Literature


For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by shipwrecks, so it should come as no surprise that I’ve been interested in all things White Star for years. When Robert Ballard published a book about his 1985 expedition to the Titanic I wasn’t slow to get hold of a copy and pore over it for hours, and I was very taken with the revelation I found there that the whole disaster had been predicted in an 1898 novel by Morgan Robertson. The idea was like a ghost story: the prescient writer foreseeing with uncanny accuracy a tragedy that seemed when it occurred to be so unexpected. He even almost got the name of the ship right. Perhaps this story could prove E.S.P., or time-slips, or something. To be fair to myself, I was only ten at the time.

Thanks to the internet, I recently read Robertson’s novel (The Wreck of the Titan; or Futility), and discovered that fans of the supernatural have been a bit economical with their descriptions. Although his liner does, indeed, sink after colliding with ice in the North Atlantic, the author was more concerned with his hero’s battles with alcoholism and his evil British superiors on board than commentary on maritime safety. His book is overwrought, poorly written and descends several times into anti-semitism, misogyny and xenophobia (the worst kind: Anglophobia). His Jewish underwriter is a sub-Shylock ogre that could have been penned by Julius Streicher. He presents disregard for maritime safety as a trait confined to British lines (ironically, in 1912 the White Star Line was owned by International Mercantile Marine, an American firm). The recipient of his protagonist’s unrequited love –  much of the novel is spent in his realisation that she isn’t worth his tears – is a timid, paranoid and fickle marital opportunist, who is entirely to blame for his drinking problem and subsequent wreck of his career as a U.S. Navy officer. The fight between the unarmed hero and a polar bear on an ice floe is ridiculous and his survival beyond unlikely. Even the disaster itself is mainly caused not by incompetence, but a malicious bid to discredit our noble hero’s forthcoming testimony that the great liner has run down a sailing vessel at high speed and failed to stop. How nobly he turns down the gagging bribe offered by the wicked captain, an RNR officer. How pernicious is that figure’s gift of a large bottle of whisky, and subsequent drugging of his bridge lookout. The Royal Naval Reserve probably wasn’t a Nelsonian paragon in those days, but I doubt that they would have given a commission to someone stupid enough to deliberately incapacitate his own lookouts. I digress. The point is that this wasn’t a literary genius at work, just a man who knew about common practice on the North Atlantic lanes.

This is where the novel really starts to shed useful light on the Titanic disaster. In the officers’ testimony at both inquests it becomes clear that it was normal and expected that a captain would make the greatest possible speed at all times. That Robertson was aware in 1898 that this could be a problem only underlines how myopic was the culture at sea, where each new crossing was expected to be smoother and faster than the last. It also makes the argument presented by Titanic‘s senior surviving crew that events conspired against them to bring about an unavoidable catastrophe ring more than a little hollow. Of course, people being what they are, readers nowadays prefer to see a creepy supernatural premonition rather than a simple prediction based on known flaws in safety procedures. Even the name Titan isn’t much of a reach, given that it was common to call the new superliners by names that emphasised their scale.

This brings me neatly to another great and ill-fated liner with a spooky history. Many years ago, I read in The Usborne Book of the Unexplained that S.S. Great Eastern had been plagued throughout her unlucky career by a mysterious hammering from her double hull, and that when she was broken up the skeleton of a riveter was found sealed between the plates. Nobody ever seems to have identified this person or turned up a contemporary account of the discovery, but a fairly cursory internet search reveals an article from the Providence Evening Press of December 2nd, 1862 that describes an industrial dispute during major repairs. Workmen had been disturbed by a mysterious hammering from the hull, and due to the involvement of a psychic medium they had decided the ship was haunted and unsafe. Captain Paton, the ship’s master, investigated the noise and found a cable tapping against the outer hull. He told the story to a meeting of the Mercantile Marine Association in Liverpool on November 14th of that year and this was reported in the Liverpool Times, so it was hardly a secret.

