I Saw Three Swans: Baudelaire, Rilke, Oswald

A friend of mine recently asked what I thought of Alice Oswald’s poem, ‘Swan’ – in fact, what did I think it meant. It appears in her 2016 collection Falling Awake (Cape Poetry). I’m not sure I can give a direct answer to her direct question, but it linked up with two other swan poems I have read recently. Baudelaire’s poem appears in The Flowers of Evil and I have been re-reading a couple of translations of that collection because of the French poet’s influence on Rilke. Rilke’s swan poem (included in New Poems) is one of the poems I have been translating for the projected 2023 Pushkin Press book mentioned in my previous two posts. So – by way of an oblique answer to my friend’s question and because these poems and (two of) the poets relate to my current project and out of sheer curiosity – I thought I’d read these three poems alongside each other here.

Baudelaire’s ‘Swan’ is the longest of the three, divided into two parts. Written in late 1859 and dedicated to Victor Hugo, Baudelaire described the poem as an attempt to “record rapidly all that a casual occurrence, an image, can offer by way of suggestions, and how the sight of a suffering animal can urge the mind towards all those beings that we love”. His definition of those we love is remarkable broad, as we’ll see. The poem is also remarkable for the range of its components: evocations of the modern city (Paris), the creature itself, anthropomorphism, personal memory, literary references and an imaginative and empathetic ‘lift off’ towards the end. I’m looking at Anthony Mortimer’s translation published by Alma Classics in 2016. Here is an older, clunky, but openly available translation.

The reader might be taken aback by the opening exclamation: this swan poem opens with ‘Andromache, I think of you!’ In Book 3 of The Aeneid, Andromache, wife of the killed Trojan hero, Hector, is living in exile (‘we, our homeland burned, were carried over / strange seas’ – tr. Mandelbaum) and now weeps for her husband beside a little stream, a paltry reminder (Baudelaire: ‘a poor sad mirror’) of the mighty river, Simoeis, near Troy. She is an image of an abused and displaced exile, a refugee and it is the narrator’s strolling through the Place du Carrousel in Paris that prompts this literary recall. It’s because he himself feels out of place. Between 1853-1870, the Paris Baudelaire had known was in the process of being re-designed and re-built by Georges-Eugene Haussmann. Cityscapes change ‘more swiftly than a mortal heart’ says the narrator and he prefers to recall the old, ramshackle state of the area, where there was once also ‘a menagerie’. One morning, in that previous era, he caught sight of an escaped swan that ‘[d]ragged his white feathers on the dirty road’.

Rapid cutting from literary allusion to gritty realism to anthropomorphism is part of Baudelaire’s boldly making it new. The swan is ‘doomed’ in a literal sense, yet also ‘mythical’, at least for the narrator, who makes the beast speak: ‘Water, when will you rain?’ The intertextual resonances are further extended: the narrator sees the bird ‘sometimes like the man in Ovid’. This is the moment of man’s first creation: ‘given a towering head and commanded to stand / erect, with his face uplifted to gaze on the stars’ (Metamorphoses, tr. David Raeburn). But Baudelaire’s allusion is ironic, confirming the swan’s standing for itself and humankind in 19th century Paris: the swan stretches ‘his writhing neck and hungry head / Towards the cruel sky’s ironic blue’.

Part II of ‘The Swan’ reverts to the changing vista of Paris. As the new is erected, the old buildings ‘turn allegorical’, working as allusions to objects and experiences that no longer exist. The diffuseness and proliferating resonance of the swan image itself suggests that ‘symbolic’ might be a better word than allegorical. Now strolling near the Louvre, thinking still of the swan memory, the narrator reflects on ‘how / All exiles are ridiculous and sublime’. The earlier Andromache reference now makes sense and it resurfaces. It is the ‘incessant longing’ of all exiles that fascinates Baudelaire and from the (passionately felt) literary figure, he turns to a real black woman, ‘thin and consumptive, / Trudging through mud’ (in Paris, I take it) who yearns for her African homeland, obscured by a northern European ‘wall of fog’. The narrator ‘seeks’ exile we are told or, in his alienation from the modern world, he is compelled to seek it in a (mental) forest in which a ‘distant memory winds its full-breathed horn’. Imprecise as the significance of this image is, it evokes a full-throated, rather nostalgic longing for something long past; somewhat ridiculous and yet sublime in its depth of feeling. But the poem’s final lines expand to encompass thoughts of ‘castaway sailors’ and ‘captives, the defeated . . . and of many, many more’. The memory of the swan has focused (and continues to do so) the narrator’s thoughts on the ubiquity of such states of alienation, of actual and psychological exile.

