Tag Archives: Catullus

Gwyneth Lewis-Sea Virus

Sea Virus

I knew I should never have gone below
but I did, and the fug of bilges and wood
caught me aback. The sheets of my heart
snapped taut to breaking, as a gale
stronger than longing filled the sail
inside me. To be shot of land
and its wood smoke! To feel the keel
cold in a current! To see the mast
inscribing water like a restless pen
writing a fading wake! It’s true,
I’m ruined. Not even peace will do
to keep me ashore now. Not even you.

I was first attracted to Gwyneth Lewis’s work by a poem in Ruth Padel’s collection, 60 Poems for the Journey of Life where her attractive poem, The Flaggy Shore may be found. Clearly she is much interested in marine matters.

The poem has a tension and an elegance about it. It will appeal to anyone interested in messing about in boats but has an edge about it too. Much of the imagery is erotic even sexual. The word fug strikes and catches you back as she says in the next line. It is overpowering and yet speeds you along with considerable force like a dangerous attraction. The word “shot” adds to this general sense of menace and yet also implies the freedom experienced as the liberation of inspiration. The image of the pen as a sail-a simile- reminds of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khyyam –

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

It also reminds of the words written on Keat’s Grave-

The best-known use of a similar phrase is on the gravestone of John Keats: Here lies one whose name was writ in water. (‘Writ‘ is a poetic form of ‘written‘.) This means his fame was transient; it passed away quickly. Then there is Catullus-

1 Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle My woman says that she prefers to be married to no one
2 quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat. but me, not even if Jupiter himself should seek her.
3 dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti, she says: but what a woman says to her passionate lover,
4 in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua. she ought to write on the wind and swift-flowing water.

The poem then is about the possible effects of being driven along by the poetic imagination. The last line has an awesome direct remark to the reader. For some poets their trade requires passion even to the point of not counting the cost. Shelley in his boat springs to mind!