Category Archives: Poetry

The Great Wen

The September issue of Chennai’s literary journal, The Wagon Magazine is now available online.

There’s something a little sad learning about recently passed away poets, but this issue includes some of the work of three such people: Bart Wolffe, H G Razool and Cynthia Jobin. I was unfamiliar the first two poet’s work, but the poetry quoted is interesting, and I particularly enjoyed reading about Razool, a brave and peaceful man, by the sounds of it. Cynthia’s work I know well, being a regular visitor to her website, as she was to mine before her passing ten months ago. She was a greatly talented poet and a fine conversationalist…

Jobin and Wolffe’s work is mentioned by Wagon regular John Looker in connection with the recently published anthology ‘Indra’s Net,’ from the independent publisher Bennison Books: some of their poetry, and some of John’s is included in this anthology. There is also a guest article by the publisher, Deborah Bennison. I plan to write a review of the book on this website in the not-too distant future.

The September issue also includes a dedication to the Indian songwriter Dr Bhupen Hazarika, and the usual mix of contemporary poetry and fiction. Oh – and my own column, The Wanderer, which this issue looks at those poets and writers who have found England’s great capital not so much to their tastes, starting with William Cobbett, who christened it “The Great Wen”.

On my other website, Andy Fleck’s Blog, I have recently been writing a little about the historical associations of England’s most popular names, and about one of the greatest of English kings you might never have heard of, Athelstan – grandson of Alfred the Great. Coming up, a look at the popular novel and TV series, The Last Kingdom – set during Alfred’s reign.

 

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My Darling, My Daisy

1529MartinLutherHolbein's Henry VIIIJohn_Skelton

November 2017 marks the five hundredth anniversary of the event that kicked off the Reformation (I know, it seems like just yesterday), Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses onto the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. England’s Reformation didn’t get started until a decade and a half later, but nevertheless, I’d like to mark the anniversary by looking at a poem that very tangentially touches on the Reformation in England.

The English Reformation began by fits and starts – Henry VIII, no fan of Luther, broke from the Catholic Church to enable his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn, but he always maintained he was an orthodox Catholic, and spent much of the rest of his reign alternately resisting and rowing back, then sometimes allowing the protestant reforms of some of his councillors. What made the reversal of his policy most difficult was the great dissolution of the abbeys, masterminded by Thomas Cromwell, which had transferred the property and the wealth of the religious houses to the crown, who sold  them on to laymen to ease the financial crises of his reign. Having laid hands on such wealth, even the most Catholic of nobles quailed at the thought of a full restoration. The Reformation in England began in an atmosphere of court intrigue and officially sanctioned plunder, not with the sincere theological angst of Luther, Zwingli or Calvin. Thomas Cromwell may have been a sincere protestant, but his actions were inspired as much by greed, spite and ambition as by religious scruples. And the king, while he could convince himself he was acting in accord with his religious conscience, was in truth guided by material and bodily concerns. The course of the English Reformation would be moulded by the wayward character of the Tudor king.

This is what makes John Skelton, surprisingly, a significant figure in the English Reformation. Himself of course, he was no kind of protestant, but an orthodox Catholic priest. He is the first in a long line of English (or Anglo-Irish) ministers who dabbled in secular matters and wrote very good poetry – John Donne, Robert Herrick and Jonathan Swift come to mind also – and whose poetry contained as much, or sometimes a lot more, of the profane than the sacred. Skelton’s poetry was profane in both senses of the word: first, it concerned worldly matters, like the intrigues of court in his Wolsey-baiting ‘Why come ye not to court?’, or the wildlife in his long poem ‘Philip Sparrow’. (As a part-time birdwatcher, I should really get around to covering the latter poem one day, with it containing a veritable litany of English birds, many of them getting their first mention in English letters.) His poetry was also profane in its manners and often quite coarse, as with the poem that I have chosen for this post.

In fact, Skelton was one of the first great poets of the 16th century, or one of the last of the 15th. His very coarseness stopped him, for a very long time, from being considered quite respectable. The influential sixteenth century critic George Puttenham dismissed him as a ‘rude rhymer’ catering to common tastes, and this judgement seemed to stick.  Not a single poem of his is included in that repository of (mostly very good) Victorian taste, Palgrave’s Treasury, and he wasn’t really appreciated as an important poet until the twentieth century. But even his greatest admirer could not deny a certain crudeness and cynicism in the poet’s outlook.

