Monday, 24 November 2014

TOULOUSE-LAUTREC AND JANE AVRIL...

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (November 24 1864 - September 9 1901)


Today, November 24th, in the year of 1864, the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in Albi, in France. He was to grow up and find his fame in the Post Impressionist period, inspired by all the Bohemian excesses of Paris in the 1890's. It was there he created his glamorous paintings - and in many of those creations he was to depict a dancer whose name was Jane Avril.




Jane Avril was a beautiful girl (though she was extremely thin, with pale skin and tresses of red gold hair) who had become quite infamous for performing the Cancan at the Jardin de Paris: a fashionable Parisian dance hall situated in the Champs-Elysees.




Lautrec had been employed to illustrate an advertisement for the hall, and the dancer who featured in his striking poster soon became very fond indeed of the diminutive artist - for whom congenital childhood illnesses resulted in legs which did not grow, with an adult height of around five foot.




The two friends came from very different backgrounds. Lautrec had been born into one of France's oldest noble families, and that family must have been disappointed when this talented young man's ambitions were not quite as lofty as they might have been - being so irresistibly drawn to night clubs such as the Moulin Rouge where he used his art to record the seedier side of Montmarte life; the area that was then a haunt of artists, writers and philosophers.


At the Moulin Rouge (1892-93)


There, amongst all the working girls, he was to meet Jane Avril. She was living in a Parisian brothel where it was said that she was the child of a famous courtesan, her absent father rumoured to have been a foreign aristocrat. She was originally named as Jeanne, but preferred to use Jane for her stage career - thinking it sounded English, and the epitome of 'chic'. Perhaps that renaming was also an attempt to forget an abusive past which resulted in her leaving home when she was only thirteen years old - very soon afterwards taken in by the Paris' Salpetriere psychiatric hospital.

While there, when attending a fancy-dress ball, Jane discovered her love of dance - the art form that would become her 'cure'. However, some nervous mannerisms exhibited during her illness (perhaps the condition St Vitus' Dance) were never quite lost when she performed, leading to some observers saying that she looked like a big jerky bird, or 'an orchid in a frenzy'. She was also known as 'La Melinite' (a form of explosive dynamite), and Jane La Folle (Crazy Jane).


Jane Avril (1891-92) - looking somewhat artistocratic


Lautrec saw Avril as more than a nickname, much more than another dancing girl. He viewed her as a complete being. Yes, she was the flame that shone in the darkness of his demimonde when he painted her in such glamorous poses. But he also presented her everyday - the somewhat more melancholic Jane. In those paintings she often seems to be somewhat older than her years, looking frail and tired, and nervous.


Jane Avril leaving the Moulin Rouge (1892)


Lautrec was prone to visit his muse at all hours of the day and night, often studying her features and mannerisms while taking her out to restaurants. In 1895, when she bore an illegitimate son, some suggested the child might be Lautrec's. But others think it doubtful that the friends were ever lovers. Lautrec had many insecurities, acutely aware of his physical defects. He took more and more to drinking (being particularly fond of cocktails with Absinthe and Cognac) and was also infected with Syphilis. He was only 31 years old.





It seemed that Jane was luckier, for a little while at least. At the age of 42 she met and married the German artist, Biais. The couple duly set up home in the Parisian outskirts. But her husband soon began to stray and when he died in 1926 she was left to live in poverty, eventually dying in an old people's home when she was seventy-five years old.




But her youth will always be preserved in the portraits created by Lautrec, along with his other visions of the French late nineteenth century nightlife. His brave and original style is filled with suh colour and vibrant life which still continues to lure us now - as does the life of Jane Avril, more recently reinterpreted when, in 2001, Nicole Kidman played the part of the dancer in the film Moulin Rouge.

Signature of Toulouse-Lautrec

Thursday, 6 November 2014

DRUGS, BLOOD AND HUMAN SKULLS...



