Exhibition Review: Virginia Woolf

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The view of Godrevy Lighthouse (which inspired To the Lighthouse) from the hotel.

Last weekend I went all the way to St Ives in Cornwall with some friends for a fabulous time visiting the Virginia Woolf exhibition currently on at Tate St Ives. It’s the perfect place to explore Woolf’s ideas, landscape and feminist consciousness; St Ives is well known as an artists’ place, with its light and landscape which has inspired so many; and Woolf wrote so fondly of the inspiration and happiness provided by her early summers spent at Talland House (which we sought out, of course). A Londoner by birth, Woolf writes Cornwall into several of her novels, including Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse and The Waves. She wrote that

‘I went for a walk in Regent’s Park yesterday morning, and it suddenly struck me how absurd it was to stay in London, with Cornwall going on all the time,’ she records of her sudden train journey from London to Cornwall in 1909. I have been walking along the sands and sitting in the sun… I am so drugged with fresh air that I can’t write…As for the beauty of this place it surpasses every other season.

As someone who frequently feels the urge to hop on the Penzance train instead of going home at the end of a long day, I understand completely. For Woolf, Cornwall offered a kind of freedom from the social life and claustrophobia of London (which, equally, she

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Talland House

thrived on), and this and so much more is reflected in the exhibition. Woolf’s life and work are situated in a web of cultural forms, from art to bookbinding, home furnishings to sculpture, and of course she had close ties to the women’s suffrage movement and wrote passionately about women’s creativity and education. This exhibition, then, in the year in which we mark 100 years of women’s suffrage, is particularly significant, and all the more so because it only features women’s work. Over the last decade attention has repeatedly been drawn to studies about the under-representation of women artists, and this has been repeatedly ignored, but here is an exhibition that makes a wonderful attempt to redress the balance.

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(c) artcornwall.org

The show offers, consequently, an insight into the changing landscape of women’s lives over the last 100 years. Many of these insights are internal: there are some of Vanessa Bell’s wonderful still lives, which seem to echo Woolf’s novels is so many ways, as well as furnishing fabrics, ceramics and portraits. From Gwen John’s uncompromising stare in her self-portrait to Laura Knight’s The Dark Pool (one of my favourite paintings, but which does not appear in the catalogue, sadly), to photographs of Dora Carrington as a ‘living sculpture’, unconventional creative women are celebrated throughout. There are several wonderful ‘windowsill’ paintings, by Bell, Knight, Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham and others, which transform a woman’s point of view from a domestic centre by looking outwards. Some are almost mocking in their refusal of domestic life (such as Knight’s Cactus, complete with dead flies), and they indicate both the necessity of a ‘room of one’s own’ along with a denial of ‘traditional’ feminine values.

Woolf argued that, as women, we must ‘think back through our mothers’, indicating the need for a strong female tradition in art and literature to rival that of the male tradition. The exhibition offers a way to do this. Judy Chicago’s setting for Woolf from her famous work The Dinner Party (1978) offers a feminist approach to thinking about female creativity and sexuality, while other exhibits such as Claude Cahun’s fascinating photographic self-portraits explore multiple selves and aspects of gender which seem to echo Woolf’s Orlando. Gluck’s marvellous landscapes, meanwhile, so low and with so much sky, position the woman in the landscape itself. The many contradictions of social, personal and cultural constructions of womanhood are explored in their glorious, confusing multiplicity: women both is and isn’t a part of ‘nature’, for example; womanhood means many things and both is and isn’t an ‘essence’. Women are not necessarily mothers, or nurturing, but what we learn is that women are creative, and perhaps all the more so when this is against the odds. Perhaps women’s work looks different when it is not displayed alongside often larger and showier masculine artworks (although some of these are larger and showier, too!) but in some ways I left feeling that gender is perhaps less important to art than I thought: there are some wonderful works here, demonstrating female excellence in a range of media, and though the public and private faces of womanhood are central to many of them, they are not the only thing that matters.