I suppose that the point I want to make is that everyone loves a good ghost story, but few ever hold up to serious scrutiny. More than that, it’s always worth investigating mysteries of the unknown, because quite often there’s nothing unknown or mysterious about them.

Every couple of months at least, some media-appointed literary expert is bemoaning the market that exists for really bad writing. I’m not talking about the merely workmanlike stodge of Trease or Jenkins, Geoffries both, but the literary junk food that gets the Guardianistas sniffing about the things some people will read, while looking around for a copy so they won’t be left out of the loop on the latest love-to-hate trend. Seriously, just trying to read all of the acknowledged classics is a lifetime’s work: if you’re already wasting hours a day skimming through articles about Scandiwegian interior design tips and which charities are the most carbon-friendly, you really don’t have the time to spare for retouched internet fan-fiction.

Still, I digress. I was thinking about the phenomenon of vastly grossing drivel a while ago and was sure that I could remember having read something very apposite about it in an article by Hilaire Belloc, he of the lyric elegy to mowing one’s lawn with a scythe. Belloc knew a thing or two about publishing, as he’d been a jobbing writer and journalist for many years before he made his comments, but they proved very hard to find because he made them as an aside in a piece about sailing. I found this out after having checked the entire volume and finally in desperation decided that reading about yachting around South Devon in 1914 might take my mind off things.

This brings me to the real crux of this post. What I remembered as an article is really an extract from a much longer work, The Cruise of the Nona. It’s a portmanteau of commentary, reminiscences and various tangential musings, structured and bound together by the itinerary of a sailing trip around Britain and Ireland, but just a few minutes skimming through it yielded up so much gorgeous prose that it seems unfair to choose only two examples. They’re not the best, but one is the comment I had been trying to find and the other was read on the hundredth anniversary of the events it describes, so if they have pushed ahead of more deserving fellows there is at least reason behind it.

Belloc said of writing and its market:

A man is no more meant to live by writing than he is meant to live by conversation, or by dressing, or by walking about and seeing the world. For there is no relation between the function of letters and the economic effect of letters; there is no relation between the goodness and the badness of the work, or the usefulness of the work, or the magnitude of the work, and the sums paid for the work. It would not be natural that there should be such a relation, and, in fact, there is none.

This truth is missed by people who say that good writing has no market. That is not the point. Good writing sometimes has a market, and very bad writing sometimes has a market. Useful writing sometimes has a market, and writing of no use whatsoever, even as recreation, sometimes has a market. Writing important truths sometimes has a market. Writing the most ridiculous errors and false judgements sometimes has a market. the point is that the market has nothing to do with the qualities attached to writing. It never had and it never will. There is no injustice about it, any more than there is an injustice in the survival of beauty or ugliness in human beings, or the early death of the beautiful or the ugly.

Only a couple of pages earlier, Belloc was reminiscing about an experience while sailing off Plymouth in 1914 that he describes as marking “…in a sort of visionary way, the unleashing of the Great War”.

In this loneliness and content, as I sailed northward, I chanced to look, after an hour’s steering or so, eastward again towards the open sea – and then it was that there passed me the vision I shall remember for ever, or for so long as the longest life may last.

Like ghosts, like things themselves made of mist, there passed between me and the newly risen sun, a procession of great forms, all in line, hastening eastward. It was the Fleet recalled.
The slight haze along the that distant water had thickened, perhaps, imperceptibly; or perhaps the great speed of the men-of-war buried them too quickly in the distance. But, from whatever cause, this marvel was of short duration. It was seen for a moment, and in a moment it was gone.

Then I knew that war would come, and my mind was changed. The bright air was the same around me and the heartening morning wind; the happy course of the Nona, making for a known port with all in her favour and something of youth in her and all round. What that war would bring, its magnitude, its character, was veiled from us all; but the advent of it, the mass of it coming, put a new face on everything I saw and felt and heard; on the steady breeze, on the little lapping of the salt sea-water, on the strong headlands of England.