Hidden beneath the oak-beamed roof of St Thomas' church in historic Southwark, you will find a 300 year-old garret once used by St Thomas' apothecary for the storage and curing of the herbs that were used for medicinal purposes.



Some wards of St Thomas' hospital were built around this baroque church - and connected to the garret itself is the Old Operating Theatre; the only such theatre to survive from the 19th century, complete with its wooden operating table and also the observation stands from which spectators and medical students could witness the surgeries being performed.

It was in this unique historical venue that The VV presented the following talk entitled: Drugs, Blood and Human Skulls - with some truly haunting music provided by Kirsten Morrison.




While you were in the Herb Garret earlier on tonight, while surrounded by hanging skeletons, and those instruments of torture once used as a matter of course in the treatment of many ailments – whether cupping, or bleeding, or trepanning – which is boring holes into human skulls – and more of skulls later on ...well, perhaps you also chanced to stand beneath one of the attic rafters, where, back in 1821, the dried heads of opium poppies were found – just one of the herbal ingredients in common use for centuries to alleviate pain of the body, or mind.




When it comes to Victorian London, and drugs, we often think of opium dens - those fetid, fuggy Limehouse shacks in narrow alleys by the docks where Chinese dealers supplied addicts with pipes. Chasing the dragon. Lost in dreams. 




But, such scenes were never that common in real Victorian life, more likely to be found within Sensation novels of the time. Or, as in Charles Dickens’ Edwin Drood - a powerful condemnation of the evils of addiction, when at the very start we see a character who is: "Shaking from head to foot, the man whose scattered consciousness has thus fantastically pieced itself together, at length rises, supports his trembling frame upon his arms, and looks around."




He wouldn’t have to look too far for his daily dose of opium. Victorian England was awash with the drug – and yes, opium did come from China, but the poppy was also processed into resin in Indian factories before ending up upon the shelves of every English pharmacy – and mostly ingested though powders or potions, and often leading to overdose, with many children lost while doped with supposedly innocent tinctures of cough medicine, or teething drops.




Mrs Winslow had much to answer for, with advertisements which offered: 

ADVICE TO MOTHERS!—Are you broken in your rest by a sick child? Go at once to a chemist and get a bottle of MRS. WINSLOW’S SOOTHING SYRUP. It is perfectly harmless and pleasant to taste, it produces natural quiet sleep so that the little cherub awakes “as bright as a button.” It soothes the child, it softens the gums, allays all pain, regulates the bowels, and is the best known remedy for dysentery and diarrhoea. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup is sold by Medicine dealers everywhere at 1s. 11⁄2d. per bottle. Manufactured in New York and at 498, Oxford- street, London.




First marketed in 1864, one fluid ounce of this soothing syrup contained 65 grams of morphine! No wonder the child on the left of this advert appears to be in a comatose state – not knowing what it wants the most – mother’s milk, or Winslow’s syrup!




Among the adult offerings there was Gee’s Linctus, or Collis Brown’s Chlorodyne, and for more recreational pursuits ‘confections’ were packaged like boxes of chocolates, with individual twists of powders sweetened with sugar or syrup. They do look quite appealing!




But perhaps the most popular potion to sit in Victorian medicine chests, or to lie close at hand on bedside stands, were the ladylike bottles of laudanum, which even Queen Victoria used for headaches and her menstrual cramps. A potent narcotic it was as well, containing all opium alkaloids, including morphine and codeine.


                                   Ophelia by Millais - the painting is owned by Tate Britain.


The beautiful Lizzie Siddal, the Pre-Raphaelite model who married Rossetti (and in the image above she is shown when she  posed for the tragic role of Shakespeare's Ophelia for a painting created by Millais) was hopelessly addicted. And her own sad fate may well have inspired her sister in law, Christina Rosetti, to write the disturbing poem known as Goblin Market - a subversive, so called fairy tale which is full of longing for sex, and drugs, and in which another Lizzie is seduced by the juice that the goblins sell – those goblins like devils come from Hell: ‘Their fruits like honey to the throat, But as a poison to the blood.’

