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To Lord Mounteagle

Here’s a post from a year and a bit ago that I later realised really ought to have been timed for Guy Fawkes Night, that is (Remember, remember) 5th November in Britain.

sweettenorbull

On 26 October 1605 William Parker Lord Monteagle (sometimes rendered Mounteagle) was sitting eating dinner with guests at his home in Hoxton, London, when a servant handed him a letter that a tall, mysterious stranger had just delivered to his door. Lord Monteagle broke the seal and then handed the letter back to the servant to read it out. The letter was anonymous, but supposedly from one of the gunpowder plotters, and started as so:

My lord, out of the love I beare to some of youere frends, I have a care of youre preservacion, therefore I would aduyse you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift youer attendance at this parliament, for God and man hath concurred to punishe the wickedness of this tyme.

Monteagle was a Catholic member of the House of Lords, a man of divided loyalties – on the one hand to the…

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Auguries of Insolence

I was asked my age in class the other day, and wheeled out the old lie/joke that really means, I’d rather you didn’t ask.

‘Twenty-one,’ I said.

‘You look like you’re forty-six,’ the eleven year old girl replied.

That number was no accident – she knows for a fact I’m thirty-six.

I explained to her (though surely she already knew), that it is polite to tell people they look younger than they are.

‘Okay,’ she said. ‘You look sixteen.’

‘Gah!’

I think the ideal lie is something like, guess someone’s age, then subtract ten years, but if I told her that then she would tell me I looked thirty-six, so I took a different tack.

Next lesson, in the back of her book I wrote the following lines from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence.

A truth that’s told with bad intent

Beats all the lies you can invent.

‘Special homework just for you,’ I said. ‘Read the poem and explain the meaning to me.’

‘It means don’t tell lies.’

‘No it doesn’t. Read it.’

‘But I can’t understand…’

‘Really?’

‘Your handwriting.’

‘Ah…’ I read it out to her.

A minute later she handed her book to me with her gloss on the poem:

It means be nice to the old teacher.

Gah!

(Just a short, light-hearted post this one. If you’re looking for a more serious consideration of Blake’s poem, um, I dunno – try Google or something? More substantial posts to follow soon ^^)

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The Strange Death of the English R

Some thoughts about the disappearance of the terminal r from English speech and its effect on the sound of English poetry…

Andy Fleck's Blog

In one part of Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, the playwright Christopher Marlowe is sent on a mission among the English Catholic exiles in the Low Countries by the spy master Francis Walsingham. As he listens to the speech of an old priest at the English College he starts to notice a subtle defect in his speech:

What he noted in the speech of the speaker was a property that was not of the language of London… Our language is rich in what our orthopeists term the rhotic (I know these things; I was brought up an actor), that is to say our dog sound is a firm roll in words containing the letter r. But this gentleman was weak in it and spoke argument and preacher and Caesar with but a limp tap.
This weak r sound is something that Burgess’s Marlowe continues to notice in the English…

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Wood Magic

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John Buchan is best known as the writer of The Thirty Nine Steps, a very well regarded spy novel, but he was, among other things, a historian, a high-ranking civil servant, a soldier and, for a time, the Governor-General of Canada. There is a picture on the internet of him wearing full native American headgear, with a very earnest expression on his face. He was, as they say, a ‘son of the manse’, that is the son of a minister of the Church of Scotland, but he obviously had a great love for other cultures that went beyond a mere interest in the exotic or unusual.

He was, also, a poet, and though poetry wasn’t perhaps the greatest of his many talents, his poetry is very readable and quite interesting.

I recently read his novel, Witch Wood. Admittedly, that’s a terrible title. Perhaps ‘Witch Wood’ didn’t sound so trite back in the early 20th century, when there weren’t so very many mediocre fantasy franchises around. The title might have put me off, but recently I have been determined to read some novels set in during the English Civil War – or rather the ‘Wars of the Three Kingdoms’, since ‘Witch Wood’ is set in The lowlands of Scotland and the events south of the border barely intrude on the action – though the battles between the factions in Scotland certainly do. I found it on a website which said ‘Unfortunately, there are no great novels set during the Civil War, but here are some which might not be too terrible’.

