Friday, October 28, 2016

Thomas Good (1901-1970)

[A revised version of this post has now been published on Intercapillary Space]

"The Alarm", painting by Gerald Wilde (1947)

[Image source:]

From Thomas Good's poem "Chronometer":


Give me the mid-ocean of a dream
I’ll settle with Apollo
Till the flood of fear, the false equation seem
Vanished in a mirror sandwiched in the dunes.

We have left you, earth to groan, cancelled your riper song
With the tinkling of bones, the inverted stones
Of impalpable wishes, shapeless shells
Of stubborn homes, fleeced fields, phallos of the petrol-pump
To be mined, and divined, and defaced like a skull in a mask.


But the cool instance of a forgotten glove
Moaned in the crazy oven of my hell
No one could lift her through the mustard-clouds
Across the foreshore of the insulated infinite
Or leave her nailed where the god impaled
Ripens the greengage hours.

Fancy painted a thrifty courtship, post-card praise
Love’s barter in the oast, her laughing premium paid
With never a yes or no to say, buds and berries of positive days
An almanac happiness, in violent sepulchral ease
The book tossed away for a boy, in a cesspool of sense, on a dungheap of joy.

Better beget in the peak of the hour, near the weeds grow the flowers
Than in a chapel of fools slouch away from the too fertile worm
And to live on a spring, for a whim, not to stink with a too moist outhouse happiness
Ignoring the breeze of a birth and the bellowing breasts.


Wolverhampton-based Richard Warren's valiant researches into the obscurer reaches of British art and literature, 20th century vintage,  have thrown up another distraught gem in the work of Beeston-born Thomas Good, a 1940s poet who reminds me somewhat of Peter Yates, who I wrote about recently. But Good is less controlled,  more unpredictable.

These two short extracts from the 24 stanzas of  "Chronometer" give an idea of the breadth of  content allowed into the poem, the navigation so perilously close to the edge of losing us completely, the sometimes thrilling sensuousness of "greengage hours", "moist outhouse happiness", "bellowing breasts" etc.

Typical of the period are its disillusioned judgmentalism (both condemnatory and self-condemnatory), a world of "fools" (a term much-used in those days, now less so), and a peculiarly exclusive focus on male experience.  And in forties particularly, lots of unlocated use of "the" ("the flood of fear", "the mustard clouds", "the insulated infinite".

You wouldn't guess it from these extracts, but "Chronometer" mainly springs from thoughts of the South of France, then under Occupation (Nov 1942-Summer 1944).  (Good and his family had moved to near Aix-en-Provence in 1937, hoping to counteract a fresh onset of Good's nervous anxiety. They returned to England near the start of the war.)

That war-time background is overt in e.g. "Let the almonds and the vines of Prussia bend and bleed / In reparation" ; though it's of course rather a perverse way of putting it, Prussia not being known for its vines and almonds. The poem doesn't do war reportage. Perhaps it even disdains so small a topic. What it laments is not so much war as modernity.  The poet's anguish about Provence is confessedly about Good's own personal psychological journey, "his wound a turgid jewel in the brain"; quite a bit of the poem is slightly-reshaped autobiography. Good has been called an uneven poet, and "Chronometer" comes to rest in old-fashioned apostrophe ("O France, O England.."), a very long way from the arresting thicket of syntax in its opening stanza:

I have an inkling that the taste of forgotten lemons
Skins unsalvaged, returning near the ebb of summer-time
Now the dioxide fastens my sorrow, conjures a city, shapes a song
From a crucified chaos opens a circle, deflects the borrowed wheel
Of futility, which even the partially blessed are said to feel.

(Though even here, the thought did cross my mind that inside every extraordinary poem there's an ordinary one trying to get out.)

But still, "Chronometer" is a motley kind of triumph, its torrent of askew images enlivening pretty much every stanza; it's a poem you want to keep on re-reading.  And here, in 1944, Good was already trying to deal with some pressing implications that now affect most poets in a globally-conscious world. Culture happens here, war there. Yet the poetry cannot operate in happy ignorance. (We know, for example, that Aleppo is happening.) The poet's mind is strung to a distant conflict but without real involvement and therefore without resolution. Or is there a way of articulating how our own psychological or spiritual experience bears on larger movements of violence and suffering?

A Selection of Thomas Good poems:

Profile of Good's life and work:

Accompanying blog post:

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The beast's cry

Holloway, Bath (painting by Valérie Pirlot)

[Image source:]


A day in Bath, for Laura and me, often ends with a galloping ascent (or sometimes a trudge) up Beechen Cliff via the steep lane known as Holloway, eventually to emerge on the surprising half-way plateau of Bear Flat.  Many years ago this lane was the main road into Bath from the south, but now it's just a local access road with minimal traffic and is good for striding out.

The Horse-trough, Holloway, Bath

[Image source:]

A renovated horse-trough, half-way along the lane, bears the following rhyme, commemorating a man's vicious treatment of his horse upon this spot. Perhaps it was a pack-horse carrying coal or other heavy goods into the city.

I learned the epigram by heart after repeated walks, but have corrected my memory from the image here. 

A man of kindness to his beast is kind,
But brutal actions show a brutal mind.
Remember! He who made thee, made the brute,
Who gave thee speech and reason, formed him mute.
He can't complain, but God's all-seeing eye
Beholds thy cruelty and hears his cry.
He was designed thy Servant, not thy Drudge.
Remember! his Creator is thy Judge.

The author is unknown. [.. or maybe not! keep reading...]

According to the Preface of the Third Edition of the veterinarian James White's Compendium of Cattle Medicine, the poem appeared in the Bath Herald on March 31, 1821. I don't know the date of White's third edition, but I've read that the fifth edition was 1828, so this must be a fairly contemporary witness.

White quotes the poem, with interesting differences from the above text, and with a Biblical epitaph:

A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast. -- Prov. xii. 10

A man of kindness to his beast is kind,
But brutal actions show a brutal mind.
Remember He who made thee made the brute,
Who gave thee speech and reason form'd him mute.
He can't complain, but God's omniscient eye
Beholds thy cruelty -- HE hears his cry.
He was design'd thy servant and thy drudge ;
But know that his Creator is thy Judge.

White's version of the penultimate line convinced me; Servants in 1821 were usually drudges; pack-horses definitely were. "Not thy drudge", I thought, must belong to a later age of sentiment.

All wrong, as it turns out.  And the poem didn't originate in Bath, after all.