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Gluck, Before the races, St Buryan, Cornwall (1924, private collection)

 

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Exhibition review: ‘Beyond Ophelia’

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Curator Hannah Squire

Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton is hosting an exhibition devoted to the art and poetry of Elizabeth Siddall, and, shockingly, it’s only the second exhibition to focus exclusively on Siddall. I’ve been writing about Siddall for a while now (my book My Ladys Soul: The Poetry of Elizabeth Siddall will be published in June) and while her face is familiar to many, her work less so, particularly her poetry, though her life exerts a great fascination. This exhibition makes a good attempt at redressing the balance, then: although information about Siddall’s life and Pre-Raphaelite connections is there, the focus is on her as an artist and poet. And Wightwick is the perfect place for it: they hold the second-largest collection of Siddall’s works (the first being the Ashmolean).

2018 is proving to be a year for celebrating women’s achievements, often against all odds, given that it is 100 years since women were able to vote (though this was not on equal terms until 1928). The Manders, who built Wightwick and collected Pre-Raphaelite 28276572_10154975470041315_6622862564304738970_nand Arts and Crafts works with which to furnish it, were also keen suffragists, and one room of the house is currently set up for a Suffragette meeting. Siddall’s achievements as an artist, limited by her early death and all too often viewed as dependent on her more famous husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, are appropriately celebrated, then. Wightwick’s collection of 12 works by Siddall are on display in the beautiful Daisy Room, framed for the first time, along with other works no longer in the collection but loaned for the exhibition. This offers a genuinely unique opportunity to consider Siddall’s work as a body (though of course there are many other works), but there is plenty here to give you a feel for her skill as an artist, with her expressive and evocative pencil drawings, 28279682_10154975470241315_2380485743337476893_nand two small and beautiful oils, St Agnes’ Eve and The Haunted Wood (above).

I’m delighted to see that the exhibition also includes some of Siddall’s poetry. A few of her poems are beautifully printed and hung on the walls alongside her artworks, and I hope that this will encourage visitors to explore her under-appreciated poetry. It’s a particular pleasure that some lines appear on the walls above the wallpaper, drawing the eye. Her work as an artist and poet, in the complex gendered environment of the nineteenth-century cultural sphere, is outlined in exhibition boards, and visitors are encouraged to see Siddall as a creator of serious art in her own right – something which, despite three decades of serious critical work on her art, and less sustained but still significant work on her poetry, is still overlooked. Both the art and the poetry demonstrates Siddall’s engagement with her cultural milieu: her illustrations for poems and ballads, and the influence of these works and forms on her own writing, bear out her deep consideration – and transformation – of other works of art.

This is a small exhibition, but it is beautiful, and the room with its fireplace and gorgeous wallpaper feels intimate and cosy. It is open from March 1st until December 24th, 2018, so there is no excuse not to go and see it! Siddall is so often remembered as the model for Millais’s Ophelia, and it is encouraging to see this exhibition encouraging us to go ‘beyond Ophelia’.

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Hunting the Pre-Raphaelites at Lanhydrock

NT; (c) Lanhydrock; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationI am a fairly regular visitor to Lanhydrock, an impressive Jacobean house near Truro, owned by the National Trust. However, while the house is 17th century originally, much of the house was rebuilt and redesigned, with new furniture, after a serious fire in 1881. Lord Robartes instructed architects to reconstruct the house along its original lines, keeping the traditional features of the house as well as imposing a segregation by gender, age and class on its inhabitants. The architects instructed were James MacLaren and Richard Coad; the latter was a Cornishman who had worked on Lanhydrock previously, and was supervised by George Gilbert Scott. He went into partnership with his previous apprentice, MacLaren, whose work was closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement and whose work was to influence Rennie Mackintosh. There is much of Lanhydrock that manifests the influence of the pair; a Pugin wallpaper, Morris-inspired papers (and a spectacular green gilt ‘Sunflower’ paper which is modern but perfectly in keeping with Skilbeck, Clement Oswald, 1865-1954; Saint Luke Writing His Gospel at the Dictation of the Virgin Marythe tone of the house). The Smoking Room has a wonderful Arts and Crafts chimney piece, dated 1883, and other small details such as Minton tiles demonstrate the incorporation of and enthusiasm for this late-Victorian aesthetic. As the guidebook notes, much of the house’s interior was influenced by Charles Eastlake, an architect trained by Philip Hardwick and a strong advocate for Morris’s medieval style. Eastlake’s book A History of the Gothic Revival (1872) has clear implications for Lanhydrock’s furnishings, and it is fascinating to see how such manuals of style influenced the creation of rooms such as those found here.

