Sounds Like What?: a Review of Helen Mort’s ‘The Singing Glacier’

The new book from the innovative and enterprising Hercules Editions – launched at the LRB Bookshop in London’s Bloomsbury last week – contains poetry by Helen Mort, images by Emma Stibbon, a conversation with composer William Carslake and an essay from Manchester Met academic David Cooper. What holds these diverse components together (within 40 pages) is a trip Mort, Carslake and film-maker Richard Jones made to south-eastern Greenland in 2016. You can see the original Kickstarter post here.

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So The Singing Glacier project is truly inter-disciplinary and the Hercules book is making available Mort’s poetic contributions to it. Mort’s conversation with Carslake serves to introduce the origins of the project in 2012 when the composer looked down from a plane to see Greenland’s regressing glaciers “like a hand with fingers”. More evocatively, and much closer, he talks of standing beside crevasses and moulins and listening to the sounds emanating from them, “like hearing a Welsh male voice choir singing from this great big hole in the ice!” The Hercules book has photos of Carslake’s notebook, clusters of notes and a few words jotted on the spot. Mort disarmingly says how she envied this seeming directness of acoustic transcription as her role was to come up with words and inevitably much of what she initially wrote down “was just cliché”. She wonders whether cliché is a reasonable response to the vast and alien landscapes they were moving through, sights before which “linguistic originality can almost seem a little arbitrary”. This is not her final conclusion, but her comment does raise one of the fascinating issues in this beautiful little book – what a poet does with the tensions between speech and silence, more abstractly between sound and its absence.

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In a review of Mort’s first book, Division Street, I thought her “love of landscape [was] profound and, like Wordsworth, her hills and skies remain a locus for, as well as an image of, the process of self-exploration”. On that basis she would be a good poet to send to Greenland but – she confesses – she was sometimes reduced to wanting simply to cry and – this hesitantly expressed – it felt “like being in the presence of a god”. These are unmistakable encounters with the sublime and the urge to anthropomorphise such a vast alien landscape is quick to arise, so any efforts at self-exploration might seem worse than arbitrary, positively disrespectful. But how then to engage? ‘In Defence of Cliché’ takes off from Mort’s honestly expressed concerns about inadequate linguistic responses to this landscape:

 

I write: ice in the fjord as pale as thought

then hear the calving face crash through my language

with a sound (like what?) like cannon fire

 

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Similarly, the moon fails to be adequately captured by images of “petal, snowball, sleeping moth”. She quotes Hopkins on the way observations of nature can correct our “preoccupation” with the world – again walking the fringes of the divine here – becoming a way in which we learn humility. Mort ends the poem cleverly. Our best word for this sort of experience is “awe” but the word baldly used would not possess enough freshness or fire (thank you Gerard Manley) to carry the weight of feeling. So Mort goes for a down-to-earth metaphor followed by a phrase that manages both to say and not-say it simultaneously:

 

… we stand like nothing, shaken

from the pockets of our lives, our mouths

stuck on the silent word for awe.
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The poem, ‘Arctic Fox, August’, is more reminiscent of Mort’s favourite poet, Norman MacCaig. The creature is acutely observed in its colours and hesitant movements around the campsite but the poem ends with a series of rather coercive, descriptive metaphors: “a hunger-striker . . . a gathering memory . . . the habit you thought / you’d kicked”. For me these images circle and knot ever more tightly onto the observing human consciousness, almost doing violence to the creature so well observed at the start. The poem ‘Polynya’ – the word signifies an area of open water surrounded by sea ice – reverses this tendency to humanise the natural by naturalising the human:

 

Surely the heart

must have polynya

places where it’s never

hardened into ice.

 

The image of the partially melted heart turns easily into a love poem. Another method Mort adopts to try to respond to the Greenland landscape is through found language. So ‘And Noah’ arose from a conversation with an inhabitant of Kulusuk (though I think Mort said at the LRB launch that much of the detail came from the little museum in that town). The result manages to suggest something of the way of life in this landscape, a work place – the found nature of the phrases enabling the poet to avoid too strong a sense that neither she nor her work are an “imposition”.

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David Cooper’s essay on acoustic geographies and poetry of place takes a more academic look at the multi-media project, suggesting that it –  like a lot of recent geographical creative writing – sets out to challenge the easy domination of the visual sense by accentuating the acoustic or aural. This is partly because sound “reminds us of our own embodied situatedness and inextricable embeddedness within the world”. The eye puts us at the controlling centre; the ear is more often passively assailed from all sides. The eye easily steps back and away; the ear is within the sensed world (I’ve discussed similar ideas of within/without or within/above in relation to Holderlin’s novel Hyperion in another blog post). Mort’s best work in this little book is done when she listens in to these sounds and silences. ‘The Glacier Speaks’ does succumb to the kind of anthropomorphism Mort says she was wary of. But it works well since the voice of the glacier is such a challenging, even taunting, one: “Go on then / says the glacier – / how are you going to score my silences?” The glacier reminds the poet of its silence through noting the kind of sounds which book-end it or by comparing its absence of sound with more familiar moments of silence such as that between lovers, between a mother and a daughter. Here the comparisons work not through similitude but dissimilitude – my silence, the glacier says, is nothing like these. I thought an odd note was struck at the end of this poem when the humans are described as impressed by such silence (“more like a vigil”) yet the glacier suggests they are each “trying / to get back to me”. This is intended, I presume, to evoke human puniness, a Lawrentian “pettiness”, but it also smacks a little of the glacier’s over-anthropomorphised self-regard.

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But the poem ‘Glacier Song’ is magnificent. Not the right word I’m sure, but it approaches the Greenland landscape – the Knud Rasmussen glacier in particular – with a right sense of decorum. Silent is what the glacier is again – a “library of absences” – and this is conveyed partly by suggesting that the nearby fjord is more talkative, more full of songs. But Mort then cunningly withdraws this idea: even the chatty fjord is really silent – how much more silent then is the glacier! Later, the Arctic light – remember Cooper’s discussion of the predominance of sight – interrogates the glacier like an airport security check, quizzing and questioning because light always knows better, light always wants the last word. But “The glacier carries on / rehearsing privately”. The final section of this longer poem alights on the distant figure of a woman (the poet?) who, herself, wants to be singing. Here, we feature as the little, forked animal, stuffed full of language bursting to get out, trying to communicate something about glacier climbing, about ptarmigans, the Northern Lights, even about the glacier itself. But the ice remains mum to the last:

 

The glacier has not slept

for centuries.

