Friday, March 31, 2017

the top of the hill

Frans Hogenberg's 1570 view of Stockholm from the heights of Söder.


Wisdom for you comes first
when you make it in the evening cool
to the summit top, which oversees the earth.
Sovereign, turn at the way's end,
rest there for a moment and look back!
All is explained and all is atoned,
far off the land of your youth glimmers once more
quick with light and the morning dew.


Vis, o människa, det blir du först,
när du hinner till de aftonsvala
höjders topp, där jorden överskådas.
Konung, vänd dig om vid vägens slut,
vila där en stund och se tillbaka!
Allt förklaras där och allt försonas,
och din ungdoms riken hägra åter,
strödda än med ljus och morgondagg.


Not till thou comest to the mountain's crest,
At cool of eve, with Earth spread wide below thee --
Not till then, O Man, shalt thou get wisdom.
Tarry there an hour and gaze behind thee !
Turn thee round, O King, where the road ends:
All is made clear, all issues reconciled.
There once more thy youth's bright kingdom glimmers,
Bathed afresh in light and morning's dew.

(Translation by C. D. Locock)

From the collection Nya dikter (1915). Von Heidenstam was awarded the Nobel Prize in the following year.

Article on Verner von Heidenstam by Charles Wharton Stork in The Nation, November 30th, 1916.

Swedish Poems website (good source for e.g. Dan Andersson and Edith Södergran, but currently there are only two poems by Verner von Heidenstam...)

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Do you take a chance, FAN?

Luke Rhinehart: The Dice Man (1972)

FEW NOVELS CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE. THIS ONE WILL says the front cover. The Dice Man was a cult classic and it knew it. The way it works is this. Someone tells you at a party about this book they read; they tell you about the premise of the book, which is that this guy decides whether to carry out various shockingly lurid actions, depending on the throw of a die. It’s an ineresting idea to discuss, whether you’ve read the book or not. Then you read it. Then you tell someone else about it. And so on. The legend snowballs. There’s a song about it on Dragnet, the Fall’s cult classic album of 1979. And so on.


The account you heard at the party suggests an unshaven, burning-eyed protagonist like Raskolnikov or the underground man. That’s wrong, as it turns out; Rhinehart is a bored bourgeois psychoanalyst, married with 2.4 children and an apartment near Central Park. Also, that party conversation omitted to tell you how funny the book is. The book flourishes its liberal disenchantment to great effect, even though it murders all the liberals as well. Its true soundtrack should be the Byrds’ jauntily sarcastic “America’s great national pastime” (1971):


One of America’s great nat’nal pastimes is –

poisonin’ rain...

actin’ insane...

inflictin’ pain...


The dice-throwing is maybe the least interesting part of the book, except the first time. We learn not to feel tense about this. By towards the end we are free-wheeling. Rhinehart has been told by the die to attempt to carry out a murder, and when he throws again to select a victim it chooses his psychotic former patient, the wrestler Osterflood. They meet and Rhinehart can’t think of anything to say to prolong the meeting except that someone is trying to kill Osterflood. They go to a Harlem apartment where Osterflood has a punishment sex thing going with a whore called Gina. It takes a few hundred pages before the book has got us to a place where we accept this as a comic plot. The TV is on and everyone’s stoned.



‘Daddy? Why do I have to brush my teeth every day?’ the little girl asked.

‘Try this new tube I’ve got for you, Suzie, and you’ll never ask that question again.’

[Close-up of a big long tube of Glare toothpaste]

But I had to look away because Gina was kneeling on the floor, her hands tied behind her back with her bra, and Osterflood, with his pants and undershorts bunched at his feet but still dressed in white shirt, tie and suit jacket, was thrusting with his erect, pink weapon at her mouth, cursing her at every poke. I felt I was watching a slow-motion movie showing some huge piston at work, but some flaw in the machinery resulted in the rod’s seeming frequently to miss the wide-open mouth which Gina, large-eyed and expressionless, was presenting. Osterflood’s sword of vengeance against the female race kept sliding past her cheek or her neck or poking her in the eye. Whenever she would seem to have a good mouthful (she would close her eyes then), Osterflood would withdraw, raging, and thrust away sporadically, redoubling his curses. It wasn’t clear whether he hated her more when she sucked him in or when he missed contact and bounced painfully off her forehead. In both cases he seemed like a movie director enraged because she, the actress, didn’t mouth her lines correctly.