It follows a year in the life of the minister of the Scottish Kirk, David Sempill, as he settles into his role in the (I think) fictional parish of Woodilee in the Scottish Lowlands. The year is 1644, and Scotland is at war, with the Great Montrose leading a pro-Royalist rebellion from the far north, disrupting the Covenanters who thought they had secured victory for the purified Kirk in Scotland. This has repercussions in David’s parish, but his main struggle is with his own congregation, many of whom are backsliding, not towards the old faith of Catholicism, but to ancient demonic rituals that take place in the woods around that time. To add to his troubles, his own Kirk hierarchy are hypocritical and unsympathetic to the new minister, and his faith is troubled too by a beautiful, pure-hearted noble girl who wanders the local woods dreamily and has very little regard for the strictures of the church, nor for local superstition – and whom David falls in love with. It is a very good book, if you can stomach all of the – very well rendered- 17th century Scottish dialect, which, in the cheaper editions, comes without translations.

Central to the plot of Witch Wood are those devilish goings on in the woods, but it is never quite explained how a 17th century Scottish village can be home to people with detailed knowledge of ancient pagan ceremonies. The reader is left to surmise that Woodilee has since time immemorial carried on ancient pre-Christian traditions in secret.

Buchan explores this idea in a more positive light in the poem Wood Magic.
Wood Magic


I will walk warily in the wise woods on the fringes of eventide,
For the covert is full of noises and the stir of nameless things.
I have seen in the dusk of the beeches the shapes of the lords that ride,
And down in the marish hollow I have heard the lady who sings.
And once in an April gleaming I met a maid on the sward,
All marble-white and gleaming and tender and wild of eye;—
I, Jehan the hunter, who speak am a grown man, middling hard,
But I dreamt a month of the maid, and wept I knew not why.

Down by the edge of the firs, in a coppice of heath and vine,
Is an old moss-grown altar, shaded by briar and bloom,
Denys, the priest, hath told me ’twas the lord Apollo’s shrine
In the days ere Christ came down from God to the Virgin’s womb.
I never go past but I doff my cap and avert my eyes-

(Were Denys to catch me I trow I’d do penance for half a year)—
For once I saw a flame there and the smoke of a sacrifice,
And a voice spake out of the thicket that froze my soul with fear.

Wherefore to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,
Mary the Blessed Mother, and the kindly Saints as well,
I will give glory and praise, and them I cherish the most,
For they have the keys of Heaven, and save the soul from Hell.
But likewise I will spare for the Lord Apollo a grace,
And a bow for the lady Venus-as a friend but not as a thrall.
‘Tis true they are out of Heaven, but some day they may win the place;
For gods are kittle cattle, and a wise man honours them all.

The poem seems to be set in late Roman or early medieval France (‘Jehan’ is an older form of ‘Jean’ – John), in a time when the remains of the old pagan world are still visible through the triumphant Catholic present – Shrines to the Roman gods stand in the woods, and even the priest’s name recalls the pagan past. Jehan’s faith is not in doubt – he cherishes God, Mary and the saints, but he has time and friendship even for the old gods too. The poem is probably closer in spirit Buchan’s feelings about paganism, than are the devilish goings on in the woods of Witch Wood.

When Buchan wrote Witch Wood and Wood Magic, and indeed for much of the twentieth century, many scholars believed that witchcraft was the survival of a pre-Christian religion. This theory has long been debunked, though, like many discredited theories, it has persisted in popular culture. In fact, most beliefs associated with witchcraft, either of its practitioners or those who made accusations, were what Keith Thomas (in Religion and the Decline of Magic) calls parasitic beliefs, that is they were based on the tenets of Christianity, albeit in a corrupted form. I suppose this doesn’t substantially change what Buchan implies about witchcraft and paganism and their relationship to Christianity, however, which is that they fulfil essential human needs that Christianity, in its stricter forms, cannot satisfy, not least that sense of the mysterious beauty of nature that Buchan captures in the poem. Like so many other early 20th century writers and poets, the classically educated, well-travelled Buchan was fascinated by pagan antiquity, as well as other pagan belief systems he came in contact with (hence the head-dress).

