With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies

January 2020

The angry red clock on the oven tells me that it’s 3 am. Sipping a glass of water I look out on the garden. It is bathed in steely grey moonlight. The roof opposite, usually black, is white with frost. I think of Coleridge’s lines: ‘The Frost performs its secret ministry, Unhelped by any wind.’ It’s an image that has always puzzled me. Why ‘ministry’? Unto what does the frost ‘minister’, exactly? Perhaps the oddity of the idea is why it’s always stuck in my mind; or it may be the intricate pattern of ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that makes it memorable. Mental note: re-read ‘Frost at Midnight’ sometime soon.

    From another window I peer at the moon, which is all but full. It is just as starkly pale and barren and inscrutable as ever; and another fragment of poetry comes to mind, a poem by Philip Larkin in which he addresses the moon ironically, amongst other high-flown epithets, as the ‘Lozenge of Love’. Mental note: find this poem and read it too.

    By this time my feet on the tiled floor are too cold, and I grope my way back to a warm bed. And there I ponder how dark the dark nights must have been in former times. And how welcome a cloud-free sky and a bright moon must have been. Until half-way through the nineteenth century, the long sixteen hours of a mid-winter darkness must have felt endless, without electricity or even a safety match with which to light a candle. How did ordinary people cope?

    With morning a sudden shift in the weather had made the frost disappear and all was wet and dank. Soon the numberless goings-on of life took over and it was some time before I remembered to follow up any of my night-thoughts.

The art of the middle ages offers occasional glimpses of ordinary life, but very few of night-time. Some popular subjects for paintings, the Nativity for example, might be expected to be depicted at night, but are shown in broad day-light. Depictions of night scenes are scarce to the point of rarity. Is it just that religious subjects demand light and colour, and in earlier times, gold? Or could it be that black is a difficult pigment to use in fresco or tempera?              

    Cennino Cennini in his Il Libro dell’Arte explains that the pigment comes in several forms: a ‘soft, black stone’; or burnt vine twigs, almond shells or peach stones; or lamp black. It requires a hard grinding stone, preferably porphyry ‘and grind this black for the space of half an hour, or an hour, or as long as you like; but know that if you were to work it up for a year it would be so much the blacker and better a colour’. Arduous to make, but he doesn’t dwell on particular difficulties of application, though he remarks that it works better in secco than fresco, and requires a lot of tempering with egg yolk.

    Black becomes more noticeable in painting when the medium of oil becomes common in Italy. In Leonardo’s ‘Annunciation’ (both tempera and oil) in the Uffizi, the folds of the angel’s clothes and the shadows clearly use black paint to darken the rich red of the angel’s garb, rather than the deep saturated colour that earlier painters would have employed. Of course by the time of Caravaggio, black is ubiquitous. He hiked up the chiaro of chiaroscuro to uncannily brightly lit, and made the scuro all but absolutely black. It’s wonderful when he does it, but those galleries full of works by Caravaggisti, in which pale tortured shapes loom endlessly from dirty black backgrounds, are best hurried through as swiftly as possible. 

 I enjoyed ‘Frost at Midnight’ when I got round to it. The superstition of the ‘stranger’ on the dying fire is difficult to imagine, but there are wonderful repetitions and descriptions: ‘Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs And vexes meditation with its strange And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood, This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood… 

               Larkin’s ‘Sad Steps’ shows him at his curmudgeonly best. He mocks poetical versions of the moon, but then his mockery turns into reflection.

     ... Medallion of art!
 O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,
One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare
Is a reminder of the strength and pain 
Of being young; that it can’t come again, 
But is for others undiminished somewhere.

1 thought on “With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies”

  1. This newsletter provoked several comments.
    MA wrote “ministry” = magic adornment? or transformations

    NM emailed ‘Perform … ministry’ means perform a ritual, I think. Always the same, done for its own sake, and with a mystical background of the sort that excited Romantics: the frost is a priest of Nature. And, as you say, the sound of the word. Also a touch of Mr Flosky: ‘Nobody is allowed to understand anything I say’.

    SP was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’
    I leant upon a coppice gate
    When Frost was spectre-grey
    And Winter’s dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.

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