Charles Baudelaire

By comparison, the 12 lines of Rilke’s ‘The Swan’ are astonishingly compact. But, on its smaller scale, Rilke’s poem also opens as obliquely as Baudelaire’s. There are two lines before the creature appears and when it does so it seems to be in a figurative role: as an image of human life, which is itself characterised as a ‘struggling with a task not yet complete’. The contingencies and difficulties of a life lived are compared to the awkward movements of a swan’s movements out of water, weighed down, ponderous, ‘constrained’, as if its legs could not move freely. Baudelaire kept the two sides of his comparison (the swan and the experience of exile) clearly demarcated. Rilke balances the two sides of his comparison more evenly and potentially more confusingly. Is this a poem about a swan that conjures thoughts about life and death, or is it about life and death which now remind the narrator of the movements (in and out of water) of a swan?

Certainly, the initial topic seems to be life (its difficulties) and then in the second stanza, death itself: ‘that sense of our slackening grip / on the earth where we stand every day’. What is bold about this poem is how the final seven lines take off from this introduction of death into a second series of images related to the swan entering the water. But it is a series that does not return from the swan to the probable theme of human life/death. Instead, the poem records, in exquisite detail, the process of the swan entering the water and settling and then swimming away. It has the clarity of an Imagist poem (and I am hoping for that in my translation of it):

so, tentatively, he lowers himself down

x

and onto the waters that welcome him

gently, already, contentedly letting slip,

retreating beneath him, a moving tide,

while he, infinitely still and assured

and ever more majestic, more mature,

is content the more placidly to glide.

The growingly anthropomorphic quality of Rilke’s description (like Baudelaire’s before) implies the swan’s representative role in reflecting human life and in this instance, human death. Or at least, the idealised image of death that Rilke wants to convey: not something to be feared, but a gradual transition, a becoming, a maturing, an integral part of a life’s ‘struggling’. The poem’s playing with our perception of the swan/life divide is part of Rilke’s intention: life, as much as death, is not something Other, detached from the world of things, but something co-existing alongside it, within it. The creature’s placid transition from land to water, life into death, represents a true death for Rilke. This is not something available to all. In an earlier poem from the Book of Hours – in a poem which shows the influence of Baudelaire – Rilke portrays the poor of Paris, ‘wan-faced and petal-white’, frightened of being admitted to the hospitals of the city, knowing death awaits them. But this is a ‘petty death’, the demise of the body with no spiritual dimension; it is not ‘their real death’ which remains ‘hanging green, not yet sweet / like a fruit within that will never ripen’. So Rilke’s swan, as it glides placidly from life into death, is an image of such an ideal transition.  

It’s possible Oswald’s poem, ‘Swan’, has Rilke’s in mind as its preoccupation is also with life and death. Compared to the Parisian perambulatory of Baudelaire’s regular ABAB quatrains and the meditative, imagistic, quasi-sonnet form of Rilke, Oswald’s poem wanders freely across the page echoing the disintegration of her already dead and rotting swan. The poem is composed of two elements: narrative description and the imagined voice or thoughts of the dead swan as it rises away (soul-like) from its own corpse. The only real puzzle here is the final speech of the swan.

The opening harks back to the sound world and imagery of Ted Hughes. The harsh assonance of the curt opening phrase (‘A rotted swan’) is an example, as is the following long line with its splashing sibilance and use of a technological image applied to the natural world: the swan is ‘hurrying away from the plane-crash of her wings’. Also like Hughes, Oswald likes to use the space of the page; the phrase ‘one here’, repeated for each of the wings, is placed as if the material of the words indicated the location of the wings set awry. The plane image is picked up again with the metaphor of the swan leaving the ‘cockpit’ of her own flying machine. The dualism of mind/self/spirit/soul versus body is adopted in what seems to be a simple manner.