All that aside, Wood Magic is a good poem for this time of year, when the days are getting hotter, and the woods serves as a refuge from the heat of day, and the pressures of civilisation.

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His Grange, or Private Wealth

Though clock,

To tell how night draws hence, I’ve none,
A cock
I have to sing how day draws on:
I have
A maid, my Prue, by good luck sent,
To save
That little, Fates me gave or lent.
A hen
I keep, which, creeking day by day,
Tells when
She goes her long white egg to lay:
A goose
I have, which, with a jealous ear,
Lets loose
Her tongue, to tell what danger’s near.
A lamb
I keep, tame, with my morsels fed,
Whose dam
An orphan left him, lately dead:
A cat
I keep, that plays about my house,
Grown fat

With eating many a miching mouse:
To these
A Trasy I do keep, whereby
I please
The more my rural privacy:
Which are
But toys, to give my heart some ease:–
Where care
None is, slight things do lightly please.

Robert Herrick

Herrick starts this poem by telling us what he has not got – what he has no need of in fact: a clock. There is a point to this. In the early seventeenth century clocks were all the rage, and clockmakers – or mechanics, held in high esteem. King James I (VI of Scotland), had his own clockmaker royal, a man, like himself, from Scotland, especially brought to the English court – he is a character in Walter Scott’s ‘The Fortunes of Nigel’, a novel set among the Scottish residents of James’s London. In not using a clock, Herrick seems to be eschewing the modern technology of London, and perhaps also the fripperies of the court for the simple life.

Herrick, however, didn’t always feel this way about the countryside. He starts his poem “His Return to London’ thus,

From the dull confines of the drooping west

To see the day spring from the pregnant east,

Ravish’d in spirit, I come, nay more, I fly

To thee, blest place of my nativity!

The countryside: ugh! He continues this encomium to London by listing much the same sort of benefits that people nowadays will extoll: a diverse, multicultural population (‘All nations, customs, kindreds, languages!’), culture, society, and so on. Presumably this was written after he had spent a good part of the sixteen-twenties living as a parson in the wilds of the West Country, and was sick to the back teeth of the simple life of the countryside. Fair enough: London was his home town after all, and poetry can be born of fleeting moods as much as deep, permanent feelings, especially lyric poetry as this – but we must recognise that Herrick’s point of view in this poem is rather a pose. The poem is a little like one of those ‘Country Diary’ type columns that periodically pop up in broadsheet newspapers, in which a city slicker journalist type retires to the countryside and sends reports on life there for the edification, or amusement, of his readers. Like such columns, this poem is really a kind of boast – unlike you unreformed metropolitan types, I have found a purer, more authentic mode of life, and this is what it is like.

There is another point to Herrick’s mention of the clock – the clock is mechanical, while Herrick’s ‘Private Wealth’, as the alternative title to the poem describes it, is living and breathing. The important things in Herrick’s life are animals and people, companions and not mere possessions. The contrast between the natural environment of the countryside and the artificial one of the city is one almost as old as civilisation itself, but the invention of moving, mechanical possessions that began to gain steam (or momentum at least) in Herrick’s time, sharpened the distinction. Herrick’s use of personal names emphasises further the individuality of his residents – his maid Prue, that is Prudence, and his spaniel, Trasy – though he jokingly treats this as a regular noun. I presume that this grange’s retinue was at least fairly typical of a man of Herrick’s position in the seventeenth century, and probably in earlier centuries too. The poem puts to bed this idea of the countryside as a haven from the noise of the city, whatever else it’s a haven from: Herrick’s house is as teeming with life as any London tavern.

From the tenor of his later poems, I think it likely that the ease and amusement that his companions brought him began to wear thin after a while. I must have a cruel streak, but I like to imagine Herrick sitting irately in his house in Devon, surrounded by his yapping spaniel, his hissing geese and prattling maid, thinking to himself, Lord, what I wouldn’t give for a drink with the lads in old London town!

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Miserable Catullus

Who'll give it to you now?

Who’ll give it to you now?

Miserable Catullus, stop being foolish

And admit it’s over,

The sun shone on you those days

When your girl had you

When you gave it to her like

nobody else ever will.

Everywhere together then, always at it

And you liked it and she can’t say

she didn’t

Yes, those days glowed.