Goblin Market - illustration by Arthur Rackham


That poison may have been the cause of the stillbirth of Lizzie Siddal's daughter. The next child she conceived was never born, when Lizzie slipped into a coma one night, following an overdose... after which Rossetti painted his wife with a poppy flower in her hands; the source of the drug that killed her.


Beatra Betrix by Rossetti 



And at this point I'd like to introduce a truly haunting, mournful song called GONE, from a poem by Lizzie Siddal, and with music composed and the words then sung by the talented Kirsten Morrison -






A sweetly touching, poignant song for a life with such a bitter end – after which something quite ghoulish occurred, because at the time of her burial in London’s Highgate Cemetery, Rossetti melodramatically wound a book of his poems through Lizzie's hair, and there it remained for seven years, until, when in need of money, and in something of an artistic rut, he returned to the grave at the dead of night, dug up the coffin, untangled the book, and was said to be shocked to see the corpse, and the way his wife’s lustrous red locks had continued to grow so much in death – almost appearing as Undead – a character from a vampire tale inspired by the use of Opium – when subconscious imaginations might conjure lurid fantasies. 




Dreams of blood. Dreams of death. And, drugs inspired many Victorian writers; writers like Bram Stoker, who may well have suffered dreadful dreams after seeing this Crusader’s mummified corpse in the crypt of St Michin’s Dublin church; a corpse which almost looks as if some blood might bring it back to life again – despite having met its end getting on for a thousand years before. And when writing his novel, Dracula, the middle aged Stoker may well have known that his own death was then close at hand - because of the blight of syphilis.




With no antibiotics to cure the contagion, the Victorians only had Mercury – the side affects of which could be as vile as the disease itself – with ulcers, hair loss, headaches, weight loss, fatigue, disfigurement, paralysis, blindness, madness too. A nightmare! A real life horror tale! And I often think of Dracula as being a vivid allegory for the sexually transmitted blood disease that could even be spread to a child in the womb. It was therefore an eternal threat, never to die with the victim’s flesh – and perfectly personified in the character of the vampire.




But The Undead existed in literature well before Bram Stoker’s Dracula. James Malcolm Rymer created his demon in 1847, when writing Varney the Vampyre, a macabre literary best-seller with a great deal of sexy sucking and slurping which was serialized in Penny Dreadfuls; cheap newspapers sold upon the streets that the urban poor snatched up in droves ... and how they would have thrilled to read the start of Varney’s Feast of Blood  - “How the graves give up their dead... how the night air hideous grows with shrieks!” –

The grave in question holds the corpse of an English aristocrat who, having been hung for some heinous deed, is then revived by a medical student, with echoes of Frankenstein perhaps? Sir Francis Varney then becomes the embodiment of the living dead, who is each night revived again when bathed in rays of moonlight, and immersed in darkest shadows he carries out depravities, feasting on young virgins' blood, until he eventually ends this spree – an end that I refer to in my novel, The Goddess and the Thief, where my narrator - a virgin herself - is suffering with a sore throat and wanders into her grandmother’s bedroom...and sees a bottle on the stand of Mrs Winslow’s Soothing syrup -


What harm could it do to sip at that ... such a tingling warmth in my throat and breast, and – well – how soothed I seemed to be when I lay on my grandmother’s quilt a while.... and soon became entirely lost in some musty yellowed papers. Had my grandmother read those ‘Feasts of Blood’? Such salacious tales they were! And Varney’s fate – how terrible – when, in the final installment, when consumed by guilt and dark despair, the vampire ended his own life in the flames of a volcano ... there to burn for the whole of eternity...





For all that excitement I fell asleep...but the vampire’s tale caused me to dream, and in that dream I saw a skull, a skull all burned and charred and black, which then began to speak to me. And its voice – it seemed familiar – when it asked, ‘Why dost thou shrink from death?’




