Up There

A few miles south of Hadrian’s Wall, running parallel to it through the Tyne Gap, runs the Stanegate (the stone road), or what is left of it, a Roman built road that pre-dates the Wall by a couple of centuries. This road runs right through the centre of the Roman remains of Corstopitum, the garrison and later trading town for the Empire’s northern frontiers, and base for forays into Scotland. Excavated in the 1980’s, the foundations of the town can be seen in their entirety a mere field or two outside of its modern day equivalent, the pleasant Northumbrian town of Corbridge, in one of the narrow, low-lying areas near the Tyne, a far cry (although in reality only a few miles from) the wind-blown crags on which Hadrian’s Wall perches.

The town’s foundations, when looked at in conjunction with a plan, give you a remarkably vivid idea of what the town would have been like. It was surprisingly small – perhaps the size of a modern day care home, and very organised, intersected by the Stanegate east to west, and roughly divided into four quadrants: a large grain storage building with a (once) decorated aqueduct; a sort of great square shopping centre divided into smaller stalls – sort a stone market place – in the middle of which is an empty space, but for a never-completed commander’s tower; the other two quadrants are a mix barracks, workshops, latrines and temples – an impressive four of them for such a small town.

I visited earlier this month, on a warm, dry September day. I looked around the museum a bit, at rusted coins, swords and armour, fragments of Gaulish pottery and Brittonic brooches, and statues from those temples. Then I went outside and and tried to get a sense of the place – but first I was rather distracted by the flock of twites that were pecking around the space around the commander’s house. Twites (which my auto-correct keeps changing to twits – but what is a flock of twits?) are small, likeable ground-feeding birds, somewhat like linnets, but less colourful and favouring slightly colder climes. I mention them only because it was novel to see a flock of birds on a long deserted building – a touch of memento mori and all that – but also because it’s not every day you see twites; since this is a blog about poetry, I’ll have to try and relate them to the poem later.

The atmosphere of my trip to Corstopitum was very much like that of this poem, also about Roman remains in England, albeit down in the Cotswolds, from the pen of the strange and wonderful and occasionally  slightly disorganised talent, Ivor Gurney:

Up There
On Cotswold edge there is a field and that
Grows thick with corn and speedwell and the mat
Of thistles, of that tall kind; Rome lived there,
Some hurt centurion got his grant or tenure
Built farm with fowls and pigsties and wood-piles,
Waited for service custom between whiles.
The farmer ploughs up coins in the wet-earth time.
He sees them on the topple of crests gleam.
Or run down furrow, and halts and does let lie
Like a small black island in brown immensity,
Red pottery easy discovered no searching needed
One wonders what farms were like, no searching needed,
As now the single kite hovering still
By the coppice there level with the flat of the hill.
Ivor Gurney

It is an enjoyable poem, and quite a relief from Gurney’s more battle scarred, often heart-rending war poetry, but as someone who has spent many years teaching English, I can’t help but notice Gurney’s idiosyncratic punctuation. Gurney seems to have neglected it in some parts of this poem, though after some lines throwing in a full stop where a comma would suffice. Some editors have seen fit to tidy this up – with some even adding a pronoun (lets them lie). I can see their point – Gurney obviously did not much care or think of punctuation. I have reproduced his original text, however, and I think it better suits the note-like nature of his poetry, without the addition of semicolons and ellipses, as if these were fresh observations fresh from the mouth or pen of the poet. Even that missing pronoun may have sounded perfectly natural to Gurney, immersed as he was in Elizabethan poetry. The rhyming and rhythm is perfectly organised of course, much more important from a poet’s point of view, whatever his old English teachers would have thought. I do think he might have thought to revise one of the couplets though:

Red pottery easy discovered no searching needed

One wonders what farms were like, no searching needed,

I’m warming to Gurney a lot, but I must admit this couplet lacks any coherent grammar, and is a bit of a lazy rhyme. Even editors aren’t sure what to do with this, but those of us who read poetry for pleasure can let it pass.

I love the casual way that England’s Roman past emerges in this poem, from a coin or fragment of pottery ploughed up from the ground (of course, I’m also glad that these days archaeologists take more care to put them in museums where people like me can peruse them at our leisure). The image is just right too: that black coin – for they are always black – lying atop a mound of fresh earth, or as Gurney puts it:

The farmer ploughs up coins in the wet-earth time.

He sees them on the topple of crests gleam.

