Tag Archives: Shakespeare

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.



Filed under Literature, Poetry

Where the wild thyme blows…


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.


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…


Filed under humour, Literature, Poetry

Sonnet 73

Help the Aged

In the 1997 Pulp song Help the Aged, Jarvis Cocker pleaded with his listeners to spare a thought for the elderly:

Give a hand, if you can,
try and help them to unwind.
Give them hope & give them comfort ‘cos they’re running out of time

An uncommonly charitable song, you might think, but by the chorus, his true intentions became clear:

When did you first realise?
It’s time you took an older lover baby. Teach you stuff
although he’s looking rough.

By the ‘aged’, Cocker is referring to himself, not really very old at all, only slightly past it in youth culture terms: Cocker wrote the song at the grand old age of 33, and he’s after a very specific kind of help, not, say, tea and digestive biscuits and a bit of company while he’s watching Countdown. As a lyrical type exaggerating his age and its effects to elicit sympathy and affection from a younger lover, Cocker is in good company. Here is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, writing at the not immanently perilous age of 36:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

Shakespeare elicits sympathy from his young lover through his pathetic (in a poetic sense) references to his sorry aged state in the images of an almost bare tree, then the last glow of twilight before night, and finally the last embers of a fire. You will notice that the imagery is progressively more romantic, as if Shakespeare has taken his lover on a nice autumn stroll, before they gaze at the sunset together and then warm themselves by a fire. Clever boy – he knows which buttons to push, does the bard. The carpe diem flavour of the poem is made explicit in the final couplet – he has evoked sympathy and romance, and here is the final push: urgency. You had better love me well as I won’t be around forever.

Erotic and humorous poems abound in the poem. I must credit Schmoop for alerting me to the name-based saucy wordplay on Shakespeare’s own name. The ‘boughs’ which shake against the cold may initially make us think of an older man’s frame – and again it is an image that evokes both sympathy and romance – as well as the vehicle of the metaphor, that sorry autumnal tree; but a ‘shaking bough’ can also be read as a play on shakes spear, with notably phallic overtones – down wanton down! You may also have suspected Cocker of a play on words when he asks you to ‘give a hand’ – what is it with these tricenarians and their dirty jokes? How they have the youngsters blushing and cringing.

Perhaps Shakespeare felt a surge of romantic passion in his mid-thirties, hence the fire and sun imagery in the sonnet; or could it be that he is just eager to assure his lover of his virility, lest a younger rival to his affections be lurking… ‘In me thou seest the glowing of such fire’ – still got it, baby, don’t worry ’bout that! Wherever the source of this energy, its destination is not in doubt, as we can divine from the motifs of nights, beds and lying down in the latter half of the poem, even if it is death-beds he mentions – well, there’s nothing like a bit of memento mori to make one value the moment. How sincere is this carpe diem griping we wonder, and how much a strategy to get his lover between the sheets.

Putting all that filth aside a moment, the poem’s fourth line has been a source of fascination and debate in the last century or so for historians of the Reformation in England. W Empson was the first to point out that the imagery in the line ‘Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang’ was based on what must have been a common sight at the time it was written – churches denuded of decoration, and without the Latin rites a music, according to rules laid down by the courts of Henry, Edward and Elizabeth Tudor. The historian Eamon Duffy (in Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition – the reading of which inspired this postargues that the line shows Shakespeare’s sympathy with a distinct vein of nostalgia and regret current in late-Elizabethan England about the consequences of the Reformation, and even some sympathy for the Catholicism of the past, or at least a certain coolness towards protestant Anglicanism.

Whatever his attitude towards Catholicism, there is no arguing Shakespeare’s catholicism, going from bawdy jokes about his name to evocations of the recent past in the space of two lines… Then again, considering how the English Reformation started, perhaps it is entirely appropriate.


Filed under Literature, Poetry

Be not afeared…

Shamans old and young, Jeju Island

Shamans old and young, Jeju Island

I spent last weekend with my wife and son on Jeju Do, a large island off the south coast of Korea. The weather forecast predicted 20 degrees, even by night – balmy for October; but when we got there, the pleasantly brisk sea breezes made it feel like nothing of the sort. By Sunday, we were sheltering from wholly unforecast rain, and we drove back to the airport Monday morning through rolling fog, blustery gales and squalls of rain. In your face Google, modern meteorology, algorithms and the like, I thought- there are still some things on the earth which you can’t explain and predict accurately. It would be nice to think that islands like Jeju are places where the normal rules of life don’t apply – in fact, the weather changed drastically on account of Typhoon Vongfong (“wasp” in Cantonese) passing closer than predicted on its way to Japan… Either way, it gave the weekend a Tempest sort of feel, and as I enjoyed the sweet airs, before they turned waspish, I recalled Caliban’s speech about the island in Shakespeare’s last play:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