The first of these passages could have been written at any time. Publish it today under another name and it would pass for topical commentary. The thing about my little Everyman Belloc collection, though, is that such commentary can appear so close to a passage that in the events it recalls, its style, imagery and vocabulary, is so very much of its time. A voice from out of the great shipwreck of the Victorian world offers a quiet glimpse of the massing forces that would break it, much as Hardy does in Channel Firing.

Another point of interest that occurred to me while I was skimming through the author’s biography at the beginning of my book is that Belloc was an Oxford-educated Catholic writer with foreign antecedents and connections to Edgbaston. One figure from the next generation of writers, a descendent of German piano makers, would also come from Birmingham up to Oxford and make a name for himself, but that, of course, is a different story. Perhaps at some time I should analyse what it is that I find appealing in the works of twentieth-century Roman Catholics. Certainly I think that the literature departments backed the wrong horse creatively, if only in thinking of literature as some sort of competition, but these are thoughts for another day.

I’ve not been updating this thing for the last week due to a sudden attack of social life. In this case, the society flew in from Canada, helped with the Oxonmoot transport costs and bought me dinner on several occasions. Thanks, Beth: it was every bit as much fun for us as it was for you.

Such excuses aside, it’s high time I posted something, and the familiar Monday evening poetry selection seems like a pretty good place to start.

Since I was at Tintern Abbey with Bethberry not so very long ago, Wordsworth provides a fitting opening for today’s collection with his misleadingly titled poem of the same name.

wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.

Next I’ve selected one by Robert Graves that, being a First World War poem that refers to Norse mythology, should probably have appeared here far earlier than it has.

Dead Cow Farm

An ancient saga tells us how
In the beginning the First Cow
(For nothing living yet had birth
But elemental cow on earth)
Began to lick cold stones and mud:
Under her warm tongue flesh and blood
Blossomed, a miracle to believe;
And so was Adam born, and Eve.
Here now is chaos once again,
Primaeval mud, cold stones and rain.
Here flesh decays and blood drips red,
And the Cow’s dead, the old Cow’s dead.

The foregoing is a little dishonest: the saga is Snorri’s Gylfaginning, and the story is of the primeval cow, Auðumla, whose milk nourished Ymir, father of the frost-giants. She licked salty blocks of ice, from which Búri, ancestor of Oðinn, emerged. Graves adapts the myth to his own ends to connect the beginning of humanity with what he chooses to see as its apocalyptic end.

Next, John Lyly tells us a cautionary tale about playing cards with people who have Classical nicknames. Campaspe was the mistress of Alexander of Macedon and a famed beauty, but here her name is applied in true Romantic style to the poet’s current flame. I do like to see the boy Cupid humbled. To be perfectly honest, though, I find it difficult to care what happens to the poet.

Cards and Kisses

Cupid and my Campaspe play’d
At cards for kisses – Cupid paid:
He stakes his quiver, bow and arrows,
His mother’s doves, and team of sparrows;
Loses them too; then down he throws
The coral of his lips, the rose
Growing on’s cheek (but none knows how);
With these, the crystal of his brow,
And then the dimple of his chin:
All these did my Campaspe win.
At last he set her both his eyes –
She won, and Cupid blind did rise.
O Love! has she done this for thee?
What shall, alas! become of me?

Next is Ambrose Bierce, giving us a wry look at religious hypocrisy. Although he chooses an exotic Islamic setting, it’s more than likely that he intended his barb to be felt by people much closer to his Ohio home.

Religion

Hassan Bedriddin, clad in rags, ill-shod,
Sought the great temple of the living God.
The worshippers arose and drove him forth,
and one in power beat him with a rod.

“Allah,” he cried, “thou seest what I got;
Thy servants bar me from the sacred spot.”
“Be comforted,” the Holy One replied;
“It is the only place where I am not.”

Finally, since I’m quite tired and have already had a large glass of wine this evening, a poem about flying. Specifically, it’s about taking off in an emergency in the early years of the Second World War. The author, David Bourne, was killed in action in September 1941.

“Operations Calling!”