Alice Oswald

Baudelaire’s swan in exile cried for rain in its natural watery homeland. Oswald’s is puzzled by its sudden divorce and alienation from its own body. In its first speech, it does not recognise its wings: ‘those two white clips that connected my strength / to its floatings’. The tone is similar in the second speech: ‘strange / strange’. The swan seems aware here of its own sense of ‘yearning’, experienced in its life, that the body’s ‘fastenings’ (wings? tendons? muscles?) were never able to ‘contain’. As with all these swan poems, the bird is being co-opted to represent humanity; here, our sense of being more than merely physical. The swan sees her own black feet, now ‘poised’ but unused. The corpse is an intricate, marvellous machine, but without whatever is now departing, it appears ‘a waste of detail’. Before the third and final speech, the body and all its ‘tools’ are now abandoned, with all its ‘rusty juices trickling back to the river’.

I think that last phrase is important. This is one of Oswald’s best poems but I’m uneasy with the conventionality of the spirit/body trope. Perhaps what is leaving the body is returning to the environment (an after-life of that sort)? In the final passage, the swan wants to address its own corpse before it ‘thaws’ or rots away. This suggests a desire for some ritual. The perspective of the poem now zooms in on the head, then the eye, which is visible and into its ‘cone of twilight’, the fading gleam within it, and into the cone, almost as if looking into a snow globe. The swan sees a scene there: a bride setting out to her wedding. Is this an image of the renewal of life after death? The ‘trickling back to the river’? But this return journey seems difficult: ‘it is so cold’. I’m not clear if I should be taking this in a narrow way: this individual creature will be extinguished. Or more broadly, the natural cycle of life-death-decomposition-new-life has been compromised (by human actions?). Oswald’s final image is of tolling bells, ringing in the putative wedding venue, bells like ‘iron angels’, insistently, ‘ringing and ringing’. Oswald’s swan is marvellously physical in its demise but its projected commentary on itself feels at times naively anthropomorphic (the death I’m left thinking of is a human death), at others puzzlingly obtuse.

Looking Beyond Paralysis

Featured Image -- 14962In lieu of a new blog post, here is a link to the Hercules Editions webpage on which I have formulated a few thoughts about the current lockdown, photography and the (forgotten?) refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. It is a piece in part related to the Hercules publication of my longer poem, Cargo of Limbs.

To read ‘Looking Beyond Paralysis’ go to : https://www.herculeseditions.com/post/looking-beyond-paralysis-by-martyn-crucefix

 

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.
discarded christmas trees piled on pavement for trash collection

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.

W H Auden’s Thoughts on Robert Frost

In what follows I am mostly summarising Auden’s own discussion of Frost, written in the late 1940s. But I am adding thoughts of my own as well (in the light of teaching Frost) and it would be prudent to make sure you have read Auden’s essay alongside this post.

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Auden’s essay, ‘Robert Frost’, can be found in The Dyer’s Hand (Faber, 1963) and it starts with a distinction between what a poem says and what the poet says. Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ ends with the statement that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. This is clearly the urn speaking and voicing a predilection for the kind of art “from which the evils and problems of this life”, argues Auden, have been “deliberately excluded” (p. 337). The Urn is such a piece of art, defining its own beauty in the act of excluding the “heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d” (alluded to in its own third stanza). Yet Keats’ main narrative voice does not subscribe to such a view and the possibilities of these ironic distances between poet, narrative speaker and dramatic characters (even if only an old urn) are things we should take into any reading of Robert Frost.

But Frost is not an Urn Poet, seeking beauty at all costs; Auden links such a desire with the figure of Shakespeare’s Ariel.  The Ariel poet wants a poem to be “a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play” which gives the reader delight in so far as it contrasts with our true existence in history, with our “insoluble problems and inescapable suffering” (p. 338). Taking an unprepossessing extract from George Peele, Auden characterises the Ariel poem as tending towards anonymous generalities, a verbal contraption such that, if we try to explain what pleasure it gives us, “one finds oneself talking about language, the handling of the rhythm, the pattern of vowels and consonants, the placing of caesuras etc”. Ariel has no passions – his earthly paradise is beautiful but not very earthly in truth, and nothing of consequence can happen there. An anthology edited by Ariel runs the risk of delivering mere narrowness and a monotony (or even absence) of feeling. Auden refers us to Virgil’s Eclogues, and poets like Campion, Herrick and Mallarme (I’d add other assorted Surrealists, Dylan Thomas, John Ashbery). In being turned away from historical reality, there is inevitably a narcissistic quality to Ariel poems (p. 340). Damning with faint praise, Auden notes Ariel’s worst fault is a minor one, a self-regarding triviality.

