Category Archives: Poetry

You had such a vision of the street / As the street hardly understands;

Prufrock and Other Observations by T.S. Eliot

It’s often thought that modernism is difficult, inaccessible, not the sort of thing most readers will enjoy. When the BBC carried out a survey to discover Britain’s favourite poet though the winner was T.S. Eliot, high priest of Modernism with a capital M.

It’s not a surprise of course that the winner was a poet taught in schools, few people read poetry after school (poetry often seems more written than read). I find it a cheering result, at least partly because Eliot isn’t the easiest poet to read (though he’s not nearly as hard as his reputation might suggest). It’s certainly a much better result than the BBC’s 2003 best novel survey which came up with a top 100 list that was staggering for its obviousness and mediocrity.

I didn’t vote in the poll, but if I had I’d have voted Eliot too. The reason I’d have voted Eliot isn’t The Wasteland, masterpiece as that is, but because he wrote what is probably my favourite poem – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Prufrock_And_Other_Observations

Prufrock and Other Observations was first published by The Egoist in 1917. Nowadays there’s a lovely little Faber and Faber imprint – pocket sized and printed on good quality paper and generally a pleasure to hold (as the Faber poetry volumes tend to be).

Prufrock and Other Observations contains twelve poems of varying lengths and styles. Of these the big beast is clearly The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but there are other stand-outs such as Portrait of a Lady; Preludes (“And then the lighting of the lamps”); Rhapsody on a Windy Night; Morning at the Window; Aunt Helen; Hysteria; La Figla che Piange; as well as arguably lesser efforts such as The Boston Evening Transcript; Cousin Nancy; and Mr. Apollinax. I suspect Conversation Gallante is also a lesser effort, but one I liked and I’ll talk a bit more about below.

There isn’t a single poem in this collection that hasn’t been the subject of exhaustive academic analysis, none of which I have read. There isn’t a poem here which hasn’t been comprehensively picked clean of references, inspirations, influences and subtexts. I don’t do this for a living though, nor do I have exams to sit, which means that I have the luxury of just reading the poems for themselves, taking from them those parts that speak to me.

Here, after an introductory quote from Dante in the Italian, are the opening lines of Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .                               10
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

This is profoundly alienated language – “muttering retreats”, “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels”, “Streets that follow like a tedious argument”. There’s a sense of a grubby, tawdry reality. This is an internal monologue weighed down by the futility of its own debate (I’m aware there are other argued interpretations).

What follows is a man arguing with himself as to whether or not to confess his love for a woman. He plays through the whole encounter in his mind – the journey to her, climbing up her stairs, and then the impassable barrier of indifferent decorum.

Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

The poem is rich with images taken from religion and myth – opening with Dante, referencing Hamlet, John the Baptist, Lazarus, mermaids. Against all that though is the suffocating mundanity of a room with tea and polite conversation and the sheer impossibility of breaking through to something that actually has meaning, something profound (Mr. Apollinax brings out these contrasts much more clearly, but for me to lesser effect).

The poem is suffused with desire:

Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)

but there is no certainty that the desire is in any way returned. Polite Edwardian England has no place in it for passion. Prufrock, middle-aged and painfully conscious of his own absurdity, has no power to shake the age and transform it.

Eliot then shows the gap between the dream and the suffocating reality, leading to some of the most painful lines I have ever read:

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

That gap, that pause for reflection between stanzas, makes the line “I do not think that they will sing to me” hit like a hammerblow. It underlines the full tragedy of Prufrock’s (far from unique) situation. It is a poem which speaks of disenchantment, not just in the obvious sense but in that referred to by Josipovici in his What Ever Happened to Modernism? Prufrock is modern, as is the world, and our old dreams are dead and all we have in their place is form emptied of substance.

Preludes and Rhapsody on a Windy Night also explore the disillusionment brought by mucky prosaicism and the sheer pain of existence among indifference, as does Morning at the Window (repeated below in full):

They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,
And along the trampled edges of the street
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.

The brown waves of fog toss up to me
Twisted faces from the bottom of the street,
And tear from a passer-by with muddy skirts
An aimless smile that hovers in the air
And vanishes along the level of the roofs

Again there’s that impressionistic conjuring of the city and the urban environment, there’s that feeling of terrible isolation and there’s that wonderful and surprising juxtaposition of images – “the damp souls of housemaids”. Above all though, for me, there is disenchantment and alienation. If this were religious poetry I would talk here as I would have with Prufrock of how the sacred remains barely visible but forever out of grasp in a fallen world, but it’s not religious poetry and the world isn’t fallen because the truth is worse than that. If the world were fallen we could climb back up, be restored to grace, but grace was only ever a dream and human voices have woken us.

The last poem I’ll single out to discuss is much lighter in tone, and it’s Conversation Gallante. Here it is, also in full:

I observe: ‘Our sentimental friend the moon!
Or possibly (fantastic, I confess)
It may be Prester John’s balloon
Or an old battered lantern hung aloft
To light poor travellers to their distress.’
She then: ‘How you digress!’

And I then: ‘Someone frames upon the keys
That exquisite nocturne, with which we explain
The night and moonshine; music which we seize
To body forth our own vacuity.’

She then: ‘Does this refer to me?’
‘Oh no, it is I who am inane.’

‘You, madam, are the eternal humorist
The eternal enemy of the absolute,
Giving our vagrant moods the slightest twist!
With your air indifferent and imperious
At a stroke our mad poetics to confute — ‘
And- Are we then so serious?’

This is Eliot in much more playful form. It’s not a great poem as say Prufrock is, but it does capture nicely a certain kind of flirtatious conversation, of the woman constantly slightly ahead of the narrator. The majority of the speech is the man’s, apparently driving the conversation, but at each turn the woman outwits him and he finds his flurry of words effortlessly parried with a single line.

There is of course again here an example of the fantastic being defeated by the mundane, but for me at least without the despondency carried by the other poems. I’ve been in that situation, trying hard to impress someone who knows that’s what I’m doing and who doesn’t plan to make it easy for me, and there is an inherent comedy to it which Eliot is well aware of.

The poem illustrates one final point, which is that throughout this collection (and perhaps in Eliot’s poetry more broadly) it’s men who are sensitive and experience deep emotions for which they have no outlet. Women by contrast are sometimes attractive, but rarely reflective. Eliot is brilliant and his poetry is I think as good as art gets, but he writes firmly from a male viewpoint. Even with that though Eliot’s perception is so acute, his observations so universal, that I would have thought as many women as men would recognise themselves in his work.

In a way Eliot’s gender representations reminded me of a conversation I had years ago, where I described to a woman how as a teenager I’d sometimes been awed by girls I thought too cool to approach – utterly diminished by their impenetrably aloof beauty and unable to even speak to them. I’d naively thought it a uniquely male experience, but of course it isn’t. Her comment was that she’d had the same thing with some boys, and why wouldn’t she? Disillusion, desire, the need for something beyond the everyday, if these aren’t fundamental human experiences then what is?

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Filed under Eliot, T.S., Modernist Fiction, Poetry

the sweep of predication was more compelling than the predicated

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

I bought a copy of Prufrock and Other Observations recently. It’s a tiny book, containing one famous poem taught in schools throughout the English speaking world and a number of other poems that few of those schoolchildren will ever read. That’s the thing with poetry, most of us if we ever read it at all read it at school and never again. If we do read any later, we mostly read poets we already know (so only reading poems recognised as classics). The world of contemporary poetry is a tiny one, obscure to the point that by contrast translated literary fiction looks as popular as Fifty Shades of Grey. I’ve said this before I think.

Ben Lerner is a US contemporary poet. Leaving the Atocha Station is his first novel, and it’s a novel about poetry. It’s also almost certainly going to be in my end of year list as one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s extremely funny, beautifully written and unlike many novels written by poets it works as well at the level of the entire book as it does at the level of the sentence.

Adam Gordon is an American poet living in Madrid. He’s on scholarship, supposedly researching links between poetry and the Spanish Civil War (links he suspects don’t really exist). In reality he spends his days on an extended slacker holiday, drinking coffee and getting stoned, each day much the same as the last.

