Worms and Caterpillars

The June issue of the Wanderer Magazine is now available online.

It includes my second column, this month exploring the use of worms and caterpillars as metaphors for corruption down the ages, from Beowulf to Isaac Rosenberg, through Shakespeare, William Browne of Tavistock, William Blake… and the Lambton Worm

Please read it here .

And do stop by to look at the rest of the magazine, which includes some interesting articles from Krishna Prasad, John Looker and Indira Parthasarathy.

 

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Thou Blind Man’s Mark

V0006947 The death of Sir Philip Sidney at the battle of Zutphen: he

The Death of Sidney, From Wellcome Images, Via Wikimedia

Philip Sidney died a young man’s death at thirty-two years old after a wound at the battle of Zutphen in the Netherlands (see above image). By that age he had some serious professional achievements under his belt – he was governor of Flushing (Vlessingen) in the Netherlands, a town the English held as a protectorate for the rebellious Dutch against their Spanish overlords, and he had written, although not widely published, a sonnet cycle, Astrophil and Stella, whose influence would be great in the decades following his death. Following in the tracks of Wyatt, Howard and Spenser, Sidney took new types of poem into the English tradition from Italy and France, and used them to bring the tradition of courtly, or chivalric, poetry to new levels of sophistication and nuance. Compare, for example, his Sonnet ‘Having this day my horse’ I covered two posts ago with Cornwall’s poem in the same genre from half a century earlier, You and I and Amyas. As for his influence, one does not need to look long through a book of 16th or 17th century poetry before finding a sonnet sequence, a la Astrophil and Stella, in which a love-sick knight seeks the hand of an impossibly aloof and unattainable lady with a name of Graeco-Roman vintage.

Strange to say then, that by the end of his short life, Sidney seemed to have foresworn some of the very same chivalric values that animated his earlier work. That is, if the poem ‘Thou Blind Man’s Mark’ is anything to go by. But that is only one of the remarkable things about this poem:

Thou blind man’s mark, thou fool’s self-chosen snare,
Fond fancy’s scum, and dregs of scattered thought;
Band of all evils, cradle of causeless care;
Thou web of will, whose end is never wrought;
Desire, desire!  I have too dearly bought, 

With price of mangled mind, thy worthless ware; 
Too long, too long, asleep thou hast me brought,
Who shouldst my mind to higher things prepare.
But yet in vain thou hast my ruin sought;
In vain thou madest me to vain things aspire;
In vain thou kindlest all thy smoky fire;
For virtue hath this better lesson taught,

Within myself to seek my only hire,
Desiring nought but how to kill desire.
 

In the first four lines of the poem, Sidney presents us with a list of metaphorical descriptions all applied to the same object – Desire, revealed in the fifth. Note that these are discrete, in some senses mutually exclusive metaphors, and not different aspects of one single extended metaphor. Let us compare it to a couple of structurally similar passages of poetry. Here is part of a list in the famous John of Gaunt speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II. Gaunt calls England:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise.

In Shakespeare’s passage the images bear enough similarity to each other – throne to seat, isle to earth, Eden to paradise, kings to gods – that the passage works to build up a coherent visual picture of England – of an idyllic island of near-divine kings. Sidney’s opening lines work quite differently – although a web is close to a snare, and both could conceivably resemble a cradle, none of these things bear any point of comparison to a mark, or some scum, or a band. In this way, the passage is similar to George Herbert’s poem Prayer:

