Tony Harrison is a poet whom I feel I know rather well from his television appearances. He seemed to be on the box quite a lot around 2000 or so. By any criteria his is a radical poet from Leeds. In my imagination I see him as a radical voice from that period along with another favourite poet, Tom Paulin. Harrison is an engaged poet from Leeds and is probably best known for his long poem “V” which was published in 1985. He is an immensely clever poet immersed in his Northern background with which is radicalism is associated and his broad knowledge of the classics. He is a playwright, a film-maker and a translator. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Harrison
In the poem which I discovered recently he is addressing his view of history. How the past has been recorded is an issue that perhaps becomes more pressing as we age. There is much debate about statues currently, who we should remember and what is both consciously and unconsciously addressed. What should we pass on to future generations and how to counteract distressingly current propoganda. This poem comes from the new edition of Selected Poems by Tony Harrison published by Penguin – you can find it here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Harrison He is travelling with his children over moorland-
Past scenic laybys and stag warning signs
the British borderlands roll into view.
They read: Beware of Unexploded Mines
I tell my children that was World War II.
Those borderlands are becoming politically more controversial, there is a simple rhyme-scheme with those dangerous residues beneath the surface. The poem makes the link between khaki uniforms and cavalry twill. It brins to mind the smart casual wear demanded of upper ranks in their so called leisure time. The areas forbidden to play are those marked off by signs and fences which remind the reader of enclosures and the imperial system of trade providing employment in a regulated manner to mill workers. The latter similarly having their time divided by tolling bells.
Mill angelus, and church tower twice as high.
One foundry cast the work-and rest-day bells-
the same red cottons in the flags that fly
for ranges, revolutions, and rough swells.
The alliterative Rs remind us not only of the Union Jack but that to some it was considered the butcher’s apron. The rough swells is almost classical ( Homer’s wine-dark sea) and rowdy posh boys with the ambivalent firing ranges in the background.
.But as the overflowing Tiber often invaded it with raging floods,
breaking into his ploughed fields,
converting them in winter into a lake,
he filled his worn-out boat,
which was drawn up on the beach, with stones,
making it a barrier against the floods.
By this means he repelled the inundation. who would have believed it?
An unseaworthy boat became the protector of the boatman!
Iam senior Ladon Tiberinae nauta carinae
Proxima dilectis rura paravit aquis.
Quae cum saepe vagus premeret torrentibus undis
Thybris et hiberno rumperet arva lacu,
Emeritam puppem, ripa quae stabat in alta,
Inplevit saxis obposuitque vadis.
Sic nimias avertit aquas. Quis credere posset?
Auxilium domino mersa carina tulit.
Moving on from ancient boats protecting retired boatmen, I was intriged by the article in the New Scientist telling how an unmanned ship has just made it’s way with very little remote steerage through the Panama Canal.
You can get on and live your life. This was what I once was severely told by one lively lady. I have rather fretted about this remark ever since-more especially nowadays. More especially during lockdown. I have had a partiality for biography for quite a long time. I have always wanted to understand how others perceive life. Some of my interest in poetry came from reading a book about W.H.Auden -well illustrated with pictures that I borrowed donkey’s years ago from Dulwich Library in Lordship Lane. It was near a splendid little gramophone record shop where I spent money on what seemed expensive long-play records. Reading about W.H.A. I was attracted by the thirties political poetry in particular. It has to be said that Auden was photographically interesting from his languid youth to his craggy face in old age.
A couple of years before this following a minitrek visit to Russia I took an A-level correspondance course in History (1815-1945) and the tutor recommended an approach as expounded by the works of Lord David Cecil. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_David_Cecil Accordingly I went on to read his illustrious book on Lord Melborne. Picking quite at random:-
Tis curiously-blended life produced a curiously-blended type of character. with so many opportunities for action, its interests were predminently active. Most of the men were engaged in politics. And the women- for they lived to please the men were political too. They listened, they sympathised, they advised; through them two statesmen might make overtures to each other, or effect a reconciliation. But politics were not then the sentence to hard labour that in our iron age they have become.