 

The glacier is restless, lithe,

insomniac

 

articulate

 

and doesn’t need

a word for itself.

 

Knud Rasmussen Glacier Greenland

 

The Poems of Mary MacRae

I knew Mary MacRae as a member of a poetry workshop we both attended in north London. She came to writing poetry late and published just two collections – As Birds Do (2007) and (posthumously) Inside the Brightness of Red (2010) both from Second Light Publications. Her poem ‘Jury’ was short-listed for the Forward single poem prize and was re-published in the Forward anthology, Poems of the Decade (2011). That anthology is now set as an A Level text and it was through teaching from it recently that Mary’s work came back to mind.

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Mary died in 2009 at the age of 67. As a writer she was just beginning to hit her stride. Mimi Khalvati praises her as “a poet of the lyric moment in all its facets” and judges Mary’s ten years of work as an “extraordinarily coherent” body of poems. Khalvati goes on: “Because of the natural ease and grace of her diction, it would be easy to overlook Mary’s versatile formal skills, employed in sonnets, syllabics (à la Marianne Moore), numerous stanzaic forms, but nowhere evidenced more forcefully than in her ‘Glose’ poem, inspired by Marilyn Hacker’s examples, in which she pays homage to Alice Oswald, as in a previous glose to Mary Oliver – a trinity of wonderful lyric poets, in whose company Mary, modest but not lacking in ambition, shyly holds her own.”

In 2009/10 many friends and writers contributed pieces in memory of Mary to the magazine Brittle StarMost of this material can now be found here with prose contributions from Jacqueline Gabbitas, Myra Schneider, Lucy Hamilton and Dilys Wood. I wrote a poem at the time (remembering meetings of the poetry workshop in London) and I have more recently revised it more than a little. I’m posting it here alongside the review I wrote of Mary’s posthumous collection with the idea of making the review more easily available and perhaps encouraging others to seek out Mary’s published work.

 

Before the rain arrives

i.m. Mary MacRae

 

Perhaps five or six of us standing there

at the familiar purple door

those afternoons we lost beneath poetry’s

red weather our voices and lines

 

while the genuine thing built unremarked

beyond the window’s diamond panes

till it was time to depart

then our turning back in the familiar porch

 

our repeated goodbyes being called

our uncertain bunching

that coheres and delays until one of us

breaks loose and we are each free to disperse—

 

yet on that day there were raindrops

on the back of a hand on another’s cheek

and though we fiddled with car keys

we fidgeted in trainers and faded jeans

 

we were an ancient chorus for a moment

crying the single syllable

the drawn-out sound of r—a—i—n

because we were weary of weeks of drought

 

and now it came and we saw where it fell

the raindrops beginning

to shrill their high-pitched release

from interlaced shadows

 

from the skirts of clouds

and what none of us knew until we’d seen

one more year was that one of us there

despite our sharp eye for openings

 

and endings would have to face last things

like the white vanishing of panicked doves

into dark thunderheads—

on these more recent afternoons

 

just four or five of us here perhaps

in our minds her shrewd observations

her words urging us closer to listen

for the noise rain makes before the rain arrives

 

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Review:  Mary MacRae, Inside the Brightness of Red (Second Light Publications, 2010), 96pp, £8.95, ISBN 978-0-9546934-8-0

Mary MacRae’s 2007 debut collection was titled As Birds Do. It is true that birds feature variously in that and this, her sadly posthumous new collection, but if we are unaware of the earlier title’s provenance, we might anticipate no more than a delicate, poetic take on the natural world, the kind of thing that fills so many small magazines. But MacRae alludes to the moment in Macbeth, when Lady Macduff and her son contemplate death. The mother asks, “How will you live?” and the son, with a wisdom far beyond his years, replies, “As birds do Mother . . . . With what I get I mean”. MacRae’s poetry is full of such emotionally-charged, vital identifications with natural creatures and, more profoundly, with the sense that what can sustain us in life must be derived from everyday common objects.

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As a title, Inside the Brightness of Red, also flirts a little with poetic affectation, but once inside the book’s covers, it is MacRae’s precise, even astringent, penetration that is so impressive. She reads the world around her and finds spiritual meanings. It is no surprise that R.S. Thomas supplies the epigraph to this new collection: “It is this great absence / that is like a presence, that compels / me to address it without hope / of a reply”. So a poem called ‘Yellow Marsh Iris’ promises to be a naturalist’s observation then startlingly wrong-foots the reader with its opening line (“It’s how I imagine prayer must be”) and proceeds to its seamless business of combining accuracy of observation with an emotional and intellectual narrative. She studies the flower stems crammed into a glass vase:

 

their stiff stems magnified

by water, criss-crossing

white, pale green, green

in a shadowy coolness

 

We are reminded that there is a kind of intensity of observation that succeeds in prising open our relationship with the outer world in such a way that while encountering the Other, we more clearly glimpse ourselves. MacRae concludes her process of “looking and looking” at the flowers that has given rise to the sense that “they seem to hold / all words, all meaning, / and what I’m reading / is a selving, a creation.”

MacRae’s visions are almost always peripheral, fleeting, askance. The unfolding of daffodils – which, in a quite different age, Wordsworth could contemplate steadily and then stow away for future use – here can never be more than something

 

waiting for us somewhere in the wings

like angels,

 

your darting after-image

between the pear-tree

and the brick wall.