Prayer, the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav
’n and earth

There is no visual resemblance whatsoever between a banquet or an age, or breath or a plummet, or indeed between the series of metaphors that Herbert reels out through the whole poem. Herbert’s poem does not build a single picture of prayer the way Shakespeare does so of England, but rather lists a series of discrete images, each emphasizing a different aspect of the subject. Sidney’s litany works in a similar way, each metaphor emphasizing one of the aspects of Desire. Of course, there is an important difference between the two poems. Herbert’s poem is something of an encomium to prayer, and the overall impression we are left with after the series of images is a sense of prayer’s mystery, almost of it being beyond the comprehension of man. Sidney’s, on the other hand, is a veritable bdelygmia, a list of all the bad things about desire, leaving us with quite contrasting impressions of its power and its meanness. Actually, the list is not exactly as dissociated as Herbert’s – while Shakespeare’s list builds a cumulative image, and Herbert’s a series of contrasting images, unrelated except in relation to the ultimate referent of the poem, Sidney’s imagery does contain some points of comparison – that web, the snare and the cradle for example, or ‘scum’ and ‘dregs’, while at the same time containing a number of contradictory qualities – Desire is a ‘band’ of evil, but also of something ‘scattered’. Rereading yields more points of similarity than first spotted – ‘blind’, for example, if taken to mean deliberate ignorance (as its root in Middle English blin – ignore –  implies) leads quite naturally to foolishness and then fantasy (fancy); and there seems to be a hint at the misled course of desire in the use of ‘band’ and ‘cradle’, synecdoches for marriage and childrearing. The picture built is one of confusion, connection mingled with contrast – quite appropriate given that one of the points of the poem is to demonstrate how Desire muddies the senses.

It is worth noting, in passing, that Sidney’s poem predates both the Shakespeare and Herbert passages, by two decades and about half a century, respectively, and so both poets could be utilising, and perhaps refining techniques which he had pioneered.

One technique heavily employed throughout the poem is alliteration. Alliteration has a long tradition in English poetry – much longer than rhyme – stretching back to Old English, in which it was the defining poetic technique, through Middle English, where it was revived – or perhaps, as in the case of north-western material like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where it survived the transition from Old to Middle English and the introduction of rhyme from the continent. It keeps reappearing because, as Simon Armitage proved when he translated Gawain into modern English, the English language, from Old to Modern, has retained its natural propensity for alliteration. And yet it is rare to see it used as heavily in sixteenth century poetry as it is here – it seems to have been considered a less elevated, less euphonious poetic technique than rhyme. Here it seems to be used in a spirit of scorn in a number of negative phrases – man’s mark, fond fancy (i.e. foolish dream), cause of care, web of will, mangled mind and worthless ware. This alliteration seems to summon the spittle on the tongue, a curl on the lip, a consonant repeated in emphatic contempt. Strangely enough it brings to mind that (comparatively) modern master of alliteration, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Not so much his great nature poetry, in which alliteration was one of a number of aural effects in poetry used to evoke the beauty of nature and the concomitant immanence of God. Rather the self-scorning alliteration of his so called ‘Terrible Sonnets’, or ‘Sonnets of Desolation.’

 God’s most deep decree 

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse. 

  Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.

(See the whole poem and my analysis/witty commentary here ).

The similarity to Hopkins lies in both the use of alliteration for scornful purposes, and in the sort of serious self-examination that both poets are subjecting themselves to. Hopkins finds himself dull and weak, unworthy of the God whose presence he yearns for, and finally resolving to be a better person; Sidney on the other hand, is taking a close look at his relationship with desire, analysing the ways it has undone him, and boasting of his ability to overcome this internal enemy.

And this is why, as I said at the outset, this poem seems to foreswear, or at the very least question the chivalric values that underpin Sidney’s earlier work. I complained in my last post about Sidney that his dedication to his love, Stella, and the way he turned the poem This Day My Horse around to make it about her did not quite ring true. It did when Petrarch and Dante did it, but in his poem, despite its merits, it seemed a mere pretext to talk about himself. Sidney’s own self-criticism is related but different:

Too long, too long, asleep thou hast me brought,
Who shouldst my mind to higher things prepare

Sidney’s complaint does not preclude the Dantean conceit that through love can make a better person of you, but he admits that in his case, it has led him to waste. The implicit critique of the courtly love ideal here, is that it can act as a sort of shield for mere lust. If Cornish very obliquely winked at as much in the poem we looked at last post, in Sidney’s late poem the critique, of himself most of all, is that much fiercer. Of course for a practical man such as Sidney, self-criticism could only be useful as a prelude to action, and at the turn of the sonnet – at the third quatrain, the poet’s self-criticism turns to resolve as he boasts of his ability to overcome desire itself.