“Clearing Black Section
Patrol Bass Rock,”
Leaps heart; after shock
Action comes stumbling;
Snatch your helmet;
Then run smoothly, to the grumbling
Of a dozing Merlin heating
Supercharged air.
You are there
by “Z”

Down hard on the behind
The parachute; you are blind
With your oxygen snout
But click, click, click, click, you feel
and the harness is fixed.
Round the wing
And “Out of the cockpit, you,”
Clamber the rung
And the wing as if a wasp had stung
You, hop and jump into the cockpit
Split second to spike
The Sutton harness holes,
One, two, three, four,
Thrust with your
Hand to the throttle open…

“Operations” called and spoken.

I would write more, but nothing springs immediately to mind. I shall therefore leave you with the usual instruction to share and enjoy.

Back to form, of course, means more medievalism and more melancholy. It’s been a phenomenally busy week, and not just because I’ve been describing in nauseating detail how to do my job. The next pictorial guide will, I’m sure you’ll be relieved to hear, describe the walk from Orcombe Point to The Grove, comprising some two and a half miles of beach. Today, however, we have naming of verse.

First is another of Rupert Brooke’s earlier poems, this time from 1904. Yet more wistful melancholia, I’m afraid, but it seems terribly difficult to track down good comic verse at the moment.

The Path of Dreams

Go, heart, and pluck beside the Path of Dreams,
Where moans the wind along the shadowy streams,
Sad garlands wreathed of the red mournful roses,
And lilies o’ moon beams.

Strange blossoms faint upon that odorous air,
Vision, and wistful Memory; and there
Love twofold with the purple bloom of Triumph
And the wan leaf of Despair.

Go heart; go quickly; pluck and weave thereof
Dim garlands, scattering pallid dew above,
And far across the sighing tides of darkness
Lay them beside my love.

Next, more riddling from the Exeter Book. This one has an Old Testament theme, but that’s all the clues you’ll get from me.

Wer sæt æt wine mid his wifum twam
ond his twegen suno ond his twa dohtor,
swase gesweostor, ond hyra suno twegen,
freolico frumbearn; fæder wæs þær inne
þara æþelinga æghwæðres mid,
eam ond nefa. Ealra wæron fife
eorla ond idesa insittendra.

A man sat at wine with his two wives
and his two sons, and his two daughters,
beloved sisters, and their two sons,
noble firstborn; the father was there within
Of those princes both, with
an uncle and a nephew. In all there were five
Lords and ladies sitting within.

I don’t think I’ve yet put up anything in Middle English, which is quite an oversight, given the sheer variety of works from that period. I’ll rectify the omission with a little piece that I found in Kenneth Sisam’s A Middle English Reader. This was written down at a time when the old runic letter thorn (þ) was being supplanted by ‘th’, so instances of both can be seen in this piece. A bit of vocab for you: seuenist is an old spelling of sennight, which is a week. The old word ‘fortnight’ has remained in use, but sennight has gone the way of all flesh, probably because it’s easier to say or write ‘week’. Dryng just means ‘drink’, chelde is ‘cold’ and a primerole is a primrose. Other than that, welle carries the old sense ‘good’ and the rest you should be able to work out for yourselves. It’s a simple little poem, but it has a definite charm to it.

The Maid of the Moor

(Bodleian MS Rawlinson D.913)

Maiden in the mor lay,
In the mor lay,
Seuenyst fulle, seuenist fulle,
Maiden in the mor lay,
In the mor lay,
Seuenistes fulle ant a day.

Welle was hire mete;
Wat was hire mete?
Þe primerole ant the, –
Þe primerole ant the, –
Welle was hire mete;
Wat was hire mete? –
The primerole ant the violet.

Welle was hire dryng;
Wat was hire dryng?
Þe chelde water of þe welle-spring.

Welle was hire bour;
Wat was hire bour?
Þe red rose an te lilie flour.

I’ll move on from poems in difficult language to a poem that’s a bit more challenging. Sylvia Plath is famed for cryptic expression, and this is actually one of her more explicit poems.