(‘Daffodils’)

 

In the same vein, MacRae has Bonnard, paint his mistress, Marthe de Meligny, and declare that his sensibility is triggered by “looking askew”. The visionary moment occurs only when “Glimpsed through the half-open door / or the crack of the hinge-gap” (‘Bonnard to Marthe’) and this collection’s editors (Myra Schneider and Dilys Wood) have drawn it to a close with yet another such moment: “Turning back to look through an open door” the narrator sees an ordinary room “utterly transformed, / drained dry and clear, unweighted” (‘Un-Named’).

book 2It may be that this ability to be sustained by scraps and glimpses, the sense that the self is most fully resolved in a lack of egotism, in its encounter with ordinary things, can diminish some of the sting of mortality. In a poem like ‘White’, MacRae manages to celebrate again the ordinariness of familiar things while at the same time sustaining a contentedness (or at least an absence of fear) at the prospect of the self’s vanishing: “You can disappear in a house where / you feel at home; the rooms are spaces / for day-dreams, maps of an interior / turned inside out”. Rather than Macbeth, it is Hamlet’s resolve to “let be” that comes to mind as this calm, accessible, colourful and wonderfully dignified poem concludes:

 

Let

it all go; soon the door of your room

 

will be locked, leaving only a slight

hint of you still, a ghostly perfume

lingering in the threadbare curtains and sheets.

 

But MacRae’s contemplation of her own death, most likely, was no such safely distanced envisaging. Dying at 67 years old, she’d had only 10 years of writing poetry, but it had evidently become a vessel into which she could pour her experience without ever abandoning herself to artistic ill-discipline. ‘Prayer’ is almost too painful to read. The narrator is emerging from the “thick dark silt” of anaesthetic to hear someone sobbing and a second voice trying to offer comfort. As her befuddled perceptions clear and the poem’s tight triplet form unfolds, the second voice is understood to be saying “’Don’t cry, Mary, / there’s no need to cry’”. The collection’s title poem can bluntly report that “the cancer’s come back” yet artfully balances such devastating news with the landscape of Oare Marsh in Kent where colours “are so spacious, / and have such depth they’re like lighted rooms // we could go into” (‘Inside the Brightness of Red’).

untitledFor MacRae’s interest in and skill with poetic form, we need look no further than the extraordinary glose on a quatrain from Alice Oswald (the earlier collection contained another on lines from Mary Oliver). For most poets, this form is little more than an exhibitionist high-wire act, but MacRae’s poems are moving and complete. Her use of poetic form here, particularly in some of these last poems, reminds me of Tony Harrison’s conviction that its containment “is like a life-support system. It means I feel I can go closer to the fire, deeper into the darkness . . . I know I have this rhythm to carry me to the other side” (Tony Harrison: Critical Anthology, ed. Astley, Bloodaxe Books, 1991, p.43). Appropriately, in ‘Jar’, she contemplates with admiration an object that has “gone through fire, / risen from ashes and bone-shards / to float, nameless, into our air”. Here, the narrator movingly lays aside the wary scepticism of the Thomas epigraph and rests her cheek on the jar’s warmth to “feel its gravity-pull / as if it proved the afterlife of things”.

This inspiring collection contains a short Afterword by Mimi Khalvati who MacRae frequently praised as a critical figure in her work’s development. Khalvati lauds her as “a poet of the lyric moment in all its facets”. She judges MacRae’s ten years work as an “extraordinarily coherent” body of poems, suggesting that, among the likes of Oswald and Oliver, MacRae’s work is “modest but not lacking in ambition”. For me, her two collections certainly exhibit a modesty before the world of nature that is really a genuine humility, allowing both the physical and spiritual worlds to flower in her work. This was her true ambition, pursued in full self-awareness and one that, before her sad leaving, she had triumphantly fulfilled.

 

 

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”.

Edward Thomas and Two of His Friends

Last weekend I was asked to talk briefly about Edward Thomas at an event at the Palmers Green Library in north London. This year is the centenary of his death and I looked at one of my favourite poems, ‘The Sun Used to Shine’. I have written in close detail about it in an earlier blog so I have excised most of my comments about the poem itself from this current post. I hoped to take the audience’s attention to the poem, to Thomas’ life in 1914/17 and then bring them to more contemporary poetry with a couple of my own poems which are thoroughly imbued with Thomas tropes – inspired by his work and life. 

 

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Edward Thomas and Helen Thomas

Edward Thomas died at the Battle of Arras on the 9th April 1917. One hundred years and 5 months ago. It has long been thought that he died from a nearby shell blast stopping his heart and his watch, on that Easter Monday. But a couple of years ago, the discovery of a letter from his commanding officer suggested he had been actually ‘shot clean through the chest’. It was perhaps a sanitised version of his death delivered to his wife, Helen, that gave rise to the attractively poetic myth of his ‘clean’ death.

But so much about Thomas has a similar mist of uncertainty about it. He shares with his great friend and poet, Robert Frost, a liking for the word ‘something’ – a thing that is unspecified or unknown, a description or amount being stated but not exactly. This is partly what makes him a modern writer (though his main subject material – the natural world – might make him seem otherwise).

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But he’s also modernist in that he can be emotionally reticent, guarded, suspicious. In a letter to his wife a few days before he was killed he wrote: “I know that you must say much because you feel much. But I, you see, must not feel anything. I am just, as it were, tunnelling underground and something (that word again!) sensible in my subconsciousness directs me not to think of the sun [. . .] If I could respond to you as you would like me to [. . . ] I should be unable to go on with this job”. You might think such guardedness was just a war-time effect. But a poem like ‘No one so much as you’ – written in 1916, surely to his wife – says: “My eyes scarce dare meet you”.

His difficulties with loving were certainly related to his bouts of depression. He suffered dark, suicidal periods, infamously taking a revolver with him into the woods intending not to reappear. In the poem ‘Beauty’ he writes:

 

What does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill at ease,

No man, woman, or child alive could please

Me now. And yet I almost dare to laugh

Because I sit and frame an epitaph –

‘Here lies all that no one loved of him

And that loved no one.’