It seems here that in casting off much of the dreaminess of his earlier poetry, and in taming the excess of the chivalric influence, Sidney is finally enjoying the fruits of his labour to bring the full influence of the Renaissance into English poetry, and at the same time he is finding his own voice. It is a surprisingly austere voice, more soldier than courtier, and puritan in both the 16th century and 21st century meanings, but it is a voice worth listening to – after all, what could be more apposite in a time of all-round plenty than an ode to self-control? It is not just in poetic technique that this represents a move towards modernity – or at least a move away from medievalism. If he still exudes a certain Tudor braggadocio, he also does so self-critically, reflectively, able to analyse his own thoughts and desires without too much recourse to the great personified abstractions that dominated medieval conceptions of the world. If ‘Desire’ capitalised is one such personification, there is at least recognition that the battle with desire is something internal to the poet – it is ‘within myself’, he says, that he will ‘seek my only hire,’ that is that he will set his own internal goals as motivation rather than struggle for an earthly body. In such habits of thought, Sidney seems to be reaping the benefits of the Renaissance the influence of humanism, and, some would argue (though not I), the influence of Protestantism. In that curiously Buddhist-sounding, and oxymoronic last line he both acknowledges the very real grip of the sexual desire he seeks to escape and, in implying two separate agencies at work within his own thought, hints at an understanding of human nature as something inherently fractured, something that seems closer to twentieth century thought than sixteenth.

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You and I and Amyas

The_Field_of_the_Cloth_of_Gold

The Field of the Cloth of Gold

Last time I promised another post on Philip Sidney, but before that, I want to take a little diversion into the early years of the 16th century…

The poem will have a familiar ring to anyone who has read a lot of late-medieval and early 16th century poetry, from the years before Wyatt and Howard (and, in a different way, Thomas More) brought new influences and ideas into English poetry. The poetry of this era is characterised by its simplicity – even the most famous poet of the age, John Skelton, wrote a great deal of his poetry in rhymed couplets. Poetry of this era has a sort of endearing naivety and often a sweetness – sometimes quite at odds with the character of the poet who wrote it (Skelton comes to mind again, but also his pupil, Henry VIII, who wrote a bit of verse on the side). The language has much of the middle ages in it, and the familiar themes are often drawn from the great cultural influences of the day: Catholic piety and (as here) chivalric romance.

 

You and I and Amyas, 

Amyas and you and I, 

to the green wood must we go.

 Alas! You and I, my life and Amyas.


The knight knocked at the castle gate;

the lady marvelled who was thereat.

To call the porter he would not blin; 

the lady said he could not come in
The portress was a lady bright; 

Strangeness that lady hight.

She asked him what was his name; 

he said ‘Desire, your man madame’
She said ‘Desire what do you here’; 

He said ‘Madame, as your prisoner.’
He was counselled to brief a bill; 

And show the lady his own will.

 

Kindness said she would it bear; 

And Pity said she would be there.

Thus how they did we cannot say;

 We left them there and went our way.

 

*(blin – cease, Strangeness – Aloofness, hight – be called, brief a bill – call a petition)

*Poem and language notes from The New Oxford Book of 16th Century Verse, ed. Emyrs Jones, Oxford, 2011

William Cornish was a poet, dramatist and composer who worked in the court of Henry VII and VIII, and was most famous for arranging the entertainments at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, a great ersatz palace of cloth and wood, resembling a castle from a medieval romance, built for the meeting of Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France. That was a great homage to the ideals of the chivalric age for the benefit of two young kings, at least one of whom was eager to renew the great martial endeavours of the middle ages – war between England and France. It is not surprising then that his poetry, too, celebrates the chivalric values.