Crossing the Water

Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
Where do the black trees go that drink here?
Their shadows must cover Canada.

A little light is filtering from the water flowers.
Their leaves do not wish us to hurry:
They are round and flat and full of dark advice.

Cold worlds shake from the oar.
The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.
A snag is lifting a valedictory, pale hand;

Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls.

Next I’ve chosen a poem by a favourite of mine – Wilfred Owen. I don’t think I’ve seen this one outside the collection edited by Edmund Blunden.

The Unreturning

Suddenly night crushed out the day and hurled
Her remnants over cloud-peaks, thunder-walled.
Then fell a stillness such as harks appalled
When far-gone dead return upon the world.

There watched I for the Dead; but no ghost woke.
Each one whom Life exiled I named and called.
But they were all too far, or dumbed, or thralled;
And never one fared back to me or spoke.

Then peered the indefinite unshapen dawn
With vacant gloaming, sad as half-lit minds,
The weak-limned hour when sick men’s sighs are drained.
And while I wondered on their being withdrawn,
Gagged by the smothering wing which none unbinds,
I dreaded even a heaven with doors so chained.

Finally (and this is an edit, so apologies if Facebook jumped the gun a bit), a Thomas Hardy poem that takes a wry look at a distinctly Victorian issue. This is by way of a little joke for a friend of mine, but I’m sure we can all appreciate it.

The Ruined Maid

“O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?”–
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.

–“You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!”–
“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.

–“At home in the barton you said ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’
And ‘thik oon,’ and ‘theäs oon,’ and ‘t’other’; but now
Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compa-ny!”–
“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.

–“Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!”–
“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.

–“You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!”–
“True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.

“–I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!”–
“My dear–a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.

That’s your lot for this week. I hope I’ve managed to get a bit more variety in this time, and if it’s gone from dark to dark via abstruse that’s just the way I roll on a Monday. I hope you enjoyed them anyway: I certainly did.

As you may have divined from the title, my weekend of beer and tents has caught up with me, hit me repeatedly about the head with a blunt instrument and run off with my wallet. I managed to hold it together while working and driving today, but my consciousness is unravelling fast and I’ll have to be brief this week.

I’m sure I haven’t mentioned aeroplanes in at least a fortnight; it’s been even longer since I said something religious in Latin. These are both unacceptable oversights, but fortunately they can be remedied by a single poem by F. MacNeece Foster.

Laus Deo in Excelsis

The sullen cloud that screens the world below
Changes before my eyes to purest snow,
And peerless napery for mile on mile
Lies laden in the joy of Heaven’s smile.
And all the time the little aeroplane
Plays with its shadow on that wondrous plain.
And as for me, I nod
To mine own image bidden to the feast,
And for that moment, I am not the least
Of all the sons of God.

This next poem by John Fletcher concerns a subject that’s currently very close to my heart. I think it speaks for itself.

Sleep

Come, sleep, and with thy sweet deceiving
Lock me in delight awhile;
Let some pleasing dreams beguile
All my fancies; that from thence
I may feel an influence
All my powers of care bereaving!

Though but a shadow, but a sliding,
Let me know some little joy!
We that suffer long annoy
Are contente with a thought
Through an idle fancy wrought:
O let my joys have some abiding!

The next poem is a very short piece from Edgar Lee Masters’ strange collection, Spoon River. Perhaps because I stand poised between youth and age this has the look of a discussion forum signature to me.

Alexander Throckmorton

In youth my wings were strong and tireless,
But I did not know the mountains.
In age I knew the mountains
But my weary wings could not follow my vision –
Genius is wisdom and youth.

Lastly, before I collapse insensate upon my opiate couch, a wry little piece by Rupert Brooke. It isn’t about war, so you may not know it.

The Way that Lovers Use

The way that lovers use is this;
They bow, catch hands, with never a word,
And their lips meet, and they do kiss,
– So I have heard.

They queerly find some healing so,
And strange attainment to the touch;
There is a secret lovers know,
– I have read as much.

And theirs no longer joy nor smart,
Changing or ending, night or day;
But mouth to mouth and heart on heart,
– So lovers say.