The Atheneum Vol II includes this notice (I think, though it isn't clear, from around Nov 1817, but certainly no later than April 1818) :


A master butcher, of Ipswich, named Beard, for a wager of 10l, undertook to ride his hackney mare, 14 hands high, from Ipswich to London and back again, a distance of 133 miles, in 19 hours! The barbarous owner, who weighed 10 stone, started from Ipswich at six o'clock in the the evening; he reached London at two in the morning, rested about two hours, and arrived in sight of Ipswich, and within half a mile of his own house, twenty five minutes within the time allowed, when the poor animal fell exhausted and soon expired. The following lines were printed and stuck up in various parts of the town of Ipswich the same evening :-

[Text  similar to White, except for "He was designed thy servant, not thy drudge ;". ]

So it's clear that the "not thy drudge" variant was already available in 1817, if the beast in question was a horse for riding rather than a pack-horse. And this became the more popular version, for instance in equestrian circles (see below).

A longer account of the Ipswich story, also under the heading "Cruelty to Animals" occurs in The Sportsman Magazine, from which it appears that Beard's attempt (which would no doubt have been treated as a sporting triumph if it had come off), occurred in Summer 1817. (His letter of grovelling apology was dated July 17th, 1817.)


A concourse of people -- horse-jockies, etc, who lined the road, to witness her arrival, attempted to cheer and stimulate the poor dying creature with their cries. One of them bled her. Still anxious for the completion of their sport, they, after that useless operation had been performed, placed her on her feet, and endeavoured to shoulder her forward. As they pulled the bridle, in this effort, the shrieks and groans of the agonized animal were distressing beyond all description. In this last act of barbarity, however, Beard did not participate. Death, at length, terminated the misery of this poor victim of human brutality. On examination, it was found, that the fore shoes were worn quite bare; that one of her hind shoes was broken in two; that the other was broken, and one half gone; and that her hind hoofs were stumped up to the nail-holes. 


This, then, was the ugly reality behind William Harrison Ainsworth's fantasy (in his 1834 romance Rookwood) of Dick Turpin riding Black Bess from London to York in a single night, the noble animal's heart bursting at the last.

But was this Ipswich story the origin of our poem? No!

The poem had already appeared in The American Magazine (August 1815 - vol I, p. 127) *

[ * For more about this publication, see my follow-up post: ]

This is not only the earliest but the most persuasive text I've seen. (The poem is beginning to make me think of George Crabbe now.)


"The righteous man regardeth the life of his beast."**

The man of kindness to his beast is kind,
But brutal actions show a brutal mind.
Remember, he who made thee, made the brute,
Who gave thee speech and reason, form'd him mute ;
He can't complain -- but GOD'S all-seeing eye
Beholds thy cruelty and hears his cry ;
He was designed thy servant and thy drudge,
But know that his Creator is thy JUDGE!

[** Proverbs 12:10]

I was happy to rediscover, in this earliest text encountered so far, an aspect of the horse-trough text that had appealed to me: the assertion that God's eye can hear.

Can an eye hear? Not really: the only thing an eye can hear is silence.

And as we saw in Ipswich, the mute beast is certainly not a silent beast, only a wordless one. Even we, even the cruel jockeys, can hear the cry, if it comes to that. But God hears in the Psalmist's sense: the sense in which a judge hears an appeal. The eye of God is no friend of the masters of this earth.



The poem in its various versions continued to circulate both in Britain and in America.

The poem appears in J. Barker's The Christian Investigator and Evangelical Reformer (1841),  the text more or less the same as in White. It also appears in The Mother's Friend (New York, 1843); on the wall of a Shaker barn, belonging to the ex-Quaker Robert White,  in 1846; and in The Lady's Equestrian Guide (1857).

Merch ei mam's comment on this post started me off in a new direction. Merch had seen the poem in a hand-written book on horse management belonging to the family. The original book dates from 1848, but maybe the poem was inserted by the village schoolmaster when he transcribed the book in 1864. Anyway, in this copy the poem is attributed to William Cowper.

The poem doesn't appear in Cowper's Works so far as I can tell (I checked Stebbing's 1869 edition) but a cursory search did turn up an earlier attribution of the poem to Cowper, in the 1824 American Sunday-School Teachers' Magazine and Journal of Education. The article notes the recent establishment in England of a society for the suppression of cruelty to animals (this was the SPCA, which became the RSPCA), and recommends Sunday-school teachers to set up similar societies in America. They would be "productive of much good", the author says, quoting the following anecdote (though without naming a source):

"It is customary in Huntingdonshire, (Eng.) sometimes to practice the following very cruel sport, called 'Cock running.' The wings of a fowl are clipped, and it is then set at liberty, while a number of persons, with their hands tied behind them, having entered as runners, at so much a head, chase, and endeavour to catch it with their mouths, the successful one being entitled  to the bird. An attempt was made to have one of these runnings on Shrove Tuesday, 1822; but a sufficient number of runners did not offer : this was attributed to a general distribution of the following beautiful lines from the poet Cowper:

A man of kindness to his beast is kind ;
But brutal actions show a brutal mind ...   "  etc

The poem was also attributed to Cowper in The World's Advance Thought (Portland, Oregon. Vol XXVI No. 2 (August 1913)). Most of the articles were written by Lucy A. Rose Mallory and "Poisoned Blood the Cause" is no exception. [It's a pro-vegetarianism article. The poisoned blood in question is the blood of those who eat meat.]


William Cowper would certainly be a good candidate, as far as the sentiments go.

Bitter the persecution and the pain
That man inflicts on all inferior kinds
Regardless of their plaints. To make him sport,
To gratify the frenzy of his wrath,
Or his base gluttony, are causes good
And just in his account, why bird and beast
Should suffer torture...

(from The Task, Book 3)

I would not enter on my list of friends,
Though graced with polished manners and fine sense,
Yet wanting sensibility, the man
Who needlessly sets foot upon a worm.
An inadvertent step may crush the snail
That crawls at evening in the public path ;
But he that has humanity, forewarned,
Will tread aside, and let the reptile live. ...

 (from The Task, Book 6)

Then there's "The Cock-Fighter's Garland". The poem is a bit too long to quote in full (it's on PoemHunter), but I'll give a couple of stanzas here, along with Cowper's accompanying note:

That such a man once was, may seem
Worthy of record, (if the theme
Perchance may credit win,)
For proof to man, what man may prove,
If grace depart, and demons move
The source of guilt within.

This man (for since the howling wild
Disclaims him, man he must be styled)
Wanted no good below;
Gentle he was, if gentle birth
Could make him such; and he had worth,
If wealth can worth bestow.

