Hesiod Harangues His Lazy Brother

Happy New Year to all my readers. Stats from WordPress tell me that in 2018 there were 32,000 visitors to my website and they took a look at various pages on almost 50,000 occasions. Phew. It seems a lot to me. Many thanks.
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But with Christmas now over – my local park has a stack of Christmas trees the size of several London buses waiting to be shredded – with resolutions having been left unmade or already in pieces, I suspect I’m not the only one to be suffering a horrible sense of deja vue as the great Brexit debate and debacle has started up again. You thought it was safe to go back into the water? You thought you’d heard the last of the Irish Back Stop? It seems not. I’m as tempted as many to shriek ‘Oh get on with it!’ but what is ‘on’ and what is ‘it’?
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Actually, I have a genuine fear that the depth of national disillusion with the process and with conventional politicians makes this country more vulnerable to even more coarsened debate and extremism of various kinds, all promising to solve problems at a stroke. But really we know that’s pie in the sky. Right? Hesiod, of Ancient Greece, would agree. His Works and Days sounds very familiar. It is about conflict in a family, the problematic (perhaps intractable) nature of the world and the sense of a sequential decline in the fortunes of a society – all of which he counterbalances with advice, particularly about the importance of work – of keeping on keeping on.

To be honest, for many years, I’ve only known Works and Days by name. The title always attracted me with its Antaeus-like focus on groundedness, labour, the need to start from where ever we are now; it’s rejection of flighty idealism that quickly shades into the unconsidered fundamentalism. We need to work – nothing is given on a plate. And work needs to be sustained (through days) to be effective. Boring? Only if untrue and this is as true as anything can be.

I first came across the title of Hesiod’s poem in T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’:

 

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

There will be time to murder and create,

And time for all the works and days of hands

That lift and drop a question on your plate;

 

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My old student’s guide to Eliot (by B.C. Southam, published by Faber) told me the allusion was to the 8th century BC writer Hesiod – to a poem which “gives an account of the primitive conditions in the country, together with maxims and practical instructions adapted to the peasant’s life”. Last year, Penguin Classics published a new translation of the poem by A. E. Stallings. It’s a lively and very readable version, though her decision to convert Hesiod’s dactylic hexameters into iambic pentameter couplets makes the ancient poem sound too English and 18th century for me. Another older prose translation by H. G. Evelyn-White is freely available here. 

hesiod-smDid you know Hesiod probably pre-dates Homer? Hesiod is aware of the siege of Troy but he makes no reference to Homer’s Iliad. He’s usually placed before Homer in lists of the first poets. The other striking aspect of Works and Days is that (unlike Homer) he is not harking back to already lost eras and heroic actions. Hesiod talks about his own, contemporary workaday world, offering advice to his brother because they seem to be in a dispute with each other. Hesiod’ anti-heroic focus is an antidote to the Gods, the top brass and military heroes of Homer. Most of us live – and prefer to live – in Hesiod’s not Homer’s world.

Hesiod also talks about himself – his long poem has a lyric and personal quality to it. We hear that he grew up in the unremarkable town of Askra, in Boeotia. He disparagingly refers to it as “bad in winter, sultry in summer, and good at no time” (tr. Evelyn-White). In fact, his family were recent economic migrants from Aeolian Kyme in Asia Minor across the Aegean.  Hesiod’s father made the journey: “[he] used to sail on shipboard because he lacked sufficient livelihood. And one day he came to this very place crossing over a great stretch of sea; he left Aeolian Cyme and fled, not from riches and substance, but from wretched poverty” (tr. Evelyn-White). As Stallings points out, “Hesiod’s is not a static, stay-at-home sort of world, but one of opening horizons, widespread trade, far-flung Greek outposts with freedom of movement, cultural festivals [. . .] and social mobility.”

512pxannbrl._sx316_bo1,204,203,200_He seems to have been a poet-farmer who makes sure we are aware that he has already won a literary competition at a funeral games on the island of Euboea. His prize-winning piece may well have been his earlier Theogony, a cosmological work describing the origins and genealogy of the gods. But Works and Days presents him as something of a magpie writer rather than a poet with a neatly conceived architectonic design. The poem mashes together myth, allegory and personal asides, as well as more philosophical passages, theology, natural description, proverbial advice and an almanac or calendar based on phenology (the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal variations in the climate).