 

The poem eventually finds some sense of relief in the natural world. Note here the uncertainty in both what it is in him that seeks happiness and what it is that seems lost to him:

 

This heart, some fraction of me, happily

Floats through the window even now to a tree

Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,

Not like a pewit that returns to wail

For something it has lost, but like a dove

That slants unswerving to its home and love.

 

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Thomas and Frost

 

Because it’s one of his best, I’m going to look at Thomas’ poem ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ written in May 1916. There is no straining between subject and technique. Its moods shift continually from companionship, to thoughts of war, to an historical sense, to an almost cosmic sense of time. So it travels great distances without departing far from the English countryside that provided Thomas with its beginnings. Nor does it depart far from ordinary language – it has a surface accessibility. It’s held together by a human voice – quiet, questing, informed about nature as well as history, one willing to contemplate existential questions.

[. . .]

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By the time the poem was being written, it was more than a year after the Frosts had sailed for New York. Thomas is mourning a lost era as much as a lost friend. Perhaps no surprise that he had Tennyson in mind as he wrote. In Memoriam is Tennyson’s tribute to his lost friend, Arthur Hugh Hallam. In section 89, Thomas found a model and images of friendship, the English landscape, ripe fruit, running water, long walks, long talks – a kind of lost Paradise:

 

The landscape winking thro’ the heat:

 

O sound to rout the brood of cares,

The sweep of scythe in morning dew,

The gust that round the garden flew,

And tumbled half the mellowing pears!

[. . .]

Nor less it pleased in livelier moods,

Beyond the bounding hill to stray,

And break the livelong summer day

With banquet in the distant woods;

 

Whereat we glanced from theme to theme,

Discuss’d the books to love or hate,

Or touch’d the changes of the state,

Or threaded some Socratic dream;

[. . .]

We talk’d: the stream beneath us ran,

The wine-flask lying couch’d in moss,

[. . .]

And brushing ankle-deep in flowers,

We heard behind the woodbine veil

The milk that bubbled in the pail,

And buzzings of the honied hours.

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Such similar quiet acknowledgements of landscape, of time present and past, of friendship are some of the themes which draw me to Thomas’ work. Another of his friends was Jesse Berridge. The depth of this friendship is revealed when Berridge writes – this in the Spring of 1947 (fully 30 years after Thomas’ death at Arras) – of dreaming of the poet:

In my dream he was coming down a road, in loose dark clothes, to meet me, with his long purposeful stride and his face alight with pleasure and gaiety. Well I knew that look on his face, and here and now I would give testimony that I did know very many hours in his company, and in by far the greater part of them he was happy, sometimes with an almost bewildering intensity.

Here (if I may) is a poem of my own, drawing on material from Berridge’s memoir of Thomas which I hope captures some of the pleasures the poet shared with Berridge and before that with Frost. The opening detail about the church at Kilve in Somerset, is referred to in Wordsworth’s poem ‘Anecdote for Fathers’ (1798) included in Lyrical Ballads, obviously a favourite with Thomas and Berridge:

 

These things I remember                               

after Jesse Berridge

 

That afternoon on the beach at Kilve

we had ascertained

there was no weather-cock on the church

and we were resting in peace

almost in silence when he turned

and told me to listen

to the little melodious twittering

of a tiny bird that swooped and dipped

between where we sat and the roiling ocean—

a meadow pipit he said

the moment was unforgettable then

as he so often made such things

calling attention to this or that aspect

of what I call his vision

as one morning he cut a walking-stick

from the woods then carved

until it had a character of its own

or the knife I’ve owned almost sixty years

its bone handle chafed

and worn by my touch

until the white has begun to show through

for him held a peculiar fascination

till obscurely I began to feel

it possessed of a soul

that nothing but his observation of it

had created and I remember my children

always delighted in his occasional visit

(from The Lovely Disciplines, Seren 2017)

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Thomas and Berridge would often cycle the English countryside together and if you are interested in his extraordinary responses to the landscape I’d recommend In Pursuit of Spring, published in 1914. It was this book that Frost seized on in the summer of 1914 as evidence that Thomas ought to start writing poetry.

There are also personal reasons why I like this book so much – Thomas cycles from the outskirts of London, heading westwards, to the Quantocks. On his way he descends from Salisbury Plain into the Wiltshire where I grew up. Indeed he traces a particular ride along roads I know well. Here he is describing the almost visionary impact of the English countryside:

Motion was extraordinarily easy that afternoon, and I had no doubts that I did well to bicycle instead of walking. [. . .] At the same time I was a great deal nearer to being a disembodied spirit than I can often be. I was not at all tired, so far as I knew. No people or thoughts embarrassed me. I fed through the senses directly, but very temperately, through the eyes chiefly, and was happier than is explicable or seems reasonable. This pleasure of my disembodied spirit (so to call it) was an inhuman and diffused one, such as may be attained by whatever dregs of this our life survive after death. In fact, had I to describe the adventure of this remnant of a man, I should express it [. . .] with no need of help from Dante [. . .] Supposing I were persuaded to provide the afterworld with some of the usual furniture, I could borrow several visible things from that ride through Semington, Melksham, and Staverton.

Later, Thomas takes a detour to another place I know well, the village of Tellisford, its ruined water-mill and bridge by the River Frome. There he meets the Other Man, a figure who pops up in the book and who represents Thomas’ alter ego. I’d like to finish with another of my poems which I hope captures a good deal of the spirit of Edward Thomas in its love of English landscape, its sense of history, its longing for companionship, its loneliness and, in its conclusion, its sense, as ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ says, that “Everything / To faintness like those rumours fades”. The old man is a version of Thomas perhaps, or a version of the Other Man, or a version of myself – or all three at once. You might say one of my projects is to convince you that clarity is a chimera.