(St 2-3)

[Note] Written on reading the following, in the obituary of the "Gentleman's Magazine" for April, 1789 :-- "At Tottenham John Ardesoif, Esq, a young man of large fortune, and, in the splendor of his carriages and horses, rivalled by few country gentlemen. His table was that of hospitality, where, it may be said, he sacrificed too much to conviviality : but, if he had his foibles, he had his merits also, that far outweighed them. Mr. A. was very fond of cock-fighting, and had a favourite cock, upon which he had won many profitable matches. The last bet he laid upon this cock he lost ; which so enraged him that he had the bird tied to a spit and roasted alive before a large fire. The screams of the miserable animal were so affecting, that some gentlemen who were present attempted to interfere, which so enraged Mr. A., that he seized a poker, and with the most furious vehemence declared, that he would kill the first man who interposed ; but, in the midst of his passionate asseverations, he fell down dead upon the spot. Such, we are assured, were the circumstances which attended the death of this great pillar of humanity."

Despite all this evidence of common interests, I feel that our poem isn't by Cowper: the firm Augustan style seems unlike him. Animal cruelty was a hot topic of the later eighteenth century, and many progressive folk felt strongly about it: these debates, with their glimmering perception that man's responsibilities go beyond the benefit of his own kind, are the distant ancestors of today's anguish about a planet we seem intent on destroying. (And how much more, its proponents argued, should cruelty to our fellow man be condemned! The emergent animal welfare movement was closely linked to the anti-slavery movement.)



At the end of the second chapter of Dickens' Barnaby Rudge (1841), Gabriel Varden, after an unpleasant incident on the dark road, and with a broken lantern, decides to drop in at the Maypole:


He tried to look stoically at the tavern, but his features would relax into a look of fondness. He turned his head the other way, and the cold black country seemed to frown him off, and drive him for a refuge into its hospitable arms.

'The merciful man, Joe,' said the locksmith, 'is merciful to his beast. I'll get out for a little while.'

And how natural it was to get out! And how unnatural it seemed for a sober man to be plodding wearily along through miry roads, encountering the rude buffets of the wind and pelting of the rain, when there was a clean floor covered with crisp white sand, a well swept hearth, a blazing fire, ...


Gabriel is evidently quoting a well-known saying to Joe (though resting his horse is really just an excuse for extending his own stay a little longer than replacing a broken lantern strictly requires...).

And so he is.  Like our "man of kindness" poem in Bath, The merciful man is merciful to his beast was often carved on horse-troughs and other drinking troughs (e.g. in Hampstead High Street (c. 1875), Lyndhurst (1902), Philadelphia (1913)), and is ultimately based on Proverbs 12:10 (KJV: "A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel"). But its origins seem to go back further than the poem: for example, it appears in a sermon of 1718 by the Quaker preacher Thomas Chalkley.

Scott was reputedly fond of the saying, and he used it in St Ronan's Well (1823), Chapter XXXVI.

The pig-sticking episode in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure was, somewhat unexpectedly, reprinted by the Victorian Society for the Protection of Animals in their journal The Animal's Friend (Dec. 1895) under the heading "A Merciful Man", showing that the proverb was well-known enough to be glancingly alluded to. Hardy himself had quoted the saying, in rather memorable circumstances, in the story "A Few Crusted Characters" in Life's Little Ironies (1894). [This information comes from Adrian Tait's interesting paper on Hardy's thinking about inhumanity to animals: .]

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Monday, October 24, 2016

Plastic man

Leaves and fruit of  Eurasian Walnut, (Juglans regia),  outside Green Park Station, Bath 23/10/2016

I am a plastic man,

my brain meat cracked on a pavement

in thousands, the sweep along the shores of time

of a single roll-mat wave, and the next,

the draught of a single Thor, and another.

The clouds mimic darkness, the pestle muddies the water-bowl

the big animal swims and the leaves flow across

diagonally between islands, the dungarees and socks to the wash and drying-stand,

the cutlery to the cutlery-box and the table laid for tomorrow's breakfast,

reading In Kedar's Tents in a Brook Street hotel...

the chapters ruffle in the open air.

Set fire to me if you can!

for the season's incense, cracking in the long dark evenings.

Autumn is a whispering season too: MosulMosul, it whispers.
It's a time to clear the camps of excessive growth,
And often the sound of a heavy footfall: Trump.

And every nut colours their vote with crayons, or ballpoints blackened at the chewed end.

Common Lime leaves (Tilia x europaea), Frome 23/10/2016

And I remember laughing with the edge upon  the wind
and your nose your little apple nose the photographs of you and me
remote among the specks, the sooty moulds upon the setting suns of long descending yesterdays

Sweeping the wind and the flail;
the eye doubtful,
particulars in masses,
sharpened by the shades,
the tree emerging from the wood
we see him suddenly
in thin robes
I am the plastic man...

What are these gestures
in the midst of the slide?                [And it comes to me as by carpal tunnel syndrome

November campion with a torn grace;
The last outburst in the nursing home;
we were too distressed to remember what he sang.

The crowds tramp like leaves across the iron bridge.

Trodden leaves of Cherry (Prunus species) and Norway Maple (Acer platanoides),  from a pavement  in Bath, 23/10/2016


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Sycamores in Shakespeare

Old Fig-Mulberry (Ficus sycomorus) in Ayia Napa, Cyprus

[Image source:]

Back to plants and poetry; both together in this case.

Shakespeare mentions sycamores three times in his plays.

In Act I Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio informs Lady Montague where her son, the stereotypical melancholy lover Romeo, has wandered off to.

Madam, an hour before the worshipp'd sun
Peer'd forth the golden window of the east,
A troubled mind drave me to walk abroad;
Where, underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward rooteth from the city's side,
So early walking did I see your son:
Towards him I made, but he was ware of me
And stole into the covert of the wood:
I, measuring his affections by my own,
That most are busied when they're most alone,
Pursued my humour not pursuing his,
And gladly shunn'd who gladly fled from me.

(Old Montague remarks that this is a regular haunt for Romeo's sighs and tears.)

In Act V Scene 2 of Love's Labours Lost, Boyet tells us:

Under the cool shade of a sycamore
I thought to close my eyes some half an hour.

And finally, in Act IV Scene 3 of Othello, Desdemona sings the opening line of the "Willow Song":

The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
    Sing all a green willow...

We'll come back to this song, but for now I'm going to focus on the passage in Romeo and Juliet, impelled there by Richard Paul Roe's book, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown Travels (2011). This book, published soon after its author's death in 2010, has gained a certain reputation among Anti-Stratfordians, i.e. those people who think that Shakespeare's works were not written by Shakespeare but by someone else. They believe it unlikely that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon knew Italy at first hand. So they think that if the plays reveal first-hand knowledge of Italy, it helps their case.

