Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Sir Walter Scott: Harold the Dauntless (1817)

A view of Durham Castle from Elvet Bridge

[Image source: The Walter Scott Digital Archive]

Scott wrote Harold the Dauntless in 1815-1817, in spare moments between dashing off some of the greatest novels in English (The Antiquary, Old Mortality, Rob Roy...).  Nevertheless the poem has tended to be neglected.  Scott didn't feel confident about it. He was aware that Byron had overtaken him in the public's eye, and winced when he realized that he had inadvertently selected the one name for his hero that would most instantly bring his competitor to mind. *

[*But for Nancy Moore Goslee, in her very welcome new book on Scott's poetry Scott the Rhymer (University Press of Kentucky, 2015), Harold the Dauntless is in conscious dialogue with Byron and also with Scott himself.]

Scott published Harold anonymously (or rather, as the "Author of The Bridal of Triermain", along with a reprint of the earlier poem), and the reviews were rather lukewarm (one of them describing it as a poor imitation of Walter Scott...).

The neglect is a pity, because Harold is worth a deep visit, if only to witness Scott's mastery of the free-tetrameter stanza form at the latter end of his startling career as a narrative poet. Furthermore, Harold is a fascinating step along the road to Ivanhoe (1820). There's a lot more to it than that, too.

Early impressions are of a highly eclectic fictional world.  It feels like there's a riot of heterogenous story-material, flung together without much significance or art. That is reminiscent of Scott's preceding poem The Bridal of Triermain, but closer acquaintance with Harold reveals a deeper co-ordination of interests.

Our hero, or anti-hero, somewhat Byronic, is a heathen Viking, a berserker.

But he is also a kind of knight errant. The impression, indeed, is  of a medieval rather than dark-age setting. Here knights (including Harold) have plate-mail, plumes and visors. Harold has fought the Muslims in Palestine, apparently. Durham Cathedral is well-established, and its payroll includes French names (Hugh Meneville, Vinsauf) as well as Saxon ones.

Scott surrounds his medieval story with glints of more modern eras, however.  For instance he names tilburies and barouches, Durham antiquaries, the novelist Maria Edgeworth and the then-inbcumbent bishop Barrington  (a friend of Scott's). At one point he refers to the well-known conversation about clouds between Prince Hamlet and Polonius. Unlike most later historical fictions, Harold keeps the future visible.

In the Dark-Age material, too, there's a heterogenous feel. We hear a lot about Norse lore (Scott was rather an expert), but the sorceress Jutta worships the deity Zernebock, an ancient heathen deity of Baltic origin, and the story of the Castle of the Seven Shields has a mainly Celtic tint.

This heterogeneity may seem to cast doubt on how we are meant to read the poem. Rapid-fire switches of mode can weaken the definiteness of scene and event.  So is it best, we wonder momentarily, to cast the narrative line aside altogether and instead make an a-chronological examination of the poem as an aesthetic construct: a kaleidoscope or a mobile?

You could do that, but I still think the narrative line is the thing to follow. Scott can be a messy narrator, but he's also a wily one. The poem is at any rate sufficiently a narrative to make me hesitate about giving spoilers, but I will.


Let's home in on a particular section. Canto III begins with the well-known invocation of Durham:


Well yet I love thy mix’d and massive piles,

Half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scot,

When we get back to the story, we find that it's morning and that Harold is contemplating the battlements and towers of Durham from the "western heights of Beaurepaire" (=Bearpark, but Scott probably means Western Hill). Scott, no doubt, had seen this view himself, perhaps while on a visit to  the ruins of Beaurepaire Priory Manor House, destroyed during the civil war.  (In contrast, the engraving at the head of this post shows Durham from the north-east.)

Durham skyline from the west

[Image source:]

It isn't an idle contemplation: Harold, we eventually learn,  is waiting for the bell that signals the bishop's conclave. But as Canto III unfolds, it appears to be a lull in the action. Harold's stern mood softens, and he demands a song from his page Gunnar.