The most beautiful part of the poem is the first stanza. I have not found a version of this poem with any kind of textual notes, but I take it that this stanza is a kind of chorus, although another version available online repeats only the last line of this chorus as a short refrain every four lines. Part of its beauty is in its directness – unlike the rest of the poem, it is in first person, and its message is urgent. Part of its beauty lies in its very mystery. Who are this couple, and why must they so urgently flee to the green wood with only love – Amyas – to accompany them? But a greater part of its beauty is in its sound. Reading that first stanza aloud, it is almost monosyllabic, and, with increasing syllables in each line, it accelerates the rhythm, as if it to evoke the heart beating beneath the armour’s knight or the lady’s mantle, or the beating hooves of the horse as he takes them on their way.

The rest of the poem, somewhat less mysteriously, explains the situation. A knight knocks at the castle gate and will not desist until the lady answers his call. It turns out this lady is Strangeness (Aloofness), and the knight is Desire, who is her prisoner – that is, he is in love with her- and has brought her a petition, no doubt asking that he be freed from his captivity – i.e. that she submit to him. The rather heavy-handed allegory is a reframing of Romance of the Rose motifs: a lovelorn man, a knight no less, supplicant to an unattainably aloof, beautiful noblewoman. The knight gets what he wants: Kindness and Pity, two chambermaids of the lady perhaps, or aspects of her inscrutable character, intercede on the Knight’s behalf and then – and then what, exactly? We don’t know, although we may guess – the poet, revealing himself as a passing stranger, tells us his party just then left the couple to their business.

This ending to the poem, like a camera moving towards a crackling fireplace as a hero embraces his heroine lustily, winks at the flesh and blood relationship between man and woman behind the categorical figures of Desire and Strangeness. If the opening stanza gives the poem a heartbeat, the ending gives it a very human little smile.

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The Wanderer

The Wagon Magazine is a literary journal, published out of Chennai in India, dedicated to seeking out new and lesser known literary talent from the subcontinent and around the world.

Since last month, the magazine has been publishing a monthly column by yours truly, titled The Wanderer. Each column, I look at five or six extracts from poems on a particular theme, or featuring a particular motif or idea. I wanted to do something different from the articles here on Sweettenorbull, where generally I will focus on a single poem, and, in keeping with the magazine’s remit, I will be featuring some lesser known poets alongside bigger names. My first column is on the theme of wanderers, and looks at some poems and songs from Ivor Gurney, some 10th century Anglo-Saxons, Wordsworth, a nameless cowboy, and the Korean poet Park Mog Wol.

The Wagon Magazine is a print publication, available by mail order. It’s always an intriguing read – please give it your consideration.

It archives old articles online. You can read my first effort here.

The editorial is here.

My fellow blogger and poet John Looker’s article is here.

And here is an example of some of the gems the magazine is capable of uncovering, a lovely selection of translated poems by the Kannada language poet, S. Manjunath, translated and with an introduction by Kamalakar Bhat.

 

 

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Having this day my horse

300px-Paulus_Hector_Mair_Tjost_fig2

De arte Athletica, Paulus Hector Mair, 1540, From Wikipedia

Jousting was already somewhat archaic by the late sixteenth century, seen as a remnant of an older age and not particularly valued by the court of Queen Elizabeth I, but one of the iconic poets of her reign, Philip Sidney, wrote a rather good poem about it:

Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance 

Guided so well that I obtain’d the prize, 

Both by the judgment of the English eyes 

And of some sent from that sweet enemy France; 

Horsemen my skill in horsemanship advance, 

Town folks my strength; a daintier judge applies 

His praise to sleight which from good use doth rise; 

Some lucky wits impute it but to chance; 

Others, because of both sides I do take 

My blood from them who did excel in this, 

Think Nature me a man of arms did make. 

How far they shot awry! The true cause is, 

Stella look’d on, and from her heav’nly face 

Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.