For a poem about Roman remains, there is something very Anglo-Saxon about that couplet. First there is the phrase “the wet-earth time” which is very reminiscent of the old, very literal Old English names for months, such as woedmonad (weed month) or drimilcemonad (month of three milkings). The phrase ‘on the topple of crests gleam’, with that verb used as a noun, and those onomatopoeic consonant clusters, could have come from the pen of Gerald Manley Hopkins, who loved the rhythms and sounds of Old English verse, and brought them into his own poetry. You could imagine him getting a bit carried away with that coin in the mud:

He sees them on the topple of clod-clumped crests

God-given glimmerings gleaming on earth-turned crusts etc.

Recently, I read the fascinating The King in the North by Max Adams, a history of the golden age of early medieval Northumbria, focused around the great figure of Oswald. In an aside, he repeats the complaint of historians of the dark ages against archaeologists who dig up Roman ruins, that in their enthusiasm to reach stone foundations and rusted armour, they dig up the – admittedly addled – remains of the Brittonic or Anglo-Saxon buildings that were built on or around them, once the Romans had departed. It was some centuries after their departure that buildings of stone and mortar again appeared in the British Isles (except for some monasteries in the west of Ireland) – those heroes of the dark ages we hear about lived, ruled and worshipped in buildings of wood, sometimes built on or around Roman ruins. Once they had got the hang of building with stone, the British would take stones from the Roman sites – in the case of Corstopitum, it was mined for stone for Corbridge’s parish church, and for the impressive Hexham Abbey, four miles down the Stanegate. But enough remained to give the sense of much of Britain having been built on a Roman infrastructure, with the occasional structure, like Gurney’s field on Cotswold edge, left to the side and never reoccupied. I do wonder what became of that “hurt centurian” Gurney mentions. Did he stay in the Cotswolds, marry a local lass and eventually blend into the British gene pool? Or did he up sticks and head back to Italy or Byzantium with the Roman retreat?

That, I suppose, we’ll never know, but I will have to leave off such speculations, because earlier in this post I promised I would come back to those twites. If they provided my visit to the Stanegate with a chirpy touch of memento mori, then what of their rhyming cousin, the kite, who hovers over the hill in the final couplet? Last year I speculated on the meaning of this creature in the Russian poet Alexander Blok’s The Kite. In that poem, circling over a war-torn village, it seemed to signify the ever-presence of the threat of death, with vague connotations of aristocratic cruelty. Gurney’s kite also signifies something that is ever-present, but in a much more positive sense. We don’t need to strain our imaginations to wonder what life was like when the retired Roman lived here – he was surrounded by the same scenes as Gurney: the kite, the coppice, the flat of the hill. A nice ending… although we could reflect with some melancholy, reading the poem some ninety-odd years after it was written, that such scenery seems a lot less eternal than it may have appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century. But that’s taking us into Philip Larkin territory, and I’m really not in the mood, what with all these pleasant thoughts about Roman Britain, Anglo-Saxon alliteration, couplets and coppices, Corstopitum and the Cotswolds, kites, twites and farms in the wet-earth time.



Filed under Birds, History, Literature, Poetry

5 responses to “Up There

  1. This is all so interesting, right down to the flock of twits ( I indulged my auto correct this time….it works so hard for those of us inclined to figurative language). Something about Gurney’s (my auto correct just wrote Turkey’s) language almost always pleases me—not sure what. I savored “wet earth time” for quite a while. And kudos on your Hopkins imitation as well as that lovely last sentence summing up. A very enjoyable read for a Saturday afternoon!

    • Thanks Cynthia…I do enjoy auto correct and its accidental poetry too. Now I have had time to reflect on it, flocks of twits are unfortunately more common than flocks of twites. As for Gurney, I suppose your computer was confused by the capital letter. It reminds me of a joke that I thought better of putting in this blog post – what do you call a poet carrying a wheeled stretcher? Ivor Gurney, of course. Boom boom.

  2. I’m not sure that Ivor Gurney will ever be a favourite of mine, but I did enjoy this one. I suppose I particularly like that sense of deep human history in the landscape. My wife and I are in New Zealand at the moment. The landscape takes one’s breath away over and over again but that historical depth is missing.

  3. I agree with you entirely, John. Nothing improves a walk in the countryside like the ghost of Roman soldiers, Scots raiders, Tudor recusants and the like. (Although, New Zealand does look nice…) Funnily, I never used to rate Gurney either, but I this year I keep finding poems of his I really like. One more to come next week, in fact…

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