Such was my grandsire Erick’s sport,
When dawn gleam’d on his martial court.
Heymar the Scald, with harp’s high sound.
Summon’d the chiefs who slept around;
Couch’d on the spoils of wolf and bear,
They roused like lions from their lair,
Then rush’d in emulation forth
To enhance the glories of the north.—
Proud Erick, mightiest of thy race,
Where is thy shadowy resting-place?
In wild Valhalla hast thou quaff’d
From foeman’s skull metheglin draught,
Or wander’st where thy cairn was piled
To frown o’er oceans wide and wild?


[Concerning that last sentence, the mistaken belief that Vikings drank from human skulls derives from the Danish scholar Ole Worm's Latin misrendering of Stanza XXV of the twelfth-century Krákumál  (aka Ragnar's Death Song),  a ferocious poem indeed but not in this regard.  When the poem talks about drinking from the "curved wood of heads", it means drinking-horns. 

The misinterpretation made its way into Bishop Percy's English translation "The Dying Ode of Regner Lodbrog" in Five Pieces of Runic Poetry Translated from the Islandic Language (1763), which was highly influential on the English Gothic novel as well as on Romantic authors like Scott and Byron .... or Arnold:

And on the tables stood the untasted meats,
And in the horns and gold-rimm'd skulls the wine.

(Matthew Arnold, "Balder Dead", I.13-14)

Modern translation by TheGrinningViking:

Thomas Percy's prose translation:

Lord Byron's gardener found a skull in the grounds of Newstead Abbey, and Byron had it converted into a drinking vessel for his own use. 

Other literary traditions of skullcuppery, such as Herodotus' claim that the Scythians drank from their enemies' skulls,  may be equally suspect for all we know. But skull-vessels have been found in Magdalenian sites across Europe, e.g. Gough's Cave in Cheddar Gorge (c. 12,750 BCE).

Then there's the story of the 6th-century Gepid princess Rosamund and her cruel husband, the Lombard king Alboin. Alboin has had her father decapitated and wears the skull on his belt. At a royal banquet, he forces his wife to drink from her father's skull. She subsequently has her husband assassinated. (Story reported by Paulus Diaconus in the 8th century.)  ]


Harold invokes his grandsire Erick.  It could as well have been his father Witikind, except that Harold quarrelled with his father before his death, scorning his conversion to Christianity.

Gunnar... Oh yes, Gunnar.  In Scott's world, pages such as Gunnar have rather a fitful existence. At the beginning of The Lay of the Last Minstrel the minstrel is attended by his own page, but the page is never mentioned again.  Likewise Gunnar, who at the end of Canto I faithfully follows the banished Harold into the storm after the break with Witikind, and thence into years of foreign service, is entirely missing from Canto II, in which Harold dogs the fair maiden Metelill and affronts her ugly parents. But now Gunnar's back in the frame again, and what's more, has a warning to convey; he's carefully watching his dangerous master's propitious mood.

Here's the song Gunnar produces in response, and its interruption.

Hawk and osprey scream’d for joy
O’er the beetling cliffs of Hoy,
Crimson foam the beach o’erspread, 
The heath was dyed with darker red,
When o’er Erick, Inguar’s son,
Dane and Northman piled the stone;
Singing wild the war-song stern,
‘Rest thee, Dweller of the Cairn!’

“Where eddying currents foam and boil
By Bersa’s burgh and Graemsay’s isle,
The seaman sees a martial form
Half-mingled with the mist and storm.
In anxious awe he bears away
To moor his bark in Stromna’s bay,
And murmurs from the bounding stern,
‘Rest thee, Dweller of the Cairn!’

“What cares disturb the mighty dead ?
Each honour’d rite was duly paid;
No daring hand thy helm unlaced,
Thy sword, thy shield, were near thee placed,
Thy flinty couch no tear profaned,
Without, with hostile blood was stain’d;
Within, ’twas lined with moss and fern,—
Then rest thee, Dweller of the Cairn!—

“He may not rest: from realms afar
Comes voice of battle and of war,
Of conquest wrought with bloody hand
On Carmel’s cliffs and Jordan’s strand,
When Odin’s warlike son could daunt
The turban’d race of Termagaunt.” 

“Peace,” said the knight, “the noble scald
Our warlike father’s deeds recall’d,
But never strove to soothe the son
With tales of what himself had done.
At Odin’s board the bard sits high
Whose harp ne’er stoop’d to flattery;
But highest he whose daring lay
Hath dared unwelcome truths to say.”
With doubtful smile young Gunnar eyed
His master’s looks, and nought replied—
But well that smile his master led
To construe what he left unsaid.