 

Rebuilding Tellisford weir

turn aside to see Tellisford  – Edward Thomas

                                               

He refuses shade in midday heat

the old man walking

in his honey-brimmed hat

along the drained weir-shelf

 

that looks today like stacked loaves

its pallid smooth ranks

of Victorian stones

mapping precisely the Domesday line

 

where he patrols to and fro

proudly surveying the place he owns

this stretch of England

his plan to restore the workings

 

of the old watermill

to feed the Grid—and it is for this

he has ordered tons of sludge

to be dredged above the drop

 

and dozens of loosened stones

to be replaced to give

the mill-race its full head

and today he walks the slippery length

 

of the dammed weir-shelf

hallooing picnickers

who pull corks from fizzy wines

he cries what marvellous weather

 

then falls to conversation with a couple

who are celebrating sixty years

in their self-built house

with their three good boys

 

raised and schooled to distant homes

though today they recline

on trashy garden chairs

on this riverbank as if to watch

 

the old man in an antique yellow hat

who walks noting progress

on the weir and how could they know

he’s something on his mind

 

for the next hundred years

how could they know more and more

these days he struggles to endure

the roaring of the fish-shoot

 

with its silted water

and these stilted conversations

with such ordinary people

their Diet Coke and egg mayonnaise

 

their crisps for the grandchildren

their Sunday newspapers

let blow and tumble across the meadow

reminding him of himself

 

how his mind often strays

up the ditch-line to the old drovers’ road

where for fifty years

their cars have pinked and purred

 

especially at night as they mount

slowly the gravel verge—

O so many love-cars for so many years

drawn to his father’s land

 

each in pursuit of what the river gives

of moonlight and chance

of the ticking of an engine

as it cools of blonde hair spilling

 

across dark seats in disarray

he knows the windows rolled to the dusk

the sickly smell of water

the murmur within and talk

 

when it’s over though he knows well

it is never really over—

and it’s because of this

he will not turn them away

 

although they holler and soil and litter

still he’d grant them every wish

it’s for this his feet edge now across

the weir-shelf this afternoon

 

for this he takes his uneasy stand

hands thrust in his pockets

their cars pulling in to the dark hiss

of white gravel everywhere loosening

(from The Lovely Disciplines, Seren 2017)

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How to Answer the Poetic Influence Question #2

With my new collection just out from Seren Books, I’m happy to have a number of promotional events and readings coming up over the next couple of months. As I discussed in an earlier blog, though I love the business of giving a reading, there’s often a moment that arises that I’m always uneasy about. It’s the question of influence. In that previous blog I followed through, chronologically, those poets who have had a powerful influence over the style and direction of my work. That provides one possible answer to the question ‘what other poets do you consider to have been an influence on your poems?’ Another reply might be to look closely at very recent work to see which poets are present in it as ghosts. This is what I’m doing here.

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In preparing a new book for public reading, I tend to work through every poem making notes on the kind of thing an audience might need/like to know before hearing it (once and once only, in performance). I will often draw attention to the presence of a powerful poet figure that I’m aware of in the vicinity of the poem. So in The Lovely Disciplines, I can see influential roles of substance for Robert Hass (with Czeslaw Milosz), Ivan Lalic, Mary Oliver (with Emerson), Whitman and Edward Thomas.

Before looking at those in a little more detail, there are also two translations/versions from other poets in the collection. One is a version of Boris Pasternak’s poem from the 1950s called ‘In Hospital’. In the process of my versioning, the gender of the main protagonist was switched to female, more in line with most of the poems from the middle section of my book which forms a composite portrait of the passing of my parents’ generation.

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Abbaye de Valsainte

I also include a loose translation of (plus a poem alluding to) the work of the French poet, Yves Bonnefoy, who I referred to in my earlier post on Poetic Influence. My poem ‘Valsaintes’ is named after the rural retreat in Haute-Provence where Bonnefoy lived in the 1960s. In many ways an idyllic place, in the end the renovation and up-keep of what was little more than an ancient ruin proved too much for him and the property was sold. For years afterwards, he harked back to it as a favoured, lost place. Bonnefoy’s ideas about what he calls ‘presence’ continue to fascinate me. My version, called ‘After Bonnefoy’, ends:

 

let’s bring ourselves one to another

 

as if each was at last all creatures

and all things all empty ways

all stones all metals and all streams

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Sir Michael Tippett

Sir Michael Tippett’s 1944 secular oratorio, A Child of Our Time, is explicitly relevant to my poem ‘Listening to Tippett twice’. Tippett also wrote the libretto, inspired by the assassination in 1938 of a German diplomat by a young Jewish refugee and the Nazi government’s reaction to it. This took the form of a violent pogrom against its Jewish population – the infamous Kristallnacht, so called because of the broken glass which littered the streets the following morning. Tippett’s text and music deals with these incidents in the context of the experience of oppressed people more generally and the whole work carries a strongly pacifist message of understanding and the need for reconciliation.

I’m certainly aware of echoes of Wordsworth on a couple of occasions. In ‘The Toll Cottage’ – a dream-poem in which I am being driven by my father – there’s a mangled remembrance of a phrase Wordsworth uses in ‘Tintern Abbey’ – “Once again I see / These hedgerows, hardly hedgerows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild”. Also ‘The girl who returned to Aix’, a sequence of three sonnets, includes the awkward fact that I cried on first seeing Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was that moment when the huge alien spaceship finally appears, rising up from behind a mountain – just as Wordsworth’s mountain, Black Crag, rises up in the boat-stealing episode of The Prelude Book 1.

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Enough to make a grown man weep

In my poem ‘Nocturne’, I was partly thinking of Whistler’s painting, ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold’ (c. 1875) but I like to think my (love) poem has more light in it than that, set as it is in the same Tuscan landscape as another poem called ‘The renovation near Sansepolcro’. ‘Nocturne’ also makes reference to ‘the poet’s kelson’ and this is Walt Whitman who, in the fifth part of ‘Song of Myself’, refers to love as a kelson of creation. A kelson (or keelson) is the structure running the length of a ship and fastening the timbers or plates of the floor to its keel giving stability and strength.

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In his book, Time and Materials (2007), introducing the sequence ‘Czeslaw Milosz: In Memoriam’, Robert Hass recounts a discussion he had with Milosz (as his translator) about the different connotations in English of Oh! and O! As it turned out, the one Milosz intended in his poems was the second and this is the one that most interests me too. My poem opens:

 

Oh! is longer drawn already

beginning the button-down

of understanding

that well-I-never

with its freighting

of verb tense and identity

whereas O! is more sudden

more urgent surely

of the moment rapt

when we are prised open

by desire [. . .]