It is not difficult to discern the power and style of Cecil’s prose style. Though in between the carefully balanced sentences, a degree of what is now termed overt sexism appears to the present day reader. On the other hand the power of women in high politics- though by high, I refer to the level of power rather than degree of integrity- emerged here in No 10 last weekend. The relation between Marlborough and the young Queen Victoria emerges as a major theme in this important work. This brings me on to that biographer par excellence Lytton Strachey.
Strachey’s Eminent Victorians as well as his other works were a pleasure to read as well as an education in aspects of political history. It did not exactly give me any particular figure that one might wish to emulate-far from it. These were eloquent and elegant pen-portraits which often showed the neuroticism underneath the surface of the Victorian work ethic. Strachey was immersed in Gibbon and turned wry phrases and ironic comments. In short his wit deeply impressed and his erudition was quite something to attempt to emulate. Then came the marvellous biography by Michael Holroyd whose final pages so portrayed the deep and strange relationship with Dora Carrington. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/16/100-best-nonfiction-books-no-50-eminent-victorians-lytton-strachey-manning-nightingale-arnold-gordon
Here is George from Ireland on Strachey
So my interest in biography has often turned towards political figures. Returning once again to the outstanding Cecil family, it is worth noting that there is a magnificent biography of Lord David Cecil’s Grandfather,Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, KG, GCVO, PC, FRS, DL (3 February 1830 – 22 August 1903) who had been Prime MInister for over 13 years and is considered a master strategist in Foreign Affairs. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Gascoyne-Cecil,_3rd_Marquess_of_Salisbury Lord Salisbury by Andrew Roberts is another fascinating biography. It shows how after a somewhat tremulous beginning at Eton, he employed his many abilities in numerous fields became perhaps to what might be called a Tory intellectual. Robert’s biography is truly engaging and shows for instance, his fascination with amateur scientific experiments, his comfortable but busy life at Hatfield House and his relatively warm relationship with his children.
Should you have time to visit the National Portrait Gallery, you will find the painting of the !st Lord Cecil which bears the motto ‘Sero, Sed Serio’ inscribed on the portrait and translates as ‘late but in earnest‘. Cecil was subsequently appointed Viscount Cranborne in 1604, Earl of Salisbury in 1605
Sailing Home from Rapallo BY ROBERT LOWELL [February 1954]
Your nurse could only speak Italian, but after twenty minutes I could imagine your final week, and tears ran down my cheeks….
When I embarked from Italy with my Mother’s body, the whole shoreline of the Golfo di Genova was breaking into fiery flower. The crazy yellow and azure sea-sleds blasting like jack-hammers across the spumante-bubbling wake of our liner, recalled the clashing colors of my Ford. Mother traveled first-class in the hold; her Risorgimento black and gold casket was like Napoleon’s at the Invalides….
While the passengers were tanning on the Mediterranean in deck-chairs, our family cemetery in Dunbarton lay under the White Mountains in the sub-zero weather. The graveyard’s soil was changing to stone— so many of its deaths had been midwinter. Dour and dark against the blinding snowdrifts, its black brook and fir trunks were as smooth as masts. A fence of iron spear-hafts black-bordered its mostly Colonial grave-slates. The only “unhistoric” soul to come here was Father, now buried beneath his recent unweathered pink-veined slice of marble. Even the Latin of his Lowell motto: Occasionem cognosce,
seemed too businesslike and pushing here, where the burning cold illuminated the hewn inscriptions of Mother’s relatives: twenty or thirty Winslows and Starks. Frost had given their names a diamond edge….
In the grandiloquent lettering on Mother’s coffin, Lowell had been misspelled LOVEL. The corpse was wrapped like panettone in Italian tinfoil.
There is a truly fascinating analysis of this poem in one of my favourite books. That is to say -The Secret Life of Poems by Tom Paulin. This useful book gives an excellent insight into the way poetry works. That may sound a cliche but in Paulin’s review of this poem you can see just how the critic discovers the levels of meaning within the poem and finally expresses his open appreciation of it. There are a number of introductions to poetry that I have found helpful – Ruth Padel has done this for me in her two anthologies-
The Poem and the Journey: 60 Poems for the Journey of Life
Michael Hofmann (photo) is yet another poet and critic as well as a brilliant translator. Yesterday I was reading his introduction to John Berryman’s Selected Poems which was also very clear and enlightening.