‘Ahhhggg! How I hate you,’ he yelled and lurched forward and collapsed onto the couch beside me. I smiled over at him.

He struggled sideways into a sitting position.

‘Undress me, you disgusting, filthy hole,’ he said loudly.



Eventually Rhinehart tries to get on with the murder.  



‘Come into the kitchen,’ I said.

He stared wild-eyed at me.

‘I want to show you something,’ I added.

‘Oh,’ he said, and with a great effort he turned himself onto his hands and knees and staggered to his feet.

I flowed off behind his whalelike form toward the kitchen, and as he passed through the door in front of me I drew my gun from my pocket, raised it in a long endless arc up over my head, and then down with all my force onto the top of Osterflood’s huge head.

‘Wha’sat?’ Osterflood said, stopping and turning, and slowly raised a hand to his head.

I gazed openmouthed at his erect, swaying, hulking body.

‘It’s . . . it’s my gun,’ I said.

He looked down at the black little pistol hanging limply from my fist.

‘What’d you hit me for?’ he said after a pause.

‘Show you my gun,’ I said, still gaping at his blank, bleary, bewildered eyes.

‘You hit me,’ he said again.

We stared at each other, our minds working with the speed and efficiency of lobotomized sloths.

‘Just a tap. Show you my gun,’ I said.

We stared at each other.

‘Some tap,’ he said.

We stared at each other.

‘Protect you with. Don’t tell Gina.’

When he stopped rubbing the back of his head, his hand and arm dropped like an anchor into the sea.

‘Thanks,’ he said dully, and moved past me back into the living room.


Like Osterflood’s body, the world is massively stable. Throwing the dice is meant to break up human identity, but Rhinehart and all his pals go on remaining distinctively and comically like themselves. What it does supply, both to Rhinehart and ourselves, is inventive entertainment and outrage; a sort of metaphor of shenanigans in general.  


Eventually the scene ends with Rhinehart and Gina engaging in a prolonged ecstatic fuck while Osterflood, rather bewilderedly, expires on the floor. With all the Scotch and hash and punishment sex he probably didn’t notice. Osterflood is marked for us, he used to rape and kill little girls; Rhinehart breaks taboos by the ton but, ultimately, he just doesn’t break through the moral stone wall labelled reader-cannot-forgive. Which is not a paltry evasion. After all the material is much more varied on this side of the wall.  


The life experienced by the characters is entirely focussed on human, social, psycho-intellectuo-sexual concerns. No-one looks out of the window and Rhinehart admits earlier, considering how to bump off Osterflood, that he ought to have driven him to some dimly-lit nowhere and done it there, but he didn’t know any dimly-lit nowheres. Description of the non-bodily world causes him something like a pathological embarrassment. So he turns aside from it with a joke:


(After abandoning Lil and the kids)


I had gone to a dingy hotel in the East Village that made the geriatrics ward at QSH seem like a plush retirement villa.


(In the Bahamas)


I sat up, blinking my eyes and looking toward the ocean past the rise of sand in front of me. Without my glasses it was only tan blur and blue blur.


Places are run-down or smart, that’s all. They also have a farmhouse in the poison-ivy fields of eastern Long Island. They go there once a year and they play tennis, swim or sail, eat hash-cakes, talk and make love. 400 pages, and that’s it for the great outdoors.