Back when Henry VIII was plain old Prince Henry, second in line to the English throne, John Skelton, whose wit and learning had brought him great renown, was chosen as his tutor. In his biography of the king, England’s Nero, John Matusiak writes of the peculiar life of the young prince among yay-saying sycophants and courtiers, and the deleterious effect on his character and his understanding of others. As his tutor, Skelton was one of the few people (aside from the distant father, Henry VII) who could and did speak his mind to the king. Unfortunately, reports Matusiak, that mind was not the positive influence it could have been; although prodigiously learned and fond of preaching humanist virtue, Skelton was petty and vindictive in his personal life, with a liking for scurrilous rumour, and especially fond of showing up well to do women as whores. As for his poetry, Matusiak tells us, ‘Even the prettiest of his lyrics, My Darling My Daisy, which would have been sung at court before Henry, is a tale of betrayal by a girl with two lovers.’

Well, let us look at the offending poem:

 

With lullay, lullay, like a child,

Thou sleepest too long, thou art beguiled.

 

‘My darling dear, my daisy flower

Let me,’ quod he, ‘lie in your lap.’

‘Lie still,’ quod she, ‘my paramour,

Lie still hardely, and take a nap.’                            (hardely = soundly)

His head was heavy, such was his hap,

All drowsy dreaming, drowned in sleep,

That of his love he took no keep,

With hey lullay, lullay, like a child,

Thou sleepest too long, thou art beguiled.

 

With ‘Ba, ba, ba’ and bas, bas, bas’                                    (singing and kissing noises)

She cherished him both cheek and chin,

That he wist never where he was:                          (wist = knew)

He had forgotten all deadly sin.

He wanted with her love to win:

He trusted her payment and lost all his prey;      (prey = loot, booty)

She left him sleeping and stale away.                    (stale away = stole away)

With hey lullay, lullay, like a child,

Thou sleepest too long, thou art beguiled.

 

The rivers rough, the waters wan,

She spared not to wet her feet;

She waded over, she found a man

That halsed her heartily and kissed her sweet.     (halsed – hugged)

Thus after her cold she caught a heat.

‘My lefe,’ she said, ‘routeth in his bed;                  (routeth – snores)

Ywis he hath an heavy head,

With hey lullay, lullay, like a child,

Thou sleepest too long, thou art beguiled.

 

What dreamiest thou, drunkard, drowsy pate?

Thy lust and liking is from thee gone;

Thou blinkard blowbowl, thou wakest too late,   (blowbowl –drunkard)

Behold thou liest, luggard, alone!

Well may thou sigh, well may thou groan,

To deal with her so cowardly:                            

Ywis, pole hatchet, she bleared thine eye.

(bleared thine eye – deceived you) (pole hatchet – pole axe wielding soldier)

*This version and most language notes from The New Oxford Book of Sixteenth-Century Verse, Ed Emyrys Jones, OUP, Oxford, 1991

Puttenham might have called Skelton a rude rhymer, but actually he is a damn good rhymer – not one of the rhymes in the poem sounds stretched. He has a good line in alliteration too; indeed, occasionally he uses the full alliterative line of the old English tradition that survived into Middle English, best known in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – i.e. three alliterative stressed syllables, and one not alliterative. As well as having a jaunty rhythm, the poem is very vivid – Skelton is a great story-teller. The images of the poem somehow stick in the head: the sleepy man with his head in the unfaithful woman’s lap as she coos him to sleep, and then her wetting her feet as she crosses a stream to meet her other lover – I’m sure a Freudian could explain that. Most of all, the poem is funny, even if it is not a particularly edifying kind of humour…

However he may have failed at moulding Henry’s character, I have a suspicion Skelton was a greatly entertaining teacher. If we imagine that other famous pupil of a famous teacher, Alexander of Macedon staring out at the wide world outside his window, as Aristotle explained the finer points of the ancients, we imagine Henry listening with glee as someone actually breaks protocol and gives him an insight into the rotten soul of man… and, in the case of this poem, the faithless heart of woman.