Hoy, Bersa (Birsay), Graemsay, Stromna's bay (Stromness) : places in the Orkneys. Evidently Erick's grave is there, but that wasn't Harold's question, he wants to know where Erick's spirit rests now. Gunnar's reply claims a bard's vaticinative powers, supposedly inherited from his prophetess mother.

The first three stanzas tell us that Erick's ghost is unquiet. In the fourth stanza (interrupted) it becomes unmistakable that the unquietness refers to Harold, since it's he who has fought in the Holy Land against "the turban'd race of Termagaunt".

[In N. European medieval romances Termagaunt was a god or demon supposed to be worshipped by Muslims. There's no known connection with real Islamic beliefs or customs.]

Harold interrupts the song on the pretext that it's improper to hear of his own deeds.  But the words that follow show that he understands that Gunnar has something to say to him, and he invites the confidence, though not without a warning of his own.  As Canto III proceeds, Gunnar expresses misgivings about Harold's intention to wed Metelill and about her shifty mother's advice to reclaim his lands from the church.

As the sequel shows that Harold ignores these warnings, we may feel that the conversation could have been spared. But what's really happening here is that the pair are fencing, nay, courting. It's a conspicuously different thing to the absence of courtship in Harold's peremptory claim of Metelill, in the greenwood, in the preceding canto. As Harold remarks later,

What maid e'er showed such constancy
In plighted faith, like thine to me?

It would be going too far, of course, to call Harold a homosexual poem. Scott doesn't do sexuality; and anyway, the poem ends with the revelation that faithful Gunnar is actually a Danish princess (Eivir) in disguise. Harold kicks himself for not having seen the signs before, and this reader did too.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that up to that final page we are reading about a growing closeness and tenderness between two guys. Opposites attract; Harold is dauntless, but Gunnar is far from fitting the ruthless profile outlined by Harold (in Canto I) as needed in his follower. Harold begins to enjoy caring for Gunnar.  In the eerie Castle of the Seven Shields, Harold says:

But couch thee, boy; the darksome shade
Falls thickly round, nor be dismay'd
Because the dead are by.
They were as we; our little day
O'erspent, and we shall be as they.
Yet near me, Gunnar, be thou laid,
Thy couch upon my mantle made,
That thou mayest think, should fear invade,
Thy master slumbers nigh.

The thought might even cross our minds that it's the dauntless Harold who's afraid of sleeping alone. At any rate it's he who passes the more fearful night. Rising the next morning, an altered man, the accents of tenderness are clearer still:

"My page," he said, "arise; --
Leave we this place, my page." ...

But back to that dialogue in Canto III. Aside from Gunnar's gender, another bizarre fact about it emerges in retrospect; Gunnar is carrying something for his master. Two things, actually: the head of Anthony Conyers and the hand of Alberich Vere, tokens to show the conclave that Harold means business.

I'm not sure that Gunnar quite gets to state his intended warning... It surely had more to do with subduing Harold's primitive violence than with undermining a love-rival. At any rate the collision of those plot-elements on the same sunny hillside is funny, even grotesque.

Harold is a conversion narrative, and there is a grotesquerie to conversion. Just as in Canto I Witikind's conversion produced grotesque combinations of heathen and Christian at his feast, so at the end of the poem there's something grotesque about the idea of Harold's conversion redeeming his years of unhinged slaughter. Perhaps another word for it is miraculous.


Librivox sound recording of Harold the Dauntless, read by Nathan.

Online Text of Harold the Dauntless:

Short-lived but interesting blog on Scott's works as they relate to Co. Durham:

Harold accosts Metelill in the greenwood (Canto II, St 7)

[Image source: . Presumably taken from an old edition of Scott's poems, but no source or artist is named.]

Further eclecticism:  Harold's weapon is not a Viking weapon such as a Dane-axe but a medieval mace. This mace does allow him to shatter the stone monument of Osric (in Canto IV), which would have ruined an axe.  In the illustration, the spiked head of the mace is reminiscent of a Morgenstern (morning star), a weapon that came into use in Germany in the early 14th Century.