For Rhinehart’s dice decisions to carry an element of risk, they need to have a public, someone who might react. But that’s really only for it to go well in a story. For the patient the important thing is what they change about themselves. Thus Rhinehart’s (or anyone’s) “concern” for their effect on others is another name for the patterned behaviour that is to be vanquished. And as others have discovered, rolling the hateful dice makes rolling the loveful dice play a lot better anyway.  


Still, Rhinehart’s concern for the human and bodily is intense, which is why he plays games with it.


There’s another day that Rhinehart happens to be in beautiful surroundings –


one lovely Indian Summer day, with the birds twittering outside in the bushes of my newly rented Catskill farmhouse, the autumn leaves blowing and blinding in the sun and a little beagle puppy I’d just been given wagging his tail at my feet.


What’s this? Is he really interested in this? – No, it’s here for a purpose. He’s idly tossing dice. Then the dice come up snake eyes and he has to kill someone. In a complicated way he throws to find out who, and after some elimination he’s down to a shortlist of six, including his son and his closest work colleague. He begins to sweat, and now the earlier paragraph pays out.


Anxiety is a difficult emotion to describe. The colorful leaves outside the window no longer seemed vibrant; they seemed glossy as if being revealed in an overexposed technicolor film. The twitter of the birds sounded like a radio commercial. My new beagle bitch snored in a corner as if she were a debauched old bitch. The day seemed overcast even as the sun off a white tablecloth in the dining room blinded my eyes.  


Why the puppy suddenly becomes female is intriguing. But the description of the emotion is all too recognizable. And Rhinehart, like other gamblers, though registering the indifference to surroundings caused by intense anxiety, is now fully awakened. Beautiful days, by contrast, affect him as a sort of sleep.   


NB This post has nothing to do with "The Diceman", comedian Andrew Dice Clay's foul-mouthed and sexist alter ego popular in the late 1980s. In hindsight, "The Diceman" and his raucous support were straws in the wind. I found quite a thoughtful article about this by Joe Renouard:


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

the rainbow



Forward and back
and around and back
on a piece of string
above water.
every time
she falls in.
Then repeat.
She recalls her history
the tightrope-walker's curse
always to start over
and always dare again
to fall
dares to fall
then repeat
Never forgets the fall
the tightrope-walker's duty is
to never stop getting up
again on the tightrope
to walk back and again
forward again
dares to fall
dares to get up

The tightrope-walker trains,
she plays music
on her stereo
one pace
and one foot
at a time.
On the album sleeve
Glenn Gould
playing the



Fram och så tillbaka
så tillbaks och åter
på en sytråd
ovanför ett vatten.
varenda gång
hon faller.
Sedan repetera.
Minnas sin historia
lindansösens plåga
alltid börja om
och alltid åter våga
våga falla
sedan repetera
Aldrig glömma fallet
lindansösens plikt är
aldrig sluta stiga
åter upp på linan
gå tillbaks och åter
framåt åter
våga falla
våga stiga

Lindansösen tränar,
hon spelar
på stereo
en takt
och en fot
i taget.
På skivomslaget
Glenn Gould
när han spelar


I've just found out that Bodil Malmsten died of cancer, just over a year ago, in February 2016.  She was 71.

I felt more shocked than I usually do when poets die. Somehow I always thought of her, and I still do, as a young contemporary, an energetic and disruptive and likeable and reliable presence.

An everyday author. No-one ever said she ought to get the Nobel Prize. She wrote thirty books, of which the best-known were about her life in Finistère. I imagine she's not much known outside the Nordic-Baltic world. I try to read her tousled informal poems in Swedish.  The prose is easier. In my family we always go back to Mitt första liv, especially the chapters about her childhood in Jämtland.

"The Tightrope Walker" comes from her first poetry collection, Gustav the Dwarf (1977). The poems in this collection are linked and they generally have a circus kind of setting.

What is an everyday author? One we have grown up with and lived alongside. Someone who reminds us who we are, and who comforts us by saying: Look, our generation didn't know it all, we got a lot of things wrong, but at least we were this good...

I expect I'll be attempting some more Malmsten translations in coming weeks.