As part of his daily morning ritual he goes to the Prado, to stand before Rogier Van der Weyden’s Descent of the Cross:

A turning point in my project: I arrived one morning at the Van der Weyden to find someone had taken my place. He was standing exactly where I normally stood, and for a moment I was startled, as if beholding myself beholding the painting, although he was thinner and darker than I. I waited for him to move on, but he didn’t. I wondered if he had observed me in front of the Descent and if he was now standing before int in the hope of seeing whatever it was I must have seen. I was irritated and tried to find another canvas for my morning ritual, but was too accustomed to the painting’s dimension ans and blues to accept a substitute. I was about to abandon room 58 when the man suddenly broke into tears, convulsively catching his breath. Was he, I wondered, just facing the wall to hide his face as he dealt with whatever grief he’d brought into the museum? Or was he having a profound experience of art?

Adam has never had a “profound experience of art”. He’s not entirely persuaded they exist, and if they do he’s jealous of those who have them. What follows is a lovely comic sequence as Adam follows the man and observes the guards’ reaction to him. The man is overcome in the next room too, leaving the guards with a quandary. Is the man having a profound experience of art, which is ostensibly why the paintings are there and what the gallery is for, or is he crazy in which case should they eject him before he damages something? If they do eject him and he was just being moved by the power of the art, have they just defeated the entire point of the gallery and their place in it?

Uncertainty is central here. Adam’s Spanish is terrible, he’s made almost no efforts to learn the language and can’t read the poets he claims to be researching.

But I couldn’t bring myself to work at prose in Spanish, in part because I had to look up so many words that I was never able to experience the motion of a sentence; it remained so many particles; never a wave; I didn’t have the patience to reread the same passage again and again until the words ceased to be mere points and became a line.

His conversations with the locals become comedies of part-understanding. A woman talks to him of home “but whether she meant a household or the literal structure, I couldn’t tell”. She says something about swimming in a lake as a child, or perhaps that lakes reminded her of being a child, or asks if Adam had enjoyed swimming as a child, or says that that something else she’d said had been childish. Adam catches words, but behind them spin penumbras of meaning, ripples cast outwards by fragments of language.

For much of the book then the bulk of Adam’s conversations are notional. Things are said to him, but whether what he understands is what was meant is far from clear. That sounds potentially annoying but instead it’s very funny, and something more than that – it’s a metaphor for poetry itself. Adam understands Spanish as a reader understands a poem. Sensed meanings, which may or may not be intended. Multiplicities of interpretations, those chosen coming as much from what Adam brings to the conversation as to what was actually said. Adam’s conversations exist in the space between him and the words he understands, like poetry exists in the gap between the reader and the words on the page.

Adam falls in with a group of Madrileños who introduce him to the Madrid art scene. One of them begins translating his poems, which he thinks are essentially fake works of no real merit (but he still becomes passionate when someone misunderstands what he’s doing with them). He starts to attend readings, including of his own works, and has to face his own disassociation and the feeling that at any moment he’ll be caught out as the charlatan he feels he is. Again there’s a mismatch of understanding, not now of language but of how others clearly view Adam and how he views himself.

Later, after the first reading of his work, he reflects on his poetry and on the relationship between poetry generally with Franco and to fascism, with the world:

I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen, changing the government or the economy or even their language, the body or its sensorium, but I could not imagine this, could not even imagine imagining it. And yet when I imagined the total victory of those other things over poetry, when I imagined, with a sinking feeling, a world without  even the terrible excuses for poems that kept faith with the virtual possibilities of the medium, without the sort of absurd ritual I’d participated in that evening, then I intuited an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual, and I realized that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills.

When the Madrid bombings occur Adam finds himself present at history. He wants to be part of it, but really he’s at best an observer. He’s not a Madrileño, he’s just a guy who was in town when the bombings happened. What do his shards of poetry mean against dead bodies, shattered limbs? Nothing of course, they’re perfectly useless.

At risk of being political that’s what those who speak of cultural dividends, of the creative industries, of the commercial benefits to a thriving art scene all utterly miss. Art is useless. It doesn’t feed us, it doesn’t help keep the elderly warm or teach children employable skills or keep us safe from criminals or rogue regimes. Good art often isn’t even entertaining. If we try to justify art by reference to utility we always fail. Art is beyond utility, which is a problem for technocratic politicians who to a one cannot understand anything that cannot be monetised.

Ahem. Possibly I digress. Leaving the Atocha Station clocks in at under 200 pages. It’s full of tremendously written lines (Adam finds himself able to follow a bad Spanish poem because it is “an Esperanto of cliches”, visiting an apartment he notes “… against one of the walls a low, Japanese looking-bed that was probably Swedish.”). It’s more though than just a collection of great sentences; it’s a comic novel that’s utterly serious.

Leaving the Atocha Station is as light or dense as you wish it to be, and while Adam may be one of the less sympathetic protagonists I’ve encountered in a while (steeped as he is in privilege and self-absorption) that in itself just becomes a reflection of the class that he, and of course Ben Lerner form part of. If art is useless, and it is, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s dominated by the children of the well-off and by people convinced of the absolute value of their own introspection. Thankfully, they’re occasionally right about that value.

Leaving the Atocha Station has been very widely reviewed in the US, but less so in the UK. I learned about it through Just William’s Luck here (thanks Will). There’s another great review by the Guardian’s Jenny Turner here, a glowing Jeff Dyer review here and a depressingly skilled review by James Wood here (though I’m not persuaded of his Lermontov comparison). By way of contrast it’s worth reading this Amazon review by Paul Bowes, a Guardian book pages regular that I hold in huge regard (even if I do disagree with him on this occasion). In addition to all that, here‘s Tao Lin interviewing Ben Lerner (including a lovely exchange where it turns out that the art gallery passage, which was suggested to be essentially lifted from Bernhard, is actually from Lerner’s own experience making his life is an act of plagiarism).

On a final note, the title is a reference to a John Ashbery poem of the same name. The poem can be read here. Were I familiar with Ashbery’s work I could no doubt draw out some interesting conclusions about how the book relates to the poem (Adam, within the book, talks about Ashbery’s work). Since however I had to be told that’s what the title meant, I’ll have to leave that to others (Will makes some good points on that front). As Adam only speaks so much Spanish, I only speak so much poetry.

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Filed under Lerner, Ben, Poetry, US Literature

a Muscovite in Harold’s cloak?

Eugene Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin and translated by Tom Beck

How does one review a work like Eugene Onegin? It’s not that I’m nervous writing about classics, but Russian novels in verse which are so important they created a genre? That’s a big ask. Nabokov wrote an entire commentary on the poem, and a famously literal translation. Where to start?

Well, if there’s a point to blogging it’s to record a personal reaction. I’m frankly not qualified to speak to any technical aspects of Eugene Onegin. It’s only because I looked it up on Wikipedia that I know it’s in something called iambic tetrameter (and then I had to look up what that was). This then will not be an academic critique; it won’t be an analysis of the poem and its place in Russian literature. This is simply my reaction to a book written around 180 years ago in a language I don’t speak and in a style I’m unfamiliar with. I’m already thinking about reading it again.

Back in 2010 I read Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, written in the second decade of the nineteenth Century. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t read it for its own merits. I read it because without it there wouldn’t be a Eugene Onegin. Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is the bridge between the European romantic tradition and the later Russian concept of the “superflous man”. That makes it sound of mere historical interest, but Pushkin is far too good a writer for that. This is a delicious novel, still well worth reading.

Eugene himself is a young man about Moscow as the novel opens. He’s a womanising dandy waiting for a long-sick uncle to die so that he can inherit. Here’s how Pushkin introduces him:

3

Completing service long and faithful,
his father ended his career
and left his son debts by the plateful
from having given balls each year.
And yet my friend was saved from Hades
by his Madame, a Gallic lady;
and then Monsieur took on the lad,
a lively child but never bad.
Monsieur l’abbé, who hated quarrels,
thought learning ought to be a joy,
tried not to overwhelm the boy.
He didn’t bother him with morals,
and if annoyed, he didn’t bark,
but took Eugene to Letny Park.

