Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The Word is Bats

Long before Bat Man hit newstands in Main Street, USA, bats had been fluttering through history onto the pages of books world-wide; from the Odyssey and the Old Testament to Ovid; to La Fontaine and Oliver Goldsmith, Baudelaire and Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson and Bram Stoker. In cave paintings, and poems, in comics and films, in stories and cautionary tales, the bat hangs, motif and metaphor, sometimes portent or icon. This flying mammal tells the ancient bard, the shaman, the reader and the writer much about ourselves.

Ulysses tossed between Scylla and Charybydis held on to a fig tree like a bat. Other observers in antiquity did not esteem bats so highly. Deemed unclean in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, creatures of darkness classed with moles by the prophet Isaiah nor did they impress Baruch in old Babylon, where he slammed the local priesthood for having bats swallows and birds on their heads like Philip Treacey hats.

And then, Herodotus (c.484-425 B.C,) first of historians, reported the troglodytes of Libya spoke in bat-like squeaks. Ovid, the Roman poet, exiled to Tomis on the Black Sea, completed his Metamorphoses at the time of the birth of Christ. . One of his tales, reworking older folklore, tells of the daughters of King Mynas of Orchomneos, changed into bats for offending the god Bacchus.

For so much in this summary, I am greatly indebted to the late Denise Tupinier - La Chauve-Souris et LHomme (1989) . A chapter entitled Littrature explains how the bat is embedded in many texts both serious and profane. Her list begins with a medieval naturalist, Phillipe de Thaon followed by a Renaissance poet, Jean de Baf. Next the fabulist Jean La Fontaine (1621-1695) who has several moral tales (adapted from Aesops Fables) such as The Bat and The Two Weasels. The roll-call continues with Loti, Baudelaire, and Laforgue. All of these must surely be second to Robert de Montesqiou (1855 -1921), an exotic poet who published a whole collection Les chauves-souris in 1892. For him, bats were alter egos for eccentric and effeminate men - Louis II of Bavaria was an example of great human bats! De Montesqiou was part of the literary circle of Marcel Proust; the latter once wrote to him - I am hanging from the wings of your Chauves-souris !.Are these the only poems set to music ? The composer. Leon Delafosse, performed them at an exclusive Paris salon in May 1894. At least, contrary to the negative connotations of bats in Western Europe, Montesqiou knew of the Sino/Japanese regard for bats. The Chinese word fu translates as both happiness and bat; in Japanese it is for, which is the title of a Montesqiou poem.

While Denise Tupinier quotes that poem in full, only La Fontaine is represented in the 2007 anthology On A Bats Wing, The anthology contains poems from 70 poets covering a time span of 450 years. (As editor I declare my interest in the bats of poetry).

Poetry is the place where the bat swoops into the best literary roost, far easier to look out at the night sky and be inspired, than to work a bat into a fictional plot. For Irish poet, Michael Longley, bats are 'wonderful, beautiful, humbling creatures; perhaps the defining words for the poet at his desk, or watching in his garden.

Early examples of poems include this lovely haiku from Taniguchi Buson (1717-1784)...'Darting here and there /the bat is exploring/the moonlit plum. Another Japanese word for bat is Komori which also means umbrella. This is the image Emily Dickinson ( 1830-1886) used to describe the bat of her poem. His small Umbrella quaintly halved

But don’t lets be elitist about bats and books. Literature embraces graphic novel and strip cartoon, song lyrics and operatic libretti . So, several cheers for Batman who appeared in Detective Comics of May 1939 as The Bat Man; to be joined by Robin in 1940. Enduring heroes of the Golden Age of Comic Books, they are alive, well and forever young. The Batman Archives run to 7 volumes, and when the writers realised women and girls read these comics, Batgirl joined the team in 1967.

In 1937 comic strips featured Ching Lung a villain in the style of the legendary Dr. Fu Manchu. The sinister doctor was the invention of Sax Rohmer whose books are still in print, Bat Wing (1927) uses the bat as a harbinger of doom. Here is the occult detective Paul Harley at the crime scene ... this thing is the wing of a Desmodus or Vampire Bat... the presence of a living vampire bat in Surrey is not to be anticipated.. In Surrey, no, but in Transylvania. Certainly. Rohmer would have known Dracula (1897 ) and how to exploit the nasty side of bats.

Bram Stoker was not original. He had forbears in Sheridan Le Fanus Carmilla (1871). All one needs to know about lesbian vampires (!). In turn, Le Fanu was anticipated by Dr John Polidori. one of the Shelley/Byron circle in Geneva ( where Frankenstein starts his compelling journey as a drawing room ghost story). He published his contribution The Vampyre in 1819.

Crossing the Atlantic Mark Twains hero Tom Sawyer had a bat encounter which ended happily. Lost in McDougalls Cave with Becky Thatcher, the pair struggle to find the exit: the cave was full of bats... and one followed them on their way out until at last they got rid of the perilous thing.

Bats in fiction differ from bats in poetry. Not wonderful, beautiful or humbling, but troublesome, portentous and downright scary; nowhere more true than in that well known rock anthem by Meat Loaf Bat out of Hell .

When the night is over
Like a bat out of hell Ill be gone gone gone
Like a bat out of hell Ill be gone when the morning comes

After that savage lyric it is a relief to know P.G. Wodehouse saw the funny side of those perilous things - no vampires at Blandings. Bats are, he wrote, notoriously among the less intellectually gifted of Gods creatures. Show me a bat, says the old proverb, and I will show you something that ought to be in some kind of home .The erudite crime writer Reg Hill, creator of Dalziel and Pascoe, knows his bats. In Bones and Silence (1991) bat droppings are the key to unmasking the killer. Bats said the girl. What ? Pipistrelles, I think they call them While intellectually one hundred per cent in favour of the rights of bats, the thought of actually touching them filled him (Pascoe) with horror....

Many children's books feature bats but none compare with Randall Jarrells The Bat Poet
To be sure, to be sure, said the mocking bird. I enjoyed your poem very much. When you’ve made up some more do come round and say me another. The bat said that he would and fluttered home to his rafters.
One can only agree with Professor John Altringham when he writes that The Bat Poet captures much of the real essence of a bat - the bat seeks to tell others through his poems how he sees the world.

If only Beatrix Potter had written, say, The Tale of Barnaby Bat, Jarrell and his illustrator, Maurice Sendak, may have had a rival. But in the end, for me , the best of bats swarm in the poetry. Their specialness is the inspiration linking Shakespeare with Ted Hughes. Between these two bookends, there are Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and Ogden Nash: D.H Lawrence who had an unpleasant time in Florence: Les Murray who dreamed himself into bats ultra-sound; and John Berryman. He applauded them since they paid no tax.

Theodor Roethke was drawn to their human face; George MacBeth knew bats were city gents on the Underground ...strap hangers without an Evening Standard between them Seamus Heaney talks to bats near a Belfast railway bridge: Cling there/as long as you want. There is nothing to hide.

Nothing to hide. The bat-world lives visibly and audibly in the written word: unique, omnipresent, and wonderfully reassuring in this time of doubt.

Michael Baron.

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