The occasion of the poem is also very personal. Hesiod has a brother – Perses – and they seem to be in dispute (perhaps as a result of their intrepid and entrepreneurial father’s death and the inheritance of the estate). Stallings has this: “Already we’ve divvied up our lots, but you / Keep laying hold of more than is your due”. It is this inclination to give advice to his (younger?) brother that controls much of the text. The name ‘Perses’ is unusual and may mean something like ‘waster’ or ‘wastrel’ and the brother seems to be trying to take more than he is due and the motivation for this (according to Hesiod) is a mile-wide streak of laziness. Perses wants his fortune on a plate rather than having to work for it. His big brother intends to give him some “plain truths to steer him[self] by” (tr. Stallings).

By way of correcting his brother’s indolence, Hesiod firstly explains there are two types of strife. One of these is the kind of Brexit bickering (and potentially far worse) that we are all too familiar with: “One brings forth discord, nurtures evil war: / Wicked, there’s nothing mortals love her for” (tr. Stallings). But the other is a more benign sense of competitiveness based on envy: this sense of strife “spurs a man who otherwise would shirk, / Shiftless and lazy, to put his hands to work”. Wow! That’s telling your brother like it is. Is this being listened to? Hesiod makes sure: “Perses, take this to heart, lest Strife, whose quirk / Is mischief-making, draw your mind from work” (tr. Stallings).

pandora2There are further reasons to set to work in the very nature of the cosmos and the human world. Hesiod tells the Pandora story here. Zeus causes the creation of a female figure, Pandora, as a way of avenging Prometheus’ pro-humankind actions (stealing fire from the gods, for example). Her name suggests she is a concoction or committee-created figure from contributions from all the Olympian Gods. She is given a jar which she opens: “ere this the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sickness [. . .] But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men” (tr. Evelyn-White). Hesiod’s locating of the root of human sorrow in the actions of a woman echoes the Christian story of the loss of Paradise and it is one of the reasons why Hesiod has been accused of misogyny, though as Stallings suggests, he’s not any more complimentary about the males of the human race.

Plagued by the ills of Pandora’s jar (only Hope is said to get lodged in the rim of the jar), Perses is then given a longer lecture on the decline of the human condition in Hesiod’s portrayal of the five ages of man. Here is the classic description of the Golden Age of man when we imagine we once lived “like gods [. . .] with spirits free from care; / And grim old age never encroached” (tr. Stallings). The ages of Silver, Bronze and (present-day) Iron are described. Between the latter two, Hesiod locates a brief Heroic age (the age of Thebes, Oedipus and the Trojan war). But despite this diversion, Works and Days makes it plain to Perses that the age he lives in is unpleasantly harsh and demands work work work to survive: “For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. [. . .] The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother” (tr. Evelyn-White).

An obscure natural symbolic passage follows (a “fable” Hesiod calls it) in which a hawk has seized a song bird and mocks its struggles and shrieks: “Miserable thing, why do you cry out? One far stronger than you now holds you fast, and you must go wherever I take you, songstress as you are. And if I please I will make my meal of you, or let you go. He is a fool who tries to withstand the stronger” (tr. Evelyn-White). It’s tempting to see the songbird as the poet savaged by philistine powers though, in the Perses context, perhaps the songbird is a lazy good-for-nothing who is being shaken up and challenged by the world of necessity and work. A bit later Hesiod suggests another interpretation: that the natural world is red in tooth and claw, unlike human society which is governed by “law and right” (tr. Stallings) and so Perses ought to be obedient to Zeus’ powers out of gratitude for that. It’s interesting to think this of this as the first passage in Western Literature open to a variety of critical interpretations.

imagesIt’s certainly the lazy, self-serving, arrogant younger brother who forms the focus of the rest of the poem: “So Perses, you be heedful of what’s right . . . So Perses, mull these matters in your mind . . . Fool Perses, what I say’s for your own good” (tr. Stallings). It’s true that his name gradually fades from the text in the final 500 lines but the torrent of imperatives, offering advice and guidance on a range of practical issues, often sounds like haranguing from a concerned, perhaps slightly pissed off, brother. Much of this material is phenological – when to sow crops, when to harvest, when to shear your sheep. In winter, don’t hang around the blacksmith’s forge where other wasters gather to chat and pass the time. It’s safe to put to sea when the new fig leaves are the size of crow’s feet.