4

When Eugene grew and first felt passion,
was plagued by love and hope and doubt,
they did what’s always been the fashion
and threw the wretched abbé out.
My friend was free from every pressure,
could live and act as was his pleasure,
so he was always finely dressed
in what was surely London’s best.
He spoke and wrote French to perfection,
bowed constantly, his hair well curled,
and when he danced he turned and twirled,
his light Mazurka no exception.
He didn’t have too long to wait
before the world thought he was great.

Eugene’s a dilettante. He spends his evenings at the theatre and at balls, his days at leisure. He has no need to work, and no enthusiasms beyond those custom would applaud. He has taste, or at least a sense of fashion. He is also, however, quite criminally bored:

37

Alas! His feelings were now cooling,
he wearied of the social round,
the constant flirting and the fooling
now seemed to him absurd, unsound.
Pursuing beauties now fatigued him,
betrayals, friends no more intrigued him,
nor guzzling beefsteaks, Strasbourg Pie,
champagne until the day you die,
dispensing piquant sayings, grimace,
and bicker, have an aching head
from everything you’ve done and said.
Although he was a fiery scapegrace,
he’d lost his love of having fun,
of sabre-fighting and the gun.

As Pushkin goes on to say, “Childe Harold-like, he was ill-humoured”. This is of course classic territory (what do you expect? It’s a classic). A bored young blade looking for some means to alleviate his ennui, even before Byron this wasn’t an unfamiliar character. Laclos would have recognised him. Coming just 15 years after Byron’s creation though the source is even more obvious. It’s a point which raises another question: if Harold was as many thought Byron’s thinly disguised autobiography, is Eugene actually Pushkin?

56
Oh flowers, love, you fields and meadows,
Oh idleness, yours is my soul;
I’m not Eugene, we’re different fellows,
that matters to me on the whole
in case some too sarcastic readers
or other bookish, slanderous creatures
should callously compare my quirks
with those of Byron and his works,
as if I were but merely scrawling
my effigy, just like that proud
fantast, as people put around
so shamelessly, (which I find galling),
as if we wrote of nothing else
but poems all about ourselves.

If I hadn’t thought of the question already it would be firmly in my mind after that denial. Pushkin’s well aware that readers will be looking at this wondering if it’s really about him. His narrator, who is of course also a character within the novel, loudly denies that he’s Eugene – “we’re different fellows”. The narrator’s a garrulous sort though, and he can’t resist throwing his own comments into the text, reflecting on how Eugene’s life reflects upon his own and generally digressing.

That split, between Eugene as protagonist and the narrator as meta-character, is what makes this so much fun. Eugene’s story is pretty straightforward. He leaves Moscow and goes to the country, where a young and innocent girl falls in love with him and where he becomes friends with a local poet. During his stay misunderstanding and lack of thought lead Eugene to commit to a duel which ends, as duels in Russian literature generally do, to tragic consequences. In case you don’t know the story I won’t say more, but knowing it wouldn’t harm the book any. Pushkin’s not aiming to surprise the reader with plot twists here.

While all this is happening the narrator is revealing his own character. His acerbic asides reveal his own past romantic misfortune, his loss of fashion and his world-weary cynicism. As with the Tales of Belkin what at first seems to be a framing device becomes as important as what it’s framing. Pushkin, on the strength of the two books I’ve read so far anyway, is an incredibly playful writer.

I’m conscious I’m quoting a lot in this review, but I’m keen that readers get a decent chance to see the style as it appears in Tom Beck’s translation. This isn’t a full stanza, but it’s a nice illustration of how the narrator (Pushkin within the fiction) lets his own character slip into the text:

He had a chaste and upright conscience,
which he quite guilelessly laid bare,
Onegin found that he could share
his friend’s naïve and heady nonsense,
emotions which, however true,
are not exactly all that new.

All this narrative dexterity is married to a rich vein of social commentary. Pushkin’s aim is as accurate as Onegin’s, and he turns it on Russian society, on earnest Romantic poets, on the superfluous men of Eugene’s generation, even on some public figures which (as the end-notes make clear) his contemporaries would have recognised. As so often country folk come out as better than anyone else, but then the myth of the pastoral idyll is always with us (and even that is shown here as stultifyingly dull).

This is the first time I’ve read Eugene Onegin, so I can’t compare Tom Beck’s translation to others. My impression is that a straight translation of Onegin is essentially impossible. The original poetry was innovative and unique, and translating it means making a choice between exactly how faithful you are to the exact meaning of the language and how faithful to the structure and style.

Tom Beck is a musician by training, and that shows here in a translation which emphasises flow over precision. It’s not that he writes his own text (I did compare the opening stanza as it appears in several translations and Beck isn’t rewriting as such), but he wants to keep the poem as a poem and since direct English equivalents of the original Russian words wouldn’t fit the sructure it’s fair to say there will be translations which hew more closely to the original meanings (Nabokov of course being the most striking example).

Meaning though is only part of being faithful. Beck preserves the feel of the poem, he preserves its rhythm and that too is a form of fidelity. Translating fiction is like interpreting music. Two orchestras performing the same piece will each give it their own stamp. Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky when performed by say the London Philharmonic becomes the London Philharmonic’s Alexander Nevsky by Prokofiev. It’s still Prokofiev, but it’s no longer purely Prokofiev.

Is this then a good translation? Well, yes, because I read it and enjoyed it and I felt the movement of it and left wanting to read more. Is it the best translation? Best for whom? Is it a worthwhile translation? Yes, because fidelity to structure is no less valid than fidelity to meaning. There were occasions when I found a rhyme jarred slightly (else and ourselves for example, above) or where I lost the rhythm for a moment and had to reenter the poem. After the first few pages though I found the verse as natural as prose, and if you’re to have any hope of reading a book like this that’s critical.

I’ve long been a fan of Dedalus Press, so when I saw they had their own version of Eugene Onegin I had to give it a try. I’m glad I did, and I hope others will too. This is a lively and fun book, tragic and witty and clever enough to leave many ambiguities unresolved (if the end of The Sense of an Ending left you frustrated this one really isn’t for you). Russian literature has a (undeserved) reputation for being heavy, depressing and difficult. Eugene Onegin is none of those things.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Byron, Lord, Poetry, Pushkin, Alexander, Russian Literature, Superfluous Man

A notable. A knight.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by Simon Armitage and an unknown original author

Recently I read and enjoyed Peter Ackroyd’s take on Malory’s The Once and Future King. One of my few disappointments with it was that it didn’t include one of my favourite Arthurian myths (f0r the very good reason that it’s not from Malory, but I didn’t know that then). That myth was the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which originates in a 14th Century poem of unknown authorship.

Simon Armitage is one of the UK’s leading contemporary poets, and a while back I caught a tv programme presented by him in which he talked about the poem and about his own modern translation of it. For Armitage key elements of the poem were its relationship with the landscape from which it originated, and its use of alliteration. He wanted his translation to capture that that Northern voice and that use of alliteration, as well as the excitement he found in the poem.

The essence of the poem is simple. Arthur hosts a great Christmas feast, and all are merry. They are interrupted in their revels though by a massive knight, a mountain of a man clad in green and with green skin, beard and horse. He is a perilously ambiguous figure wearing no armour and carrying in one hand a sprig of holly:

and in the other hand held the mother of all axes,

a cruel piece of kit I kid you not:

the head was an ell in length at least

and forged in green steel with a gilt finish;

the skull-busting blade was so stropped and buffed

it could shear a man’s scalp and shave him to boot.

The handle which fitted that fiend’s great fist

was inlaid with iron, end to end,

with green pigment picking out impressive designs.

Immediately there you can get a sense of Armitage’s style. He’s not afraid of modern references (“the mother of all axes”, “I kid you not”), but at the same time this is fine visual (and visceral) poetry. The whole scene comes richly to life and I’m already considering buying a second version of this poem, in audio form read by Armitage himself (I have Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf on audio read by Heaney, and it’s a marvel to listen to).

Arthur’s court is daunted by this figure, who offers doubtful reassurance:

‘I’m spoiling for no scrap, I swear. Besides,

the bodies on these benches are just bum-fluffed bairns.