That reference to a burned black skull is heavily linked to vampiric themes of a far more real nature - when I write of a religious sect, still in existence to this day: the Aghori, who worship Shiva, the god who dances and beats his drum to conjure realms of life – and death – to create all the good and the bad in the world'. And to purify their human souls, to achieve a oneness with their Lord, the Aghori see no horror in immersing themselves in the foulest decay, inhabiting Hindu burial grounds while consuming drugs and alcohol – even eating human excrement. It is also a custom - a trial of sorts - for every new member of that sect to find himself a human skull, from which he must drink human blood. And it is the drunken prophecy spoken by one such cannibal that we hear at the very opening of The Goddess and the Thief , when an English woman in India writes -


Benares, painting by Goodwin


There was a temple that looked like a palace. It gleamed like silver against black skies where a bright full moon was shining down upon the domes and balconies, and the ornate marble arches, and in every arch a deity, and every deity shimmering in the flare of torches set below. A pair of golden fretwork doors drew back to show a golden god... hailed by a thousand beating drums, the crashing of cymbals, the blaring of conches. I could not drag my eyes away, even though the god’s were closed. I kept thinking, ‘He cannot see me’. And yet, I knew he could, as if he could look into my soul through the gleaming ruby in his brow, or the ruby eyes of the cobra that coiled around his throat. That put me in mind of the devil in Hell, as did the trident in one of his hands. But then, the way he raised one palm – that seemed a benediction – and when a gust of air rose up, it was the strangest thing, because, I thought, “A gift, a blessing. A kiss from the lips of Shiva.” 

Such sacrilegious thoughts I had...I forced myself to turn away, to run on down the steep stone steps that led me to the river’s shore...How wide it is, that river? I could barely see to the other side where the flames of fires were burning and such strange shadows dancing. It must be one of the funeral ‘ghats’, where the Hindoos go to cremate their dea... If only I’d not noticed that. The sudden stench of burning flesh ... and then, the hand upon my wrist... a hand with fingers more like claws, with nails filthy, cracked and long. And there the horror did not end. In the other hand he held a staff, a drum, and what looked like a human skull. He wore nothing more than a loincloth. His flesh was black and wrinkled. And the toothless face that leered above... I could only watch when he dropped my wrist, unable to speak when his fingers spread and lowered to rest on my belly. And just at that moment my baby kicked and that motion so sudden and violent that I gasped at the very shock of it. But it did bring me back to my senses again. I screamed. I pushed that wretch away. And he made no attempt to prevent me, only smiled as his hand was lifted, the palm extended forward, just like the golden god’s before. And then, he said the queerest thing: ‘Do not fear thine death. Death is the blessed sacrifice with which to glorify The Lord. The Lord will claim thy womb’s new fruit, the goddess thus to be reborn.’


Poor woman! To hear such a prophecy; a prophecy that will soon come true, to curse her, and the child in her womb – a child who then grows up to see gods, and ghosts – and human skulls – and thinking of skulls for one last time, I’ll end my talk with one more tale that may well have graced the pages of those Penny Dreadful magazines.




I wonder how many people today will have heard about ‘corpse medicine’. It was once practiced here in England, though it was in the 16th and 17th centuries when you would have been most likely to find certain types of medical men prescribing the eating of human remains as a cure for almost everything - never mind the way that body fat could be used in bandage poultices, or rubbed onto the feet for gout. The idea was crudely based upon what later became homeopathy - so blood for ailments of the blood – intestines for any belly complaints – and, as late as 1847 there is the report of an Englishman grinding up a human skull and mixing it with treacle, that culinary delight then spooned into his little daughter’s mouth - to stop her epileptic fits. Sadly, the cure was to fail! But where did he find the ingredients?




Well, Egyptian mummies were one source, not quite two-a-penny, but common enough for Victorian travellers to find if they really wanted to. And there were men nearer to home who were not at all averse to making a living from robbing graves. But I think that particular delight should be saved until another time...

WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO TAKE YOUR HEAD, SIR?

The following images illustrate the Victorian craze for 'photoshopping' photographs, sometimes with rather disturbing results...
