If there is something anachronistically medieval about Sidney’s poem, in other respects it was very modern. Though the late-medieval / early Renaissance Italians Petrarch and Dante had written their poetry over 200 years earlier, the Renaissance was just getting into swing in England, and Sidney with other poets like Spenser, following the Henrican Poets Wyatt and Howard, was instrumental in bringing the their influence into English poetry. Part of that influence was formal – the form used here is an English adaptation of the Italian form made popular by Petrarch, the sonnet. Part of that influence was stylistic – subtle rhythms, long complex lines, far-fetched metaphors and analogies. And another part of that influence was in subject matter and tone: a tendency towards platonic idealization and the overriding theme of a suitor trying to win the favour of a – usually quite unattainable – woman, the latter a theme the Italian poets had inherited from the troubadour tradition of early medieval Europe. The centre of the troubadour and romance tradition was of course France rather than Italy, and perhaps Sidney is aware of this in the way he values the praise of the French and designates England’s great rivals with the memorable epithet “sweet enemy”.

In this poem, Sidney proves his masterly command of the sonnet. Sidney’s sentences, you’ll notice, are long. The first 11 lines, for example, are composed of one long sentence (or four sentences connected by semi-colons, depending on your definition of a sentence, but they were probably put there by later editors anyway), as Sidney describes his success at the jousting and the competing theories as to why he was successful. At the same time as he balances all those carefully arranged clauses, he is maintaining a mildly modulated iambic pentameter, and a strict rhyme scheme. Not easy.

It is quite fitting that a poem so masterful in its command of language should be boasting of the poet’s (or his protagonist’s) impressive command of a horse. Sidney, besides his poetry, which was not published in his lifetime, had much to boast of. An early favourite of the queen, both sides of his family were families of note, courtiers of Elizabeth’s father and protestant stalwarts, an immensely influential and self-important clique that included in their train the executed Duke of Northumberland Lord Dudley (not a ‘real’ Northumberland like the Percys), the queen’s closest confident the Earl of Leicester, and the later over-reacher the Earl of Essex. He brags about his lineage thus:

because of both sides I do take 

My blood from them who did excel in this, 

Think Nature me a man of arms did make

But this is just one in a long line of boasts – even the French agree on his brilliance; he’s a great horseman; he’s strong; he’s skilful, or lucky. Sidney’s (or Astrophil’s) all-round brilliance is the subject of the first four fifths or so of the poem.

A sonnet traditionally has a turn, somewhere near the end of the poem that turns the whole meaning of the poem on its head, or at least that changes the context in which we understand the previous lines. In an Italian sonnet, which is comprised of two quatrains (or an octave) and a sestet, the turn comes with those last six lines. In an English sonnet, where the change in structure is more abrupt – a final couplet after three quatrains, the placing of the turn is less regular – often it is with the third quatrain, sometimes in that pithy final couplet. In this poem, it comes rather late on, in the last line of the third quatrain, thus:

How far they shot awry! The true cause is

Stella look’d on, and from her heav’nly face 

Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.

 Sidney leaves it pretty much to the last gasp to turn the poem on its head, or attempt to.

The writer and critic John Williams divided the poets of the sixteenth century into nativists and Petrarchans, and Sidney is naturally classed as a member of the latter – perhaps the defining member. He comments of the Petrarchan style that, ‘subject and theme have drawn so far apart that only by an act of rhetoric can they be reunited.’* The subjects are various – here it is the poet’s own horsemanship, but the theme is always the same – love, the courting of the lady, or her all conquering brilliance. The Petrarchan poet’s tenor and are such that their similarities will not be immediately obvious to the reader, but rather persuaded out by the skilled poet. You could complain that such techniques are artificial, but you could also admire the very artifice that unites such disparate things, or uses an unlikely parallel to draw out an interesting truth. In this poem the subject may be Astrophil’s superb jousting, but the true theme is love, and the realization we are brought to is that commonplace of medieval romance, that the knight‘s brilliance is a reflection of his love’s heavenly beauty.