The engraving of Elvet Bridge stirred a long-untroubled layer of memories. I was at Uni there between 1979 and 1984. In my time the spot from which that view is taken was the regular site of a kebab van, an interesting novelty for many of us at the time. I am sure it was a kebab van, though I can't quite square that with another memory of walking through the wintry night-time streets of Durham clutching a spring roll, from which hot grease regularly splashed on the cobbles. Probably this was after visiting the Big Jug, a heavy metal pub in Claypath.

My interest in wild flowers began in 1982. I was living on the banks of the Wear, a few miles out of the city. Here the river was bordered on one side by a ribbon of ancient woodland belonging to the Dean and Chapter, and it was in this wood that I cut my teeth on flower identification. Perhaps it is a relic of the once-extensive Weardale greenwood that Scott describes in his poem. Here I found (but was too inexperienced to appreciate) an exceptionally rich ground-flora: all the usual plants of ancient woodland, along with Yellow Archangel, Woodruff, the hybrid swarm when Water Avens meets Wood Avens,  a single magnificent specimen of Wood Vetch which I could never re-discover, and northern specialities like Wood Cranesbill and Wood Stitchwort. Since I subsequently moved back down south, I've never encountered Wood Stitchwort again, and Wood Cranesbill only on visits to Sweden.

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

charity-shop chuckouts

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, later HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother

[Image source:  Daily Express]

I'm still waiting for the new smartphone to arrive. As a stopgap post, here's another particularly miscellaneous scrap of brief history that I wrote in 2005.


I’m clearing out, the way you want to sometimes, things that can go to Barnardos. Books, tapes and bric-a-brac.


Let’s start with the books. The first one is a Ladybird book with a smiling old lady on the front-cover. The lady is wearing a triple rope of pearls and she has pearl ear-rings to match; a floral dress. The eyes are kind, the smile perky, posed, and with a touch of authority, as if the photographer ought to feel lucky to get it. It is H M Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and the author is Ian A Morrison MA Ph D. In sepia at the age of seven, looking out winsomely from a cosy wrap, she was Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. Robert the Bruce and Owen Glendwr were ancestors, the family had owned Glamis Castle since the 14th Century. They also owned coal-mines in the North-East of England, but that’s not in the book.** The book was published in 1982, so it precedes the marital troubles of the Windsors. Her daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret


were eleven and six years old before their father and mother were unexpectedly made King and Queen. Instead of taking Court life as their model, their parents looked on family life as a sanctuary in which people could develop despite the pressures on them in the outside world. The happiness of her own early days seems to have guided the way she and her husband decided to bring up their own family. This is important, because the pattern of family life that she set with Albert then... has been continued through to her grandchildren’s generation. Many people feel that this feeling of the Royal Family being a real family has contributed a lot their continuing popularity in the last part of the 20th century.


As more recent commentators have pointed out, this investment in the idea of a nuclear family has in the end risen up to bite her successors. If you want to maintain that vision it’s best to lose your husband early and become famous for your madeira at Clarence House.

** Like the Rees-Moggs, who were mineowners in Somerset.


Next book: Beer and Skittles by Richard Boston (1976). This is a document in the early days of campaigns for “real” beer. I suppose it was bound to start with alcohol; subsequently the same powerful feelings, of nostalgia for what has been lost and suspicion of profiteering technology that seems outside our control, has extended to food. Draught beer was rescued for CAMRA, the nurturers of heritage, and all the other complainers, mostly old or educated; while the youthful mass were easily diverted into valuing lagers and other well-advertised concoctions. The same pattern seems likely to keep organic food afloat as a minority option, harmlessly absorbing the shock of dissent, though in the latter case it is about much more than “the spreading curse of blandness”.   


Famous Reporter 24 (December 2001) – an Australian “literary biannual”. I’m in this one. The editor, Ralph Wessman, used to trawl the emails of the BritPo forum looking for likely candidates. But the best outcome of that sensible approach is the presence of Geraldine Monk’s defence of the author as individual, which I’ve read many times. “Once you do commit yourself to the public arena (small as it may be in our case) then you cannot seriously be striving for anonymity or an ego-less state.... Seems to me that the ultimate ego-less state is death which probably lasts a long time (hopefully) so why on earth anyone on earth should want to achieve it while on earth has always puzzled me – it seems a bit anti-life and definitely against the individual.” Go Geraldine!