Smoking room

The paintings found throughout the house are often family portraits, many by outstanding painters of their day, such as Gainsborough and Joseph Wright of Derby. What particularly caught my eye, though, were works which were often less prominently displayed, but which suggest to me that someone in the house, perhaps StrudwickLord Robartes or his wife, had a particular interest in the style of painting produced by the Pre-Raphaelites. On the whole the paintings don’t include the big names of the PRB; there are no Rossettis or Burne-Joneses here, but the aesthetic is unmistakeable. There are a number of works which are untitled and for whom the artist and date are unknown, which in their colour and subject matter suggest a Pre-Raphaelite influence, and others where it is clearer. The Madonna with Attendant Angels (1901) by John Melhuish Strudwick is one of the best examples of this; Strudwick had worked as an assistant to Burne-Jones and Spencer Stanhope, and the influence of this is very clear. The painting is striking if somewhat overblown, known also as Virgin and Child, with glowing gold leaf halo; it was bought for the house by Michael Trinick, the Trust’s regional director, who perhaps had himself a penchant for Pre-Raphaelitism. Another, more obscure example, is A Girl with a Violin (1884-1896) by Henry Harewood Robinson, a St Ives based artist whose other interest was music. A young woman with long red hair in a green medieval style dress contemplatively plays a violin, surrounded by lilies; though little seems to be known of the artist the clearly implies an emulation of Pre-Raphaelite subject matter and use of Lawrance, C. E.; Pancolour; the painting was given to the family by the artist’s widow. Similarly, a head of Pan (1889) by the unknown C E Lawrance recalls Simeon Solomon’s poised and beautiful heads of young men; this appears to have been in the Robartes collection.

The house has a print of Millais’s infamous Bubbles, as well as two of Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, though I don’t think either are on display, and many of the works do have a religious themes, which is unsurprising for a devout family. A painting entitled The Nativity (date unknown) is unassumingly monogrammed EP, for Evelyn Pickering, later Evelyn de Morgan, whose work, along with her husband William’s, is well-known for its Pre-Raphaelite style. This work is a beautiful, subtle monochrome work in chalk and charcoal, with the angels’ faces clearly recalling the work of Burne-Jones. Another religious painting is St Luke writing his Gospel at the Dictation of the Virgin Mary (1892by Clement Oswald Skilbeck (1865-1954), whose name I didn’t know The Nativitybut whose work again appears influenced by the PRB; he was a friend of Morris and Burne-Jones, it seems, and the jewel colours of his painting, the hyper-real style coupled with the medievalised aesthetic demonstrate their influence. This, however, is one of the paintings which was bought by the National Trust in the 1970s rather than originating with the family.

The house, and its contents, are a late Victorian gem. Though much was lost in the fire, the beautiful restoration of the house and its contents captures the late Victorian aesthetic and its preoccupation with beauty, colour, morality and faith in a remarkable way. And, although this is beyond the remit of this post, it also tells us a lot about a Victorian and Edwardian way of life, in the remarkably well preserved servants quarters, the artefacts of everyday life in an enormous house, and the effective way in which the house is set up so you might believe the family could come back at any moment.