Somehow, I don’t quite buy it. I can’t shake the feeling that what Sidney really wants to talk about is his success at the tilt yard – nothing wrong with that, as there is something satisfying about his swagger, but the stuff about Stella is merely a bit of pretty dressing (or dressage) at the end. When Dante and Petrarch put Beatriz and Laura at the heart of all their poems, as mad as it may seem considering that both hardly knew their muses, it comes across as nothing but absolutely sincere; but when Sidney does it, and so many that follow him, it seems something of an affectation. Then again, Sidney pulls it off with panache. That ingratiating turnaround at the end is the poetic equivalent of a grand, ostentatious bow to the lady watching in the stands that the jouster makes after dismounting.

Sincere or not, it’s still a splendid poem – and Sidney did actually develop a more interesting and realistic attitude towards love later in his career, as I’ll explore in my next post.

* In his “English Renaissance Poetry”, most recently published by NYRB publishing, New York, 2016

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It’s Madness

I must start the year by marking the passing of a friend, the poet Cynthia Jobin, who died peacefully the December past. Cynthia was a greatly talented poet, whose poetry touched those who had the luck to discover it. She was also, as I got to know through her visits to my site, and mine to hers, a warm-hearted and generous person.

Cynthia started posting her poetry on WordPress late in life after the death of her husband, some of which she had written earlier in her life and some of which was new. She was never picked up by a publisher, but she self-published a collection of her poetry a couple of years ago and was pondering a second publication when she learned of her illness. If proof were needed that in the great 21st century glut of self -published and online-published literature there exists some great undiscovered talents, then Cynthia is that proof. Although it should be said that she certainly had been discovered by those who regularly visited and enjoyed her blog, leaving sincere appreciations of her poems.

I know a lot of the people reading poetry or blogs about poetry online are aspiring poets – and I guess about half of those who read this blog are. They could do a lot worse than look to Cynthia as a model. Her poetry was technically and formally polished: the syllables well weighted, the rhyme impressive, sometimes virtuoso, the tension between natural rhythm of speech and the demands of a traditional form perfectly balanced. She had felt her way around several traditional forms, from the sonnet to the rondeau, and experimented with some lesser known ones to good effect, most recently the ghazal. Her language was rich, yet controlled, her vocabulary enviably wide; and she was at home in of a range of registers, from the mildly whimsical to just short of sombre.

It was obvious that she was well read in poetry, and her reading stretched far and wide, both geographically (as her use of the Arab form, the ghazal attests) and temporally, being at home as much with 15th century French poets as 20th century Americans. Like many of the best poets her influences were evident, but not overpowering, and of her own voice comes through, rooted in her own place, in her case northern New England, whose colours and textures she captures so well.

Her poetry touched people because it so well expressed those thoughts and feelings that are so hard to express. She was frank and honest on the hard parts of life, yet delicate too, never wallowing in sadness or grief, but acknowledging it. Her poems on the loneliness and sense of absence after her husband’s death were as affecting as Hardy’s. And she wrote inside other people’s experience too – she has a poem touching on Alzheimers which is the best I have read on that difficult topic. AS well as the deep stuff, she could capture more fleeting, marginal feelings – the strange mourning of an aunt you hardly knew, our strange feelings towards our pets and the foreboding of an oncoming winter; one of her poems on the latter was also a meditation on her sense of the approach of death.

But her poetry was full of joy, too. The joys of nature, of gardening, of reflection and thinking and wordplay and even of poetry itself. She did whimsy exceptionally well – even in many very good poet’s hands it can quickly grate, but she had a skill for it. I always learned something from reading Cynthia’s poems – a new word, or an unknown piece of flora or fauna, sometimes a poetic form, or, through reading people’s responses and her replies, a poet to look up. And from some of her poetry, I could even learn a little about – how to say – life itself, how to approach it, how to live it. The poem I have chosen to feature is a perfect example of that. ‘It’s Madness’ was inspired by a quotation from the Czech poet Czeslaw Milosz, ‘It’s madness to live without joy.’ I can’t quite believe I didn’t comment on it at the time – she was a more generous commenter than I was – but reading through her book recently, I saw it a second or third time, and it seemed a particularly apposite poem for the new year.