CYDONIAN spring with her attendant train,
Maelids and water-girls,
Stepping beneath a boisterous wind from Thrace,
Throughout this sylvan place
Spreads the bright tips, 5
And every vine-stock is
Clad in new brilliancies.
And wild desire
Falls like black lightning.
O bewildered heart,
Though every branch have back what last year lost, 10
She, who moved here amid the cyclamen,
Moves only now a clinging tenuous ghost.
E s’aprono i fiori notturni
nell’ora che penso a’ miei cari.
Sono apparse in mezzo ai viburni
le farfalle crepuscolari.
Da un pezzo si tacquero i gridi:
là sola una casa bisbiglia.
Sotto l’ali dormono i nidi,
come gli occhi sotto le ciglia.
Dai calici aperti si esala
l’odore di fragole rosse.
Splende un lume là nella sala.
Nasce l’erba sopra le fosse.
Un’ape tardiva sussurra
trovando già prese le celle.
La Chioccetta per l’aia azzurra
va col suo pigolio di stelle.
Per tutta la notte s’esala
l’odore che passa col vento.
Passa il lume su per la scala;
brilla al primo piano: s’è spento…
È l’alba: si chiudono i petali
un poco gualciti; si cova,
dentro l’urna molle e segreta,
non so che felicità nuova.
And the night jasmines open their corolla
in the time of day when I think of my dear departed. Twilight butterflies
among the viburnum.
For some time now the cries of the birds have ceased:
only there, in a house, can they hear the whispering of human voices.
The little birds are sleeping under the protective wings,
as the eyes rest under the lashes.
From the open corolla of jasmine comes
a scent like red strawberries.
In the living room you can still see a light on,
the grass rises above the tombs of the dead.
A late bee wanders around buzzing
because all the cells are already occupied.
The constellation of the Pleiades is wandering
through the threshing floor, rendered blue by the night sky, with a chirp of stars.
For the duration of the night
the scent of the nocturnal jasmine fills the air, carried by the wind.
The light in the house moves up the stairs,
then goes into the nuptial chamber on the first floor, then goes off …
The dawn arrives: the petals of the flower close
a little withered, but inside the ovary soft and hidden
in depth, grows a feeling of happiness
never felt before.
And where the wild Danube throws up its yellow sand,
and where vast Thracian Mount Rhodope touches the sky.
There they keep the herds penned in, and no grass
is visible on the plains, or leaves on the trees:
but the land far and wide lies formless under mounds of snow
and heaps of ice rising seven metres high.
It’s always winter, always North winds breathing cold.
There the Sun never disperses the pale mists,
neither when he finds high heaven, carried by his team,
nor when he drenches his chariot headlong in Ocean’s red waters.
Ice-floes form suddenly on the running rivers,
and the water soon carries metalled wheels on its back,
once greeting boats and now broad wagons:
Everywhere bronze cracks, clothes freeze as they’re worn,
and they cut out the liquid wine with axes,
whole lakes turn to solid ice, and bristling icicles
harden on their straggling beards.
OR IN THE ORIGINAL LATIN
At non qua Scythiae gentes Maeotiaque unda,
turbidus et torquens flauentis Hister harenas, 350
quaque redit medium Rhodope porrecta sub axem.
illic clausa tenent stabulis armenta, neque ullae
aut herbae campo apparent aut arbore frondes;
sed iacet aggeribus niueis informis et alto
terra gelu late septemque adsurgit in ulnas. 355
semper hiems, semper spirantes frigora Cauri;
tum Sol pallentis haud umquam discutit umbras,
nec cum inuectus equis altum petit aethera, nec cum
praecipitem Oceani rubro lauit aequore currum.
concrescunt subitae currenti in flumine crustae, 360
undaque iam tergo ferratos sustinet orbis,
puppibus illa prius, patulis nunc hospita plaustris;
aeraque dissiliunt uulgo, uestesque rigescunt
indutae, caeduntque securibus umida uina,
et totae solidam in glaciem uertere lacunae, 365
stiriaque impexis induruit horrida barbis.
