Serendipity

Is there any more happy accident than serendipity?

For once, the dictionary is no help. It describes serendipity as (n) the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident. It is a pat description, but little explains that shivery feeling that true serendipity creates. Serendipity is where coincidence and destiny intersect. 

The word was coined by Horace Walpole (1717-92) in a letter to Mann (dated Jan. 28); he said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip,” whose heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” (dictionary.com)

Perhaps I am a Princess of Serendip. My father has always been a strong believer in serendipity. He told me to look for it and be ready when it comes. I have always kept one eye to the happenstance that leads to consequence.



My latest experience with serendipity has been a startling one. This blog is newish and I am continually refining the design, to make it more pleasing to the idea and easy to read. I find big chunks of text without pictures to be exhausting, much like Alice (“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations!”).

To that end, I had added an image of this painting to the sidebar:

Casper David Friedrich, Woman at the Window

I had actually never seen this painting before, in any of my art history classes. I was familiar with the artist, Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840). Below is his most famous work, which is in every art history textbook under Romanticism.

Casper David Friedrich, The Wanderer

I remembered the way this painting had made me feel, its capture of infinite possibilities. I wondered if the artist had other works that featured a woman and that same sense of yearning. So I googled his name and found the window painting and put it up. I was thrilled at how it looked on the page and complemented the wallpaper of the vintage photo of the girl at the window (which incidentally I found at a curiosities shop in Adare, Ireland). So I arranged it and promptly forgot about it…

Until four days later when my mother called and left a mysterious message on my voice mail. She sounded odd. When I called her back, she asked when I had put up the painting on my blog. When I told her, she was silent. Then she said, “I just bought you a book with that painting on the cover. I just saw that painting.”

My mother had just returned from New York City, where she spent the weekend. She and her best girl friend headed off to The Met, as any artistically-minded traveler would do. There, she was attracted by a special exhibition called Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century. One painting in particular caught her eye – she said it reminded her of me – and it was actually the featured painting in the exhibit. She sat there for a long time looking at it, the patinated greens of the dress and the soft brushwork. She loved it so much that she had to buy the exhibition catalog, which featured it on the cover, for my birthday. She knew I would love it too. She almost bought the poster, but the color match wasn’t true enough. I’m sure you’re following along, dear reader. The painting was this:

Casper David Friedrich, Woman at the Window

 And the exhibit was here: Metropolitan Museum: Rooms With a View, The Open Window in the 19th Century


It was no doubt rather a shock to load up my blog when she got home and see that exact painting pop up. It startled her so much that she left the cryptic message on my phone. Cue shivery feeling.

My mother and I are very compatible in our tastes, so it’s no surprise that we would both love such a dreamy, Romantic painting. What I cannot seem to explain is how, completely independent of each other, we both found a painting that we had never seen before in the same moment.


“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” – Hamlet

Word of the Day – Zaftig

zaf·tig

<a href=”http://dictionary.reference.com/audio.html/lunaWAV/Z00/Z0002200″ target=”_blank”><img src=”http://sp.dictionary.com/dictstatic/g/d/speaker.gif” border=”0″ alt=”zaftig pronunciation” /></a&gt/ˈzɑftɪk, -tɪg/ Show [zahf-tik, -tig] 

–adjective Slang .

1. (of a woman) having a pleasantly plump figure.
2. full-bodied; well-proportioned. 

zaftig

“alluringly plump, curvaceous, buxom,” 1937

Curvaceousness in art reached its pinnacle with the exuberance of Baroque artists such as Peter Paul Rubens and Titian, best known of the Venetian school. 

Venus, Rubens

Flora, Titian

And yet, in the space of fifty years we have gone from this being the ideal of beauty:

To this:

Bring back the zaftig girl, say I! 

Thoughts on "La Belle Dame"

Who has not tried to hold onto something that slipped away? This poem speaks in a mournful throb of something precious lost forever.

“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is commonly translated as “The beautiful lady without pity/mercy”, although “thanks” is the literal translation of “merci”. I think the idea of ingratitude is actually far more interesting than pitilessness: her procession of devotees pay single-minded homage and yet she seemingly cares not…or does she?

The narrator speaks of her eyes twice: “Her hair was long,/her foot was light,/And her eyes were wild” and then, later, “She took me to her elfin grot,/And there she gaz’d and sighed deep,/And there I shut her wild sad eyes– So kiss’d to sleep.” As described, there is a hint of regret in her eyes, of sadness for yet another lover abandoned. Is it because she feels more strongly for the narrator or that she is doomed to always lead her knights astray? This is the one moment in the poem where the coquette slips. If truly without pity, mercy or gratitude, why the lady’s sadness?

Though the poem seems straightforward, there are enigmatic layers within each stanza. He made her garlands of flowers as she sings to him faery songs, a traditional token of courtly love. She feeds him faery nourishment, “relish sweet,/And honey wild,/and manna dew“. Keats later references the “starv’d lips in the gloam” of the wraiths, an indication of lack of substance to her nourishment. It could also be read as love-starved. One common result of heartbreak in Romantic literature is wasting away from lack of love.

Keats did not originate the idea of “La Belle Dame” – it dates back to Medieval courtly love poetry. The theme of the beautiful faery creature who heedlessly breaks hearts is the mirror opposite of the lady who waits patiently at her tower window for her love or quietly pines away (see The Lady of Shalott).

Keats himself considered this poem dashed off: “I have for the most part dash’d of[f] my lines in a hurry – ” (Letter to George, Weds 21 April 1819). Nevertheless, it is considered one of the most classic English Romantic poems and was a great influence on the Pre-Raphaelites in particular (see paintings from previous post and sketch below by Dante Gabriel Rossetti).

For a far more scholarly interpretation of the sources of “La Belle Dame”:
http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/sym4int.htm

 Read more Keats and other Romantic poets at: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/66

Poem by John Keats, post by me. All material copyright.