If I’d ridden to your castle rigged out for a ruck

these lightweight adolescents wouldn’t last a minute.

But it’s Yuletide – a time of youthfulness, yes?

So at Christmas in this court I lay down a challenge:

if a person here present, within these premises,

is big or bold or red-blooded enough

to strike me one stroke and be struck in return,

I shall give him as a gift this gigantic cleaver

and the axe shall be his to handle how he likes.

I’ll kneel, bare my neck and take the first knock.

So who has the gall? The gumption? The guts?

Who’ll spring from his seat and snatch this weapon?

I offer the axe – who’ll have it as his own?

I’ll afford one free hit from which I won’t flinch,

and promise that twelve months will pass in peace,                

then claim        

the duty I deserve        

in one year and one day.        

Does no one have the nerve

to wager in this way?’

The Northern voice is clear here, with references to “bum-fluffed bairn’s” and being “rigged out for a ruck” (for my non-native English readers bum-fluffed bairns are boys barely able to grow a beard, rigged out for a ruck means ready for a fight). This is regional poetry, born of a particular place and culture. That final cascade of words by the way (starting from “then claim”) is how each section of the poem ends. It should be indented but WordPress doesn’t yet allow me to do that (or if it does I don’t know how to do it).

Arthur’s knights are naturally reluctant, and it even looks like Arthur himself might have to take the task, but Sir Gawain is not content to endanger his king in that fashion and so accepts the challenge. He takes the axe, strikes the Green Knight and beheads him cleanly. Naturally though that is not the end of the matter. The Green Knight’s body remains standing, and picks up its head from the floor.

For that scalp and skull now swung from his fist;

towards the top table he turned the face

and it opened its eyelids, stared straight ahead

and spoke this speech, which you’ll hear for yourselves:

‘Sir Gawain, be wise enough to keep your word

and faithfully follow me until I’m found

This is of course a manifestation of that classic creature from English folklore, the headless horseman. It’s more than that though: the time is Christmas, the anniversary of the birth of Christ. The Green Knight bears a sprig of holly, an evergreen image of renewal. Though slain he rises again and now Sir Gawain must reenact the scene a year hence, but this time taking the Green Knight’s place. We’re in deeply symbolic territory here, winter, death and rebirth. This is Christian, but with Pagan elements too (the Green Knight being too a form of Green Man, itself an ancient personification of rebirth and renewal).

What follows is Sir Gawain’s quest to find the home of the Green Knight, and fulfil his side of the bargain. As the time for his appointment draws near he finds himself in another lord’s hall, where a great knight feasts him and makes him welcome. Sir Gawain spends his days entertained by this knight’s lady, who seeks to seduce Sir Gawain, while her husband rides out to hunt. Sir Gawain’s host says that whatever he wins at the hunt he will gift to Sir Gawain, but whatever Sir Gawain wins in the castle he must gift in turn to the host.

Sir Gawain then here faces a number of tests. Of courage certainly, but also of honesty and of virtue. Will Sir Gawain dally with his host’s wife? If he does will he give what is gained to his host? As Sir Gawain resides in comfort his host reassures him that none will judge him should he not face his challenge. Will Sir Gawain falter?

There’s little mystery in these questions, but that doesn’t make them any the less resonant or meaningful. Sir Gawain is a perfect knight, but even a perfect knight is mortal and open to temptation. The poem here serves as allegory, showing an idealised figure facing tests which while not literally like those the poem’s original listeners would face are nonetheless true in spirit to the challenges we all face.

Can we live up to our word and our image of ourselves? Can we resist the draw to do that which we desire, but know to be wrong? How do we behave in the face of what appears to be certain ruin, even death? Most tellingly perhaps for a medieval listener, can we hold on to both our faith in the next world and our loyalty in this one against both terror and temptation?

I talked above about this being one of my favourite Arthurian myths, and hopefully now you can see why. There’s just so much in this. It’s a richly allegorical tale but run through with romance, adventure and peril. It’s a meditation on death and resurrection, wrapped in magic and mystery.

Armitage takes these elements and brings them to life with language that sizzles along. His use of alliteration makes the poem a rich word-fest which is a pleasure to read and at times is positively playful. There are occasional jarring moments; Armitage isn’t afraid of anachronisms and even puns (“A human could not hear a headier music than the roaring which was raised for the soul of Reynard/who croaked!”, and at one point a reference to a “mega-blow”), but overall this left me with a new enthusiasm both for the work itself and for Armitage’s poetry more generally.

I wanted to include at least one quote describing the landscape, which Armitage makes as integral a part of the poem as any of the above. This final quote is short, but even though I don’t actually know what the word “mizzle” means I found it hugely evocative and it’s a tremendous example of Armitage’s use of alliteration. Here it is:

The clouds which had climbed now cooled and dropped

So the moors and the mountains were muzzy with mist

And every hill wore a hat of mizzle on its head.

The streams on the slopes seemed to fume and foam,

Whitening the wayside with spume and spray.

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Filed under Armitage, Simon, Arthurian myth, Epics and Sagas, Poetry

It comes tight-packed

Sea Level, by Angela Leighton

Like most people who don’t read a lot of poetry I find it incredibly hard to write about. It’s so personal. The usual analogy, one I often make myself, is to say that poetry is a language. If so I barely speak it, and often find myself lost and hoping that I’ve picked up enough of the gist of what’s going on that I’ve managed to order a beer and not an offal platter.

I have in fact once mistakenly ordered an offal platter. I don’t recommend it.

Angela Leighton is a contemporary British poet. Sea Level is her second collection, and as the title suggests it’s shot through with images of the sea, and of nature more widely. The back of the book says too that it draws on the landscape of Yorkshire and East Riding, but knowing nothing of either I can’t speak to that.

Time I think for an example. Sea Level is a 68 page collection with the majority of poems fitting on a single page. I intend to quote three poems in full in this review, which I hope will give a good feel for her work. This first one is for me an excellent example of poem as condensed description. A capturing of a moment or place in language which while not always wholly comprehensible is nonetheless powerful:

Harbour

From creel-pots’ crochet, dumped networks of nets,
staggered crates, a trailer, bales of twine,
bits and knots and art and old sea stench
under the nightly floodlight’s yellow halo,

saints’ wrack, livings, rot, planking, buoys,
rounding guts of rope, oarlock, airlock,
with acquapac and VHF, and luck,
light, weather, balance, ebb, flow,

something draws us out beyond the jerry’s
throw, its sea-sliced steps and stop, its checked
halt, systoles of dulse, litter, scum,
to falls of sea-room falling wide as we come.

I have and always have had a great love of the sea, and so of ports. Real ports are of course deeply unromantic places, full of smell, mess and odd bits of slime. Even so, I’m drawn to them. This poem captures that for me. The opening paragraph (stanza? I lack the terminology here) captures the chaos of a port. The nets heaped up in piles. The crates and rusting boats (not that rusting boats are mentioned, still I see them when I read it).

With the second paragraph we’re into the territory where poetry can so easily lose us. What is saint’s wrack? Is that something real, or something Leighton made up? What’s an acquapac? VHF? I don’t know, and yet the sense of the language remains powerful and evocative. I no longer quite know what’s being said, but I still understand it (or at least feel that I do).

Then, with the third paragraph, there’s that sense of possibility that the sea always speaks to me of. Ports are of necessity prosaic and functional, but they lead to the sea and the sea leads to, well, to a myriad possibilities of places. That’s the draw, part of it anyway.

So, as I said, poetry is deeply personal For me this poem captures the ambivalence of a port, a harbour. The quotidian mess and dirt and beyond it the draw of something vast and strange. I also love of course little phrases like “sea-sliced steps” where the alliteration helps capture that sense of the sea sliding back and forth over the stone steps leading down to the boats.

Here’s another:

Peat

It comes tight-packed, unearthly heavy, fat
with itself, intact. Handled, it crumbles to bits.

I sift and slip a landscape through my fingers,
feeling the way of forests, sun and rain,

trees that lean with the wind, that breathe with it,
and shake a hair of needles to the ground-

a plan of rusty crosses sinking in,
the wood’s crossed fingers teasing out the sun.