s-l300These are the passages that, around 29BC, inspired Virgil to his own farmer’s manual, the Georgics. Hesiod ends his poem in a rather perfunctory manner, roughly saying he who follows this good advice will become “blessed and rich”. But given Pandora’s jar and the Iron Age we live in, even this seems a mite optimistic. And of course, Perses never gets the chance to speak for himself. But I guess the tensions between his brother’s call for social and religious conformity and Perses’ individualistic disobedience to the demands of the gods and the sense of what is best for a society have gone on to form the basis of the continuing Western literary canon. And does any of this help with Brexit? I conclude (largely with Hesiod) the bleeding obvious: it’s complicated – solutions must be negotiated, don’t hope for some golden age because in a fallen, less-than-ideal, complex society it’s better for the future to be decided in the glacier-slow committee rooms of a plurality of voices than in the stark divisions and dramas of the battlefield. Work hard – have patience – don’t buy into fairy tales of a recoverable golden age.

Making Sense of Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ #2

I hope you have read my earlier post on this subject because here comes my commentary on the second half of Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy. It’s the poem he wrote in response to the so-called Peterloo Massacre on 16 August 1819 and one that Richard Holmes and Paul Foot have called “the greatest poem of political protest ever written in English”. I was sent back to the poem after having watched Mike Leigh’s recent film Peterloo – which I would recommend to those interested in the politics of the early 19th century as much as the politics of today. The political climate at the time (as Leigh’s film so vividly demonstrates) was increasingly repressive in regard to any speech or publication in favour of Reform and because of fears of prosecution the poem only saw the light of day after the Reform Bill had been passed in 1832.

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Earth Speaks: on the Nature of Slavery (ll. 147-212)

So, Earth now speaks the imperative injunctions that many people will recognise. She first addresses the men of England as rightful and eventual “heirs of Glory” and nurslings “of one mighty Mother” which must be a reference to herself. Then, in what sounds like a call to battle, she cries:

 

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number,

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you —

Ye are many — they are few.

 

Though the nobility of lions is proverbial, so is their ferocity and here again it’s hard not to hear a call to arms as well as a shucking off of political chains that have imprisoned the Rousseauistic noble savage.

220px-Frankenstein_1818_edition_title_pageEarth continues by diagnosing the state of slavery into which England has fallen. This – and the following passage with its more positive analysis of what Freedom means to working people – makes for powerful, relevant, realistic reading in contrast to Shelley’s hard-to-pin-down mechanisms of political change. Slavery is to have to work and be paid only enough to live for another day’s work. It is to work not for oneself but for “tyrants”. It is to see family suffering and dying, to go hungry while the rich man surfeits his dogs. It is to suffer the “forgery” of paper money, to have no control over one’s own destiny. It is – when driven to the point of protest – a more direct reference to events in Manchester – “to see the Tyrant’s crew / Ride over your wives and you”.

The remaining stanzas of this part of the poem contrast the plight of English working people to that of animals both wild and domesticated: the animals are better off. But lines 192-195 are especially interesting. In the face of such slavery, the narrator says, it is likely that the desire for vengeance will arise:

 

Then it is to feel revenge

Fiercely thirsting to exchange

Blood for blood – and wrong for wrong –

 

But such a use of force, when a degree of power has been achieved, resulting in further bloodshed, is here explicitly rejected: “Do not thus when ye are strong”. This theme of not answering violence with violence is developed much more clearly later and it’s difficult to square this with the earlier images in the poem of Hope “ankle-deep in blood”.

 

Earth Speaks: On the Nature of Freedom

Now earth’s imagined voice sets about answering more positively, indeed in downright terms, her own question: “What art thou Freedom?” It is not an abstraction, “A shadow . . . / A superstition . . . a name”. Rather it is the provision of bread on the table, of clothes, of fire. As Anarchy was really the law of the rich, so Freedom assumes a strong legal system to prevent exploitation of the poor by the rich. Freedom is therefore justice available to the poor as well as the rich, to protect both “high and low”. Freedom is also wisdom – this must be partly the kind of free thinking (l. 125) generated by the Shape conjured by Hope and certainly (as always for Shelley) it means a thoroughly sceptical take on the teachings of the Christian church. Freedom is also peace – Shelley regarded the war on post-Revolutionary France in 1793 as a war against Freedom.