Roe points out that the direct source for RJ, Arthur Brooke's Tragicall Historye (1562), doesn't mention any sycamores; nor do such earlier versions of the story as Bandello's (1554). So they were a new addition by the author of Romeo and Juliet.  Roe travelled to Verona and was shown sycamores just outside the Porta Palio, once a gate in the medieval walls on the west side of Verona. These trees are descendants, he claims, of the grove actually seen in situ by the author of Romeo and Juliet. (He would have seen the same Porta Palio that survives today: it was built in 1550-1561, replacing an earlier gate.)

Roe isn't specific, but judging from this Italian source, it appears that the trees in question are Fig-Mulberry (Ficus sycomorus), a splendid tree commonly planted in urban sites in the Mediterranean, and called "sicomoro" in Italian. (The name, of Greek origin, literally means Fig  (sykon) + Mulberry (moron).)

It's native to the Middle East and has been cultivated, like the Common Fig, for thousands of years. It's too frost-tender to grow in Britain.

But as it happens it is the species that was originally meant by "sycamore" in English, because the earliest OED examples (sense 1)  are all talking about the tree in the Bible, e.g in Luke 19:4.

Et praecurrens ascendit in arborem sycomorum ut videret eum: quia inde erat transiturus. (Luke 19:4, Vulgate)

And he ran before,  and climbed up into a sycomore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way. (Luke 19:4, Kings James Version)

(The earliest English versions translate this as "a wild fig tree" but Douay-Rheims (1582) reverted to the Vulgate "sycomore" and this was adopted by the King James Version.)


The OED (Sycamore, sense 2) tells us that Shakespeare's sycamore (specifically in the passage from Love's Labours Lost) means Acer pseudoplatanus, the tree that we in England call Sycamore today. (In Scotland, it's often called the Plane. You sometimes see the term Great Maple; nobody really uses it, but at least it's unambiguous, unlike the other vernacular names.)

This is a species that grows very well in Britain. It's apt to spread in the wild and indeed is considered rather a pest by conservationists, but most authorities (not all)  are in agreement that it isn't a native tree. One of the arguments is that native A. pseudoplatanus in Europe are upland trees and there was no land of that sort anywhere close to the land-bridge. But I don't really understand this argument, because immediately after an Ice Age conditions in the lowlands are like the top of a mountain. In those very early days, the plants that we call high alpines would make their return to Britain. Later on, as conditions progressively warmed, subalpines, montane and submontane plants. Finally, the lowland plants of today. Surely at some point during that long succession the conditions would have been right for A. pseudoplatanus to make its move!

But anyway, most people aren't convinced that it's a native. What would have been the ecological niche of this supposedly native plant? These days, we only ever see it as invading other niches. Being salt-resistant, it's particularly well-established in the harsh conditions of our north-eastern coasts; undercliffs and the like. Yet in Europe it's a tree of inland hills.

Unfortunately there isn't any agreement about when it was introduced.

Perhaps it was the Romans. Or perhaps it took place some time in the Middle Ages. There is a naturalistic carving of the leaf and keys of A. pseudoplatanus on the 14th Century shrine of St Frideswide in Christchurch, Oxford. Hard to know what to make of that: other carvings on the shrine include grapevine, mulberry, ivy, oak and greater celandine.

Perhaps the majority view is that A. pseudoplatanus was introduced in the 16th Century. Alan Mitchell suggested that it was first introduced to Scotland from France, around 1550. The two nations were closely allied at the time, and this could explain why many of the oldest and best specimen trees are in Scotland; for example the Newbattle Abbey tree, which fell in 2006, reckoned to have been planted in 1560 by the Earl of Lothian.

When someone in the unsystematic age of Shakespeare uses a plant-name, particularly to name a plant they have actually seen or used for themselves and not a plant in a book, it's often difficult or impossible to know what species of plant they were talking about. Popular plant-names are notorious for being applied in a very individualistic way to a wide variety of different species. "Sycamore", in England, was a name in search of a tree.

So when in Chaucer's Hous of Fame we hear of "a table of sycamour" (line 1276) - presumably a fictional table - , or when in the Paston Letters we find "a payre of beddes of segamore" (1506) - presumably real beds - , how can we say with certainty what kind of timber was meant? (The timber of A. pseudoplatanus is excellent, but had it even been introduced into Britain by that date? We just don't know.) The  OED's early examples of "Sycamore" in the sense of A. pseudoplatanus (sense 2)  all contain a strong dash of uncertainty. They might mean A. pseudoplatanus, but they might equally well mean something else.

And Shakespeare's references to "sycamore" are no exception. I'm not at all convinced he had A. pseudoplatanus in mind.

The first of the OED sense 2 examples where we can say:  "Yup, that's definitely A. pseudoplatanus.." date from no earlier than 1657. This isn't a particularly unusual situation when it comes to plant and tree names. Before that date, the kind of people who worked with trees, and who therefore had a good reason to explain exactly which tree they meant, were illiterate. It was only with the growth of written botany, and other writings about gardens and forestry and estate management, that we begin to know exactly what species is being referred to.

(In the USA, "Sycamore" means a plane tree, Platanus species, (OED sense 3), but this seems to have begun only in the 19th century.)


... "bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang", "the crow makes wing to the rooky wood", "My way of life is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf", "When lofty trees I see barren of leaves / which erst from heat did canopy the herd" ...

Shakespeare wrote some of the greatest poetry about trees in the English language, but nothing convinces me that he was particularly interested in or skilled in separating one species from another. He was not a botanist or a forester.

The trees he names most often are Oak and Willow. Birch is named only as a schoolroom instrument of punishment; Ash as a synecdoche for spear. Beech, Poplar and Maple, all included in Spenser's "catalogue of trees" in The Fairie Queene I.1.8-9, are never mentioned by Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's three references to Elm are clearly grounded (like Spenser's) in fable and proverb, and the same can be said of the references to Pine. Shakespeare had read that pines were lofty and that they grew on mountains. But he didn't realize that when pines grow on mountains they are not lofty.

You may as well forbid the mountain pines
To wag their high tops and to make no noise,
When they are fretten with the gusts of heaven;  (Merchant of Venice)

This kind of cultural or literary context, rather than direct acquaintance with the tree in question, also seems to me the best way of looking at Shakespeare's references to Sycamore -- a tree, by the way, that doesn't appear in Spenser's "catalogue of trees", confirming the suspicion that it was far from commonplace in Britain at this date.

Most likely Shakespeare didn't envisage any particular species that he'd seen for himself. He meant the Sycamore that he had read about or heard about. The Sycamore for him would be a euphonious, rather exotic sounding tree-name with classical and biblical connections. Just the thing for his plays with their exotic far-away settings.