Whose land is this? assorted, dry as dust,
evacuated of its light and rains,

yet springy still, as if just stepped-off, live,
on some bare hillside subject to nothing but weather.

Its crumbs fall through my hands. I own the stuff,
its solving composition, settled dross,

the earth grown poor from forests it has lost.
This bit of unsoiled land is on my hands:

the bog’s muck-sweat, hill-weathers’ heavy loads,
the ways of ownership, those famine roads.

Here it’s the physicality that draws me in. As with Harbour this is deeply sensual poetry. Not sensual as in erotic, but sensual as in visual and tactile. “Handled, it crumbles to bits.”. There’s a sense of solidity here that fits the subject matter.

Here poetry becomes an examination of something quite unexceptional: a handful of soil. Leighton leaps from the feel of the peat between her fingers to the landscape it came from, and then to the sorrows of that landscape (“famine roads”). I actually find this much harder to write about than Harbour, as there’s nothing particularly personal to me in this poem. Still, for all it has no personal resonance I still find it curiously intimate. Perhaps it’s that sensuality again.

A final example:

Hotel

I pay, then climb into the night’s room.
A number tells me where I am
at home. I’ll not remember soon.

Outside, there’s too much light to dream.
The city’s talkative. Sirens scream
in fifths, tuning. Here I’m clean

out of it, free. It lays no claim
to my, my unfound hiding, name,
the puff breath makes. I am the same,

but stranger, keen. I start to learn
my whereabouts by rote, short-term:
a bed, a room, a night, by turn.

Outside, the sky must save its skin.
It lets whatever the room keeps in
out in waves. The wall’s too thin.

This night my numbered door might win
a lottery, stop an angel, summon
what lies open out there to come in.

The sense here isn’t of hotel as holiday destination, but of business travel. The narrator is alone in the room, and there’s no sense of excitement or anticipation. Instead it captures that mix of insomnia, uncertainty and the knowledge of an unfamiliar place which could include who knows what, but which you’ll likely never get to really see. Perhaps I’m projecting, but then with poetry perhaps that’s the point.

Other poems that stood out for me included a very brief one titled Dusk Chorus capturing the underlying desperation, hunger and territoriality of bird song. Another, At the Vet’s, captures that terrible moment when one stands in a vet’s room as a loved cat is put to sleep. It’s again a very short poem, but for me devastating as I’ve had to do that (thankfully only once so far) and the poem captures the scene with an accuracy that made it unsuitable for quoting. If you own cats you’ll know why I didn’t put that up to be blundered across on a blog. It’s too painful.

Some poems later in the collection lost me, being too technical or too rooted in a terrain I know nothing of. I can relate to poetry without knowing what each word means, but as with any communication there comes a point where one understands so little that any resonance there might have been is lost. That’s ok though. The trick with poetry I’ve found is not to worry that not every poem makes sense. When I studied Italian some concepts came quickly, others took years of study. Why should this be different?

I’ve previously quoted another Angela Leighton poem, here, That poem is freely available online, but also appears in this collection. It’s the poem which made me want to read more by Leighton, so if you missed that post I’d suggest at least spending a couple of minutes with it.

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The Bricklayer’s Lunch Hour

The Bricklayer’s Lunch Hour, by Allen Ginsberg

When I first heard about prose poetry I thought it was some kind of con. That poets who couldn’t rhyme wrote prose instead and just called it poetry. I saw it the way many see modern art, as a pretentious way of disguising a lack of talent. Those who can’t draw, install.

I was a teenager, though it’s the sort of view one can have at any age. More importantly, I was wrong. John Wynne’s installation at the Saatchi gallery recently was art. Poems do not require rhymes.

The Wynne piece involves patterns of sound radiating out from the speakers, every now and then the cable on the floor undulates. If you walk to the far corner, a pianola can be seen playing itself. It’s a haunting and fascinating work.

This is the poem that taught me that prose poetry can be great poetry. It’s by Allen Ginsberg, and apparently it’s quite famous though I didn’t know that when I first read it.

Two bricklayers are setting the walls
of a cellar in a new dug out patch
of dirt behind an old house of wood
with brown gables grown over with ivy
on a shady street in Denver. It is noon
and one of them wanders off. The young
subordinate bricklayer sits idly for
a few minutes after eating a sandwich
and throwing away the paper bag. He
has on dungarees and is bare above
the waist; he has yellow hair and wears
a smudged but still bright red cap
on his head. He sits idly on top
of the wall on a ladder that is leaned
up between his spread thighs, his head
bent down, gazing uninterestedly at
the paper bag on the grass. He draws
his hand across his breast, and then
slowly rubs his knuckles across the
side of his chin, and rocks to and fro
on the wall. A small cat walks to him
along the top of the wall. He picks
it up, takes off his cap, and puts it
over the kitten’s body for a moment.
Meanwhile it is darkening as if to rain
and the wind on top of the trees in the
street comes through almost harshly.

What I love with this is the intensity of its gaze. A wholly quotidian moment is made beautiful. Perhaps the moment was always beautiful but now its beauty is recognised.

The language is sensual. That’s partly because of the complete immersion in sensory detail, but also because of where the poem’s eye rests. It was no surprise to me to learn that Ginsberg was gay. The bricklayer’s “spread thighs” and the description of how he “slowly rubs his knuckles across the side of his chin” are deeply sexual. The poem is meticulous in its description, but not disinterested.

In the end though I lack the language to discuss poetry. It’s something that frustrates me. I can say that I find this poem beautiful, and that I find it moving, but I can’t entirely say why (or even how I am moved).

I think the inability to speak about poetry is part of what often puts people off it. I’m far from alone in being able to say what I like in poetry, but not why. Speaking personally, I feel a slight sense of incompetence before it, as if trying to buy groceries in a shop in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language. I can sort of get across what I mean, but it’s a tortuous process.

All that said, poetry can be intimate and devastating. Part of its power, bizarrely, may even be non-verbal. The spaces between the words matter in ways I can’t describe.

I lack the knowledge to speak to poetry. All I can really do is point and marvel. That’s ok though.

The Bricklayer’s Lunch Hour. I point and marvel.

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A ruin admidst ruins

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV, by Lord Byron

Canto IV of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was published some six years after Cantos I and II. During those six years Byron’s style developed, with the result that Canto IV is simply better written than I and II were (III was to be fair also pretty good).

So of the four Cantos this is the most technically accomplished. Unfortunately, it also contains the most references I didn’t get and I read it while feeling a little under the weather. That combination means that this is the best of the cantos, but that I enjoyed it least. So it goes.

In Canto IV Byron drops the Childe Harold persona entirely. He complains in a foreword that all his readers insisted on seeing Harold as just being a representation of Byron himself. That being the case, there wasn’t much point to continuing the character. Byron was right. I’m one of his readers and I saw Harold as Byron. Frankly, I didn’t miss him. Nothing that makes this poem worth reading (and it is worth reading) has anything to do with that unfortunate wight Harold.

Canto IV continues Byron’s mix of political comment, travelogue and ode to the joys of nature. Here he introduces (or reinforces) a theme of feminine grace, but for me the older themes of the passage of time and the folly of ambition stood out more proudly. Byron’s travels now take him to Italy, and there amid its many ruins he contemplates art, nature, love and mortality. It’s heady stuff.

Of all his destinations Italy proves the most inspiring for Byron, as it has for so many of us who’ve been there. From my own experience I know how gazing upon the Roman forum or the Colliseum brings home how fleeting even the greatest of achievements can be. Here’s Byron describing the Rome of his day:

CVII
Cypress and ivy, weed and wallflower grown
Matted and mass’d together, hillocks heap’d
On what were chambers, arch crush’d, column strow’n
In fragments, choked up vaults, and frescoes steep’d
In subterranean damps, where the owl peep’d,
Deeming it midnight: – Temples, baths or halls?
Pronounce who can; for all that Learning reap’d
From her research hath been, that these are walls-
Behold the Imperial Mount! ’tis thus the mighty falls1.