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Rory Kinnear plays ‘Orator’ Henry Hunt in Mike Leigh’s film

Freedom is also love – the examples given here suggesting a narrower definition than earlier in the poem. But love is accorded a Christ-like comparison in that some of “the rich” abandon their wealth to follow him and the cause of Freedom, indeed they turn their “wealth to arms” to combat the iniquitous influence of “wealth, and war, and fraud”. The paradox of taking up arms against war itself again perhaps highlights confusion in Shelley’s thinking though the kind of rich man he must have in mind here is Orator Henry Hunt (brilliantly played by Rory Kinnear in Leigh’s film) whose commitment to the cause of Reform was genuine (if a little self-regarding).

This passage ends less effectively with something of a shopping-list of abstract qualities which also comprise the nature of Freedom: Science, Poetry, Thought, Spirit, Patience and Gentleness”. Shelley himself may sense the dropped poetical pressure as the earth here sweeps aside the risky cheapness of such words in favour of actions: “let deeds, not words, express / Thine exceeding loveliness”.

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Earth Speaks: Making a Call to a Great Assembly

In this section Shelley puts aside any ambiguity as to the nature of the action required to achieve political change. Through earth’s voice he demands more occasions like the St Peter’s Field gathering.

 

Let a great Assembly be

Of the fearless and the free

On some spot of English ground

Where the plains stretch wide around.

 

People must assemble from all “corners” of the nation including palaces of the rich where “some few feel such compassion / For those who groan, and toil, and wail / As must make their brethren pale”. The purpose of the assembly will be (as at Peterloo) to declare and demand the freedom of the people. These words will be “measured” and it is they that will serve as weapons (swords and shields). Here, Shelley’s belief in passive resistance is quite explicit in contrast to earlier in the poem. The narrator anticipates the establishment’s potentially violent response to such assemblies. But the repeated phrase “Let the . . .” drives home the point of passive resistance:

 

Let the tyrants pour around

With a quick and startling sound,

Like the loosening of a sea,

Troops of armed emblazonry.

 

Let the charged artillery drive

Till the dead air seems alive

With the clash of clanging wheels,

And the tramp of horses’ heels.

 

Let the fixèd bayonet

Gleam with sharp desire to wet

Its bright point in English blood

Looking keen as one for food.

 

Let the horsemen’s scimitars

Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars

Thirsting to eclipse their burning

In a sea of death and mourning.

Peterloo (1)

 

Earth Speaks: on the Need for and Efficacy of Passive Resistance

Safe, if unhappy, in Italy it might have seemed easy for Shelley to have been recommending this course. But he does so, imaging the passively resisting working people of England as “a forest close and mute, / With folded arms and looks which are / Weapons of unvanquished war”. Such a non-militaristic “phalanx” will remain “undismayed”, he argues, and eventually victorious for three reasons. One is that the “old laws of England” will offer them some protection. These laws are personified as wise men, now old but “Children of a wiser day” from an imagined period of Rousseauistic natural justice and freedom. But their protection is by no means strong – indeed it seems pretty flimsy. Shelley still envisages Peterloo style violence from the powers that currently rule England. But this must still to be met with passive defiance:

 

And if then the tyrants dare

Let them ride among you there,

Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew,–

What they like, that let them do.

 

With folded arms and steady eyes,

And little fear, and less surprise,

Look upon them as they slay

Till their rage has died away.

 

The fading of such aggression is probably linked to the second reason for the cause of Liberty’s ultimate victory. This is hardly stronger than the first: it is that the perpetrators of violence against the people will be shamed and ashamed of their actions. The blood they shed will reappear as shameful “hot blushes on their cheek”. Women will cut them dead in the street. And true soldiers will turn from them towards the people, “those who would be free”.

