Category Archives: Poetry

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.


Filed under Ginsberg, Allen, Poetry

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:

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.

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,

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:

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.

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.


Filed under 19th Century, 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:

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:

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.

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?

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:

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.


Filed under 19th Century, 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.


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:

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.

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:

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.

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:

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.

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:

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.


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

Lord Byron’s dating tips for boys

So, I’m currently reading Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. It’s a blend of epic poem, travel guide and Napoleonic-period political commentary, with plenty of asides thrown in. It’s a surprisingly fun read.

When I write it up (probably in two parts, which is how it was published), I’ll have some relevant quotes, but there was one that I didn’t think would make it into my writeup but that’s worth sharing anyway. Here’s Byron on how to be successful with women:

Not much he kens, I ween, of woman’s breast,
Who thinks that wanton thing is won by sighs;
What careth she for hearts when once possess’d?
Do proper homage to thine idol’s eyes;
But not too humbly, or she will despise
Thee and thy suit, though told in moving tropes:
Disguise ev’n tenderness, if thou art wise;
Brisk Confidence still best with woman copes;
Pique her and soothe in turn, soon Passion crowns thy hopes.

Byron of course was applying his advice to wooing women, but in our more egalitarian age I’m sure he’d think it equally applicable the other way round.

So, there you have it. Now, if only someone had told me as a teenager…


Filed under 19th Century, Byron, Lord, Literary Dating Tips, Poetry

When flies are in the air, you can’t tell what sex they are

Alphabet of the Night, by Jean-Euphèle Milcé

Alphabet of the Night is a 2004 novel by Jean-Euphèle Milcé, a Haitian expatriate and “voluntary exile”. I understand this is his first novel, his previous works being poetry (yes, a poet’s first novel). Written in French, the edition I read was published by the ever excellent Pushkin Press and translated by Christopher Moncrieff. The language of the book is remarkable, so much so that I intend to track down Moncrieff’s own work.

It is the story of a gay Jewish shopkeeper, Jeremy Assaël, working in Port-au-Prince, who on the casual murder of his lover by a policeman goes on a journey to find a former lover long since lost, on the way encountering an American evangelist, a government fixer of considerable power and a houngan visited by the rich and poor alike.

Where Alphabet shines though is not in plot, there’s barely any to speak of, but in its fevered heat-dream vision of Haiti, full of dust and suffocation. It’s an intensely poetic work in which sentences frequently make very little sense on the literal level, but in which the cumulative effect has a hallucinatory power which utterly convinces.

The opening paragraph:

The dawn brings me its first tints in changing swirls of colour. Port-au-Prince always wakes to find its cries, its ill-expressed sorrows smothered by a pall of smoke. Rising up from the ground, hopes destroyed by the daily struggle for survival hang over a place that has lost all sense of being a capital. The town howls. Its voice fills the air with the shouts of the thousands of street vendors, the bootblacks, those polishers of oppressive boots. As if we have been under constant shellfire, smoke rises straight into the sky, blocking out the light. It is the omen of another dreary day.

Here a description of Jeremy Assaël’s family’s original home town:

Along a weary old road that reminds you of the chaos you find after a place has been cleared of mines, you enter the little town of salt marshes. The houses, leaning against posts eaten away by the salt, almost buried in dust, preside over a deathbed scene. During the daylight the cathedral, closely protected by its parade ground or the heroes of the Independence, meets the eye from all directions. This iconic landmark of the town has never changed; it must hide the secret of how the game is played. Endlessly.

As the above illustrate, Milcé has a real gift for description, and it is that which makes this book so rewarding. The novel is an exploration of Haiti, of its fearful days and its nights from which it is too easy not to return. Each day, the news on the radio recounts the deathtoll from the night before, each year fewer of those Assaël knows remain, as people die, emigrate, simply disappear. Even the voice on the radio, which interrupts the text in each chapter as Assaël listens to it, sounds increasingly despairing.

Assaël himself is a living symbol of Haiti’s internal division. Gay, white, Jewish, he is in every sense an outsider, asked to leave education before university as part of a policy aimed at preventing a feared Jewish domination of the Haitian state, he is part of a group tolerated but feared and hated. His being gay is less an issue than his being Jewish, his being white, as a poor white he is also of course a reminder of past colonial rule and an object for potential retaliation.

Assaël is not however always a fully convincing character. He has psychological depth, his travels bring home to him quite how much of an outsider he truly is, but he is also very much a vehicle for ideas, a mouthpiece for exploring Haiti and the nature of life in Port-au-Prince. At times, Milcé’s desire for poetry and imagery takes precedence over Assaël’s internal truth:

Music is a cure for fear. It has countless lives. I always buy two of the same record. I listen to them. I copy them on disc, I put them on cassette.

That’s genuinely a lovely image, but I don’t believe for a moment that anyone in Assaël’s situation, a poor shopkeeper, buys two of every record. It feels emotionally true, it illustrates Assaël’s character, but it doesn’t make much sense as a literal statement. It is a novelist’s and poet’s conceit. It’s not an issue for me as this is not a wholly naturalistic novel, but it is worth noting that where strict likelihood conflicts with beauty of imagery, imagery wins each time.