 

I wanted the title of my poem, ‘The lovely disciplines’, to feel paradoxical and in my mind it was related to the Serbo-Croat poet, Ivan Lalic. I remember reading his 1981 collection, translated by Francis R. Jones as The Passionate Measure. I remember Lalic explaining he hoped to suggest the fluidity or fluency of emotion as well as the orderliness or measured nature of a dance or verse. I hoped my title would suggest something of the same – a balanced response to experience, both our taking pleasure in it and searching it for order. My poem takes place on a women’s hospital ward.

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Mary Oliver’s book, Swan, is not her best but I bought it in a secondhand bookshop once and inside discovered an ATM receipt with some cryptic notes on it. This provided the start of ‘As we live’, a poem which takes up Oliver’s sensitivity to nature (which she often gazes at with such precision of feeling as to achieve a visionary intensity) as well as her epigraphs from Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay ‘Beauty’ in The Conduct of Life: “’Tis curious that we only believe as deep as we live”.

Finally, Edward Thomas (Ted Hughes’ “father of us all”) appears explicitly in relation to two poems in my book. Not a million miles from Oliver’s example, it’s his directness and love of what lies before him that I like. I like his sense that, in Robert Frost’s words, this world is the right place for love, combined with his intuitions about the human need to look beyond, perhaps into an inexpressible obscurity. ‘These things I remember’ is almost a found poem on these issues – taking phrases from a memoir written by Thomas’ friend Jesse Berridge (published with letters by Enitharmon Press).

And ‘Rebuilding Tellisford weir’ has an epigraph from Thomas’ 1914 prose book, In Pursuit of Spring. His book recounts his 1913 journey – by bicycle – across southern England from London to the Quantock Hills. I was delighted to discover him passing through the landscape of my childhood: cycling down off Salisbury Plain, through Erlestoke and Edington, Steeple Ashton, North Bradley to stay with friends at Dillybrook Farm just outside Trowbridge, where I lived for 18 years. He writes about waking at night to the sound of falling water. The next day he is persuaded to visit Tellisford and its weir by the mysterious Other Man (a kind of alter ego for Thomas). My poem mixes some of these details with my own memories of visits to Tellisford. I like to think the poem has a lot of Thomas in it: a sense of history, the beauty of nature, strange encounters with others, a sad loneliness, the transience of all things.

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The weir at Tellisford, Wiltshire

How to Answer the Poetic Influence Question #1

A Boat..._quicksand cover

With my new collection just out from Seren Books, I’m happy to have a number of promotional events and readings coming up over the next couple of months. I love the business of giving a reading, but there’s often a moment that arises that makes me uneasy as to how to how to respond. It’s the question of influence; the hand going up to ask: what other poets do you consider to have been an influence on your own poems?

It’s my problem I’m sure, but I’ve always had two ludicrously extreme responses spring to mind on hearing the question. Firstly, to list pretty much every single poet I’ve read in the last 40 years because the truth is every single one has added a grain, a pebble (for better or worse) to the path I walk to write a poem. Alternatively, since I can’t think of one, or even two, clear contenders for powerful influence when I sit down at a blank page or screen, it must be that I have emerged ex nihilo, a peculiar original. The first would be a lengthy reply of little use or interest; the second would seem positively dripping with arrogance (and equally of little use or interest).

Actually, I can think of a third answer: it’s not for the poet to identify influences; it’s a job for a reader. But I wanted to use the next two posts to kick the idea of influence around, to sort out my own ideas and to answer it in two ways. Early in a writing career, the revelation of, or encounter with, a new voice, style, or even subject area can lead to great lurching changes of direction in a poet’s own work. The lurch or swerve becomes progressively less marked the older a poet gets. Put that down to a more confident self belief perhaps, or to a growing inertia, or a more sophisticated process of absorption of such novelty, or sheer bloody mindedness . . .

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For me, I started in the business convinced that I was composing song lyrics because poetry as such was not a familiar thing – except in occasional English classes at school and I dropped that subject at the age of 16. As I’ve said elsewhere, science was what I did through most of my teens. With too much time on my hands and too little joy to be found elsewhere, in the mid 1970s I began to turn to other sorts of books. From Foyle’s in London, I stole a copy of Everyman’s Selected Poems of Wordsworth. They seemed a bit dull and plodding but reminded me of rural Wiltshire where I grew up. For a few months I copied Wordsworth. Perhaps a year later, after a good dose of Sartre, I was finding my way back to the academic study of literature. It was the poetry (and drama) of T S Eliot that I fell in love with (not Dylan Thomas – the other poet on the curriculum). I still have those early Eliotesque poems somewhere, mostly Prufrock period style, though also a horrifyingly pretentious sequence of poems like a clumsy, anaphora-laden Waste Land.

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Re-starting my Higher Education took me to Lancaster University, studying Literature and Philosophy (and a few sessions of Creative Writing with poet, David Craig) and Hughes and Larkin were served up and readily ingested. At first, I swerved to the latter’s urban details and personal gloom; later it was the Hughes of Gaudete (recently published, 1977) that I copied, writing a long, quasi-mythic, magic-real, psychodrama about sex and power that I eventually self-published in Oxford. As a post-graduate among the dreaming spires, it was Percy Byshe Shelley who I was working on for several years and, though not a model for poems as such, his ideas about the role of the Imagination and poetry as an “Orphic language” have been important to me ever since.

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Among contemporary poets, I’d discovered Heaney (not the rural Ireland stuff so much as his wrestling with private and public responsibilities – Station Island, for example), Peter Redgrove’s fluid take on mind’s encounter with the natural world (The Apple Broadcast) and Ken Smith’s urban-political Americana (oh how I wanted to have written Fox Running). I wrote individual poems modelled on all these writers while absorbing much more deeply the work of the Romantic period – only now did I really find Keats, his poems and letters, Wordsworth still, Coleridge’s Conversation poems especially. What might have been expected – Hardy, Auden, Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Lowell, Bishop, Plath, Dickinson – were all missing or they missed me.