It’s madness to live without joy, to will
to wake and look forward to nil,
to drag a dull clod through the day
with little to give or to say,
to keep going nowhere, uphill–

That’s the first stanza. Please read the rest here… and stay a while to get to know Cynthia Jobin the poet, whose poetry will endure.

As for Cynthia Jobin the person, she is no longer with us and I will miss her. Although I only ever spoke to her online, I came to think of her as a friend. Along with the other regular commenter here, John Looker (another published poet), she made blogging seem like something more than an indulgent hobby. She was a thoughtful reader, a generous commenter (always replying to comments on her own blog as well) and a wise and witty conversationist. May she rest in peace.

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Where the wild thyme blows…

image

Heath-Robinson’s illustration for a Midsummer Night’s Dream. Via Wikipedia

I have not often succeeded in being topical here on Sweettenorbull, but with 2016 having marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I thought it appropriate to include at least one post on the Bard this year. So, here is my belatedly topical, and very unseasonal, take on one of my favourite passages in Shakespeare. A mid-winter day’s take on some lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in

That’s Oberon, the king of the fairies, or faeries, explaining where he will find his wife, Titania, the queen of the fairies, on whom he is going to play a rather mean trick. The soliloquy of which this is the beginning sets the scene for this trick and the action that follows. It is light-hearted stuff compared to many of Shakespeare’s other famous soliloquies: it is fair to say it worries at none of the great themes – life and death, love and hate, truth and falsehood, justice, fate, none of that. It is a bit of atmospherics, a means of setting the scene for a play that is essentially a bit of enjoyable nonsense.The purpose of the passage is to enchant the listener, and, for me at least, it does so every time.

It is a little fey, I know. We are talking about a passage full of flowers spoken by a great big fairy: not altogether manly that.I’m more into the flowers than the fairies, but I suppose that in itself is something of an admission. A few years ago that great journal of earthy British humour, the Viz, ran a memorable cartoon where Biffa Bacon is chastised (that is, beaten to a pulp) by his parents for reading the Guardian newspaper instead of the Sun. He has just about managed to persuade them that the Guardian isn’t just for ‘snurbs and short-liftaz’ when a free supplement falls out of the paper, ‘Fifty Poems about Flowers’. Biffa’s parents are enraged by this basic affront to decent Geordie reverse-snobbery and duly pummel the poor lad senseless.

image

From the Viz comic, via The Guardian

Actually, I understand where they are coming from (Newcastle, of course, which is also where I come from). For a long time, I would hazard from the early 19th century all the way through to the late 20th century, flower imagery was the standby of mediocre poets and poetasters, which may have fixed in the public’s mind, even those, like the Bacons, who would never read poetry, the idea of poetry as something blandly decorative, stuffily middle class and rather effeminate. But this view and all that bad poetry were merely unfortunate by-products of what is actually a great tradition in English poetry of poems about flowers, running from early poetry to the modern day.

(but if you’re not convinced, my site has plenty of posts on poems of a more masculine nature… tools! drinking!)

I would argue that at least a passing acquaintance with the English countryside and its flowers heightens ones appreciation of this poetry; at the same time, reading the poetry improves one’s enjoyment of the countryside. Well, this is true for me, at least. About seven years ago, I lived for a couple of years in Durham, and at about that time, after years of serious novel reading, I was getting very into English poetry. Three poets who I read a lot at that time were William Wordsworth, Edward Thomas and the American William Carlos Williams, in all of whose poems flowers feature prominently, usually with the flower named. Partly to know the flowers in their poems better, and partly because I lived near a rather nice meadow park (like many parks and meadows along the Tyne or the Wear, actually a reclaimed coal mine), and had started to notice flowers whose names I didn’t know, I bought an old Reader’s Digest guide to wild flowers at a car boot sale, and started to casually familiarise myself with the names of those I most often saw. After a couple of years I could identify most of the common flowers I’d come across, and recognise them when they came up in the poetry I was reading, and just walking the countryside I would notice and appreciate flowers much more whether I knew their names or not.