Some readers may remember the speech from Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony at the London Olympics. I think Boyle included it to fit in with the twee Harry Pottery, Mary Poppinsy tone of the performance, but – call me pedantic if you like – I thought the reference was a bit off the mark. Britain may be an island, but a rather large one, and no short passage of verse could encompass everything from the Norfolk Broads to the Scottish Highlands. Shakespeare surely had in mind a smaller sort of an island, and it is interesting to speculate on which he was inspired by. Despite the Mediterranean setting, Shakespeare was inspired by islands both further afield and nearer home. Like others of his era, he would have been impressed by fanciful (or strange-but-true) tales of the new world, and students of orientalism get a kick out of the way ‘Caliban’ is an anagram of Canibal (although school children made to study it make much more of the fact that it sounds like Taliban). But perhaps he was also inspired by one of Britain’s smaller islands – Lundy in the Bristol Channel, the nearest island to Shakespeare’s home town, an isle with a monastery, not a million miles off the idea of an isle run by a wizard, perhaps, or – at a push – Skomer off the coast of Pembrokeshire (one of the world’s most important, wait for it, manx shearwater colonies) or the reedy, windswept isles of the Thames estuary, or even the Isle of Wight. Or some islands a little further to the north…

The Farne Isles are off the coast of Northumberland. They are, of course, a long way from Stratford or London, but Shakespeare would certainly have heard of them, especially the tidal island of Lindisfarne, that is Holy Island. If he had read his Bede, he would have heard of the story of Saint Cuthbert who retired from his ministry for a life of solitary prayer and contemplation on one of the Farne Isles, a short row from the coast. The legend goes that he had to battle and kill a demon before he could make his home there. Modern rationalists can have fun trying to explain way this legend. Did he have to evict some pagan remnants, or menacing (albeit wooden) exorcist-style statues? Did the island just have a nasty pre-christian atmosphere, or some really bad feng shui ( those mosses with that guano? No!)? Or some particularly intransigent terns – known to peck the heads of intruders in mating season, or even some rowdy mating seals? Perhaps Shakespeare was part-inspired by this to come up with the story of Prospero vanquishing the witch Sycorax, and taking over her island, and after a failed attempt at educating him, imprisoning her son, the monster Caliban.

Further north still, there is a slightly more grisly legend about the founding of an island. Monk-watchers among you will know that the monastery on Lindisfarne was founded by the Ionian monk Aidan (later Saint Aiden), at the invitation of King Oswald; his monastery, on Iona, a tiny island off Mull, off the west coast of Scotland, was founded by Colum Cille – Saint Columba – an Irish exile, with friends in the Gaelic-speaking Kingdom of Dal Riata. Colum Cille didn’t make the journey alone, but with a band of monks. When they arrived on the island, Colum Cille declared that a sacrifice should be made to God to consecrate the isle. A grave was dug, and one of his band jumped in to be buried alive, in what seemed like a survival of some pre-Christian rite. True or not, the legend, like Cuthbert’s, like Saint Patrick’s banishment of snakes from Ireland, and like the story of Prospero’s battle with Sycorax, seems to be based in an ancient belief that to take ownership of an island, someone or something must be defeated, some blood must be shed, or demons exorcised.

I don’t know where I’m going with all this: when I arrived on Jeju I vanquished nothing more than a bag of crisps and a cup of coffee.

But I did after all hear a lot of strange noises – the cicadas are all dead this time of year, so not so much the ‘thousand twangling instruments’, but anyway chirping crickets, squeaking bulbuls, squawking magpies, and the noises set in motion by those ‘sweet airs’ the rustling of reeds and oriental pine, the mad swishing back and forth of towering poplars, and of course the crashing of waves on Jeju’s volcanic rock shores. All quite delightful. If there was anything at all Caliban-like on the island it was the ubiquitus island mascot and guardian spirit Harubaeng, a gnarled, and slightly phallic gnome, staring at us boggle-eyed from every stone bridge and gift shop. Despite the typhoon he summoned our way – his idea of a joke perhaps- I felt he meant us no harm.

Jeju island has inspired poetry itself, including some by the Korean poet, Ko Un – who may one of these days win the Nobel prize for literature, and may not – but will still be great. In one of his longer poems, ‘Cheju Island: A Cenotaph‘ he describes a recurring trip to Jeju (sometimes transliterated ‘Cheju’) in which a poet – or a series of poets – travel to the island to be reborn, write a poem and throw it out to sea in a bamboo tube. As in The Tempest, the poem casts its island as a magical place, although in this case the magic is of a kind that inspires rather than merely confounds the protagonist. Which is not to say the magic is wholly innocent…

old shamans are the rocks laid bare by ebb tides,
young shamans so bewitching that
they can enslave old men.

Transl. Clare You and Richard Silberg, from The Three Way Tavern, University of California Press,

Now there’s a magic more sensuous than the spells that put Caliban in his cage. And ‘shaman’ is a lot more sympathetic than ‘witch’. That old shaman, Robert Graves would have thoroughly approved.


Filed under Literature, Long Form, Poetry