1913

On such a note I must end this week’s selection, gentle readers. My eyes are burning and it’s time to shut them for a while. I would write more, but…zzzzzzzz

Although I’m suffering from my usual Monday energy gap – which normally lasts until some time on Thursday afternoon – it’s about time that the Monday poetry slot got filled on a Monday. I’ve decided to try for a lighter tone today, so please excuse me if you wanted to be depressed.

The first poem was written by Captain J.D. Olive for trainee pilots in the first half of the last century. Other than that it’s pretty self-explanatory.

The Pilot’s 23rd Psalm

1. As the telephone operator who giveth wrong numbers so is he who extolleth his exploits in the air.

2. He shall enlarge upon the dangers of his adventures, but in my sleeve shall be heard the tinkling of silvery laughter.

3. Let not they familiarity with aeroplanes breed contempt, lest thou become exceedingly careless at a time when great care is necessary to thy well-being.

4. My son, obey the law and observe prudence. Spin thou not lower than 1500 cubits nor stunt above thine own domicile. For the hand of the law is heavy and reacheth far and wide throughout the land.

5. Incur not the wrath of thy Commander by breaking the rules; for he who maketh right-hand circuits shall be cast out into utter darkness.

6. Let not thy prowess in the air persuade thee that others cannot do even as thou doest; for he that showeth off in public places is an abomination unto his fellow pilots.

7. More praiseworthy is he who can touch tail-skid and wheels to earth at one time, than he who loopeth and rolleth till some damsel stares in amazement at his daring.

8. He who breaketh an undercarriage in a forced landing may, in time, be forgiven, but he who taxieth into another aircraft shall be despised forever.

9. Beware the man who taketh off without looking behind him, for there is no health in him verily, I say unto you, his days are numbered.

10. Clever men take the reproofs of their instructors in the same wise, one like unto another: with witty jest, confessing their dumbness and regarding themselves with humour. Yet they try again, profiting by his wise counsel and taking not offence at aught that has been said.

11. As a postage stamp which lacketh glue, so are the words of caution to a fool; they stick not, going in one ear and out the other, for there is nothing between to stop them.

12. My son, hearken unto my teaching and forsake not the laws of prudence, for the reckless shall not inhabit the earth for long.

13. Hear instruction and be wise, and refuse it not; thus wilt thou fly safely; length of days and a life of peace shall be added unto thee.

The next piece is one that I’ve had in my head longer than I care to remember. It’s by Monty Python, although no doubt afficionados will have their own ideas about whose writing style it best reflects. It’s a cautionary tale about the origins of a delicacy.

Horace Poem

Much to his Mum and Dad’s dismay
Horace ate himself one day
He didn’t stop to say his grace
He just sat down and ate his face
“We can’t have this!” his dad declared
“If that’s lad’s ate, he should be shared”
But even as he spoke they saw
Horace eating more and more
First his legs and then his thighs
His arms, his nose, his hair, his eyes…
“Stop him someone!” Mother cried
“Those eyeballs would be better fried!”
But all too late, for they were gone
And he had started on his dong
“Oh! Foolish child!” the father mourns
“You could have deep-fried that with prawns,
Some parsley and some tartare sauce…”
But H. was on his second course:
His liver and his lights and lung,
His ears, his neck, his chin, his tongue;
“To think I raised him from the cot
And now he’s going to scoff the lot!”
His mother cried: “What shall we do?
What’s left won’t even make a stew…”
And as she wept, her son was seen
To eat his head, his heart, his spleen,
And there he lay, a boy no more,
Just a stomach on the floor…
None the less, since it was his
They ate it-That’s what haggis is!

The conversation in this poem is conducted in Devonshire dialect, so apologies in advance to anyone who’s completely mystified by it. The poem’s by William Weeks.

The Better Plan

Young Tom, the farmer’s man, one night
Was going down the lane,
Candle and lantern in his hand,
To meet his Mary Jane.