Announcement in Svenska Dagbladet, 6th February 2016:

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Monday, March 27, 2017

The style at Lincoln's Inn

Sargent Cherry (Prunus sargentti) in Kingsmead Square, Bath (March 26, 2017)

To Mr R. W.

Kindly I envy thy song's perfection,
Built of all th' elements as our bodies are:
That little of earth that's in it, is a fair
Delicious garden where all sweets are sown.
In it is cherishing fire which dries in me
Grief which did drown me: and half quenched by it
Are satiric fires which urged me to have writ
In scorn of all: for now I admire thee.
And as air doth fulfil the hollowness
Of rotten walls, so it mine emptiness,
Where lost and mov'd it did beget this sound,
Which as a lame echo of thine doth rebound.
Oh I was dead, but since thy song new life did give,
I, recreated even by thy creature, live.


The young Donne's sonnet (rhyming abbacddceeffgg) already sounds like himself and no-one else. Weird to think that Donne might have written this in the year of Daniel's Delia and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. And in fact I do catch a faint hint of Shakespeare's sonnet-style in that final line, but of course that isn't what holds my attention.

I'm listening, instead, to the Donne style; for instance, the speed of transformation at the third line. The first two lines have promised an enumeration of the four traditional elements (earth, air, fire and water). Donne duly goes on to mention the first (earth), but even now, before the first item in his catalogue, he's begun to subvert this framework by parenthetically prefixing "earth" with "little of". Then fire and water get all mixed up with each other... (in fact water never even gets named, but is implicit in the word "quenched"). The air, finally,  arrives as an analogy, filling a cavity in a rotten wall, before its connection with Woodward's song is established.  (The sonnet depends on us tracking the word "it" like a flying tennis-ball across a court.)

So the promise of the second line is actually kept, but in a breakneck, vivid, lose-your-bearings kind of way that's far more interesting than we might have expected. The strange thing is that this excellence can't be satisfactorily described as artful, i.e. as a game of arrangement and variation, of symmetry with a difference. It's something more instinctive than that, a personal style, a kind of chat where the thought is racing ahead and often switches direction in mid-sentence.

Michelle O'Callaghan suggests that it was Donne's manuscript community of friends, the absence of print's public audience, that made his kind of writing possible.

It makes startling poetry, not only the smart turn of  "little of earth" but "fulfil", the "hollowness / Of rotten walls", "lame echo"...


In Donne's time the scheme of the four elements would have been valid and commonplace. (True understanding of elements, though given a theoretical push by Robert Boyle's corpuscularism in 1661, only really came along with Lavoisier in 1789.) Donne's demonstration of the four elements in his friend's song could be regarded as a fancy piece of pseudo-argument,  but there is a real question in it: How comes it that a poem, though just paper and ink, can affect us emotionally like a real person? A poem is not a body, but Donne's "demonstration" of the four elements in the poem does makes us wonder about what sort of amazing thing a poem is. How can it be fertile in sweets (flowers), how can it dry our tears and quench our rage, how can it breathe new life into us?


Rowland Woodward went up to Lincoln's Inn in 1591 at the age of 17.  John Donne (a year older than Woodward) joined him in May 1592. Along with others such as the "abysmal" satirist Everard Guilpin, they formed a coterie of wits who encouraged each other's writing. That's the context of Donne's epistles to "Mr R.W." They were seven years together at Lincoln's Inn and afterwards Donne and Woodward remained pals; for example, they crossed paths in Venice in 1608. By then Woodward was leading quite an adventurous life.  He was imprisoned by the Inquisition for spying in Milan, attacked by bandits in France and left for dead. But anyhow, the epistles to "Mr R.W." were written during those early Lincoln's Inn days, round about the mid 1590s. Like Donne's other poems of that period, it appears in the Westmoreland ms (f. 31) in Woodward's own handwriting (which is surprisingly easy to read).

