Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Gigantic Smile

A gigantic smile? No, I haven't just won this week's £170m Euromillions jackpot, sadly. But, as God is reputed to have said to the man endlessly praying for a lottery win, "Listen, meet me halfway: this time, buy a ticket!" I was thinking rather of Browning's words, describing the land luxuriating in autumn sunshine:
Oh, good gigantic smile o’ the brown old earth,
This autumn morning! How he sets his bones
To bask i’ the sun, and thrusts out knees and feet
For the ripple to run over in its mirth;
Listening the while, where on the heap of stones
The white breast of the sea-lark twitters sweet.
Robert Browning, Among the Rocks
Sunday was one of those fine early autumn days, and St. Catherine's Hill, just outside Winchester and hard by the M3 motorway, is a fine place to see the new season coming on. In fact, just on the other side of the hill, where the river Itchen runs close alongside, is the very walk John Keats took in 1819, which allegedly resulted in the Ode to Autumn (something I discussed here a few years ago). As you can see in the photograph, the hedges are already thickly draped with Old Man's Beard and colourfully punctuated with various berries. The air, despite the sunshine, has a distinct chill.

Walking through the valley, we spotted a Roe Deer stag with a very fine set of antlers, watching us from halfway up the slope opposite St. Catherine's Hill. As we watched him, the sound of hooves came up from behind, and for once I reacted quickly enough to get a couple of decent shots as they went by. One of these demonstrates quite nicely the thing that Eadweard Muybridge's photographs finally proved in 1878: that a galloping horse's hooves do all leave the ground, but on the inward, not the outward swing, unlike a rocking horse or most pre-Muybridge paintings.

But, to return to the lottery, can you even imagine your bank balance suddenly swelling to £170m, tax-free? It sounds like an extraordinary stroke of luck but, if the stories are to be believed, such extravagant and unearned good fortune does seem mainly to turn out to be a curse. At least, that's the conventional wisdom, the moralistic Schadenfreude. Certainly, most of us are simply not equipped to deal with that sort of windfall without completely losing our bearings, especially if you're the sort of person to pin your hopes on a £2.50 lottery ticket. And yet... "How would I spend thee? Let me count the ways...", to misquote Mrs. Browning. After all, even a well-appointed dwelling in a smart part of central London would barely dent that mountain of cash, leaving you with the problem of several million a year to fritter away for the remaining years of your life. What a torment! What a temptation to fate! Best to give it all away to good causes, and turn aside the ill fortune that must surely be hidden behind its deceptive smile. A country estate? that's something I'd hate. Do I want a yacht? Oh, how I do not! (Cole Porter).

Talking of money, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and curses, I think I may have a new, as yet unexplored explanation for the undiagnosed illness that affected her and both of her sisters. The Barrett family's considerable wealth came from plantations in Jamaica: they were slave-owners. Her father's business went into a decline after the abolition of slavery in 1833 and, although he disinherited her when she eloped with Robert Browning, and despite the fact that she is noted for her abolitionist stance and support for various liberation causes, it seems EBB had misgivings about the tainted source of her residual wealth. Apparently, in 1855 she wrote to John Ruskin, "I belong to a family of West Indian slaveholders, and if I believed in curses, I should be afraid".

Very afraid, I'd say. Did I mention both her brothers died in 1840, one drowned sailing off Torquay, the other of a fever in Jamaica? Downpressor Man, you can run, but you can't hide.

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