“By the rivers of Babylon,/There we sat down and wept,/…

When we remembered Zion.”*

Image: (“the fall of the Babylonian Empire to Persia in 539 BC”) from “Intolerance”, a 1916 epic silent film directed by D. W. Griffith. Subtitles include Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages.

Laura Barton wrote in The Guardian of 6 March 2013:

“It was in a bookshop that Elizabeth Smart first fell in love with George Barker. Thousands of miles away, Barker was teaching at a university in Japan at the time, but that day in Better Books, on London’s Charing Cross Road, Smart came across his poem Daedalus and was instantly smitten. “It is the juicy sound that runs, bubbles over, that intoxicates til I can hardly follow,” she wrote in her diary of that first encounter. Although they had yet to meet, although he was still only words on a page, she declared him the love of her life.

What followed was by any standards an extraordinary relationship, a mingling of love and infatuation played out across continents, carrying the pair from California to London, from rural Ireland to Essex, taking in breakups, reunions, poverty and the glorious mayhem of the Soho scene along the way. It was also a relationship that Smart would document in her 1945 work By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept – a novel that straddled poetry and prose and garnered a cult following. When it was reissued in 1966, Angela Carter described it, in the Guardian, as being “like Madame Bovary blasted by lightning”…

Although they never married, Smart bore Barker four children, and their liaison raged across many years. Both drank heavily and had other lovers, Barker fathering a total of 15 children by four different women; but even in their later years, when Barker had remarried, they stayed close. On Smart’s death in 1986, her children discovered, under her bed, every memento of her relationship with Barker.

I read Christopher Barker’s account of his parents’ relationship, The Arms of the Infinite. He speaks of a childhood yearning for his father’s presence that would later turn to rage and resentment…

The couple’s other son, the poet Sebastian Barker, talked of the perpetual spark between them, of how Smart would travel 50 miles on a moped through severe gales just to see him.

I realised that throughout their relationship, the idea of Barker was as important to her as the reality: the journey through the storm was as important as the arrival at his door. What kept them together was what had brought them together – a simple love of one another’s words. First in his poetry, then in their written correspondence, and through Barker’s encouragement of Smart’s own writing. In a letter to her once, he spoke of reading By Grand Central Station, calling it “a catherine wheel of a book”. It seems to me the perfect description not only of that work but of the great spark and flame of their relationship.

Raffaella Barker chose it as her “Book Of A Lifetime” for The Independent of 11.7.08:

“…The climax (sorry!) is an incredible scene in which the lovers are interrogated by the police on a state border, and the scene is cut with lines from *Psalm 137 and the Song of Solomon. “What relation is this man to you? (My beloved is mine and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies)… Were you intending to commit fornication in Arizona? (He shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.)”…”

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