We frown on this sort of thing these days and call it misogyny. And yes, Skelton in his personal life did seem to have more than the usual measure of late medieval scorn towards and contempt for women. But in this poem, he is talking about one particular woman, not womankind in general; one can take the poem as a warning to men to watch their women carefully, but the real driving force of the poem is not moral education, but shock and titillation. But I guess you could also say that it is his persistent focus on the failings of the weaker sex that betrays Skelton’s misogyny, and it is this, Matusiak thinks, that may have unduly influenced the King’s view of women:

Later, as a lovelorn youth, the prince would read romantic literature full of gallant indulgence to erring damsels and this too would leave a lasting influence. But when his ardour cooled, it was Skelton’s voice, perhaps more than any other’s, that would echo in his thoughts. (p25)

Those familiar with Henry’s torrid love life will think of Anne Boleyn, and how easily Henry believed the scurrilous rumours of her infidelity that were most likely the invention of her erstwhile ally Thomas Cromwell. And yet years later he would marry Katherine Howard, who, historians think, really does seem to have committed adultery as freely and shamelessly Skelton’s woman. Any good Catholic would tell you that none of that would have happened if Henry had stuck faithfully by his first, lawfully wedded wife. But there’s a little dark irony in the fact that Henry’s attitude to women, and thus his actions towards the church, may well have been influenced by a faithful, if suspicious, Catholic clergyman.

* Quotation from Henry VIII: The Life and Rule of England’s Nero, John Matusiak, The History Press, Gloucester, 2013

Pictures show Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Martin Luther, Holbein’s terrifying Henry VIII, and an unattributed sketch of John Skelton. All from Wikipedia.

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Distant Sails

The August issue of the Wagon Magazine is now available online, featuring a great selection of new fiction, non-fiction and poetry from the sub-continent and beyond.

My own column is on the saddest of subjects – poems about the death of a child. The title comes from Hugo’s poem of the same name, therein printed in full, and I also look at poems by Ben Jonson, William Wordsworth and William Stafford. For some reason I neglected to include John Milton’s poem to his daughter, so perhaps I will do a Sweettenorbull article on that one day.

Please read it here… and then cheer yourself up with the second of John Looker’s antipodean adventures here

Meanwhile, over at Andy Fleck’s Blog, I am beginning a look at some of the highly enjoyable short biographies in the Penguin Monarchs series, starting with William the Bastard – or Conqueror, if you insist.

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The End of the World, in Poetry

John_Martin_-_Sodom_and_Gomorrah

It has been a scary old few weeks here in South Korea. The North Korean regime have pitched a missile over Japan and exploded a hydrogen bomb in the mountains of their northern borders. The apocalyptic threats that they aim at South Korea and Japan are nothing new, but their threat to America itself, indeed, to the whole regional order, is. The North Korean regime, and perhaps their Chinese allies, seem to be playing a giant, horrific game of chicken, trying to scare the Americans off the Korean peninsula, and perhaps, eventually, out of Japan too. The American president has been relatively restrained in response to all this so far, but still, you know, one worries…

During the last cycle of provocation, threat and counter-threat, back in March or April, I wrote a column on end of the world poetry for the July edition of The Wagon Magazine. It has recently been posted on the magazine’s website, which is timely. It covers Frost, Dante, Nietzsche, Yeats, Cavafy and Eliot – all the big guns, so to speak. Please have a look here…

Thee article also, obliquely, mentions Game of Thrones – for any readers whose cup of tea that happens to be, you may be interested in my latest and for now last George R.R. Martin related post on my other website, Andy Fleck’s blog, have a look here.

The  image above is ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ by another notable Martin, the Victorian  painter John Martin (of Haydon Bridge, Northumberland),  whose vast canvas can be found in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne, when the curators are in the mood…

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Lust in the Holy Land

July’s issue of the Wagon is available online now and highly readable. Please take a look here:

My own column looks at the figures of David, Solomon in modern poetry and the influence of Song of Songs. I know from my stats on WordPress that people like reading about smutty poems… so, please, have a read.

The July issue also contains some interesting poetry from the Chinese poet Hongri Yuan, among others; while John Looker’s Letter from London, comes this week from Dunedin in New Zealand, which is near enough – it includes an excellent recent poem of his.

***

I’ve been posting a bit at Andy Fleck’s Blog recently. A little side interest of mine last year, was where in history George R.R. Martin got his ideas from for his popular Game of Thrones novels. I wrote a couple of articles about it back then, but I’m only now getting around to posting them to tie in with the latest series. Not everyone’s cup of dragon’s blood, I expect, but possibly interesting for some.

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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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