A serviette, a glass of champagne taken outside a fish restaurant in the open-air Viktualienmarkt in Munich, all taken to celebrate the first day of spring, prompt Cees Nooteboom into Proustian reverie. Upon the paper napkin is written in blue capitals the word POSEIDON, the Greek god who has preoccupied Nooteboom’s thoughts for several summers. The blue colour reminds him of the sea viewed from Mediterranean garden of his villa in Menorca. Taking this prompting as a moment of benign synchronicity, he later begins a correspondence with this sea-deity. He seeks to inquire how this somewhat unreliable ancient Greek Olympian sees aeons of time and sends him letters and legenda; meditations and stories to be read, both poetic and tragic, from the arts and the contemporary world. He is not expecting a reply.
In the Odyssey, Poseidon is renowned for hating Odysseus who had blinded the Cyclops, Polyphemus who happened to be the god’s son. This is Homer’s view. Ovid would have known the god as Neptune and wrote about him in the ‘’Metamorphoses’’. Kafka wrote an essay in which he imagines Poseidon constantly submerged. So, Nooteboom wonders, in a notably poetic passage, how would he have viewed the first passage of the first boat on the surface above him. How does he feel about the decline of those very Greeks who worshipped him? Is he melancholy about his timeless vigil already an old man beneath the sea with only occasional excursions pulled about by tiny sea-horses, nature’s experiment in trans-gender parturition? Fascinated by the rhythms of animal behaviour and curious plants, Nooteboom’s meditative writing is enlivened by his close observation of the natural world.
Letters to Poseidon juxtaposes thoughts which are essentially theological with ponderings on inexplicable tragedies in the contemporary world from the Challenger disaster to the Arab spring. Uncomfortable topics of puzzling cruelty are subject to persistent interrogation which is addressed to an ancient deity- often depicted in statuary with his face turned away. However, there is also an interesting wrestle between belief and doubt beneath the surface. Here is an attempt to figure the Christian deity in relation to the ancient gods. It is almost that the averted gaze of the sea-god makes him more accessible to questioning. Dante and the early-German Christian mystic, Seuse are invoked and discussed whilst the reader is provided with routes to his own investigations from Nootebbom’s well-stocked mind.
The author is prominent as a novelist, art historian and as a traveller. Successive pieces are situated in, for example, in Seoul Museum of Art, a Zen garden in Kyoto, back in his study in Menorca, an island of the Dutch East Indian company in Nagasaki and back once more to Menorca to watch a blood moon. This continuous movement appears to have given rise to a certain Weltschmerz and in particular to a fascination with time and memory. This connection between time and space fascinates him as do geological aeons. He uses the Poseidon figure as a means to attempt to grasp the manner in which rocks are metamorphosed and ground to sediment over aeons. This is done in a leisurely discursive style that produces its own poetry. It requires that the reader find the patience to enjoy such digressions.
Here is a small example:-
‘’The curlews begin to call. I know they are close to the sea, but I have not yet seen them. Their Dutch name ‘’griel’’ is a much better match than ‘’curlew’’ for that drawn out, pleading sound they make. The owl I can hear nearby is another member of the secret service; it wears the darkness like a uniform and makes itself invisible.’’
The relaxed and tentative tone of the writing is at times penetrated by an image carrying anxiety which frequently refers to contemporary concerns. This is shown above where even an owl might appear as a Stasi interrogator. Despite its metaphysical tone, the prose mostly remains vivid. The issues addressed are the concerns of a man, possibly an elderly man, in search of a soul.
An unexpected feature of this book is the fifty or so pages at the end which provide photographs and reference material. I was some 30 pages into the book before I discovered these. This brought to mind the work of W.G.Seebald whose elegiac tone, Nooteboom’s travel memoir sometimes resembles. There are touches which reminded me of Lawrence Durrell’s ‘’The Alexandrian Quartet’’ and of the mysterious symmetries of Anne Michael’s ‘’Fugitive Pieces’’. This book will not be to everyone’s taste, as by nature, it is inconclusive but thought provoking. It asks fundamental questions about human behaviour ‘’’sub specie aeternitatis’’’-Baruch Spinoza’s term for the eternal perspective.