Now, as it happen’d, farmer Giles
Was coming up the lane,
And meeting Tom with his lantern asked:
“Why, Tom, where be ‘ee gwain?”

Tom, looking sheepish, answered “Zur,
Sure you knaw where I’m gwain –
” ‘Tis courtin’ night an’ I’m jist off
To meet my Mary Jane.”

“But take a lantern courtin’, Tom!
You be a quare young spark!
I always thort that soort o’ thing
Was better in the dark.”

“Wull, maister, I ‘ave always yerd
‘Tis var the safest plan
To thraw some light ‘pon anything
That you may take in ‘an’.”

“Fudge! I’d no light to court my wive
When ‘er was Nancy Ridd.”
Sez Tom: “To jidge by the looks o’ ‘er, zur,
I shouldn’ think you did!”

Perhaps this one by John Davidson is a little more serious than the others, but you can’t live in these parts without thinking of boats from time to time. It’s a good poem for travellers too. You know who you are.

Song

The boat is chafing at our long delay,
And we must leave too soon
The spicy sea-pinks and the inborne spray,
The tawny sands, the moon.

Keep us, O Thetis, in our western flight!
Watch from thy pearly throne
Our vessel, plunging deeper into night
To reach a land unknown.

Finally a poem by Clem Marten written entirely in Devon dialect. I c’n unnerstan’ ‘er, zo you ort t’ave ‘ardly no bother.

Oh t’be a Blackburd

I zeed a liddle blackburd
A-zettin’ een a tree,
A purty liddle blackburd,
Za ‘ansome az c’n be.

E wear’d a shiney black co-at,
A-glissenin een th’ zun,
Jiy-vule zong vrum black drot,
Jiy-vule it were zung.

Zing a zong t’laady-love,
A zong ov jiy an mirth,
All be well een ‘eaven above
An all be well on earth.

Ef I cud be a blackburd,
A-zettin een a tree.
Wi all God’s gifts aroun me
Oh, ow ‘appy I wud be!

That’s it for this week. Maybe now that the poetry slot is out of the way, though, I can actually put something else up later in the week. Hope springs eternal, as they say.

I’ve been immersed in PERL for the past week, and feeling pretty sick of computers once I get home. The family business I work for has a sideline building websites, so every so often I have to take some time out from dental work to do some programming. The current project’s nothing to write home about: a simple MySQL database with a PERL DBI and CGI interface, which powers a small on-line shop; but it’s nice to stretch my spodding legs a bit and reacquaint myself with the ridiculously convoluted sets of brackets that characterise an HTML short-cut using CGI.pm.

Today, however, I have some poems to work on while the ideas are still fresh in my mind, and possibly some older pieces to render less embarrassing. This means that poetry and its uses as an excuse for procrastination are once again on my mind, and the long-delayed Monday poetry slot can at last be filled.

First up is Andrew Marvell (1621-78), whose impressions of a garden had been coloured by living through the English Civil War (1641-51). Apart from dress uniforms and painful arterial red, the bright colours have departed from soldiering; but if you’ve seen Buck House when the guard changes, you can probably follow Marvell’s drift. He returns to this theme in his longer and more famous piece The Garden, which opens with a wry consideration of the horticultural iconography of military decorations that Europe inherited from the Romans. This is implied in the piece that follows, when he refers to garlands of roses, as opposed to triumphant laurel or oak leaves.

A Garden

Written after the Civil Wars

See how the flowers, as at parade,
Under their colours stand display’d:
Each regiment in order grows,
That of the tulip, pink, and rose.
But when the vigilant patrol
Of stars walks round about the pole,
Their leaves, that to the stalks are curl’d,
Seem to their staves the ensigns furl’d.
Then in some flower’s beloved hut
Each bee, as sentinel, is shut,
And sleeps so too; but if once stirr’d,
She runs you through, nor asks the word.
O thou, that dear and happy Isle,
The garden of the world erewhile,
Thou Paradise of the four seas
Which Heaven planted us to please,
But, to exclude the world, did guard
With wat’ry if not flaming sword;
What luckless apple did we taste
To make us mortal and thee waste!
Unhappy! shall we never more
That sweet militia restore,
When gardens only had their towers,
And all the garrisons were flowers;
When roses only arms might bear,
And men did rosy garlands wear?