CVIII
There is the moral of all human tales;
Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First Freedom and then Glory – when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption, – barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page, – ’tis better written here,
Where gorgeous Tyranny hath thus amass’d
All treasures, all delights, that eye or ear,
Heart, soul could seek, tongue ask – Away with words! draw near,

CIX
Admire, exult – despise – laugh, weep, – for here
There is such matter for all feeling: – Man!
Thou pendulum betwixt a smile and tear,
Ages and realms are crowded in this span,
This mountain, whose obliterated plan
The pyramid of empires pinnacled,
Of Glory’s gewgaws shining in the van
Till the sun’s rays with added flame were fill’d!
Where are its golden roofs! where those who dared to build?

The theme of liberty is continued, as is that of the folly of ambitious tyranny. Byron reflects on the fate of kings and emperors most of whom end poorly and notes that Napoleon for all his grand goals is now imprisoned. Conquest is pointless because fleeting. When freedom is sacrificed to empire that which is bought has no longevity worth the price paid. The irony is that freedom too is inevitably temporary. As Keynes said, in the long run, we’re all dead.

One of the curious things about the pilgrimage is that although Byron reflects long on mortality and on the passing of things it’s not overall a sad poem. It has much sadness in it. Byron talks often of the transience of human works and in one particularly bleak section he argues that love is as much a passing shadow as ambition or glory. For all that though he finds comfort and joy in the natural world and in the simple act of being alive.

I thought the following passages both distinctly representative of the Romantic sentiment:

CLXXVI
Upon the blue Sympleglades: long years -
Long, though not very many, since have done
Their work on both; some suffering and some tears
Have left us nearly where we had begun:
Yet not in vain our mortal race hath run,
We have had our reward – and it is here;
That we can yet feel gladden’d by the sun,
And reap from earth, sea, joy almost as dear
As if there were no man to trouble what is clear.

CLXXVIII
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more.
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet can not all conceal.

As the Canto draws to a close there is a lengthy and for me moving homage to the splendours of the sea. It’s vastness, mystery and beauty. The Canto ends well, and given its length and frankly for me often challenging nature (I’ll return to that shortly) I found the ending such as to give the whole work a greater satisfaction. There is a sense across the cantos of a work and a voice growing into its potential. The travelogue remains, the arguments about issues of the day, but the focus shifts increasingly towards an awareness of ephemerality and the importance therefore of beauty.

Byron assumed a certain sort of readership for his work, and I am not of that readership. I’m fairly solid as a rule on my classical references but even so there were many here I failed to understand. Particularly in the earlier sections of this canto there were times I could tell something was being alluded to but not what. That I think is a consequence of my education being so different to those he expected to read it when it was published.

Equally, I was challenged at times by the circumstances of my reading. At one point I sought to read it on the train from Folkestone to London. Across the aisle a family sat down, possibly from Porlock, and proceeded to discuss at length the various merits of attractions at the London Dungeon. It’s not clear to me why they couldn’t see both the Bloody Mary exhibit and the Jack the Ripper one, but I do now understand that both have much to recommend them.

I hope they enjoyed it. They seemed nice people and very excited. It’s by no means their fault that Byron struggles to make his voice heard over that of the London Dungeon.

In the end, it’s hard not to be won over by this poem. Byron is a man who thinks nothing of a near-page long digression on the differing backgrounds of gladiators and of how a particular Christian martyr ended the games. Among the romantic philosophy, the politics and the sheer pleasure in his travels there’s sometimes a chattiness which makes Byron just fun to be with. Even through a gulf of time, education and indeed class his charm shines through and it’s easy to see at least some of his allure.

Having now read it I can definitely see why this poem had the impact it did. Despite its challenges it’s often easy to read (and would have been easier in its day); it’s entertaining; it conjures up with great effectiveness distant and romantic lands and takes the reader to them (much as a modern holiday tv show might); for the physical rather than armchair traveller parts could actually be used as a guide book; and on top of all that it has philosophy and reflections on glory, ambition, time and mortality.

Central to it all though is Byron himself. A romantic outsider striding through semi-ruined landscapes, contemplating beauty and brooding on past glories. It’s a figure, an image, which remains powerful today. Even Edward Cullen, the vampire from the Twilight books, is his descendant. For Byron the greatest thing his poem had to show was nature itself. For the reader it is Byron that is the true hero.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. I’ve linked to this before, but here‘s a nice article on the whole poem by someone better educated than I to speak to it. It includes a nice excerpt from Canto IV and there are some other excellent excerpts in the comments.

1. The Palatine is one mass of ruins, particularly on the side towards the Circus Maximus. The very soil is formed of crumbled brickwork. Nothing has been told, nothing can be told, to satisfy the belief of any but a Roman antiquary.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Byron, Lord, Poetry, Romantic Literature, Superfluous Man, Travel Writing

Where rose the mountains, there to him were friends

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto III, by Lord Byron

Romance, war, nature, love, mortality, current affairs, sightseeing tips and parental love. Lord Byron gave his readers good value in his poems.

I wrote here about the first two cantos of Byron’s epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The third canto opens with a brief recap reminding readers what the poem’s all about and reflecting on the passing of time since the first two cantos. It then turns to the more interesting subject of the battle of Waterloo and from there to wider thoughts of the relationship of man with nature and the freedom he can find in it.

The Waterloo sequences are impressively crafted. Byron takes an incident of a ball the night before the battle and contrasts it over a number of stanzas with the slaughter of the field the next day. The whole sequence underlines the youth and life of those who fought – what they left behind both at the ball and on the field. It’s powerful material which is diminished by me carving out small excerpts, but for all that it’s worth giving a taste of it:

XXII
Did ye not hear it? – No; ’twas but the wind,
Or the car rattling o’er the stony street;
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing Hours with flying feet -
But, hark! – that heavy sound breaks in once more,
As if the clouds its echo would repeat;
And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before!
Arm! Arm! it is – it is – the cannon’s opening roar!

Byron knew men who died at Waterloo and speaks of them here. He visits a friend’s grave and writes of what he finds. He sees glorious men, but not glorious deeds. Fame and ambition for him merely drive men to pointless ruin. Those who follow great leaders are brought only to destruction.

Against all this there is an alternative. Byron sees the pursuit of worldly wealth and recognition as meaningless and inherently doomed (as well he might, being born to both). Nature is greater than man’s efforts, and through nature man can find happiness. There is a feeling throughout the poem of the transience of our works and the permanence of nature’s (not god’s, Byron invokes him occasionally but his atheism still reads clearly through the text). Here Byron transitions from the Napoleonic theme to the natural:

LVIII
Here Ehrenbreitstein1, with her shatter’d wall
Black with the miner’s blast, upon her height
Yet shows of what she was, when shell and ball
Rebounding idly on her strength did light:
A tower of victory! From whence the flight
Of baffled foes was watch’d along the plain:
But Peace destroy’d what War could never blight,
And laid those proud roofs bare to Summer’s rain -
On which the iron shower for years had pour’d in vain.

From there it’s on to solidly Romantic territory. Life is short and hell is other people. Few things are more enjoyable than wandering around the countryside gazing at the landscape.

Back in February I read von Eichendorff’s Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing. One of my favourite scenes was where a group of itinerant musicians revealed that they loitered on mountaintops waiting for passing English lords who were pausing to admire the view. Once they spotted one, they’d pester him with music until he paid them to go away. I’m guessing a lot of those English lords would have had a copy of Childe Harold on them.

LXXI
It is not better, then, to be alone,
And love Earth only for its earthly sake?
By the blue rushing of the arrowy Rhone,2
Or the pure bosom of its nursing lake,
Which feeds it as a mother who doth make
A fair but froward infant her own care,
Kissing its cries away as these awake;-
Is it not better thus our lives to wear.
Than join the crushing crowd, doom’d to inflict or hear?

LXXII
I live not in myself, but I become
Portion of that around me; and to me
High mountains are a feeling, but the hum
Of human cities torture; I can see
Nothing to loathe in nature, save to be
A link reluctant in a fleshly chain,
Class’d among creatures, when the soul can flee,
And with the sky, the peak, the heaving plain
Of ocean, or the stars, mingle, and not in vain.

