41. 17 September 1991 [ES] (Back from Ischia; N'est-ce pas; Rilke; book on Shakespeare [RS])

previously unpublished; © the estate of eric sams and beatrice cazac (Mrs. Mathew’s letters)

Dear Hayat,

   how good, as ever, to hear from you. I've just returned from sunning myself into a stupor, like a very drowsy old bee intoxicated with nectar, pollen, scent etc. and creating disgraceful scenes outside the lavender-bush at closing time. The main scene was Ischia, though there were optional excursions to Capri, popular among musicians (some of whom secretly hoped to learn more abut Roman history, notably the excesses of Tiberius, but were already so depraved that they had to abandon all hope of becoming more so) but not with me. Nor did I undertake any expeditions to Pompei or Herculaneum. The stay wasn't long enough for me to develop the traditional Neapolitan indifference to lava and such sites and sights seem all too solemn.

   I've been lecturing everyone within earshot on every subject under the sun (which was in lavish supply), such as music and Shakespeare, music and Italy, Shakespeare and Italy, etc, in all possible permutations, with an affable not to the Quattrocento and a deep genuflection to the Italienisches Liederbuch of Hugo Wolf, which was of course the main course of the song course, in the course (not to crack the wind of the poor phrase, running it thus) of which eight talented young singers and four young professional pianists were instructed in the mysteries of lieder interpretation.

   It was good to meet up again with many a friend and correspondent, such as the Times columnist Bernard Levin, who announced his conversion to Wolf. I felt I'd really arrived. A pity that I find myself in what's colloquially known these days as the Departure Lounge. (OAP means Old Age Pensioner).

   Yes, I love 'N'est-ce pas', poem and setting both; but there's a certain sadness of unattainability about 'ceux qui s'aiment sans mélange', n'est-ce pas? I'm glad your father liked puns, too; so did mine. And so did Shakespeare. Perhaps they're essentially musical phenomena (or should that be phonemena?) like enharmonic modulations. Your poem too has musicality, in its vocabulary (spaces, intervals) as well as its structure (rondo, with episodes). I admired its intellectual as well as its lyrical qualities (rare combination, too). You observe and feel, both together. Only Rilke does that (for me, that is, in modern times). I seem to hear the style and content of the Neue Gedichte. But I can't believe that's a conscious influence, or indeed an influence at all; so it must be an elective affinity, or Wahlverwandschaft. Congratulations. Have you published much? Shouldn't you publish more?

   My verse must stay in the attic of my lost youth. But some of it has emerged recently from the memory of a rediscovered school-friend, with whom I culpably lost touch for some fifty years and then resumed intimacy as if our conversation had been but temporarily interrupted. I learnt from him the happiness of interchanging ideas. He was always the prototypical Chaucerian Clerk (also his name, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, as well as his nature) of whom also it might be truly said 'and glady wolde he lerne and gladly teche'. It was no surprise to me that he had become a distinguished headmaster, specialising in classical Latin literature. I must revisit him and sample some Falernian wine before the end of autumn. There's a mixture of Horace (nunc est bibendum) and Mahler (ewig, ewig) in the way the light comes sloping and slanting over the South Downs at Eastbourne.

   I relished too your own love of surroundings; I can see that sea and scene. But where? I don't have a Blue Guido d'Arezzo, so to speak, but my map locates it firmly and maximally equidistant from both coastlines. It must be grand to have an exploring and discovering daughter. But what can be meant by this: she founded a 'night' called Foxes, the shadow of which still exists?

    Though to catch your drift I'm striving,

                             it is shady, it is shady;

           I can't see at what you're driving,

                           mystic lady, mystic lady!

              (stern conviction's o'er him stealing

                        that the mystic lady's dealing

                                    in oracular revealing)...[W. S. Gilbert: HMS Pinafore, ED]


   Rather like the rain in Spain, I stayed mainly on the estate, in Ischia, and was generously entertained and generally made much of by Lady Walton; so no postcards were purchased, let alone sent. But I keep in reserve, and now enclose, a suitable rejoinder to the receipt of enigmatic communications from Italy. I feel there's some vary basic if abstruse symbolism in the maze or labyrinth. What exactly is it that we're trying to get to the heart of? Personally I'd prefer something a bit more material and tangible than uncreated light, with all possible respect to it. Perhaps your father had some thoughts on that topic. I've long known him as a wise and good man.

  I much enjoyed the one English vowel. But I don't actually rhyme orange with either fringe or revenge; my orange vowel is darker, even fruitier, than either. The lip aperture elongates from a through e to i. Which reminds me of the wide-mouthed girl in our French primer who was advised to constrict her lips by frequent repetitions of 'petite prune' but alas misremembered and cried instead 'petite poire'. Harangue certainly rhymes with meringue, though. This recalls the very obscure Punch joke about the Scots lad who asked his lassie 'Wad ye hae an ice, or a meringue?' and received the reply 'Nae, Jock, ye're richt'.

  You ask about Shakespeare. I've had an encouraging response from Yale University Press. Indeed, the publisher himself seems incautiously enthusiastic about my big book project (how about Shakespeare for the 21st Centuryas a title? any other suggestions?). But he'll have to consult some advisors and senior. I'm content to await the outcome. In the interim I have two books (on the songs of Wolf and Schumann) to revise as necessary for Faber paperback republication in their third editions. I never thought that either would last so long. Then there's more reviewing for the TLS, and some teaching (advanced lieder classes) at the Guildhall School. That's a special joy for me; und dafür wird man auch bezahlt, as the member of the Vienna Phil. are said to have exclaimed in genuine satisfaction.

   You say nothing, though, about your own present ork. Please tell me how things are progressing with you. Any chance of a further visit to London in the foreseeable future?

   Farewell for now; warmest wishes and regards, as ever,

   yours Eric