The Willow Song in Othello was evidently not Shakespeare's own composition. He part-quotes (and part-adapts) fragments of an already well-known song (perhaps from around 1570, perhaps a bit earlier); the music is in older lute-books, though the earliest complete-ish text of the lyric is in a manuscript of 1616. Typical of popular songs, it positively thrives on enigma; having referred to sycamore in its opening line, it thereafter refers only to willow. In the original song, the lovesick protagonist is male. The sycamore's appearance here and in the RJ passage suggests that it had developed an association with lovesick swains. Perhaps that association arose because of the opening line of the popular song, or perhaps from false-etymology: sick-amor.  At this point in the play Shakespeare wanted to establish Romeo's conventionally lovesick behaviour, and adorned his description with the first appropriate-sounding tree-name that came to mind.

[ I took this idea from the poet Robin Hamilton; it came up in a discussion on the British-Poets forum. But there's a history of it going back to Delius, see Klaus Bartenschlager's Note "The Love-Sick Tree" -- which unfortunately I haven't read beyond the first page, because access is controlled by the academic publishing industry. ]


What then to make of Roe's discovery? His Verona trees don't look old, and them being where they are doesn't prove (or even particularly suggest) that trees of the same species were there in the 1580s. This area is now paved and tarmacked. Is there any evidence of continuity with a more ancient grove? Or was this a relatively recent urban planting? Perhaps the canny Veronese authorities chose the "sicomoro" with the famous play about their city in mind?

Here's what I really think. Unlike the Anti-Stratfordians, I don't find it inconceivable that Shakespeare (of Stratford-upon-Avon) might have visited Italy. There was plenty of unaccounted-for time in the 1580s when we don't know what Shakespeare was doing. But as things stand I don't know of any persuasive evidence that he ever went to Italy. Probably he never travelled outside England. But people tend to under-rate the combined power of his omnivorous reading, his life in a cosmopolitan city, his unparalleled imagination and his unparalleled gift for thinking himself into other people's skins. When Shakespeare set plays in Italy or elsewhere,  painting a realistic portrait of the locale and culture came fairly low down on his priority list.  But because he imagined his stories so intensely and so fully, he was more than usually apt to hit on things that really turned out to be close to local events of which he had no knowledge. In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare mentioned sycamores without much reflection, but the things that perhaps unconsciously influenced his choice -  the fact that they had exotic biblical associations as well as associations with the behaviour of lovers - are by no means entirely unrelated to the reasons why there really are sicomoros in Verona today, and surely were in the 1580s too, if not perhaps just to the "westward" of the "city's side". It was a tree of sunny climes, a valued tree, a tree planted for shade in urban spaces, a tree therefore that in a place like Italy would inevitably be used as a prop in the elaborate rituals of love. All those ideas might have occurred to Shakespeare simply from reading his Bible, if he had been ethno-botanically inclined. But of course he wasn't, and that wasn't how it happened. The ideas came to him not consciously, and not to him alone. The hive-mind of European literature was already fixing these ideas about the sicomoro in story and song. So Shakespeare's surprise bull's-eye is not such a surprise.  

[Just as it's not such a surprise that there's a "Sagittary" in Shakespeare's Venice, and  it turns out that there's a Frezzeria ("fletchery") in the real Venice. Details in the link below.  ]

Acer pseudoplatanus, the Sycamore in modern English parlance

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Monday, October 17, 2016

Me n my blog

While I was on my recent travels, one of the cloudy ideas that kept coming back to me was that I would try to put in order some of the ideas that lie behind the rather large body of posts (some 700) that I've amassed over the last eleven years.

It was my intention, early on, that the blog would have no unifying topic. But in effect it does keep being, with only minor exceptions, about the same topics. Reductively speaking, it's a flowers and poetry blog. And the point is --- what?

We can begin, tediously enough, with relativism. From my distant academic grounding in literature (especially medieval literature), I wanted to stretch myself to look at all sorts of literature, from all ages and places. I wanted to look outside the canon as well as within it. My old-fashioned question was, is it meaningful to designate some writing as good and some as bad? I thought not. I thought everything deserved attention. I considered it as a reverence that we ought, ideally, to feel and express for all human artefacts.

I've made my peace with the canon now, to a large degree. I see that selection is an inevitable social process. We need to be able to converse about the same things, or our conversations will be very limited indeed. Yet it's salutary to see that greatness has its arbitrary side. I often think of Malvolio: "some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them". The great authors that I love to write about have become great, not only because of the personal genius that I try to reverence, but also by being read and written about. Greatness, that is to say, is a social construction.

The connection with flowers is, I suppose, obvious. We don't call one plant good and another bad, in themselves. If you are like me, you love all plants. It's only when we have a particular end in view that one plant becomes better than another: better, that is, for our purpose.

But let's come back to artefacts, which in this blog tends to mean literary artefacts. Another of my very few ideas is about a comparatively definite distinction between the outer view and the inner view. The outer view is the one we take of artefacts in which we have no engagement; and the inner view is the opposite. Traditionally, outer views are dismissed. For example, we don't take much interest in someone's opinion about Tristan und Isolde if they don't care for opera. But none of us is inward all the time. And a dialogue that takes place entirely within a circle of fans soon becomes unhealthily isolated from the largeness of the world. So I believe that a dialectic between inner and outer is a necessary aim for a critic. Not just for a critic. It's also how we should negotiate life.


Life... I believe we are products of our environment and never fully know ourselves. I believe we inherit, from our past and from the tribe and from our environment, very large parts of our thinking, and it's a difficult but vital practice to try and look at these thoughts from a different perspective than when we are helplessly thinking them.

Consequently, I think that I believe much the same as what many other people believe. And the comments stream beneath Guardian articles tends to confirm that. I should like to be more radical and original than I am, but actually nearly everything I think is being thought by lots of other people at the same time. And yet, what we think isn't true, or is only a very partial truth at any rate.

Of course I believe that biography is shaping, so my own life story is relevant. One side of my family is English, the other Swedish. My upbringing is middle-class, but only the English side of my family were middle-class. My friends are mainly working-class. I live on a council estate. My job is a bit in-between. Naturally enough I'm fascinated by the different cultures and behaviours that surround me. Naturally enough they question my own assumptions sharply.

As I grow older (I'm 58) I become more aware of the limitations, helplessly imbibed, of my generation. For example, I believe that everyone of my age, certainly every white male, is to some degree racist and sexist. We have to strive against these attitudes, but it requires a certain self-honesty, not easily achieved, to recognize how deeply they're ingrained.