In line 7, Woodward wrote "hate", instead of "have".  You can see how "hate" might seem to follow on naturally from "satiric fires" but the resulting sentence stubbornly refuses to make sense. So "have" it must be.

Sargent Cherry (Prunus sargentti) in Kingsmead Square, Bath (March 26, 2017)


Thursday, March 23, 2017

big avant-garde poetry books

Tim Allen's Copyright, front jacket

In the ecosystem of my life big poetry books lead an especially precarious existence. I seem to move house about once a year, usually into smaller digs, and with each year I more eagerly anticipate the breaking of the chrysalis into a fully mobile travelling lifestyle with no encumbrance of "things" at all.

And I suppose I'm only in the vanguard of social changes that we all feel to some extent. Our possessions are becoming digitized, we are most relaxed not in our own homes but in coffee bars, and we carry our passports.

So it is that, along with much other lumber, I'm sadly having to say goodbye to these two big books by Tim Allen, books that I've hardly opened until today.  I'll be carrying the miniscule though brilliant Default Soul into my next life, but that may be all.

Copyright or (c)  (Dept Press, 2013) , once delved into, isn't really all that different from Default Soul, just more of Tim's endlessly curious and good-natured investigation of the world. I don't know whether it's because I'm currently doing a TEFL course, but some of the lines now seem even funnier than they did before (Tim is a primary school teacher).

The phrases I like best are the ones where the reader feels a vague semantic or logical discomfort, just begging to be teased out. E.g. (from the pages shown below)

"an assortment of negatives"

"i match tear to paper"

"i need a dark to see stars through" (p.10)

"i warm up on the ice" (p. 12) 

and so on...

first page of Tim Allen's  Copyright

"homeless builder and purpose crazy" (p. 8) -- evidently Tim's comment on my lifestyle.

Another page of Copyright

Tim Allen's Copyright, rear jacket

List of other books, from Tim Allen's Copyright.  

That is to say, a list of books by people called Tim Allen. I think these are bona fide books, at least I've just looked up The Lost Abbey of Abingdon (2011) and that one's real enough. Did you know that Abingdon Abbey was about the size of Wells Cathedral?  Despite this, as soon as the titles are detached and brought into Tim's list they start to feel irresistibly comic and strange. "Strange Way to Save the World"..... utterly bizarre.....  "Queuing Theory".... hmm, intriguing.... "The Lost Abbey of Abingdon"...  oh dear, where can it have got to? As for his own books, the list of course misses the most recent ones, including my fave Default Soul and also the book that I'm about to mention, Tattered by Magnets.

Tim Allen's Tattered by Magnets, front jacket

The poetical enjoyment of Copyright is a relatively pure contact with the words. Tattered by Magnets (KFS, 2014) is quite a lot more intricate, because it weaves the verbal material into beautiful stanzaic forms --- and consequently, is rather more resistant to being sampled by a page or two.

But for what it's worth, here they are.

Tim Allen's Tattered by Magnets, first page

"the exiting cathedral?" (2.2). I suppose that must be a comment on Abingdon Abbey.

Tim Allen's Tattered by Magnets, another page

There's a lot of interacting ingredients here and some of them I haven't particularly noticed in Tim's earlier work. Like this sort of landscape painting in the first line of 1.3:

arc             smile    limb   mile   lime   acre

Or the way the rest of the poem yearns towards another sound, (via lido, bimbo and Beano  -- "air hostess's complimentary Beano")  before finally converting the lime into limbo.

My admiration for Tim's inventiveness could hardly have been much greater, but repeatedly on leafing through Tattered by Magnets I catch myself thinking: I didn't know he could do this... 

My main essay on Tim Allen's poetry is here:


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Culham Hythe

For now is culhan hithe i com to an ende,
And al the contre better an no man the worse.
Few folke there were coude that wey wende,
But the waged a wed or payed of her purse.

And if it were a begger gad breed in his bagge,
He schulde be ryght soone i bid for to goo aboute,
And of the pore penyles the hiereward wold habbe
A hood or a girdle, and let hem goo withoute.