But such imagery, and such beauty. Milcé is a writer of notable talent, each page contains a line I would dearly love to quote here, the cumulative effect of the novel is one of doubt, loss, desire, the terrible juxtaposition of the regime and the compromises made by those who try (and often fail) to live under it (“I settled for a reactionary and treacherous reply. Fear was making my survival instincts work at full speed.”).

As Assaël travels, he goes to a bar from his youth, a place of refuge from the litany of death of the nights and the streets, from the small daily battle for survival:

Pleasure has been decreed a substitute for conscience, a painkiller for misfortune. Even when happiness is writ large in the subdued light, every creaking door adds a strangled voice to the necklace of stolen lives. Wounds, concealed by the attitude of girls who rule over nights behind closed doors, get a cynical reception. Queens of the night, witches of the day, they live in fear of dawn’s approach. The daylight likes to feed on make-up and illicit perfume. No one is sole owner of the non-stop party. The prostitutes at the harbour turn their backs on the sun and look forward to the reign of the half-light.

It is a good idea to have drink. It is advisable to make love. It is wise to forget your sorrows. The news will wait outside the door for morning. This special neighbourhood beside the sea is deaf, and suffers from amnesia.

Travelling further, Assaël sinks deeper into the heart of Haiti: the American evangelist condemns him for his homosexuality, living himself in a vision of American perfection that is clean and tasteful and rich; the fixer is a man feared by all, who had the schools closed for a day because he met a boy in the street who was crying, and on being asked why said he was not yet ready for the next day’s exam; a houngan leads ceremonies in which the dead speak, the future is told, the German Consul General is among his clientele. A wrong word can lead to death, a wrong glance, mere mischance. The Jews are essential to the finances of the state, but their position ever precarious.

This is a novel of machetes and flies, of a profoundly failed state and of the compromises and defeats that brings.

At home we had a swimming pool, built to make my father’s last days more comfortable. Most of the time it was empty, due to lack of water and guests.

I thought Alphabet of the Night extraordinary, strange and at times a challenging read, such was the density of its imagery. In some respects it is closer to a work of poetry than a novel, which makes its brevity (it is just over 100 pages long) in some senses welcome. Like poetry, however, it uses that space to leave a lasting sensory impression, Assaël is the eternal wandering jew, Haiti a place from which all are ultimately exiled.

On a more pragmatic note, although Alphabet of the Night is published by Pushkin Press, it is published (as are many of their contemporary works) in a standard paperback sized format rather than their more typical reduced size. My copy had not been fully guilottined, with some pages still attached at the top resulting in small tears when I separated them. This is unusual for Pushkin, and may have been a problem just with my copy. I do prefer their more standard, smaller, format however.

For the interested, there’s an excellent review of Alphabet of the Night here, which I agree with and have sought not to duplicate in my own comments.

Alphabet of the Night


Filed under French, Milcé, Jean-Euphèle, Novellas, Poetry


Cargoes is a poem taken from John Masefield’s 1910 collection, Ballads and Poems. I set the poem out in full below:

QUINQUIREME of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke-stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

Masefield is perhaps best known for his earlier collection, Sea Fever, published in 1902. Masefield was a poet of the sea, as well as a playwright and successful novelist. He served as a volunteer in the Great War, and eventually became poet laureate (a post with perhaps more credibility then than today, though I find the very concept of poet laureate distinctly odd). Today, Masefield is perhaps better known in the US than in his native England, it seems his work is often used as a set text for English courses in US schools.

In this poem, Masefield describes three different vessels, and their respective cargoes. Two of the ships are rather mythical in nature (though ships of their kind certainly existed), the third is distinctly quotidian for the time in which he wrote. He creates a continuity of experience, a continuity arguably also of romance, and includes within that continuity the ship of his own day with its industrial raw materials.

One could read the third stanza as an ironic counterpoint to the first two, those ships laden with treasures and the contemporary one with dross. I’m not persuaded that’s correct though. Rather, I think Masefield seeks to evoke a timelessness, a universality of maritime experience. The cargoes change, the ships (and more importantly, the sea) remain. Still, it is true that there were ships of his day that carried cargoes of great value and he chose not to describe one such, that I read as him putting the humble vessel within the tradition of the greater ones.

Structurally the poem is reasonably interesting, there is an almost chant-like effect to it, a clear use of rhythm. The poem ebbs and flows, and I do not think this is chance (is anything in poetry ever chance?). By the third stanza, the use of hyphens for me quickens the pace, as we come into industrialisation and a new and different world to those that passed before.

It’s a hugely romantic poem, not in the technical sense, but in the emotional one. I can certainly see why US teachers might set it to their charges, it’s evocative and fairly easily analysed, with sufficient strangeness though to give them something to discuss in class. For many of those students, this probably forms one of the few poems they will ever know, as for most people the only knowledge they have of poetry is that they studied at school. If you are only going to know a few poems though, this isn’t a bad one to have among that number.

I don’t intend to discuss poetry often on this blog, I’m frankly poorly qualified to do so, but I may on occasion when the mood takes me quote a poem and note what I can from it. Hopefully, with practice, what I can note will increase, poetry is dense stuff and reading it is like reading a foreign language, it takes some practice before it starts becoming at all clear.


Filed under Poetry