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In contrast, Frost is a Prospero Poet. To explain, Auden quotes Dr Johnson: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it”. The Prospero poem should provide us with “some kind of revelation about our life”; it will act so as to “free us from self-enchantment and deception” (p. 338). In order to do this, the Prospero poet must introduce into the poem “the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly”, in other words Keats’ “heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d”. Frost’s poems are recognisably of this type and they seem to derive from “an experience which preceded any words and without which the poem could not have come into being”. Rather than Ariel’s narrow focus on the beauty of the constituent verbal elements, these are now regarded as “subordinate in importance to the truth of what [the poem] says” (p. 340). Auden nominates Wordsworth as the English poet who, more than any other, has the least element of Ariel, a preponderance of Prospero. Wordsworth’s earthiness, directness of address and simplicity of language can reach peculiar, bathetic  extremes, as in ‘The Thorn:

 

This thorn you on your left espy;

And to the left, three yards beyond,

You see a little muddy pond

Of water, never dry,

I’ve measured it from side to side:

‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.

 

Yet, of ‘Mending Wall, Frost has said that he “dropped to an everyday level of diction that even Wordsworth kept above”. In Frost’s poem there are only two words with more than two syllables. This is evidence of Frost’s Prospero-like quality as Auden defines it. But the risk of such simplicity and directness – lodging any validity it possesses in the poem’s relation to truth – is that, in failing, the poet offends not merely against triviality but against truth itself. The poem may be false and a reader might conclude, “This poem should not have been written” (p. 341).

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Auden is, of course, dealing with extremes here and he admits most poetry presents a blend or tension of Ariel and Prospero qualities. But, considering a poet’s output, it is possible (and useful) to say that he or she is dominated by one or the other. So Auden describes Frost’s Prospero-like language: “The music is always that of the speaking voice, quiet and sensible . . . he rarely employs metaphors . .  yet he manages to make this simple kind of speech express a wide variety of emotion and experience” (p. 342). This achievement is because Frost’s diction is that “of a mature mind, fully awake, and in control of itself; it is not the speech of dream or of uncontrollable passion”.  The reader will often be aware of strong, even violent, emotions lying behind what is actually said, but the saying “is reticent, the poetry has, as it were, an auditory chastity”. So Frost’s poems are quiet on the surface which readers find inviting or, if more superficially read, boring. But the drama is real enough and, once entered into, not uncommonly, in Lionel Trilling’s famous observation, potentially “terrifying”.

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Auden goes on to make observations about some of Frost’s themes. ‘Two Look at Two’ is a “miraculous exception” in Frost’s general presentation of man’s relationship with Nature since the couple observing the buck and the doe seem to be rewarded with a sympathetic response. It is “As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour / Had made them certain earth returned their love”. In fact, this conclusion may seem less exceptional if we pay attention to the “As if” and – just as in Keats’ Urn – find a difference between the poet’s intention and the Ariel-like urge towards an ideal or paradisal ending to the poem (the couple’s love is returned only in their own rosy-tinted perception). More typically, Frost’s Nature is better represented by the “great buck” of ‘The Most of It’ which emerges from a lake, alien and indifferent to the human desire for “counter-love”.

This sense of cosmic indifference to the human draws from Frost his often expressed admiration of stoic courage, the ability to keep on keeping on. This, Auden points out, is the significance of Frost’s frequently deserted dwellings. In Europe, such an image might suggest “injustice and greed and the nemesis that overtakes human pride”. But in Frost, such ruins are rather “an image of human heroism, of a defence in the narrow pass against hopeless odds” (p. 345). Auden’s point is that Frost’s poetry looks forwards rather than backwards, nostalgia is not a common note; more usual, and more distinctively American, is “the ever-recurrent opportunity of the present moment to make a discovery or a new start” (p. 349). This is why Frost lauds work and labour so much. His highest virtue is the self-respect that comes from taking pride in something achieved.

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Baptiste – the French-Canadian axe-maker in ‘The Axe-Helve – is such a man and also a Prospero-like artist:

 

He showed me that the lines of a good helve

Were native to the grain before the knife

Expressed them, and its curves were no false curves

Put on it from without. And there its strength lay [. . .]