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William Morris and Kelmscott Manor

20170518_142652It is surprising that I’ve never been to Kelmscott Manor before, but this week I went with a group from the Birmingham Midland Institute. I gave a lecture about William Morris while we were travelling, so I spent the preceding week deeply immersed in Morris’s life and work, and it has increased my passion for him. Visiting Kelmscott consequently felt like something of a pilgrimage. The Manor has an interesting history anyway, dating from 1600, and Morris felt that it was “the loveliest haunt of ancient peace”, which seemed to be rooted in the soil and the people who had lived there. The image of Kelmscott is particularly famous for its appearance as the frontispiece for Morris’s utopian novel News from Nowhere, and it was wonderful to see it in the stone, as it were, and to feel the deep peace which the place exudes.'Kelmscott Manor' 1893  (Frontispiece from 'News from Nowhere')

Morris was fascinated by the medieval period, ideas and ideals as well as aesthetics, since his childhood when he rode around on a pony in his suit of miniature armour and made up stories in the woods about knights, ladies and fairies. As he grew up, rejecting the Church as a profession in favour of architecture while he was at Oxford, his thoughts and ideas all seem to stem from this childhood interest. Books influenced him deeply; he’d apparently read all of Walter Scott’s novels by the age of nine, and at University he discovered Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present, John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and Charlotte Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe. What these books all share, I think, is dissatisfaction with the industrial, self-seeking present, and a desire to revisit the past which is more than nostalgia, but a genuine desire to put right what they felt was wrong with the world. Like the modern-day knight of Yonge’s novel, Guy Morville, Morris’s life demonstrates how he lived out the ideals he developed as a young man.

Morris is mostly remembered as a designer, now, and of course there are many of his designs at Kelmscott Manor, which is perhaps more simply furnished than one might 20170518_144830expect, but in a distinctive style (I’ve now discovered why my parents painted all their furniture dark green) with natural, clear colours. Many of the fabrics and objects there were brought there after his death, but it’s wonderful to see his bed, with the poem he wrote for it embroidered by Jane around it, which begins:

The wind’s on the wold
And the night is a-cold,
And Thames runs chill
‘Twixt mead and hill.

Morris’s poetry, his Norse tales, his Socialist work and his designs all demonstrate a remarkable sense of unity. Though his Socialism developed after he encountered Marx’s Das Kapital, he was always anxious for opportunities for all, and for a fairer system to be achieved in Britain, for which he was quite prepared for violent anarchy – indeed, he felt it was probably the only way, and in News from Nowhere it is apparent that such a revolution had occurred. His desire was 20170518_144819not only for equality but for dignity and respect for all, and that comes in a very Marxist form in News from Nowhere, where all receive the same pay and love their work. The guiding principal of ‘The Firm’ which Morris set up to produce useful and beautiful household objects was that art should be handmade, using the skill of the craftspeople, and that all should have access to it. Of course these things may seem improbable or even impossible, and Morris is nothing if not an idealist, but there is something incredibly appealing about his beautiful, medievalized utopia in which all can share in the beauty of life through art, nature and love. The environment was an important part of this, too: how we connect to what is around us – buildings, places, the natural world – indicates who were are, and it is very clear what he thought of the pollution and destruction of the natural environment in the nineteenth century:

Is money to be gathered? cut down the pleasant trees among the houses, pull down ancient and venerable buildings for the money that a few square yards of London dirt will fetch; blacken rivers, hide the sun and poison the air with smoke and worse, and it’s nobody’s business to see to it or mend it: that is all that modern commerce, the counting-house forgetful of the workshop, will do for us herein.

He is remarkably prescient, I believe: I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate recently, and Morris’s views that we have lost connection with the environment, that we are wreaking havoc on the wo20170518_144014rld and there will be ecological payback, and that capitalism in the form of industrialised society is the main driver of climate destruction are echoed vividly in Klein’s arguments. Wandering the beautiful gardens at Kelmscott, and walking beside the Thames where Rossetti and Morris wandered, one can see why he felt so strongly about this, leaving behind the polluted rivers and skies of London.

Morris said that ‘History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.’ To be creative was the source of life for Morris, and Kelmscott Manor provided the peace that he needed for this. He wrote in the late 1870s of sitting in the tapestry room one evening, watching the sun set over the fields and hearing the cows lowing in the pasture; there are still cows there, and it is possible to feel very close to the past here.