Thursday, 30 October 2014

THE TRADITIONS OF HALLOWEEN...



For many of us today, Halloween is a commercial tradition made popular in America, where pumpkin-head lanterns in front of doors lure children to come and Trick-or-Treat while dressed as skeletons, witches, or ghosts – and sometimes even Dracula.

But the supernatural or ‘Undead’ do have historical relevance to the origins of Halloween. Once known as Samain or ‘Sow in’, this ancient Celtic festival signified the beginning of the New Year when the harvest had been gathered in and the dread dark winter lay ahead. On its eve, October 31st, the divisions between the living and dead were said to draw back like a curtain, allowing supernatural folk and the souls of the dead to re-enter the world. Bonfires and fancy dress parades might drive the risen dead away. If not, they were placated with food, left in bowls outside locked doors.

The advent of Christianity then appropriated those customs, with ‘All- Hallowmas’ or ‘All Saint’s Day’ revering saints and martyrs instead of ghouls. And yet, as so often when cultures merge, remnants of both traditions remained. The gifts of food became ‘soul cakes’ left out for the homeless and hungry, in return for which they prayed for the dead. (Would our Trick-or-Treaters agree to that?)

Many other old superstitions persisted. American Irish émigrés replaced the carving of turnip heads with pumpkin Jack-o-Lanterns – Jack being the folklore rogue who offended both the Devil and God, thereafter excluded from Heaven and Hell and walking the earth till Judgment Day. 




Other Celtic customs were described in Rabbie Burns’ poem, Halloween – in which fairies dance on a moonlit night while youths go out to the countryside, singing songs, telling spooky tales and jokes, or partaking in fortune-telling games; such as eating apples while looking in mirrors and that way creating a magic spell to reveal the face of a future love.



Whether Queen Victoria ever peered into such a mirror, she certainly entered the spirit of things when joining the annual fire-lit procession that took place at Balmoral castle. However, back in England, the rise of the Protestant Church meant that Halloween rituals had fallen away – perhaps explaining Charles Dickens’ shock when he travelled to America and witnessed the general festivities there. But what really piqued his interest, rather than the parties and popular games (such a Pin the Tail on the Donkey, or Blind Man’s Buff, or Bobbing for Apples – when the winner would be the next to wed) was the morbid fascination with ghosts.




It is surely no coincidence that after returning to England he wrote A Christmas Carol, in which spirits and future predictions abound. Other established authors went on to peel back age-old layers of myth to reimagine ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ – the genre soon very popular in poetry, art and literature; with tales of children stolen by fairies, or mirrors exposing some ghastly event, or women who wailed by misty graves – and all rendered yet more sinister when read by flickering candlelight to provide an eerie atmosphere.




The Victorians reveled in frightening tales. More than that, they embraced the culture of death, many visiting spiritualist mediums, or commissioning spirit photographers; the living duped into the belief that crudely exposed double negatives had captured some vision of their dead: all those veiled apparitions that lingered in shadows, and no longer just at Halloween. The image above is somewhat tongue in cheek, although others were taken more seriously - and the night of October 31st still holds a particular allure. Whether linked to innocent children’s games, or the horror films we view on screens there is nothing quite like a Halloween thrill.



The text of this article was first published in The Independent newspaper.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

EMMA THURSBY'S ASTONISHING MYNAH BIRD ...



Emma Cecilia Thursby (1845-1931) was an American opera singer who began her musical career by playing the piano for Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Brethren Church services. However, her talents were to spread to more secular entertainments too, soon sharing a platform with luminaries such as the famed author, Mark Twain ... who read poems on stage while Emma sang. 

Emma often held popular salons and her musical act saw her travel to Europe – and also to meet with a Hindu monk whose teachings she started to follow. But, perhaps the most interesting thing about this woman’s history – for the VV, anyway – is the story of her beloved pet and travelling companion: a Mynah bird.