The History Man (1975) and To the Hermitage (2000) by Malcolm Bradbury. Summary of the The History Man could easily make it seem a straightforward conservative satire; summary of To the Hermitage could easily make it seem a nostalgic adieu to the life of academic talk. Both conceptions do less than justice to an author whose comic vim insinuates a broad and complex vision, almost effortlessly making us feel that we haven’t done any thinking while we read. In fact, I admit it, I meant to write properly about these books but I’ve given up – it would just take too much thinking. Bradbury’s garrulous society is something I don’t feel up to adding to. Many others have read these books, and everyone seems to think well of them. The health goes deeper than being healthy diversions.


Discover Britain, the illustrated walking and exploring guide (AA, 2001). Something paradoxical in a motorist’s “walking” guide? – Well, you drive somewhere, then you have a walk. The walks in fact seem rather random, avoiding the obvious. This is a heritage coffee-table thing, surely too bulky for practical use. The titles of the walks are what chiefly take the attention: “Dorset Heaths of Thomas Hardy”, “Castles and Mansions in Peaceful Seclusion”, “The Heart of the Capital”, “Constable’s Suffolk Landscapes”, “Land of Legend, Lair of Outlaws”, “A Fairy Lake and the Black Mountain”, “On Elgar’s Malverns”, etc. This monument depends on a heady assemblage of tributes, e.g.  of Gordale Scar, “Wordsworth’s friend, the artist George Beaumont, rightly described it as ‘beyond the range of art’.”


Haynes Manual – Citroën 2CV, Ami & Dyane. I owned two 2CVs, and I did read about how to reverse the windscreen-wipers which are set up for left-hand drive, but I never got round to it, an expression which I am discovering could be the motto for most of the cultural residue that passes through households like this. The text is beguiling if you don’t understand it: “Lubricate the shaft splines.... Chock the axle arm to support it and drive the hub from the pivot to separate. Use a wooden block or soft drift.” Depressing, too. I want to “live” but do the same as yesterday – the less I accept it, the bigger the barriers seem.


Now for the cassette tapes. After selling the last 2CV I finally had a car whose engine was quiet enough for it to be worth putting in a music system, and I chose a tape player, which turned out be naive because I had not realized that tapes had just been phased out and you couldn’t buy any new ones. This was about three years ago. My only source of tapes was charity shops, and tapes have proved even less resilient than vinyl or CDs to the passing of time; most of the ones that still circulate and re-circulate were budget productions and don’t really work properly.


Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 (LSO, Wyn Morris) is a case in point. Besides, the flying-saucer theme in the first movement is inaudible over a car-engine, which spoils the drama. It was composed 1822-23, a fair while after the other eight. I’ve long wished to say that I don’t rate it compared to those other symphonies, but this isn’t true. I even like the choral finale (which I wished to say was just not symphonic). It’s an enormously brilliant work; every time new vistas open. The first movement, for example, passes way beyond the cavernous ice and hammer-blows with which it begins; much of it is, if not exactly friendly, certainly full and chequered like a river teeming with fish. All Beethoven’s scherzi are terrific, but the second movement here is like a gigantic, burly sort of gift, bearing its sumptuous trio with soft hands. And then there’s the slow, slow movement, the Beethoven we all like best. To finish, we begin as it were all over again, with a vast celebration.     


Liszt, Symphonic Poems. I have plenty of cheap taste when I want it, and I think these are great, but the recording level is desperately low. Les Preludes is possibly the best of them. Tasso is like a Scott romance in music, but better, and I know every note of it by heart. This poem is subtitled Lamento e Trionfo which is rather misleading. It begins with a fight, and then with an uneasy, melancholy series of scenes around the castle, including a nocturnal passage where a young girl is alone with her thoughts in a high turret. This music is briefly interrupted by some sort of royal fanfare, then there is a morning busyness including the preparations of musicians for a dance. These preparations gather momentum but suddenly fighting breaks out again. It’s good fighting, but much less cruel and bloody than the gladiators in Respighi’s Feste Romane. Up to this point the drama is entirely gripping and convincing, but now there’s a slightly awkward, too-sudden transition to the triumphant celebrations and triumphant blaze of brass at the end; Liszt gets the pacing wrong. It sounds as if the complexities of the earlier narrative have been merely cancelled. The whole piece is built with surprising consistency around Liszt’s method of “theme transformation”. In this case even a non-musician can hear that the motif of an ornamentally descending grace-note.      