Now she doesn’t want it: why

why should you, washed out

Want to. Don’t trail her,

Don’t eat yourself up alive,

Show some spunk, stand up

and take it.

So long, girl. Catalllus

can take it.

He won’t bother you , he won’t

be bothered:

But you’ll be, nights.

What do you want to live for?

Whom will you see?

Who’ll say your pretty?

Who’ll give it to you now?

Whose name will you have?

Kiss what guy? bite whose

lips?

Come on Catullus, you can

take it.

From ‘Louis Zukofsky selected poems’, ed. Charles Bernstein, The Library of America

Well, yes,kind of Catullus – this is the Zukofsky versian of the Roman poet’s ambivalent plea to himself for fortitude. Zukofsky, the leading light of the ‘Objectivist’ movement, sometime acolyte of Ezra Pound and life-long correspondent with the Northumbrian Poet Basil Bunting, shared with those poets an interest in translation. With bold translation, one might say; Zukofsky dispenses with the scazons of Catullus’ Latin poem – scazons being ‘an iambis trimeter ending with a spondee (or trochee)’, as Guy Lee helpfully explains in the Oxford Classics’ Catullus; anyway, he dispenses with them in favour of short, irregular lines in demotic American English. The modern reader (that’s us) has to make a wee imaginative leap to realize how demotic this would have sounded back in the thirties when it was written –  using words like ‘spunk’ and ‘guys’ in poetry, or addressing one’s beloved as ‘girl’ (that still sounds demotic), not to mention referring to the sexual act as ‘it’. Of course, by the sixties, American poets are happily sexualising pronouns , Rexroth’s lament in Married Blues, ‘the grocer’s got a big one’, being a good example, but before the war poets didn’t say things like that. Many wouldn’t now.

It is a successful experimental translation; experimental in that it translates Catullus into fresh language and successful in that it does so well and is memorable in its own right. One could complain, however, that it is only a partially faithful translation – it translates the sentiments, but not the richness of the language (and therefore, arguably, debases the sentiments). But Zukofsky more than makes up with this with a later translation of the same poem, a ‘homophonic translation’ that is, according to Bernstein,  ‘translation with special emphasis on the sound rather than the lexical meaning’ – though I think (and, since I don’t read Latin, I’m largely guessing) Zukofsky does justice to both, using scazons as well, just to make the purists swoon. Here are the first five lines of the English, followed by the same in the Latin original:

.

Miss her, Catullus? don’t be so inept to rail

at what you see perish when perished is the case.

Full, sure once, candid the sunny days glowed, solace,

when you went about it as your girl would have it,

you loved her as no one else shall ever be loved.

.

Miser Catulle, dēsinās ineptīre,

et quod vidēs perīsse perditum dūcās.

Fulsēre quondam candidī tibī sōlēs,

cum ventitābās quō puella ducēbat

amāta nōbīs quantum amābitur nūlla.

.

Now try reading both aloud, line by line, to see how similar they sound. No longer must you rue missing out on a classical education!

 This post was first published 2012. I’ve been having a busy week – but will return with original posts in due course…

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In Defence of Fatherhood

Occasionally I will venture my thoughts on something other than poetry. This post was a response to a post by my friend (and erstwhile guest blogger on these pages) Stew who in a post earlier this month laid out his reasons for not wanting to father children, ever. I presented him (and his readers) with a few counter arguments to mull over…

harmonioustew

Hi, folks.  Sorry I haven’t been pressing words lately.  I’ve been very bizzy.  And hot!

Without further ado, here’s a guest post from my friend and fellow blogger over at sweettenorbull, who has an axe to grind about something i wrote a little while ago (“Why I Don’t Want to Have Children”).  Apparently, he does.  (I’ll give you time to heave a prodigious sigh of disbelief.)  But seriously, I think he’ll make a great father, especially with such airtight reasons to reproduce.  

In Defence of Fatherhood

 

Stew, I read with interest and enjoyment your argument against having children at the beginning of the month, but felt that the counterarguments deserved an airing too. There are many good reasons to bring children into the world – and I’m not talking about benefits to society, or to the environment or even to your spouse, but benefits to you, yourself and…

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