Even though the bird died in 1899 it remained in this world in a stuffed form, lovingly cherished when Emma died by the singer's sister, Ina. And it was Ina who was interviewed for this 1937 newspaper report in the Journal of the New York Bureau, which described the bird as -


"...kept on a perch festooned with moss beneath a glass bell in Miss Thursby’s parlour. Each morning her Japanese servant carefully dusts it off. When friends come to visit, Miss Thursby will talk for hours about its exploits. All her friends have heard all the stories many times, but they llike to hear her talk about the bird. Sometimes she lifts the glass bell and strokes the dead bird’s feathers.”


And what stories did she tell? Well perhaps she started off by relating how the bird had been given to her sister by Kaiser Wilhelm I; an enthusiastic admirer. He told how the bird had arrived at his court when brought there by the Chinese ambassador, who himself had found it in India.

So, a well travelled bird, but could that explain the fact that it spoke five languages and imitated perfectly a great many musical instruments, including the banjo? It was also a connesseur of wine – though port was the most favoured tipple – hopping about on the table top and dipping its beak into glasses at dinner.

Mynah – as the bird was simply known - was thought to be about sixteen years old when dying after falling ill at the end of an exhausting day spent at an annual pet show...after which, Miss Ina Thursby recalled -


“The last words he ever said were ‘au revoir.’ Dr Frank H. Miller, who was at one time a member of the staff of the Royal college in Berlin was called in to officiate at his autopsy. He said the bird’s brain was highly developed, containing a great deal of gray matter. We had a taxidemrmist mount him, and as a memorial my sister planted a weeping willow tree in Gramercy park...Mynah was valued at $10,000,” continued Miss Thursby as she toyed with two little rings on the stuffed bird’s left foot. “He grew world weary in his last years, and seemed bored with nearly everyboy but children and golden haired women. He was candid and not particularly polite to strangers. Once he mocked Miss Farrar while she was singing a difficult song and she became angry. She almost threw a book at him, and for a time they were not on good terms.

“He spoke Malay, Chinese, German, English and French. He played the piano with one foot. I am certain he was able to understand us, and we were able to carry on coherent conversations. For example, I once told someone he was born in India. He interrupted and said, ‘I’m an African.’ He repeated it in German. He called my sister ‘Mamma.’ We never caged him except when travelling. At home he had the run of the house. He went with us on many tours. During the day at home he would fly down to the park and play with the children, coming home for meals like a human.”

And the bird was not only loved by its owners. Mynah made a great impact on others too, as shown by this other news report from the Cambridge Chronicle, which is dated 1889.


“But I want to tell something of Miss Tbursby's wonderful Mynah bird, belonging to the starling family, as I heard it from her own lips. It is a very rare creature, and is said to be the only kind of bird that talks intelligently. It is a bird that has bad "advantages" of education and travel, having been pretty much around the world with its former master, who presented it to Miss Thursby. It speaks Chinese, French, German and English, rather forcible English, too, sometimes. Mynah, as his mistress calls him, answers questions that are put to him in a way that is positively uncanny, and he has a wierd, unearthly way of moaning "quacky, quacky," to himself. Upon one occasion this seemed strangely apropos, as Mynah struck up his refrain just as two physicians entered the room, one of them being the celebrated advocate of some new, though highly reputable method of treating certain forms of sickness. Fortunately both gentlemen had the grace and the sense of humor to appreciate the joke, no less than the others who heard it. One very remarkable thing about Mynah is his truly human laugh, which is never heard unless there is something to laugh at, which is more than can be said of some humans. When a joke is made in his presence, he is frequently the first to start the applause of laughter...and he joins with the greatest delight in all hilarity of his human friends. Mynah Is very fond of holding long conversations with himself, assuming first a masculine, then a feminine voice, asking and answering questions, scolding and defending himself against his own attacks. One of his chief amusements is singing with Miss Thursby, whom he always calls Mamma. First she sings a phrase, and he imitates it. But if "Mamma" continues too long without allowing Mynah his opportunity, he becomes deeply offended, ruffles his feathers, and utters a series a harsh squawks, drowning the sweet voice which be probably appreciates only as a means of amusement to himself. Not only does Mynah talk intelligently, but he appears to understand what is said to him, as for instance, when he calls: "Mamma, I want to get out!" he is quieted and satisfied upon being assured that he will be let out presently. Out of the city it is safe to let the bird roam where be will, so sure is he to return to his cage at night. As soon as a little child approaches his cage, Mynah begins a string of high pitched baby talk. He imitates wonderfully various Indian instruments, making a certain wiry twang in his throat like nothing else in the world. Not long ago two ladies recently returned from China, were calling upon Miss Thursby, when one of them was very much startled by hearing what she declared was a Chinaman chanting the dirge used in their ceremonial for the burial of the dead. And thus a light was shed upon a hitherto unaccountable practice of this most remarkable bird.”