My interest in plants and nature provokes another line of questioning about this human life. Dante speaks of man's triple soul: vegetable, animal and rational. I decline to order these in ascending value. Much of how we live can be seen as exemplifying the vegetable soul working itself out; and much more the animal soul. The fundamental differences between how plants live and how animals live is, of course, a perennial meditation of mine. (And of course I believe in plant intelligence.) How we humans live is partly an elaboration of these elements within ourselves, partly too (as Dante rather neglected) a necessary accommodation with the ways of plants and animals in our environment. Of course I lament the lack of interest in or contact with nature in our urban lives. But at the same time I read these urban lives as in themselves profoundly natural (that is, part of nature), and as continuing to express the needs of the vegetable and animal elements within us.

The vegetable element of fixedness, solidity, home, a base, roots; and the animal restlessness of emotions, movement, energy, violence and petrol. (It's perhaps the rational soul that I feel is the least well-founded part of Dante's conception.)


And so, finally as far as this hasty post is concerned, to nations and languages. Among the kind of people that I exemplify, the nation-state has long been the subject of severe critique. We try to look at things more globally. My own smatterings of half a dozen languages (regrettably, all European) reflect a moderately sustained effort to see things from outside the English-speaking world and its literatures, at any rate. And of course I've especially used the feelings I have about Sweden, a permanent frozen need to inhabit the Nordic world where I've never lived and whose languages I'm far from fluent in, in order to investigate what is meant by love for own nation or nations, an emotion I feel in a very strong degree. How does this work with the global outlook that we seek, however feebly, to cultivate?

I am not an academic, and I have to make the best of that. I've written about many things, but there's no subject, no field, not even one area of a field, that I really know a lot about. Those inadequate smatterings of languages are typical of my knowledge generally. I'm not a botanist and I haven't read most of the modern poetry that a scholar of modern poetry would consider as a necessary basis. I'm theoretically uninformed, and am often worrying over questions about which a large body of debate, almost unknown to me, has certainly accrued already. Often the best thing I could say, the thing I ought to say, is: go and read about it elsewhere. But of course I have to hope that there's a place for my kind of ignorance too. It appears to me that most of our fine ideas are ultimately grounded in trying to valorize our own life-choices, and my own ideas are certainly no exception to the rule.


If I could have continued with this beyond my bed-time, I'd have liked to get on to other preoccupations: birth and growth, the seasonal cycles, waste and death and decay and the washing clean of water and ice. And love: our need to give it and to receive it; the reason, so often confused, for almost everything we do. Self-love and self-centredness, too. Change, and extinction. Climate change and greed and our other violences and cruelties. Duty. Drugs. Being here. Health.

This is becoming vague and poetical. I think it'll be back to specifics for the next 700 posts.

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

the inner workings of my surroundings

No time for a big post at the moment, so here's just a pointer to a fascinating book that I was told about by a friend:

My Life Story by Emily Shareefa of Wazan  (1912)

Emily, a well-born English girl, married the Grand Shareef of Wazan (Ouezzane, Wazzan) at Tangier in 1873, with her family's very reluctant consent. This book about her subsequent life in Morocco was written in 1911.

R.B Cunninghame Graham remarks in the Preface: "Even Doughty's great epic of Arabia has to yield in some respects to this plain narrative of daily life written so simply and in such good faith..." Indeed, it does. Doughty romantically celebrates, through half-closed eyes, the eternal Otherness of the Arab world; the Shareefa patiently, and often comically, learns to live it.

During the first few weeks of my marriage almost daily excursions were made. The Shareef had a large orange garden near the town of Tangier, and thither we proceeded, lunch being sent on after us. I admired the gardener's baby son, and the mother made me understand that it belonged to the Shareef.  I was so taken aback that I hastily returned the child to its parent, and went and sat under an orange tree and wept. At first I did not reply to the Shareef's inquiries for the reason of my tears; on second thoughts, I put on rather an injured air and told him what I had discovered. He was much amused, and told me I had much to learn regarding the little episode. Forthwith he explained to me how barren women, or those wishing for a son, came to the Zowia or Sanctuary for his prayers and intercession with God to grant the wishes of the supplicant. Faith, he said, was a powerful force in the Mohammedan religion, and that for that reason the Shorfa (plural for Shareef) were approached on divers requests, the sanctity of their lineage making them Saints. The gardener's wife had five daughters, and, by wearing an amulet the Shareef had directed to be given to her, she had, for her sixth child, borne a son; consequently he belonged to the Zowia or Sanctuary. I don't think I was convinced just then. My complete ignorance of the inner workings of my surroundings started me thinking, and gave me an impulse to learn Arabic; for I fully recognized that unless I could master that language, the manners and customs would be a closed book to me for ever.  ...

Now read on!


Monday, October 10, 2016

Dan Andersson (1888-1920): "Visa" ("Song")

The river Pajso, in Dalarna

[Image source:]

With the kind of serendipity that I've noticed before when mixing up my reading on my travels, I find that Dan Andersson, the Swedish poet, translated Baudelaire (whose poems I was reading at around the same time), and died accidentally of hydrogen cyanide poisoning (which has a vague connection with my post on bitter almonds).

Andersson wrote music for some of his own lyrics. Many others have been turned into songs, as for instance on Sofia Karlsson's well-received 2005 album Svarta Ballader.

Here's the poem I melodized myself. I'm not the first to try it, though I haven't tracked down anyone else's music yet.


       C                     Am7
Min kärlek föddes i lustfyllt vår,
     F               A7       Dm        G
på strander av lekfullt dansande vatten,
       G#                              G            C
och vildhonung drack jag i ungdomens år
     C     Em7  Am  Em       G7    C
på äng  -  ar   våt  -  a av dagg i natten.

       C                         Am7
Min kärlek föddes vid Paiso älv,
      F         A7              Dm         G
där laxarna hoppa och gäddorna jaga.
        G#                              G            C
Där vart den en visa som sjöng sig själv,
     C     Em7  Am  Em       G7          C
en vild  -   es rus  - och en spelmans saga.

                       Dm7   G7                          C
Den sjöd i mitt blod             varje svallande vår,
 E7             Am7                  Dm7    G7  
på - nytt - född att locka och vinna,
                           Dm7    G7              C
den sjöng där all världen         i vinrus går
       F                        G7
och jord och himmlar brinna.

         C               Am7
Men aldrig mera älskar jag så
         F            A7             Dm      G
som i rosornas år, som vid Paisos vatten,
         G#                              G            C
min kärlek är gammal och börjar bli grå,
      C     Em7  Am  Em       G7          C
och hittar ej    vild - honung mera i natten.

C .. Am7
F A7 Dm  B7 Em
C  G
F6        C     Em7  Am  Em       G7          C


My love was born in pleasure-filled spring,
on shores of playful dancing water,
and I drank wild honey in the years of my youth
in meadows wet with the dew of the night.