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Woolf Works

 

wwThe Royal Ballet’s production of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works seems to have been discussed and reviewed everywhere recently, and I was very happy to be able to go and see it at the weekend. Woolf’s novels have been adapted and reframed in different ways before, but none quite like this; it works brilliantly, though. The ballet is divided into three acts, each relating to one of Virginia Woolf’s novels: ‘I now, I then’ is based on Mrs Dalloway, ‘Becomings’ on Orlando and ‘Tuesday’ on  The Waves. The whole experience is dramatic, moving, even playful sometimes, and intertwines Woolf’s life and work. Max Richter’s music both directs and echoes the movement on stage, and in the programme notes he describes the unique ‘musical grammar’ required for each of the three texts.

The programme notes (which can be downloaded online) are helpful in exploring the process of depicting Woolf’s works on the stage; the deliberate obscuring of narrative, for example, and Woolf’s creative exploration of language as a medium to depict experience might seem an unpromising place to start, but in fact her engagement with other art forms, including music, dance, art and photography, and the ways in which these appear in her writing, means that these Modernist texts offer possibilities not otherwise fully explored.

“How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth?”

For example, in the first section, Mrs Dalloway can be torn apart and displayed on stage as simultaneous Clarissas perform, the contrast of youth and age which the novel explores depicted movingly beside one another (and just the expression of Alessandra Ferri’s legs is emotional!) Equally, Septimus and Clarissa, who do not meet in the book, share the stage here, haunting each other. Contrary to my expectations, I found from the beginning that there are clear links, if often interpretative ones, to the novels, which made it all the more appealing (I’m not sure how the ballet would appear to someone with no knowledge of Woolf’s works). The filmic sequences which play behind the dancers in this section (designed by Ravi Deepres, who is Professor of Moving Image and Photography at Birmingham City University) seemed to me to root the action in Woolf’s concepts of time and place, especially London of the period. The moving frames which appear mid-stage seem repeatedly to offer vistas and remove them, glimpses through into other worlds which seems wholly appropriate.

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The second section is based on Orlando, Woolf’s mock-biography of a man who becomes a woman, living over 400 years, and while the complex narrative of the novel would be almost impossible to contain in an act of a ballet, the sense of it is captured beautifully: paired androgynous figures leap and whirl with glee, offering a binary sense of gender that splits further until the concept of gender – along with time and place – becomes meaningless, an effect which the novel itself has. As lasers shoot across the stage and at the audience through billows of smoke, the spotlit dancers appear suspended in the mists of time, identifiable not through the usual means of dress distinguishable by period or gender, but by their movements. This act is the loosest interpretation of Woolf’s text, and it contrasts strikingly with the final, more sombre ‘Tuesday’, based on The Waves. Water imagery saturates both the movement and the stage here, following on from a reading of Woolf’s suicide note (and, of course, she also took her life in water). The watery visuals work well: waves of movement are complemented by waves of music and also the backdrop, and the sadness implicit in life bookended by death is conjured here, the suicide of Woolf echoing Septimus’s suicide in the first act.

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I loved this. For me, the intertwining of text and dance provided a wonderful experience (and it seems critics, and audiences, agree; it’s sold out and has been well reviewed, on the whole). Perhaps it doesn’t matter if you don’t know who the characters are, but for me, seeing versions of Woolf’s characters, and even more importantly, interpretations of her ideas, performed so beautifully was a very absorbing and uplifting experience. The production offers as many approaches, and effective use of different art forms, as Woolf’s own works, and I’m sure she would have been very satisfied with Woolf Works.