Many moo myscheves there weren I say.
Culham hithe hath causid many a curse.
I blyssyd be oure helpers we have a better waye,
Withoute any peny for cart and for horse.

(lines 95 - 108)

wed = gage, hiereward = ferryman

From Richard Forman's 15th-century poem on the building of Abingdon and Culham bridges (in Oxfordshire) and the causeway between them.

Full text:

Translation into modern English:

A "hythe" or "hithe" (OE "hyð") was a small landing-place or harbour, either coastal or on the bank of a river, stioll frequent in place-names (Lambeth (=Lamb-Hythe), Rotherhithe, Queenhithe (City of London),  Hythe (Kent), Small Hythe (near Tenterden, Kent), Bulverhythe (Hastings, E. Sussex)...). So Culham Hythe meant a ferry service, an extortionate one in the eyes of this ironmonger poet.  The building of the bridges in 1416-22 meant that carts could cross the Thames for free.

Richard Forman (Fannande?) wrote his poem in rhymed alliterative long lines. In several places the influence of Piers Plowman is palpable, though in Langland's great poem the word "beggars" has negative connotations that seem to be absent here.

Ironically the bridge later became a toll bridge, so Forman's vision of free movement was shortlived. It spans the Swift Ditch, now a backwater, but then the main navigation channel down the Thames. Because of its strategic importance the bridge was the scene of conflict during the Civil War, first in 1644, then again in 1645.

I learnt about the poem from reading this post on Edmund Hardy's marvellous blog:

Culham old bridge

[Image source:]

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

along the garden fence

Rosmarinus officinalis

Mediterranean shrub with glorious flavour as a pot-herb. Height of flowering is in late winter.

The challenge of deciding when is the right time to prune Rosemary (obviously never, in my own case):

With Alzheimer's such a grotesque and undignified ending to so many western lives, there's naturally a lot of interest in the traditional association between rosemary and memory enhancement.

"Rosemary produced a significant enhancement of performance for overall quality of memory and secondary memory factors, but also produced an impairment of speed of memory compared to control..."

More clearly, Rosemary has typical antioxidant and antibacterial properties.

Some of the undoubted benefits of Rosemary and other herbs must, I believe, have to do with the psychological or spiritual state that arises from a respectful meeting with nature ... for example, eating what we've grown or gathered ourselves.

Anemone blanda

These plants were given to me by my Mum, a generous gardener, last year. (Come to think of it, she gave me the rosemary plant too...)  They are the Balkan/SE European species Anemone blanda. (Anemona apennina is a slightly taller species of South-Central Europe) I often see patches of A. blanda flourishing beyond the garden fence, but that seems to be as far as it ever gets, so I suppose it  spreads by bulb division but not by seed.


Wallflower, possibly Erisymum cheiri "Sunset Primrose". An early flowerer anyway.

(Photos from 0900 this morning, Tuesday March 21st.)


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Harold Morland: The Matter of Britain (1984)

[Image source:]

Harold Morland, born in 1908, was already well into his retirement when he wrote a long poem that found its way into print. It is cast in a narrative mode and the stories are taken from the Arthurian corpus.


The poem, which is in a dozen sections or so, is written in syllabic stanzas of the form 5-7-5. But whatever part the haiku may have played in originating this form, these stanzas bear no resemblance to haikus and are best judged as an alternative to other traditional vehicles for narrative poetry in English, chiefly the pentameter. This now seemed a hopeless medium for any modern poetry because the smooth flow of the stress-pattern is immediately antipathetic to the sounds that now come into our heads. In some way not instantly easy to define, the way it sounds isn’t right for a modern sensibility*. I’d guess that the invention of recorded speech (especially in movies) is the key factor in our new way of hearing and forming vividness. We like effects that (in the now-archaic terms of prosody) depend on clashing stresses; on speech-rhythms and prose-rhythms and on almost anything but what the accentual iamb imposes on us, a regular lilt. 