 

An Ariel axe-helve would look beautiful – but be wholly useless for the task. Frost said: “Art should follow the lines in nature [. . .] False art puts curves on things that haven’t any curves”. Unreliably narrated by a stiffly condescending New England Yankee farmer, the poem in fact favours Baptiste’s pragmatic art (which is Frost’s too). The same effect is heard in ‘Mending Wall’ in which the arrogant, mischievous narrative voice makes no headway against his less educated neighbour’s refrain: “Good fences make good neighbours”.

The narrator of ‘The Wood Pile’ is similarly undermined by his own poem. There is an Ariel-like restlessness about him. His curiosity has an aimless, insatiable quality as if the mixed nature of what lies before him is not enough. Having decided to return home, he changes his mind: “No, I will go farther – and we shall see”. What he eventually finds is an image reflective of his own failing: a wood pile, carefully and laboriously constructed and then abandoned in a restless search for novelty. Seemingly un-selfaware, he criticises the man who “lived in turning to fresh tasks” and could “so forget his handiwork”.

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It’s in ‘Birches’ that Frost most clearly engages with the contrasting desires of Ariel and Prospero. Climbing the tree “Toward heaven” is Ariel’s desire to “get away from earth a while”. This is contrasted to the earlier passage in the poem in which “Truth” breaks into the narrative, describing the irreversible damaged an ice storm can do to a birch tree: “they never right themselves”. It is Frost’s choice to take a third way, to be “a swinger of birches”, achieving a balance or sequence of both heavenward and earthward motion. If this sounds like an equal balance, it is misleading since –  as Auden argued – the scale is unmistakably tipped in Frost’s case towards Prospero. I don’t sense any irony in the declaration of ‘Birches’: “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”.

England is Finished: Sean O’Brien’s ‘Hammersmith’ reviewed

In the week of the EU Referendum it seemed appropriate to review a beautiful little chapbook by one of the UK’s most prominent poets, Sean O’Brien. Appropriate because it is a book exploring both personal and national identity, issues of migration and how new lives are begun in a new country. In particular it is a work always aware of the need for – and the difficulty of – pragmatism, honesty and truth in both personal and political worlds. Whether it is our own or our nation’s past or future, the idealism or fundamentalism of the simplistically pure, clear and incontrovertible is a false god. Worship at such an altar is the old fearful yearning for security in a world that simply is both contingent and mysterious and can only possibly be faced with a sense of compromise, processes of negotiation.

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Beside a photograph of his own 1952 birth certificate, Sean O’Brien’s foreword to Hammersmith (Hercules Editions, 2016) ponders other people’s interest in their family histories. Perhaps our ancestors “underwrite” our lives in a way we cannot do for ourselves – in ways religion might once have done. But O’Brien assures us the two cantos (of what seems to be a longer sequence of poems yet to appear) are more the “work of the imagination” than anything narrowly documentary. He alludes to Robert Lowell’s dictum – “why not say what happened?” – only to dismiss it, suggesting Hammersmith aspires more to the condition of a dream or reverie.

If this is teasing, then it continues into the poem. With a neat circuitousness, O’Brien’s rhyming alter ego, Ryan, wanders the streets of Hammersmith recalling his parents early days and places (days and places shared with O’Brien’s own mother and father), yet his search is an endless deferral, not arriving at any clear goal, a sense of not belonging which (the Foreword has already told us) is precisely O’Brien’s experience of London: “I never feel entirely present there”. So the irresolvable uncertainty about one’s true self is re-evoked here along with a scepticism about how far delving into ancestry can really help with it and this narrative set-up allows O’Brien to pursue the dream-like interweaving of reality and imagination which has become more familiar in his work since The Drowned Book (2007). It goes without saying that this fantasmagoric journey also takes the poet back to that post-war era that so fascinates him: “a place forever on the cusp of realising the welfare state” (from Ben Wilkinson’s Guardian review of The Beautiful Librarians).

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Mixing the personal, the historical and the political, most of the optimism of that earlier time has gone. Canto 1 opens dismissively: “England is finished”. Initially this seems about to be cast as an epic/tragic moment as a rower in the University Boat Race catches a crab and, amidst allusions to the “fields of Hades”,  is compared to Palinurus, Aeneas’ drowned steersman from Virgil’s Aeneid Book 6. But within a few lines, the oarsman recovers and the incident ends only in petty recriminations and unsportsmanlike appeals to umpires – more comedy than tragedy, more satire than epic. The narrative voice concludes: “I’m losing my faith in this annual fiction”. Like Aintree and Wembley, those great sporting occasions that at least gave the impression of a nation united, a clearer sense of self-identity and “name”, the Boat Race too loses its power to inspire a faith in a certain type of Englishness, “a special and definitive order of reality” (Foreword).