The illusion is upon me that something adheres for a moment, has roundness, weight, depth, is completed. This, for the moment, seems to be my life. If it were possible, I would hand it you entire. I would break it off as one breaks off a bunch of grapes. I would say, ‘Take it. This is my life.’ (The Waves)

Book review: Weatherland

9780500292655I like English weather, on the whole. I’m not one for too much sun, and providing it isn’t catastrophic (and I don’t have to drive in it), I enjoy the drama of mist, heavy rain, snow, and the occasional sunny day. I like seeing the effects the changeable weather has on the garden and on my moods. But for me as for most people, the weather is a backdrop to our daily lives, and one which, travelling by car, living in centrally-heated homes and working in air-conditioned, often windowless offices, we can increasingly ignore. This, as Alexandra Harris’s book suggests, is a shame.
Weather is important. The landscape is shaped by it, and many writers and artists believe that national character and temperament are shaped by the climate. Harris’s book, subtitled ‘Writers and Artists under English Skies’, explores how the English weather has been depicted from Beowulf onwards. Along the way, she considers how the weather affects people, and how and crucially why it is included in literature and art. Is it just a backdrop, or used for pathetic fallacy? It’s often much more significant than we think, it seems: human insistence on relating the weather to ourselves (writers who write better in Spring weather, for example), or anthropomorphising it, trying to make sense, find patterns, using faith, science, myth or art to explain it: we can’t ignore the weather. This determination to make something which is impervious to us make sense on our terms is fascinating, because it tells us more about the human condition than it does about the weather, even if it is simply in the recording of daily weather.
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‘The Rain it Raineth Every Day’, Norman Garstin (1889, Penlee House)

Harris explores an enormous and impressive range of works, drawing on social thought, history, science and the arts to explore how our relationship with the weather has changed over the centuries. Swift’s hatred of hot weather, Shelley’s desire to be a cloud, Ruskin’s concern that the skies were being spoiled for us by science: these are things I’d not really considered before. Harris’s gift is for writing in a manner both erudite and entertaining, which I thoroughly enjoyed in her last book, Romantic Moderns, and this is no less fascinating, making obvious things which are all too easily overlooked.

Harris’s deepest interest seems to be in Virginia Woolf, whose work is constantly preoccupied with weather conditions, and the book returns frequently to Orlando, in which the action takes place over four centuries, and the weather is observed (satirically): the Victorians are dark and damp, for example, while the twentieth century is bright and dry. Apparently Wyndham Lewis disliked English weather, suggesting in his Vorticist manifesto that it should be ‘Blasted’, because it was inappropriately dull and changeable for a modern machine age.
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Reading Weatherland has made me want to return to books I know well, including several of Woolf’s, both to consider the ways in which the weather is important in them, and because ‘the weather in which we read affects our understanding of a book’ (p.349). The recent spell of hot weather prompted me to think that the English do become a little mad in our brief spells of sunshine, and this is borne out by Harris’s reading of The Go-Between, for example, but, of course, ‘significant weather is suspect when it gets into fiction’, as she notes when discussing Julian Barnes’s work: weather in books can be made to produce certain effects, to resonate with the characters’ feelings, to cause certain events to happen, and though these things might happen in real life, they seem improbable in fiction. But weather does do surprising things in real life, of course, because our lives are still, in so many ways, bound up in the climate, as the powerful and disturbing conclusion of Weatherland emphasises.

Ravilious, Dulwich Picture GalleryFOR REVIEW USE ONLY

‘Wet Afternoon’ by Eric Ravilious (1928)

As our changing planet forces us to consider a future of increasingly extreme weather conditions, in an anthropocene age where humankind has, finally and disastrously, affected the weather, this is a book which explores the literary and artistic memorialising of the weather of the past, and invites us to consider our own experiences of weather. As Richard Mabey says, we all experience weather differently, and it affects us in diverse ways, which is, of course, the essence of why it has proved such a significant aspect of literary and artistic inspiration, but after finishing this book, I feel that our experience of the weather is part of being human, of living on this planet. It is a cliche to say that the cycle of the seasons reflects the cycle of our lives – one more way in which we try to tame nature, perhaps – but the elemental experience of Lear’s battle with the storm on the heath, for example, reduces humankind to its most vulnerable, and asks us to consider life in a very different way:
Lear.  Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!         runciman_lear_heath_ngs
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!
[…]
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then, let fall
Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high-engender’d battles ’gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul.

 

There’s a great review here by A S Byatt (someone whose work I admire and whose judgement I trust!)