A remarkable bird indeed! And, what's more, he really could play the piano - not simply imitate the sound. There are quite reputable reports of Emma asking Mynah to play - including one by Joseph Francis Rinn, an American magician and friend of Houdini who often attempted to debunk the fraudulent claims of spiritualists. But Rinn himself had to admit that the bird had remarkable unexplained gifts, as if he had a human soul. He held lucid conversations with Mynah - in more than one language too. He  saw Mynah hop onto a piano and perfectly pick his way over the keys to play the tune of  'Home Sweet Home.'


NB - The bird shown in this post is not the actual Mynah. Sadly, the VV has been unable to find any image of this remarkable creature.

Friday, 17 October 2014

INSPIRED BY MILLAIS' SOMNAMBULIST...

The VV was very touched when the Pre-Raphaelite Society's Poet in Residence, Sarah Doyle, wrote to say that she had been inspired to write the following haunting poem after reading the novel The Somnambulist, in which this painting by Millais is central to the story's plot...


John Everett Millais ~ A Somnambulist - 1871



DREAMFALL


In gauzy white, a wraith-like being: 
eyes, though open, all unseeing. 
Where shadows swallow up the light, 
she wanders through the lonely night, 
she wanders through the night.


On naked soles, she treads a route 
of jeopardy. Irresolute,
imprisoned in a dream, engrossed – 
a walking, breathing, living ghost, 
a walking, living ghost.


Impassive face and tumbling hair,
her consciousness suppressed, elsewhere; 
suspended on the precipice,
one halting step from the abyss,
one step from the abyss.


The darkling moon withdraws its gaze. 
The candle’s flame, just now ablaze, 
snuffs out, and leaves her quite alone, 
the cliff-top air as cold as stone,
the air as cold as stone.


A statuette, she stands stock-still, 
compelled to heed another’s will.
A puppet pulled by unseen strings,
a grounded moth, deprived of wings, 
a moth deprived of wings.


One mistimed footstep from the ledge. 
A stumbling toehold to the edge
of nothingness, and all is spent,
one swift and perilous descent,
one perilous descent.


What soul has not endured such fear? 
Who doesn’t, on occasion, hear, 
entwining with their stifled screams, 
the whispered lure of vivid dreams, 
the whispered lure of dreams?


Who hasn’t known the twisted sheet, 
the writhing visions, incomplete;
the drowning terror, ragged breath, 
the chill embrace of sleeping death, 
the chill of sleeping death?


Oh, precious one, Somnambulist, 
enshrouded in your drowsy mist:
give up this path your numb feet tread. 
Turn back, turn back, return to bed. 
Turn back, return to bed.


And as for those who wander, lost;
whose dreams are fractured, tempest-tossed: 
resist the night-time’s distant call
and hope you wake before you fall,
you wake before you –


© Sarah Doyle, June 2014



Sarah Doyle is Poet in Residence for the Pre-Raphaelite Society. You can find more of Sarah's poems on the society's website, as well as excellent articles and news relating to the Pre-Raphaelites in general. You can also find the society on Twitter as @PreRaphSoc, and Sarah as @PoetSarahDoyle.