Reading Edith Hall’s book on the Ancient Greeks, develops a deep respect for the power of poetry. No poet was more effective in this regard than Homer recounting the sea adventures contained in the ‘’The Odyssey’’. It shaped the self-definition of a nation and engendered self-confidence. The mariners set out in their beautiful ships across the Aegean and established colonies to the West, in the Mediterranean as far as the Pillars of Hercules, to the East as far as the Levant and built trading cities in natural harbours along the fertile edges of the Black Sea. They were, as Plato wrote in the Phaedo, “around the sea, like frogs and ants around a pond.” They were encouraged by Delphic oracles and inspired by the company of diving dolphins.
The structure of Hall’s account is clearly set down at the start with a useful chronology from the Myceneans in 1500 B.C. to the close of the Delphic oracle in 395 A.D. providing a clear context for the following text. It also gives a framework that neatly conveys the interaction between individuals, resources, military conflicts, the arts, sports, social upheavals and importantly the contributions of recent research. Anyone reading this book will discover how much our understanding of the Greeks has developed currently from new excavations, discoveries and recent scientific techniques. The first four strongly interconnected qualities that Hall ascribes to the Greeks are that they were seagoing, suspicious of authority, individualistic and inquiring. Further, they were open to new ideas, witty, competitive, admired excellence in people of talent, were exceptionally articulate and were also addicted to pleasure.
This is, perhaps, an ideal book to take upon a Mediterranean cruise. Reading it is arguably a cheaper but comfortable substitute and it will certainly improve your geographical understanding. Some of the ancient names may well be unfamiliar to us today. Most will have heard of Knossos on Crete where back in the early Mycenean period the cattle were called by ironic names like Swift and Talkative or ‘’Oinops’’ which means wine-dark, just as Homer describes the sea. Then there is Massalia where the Greeks imported the vine and thus founded the French wine industry. Sicily, however, provided the setting for particularly notorious tyrants. Olbia, on the Black Sea, which is situated in Ukraine today, was difficult to colonise but eventually provided a sanctuary area for the worship of ‘’Apollo Delphinios’’, a sea-god of music, healing and prophecy.
In an interesting chapter on the Spartans, Edith Hall writes of the famous battle at Thermopylae where the courage of 300 sacrificed warriors, led by King Leonidas, created the conditions whereby Greece was saved from the influx of marauding Persians. The excellence of these Spartans consisted in their stern self-discipline and their blunt and pithy sense of humour which is therefore referred to as laconic. In a similar manner, the admiration of the Spartans is called Lacophilia after the area of Laconia which these Dorian Greeks subdued in the eighth century B.C. Spartan women appeared to have attained a degree of independence from their men folk and cultivated the worship of Artemis and festivals involving hyacinths. However, when you read of the treatment meted out to the wretched helots (slaves), recorded by Plutarch and also from Xenophon and Herodotus of the vicious clash of the armoured scrum that constituted hoplite battles, the reader begins to understand why the Spartans are summed up by the author in one adjective-inscrutable.
The adventurous Greek mind appears to have exerted its strength when the kingdom of Macedonia fell to Roman power after AD168. But as Horace wrote, ‘’Graecia captum ferum victorem cepit’’ –captive Greece took her fierce conqueror captive. It was the fluency of the Greek which made it not only the language of business but dominated both rhetoric and prose. Hegemony is after all a Greek word. Recounting these later times the account becomes even more vivid. The writings of the self-assured physician Galen were influenced the development of medicine for many centuries to come. The touching story of rhetorical superstar, as Hall terms Aristides, the inventor of the personal memoir but also a hypochondriac, has a contemporary appeal. It is nice to know that his faith in the benevolent healing deity, Asclepius, quieted his inner turmoil.
Reading Edith Hall on the Ancients is a stirring adventure; a contemporary correspondence to what Keats must have felt when he opened Chapman’s translation of Homer. The experience is reminiscent too of a poem from the classicist Louis MacNeice who in his poem about the maritime mercenary Greek cry ‘’Thalassa, Thalassa’’ penned the following:-