I do actually think that’s well written and I know exactly what he means. That said, it’s hard for me now not to imagine von Eichendorff’s musicians creeping up behind Byron as he contemplates those high mountains. The irony of course is that von Eichendorff’s philosophy itself spoke to the beauty of nature and the importance of living within it rather than chasing ambition.

That’s the trouble with philosophy. It may be deep, it may be true, but comedy has it on the ropes inside five rounds.

Canto III draws to a close on a highly personal note. The canto opens with a dedication to Byron’s daughter Ada. As the readers of the day would have known, his marriage had ended in separation with Lady Byron taking their daughter. The saddest part then of the poem comes as Byron reflects on how much he misses and loves his child. Here’s one final excerpt taken from that section:

CXVI
To aid thy mind’s development, – to watch
Thy dawn of little joys, – to sit and see
Almost thy very growth, – to view thee catch
Knowledge of objects, – wonders yet to thee!
To hold thee lightly on a gentle knee,
And print on thy soft cheek a parent’s kiss, -
This, it should seem, was not reserved for me;
Yet this was in my nature: – as it is,
I know not what is there, yet something like to this.

I suspect the mountains were poor compensation for that loss.

1. Ehrenbreitstein, i.e. ‘the broad stone of honour,’ one of the strongest fortresses in Europe, was dismantled and blown up by the French at the truce of Leoben. It had been, and could only be, reduced by famine or treachery. It yielded to the former, aided by surprise. After having seen the fortifications of Gibraltar and Malta it did not much strike by comparison; but the situation is commanding. General Marceau besieged it in vain for some time, and I slept in a room where I was shown a window at which he is said to have been standing observing the progress of the siege by moonlight, when a ball struck immediately below it.

2. The colour of the Rhone at Germany is blue, to a depth of tint which I have never seen equalled in water, salt or fresh, except in the Mediterranean and Archipelago.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Byron, Lord, Poetry, Romantic Literature, Superfluous Man, Travel Writing

Here’s a leaning of the spirit

A figurehead, by Angela Leighton

Angela Leighton is an interesting poet, one whose work speaks to me. I hope soon to write about one of her collections, Sea Level, but in the meantime (and while I slowly work through Swann’s Way) I thought I’d share a poem that’s not in that collection but which captures why I like her work so much.

The story behind the poem is at this webpage here. Essentially, Hull City Council commissioned four poems to commemorate the the unveiling of a statue – one of a pair with the other in Iceland.

I don’t know Hull as a city, but I think it’s council did well with the statues and the poems. Both were signs of an optism of future links with Iceland, and I fear that optimism may have been a victim of Iceland’s economic misfortune and the UK’s part in making it worse. Still, the spirit was right and the statues and poems should both outlive our present troubles.

Here’s the poem, I’ll speak a little about it afterwards:

Hull, Immingham, Grimbsy, Spurn—
in the set sun’s spilt cordial
P&O’s big ghost goes out
night after night, like the dead from home.

Here’s a leaning of the spirit, drawn
out from upright, off from true,
a header into the wind, full-tilt,
the bent of going, at a stroke, stopped still.

Exchange and pact, sagas of return,
a sea-sickening in the ear’s dark hold—
yet out, out, sea-farer, wanderer,
Njal, Unn, old comers and goers,

like birds that trade their lands each year:
whooper, diver, plover, eider,
sandpiper, snow-goose, tystie1, tern—
that urging back, that longing to be gone.

Is it this compass needle of the north
that sets the heart at ice and snow,
that draws towards its zero point,
and rocks our stand, unfathoms our roots?

Like I in italics, this bowsprit figure,
clean as a sloping drift of snow,
looks out and shows how close we are,
how far, how cold, the last sea goes.

I don’t intend to talk about the poem too much. Responses to poetry are inevitably personal, and I have no great qualifications in the subject anyway. For me though, it brings out a sense of connections through time. The incantation of place names at the beginning, the reference to a modern cruise ship, these are combined with a sense of the passage of the otherworldly – a ghost going out like the dead from home.

Coupled with those contemporary references, we have names like Njal of The Saga of Burnt Njal (and if you haven’t read that, you should), and the sense of passage back and forth. Exchange and pact, migrating birds, there’s a sense of journey to it but a journey in cold waters.

As well as imagery of travelling, of the timeless sea present in our bodies (the ear’s dark hold) as well as beyond our shores, there’s imagery of death. The zero point, the cold last sea. The poem for me draws parallels between journeying on the icy waves and death, a long cold journey this time without return. There’s a reminder too how little separates us, in the face of that vast emptiness how close we are. The gap between people, as between Hull and Iceland, is not so great.

What I love about this poem is it captures for me something of the feeling of the sea: the restlessness, the longing to be gone I experience when I look upon it. There’s a sense of yearning to the poem, a lure, as I write it I can hear the cries of the sea birds.

Writing about poetry is difficult. It’s hard not to sound pretentious (but I do hear those seabirds), and there are rules and language I’m simply not equipped to address. Still, poetry when its good is a sort of condensed emotional truth. It’s hard to unpack it. It has resonances which can’t easily be explained. Often too it has allusions and references which the lay reader simply won’t notice (this poem could easily have references to other poets’ work, I wouldn’t necessarily know).

Still, like any literature, like any art, one shouldn’t get intimidated because there are levels of the work that one might miss. Few of us on looking at a painting we lack the training to fully understand feel because of that we can’t enjoy the composition and the colour, the same’s true of poetry. I don’t know why it’s not more popular than it is as a form, but I find work like Angela Leighton’s a strong argument that it should be wider read than it is.

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Filed under Leighton, Angela, Poetry

Art, Glory, Freedom fail, but Nature still is fair.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II, by Lord Byron

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is travel writing in the form of epic poem, a guide for the aristocratic tourist to carry with him across Southern Europe, with diversions into contemporary politics, thoughts on mortality and complaints about British looting of Greek artefacts (Byron’s not a fan of Elgin).

It’s surprisingly fun, once you get used to the style, with Byron’s own footnotes dotted through the text – filling in bits of colour or recommending the best angle to approach a particular view.

Childe Harold, in the first two cantos at least, is really just a framing device. He’s a “shameless wight” who has “spent his days in riot most uncouth” who leaves England because although just in his 20s he has “felt the fulness of satiety”, in other words he’s bored with his “concubines and carnal companie, And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.”

Driven by ennui, Childe Harold goes travelling, and once he does we barely hear of him again, he’s referred to on occasion to remind us it’s his story, but in the main it’s Byron addressing the reader directly, Harold almost forgotten. That means this is an epic poem largely without characters and without plot, it’s a good job Byron’s easy to get on with. It’s no surprise though that Byron’s contemporaries thought that Childe Harold was a thinly disguised self-portrait.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was published in three parts, Cantos I and II in 1812, Canto III in 1816 and Canto IV in 1818. The first pairing made Byron famous in his own day, apparently it’s III and IV where this talent truly shines though and it’s those for which people mainly still read the work today.

Anyway, back to the poem itself. I’ll come to the subject of style shortly, but first here’s an example pair of stanzas discussing sights to see while in Portugal:

XX
Then slowly climb the many-winding way,
And frequent turn to linger as you go,
From loftier rocks new loveliness survey,
And rest ye at ‘Our Lady’s house of woe;1
Where frugal monks their little relics show,
And sundry legends to the stranger tell:
Here impious men have punish’d been, and lo!
Deep in yon cave Honorius long did dwell,
In hope to merit Heaven by making earth a Hell.

XXI
And here and there, as up the crags you spring,
Mark many rude-carved crosses near the path:
Yet deem these not devotion’s offering -
These are memorials frail of murderous wrath:
For wheresoe’er the shrieking victim hath
Pour’d forth his blood beneath the assassin’s knife,
Some hand erects a cross of mouldering lath;
And grove and glen with thousand such are rife
Throughout this purple land, where law secures not life.2

It’s easy to picture some young man on his own Grand Tour holding a copy of that while climbing up that path, annotating the margin with his own observations. If you scroll down to where I’ve put the footnotes below, you’ll see too how Byron’s footnotes work with the text, expanding it, adding asides, generally making it all a bit more lively and personal. Half the fun of Childe Harold is the footnotes, which incidentally makes it very important which edition you get as most don’t bother including them. I’ll link to the edition I recommend at the end, but I would say this is a time not to go with Project Gutenberg or any print on demand versions, which generally only have the poem itself.