8.ts-11-1056-St-Peters-Field-Map-720x556The third reason Shelley gives – via the voice of the earth – also offers only equivocal, indeed very uncomfortable, hope. Offering little or no consolation to the victims and their relations – though a point proven true through many centuries – such massacres by repressive forces will prove an inspiration to those who come after them: “that slaughter to the Nation / Shall steam up like inspiration”. Using another of his images for revolutionary fervour, this steam will eventually result in a volcanic explosion, “heard afar”. Once more in this poem, these reverberations are translated into words to mark “Oppression’s thundered doom”, stirring the people in their on-going fight for justice and liberty. Shelley concludes with the actual words he imagines being uttered – and we have heard them before:

 

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number–

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you–

Ye are many — they are few.

 

At which point the poem ends, still with the imagined voice of the earth speaking, repeating herself and the impression is of some circularity in the argument though this is really one of Shelley’s core beliefs: the fight for freedom and justice is never once and for all. The enemy will re-group so the cause of the people requires a continued alertness and watchfulness as well as the offer of resistance (passive for the most part, but perhaps with occasions of violence).

 

Making Sense of Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ #1

Having recently seen Mike Leigh’s powerful rendering of the events leading up to and including the so-called Peterloo Massacre on 16 August 1819, I re-read the poem Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote as a direct and angry response to those events, a poem Richard Holmes and Paul Foot have called “the greatest poem of political protest ever written in English”. In my twenties, I spent several years writing a PhD thesis on Shelley’s work – more on his ideas about language than a conventional lit. crit. of the poems – so it’s a curious pleasure coming back to this poem after all these years. And perhaps it does not seem in need of much explanation, written as it was so self-consciously to reach as wide an audience as possible to achieve its political impact. Yet its driving ballad-like form hardly gives the reader time to reflect and there are areas of obscurity within it – apparently real uncertainty on Shelley’s part. Of course, the political climate at the time (as Leigh’s film so vividly demonstrates) was increasingly repressive in regard to any speech or publication in favour of Reform. Even the radical Leigh Hunt – to whom Shelley sent the poem from his exile in Italy – refused to risk publication. The poem eventually saw the light of day only after the Reform Bill had been passed in 1832.

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A Voice from Exile (ll. 1-4)

The whole poem is notable for the multiple distances Shelley maintains from the actual events of August 1819 (there is no poetic reportage of any kind, though he had read several newspaper accounts), in his own remote position (he had fled England in 1818, never to return) and in the way in which the poem comments on political realities (through the filters of ballad form and caricature and the sophisticated layering of voices). The opening quatrain briskly deals with the geographical distance, though with something of the air of a fairy tale.

 

As I lay asleep in Italy

There came a voice from over the Sea,

And with great power it forth led me

To walk in the visions of Poesy.

 

The AAAA rhymes here announce the poem with a series of thumps like an overture to wake his listeners and perhaps also himself from his guilt-ridden sleep, so far distant from the causes of political reform and revolution that he had long supported in England. The “visions” of poetry immediately give license to the strange encounters that follow.

 

The Triumphal Parade of Anarchy (ll. 5-37)

The kind of gothic caricature that dominates the following stanzas has often been linked to the style of political cartoons by Hogarth and Gillray. But Shelley’s adolescent love of the gothic genre is well known and the resulting mix is all his own. The reader (accompanying the narrator’s “walk”) is thrown into a parade of characters who precede the climactic appearance of the personification of Anarchy himself.
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This is the “triumph of Anarchy” (l. 57) in the sense used by the Romans as a victorious parade through city streets. The narrator meets three main figures – Murder, Fraud and Hypocrisy. Reversing the usual method of personification, each abstract figure wears a mask in the guise of a contemporary politician – the Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh, the Lord Chancellor, Eldon and the Home Secretary, Sidmouth. The satirical effect of these masks is driven home by the figures’ actions. Castlereagh feeds human hearts to the dogs that follow him, Eldon sheds tears that turn into mill-stones and children have “their brains knocked out by them” and Sidmouth, clothed equivocally by both Bible and “night”, rides by on a crocodile (more false tears, geddit?).

