p. 265].

Presumably Bishop is referring to Orwell’s essay on Dickens, first published in Inside the Whale & Other Essays (1940):
“It would be an exaggeration to say that he nowhere pokes fun at foreigners, and of course like nearly all nineteenth-century Englishmen, he is untouched by European culture. But never anywhere does he indulge in the typical English boasting, the ‘island race’, ‘bulldog breed’, ‘right little, tight little island’ style of talk. In the whole of A Tale of Two Cities there is not a line that could be taken as meaning, ‘Look how these wicked Frenchmen behave!’ The only place where he seems to display a normal hatred of foreigners is in the American chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit. This, however, is simply the reaction of a generous mind against cant. If Dickens were alive today he would make a trip to Soviet Russia and come back to the book rather like Gide's Retour de L'URSS. But he is remarkably free from the idiocy of regarding nations as individuals.”

A second mention of Orwell in Bishop’s correspondence is not something she wrote, but something which was written to her, by Robert Lowell, in a letter from August 23, 1968:
“Things worked out much better with Mary [McCarthy], but her guests are almost as dull and as many as the Eberharts: I faint at the thought of what has passed through here: American common market people with French names and American fortunes; all summer, the sweet, drunken, never silent widow of George Orwell; [...]”
[Words in Air, the Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton, (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2008), p. 645].

“Sweet, drunken, never silent”... I wonder what passed through Bishop’s mind as these words passed beneath her gaze?

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