Saint-Saëns, Piano Concertos 1-3 (Ciccolini). This, on the other hand, has never done it for me: garish, tasteless and supremely lacking in melodic invention. That ought to be a recipe for interest, and I’ve sometimes thought I found it by focussing on the dynamics, but I felt from the effort I was just working this up artificially. Probably this is a case where having the concertos one after another (inevitably playing the whole tape through) does a disservice to the music. I would feel quite excited about hearing one of them at a concert.

Joni Mitchell, For the Roses (1972) and The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975). And I’d have chucked Court and Spark, too, if I could have found it. But I’m keeping the earlier albums, Clouds and Blue. In those earlier records you can hear what I really care for, her voice and her expression of a generation’s feelings. These later albums strive to be brilliant, detached and critical, and I don’t think even she with all her talent can do any of that within the parameters of rock. You end up admiring her desire to make an adult music, at the same time that you feel her incapacity to realize the issues at a musical level.


Mahler, Symphony No. 1 in D. I do like this, principally the first and last movements, but I’m a mere visitor to Mahler’s oeuvre and his preoccupations; and since I’m 46 already, I perhaps always will be. It’s time to put it aside and wait for another space; if there is one, so much the better, but I hardly expect it.


Brahms, Sonatas for Cello and Piano. These are not Brahms’ most persuasive works, especially the first of them; its first movement has too much of the same expansive melody. It seems to think it’s very fine. The second is better, the first movement heroic and the finale one of those Brahmsian constructions that is faceted; it seems too short and you never want it to end. But here Brahms seems to have solved his problem of balance rather drastically, by reducing the cello-part to a source of bold pizzicati and zooshing sound-effects; he seems to have written it right through on the piano and doesn’t want to leave any space. I’ve heard these sonatas a hundred times, always one after another in this murky, greyish recording.


Sibelius, Symphony No 2 in D. My least favourite Sibelius symphony, though I have come to admire that gigantic second movement more with the passing of time. The finale is admittedly his worst, the kitchen-sink failing to disguise the lack of crucial ideas.   


Lawrence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey – abridgment read by Donald Sinden. This was mildly entertaining, once, and less so, twice. I haven’t read the book, but it seems to be the same joke over and over. Very disappointing, remembering the vast wonderments of Tristram Shandy.


The bric-a-brac: a two-level lunch box that splits apart when you don’t want it to, with the Chino-English motto, “food is suel of human body”. A vase for a single stem (this should be called a solitaire) that could conceivably be just the thing, but somehow never is. A shower-radio, still in its packaging because I’ve already got one. I must admit that it’s become an indispensable part of the routine of waking up. In this fragile part of the day I am briefly immersed in Chris Moyles, Comedy Dave, Rachel, Dominic and Carrie. I am as uncritical and ego-less as an animal, except I also laugh. 

By 2005, Moyles and his team had succeeded in increasing the morning audience, with his programme's audience swelling to 6.5 million. (Wikipedia)


Some of these things I feel sorry to part with, especially the vase. It seems important to get rid of at least one thing that I think I’ll miss. What lies behind this belief is the feeling, as Gösta Ågren puts it, that “your life slowly becomes more important than you”. As he also probably says, to possess something is no longer to have it. Only now, while writing these two pages, have I briefly had my things again.


Note (2018) :  I feel anxious to state that I no longer hold the negative opinions I expressed about, e.g Brahms' 1st Cello Sonata or Sibelius 2. Of Saint-Saëns's piano concertos or those Joni albums I can't speak so securely, not having encountered them since, but I still feel an impulse to distance myself from those blanket dismissals.

This deprecation of former critical opinions has been my common experience when re-posting older pieces from my defunct website.

Does this change in my views reflect a growth of critical timidity, or grandfatherly sentimentality perhaps? I don't think so. I've learnt over and again, how most of my former critical dismissals arose from lack of understanding. I believe other people's critical dismissals, likewise, are mainly down to ignorance.