Shelley glancingly refers to “many more Destructions” traipsing along in this “masquerade”, and they are all “disguised, even to the eyes, / Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies”. The enemies of the people are therefore boldly named and it’s clear that the poem’s title contains a pun on mask/masque, alluding to the paper-thin disguises that the abstractions of corruption and injustice wear as well as the arrogant self-regarding performance of the triumph or parade they are taking part in. The climax of this parade is the approaching, apocalyptic figure of Anarchy himself:

 

Last came Anarchy: he rode

On a white horse, splashed with blood;

He was pale even to the lips,

Like Death in the Apocalypse.

 

And he wore a kingly crown;

And in his grasp a sceptre shone;

On his brow this mark I saw–

‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’

 

Anarchy here means a state of lawlessness in which the rich and powerful are freely able to control all religious, state and legal power. Their laws preserve their own freedom to exploit. We’ll see a bit later that Shelley had a concept of the “old laws of England” (l. 335) that he believed had been overridden but that once had served to protect the lives of ordinary people.

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Contemporary Image of Peterloo

England Under Anarchy’s Rule (ll. 38-85)

Shelley’s poem broadcasts and accelerates the trope of the parade (“With a pace stately and fast”) to show the appalling results of this rule of the rich and powerful across the whole country. There are echoes here of the charges into the crowd at St Peter’s Field in Manchester:

 

And a mighty troop around,

With their trampling shook the ground,

Waving each a bloody sword,

For the service of their Lord.

 

Their Lord here is Anarchy himself whose pageant is now seen to be passing through England, “Drunk as with intoxication / Of the wine of desolation”. It lays waste to everything, tearing up and trampling down, eventually arriving in London. Ordinary citizens feel terror and panic while the supporters of Anarchy flock to him, repeating the slogan and self-announcement written across his brow. Those who flock to his side are lawyers and priests and:

 

The hired murderers, who did sing

`Thou art God, and Law, and King.

 

We have waited, weak and lone

For thy coming, Mighty One!

Our purses are empty, our swords are cold,

Give us glory, and blood, and gold.’

 

Anarchy bows in response to this obeisance with a false and aristocratic grace (“as if his education / Had cost ten millions to the nation”) and recognises the bases of his power are secure in Palaces and quickly to be seized in the Bank (of England) and the Tower (of London), after which he anticipates meeting with a compliant, “pensioned Parliament” to further confirm the rule of Anarchy in the England of 1819.

 

Hope and the Mysterious Shape (ll. 86-125)

_Paul Foot_ _Red Shelley_But as Shelley’s sentence crosses the next stanza break – ie. without any clear pause – the seemingly unstoppable parade of bloodshed, inequality, injustice and hypocrisy is strangely interrupted by a counter personification. A crazed-looking young woman (“a maniac maid”) runs out declaring that her name is Hope, though the narrator says “she looked more like Despair”. The perception here is interesting as even Shelley’s narrator has been so infected by the toxic atmosphere spread by Anarchy that the girl (who is soon to bring about a challenge to Anarchy) looks to be insane and more resembles the absence of hope than otherwise. This is one of Shelley’s core political beliefs and had already appeared in the closing lines of Prometheus Unbound. There, Demogorgon urges optimism in the long term conflict with abusive power: “to hope, till Hope creates / From its own wreck the thing it contemplates”. The movement for Reform will – it seems – have to come close to despair, or its own wreck, before the powers of Anarchy are likely to be defeated.

Hope’s father is Time, whose other children – these are the previous occasions when the cause of liberty and reform had been strong – are covered in the “dust of death”. So Time has brought forth a new opportunity though the actions of the young woman called Hope are surprising. Less Joan-like, more Christ-like she simply lies down before the trampling hooves of the triumph of Anarchy. But moments before she too is about to be trampled into dust:

 

[ . . . ] between her and her foes

A mist, a light, an image rose,

Small at first, and weak, and frail

Like the vapour of a vale

 

220px-Masque42This mist – later called a “Shape” – is one of the mysteries of the poem’s politics. Hope provokes its appearance. At first weak, it gathers in strength. Shelley compares it to clouds that gather “Like tower-crowned giants striding fast, / And glare with lightnings as they fly, /And speak in thunder to the sky”. In the next few stanzas it becomes more soldierly, “arrayed in mail”, compared to the scales of a snake (for Shelley the snake was usually an image of just rebellion not of evil), yet it is also winged. It wears a helmet with the image of the planet Venus on it. It moves softly and swiftly – a sensed but almost unseen presence. And rather than any military action or campaign of civil disobedience, this Shape, conjured by Hope, creates thinking:

 

As flowers beneath May’s footstep waken,

As stars from Night’s loose hair are shaken,

As waves arise when loud winds call,

Thoughts sprung where’er that step did fall.

