Category Archives: Colours

Fireworks – gateway to winter

spider-web-1

Every year, I resist the approach of winter.

There is always a morning, early in September, when I step outside the back door to find a delicate web stretched between the stems of dying plants in the garden, with a small black-and-brown resident lurking at the centre – the first autumn garden spider. With it comes a definite chill in the air – and from that shivery moment on, I am trying to hold back the encroaching darkness simply by force of wishing it may not be so.

Sadly, my wishful thinking is not powerful enough to halt the carousel ride of the earth around the sun. Like every other helpless human, I’m just holding on tight while the great wheel keeps turning. As I watch the light fail earlier each evening, and pull ever thicker clothes from the back of the cupboard, the link with summer months gets more and more tenuous.

Compensation comes in the form of autumn colours, of course. The beauty of this season easily rivals that of spring. But there’s no escaping the fact that the golden leaves are dying leaves, a last flash of glory before bare branches are exposed to the frost.

It’s all very depressing – that is, until 5 November, Guy Fawkes Night. This time when the annual extravaganza of firework displays takes place is always the moment when, finally, I agree to face winter head-on.

Red, green, gold, silver and, best of all, purple flashes defy the dark skies. A blazing bonfire defies the cold wind. Every fizz, boom and whistle gives a two-fingered salute to gloom.

Even better, Guy Fawkes Night gives permission to think ahead to sparkling fairy lights, scented candles and hot mulled wine – all the warm, comforting accompaniments to Christmas. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’

This year, I’ve bought a bright red winter coat. I shall wear it for the first time to our local fireworks display, and stop wishing for summer.

fireworks


Photos from https://unsplash.com/@jammypodger7470 and https://unsplash.com/@kazuend

Cinquain 14

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Stop. Look.
Arrested by
the neon glare of red
and yellow bold and bedazzling
tulips

Name that colour

history of green

Can you imagine having names for only three colours? In this book about the history of the colour green,* I read that the ancient Greek language had simple names for only black, white and red. Other colour words were available but they tended to describe the quality of a colour (such as ‘dark’ or ‘pale’), or the kind of emotion it evoked, rather than naming plain green, blue and yellow.

My first thought, reading this, was to feel sorry for the poor old ancient Greeks, that their language was so impoverished. Fancy not being able to say that the sky is blue or the sun is yellow!

On second thoughts, though, I wonder what is the real point of any of these words? They’re useful when a quick identification is needed – when a witness says that the suspect was wearing a blue shirt and drove off in a yellow car. But the categories are too broad to do justice to the thousands of different shades that an artist might want to name, so we subdivide ‘blue’ into navy, cobalt and ultramarine, to name just a few.

Image: Bob Embleton

Image: Bob Embleton

The grass is green, right? Sometimes, on a country walk, I pick one stalk of every different type of grass I can find along the path. There are usually about a dozen varieties, and the range of colours they represent is astonishing – from brown, through purple and green, to creamy yellow. I call them ‘green’ only because I’m not looking closely enough. I’m just being lazy.

There’s something else, though. Very often, when we talk about colour, we’re really talking about its cultural or emotional meaning – what it signifies to us rather than just which part of the light spectrum is being reflected from the surface we’re seeing. Even when we remark on how blue the sky is today, often what we mean is that it’s making us feel cheerful.

Lots of our colour-talk is about symbolism or deeper meaning: we think of autumn colours, Christmas colours, nautical colours, tropical colours. Red stands for danger, purple for majesty, green for renewal.

When I’m trying to write short forms of poetry (cinquains and haiku), I usually feel that a colour-word is a waste of a syllable unless it ‘means’ something else – for example, if it’s used synaesthetically, like this:

grass cutting
all along the roadside spills
the scent of green

Yet I’ve noticed for the first time that D.H. Lawrence is remarkably bold in his use of simple colour words like green, blue, yellow, black and white. Far from avoiding them because they’re clichéd, he repeats them – creating intensity, layer upon layer. So, describing fresh snow, he says it is:

… white and white and only white
with a lovely bloom of whiteness upon white
in which the soul delights and the senses
have an experience of bliss.

This is not just a description of a white landscape, but of whiteness. It’s an experience, not a colour.

The ancient Greeks were on to something, you know. However many colour-words we have, three or three thousand, it’s the inner quality that matters, not the surface reflection – what we feel, not just what we see.


* Green: The history of a color by Michel Pastoureau, trans. Jody Gladding (Princeton University Press, 2014)

Cinquain 9

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White star
opens, glowing
at the close of the day –
close to the earth but heavenly
scented

Cinquain 8

Beech tree

Crackle –
under my boots
the prickly beech nut husks;
lime-green layered leaves above me
ripple

The cool new moon

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Moonlight is a favourite topic for poets, romantic song writers and Gothic novelists. Usually, it’s the bold, bright, full moon that grabs their attention – and that’s understandable. I love the full moon, too, but I’m equally attracted by this poem from D.H. Lawrence’s 1929 collection, Pansies.


The new moon, of no importance
lingers behind as the yellow sun glares and is gone beyond the sea’s edge;
earth smokes blue;
the new moon, in cool height above the blushes,
brings a fresh fragrance of heaven to our senses.


These lines invite us to consider, instead, the refreshingly understated new moon. I like it when people notice things that are thought to be ‘of no importance’ compared with more spectacular beauties.

When Lawrence talks about a ‘new moon’, like most of us, he probably means a waxing crescent moon, because a true new moon is the moment when the moon is dark, showing no reflection at all from the sun. But when he chooses the words ‘lingers behind’, he’s exactly right – and he knows more than I did. A waxing crescent moon, I’ve just discovered, rises at the same time and place as the sun, follows it across the sky (invisibly, of course, overwhelmed by sunlight), and simply comes into view once the sun has dipped below the horizon and the sky darkens (http://earthsky.org/moon-phases/waxing-crescent).

Lawrence paints a colourful scene, contrasting the heat of the dying day with the coolness of the emerging moon. The glaring yellow of the sinking sun is obviously a hot colour, and the ‘blushes’ that Lawrence mentions must be, I guess, the warm pink-tinged sky at sunset. But what about the words ‘earth smokes blue’? We usually think of blue as a ‘cold’ colour, so how does that fit the picture?

Well, there is a shade of blue seen at dusk, sometimes, that has a smoky quality about it, tinting the earth as well as the sky. Something else to understand, though, is that Lawrence himself doesn’t associate blue with the cold. In another poem, he writes of the chaotic geological age when sapphires were being formed:

… crushed utterly, and breathed through and through
with fiery weight and wild life, and coming out
clear and eternally blue!

For him, ‘fiery weight’ and blueness go together.

Finally, the pale crescent moon brings us ‘a fresh fragrance of heaven’. It’s easy to feel the cool evening breeze blowing through this line of the poem, but what kind of fragrance might it evoke? Again, in an earlier poem, Lawrence describes a moon ‘as small and white as a single jasmine blossom’ – but jasmine has a heady floral scent, not ‘fresh’ at all.

Until a month ago, I would not have considered the scent that I’m now imagining. After having a single snowdrop in a small vase attached to the warm air vent in my car for several days, I noticed that the air was faintly scented with a delicate sappy perfume. The snowdrop – first spring flower to emerge from the winter earth – seems to fit well with the crescent moon newly revealed in the sky.

The new moon may be of no importance, but it’s none the less beautiful.

Cinquain 6

Snowdrop heart

Snowdrop,
wanting only
the touch of warming draught,
dares to reveal a seldom seen
green heart