Saturday, June 6, 2015

Et in Arcadia ego: Happy Birthday, Brideshead Revisited

 I drank soda water and smoked and freted
until light began to break 
 and the rustle of a rising breeze 
turned me back to my bed.
The Telegraph tells us that we are upon the 70th anniversary of the publication of Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited last week, Anno Domini 1945. The effortless poetic cadence of this simple narration from Charles Ryder is just one of the qualities that binds me to Waugh and the story.

I came to the novel through the heralded 1981 Granada TV adaptation, which was the most lyrical, visually stunning program anyone had ever seen produced for TV.

The novel was one of many that my father picked up for me in the church thriftstore he and my mother visited every week, quietly building an impressive library for me until I was ready to partake.

The beauty of Brideshead is that it gives several of the ages of man a touchstone: I was in college when Sebastian & Charles seduced a TV generation. It was a thrill to be so young and read so young, to feel an affinity for the elan of their Oxford even in the quads of Rutgers.  Now I feel the weight and lightness of Charles's middle age, loving/understanding with a middle-age depth that the sanctuary light at the end does make all the difference.  (It's a nice touch that the first American edition of the novel was printed with a "sanctuary light" red cover. )


Several years ago I had a very visceral reaction to a freakishly cold August. Thoughts of Brideshead flooded my thinking, along with long forgotten, but very stirring memories of my own visit to Oxford during my college years.

Midautumn has descended into the beauty of our late August. No, no, I’m not ready. I long for the warmth of air and brightness of the summer sun.

The relentless rain/todrizzle/torain will not last, they say, it’s just a freak of nature.

This unnatural August coldness has a strange affect on memory, summoning long unvisited thoughts. As I put on yet another sweater, Oxford 25 years ago fill my consciousness.

It’s Eights Weeks, and visitors are teeming everywhere. I’m with friends of friends at Wadham College boathouse to watch the races, followed by an "End of the Empire" dance.

We see a musical Alice in Wonderland performed in the Christ Church Cathedral Gardens. It is a magical, site-specific event: the Dean of Christ Church in Dodgson's day was Dr. Liddell & it was his daughters that Carroll wrote for. The Dean's Garden is next to the Cathedral Garden. The chestnut tree in the Dean's Garden is the one in which the Cheshire Cat sat, and Alice's little green door joins the two gardens. I feel like I have gone beyond the looking glass.

We attend a sung Eucharist at Christ Church Cathedral, the exquisite lines of Victoria Missa O Quam Gloriosum soaring up to Heaven. It was my fist experience of an English choir, and I did not know the tradition of boy sopranos. I kept looking for the women who were singing such extraordinary notes.

Then over to the Turf for lunch. In memory there is much sunshine and warmth and beauty.

These real experience of Oxford entwine in my heart with Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

In the coldness of August I feel his epithet for book 1: Et in Arcadia ego: the haunting Latin phrase on the tomb in Poussin’s pastoral painting, considered to be uttered by Death, “I am also in Arcadia.” I quietly despair the mirror Ryder is for me "I'm homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless, Hopper."

The cold days in a New York August--a memento mori in the summer of a life. Yet. I am glad to be reminded of mortality, and Waugh, but thrilled that the warmth and sun of the season are coming back. It’s not over, there is eternally more. Something Captain Charles Ryder himself "found this morning, burning anew amid the old stones." I quickened my pace to the subway . . .


Asilone said...

Thankyou, i enjoyed your site. On a miserable january Sunday the warm, melancholy reminder of Brideshead was pure nostalgia. The pain and poetry of nostalgia.

Have you read Le Grande Meaulnes?

M.A.Peel said...

asilone, sorry, I only just saw your comment. (I didn't have the notification of comments turned on properly.) I have not read Le Grande Meaulnes, nor seen the film. But I have deep respect for WWI literature. Thanks for pointing it out