 

The Shape has variously been interpreted as liberty, England, the people, revolution, nature, intellectual illumination. But I think the image of Venus suggests that the Shape is Love which, in Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’, is synonymous with the Imagination, the expression of which is Poetry. Poetry here is a cultural and perceptual shift (artists and writers are merely one aspect of its manifestation). At its heart, is the rejection of reason which perceives and depends on differences and the embrace of a mode of perception that favours similitude, including the similitude between all people and classes.

 

The Death of Anarchy (ll. 126-146)

How exactly Love, so broadly defined, brings about the dramatic consequences detailed in the next few stanzas is unclear. There seems to be evidence of a battle as Hope is suddenly seen walking calmly, though “ankle-deep in blood”, and Anarchy himself is reduced to “dead earth upon the earth”. In the light of the bloodshed at Peterloo, such actual conflict and resulting casualties are hardly surprising but the use of force by those seeking political reform seems to contradict Shelley’s later pronouncements in this poem. The only alternative is that the blood she wades through is that spilt by the powers associated with Anarchy.

rousseauYet in the calm aftermath of these events, there comes a sense of renovation, a “sense awakening and yet tender / Was heard and felt” and, most importantly, there are further words. This time the speaker is unclear though it is “As if” the earth itself, the mother of English men and women, feeling such bloodshed on her brow, translates this spilt blood into a powerful, irresistible language, “an accent unwithstood”. Shelley repeats “As if” once more, confirming the mystery of this voice, a voice which proceeds now to speak the whole of the remainder of the poem. For Shelley, Poetry in his broad sense is “vitally metaphorical” and the earth’s imagined speeches convey a sense that the cause of liberty is in accordance with the truly understood (surely Rousseauistic) nature of creation.

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Harpic and Gravy: a review of Sean O’Brien’s ‘Europa’

Sean O’Brien’s recent book, Europa (Picador Poetry, 2018) has made it onto the 2018 T.S. Eliot award shortlist. Earlier in the year, I was asked by Magma magazine on-line to write a brief review of the book (alongside Vahni Capildeo’s Venus as a Bear (Carcanet Press, 2018) and Alice Miller’s Nowhere Nearer (Liverpool University Press, 2018). What follows is an expanded version of my original review of O’Brien’s book.

 

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You know why they chose to do it but Picador’s presentation of Sean O’Brien’s ninth collection as a book about Brexit does nobody any favours. It’s a far more heterogeneous set of poems – there’s a good dose of elegiac texts, for example – though the opening 19 pages certainly does have the UK and Europe steadily in their sights. It turns out, what these two blocs share in O’Brien’s view, is a history which is ironically mostly one of conflict (a view also reflected in O’Brien’s Robert Graves Society lecture recently published in P.N. Review 244) . The opening poem, ‘You Are Now Entering Europa’ repeats the line, “The grass moves on the mass graves”. The poem goes on to ask how many “divisions” the grass has at this activity and the play on words manages to evoke both military logistics as well as peace-time political conflicts. The narrative voice is downcast, speaking in short breathless little phrases as if anything more lengthy would be beyond him or not worth it. The steadying recourse is merely “my work” which serves to sustain but for no other obvious purpose than to arrive at “the graveyard I become”.

Other poems draw on material from the Great War or the Balkan conflict while ‘Wrong Number’ looks back to visits to the divided city of Berlin, visits that read like a catalogue of failures ending in a self-regarding and (later) self-ironised “species of moral exhaustion”. How effectively poetry – or a literary sensibility – can engage with what is really existing in political terms is one of the themes here:

 

I chose not to mention this

Because it was too obvious or literary,

Like making something out of nothing

 

For the sake of poetry, as if that were a sin.

