This week, my last in Europe, I spent a few days in London where, per the recommendation of a lovely and knowledgeable friend, I visited Daunt Books for Travellers, a fantastic bookshop on Marylebone High Street. If you’d like to visit without shelling out for airfare, you can take a virtual tour of the shop at their website, http://www.dauntbooks.co.uk/.
I spent a happy hour and fifteen minutes there before leaving with several gifts for friends, a new Daunt Books linen bag (free, with a 20£ purchase, so essentially impossible for me to have left without one) and a slim volume of poetry called Endpoint and Other Poems, the last collection of poems by American writer John Updike, who passed away in January of 2009. While on the Eurostar back to Paris, I read the whole collection, which included this sonnet, called “Evening Concert, Sainte-Chapelle”:
Evening Concert, Sainte-Chapelle
The celebrated windows flamed with light
directly pouring north across the Seine;
we rustled into place. Then violins
vaunting Vivaldi’s strident strength, then Brahms,
seemed to suck with their passionate sweetness,
bit by bit, the vigor from the red,
the blazing blue, so that the listening eye
saw suddenly the thick black lines, in shapes
of shield and cross and strut and brace, that held
the holy glowing fantasy together.
The music surged; the glow became a milk,
a whisper to the eye, a glimmer ebbed
until our beating hearts, our violins
were cased in thin but solid sheets of lead.
~ John Updike
The poem struck me the first time I read it with the power of its imagery, the fantastic mixture of senses, the rhythm and forceful, corporeal precision of its observations. Today, after waiting in a tremendously long queue, I visited Sainte-Chapelle, on l‘île de la Cité, and just by chance happened to have Updike’s book with me in my bag. Remembering the sonnet, I pulled it out and read it again, beneath the fantastic vitreaux he is writing about, surrounded at some moments by shush-induced silence, at others by rising voices and laughter.
I think this is a great sonnet. Sainte-Chapelle is truly gorgeous and Updike masterfully integrates the visual experience of the stained-glass windows with the aural experience of music. He captures the power and weight of the vitreaux’s structure and the many black bars of lead which hold the thousands of panes of glass in place, and melds this with the simultaneous flow and structure of music, and the sheets of the black bars and notes which underlie the glorious sounds of Vivaldi and Brahms. Within the sonnet, all this melts together into a singular, magnificent and nearly frightening sensual experience, evoking both the grandeur and the limitations of the soul. But I wax unduly poetic where the poem–and the vitreaux–speak better for themselves. Enough from me! Bonne Nuit.