If you consider each of Morland’s stanzas as a single narrative pulse, you can see its potential for releasing those irregular effects. For example, the seven-syllable bit can seem both to match and not match the five-syllable bit, as in the first two lines here:


Even light armour

   under the heat of summer

      rubbed him to soreness.


The matching, emphasized by rhyme, expresses a momentum, in this case of riding. The non-matching, the skitter of extra syllables, expresses a resistance to that momentum, a sense that our environment is always too obdurate to fit our efforts exactly but instead carries on with its own agenda, in this case being hot and buzzing with flies.


A book with such a dependable bedrock is inevitably readable, but it seems to me that several things prevent The Matter of Britain being as enthralling as it ought to be. The author writes episodes, not concerned with completing stories that he (perhaps rightly) assumes every one of his readers will already know. This makes us doubt the the nature of the author’s commitment to narration, so we don’t really give ourselves up to the story. Elaine is taken no further than her night with Lancelot. Perceval is carried forward with some purpose but breaks off after the curse. These are two of the best sections, but how deeply can we involve ourselves in segments that seem to exist for the author’s gratification and not ours?


As a narrator, Morland has evident powers. Thus, describing the evening with Lancelot,


            First in the darkness

               golden globes of candle-light

                  on delicate hands;


We believe in the way that Elaine falls in love under the spell of this evening, even though she knows it’s being stage-managed by her father.


Or when Perceval sees the Grail procession:


            First came a young man,

               his hair radiant as fine gold

                  in leaping fire-light,


            bearing a white lance

               that seemed too pure for the use

                  of dusty battle;


            but from its steel head

               a drop of slow blood dripped down

                  to the young man’s hand.


Morland suggests the image of a ceremonial spear such as I remember seeing in Anglican churches of my youth. It makes that drop of blood shocking in a new kind of way.


The pleasure of narrative is hard to kill. If the story is chugging along it’s no real problem putting up with long stretches of dull writing and – what’s worse – fine writing that shows its age (“Voles haunted his feet”) in return for occasional refreshments such as these.


But it’s disappointingly apparent that Morland’s interests don’t extend to tournaments, quests, or the other bread-and-butter motifs of the Arthurian romances. Instead, he focusses on individuals (e.g. Morgan le Faye, Merlin, Kay, Palomides) and turns them into seekers of the mind’s mysteries, figures who evince a worldview. They observe the ways of nature and Arthur’s court while large thoughts twist briar-like around their brain. Sometimes this vaguely recalls Browning and sometimes the poetry of the 1940s.


[In Morland’s template scene of the young Perceval meeting the knights from Arthur’s court, he – like Perceval – problematizes the knights. This more or less reverses the perspective of Chrétien and Wolfram, who present the scene as being all about how bizarre Perceval’s performance is; knights are (or at least are tactfully assumed to be) a commonplace of the audience’s daily life.]  


The last section is good. It tells the folktale of the shepherd who in after-times disturbs a cave where Arthur sleeps out the centuries with his knights and hounds. Morland’s shepherd is heavy-handed, he stumbles, his body weighs 14 stone like a real body, and he makes an eloquent contrast with that shadowy, ceremonial other-world that can’t exist in the same kind of way as ours, yet constantly haunts us with the promise of contact. This is how it ends:


The shepherd awoke.

   A rubble of moss-greened stones,

      and there at his feet


the clew of gray wool.

   A lark overhead singing

      in delirium.


A little laughter

   of wind in the grass. Silence.

      And a gaping mind.


The green hills asleep,

   with sun and shadow drifting

      and life murmuring.



Across his rough boot

   a thoughtless snail is making

      its own milky way. 



