Friday, December 5, 2008

The Christmas Album: Hitch

By Day Five of our Holiday Cook's Tour we might begin to feel a bit peckish, no doubt. What's a holiday without a feast, you may well ask? Well, if you'd dropped into the '21' Club on West 52nd street in Manhattan in December, 1956, you might have encountered director Alfred Hitchcock, the facetious gourmand armed with that deadly looking fork, who chose to hide his underlying seriousness and himself behind his camera in many instances, but who posed instead behind this sumptuous turkey at that popular watering hole on this occasion. A glimpse of Hitch's "hide and seek" act inspired the playful poet Ogden Nash to write:

"Pick a Hitchcock of opulence rather than corpulence,
just pleasingly plump, with a snug silhouette,
To embellish the board when the places are set.
For the ultimate test, more closely examine it.
The Hitchcock supreme has a wide streak of ham in it."

Perhaps the finest repasts served up by Mr. H. were the layered, delicately flavored, beautiful looking feasts that he put on celluloid. While we may decide in passing that the English director's shy pose has a disingenuous air, it is his enduring movies, such as The 39 Steps (1935), Rebecca (1940), Notorious (1945) and Vertigo (1957) that linger, unreeling in cinematic memory as among the best ever made. Even those films deemed as failures, such as personal faves, The Paradine Case (1947), which includes an uncharacteristically vulnerable Ethel Barrymore and a malevolent Charles Laughton, has moments of transcendent black and white beauty, as does I Confess (1953), filmed in darkest Québec City, trying to capture on film that elusive human quality that complicates most of our lives, the conscience.

A Song for Christina Rossetti's Birthday

December 5th marks the 1830 birth date of Christina Rossetti, poet and sister of the painter-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was a driving force behind the Pre-Raphaelite movement among cultured types in Britain. The daughter of an Italian patriot, she became a devout Anglican influenced by the Oxford Movement, who seemingly withdrew from the Victorian world she was born into after a beloved "reverted" to Roman Catholicism. As in the sketch shown, she continued to be a model for her brother Dante's work, and became a renowned published poet in her own time.

English professors, literary psychoanalysts and the professionally lugubrious speculate about her character and personality, often dismissing her as melancholic, since an early illness, (real or imagined) seems to have allowed her to elude a possible fate as a governess, (how like the poor Bronte sisters!). Despite the jaundiced view taken by scholars at times, I tend to think that her melancholy may have come from her sensitive nature and understanding of the limits of her sex in that time and place; as well as the ever present reality of early or sudden death that the Victorians would have found unavoidable. Her verse has a pleasing, even musical sound and some mordant humor, and commentary on the inequality in society and nature that makes her poetry defy easy categorization. Among her best known verses is the long poem "Goblin Market", which tells of two sisters tempted by goblin-like men at a marketplace, which has, in recent years become a favorite of the Goth crowd, since it touches on themes of temptation, addiction, and filial as well as deeply sensual love. I prefer her beautifully crafted, spare verse, with a meter and rhythm that is difficult to forget, as are the understanding heart and mind behind the words. Here are two particularly lovely examples of Christina at her best:

A Birthday

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water'd shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these,
Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a daïs of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.


When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain;
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.


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