 

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But O’Brien is always at his best engaging in his love/hate relationship with England. ‘Dead Ground’ explores who owns the English countryside. It describes a ‘theme park’ landscape, a fantasy “[w]here things are otherwise” than what they really are, yet an exclusive park round which ancient walls “will be built again, but taller”. O’Brien’s second person addresses are always discomfiting, levelling an accusing finger at the reader more than most contemporary poets though it’s effect is complicated by the clear sense that he implicates himself as well. Art again gets short shrift – here it is batted away as “[t]he never-was and never-will” in contrast to the brute facts of ownership and possession. Is it the sensibility of the artist/poet again being prodded and provoked here: “The liberties you think you claim / By searching out the detail / In the detail”? Again, this is a task that seems to end nowhere better than “your six-foot plot”. In fact, in O’Brien’s vision of contemporary England, the most vital activity is wholly mercenary, “counting the takings”.

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Those who live outside this country’s circles of possession and privilege, those to be found in “Albion’s excluded middle”, are more than likely to end up in the kind of neo-Nazi meeting so brilliantly described in ‘The Chase’. Here, in Function Rooms where “gravy fights it out with Harpic” O’Brien finds “[w]ould be Werwolfs” who are planning to make Britain great again. The narrator’s antagonism to them is clear enough – the poem enjoys mocking their “banal resentments”, their abortive calls to phone-in radio shows, their “bigotry” – but the moral stance is complicated by his inability directly to confront such attitudes, though he acknowledges that he should: “Too bored to laugh, too tired to cry, you think / These people do not matter. Then they do”. Here too, the “you” does a great job of skewering the complacent reader.

O’Brien’s smokingly apocalyptic visions, familiar from earlier collections, recur in Europa, though (again) to pin these to the shameful, self-wounding moment of Brexit is surely too reductive. ‘Apollyon’ is a scary vision of destructive power as a “[g]ent of an antiquarian bent” and ‘Exile’ relishes the blunt pessimism of its given-and-snatched-away conclusion: “It is from here, perhaps, that change must come. / You are garrotted by a man your hosts have sent”. One of the instigators of betrayal and disaster, in what begins to heap up in the book as a modern wasteland, is recognisable in her “leopard shoes and silver rings” and it feels particularly pointed that O’Brien has to go as far as Mexico City (and a more mythopoetic mode) to find a strange man/beast at a bar who suggests the possibility of “living in hope despite the mounting evidence” (‘Jaguar’).

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As I have already hinted, the equivocal role of the artist has long bothered O’Brien and – it’s my impression – that he beats himself up more frequently nowadays over the poet/artist’s impotence. The hilarious but ultimately cynical account in ‘Sabbatical’ of university life (especially Creative Writing) paints a depressing scene:

 

Apres moi, Creative Writing, dammit.

Good luck, my friends, my enemies,

And those of you to whom in all these years

I’ve still not spoken. Now I bid farewell,

Abandoning my desk, my books

And thirteen thousand frantic e-mails

Enquiring about the Diary Exercise

On which the fate of everything

(To whit, this institution) hangs

 

The collection ends with ‘A Closed Book’, a poem which has clear echoes of Shelley’s apocalyptic, unfinished last poem, ‘The Triumph of Life’.  Someone – it’s “you”, of course – impotently watches a parade (“a cart”) rolling through an unspecified European square where he is sitting like a tourist (or someone on a sabbatical). The figure does little other than observe and wait, “As if this one venue would give you / The secret entire”. But here too, the knives are elegantly brought out. It is for such a moment “you spent your life preparing”, we are told, and though hopes of “transfiguration” and “perfection” are voiced, the sense is more of an exhausted spirit, of self-delusion.

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Drowned Shelley’s melodramatic memorial at University College, Oxford

Europa is full of such unflinching, incisive moments, combined with a breadth of vision and dark sense of humour that few contemporary poets can match. But I worry that in so frequently denigrating his own art (ironically because he expects so much ‘achievement’ from it), O’Brien ironically runs the risk of allowing darker agencies too much influence in a culture that, for its many faults, permits a high degree of liberal civilisation. A civilisation, in the interstices of which (at the risk of sounding too complacent), pass lives of relative peace and achievement, where even art with fewer explicit political designs should be lauded and encouraged, since it too plays an ethical/political role, as if to say, ‘this is what must be protected’.

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