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Perhaps it’s not wholly clear if this “order of reality” ever had any real existence and was lost, or whether the narrator lived the delusion of it briefly that was then corrected by his growing understanding of the significance of “class, the major stench of things”. And perhaps this is why the poem swings from imagined images of the 1940s and 1950s Hammersmith to the wanderings of Ryan/O’Brien in more contemporary settings (another photo in the chapbook is clearly O’Brien taking a selfie reflected in an underpass mirror). Canto 1 now more securely pursues the past, describing a young woman (the future mother) as nurse, teacher, doing the “pallais glide”. Such remembrance is labelled the “trap of elegy” at one moment. Ryan is caught in it and “Nor am I out of it” says another voice (O’Brien?) echoing Mephistophilis in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, that moment when he reveals the omnipresence of Hell.

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What develops is a passage of a more documentary type (though no doubt the details are largely imagined) with an Irish ancestor stepping off the train at Euston, finding a room to rent: “Oh loneliness, your name is Hammersmith”. But canto 1 ends with an outbreak of irregular rhyming (the poem is written in triplets throughout) which holds together, as if in successful solution, references to Aneurin Bevan and Stafford Cripps, the ill-fated groundnut scheme of the late 1940s, Caliban and Ariel and a (more personal sounding) naïve, nursery-rhyme passage about “the boy with the curly brown hair”, who is perhaps the future father-to-be.

Canto 2 opens (having caught the habit of rhyme from the end of the preceding Canto) with another vision of the transience of London life, especially for migrants: “no fixed abode, where is no stay, / Not known at this address, / Or never known, or went away, // Gone where the post eventually goes”. This is both the contemporary figure’s fruitless search for an ancestral past as well as the post-war migrant’s experience where the world the nation fought for “admits / No Blacks and no dogs and no Irish”. There are passages here out of Dante, out of Yeats in which spectral figures go dancing through London streets “into Ravenscourt Park” and beyond the District Line. Once again, Ryan/O’Brien re-surfaces with a fierce thirst for Guinness which might “re-enchant / A world that is always and only prose”.

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The earlier allusion (“where is no stay”) to Robert Frost’s comment that poetry can act as a “momentary stay against confusion” is repeated again in the context of what looks like suicidal thoughts, a personal as well as political history: “Here there is nowhere. Here is no stay”. It turns out the Ryan character has an engagement to read poems to an audience but the tone here is angrily dismissive (“Who gives a fuck?”) and heckled abuse from an audience is deemed appropriate somehow, the only thing to make sense “of a dying art”. O’Brien’s casting doubt on the efficacy – the very purpose – of poetry in the context of an ambitious poetic project like this might seem perverse but is perhaps just another de-stabilising element in the whole where past and present, political idealism and cynicism and failure battle it out across the fluid fields of the poet’s observation, memory and imagination (and anyway, if this is the opening of a long poem, this may not be the last word on the subject).

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The poet’s heart seems most passionately engaged in passages concerning the mother figure, but Canto 2 ends, as did Canto 1, with allusions to the father. Like the son, he too seems to have looked always “for a sign”, for meaning in the bewildering flood and flow of the city’s life. What seems to be O’Brien’s pessimism again re-surfaces: “You will fail / Like your father before you”. The failure will be to “name” the waters (this leaves me thinking of Keats’ epitaph: one whose name was writ on water). The father’s ambition apparently yielded nothing more than a “suitcase – / Poems and politics, no fixed address” and later “Madness lay in wait”. Yet the narrative voice offers up the idea of witness, even if this does not lead to reassuring certainty: “You will lower your face to the water, // And through it, and open your eyes.” This is reminiscent of O’Brien’s poem ‘Cousin Coat’ with its self-urging to “Be memory, be conscience, will and rage” and to remain “cold and honest”, though since those lines were written in 1987 O’Brien’s range has continued to widen so that honesty in terms of documentary/historical evidence now also has to face new challenges, new types of honesty with regard to the imagination, in part those in-filling processes of personal memory, the making-up of our own past which many of us hope “underwrites” the people we have become.

 

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