As the poem continues, Byron continues to guide us along his travels, he visits sites of great battles, talks about French aggression towards the Spanish and the Ottoman occupation of Greece, he penetrates the Albanian interior and meets the famous Ali Pasha. It’s often glamorous stuff, written about in a frequently world-weary tone – a combination which must have been irresistible to the less travelled people of his day. Hell, it’s hard to resist now.

Here Byron writes about the battle of Talavera, then recent current affairs rather than history. Byron later lent critical support to the Greeks in their war of independence against the Ottomans, so he wasn’t a pacifist, but as the following stanzas (and his subsequent reference to the troops as “Ambition’s honour’d fools!”) show he was deeply sceptical to claims of the glory of war:

XL
By Heaven! it is a splendid sight to see
(For one who hath no friend, no brother there)
Their rival scarfs of mix’d embroidery,
Their various arms that glitter in the air!
What gallant war-hounds rouse them from their lair,
And gnash their fangs, loud yelling for the prey!
All join the chase, but few the triumph share;
The Grave shall bear the chiefest prize away,
And Havoc scarce for joy can number their array.

XLI
Three hosts combine to offer sacrifice;
Three tongues prefer strange orisons on high;
Three gaudy standards flout the pale blue skies;
The shouts are France, Spain, Albion, Victory!
The foe, the victim and the fond ally
That fights for all, but ever fights in vain,
Are met – as if at home they could not die –
To feed the crow on Talavera’s plain,
And fertilize the field that each pretends to gain.

One of the surprising things about Childe Harold is how modern many of its sensibilities are. Byron is passionate about freedom, democracy, rights of self-governance. His sympathies lie with people who wish to run their own lives, and against those who wish to conquer others. He’s angry at bigotry and sceptical of religion, at times openly atheistic and though he tolerates various faiths it’s clear that as a rule he doesn’t see much to choose between them. If it wasn’t too modern a term, I’d call him a humanist:

III
Sun of the morning, rise! Approach you here!
Come – but molest not yon defenceless urn
Look on this spot – a nation’s sepulchre!
Abode of gods, whose shrines no longer burn.
Even gods must yield – religions take their turn:
‘Twas Joves – ‘tis Mahomet’s – and other creeds
Will rise with other years, till man shall learn
Vainly his incense soars, his victim bleeds;
Poor child of Doubt and Death, whose hope is built on reeds.

IV
Bound to the earth, he lifts his eyes to heaven –
Is’t not enough, unhappy thing! to know
Thou art? Is this a boon so kindly given?
That being, thou would’st be again, and go,
Thou knows’t not, recks’t not to what region, so
On earth no more, but mingled with the skies?
Still wilt thou dream on future joy and woe?
Regard and weigh yon dust before it flies:
That little urn saith more than thousand homilies.

What’s perhaps less modern is a definite pastoralism, a romanticism (but then of course he is the great romantic hero). Men’s lives are short and petty things, empires fall, glory is lost in the dust of the battlefield, gods are barely longer lived than those who worship them, but nature remains. In nature there is a solace that cannot be found elsewhere, a cleansing balm, reconnection with nature lends perspective and a deeper enjoyment than is available in any lehman’s bed.

The romantic movement is not one I’m strong on, but I do understand that it elevates nature, the concept of the fall remains from Christian thought but is recast as a fall from a natural rather than divine state. Our civilised aspects divorce us from that which is most true (Chateaubriand is big on this). That theme runs through these cantos too. Harold, Byron, is jaded by pleasures at home and unimpressed by martial scenes and great deeds, but solitude and contemplation of the natural revives him:

LII
Ne city’s towers pollute the lovely view;
Unseen is Yanina, though not remote,
Veil’d by the screen of hills: here men are few.
Scanty the hamlet, rare the lonely cot:
But peering down each precipice, the goat
Browseth; and, pensive o’er his scatter’d flock,
The little shepherd in his white Capote3
Doth lean his boyish form along the rock,
Or in his cave awaits the tempest’s short-lived shock.

In terms of readability, it’s fair to say it took me a while to adapt to the style of the work. For the first hour or so I was aware of the structure of the poem, I was thrown by lines not scanning as I expected, part of me still working out the rules. You may find the same if you try it. It’s worth sticking with though, because after I pushed myself through that barrier, it became natural, it flowed. Now, when I read it, I read it as easily as prose, but that didn’t happen straightaway. Poetry is its own language, the rewards are there but I found I had to invest a little time learning how to get them out. It’s best if you’re not already used to reading this sort of work to bear that in mind, have a little patience and persist a little longer than perhaps you might otherwise be inclined to.

Stylistically, well, I’m not versed enough in poetry to talk effectively about technique, but it’s fair to say he wrote better later. This is good, it flows well and the imagery is sometimes striking, but it lacks the power of those parts of Cantos III and IV I’ve looked at. In some ways that makes it an excellent entry point to Byron’s work, it’s good enough to show his talent but doesn’t spoil you for the better works to come.

In the end, this is a warm and human work. It’s chatty, in the footnotes, and its descriptions of Southern Europe are interesting and entertaining. Some of the asides are lost on me, I’m just not as familiar with the Napoleonic wars as people who lived at the time obviously would be, and I don’t have the richness of Classical education Byron assumes in his readers, but I found that if I didn’t worry about getting every reference it didn’t matter – I got enough to make it still rewarding. It’s also a fascinating insight into a world at times very different to our own (at one point Byron falls into a fever, and credits his recovery to his guards holding off his physician at knifepoint so preventing the likely lethal treatment of the age), and at other times strangely familiar:


Or Wahab’s rebel brood who dared divest
The prophet’s4 tomb of all its pious spoil,
May wind their path of blood along the West;

The edition I have is a Penguin Classics imprint, containing a wide range of his poems, not just Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. It’s edited by Susan J Wolfson and Peter J Manning, and is up to Penguin’s usual high standards. As I’ve said a couple of times now, the footnotes and endnotes are essential, here they’re reproduced in full, as they should be. I’ll be reading Cantos III and IV, from the same edition, in the coming month or so. Byron spaced them out, I’m comfortable doing the same.

Child Harold’s Pilgrimage. There’s also an excellent article about the poem here.

1. The convent of ‘Our Lady of Punishment,’ Nossa Señora de Pena, on the summit of the rock. Below, at some distance, is the Cork Convent, where St Honorius dug his den, over which is his epitaph. From the hills the sea adds to the beauty of the view. – [Since the publication of this poem, I have been informed of the misapprehension of the term Nossa Señora de Pena. It was owing to the want of the tilde, or mark over the which alters the signification of the word: with it, Peña signifies a rock; without it, Pena has the sense I adopted. I do not think it necessary to alter the passage; as though the common acceptation offered to it is 'Our Lady of the Rock,' I may well assume the other sense from the severities practised there. - Note to 2nd Edition.]

2. It is a well known fact, that in the year 1809, the assassinations in the streets of Lisbon and its vicinity were not confined by the Portuguese to their countrymen, but that Englishmen were daily butchered: and so far from redress being obtained, we were requested not to interfere if we perceived any compatriot defending himself against his allies. I was once stopped in the way to the theatre at eight o’clock in the evening, when the streets were not more empty than they generally are at that hour, opposite to an open shop, and in a carriage with a friend: had we not fortunately been armed, I have not the least doubt that we should have ‘adorned a tale’ instead of telling one. The crime of assassination is not confined to Portugal: in Sicily and Malta we are knocked on the head at a handsome average nightly, and not a Sicilian or Maltese is ever punished!

3. Albanese cloak.

4. Mecca and Medina were taken some time ago by the Wahabees, a sect yearly increasing.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Byron, Lord, Poetry, Romantic Literature, Superfluous Man, Travel Writing