Sunday, March 19, 2017

Harold Morland: The Matter of Britain (1984)

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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.



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