My love was born beside the river Paiso,
where the salmon leap and the pike hunt.
It was a ballad that sang itself,
a wild intoxication and a minstrel's saga.

It seethed in my blood each burgeoning year,
new-born to entice and to attain,
it sang where the whole world reels with wine
and the earth and the heavens are burning.

But never more shall I love like that,
as in the years of the roses, beside Paiso's waters,
my love is old and begins to go grey,
and finds no more wild honey in the night.


C.D. Locock did a rhyming translation of this poem in A Selection from Modern Swedish Poetry (1929):

My love was born in the sweet of the year,
By the banks of a rippling, hurrying river;
Wild nectar I quaffed in my youth-days there,
In dew-drenched meads where the moonbeams quiver.

My love was born where the salmon leap
In Paiso's river of waters dancing;
And it grew to a melody sung in sleep,
A wild man's revel, a tale entrancing.

It seethed in my blood like a draught divine,
Born anew with each Spring's returning,
When the world goes reeling, as drunk with wine,
And Earth and Heaven are burning.

But never more have I loved as then
In the moon of roses by Paiso river;
My love goes grey, nor findeth again
Sweet nectar in meads where the moonbeams quiver.

Seeking to match the original's meter and rhyme, Locock was inevitably less than literal. The hunting pike have disappeared; on the other hand he introduces the quivering moonbeams. The latter is a desperate expedient to cope with the very commonplace rhyme in Swedish of "vatten" (water) with "natten" (the night). (Feminine rhymes are the norm in Swedish, but much more tricky in English.)


The river with the Finnish name Paiso or Pajso is near Grangärde in the Forest Finn region of southern Dalarna (one of a number of such regions in Sweden and Norway).

 On his father's side Andersson was himself a descendant of the Finnish migrants who came here in the 16th-17th centuries to cultivate new land (by slash and burn clearance).

The unique version of Savonian Finnish spoken by these settlers and their earlier descendants is now extinct, but the culture of the Forest Finns lives on:

They are a defined national minority and they have their own flag

Flag of the Forest Finns

Dan Andersson came from a poor background and is considered a proletarian author. His poems are still popular in Sweden.


Sofia Karlsson singing "Till my syster", words and music by Dan Andersson:

And here's one of Dan Andersson's Baudelaire translations, "Moesta et errabunda", performed by Sofia Karlsson with Göteborgs Symfoniker. The music is by Sofie Livebrant.

Baudelaire's original poem, along with some English translations:

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Thursday, October 06, 2016

Bitter almonds

Prunus dulcis, var amara, near Perpignan, 29th September 2016 

We spotted this almond tree growing wild beside a lane, and (as usual) stopped to break open a few kernels and get a wild snack.

YEUCCH!!! They turned out to be bitter almonds, so we spent the next twenty minutes rinsing and spitting trying to clear every bit of that appalling taste out of our mouths.

We each probably ate no more than 0.1 of an almond.

Prunus dulcis is native to the Middle East, India and perhaps N. Africa. Wild almonds in the native regions are variously bitter and toxic. The sweet variety lacks these toxins and is cultivated all over the world in appropriate climates.

Almonds have been cultivated in places like France and Spain for so long that they are now a characteristic part of the wild flora of those regions. A proportion of the wild trees, like the one we sampled, revert to producing amygdalin and are known as "bitter almond" (Prunus dulcis var amara).

Apparently we might have been forewarned, if we'd known what to look for, by the shorter and broader fruits of the bitter variety, compared to the sweet one.

Bitter almonds are toxic to some degree. Individual fruits vary widely in their potency and it therefore isn't possible to give a recommended daily limit, as acknowledged in this Committee on Toxicity statement on bitter apricot kernels (which contain the same substance, amygdalin or laetrile, as bitter almonds). The authors limit themselves to saying that if you eat no more than one kernel per day you are probably safe, but if you consume 10 per day it puts you in the hazardous range as set by the WHO and the Council of Europe.

The following article, from the WHO Food Additives Series (30), drafted by Dr G. Speijers

has this to say:

"In a case-study a 67-year-old woman collapsed after ingestion of a slurry of 12 bitter almonds ground up and mixed with water. She recovered after treatment in the hospital. The average cyanide content was 6.2 mg HCN/bitter almond (Shragg et al., 1982).

The consumption of 60 bitter almonds is deadly for an adult. For young children, however 5-10 almonds or 10 droplets of bitter almond oil are fatal (Askar & Moral, 1983)."

The following article by Nadia Chaouali et al has more to say on the matter.

This is in a Tunisian context. In Tunisia bitter almonds are used in the production of some widely popular foods, especially orgeat syrup aka almond syrup.

These discussions also take place against the background of claims made in the 1970s-1980s that amygdalin, aka laetrile or B17, is effective in the natural prevention of and dissolution of cancerous tumours. The general idea is that it selectively attacks cancerous cells more than healthy ones.  (I should emphasize that amygdalin's medical history goes back a lot further than the 1970s; centuries if not millennia...)

Selling B17 health products is now banned in the USA and in the EU.

You'll find a lot of polarized debate about this on the internet, but mostly it quotes the conclusions of others and interprets without any real authority. Do we have here an absurd, unsubstantiated and dangerous claim by a bunch of quacks; or the sinister suppression of a valuable and simple natural remedy in order to preserve Big Pharma's rip-roaring profits from even more dangerous chemotherapies?

Here are two articles from opposite sides of the debate that, though I can't claim either as authoritative, seem informed, detailed and temperate.


Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Holiday reading - September 2016

Área La Marina (near Villajoyosa), 26th September 2016

I have grave doubts of this post being of any interest to anyone on earth but myself. I'm making these hasty notes, however, with the thought that I might otherwise never get round to mentioning some of the books here.

Reading when on the road is a fitful business - a matter of a few pages here and there, e.g. under the dim 12v bulb just before going off to sleep. I took books with me, bought more, explored others at my Spanish gaff, and I finished only one.

I took:

Sir Walter Scott, A Legend of Montrose. Scott's highland novel about war, published in 1819. This was the one book that I read in full. I had read it before, a long time ago, and didn't remember it well. It seemed to me much finer and more enthralling than I remembered or expected. I'll certainly do a separate post about this.

Shakespeare's Othello. Yes, I know, I've been reading and writing about Othello, to excess, already: Still, while on holiday,  I paused once more over the conversation between Iago and Roderigo at the end of Act II. Iago's pleasure. Iago's unflowery language. The unconfessional quality of his soliloquies.

Bodil Malmsten, Mitt första liv. A kind of autobiography by this contemporary author, with a Jämtland connection.  I read one more chapter while away: I've been reading it for about three years now.