It’s been nearly four-hundred years, and we’re still singing the same threnody that Marvell plays here. As Nicol Williamson‘s Merlin has it: “For it is the doom of men that they forget.”

Continuing the recurrent theme of depressing thoughts, I give you Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94), on the subject of silent grief and unwritten poetry.

The Voiceless

WE count the broken lyres that rest
Where the sweet wailing singers slumber,
But o’er their silent sister’s breast
The wild-flowers who will stoop to number?
A few can touch the magic string,
And noisy Fame is proud to win them;
Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them!

Nay, grieve not for the dead alone
Whose song has told their hearts’ sad story;
Weep for the voiceless, who have known
The cross without the crown of glory!
Not where Leucadian breezes sweep
O’er Sappho’s memory-haunted billow;
But where the glistening night-dews weep 15
On nameless sorrow’s churchyard pillow.

O hearts that break and give no sign
Save whitening lip and fading tresses,
Till Death pours out his cordial wine
Slow-dropped from Misery’s crushing presses!
If singing breath or echoing chord
To every hidden pang were given,
What endless melodies were poured,
As sad as earth, as sweet as heaven!

I like a good ghost story and a stirring naval yarn as much as the next man, so this poem has been a favourite of mine since I was a teenager. It’s too long to quote in its entirety, so I’ll confine myself to linking to The Legend of Hamilton Tighe by Richard Harris Barham (1785-1845).

A page from the Liber Exoniensis, featuring the opening lines of Widsith

A page from the Liber Exoniensis, featuring the opening lines of 'Widsith'

Modern poetry is all well and good, but it’s churlish to ignore the roots of English verse. A thousand years before Barham, Englishmen were already composing poetry in their own language and meter, and it stands up well against the contributions of the modern age. The next selection is a riddle poem from one of the most important Old English verse collections, the Liber Exoniensis (pictured above). As its name suggests, it has a local connexion. Leofric, Bishop of Crediton and St. Germans, moved his episcopal seat to Exeter in 1050 and set about reforming the cathedral administration. One of the many gifts he bestowed on the new cathedral was “mycel englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoðwisan geworht” (“a large English book about various things, written in verse [lit. ‘song-wise’]”), which he donated in 1072. Many of the riddle poems in the Exeter Book are humorous; some are downright bawdy, but I’ve chosen one of the cleaner examples. It concerns the bibliophile’s most implacable foe. The title is a modern addition, which I’ve used purely because I’m a bit of a bookworm myself. The layout is also modern: the manuscript form of the riddles is exactly the same as that of prose, but they’re not as easy to read when so presented.

Riddle #47: Bookworm

Moððe word fræt. Me þæt þuhte
wrætlicu wyrd, þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs
wihte þy gleawra, þe he þam wordum swealg.

A moth ate words. It seemed to me
a curious happening, when I heard about that wonder:
that the worm swallowed down some man’s speech –
a thief in the darkness – glorious discourse
and that mighty thing’s foundation. The thieving visitor was not
at all the wiser when he swallowed the words.

Here we have a playful comparison between the unthinking bookworm that eats vellum and the ignorant reader, who devours the text without learning anything. This is surely a dig at those who can’t solve the riddle. It’s also quite probable that the fulsome praise heaped upon the lost words is satirical. We have very few examples of the Anglo-Saxons being intellectually playful, and the Exeter Book riddles make a refreshing change from the more familiar elegiac, religious and heroic poetry of their era.

That’s it for the poetry, but since I’ve left you hanging on for so long without an update I’ll throw in a song free of charge. This one seems to be about an oppressed narrator’s fantasies of bloody vengeance, but it could refer to any unlikely but earnestly desired occurrence. I don’t care what all the Napster fans say: Metallica are great. The video tells a good story too.

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