That first line of Oberon’s captures he very real wonder one feels when one comes upon a bank of wild flowers while wandering the woods or countryside. Myself, I know a hillock in Durham where cowslips sprout some years, and, mysteriously, some years they don’t. I know a wooded roadside bank that is carpeted with violets a couple of weeks each spring. In the nearby Finchale Priory there is a reliable bank of anemones on the north bank of the river. When we moved a little north to Prudhoe in Northumberland, my wife and I gradually found comparable scenes – another bank of anemones, a patch of teasels, a riverside outcrop of reeking ramsons, a field of mixed white and red clover. Finding such scenes and remembering them became one of the pleasures of walking.

Paul Auster the novelist and and sometime critic wrote of an interesting difference between English and French poetry. In French poetry, he claims, flowers tend to be described simply by the word flower – fleur, while in English poetry they are given specific names. I can’t quite remember where he went with that (I read it a long time ago and do not have it to hand), but I think he went on to generalise from this that the French think in the abstract, while the English-speaking peoples favour the specific and concrete, perhaps that the English like to categorise while the French philosophise. And maybe there is something in that. The English value the poetic power of particular names. Look at the first four lines of Oberon’s speech: it contains the names of six different flowers. Just the names of those flowers take up thirteen of the lines’ forty syllables. The last two plants take up six of the last lines’ ten. A great deal of the lines’ beauty inheres in the sound of those names alone. I wonder if Shakespeare, if indeed most people of his time, could reel off the names of plants like that, when plant lore was still a living tradition. Perhaps he asked around his fellow playwrights and actors at the Angel.

We tend to imagine A Midsummer-night’s dream taking place in an English woods – it certainly sounds like one and it has a couple of bona fide English myths wandering around in Puck and Robin Goodfellow. But of course the play is set in a wood outside Athens – it seems the characters wander into the wooded paradise of Arcadia – since that place was mythical I suppose Shakespeare was quite at liberty to model it after the woods of his homeland. Poets in the sixteenth century tended to use a classical setting for their pastoral poetry, as well as their love poems, which is why shepherds and maidens alike had names like Lycidas, Cynthia and Clarissa, rather than Roger, Mary and Lisa. This was a matter of convention, but it also gave them a bit of liberty from the rigid social mores of the sixteenth century. Titania is acting in a way that might have had a contemporary Englishwoman up before the church courts, ‘lulled ‘by ‘dance and delight’, sleeping in the open air in the most sensuous of settings.

There is a faint echo of Middle English poems in these lines, where ‘blow’ retains its Middle English meaning of ‘bloom’, and might remind some readers of the line ‘bloweth mead’ in ‘Sumer is ycumen in’. Eglantine is another word with a medieval ring to it, carrying the scent of Norman French: the Prioress in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was called Madame Eglentine, and gently mocked by the narrator for her old-fashioned Norman French pronunciation. Critics have commented much on Shakespeare’s propensity to use earthy Anglo-Saxon words in conjunction with Latin derived words (examples here would be nodding violet, enamelled skin and, arguably, luscious woodbine), but there is there is also here the mingling of modern and archaic English words. It all adds to the sense in the play of the past and present mingling with the eternal, of the familiar morphing into the strange and foreign, and of reality blending with fantasy.

As a reader who has read more than his fair share of poems aboot floo-ahs, as the Bacons would style them, I can’t help but sense a foreshadow of much later English poetry in Shakespeare’s lines. I have already mentioned those other serial flower name droppers Wordsworth, Thomas and Williams. Titania perhaps provided some inspiration for that equally fickle (though nastier) lady of the woods, Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot. And the alliteration and unusual syntax of the phrase ‘weed wide’ puts me in mind of Hopkins, who claimed to be reclaiming the old alliterative tradition of Old English. I could go on a lot longer about the richness of Shakespeare’s language and its influence, but a post, like a garden (though unlike a mythical wood) has got to end somewhere…

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