 

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Ken Smith

 

A decade of writing, reading, plus some reviewing too. A couple of my own books published and I’d stumbled my way to Rilke’s New Poems, Elegies and Sonnets, the second and third of which I began to translate and (whether visible on the surface or not) were a great influence on me – the Duino Elegies  for their thoughtful drive from existential mourning to praise, the Sonnets to Orpheus for that same thought (more of the praise) and their use of form. From Whitman I found my way to W S Merwin’s marvellous fluidity (something I was comparing to Paul Eluard’s work too) and from Rilke it seemed a logical (not the right word at all) step towards the 81 texts of the Daodejing which again I felt I had to try to English because it both rhymed with what I already knew and I knew it would develop further what I needed to know.

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A few years back, an article in PN Review sent me to the work of Yves Bonnefoy. A heart-rate raising sense of another writer who had fought the two-faced dragon of language and seen enough to conclude that at the bottom of its filthy lair gleamed the concept and the concept promises a “strange immortality” but only if we can “forget brutal reality”. One reason (I’m now quoting an earlier blog post on a 1953 essay by Bonnefoy) we do this is that there are “general truths in conceptual thinking and a particular kind of power derived from it. It ‘allows thinking’ of a certain kind; it is linked with ‘the vast power of words’. But any gain is predicated on a significant loss, the abandonment of the actually existing ‘world of things’. Conceptual thinking is ‘systematized’, generalizing, categorizing; it’s in this that its ‘flight’ from the real is found. The only sort of thing that can be held up to counter the concept are specific particularities of human experience: Bonnefoy asks ‘Is there a concept for footsteps in the night, for a cry, for a stone rolling in the brushwood? For the feeling evoked by an empty house? No [. . . ]’”

 

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Yves Bonnefoy

 

Reading Bonnefoy did not send me lurching to right or left but rather nudged, re-calibrated, re-assured me that my own direction of travel was not a wholly isolated one. I don’t write like Bonnefoy – there can be a dull abstraction to his poems which seems to me to contradict his ideas about real presence expressed as specific particularities – but I know what thought underlies my own work has close parallels to his (as far as I understand him). That’s influence, I’d say.

In my next blog, I’ll look at the question of influence from a different angle – what ghosts of other writers can be seen in more recent work?

Unquiet to Unbusy – Coleridge, Hartley Coleridge and ‘Frost at Midnight’

This week I was invited to another of Michael Glover’s wonderful Bowwowshop soirees at the Omnibus Arts Centre in Clapham. The focus was on the work of Coleridge. Tom Lowenstein read from From Culbone Wood – in Xanadu (Shearsman Books). There was also fiddle music and an aria from Mozart and parts of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ performed as a sea shanty (it really worked!). What follows is the text of my contribution (at some length, I’m afraid). By the way, Hartley Coleridge must be in the air at the moment as this blog post has just been put up by Alan Price.

I have been asked to read ‘Frost at Midnight’ – the 1798 poem in which the young father watches his sleeping child, thinks of his own past and foresees for the boy a bright future. The suggestion was also to focus on the more human side of Coleridge, less on the unique genius, the flood of ideas and knowledge, more on what we must all share with him: quiet moments of reflection, how we are made by our past, our hopes for the future, how blood is thicker than water.

So – in 1824, the young Thomas Carlyle visited Coleridge in Highgate, where he was now staying with Dr Gillman. The poet was 52 years old. Carlyle describes  – “ a fat, flabby, incurvated personage, at once short, rotund, and relaxed, with a watery mouth, a snuffy nose, a pair of strange, brown, timid, yet earnest looking eyes, a high tapering brow, and a great bush of grey hair” He seemed a good soul (thought Carlyle), “full of religion, and affection and poetry and animal magnetism”.  Perhaps his observations had already been influenced by William Hazlitt’s earlier description, noting the poet’s nose, “the rudder of his face, the index of his will, [how it] was small, feeble, nothing – like what he had done”. Carlyle also concluded with that thought, “he wants will. He has no resolution”.

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Given what Coleridge had been through in his life, Carlyle’s portrait is really one of a survivor against the odds. A couple of years earlier, Coleridge was contemplating the four greatest sorrows of his life. He noted: his failed marriage with Sara Fricker, his wife of almost 30 years, the mother of his 3 children; the bitter quarrel with Wordsworth; the relationship, that perhaps never even got going, with Sara Hutchinson – Asra. Coleridge’s fourth sorrow was a much more recent wound, still raw, on-going when Carlyle met him in 1824. It bears on my main subject, Coleridge’s poem about his first born son, Hartley.

To explain, I’ll go back a few years  . . . In a life that Richard Holmes in his wonderful biography has described as full of “black storms and glittering sunlit spells”, the year 1819 was a great, sunlit moment. The 23 year old Hartley had just secured a Probationary Fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford. His father and mother were overjoyed, a feeling they shared – so an unusual moment. Coleridge could reasonably conclude that the boy he had always loved best had perhaps not been harmed or disabled by his peculiar brand of absentee fathering, the difficult marriage of his parents, his father’s often public financial, literary and opium-related humiliations.

But storm always follows sunlight for Coleridge. In June 1820, Hartley – the little child who, 22 years earlier, had slept so peacefully on a frosty night in Stowey in Somerset – Hartley was accused of drunkenness, of “sottishness, a love of low company, and general inattention to the College rules”. In a moment of ghastly, public humiliation, his Fellowship was not to be renewed. Hartley himself seems not to have dared to inform either parent; he vanished for days on end and try as Coleridge might the College would not relent.

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It was a disaster. Ann Gillman remembers Coleridge being “convulsed with agony” over it – surely in part because the accusation of intemperance and drunkenness reflected his own long-established, unshakeable addictive behaviours. The sins of the fathers, is what Coleridge must have been thinking.