*Written in 2005. Since I wrote it, the emergence of such various but certainly modern poets as Alistair Noon and Simon Jarvis rather calls into question any simple conclusion about the obsolescence of the iambic pentameter.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

unrejoicing berries

Berries of Taxus baccata (Common Yew)

[Image source:]

I hope I need no excuse for quoting Wordsworth's very wonderful poem "Yew Trees" in full:

There is a Yew-tree, pride of Lorton Vale,
Which to this day stands single, in the midst
Of its own darkness, as it stood of yore:
Not loathe to furnish weapons for the Bands
Of Umfraville or Percy ere they marched
To Scotland's heaths; or those that crossed the sea
And drew their sounding bows at Azincour,
Perhaps at earlier Crecy, or Poictiers.
Of vast circumference and gloom profound
This solitary Tree! -a living thing
Produced too slowly ever to decay;
Of form and aspect too magnificent
To be destroyed. But worthier still of note
Are those fraternal Four of Borrowdale,
Joined in one solemn and capacious grove;
Huge trunks! -and each particular trunk a growth
Of intertwisted fibres serpentine
Up-coiling, and inveterately convolved, -
Nor uninformed with Fantasy, and looks
That threaten the profane; -a pillared shade,
Upon whose grassless floor of red-brown hue,
By sheddings from the pining umbrage tinged
Perennially -beneath whose sable roof
Of boughs, as if for festal purpose decked
With unrejoicing berries -ghostly Shapes
May meet at noontide: Fear and trembling Hope,
Silence and Foresight, Death the Skeleton
And Time the Shadow; there to celebrate,
As in a natural temple scattered o'er
With altars undisturbed of mossy stone,
United worship; or in mute repose
To lie, and listen to the mountain flood
Murmuring from Glaramara's inmost caves.

(William Wordsworth, Yew-trees)

"Unrejoicing berries".... yes, that's just what I've always thought about yew berries.

More specifically, I knew that yews were highly toxic and that the cheerfully-coloured berries were to be kept away from.

It was true, I had since learnt that the fleshy part of the berry was not in fact poisonous. But since the pip in the middle of the berry was, that didn't seem to make much practical difference.


So I was rather taken aback when I encountered the following passage in John Meade Falkner's Moonfleet (1898):

Now, my favourite seat in the churchyard was the flat top of a raised stone tomb .... Anyone sitting on the grave-top was snug from the weather, and possessed a fine prospect over the sea. On the other three sides, the yews grew close and thick, embowering the tomb like the high back of a fireside chair; and many times in autumn I have seen the stone slab crimson with the fallen waxy berries, and taken some home to my aunt, who like to taste them with a glass of sloe-gin after her Sunday dinner. (Ch 3)

Falkner, I felt sure, could not be unaware that the yew was poisonous.  But as an antiquarian could he have heard of some such country use as he describes?  [The health and safety of impressionable youth was obviously not something that concerned him overmuch.]


As usual, the most authoritative account of yew berries and their toxicity is in The Poison Garden:

There's also a lot of discussion on foraging sites.

The sweet, slimy flesh can be eaten if the seed is removed. Some wild-food people are quite enthusiastic about this food source.

Songbirds eat the berries, including the seed. The unbroken seeds pass through the gut and the bird is not harmed.

The seeds are highly toxic, three being enough to cause death. But if a child (or adult) eats yew berries and swallows the seeds without chewing them, there's a reasonable chance they'll get away with it in the same way the songbirds do, though this seems a risky sort of game. It's this likelihood of "getting away with it" that probably accounts for John Gerard's comment: "when I was young and went to school, divers of my school fellows and likewise myself did eat our fills of the berries of this tree and hath not only slept under the shadow thereof, but among the branches also, without hurt at all, and that not one time, but many times".

Grain-eating birds with gravel in their crops (like chickens or pigeons) are advised to stay away from yew berries!

So are drinkers of sloe-gin, pending further information...


[Wordsworth's lines about longbows reflect a common but mistaken belief. The wood for British longbows was always imported from abroad: British yews don't grow straight enough. So the legend that yews were grown in churchyards to furnish weapons for a desperate defence of the tower is wrong..  More likely, the yews were there long before the church was built. They were a sacred Celtic tree.]

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