Tomas Tranströmer, Dikter, together with Robin Fulton's English translation. Towards the end of our journey I became absorbed in this, as you already know. More posts will follow.

Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal. French dictionary at hand, I read the first twenty poems, absorbed and excited.

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. I've got half-way through Achebe's astonishing first novel.

I bought:

David Foenkinos, Charlotte. I saw this for sale in the French motorway services and eventually bought it. Foenkinos is apparently a prolific and admired author. A novel about the tragic life of the artist Charlotte Salomon. Composed in mainly short sentences, each on its own line: an appealing format when your French isn't up to much. I've read the opening chapters: it's very good.

Julia Conejo Alonso, Peces transparentes. Spanish poetry book, published in 2012.

Approximate translation of the first poem:


There is a transparent fish
which navigates between the ricefields of India
and other brackish waters
of south-east Asia.

It's called the Crystal Fish.

In the London aquarium,
while legions of tourists
throng against the shark tank,
compressing their noses and cheeks
in order to feel the vertigo of such nearness,

two fish of crystal

exhibit in every detail
even the most recondite elements of their body
without anyone looking at them.

With the desolation and the impotence of those who know
that it serves for nothing
to offer themselves, simple and transparent.

René Negré, Memoires d'un curé de France. This was another book I saw repeatedly in the services, and eventually bought. The subject interested me: no less the series, otherwise mostly fiction, published by De Borée, with its naive-looking photographic jackets, almost like self-published books. Their wide distribution suggests something else, though. They must be aimed at a popular audience to whom the usual trappings of paperback presentation don't appeal: an elderly audience, maybe.

In Spain I browsed in:

Den unga lyriken, anthology of Swedish poetry from 1910-1940. At the apartment I wrote music for one lyric, by Dan Andersson.

I also found and read an interview with Bo Baldersson in the Costa Blanca publication Svenska magasinet. ("Bo Baldersson" is a famously unidentified author of murder mysteries, the first of which I happen to be in the middle of reading at home.)

And I read a couple of science articles in Muy interesante, my favourite light reading from Spanish newsagents.

And while I was away:

Ken Edwards kindly sent me a copy of his a book with no name. It was a very nice thing to come home to.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2016

stone sober

Autoroute food: Aire de Terres-les-Graves, near Bordeaux, 30th September 2016

I return with a head full of almonds, some of them sweet, and some of them bitter with the intensity of a suppressed cure for cancer.

I can't spin down to earth yet, and Tomas Tranströmer's poems of dreaming and waking, which I'm re-reading for the umpteenth time, have an air about them, an air like the burly October crowns of the trees as we drive back north,  a new and pressing intensity of interest.

As the bites of insects and the brush of a jellyfish begin to quieten on my skin, as the smell of diesel is showered away, I am, or someone is, that traveller with the dispersed ego who appears in Tranströmer's characteristic present tense.

In day's first hours consciousness can grasp the world
as the hand grips a sun-warmed stone.
The traveller is standing under the tree. After
the crash through death's turbulence, shall
a great light unfold above his head?

(The end of "Prelude", the first poem in Tranströmer's first book, 17 Poems )

Behind waking life there is a deeper and larger community of the sleeping, the dreaming and the dead. In this larger community we can meet each other: opposites purged of our divided cultures, languages and - that current tool of the demagogue - "national identities" (".... divided cultures and people flow together in a work of art..." as Tranströmer described his poetry). He was writing in a more blessed time than today, in some ways. This makes his poems doubly precious because no-one could write them now, but also they are limited simply by not having the problems of 2016. So it must always be.

All of these thoughts run around my reading of the following poem, from The Wild Market Square.

Nineteen Hundred and Eighty

His glance flits in jerks across the newsprint.
Feelings come, so icy they're taken for thoughts.
Only in deep hypnosis could he be his other I,
his hidden sister, the woman who joins the hundreds of thousands
screaming 'Death to the Shah!' - although he is already dead -
a marching black tent, pious and full of hate.
Jihad! Two who shall never meet take the world in hand.

(The Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was deposed in February 1979. He died in exile in Egypt on 27th July, 1980.)

Tranströmer links, but sharply contrasts, his two protagonists: the newspaper-reading male whose emotional life is so  cold that he himself believes it is rational thinking; and the impassioned woman (seen, no doubt, on the TV) who has joined a celebratory mob in Iran, so seemingly emotive and irrational that she yells for a death that she knows has already happened, what's more in a cause directly against the interests of Iranian women, as you might reflect from a westernized perspective. (It was well known, however, that the Shah's human rights record was far from spotless, to say nothing of the royal family's relentless accumulation of personal wealth.)

From our later perspective TT's foray into the Islamic world feels  - a weasel word, this - a touch "simplistic";  he has not witnessed so much debate around the word "jihad" as we have done since; and we can sense that the Islamism glimpsed in his poem is still something comfortably far away and picturesque. The marching black tent is not marching in the direction of the Stockholm archipelago.

But even though I feel these things, they somehow don't harm the poem. In fact you could say that subsequent events have sharpened it.

This depends partly on how we read the final words. Do this ill-assorted pair of people truly mould the world (as, since the poem was written, Islamism may certainly be said to have done), or do they merely take the world in hand in a helpless, clutching kind of way? But the poetry seems to refuse to make this distinction,  just as it refuses to regard dreaming as unimportant compared to waking. This poem still carries the neutral sense of the image I quoted from that early poem: of grasping a warm stone.

In most ways I approve that refusal to make the distinction. But I also think I see why Tranströmer's influence on mainstream poetry is as potent as it is. *

His poems overwhelm us with the simple strength of their acceptance of the imaginative life.  But by proposing the life of nature and dreams and the dead as valuable topics, he also offers, for those who want to find it, a most reassuring apology for educated western lifestyles.

[Translations by Robin Fulton.]

* Wikipedia continues to report that there was a mixed response to his Nobel Prize in 2011, but this is extremely misleading. Of course the newspapers sought out the usual cynical quotes about the committee being Eurocentric in general and Swedocentric in particular. But it was swiftly apparent that these quotes betrayed an embarrassing ignorance of contemporary poetry. Tranströmer may have been Swedish but he was not, as the newspapers too readily assumed, an obscure figure outside Sweden. On the contrary, his poems had been very widely translated and very widely admired: his international reputation was right up there with Ashbery or Walcott. Indeed he exemplified the ideal of being both a local poet and a world poet: something much dreamed of by mainstream poets and readers, but not often so unequivocally achieved..

 Morning tea and shower: Área de servicio La Ribera, near Oropesa, 27th September 2016

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