And really, if we look back at Hartley’s life the disaster was not so unexpected. With the benefit of hindsight, we can trace events, poignantly, in reverse. During his third year at Oxford, in 1817, Hartley had come to visit Highgate and among the promising signs Coleridge fretted about his son’s unsystematic approach to life, there was some drunkenness, an evident loneliness.  On a return visit to Stowey, the clever college boy had tried to enamour himself with the local girls but they recoiled from his strangeness, melancholy, his dark shaggy beard. They called him the Black Dwarf.

At the age of 18, in 1815, he’d visited his father in Calne, Wiltshire, first ever summer vacation with his father. They celebrated the victory at Waterloo but Hartley was fascinated by the travelling players, by itinerants. He seemed solitary, a bit restless. People again remarked on his odd manners, his scrawny black beard. At 15, Hartley’s mother was optimistically thinking he might make a lawyer, with his “Gift of the Gab”. They were living in the Lake District and Hartley was a great local favourite, though Sara thought “a little spoilt” – in adult company he was not only permitted to speak, he was expected to speak.

At 13 he was brilliant – but quarrelsome. At the age of 10, planning a visit to his West Country relations, Coleridge wrote him a letter – a Polonius sort of letter – on how to behave. His son, he pointed out possessed a “self-gratifying fancy”, his spirits always at “high tide and flood”. The father recognised a tendency that swept away all “unpleasant and painful thoughts”. There were refusals to accept discipline; there was stealing food, snatching at things, standing in half-open doorways. Too often, the boy used his cleverness for lies, fantasies, false excuses. Coleridge urged on his son no procrastination, no self-delusion.

Even as a young child, Hartley had once asked his father what it would be like if there were Nothing! – just darkness and coldness. Apparently, he’d be thinking of it all day. The boy was 5. He often found playmates more a burden than a delight. A year earlier, celebrating moving from baby clothes into trousers, Coleridge already mourned the child’s old, joyous ways of playing. His activity now seemed governed by a more self-conscious “eager & solemn gladness”.

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I imagine him watching the boy – the young father as he was described by Dorothy Wordsworth in 1797. She thought Coleridge then plain looking, pale and thin, a wide mouth, thick lips, not very good teeth. He had longish, loose-growing, half-curling rough black hair, his eyes large and full, not dark but grey, fine dark eyebrows, an overhanging forehead. And this is the man who, around this time, watched a massive starling flock in flight. He described it “like smoke, mist, or any thing misty without volition – now a circular area inclined in an Arc – now a Globe – now from complete Orb into an Ellipse and Oblong [. . . ] & still it expands & condenses, some moments glimmering & shivering, dim and shadowy, now thickening, deepening, blackening”.

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This image haunted him for the rest of his life. It became more and more clear he had been fascinated by a self-image, a counter image of uncertainty, a lack of volition and determination, a swirling, aimless life quite unlike the one he had imagined for himself and his first born son in ‘Frost at Midnight’. In the poem Coleridge finds another self-image – the thin carbon film accumulated on a fire grate. Superstition told that this ‘stranger’ as it was called, foretold some new arrival. Coleridge remembers thinking of it as a sign of good things to come in his own unhappy school days at Christ’s Hospital in London.

In lieu of my reading of ‘Frost at Midnight’, here it is read by Richard Burton with accompanying text.

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Such hopes were not to be. After the Oriel College disaster, Hartley was urged into school-mastering but he was never very good at classroom control. The boys must have found him odd, melancholy, solitary – apparently suicidal at times.

By 1829 – now fully 5 years after Carlyle had visited Coleridge in Highgate that time – Hartley had drifted out of teaching, was just wandering aimlessly through the Lake District, living with farmers, writing a few sonnets while the aging father fretted vainly in Gillman’s Highgate garden. In 1825, Coleridge made a self-portrait in sonnet form. In the poem ‘Work Without Hope’ he is the “sole unbusy thing”, uncreative, not having built anything to last, nor preparing to build. In the octave, amaranth is the mythical flower awarded to successful poets.

Work without Hope

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—

The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—

And Winter slumbering in the open air,

Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!

And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,

Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,

Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.

Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,

For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!

With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:

And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?

Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,

And Hope without an object cannot live.

If we humanise Coleridge – if we turn aside from the work achieved, half-achieved, the fragments and Notebooks – perhaps we see too much of tragedy: the great potential, a life unfulfilled. After all this is the man who watched Hartley play and understood that for children the means is the end; he knew beauty is the intuition of the one in the many and therefore the first-born of beauty is the geometrical shape, the triangle; he thought of the sonnet as a sigh, something we let escape us, a single thought; he understood the poet must possess the ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent desert, the eye of a North American Indian tracker, the touch of a blind man feeling the face of a darling child; he thought poets were those who knew where the riddle of the universe remained unsolved; he thought a punchy, crisp style of writing lacked the cement of thought, the hooks and eyes of memory; he thought altruism required a generosity to oneself, without which we live in a despotism of the present moment.

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Hartley Coleridge

And perhaps there was a little honey at the last. In 1833, Hartley published the poems he had been working on and dedicated them to his father. He offered them in thanks for what Coleridge, for all his flaws and personal failings – had given him. It’s the note for us, who love English literature, to strike too: gratitude. Hartley’s sonnet, like a sigh, poignantly alludes to and quotes ‘Frost at Midnight’ on his father’s early hopes for the boy whose own life went awry.

Father, and Bard revered! to whom I owe,

Whate’er it be, my little art of numbers,

Thou, in thy night-watch o’er my cradled slumbers,

Didst meditate the verse that lives to show,

(And long shall live, when all alike are low)

Thy prayer how ardent, and thy hope so strong,

That I should learn of Nature’s self the song,

The lore which none but Nature’s pupils know.

The prayer was heard: I ‘wander’d like a breeze’,

By mountain brooks and solitary meres,

And gather’d there the shapes and phantasies

Which, mixt with passions of my sadder years,

Compose this book. If good therein there be,

That good, my sire, I dedicate to thee.