Though I was already 46 when I wrote this piece,  I still shared in some degree the deficiencies of the teenage Miss Bertrams: of "self-knowledge, generosity, and humility"*. It is, of course, a larger issue of our times than just talking about books or music.

Pankaj Mishra; Against the Culture of Cruelty (in the NYRB)

(* A little trailer for Mansfield Park, which I'll be blogging about soon ...)    


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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Karin Boye: three poems from Moln (Clouds) (1922)


Karin Boye (right) in 1921, wearing her student examen cap,  while on a school trip to Norway (she was a student teacher at the time)

[Image source:]


From Clouds (1922)









Look at those towering clouds, whose high distant cloud-tops
proudly and shimmeringly rear up, as white as white snow!
How calmly they glide forward, how calmly in the end to die
by soft dissolution into a shower of cool raindrops.


Majesty of those clouds... whether living or dying
they move forward smiling into the brilliance of the sun;
without furrowed brow,  in ether so clear so clean
they move with a stately and silent disdain for their undoing.


If only I too with all that pomp of festivals
might raise myself up to a place where the world’s bustle is gone,
and no matter how furiously round me the storm howls on
might bear the gold garland of sunshine on my temples.





Se de mäktiga moln, vilkas fjärran höga toppar
stolta, skimrande resa sig, vita som vit snö!
Lugna glida de fram för att slutligen lugnt dö
sakta lösande sig i en skur av svala droppar.

Majestätiska moln - genom livet, genom döden
gå de leende fram i en strålande sols sken
utan skymmande oro i eter så klart ren,
gå med storstilat, stilla förakt för sina öden.

Vore mig det förunnat att högtidsstolt som dessa
kunna lyfta mig upp, dit ej världarnas jäkt når
och hur vredgat omkring mig än stormarnas brus går
bära solskimrets gyllene krans omkring min hjässa.



A Buddhist Fantasy



Unhasped is the world’s copper gate.
High in the gate-vault, there I sat
and what I saw there was infinitely vast;
there's nothing else so infinite.


Searchingly and long I gazed.
My eye found not the least relief.
There, what I knew did not exist;
not great, not small – not life, not death.


Just one step on that trackless way
and all return for me is past.
Why are you trembling? Up, follow me!
For nature’s copper gate is forced!




En buddhistisk fantasi

Upplåst är världens kopparport.
Högt i dess portvalv står jag här,
och vad jag ser är ändlöst stort,
och ingen syn så ändlös är.

Hur djupt jag ser, hur långt jag ser,
min blick får ej det minsta stöd.
Allt vad jag vet finns där ej mer --
ej stort, ej smått -- ej liv, ej död.

Ett enda steg på spårlös stig,
och återvägen är mig stängd...
Vi rysen I? Upp, följen mig!
Ty alltets kopparport är sprängd!





Coolness in your voice like the murmur of springs, and your soul
sour-fresh like autumn's scented berries
and clear in your eye rests
the chilly merriment of high September


Like a fountain whose sunny glittering jet
is lovely in its balance and lovely in its strict bow-shape
and lovely in its force, because it has
enough power to love limits and noble proportions


Hello to your laughing calm, your spring flush!
Hello to your soul's sweet surpassing excellence!
This is what I'm seeing in the clarity of your brow
and in the singing harmony of your limbs


Sval är din röst som källors sorl, och ditt väsen
syrligt friskt som höstens doftande frukter.
Klar i ditt öga vilar
höga septembers kyliga munterhet.

Springbrunn är du, vars soligt glittrande stråle,
skön i sin jämvikt, skön i sin formstränga båge,
skön i sin styrka, äger
makten att älska gränser och ädla mått.

Hell ditt lekande lugn, din vårliga hälsa!
Hell din andes ljuva gudomliga adel,
tecknad i dragens renhet
och dina lemmars sjungande harmoni!

The whole collection in Swedish:

Karin Boye (1900 - 1941). Clouds (1922) was Karin Boye's first collection of poetry. The translations are mine.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

ways to write words

Common Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) looking frothy

It was always going to be a spartan trip, because we bought Economy Light tickets ( = no hold baggage). But it became more so on our first evening  in Dubai, when I left my smartphone in a taxi, and it never came back, so I spent the whole week away from the internet with merely the lustrous city (at the beginning of Ramadan), Read and Write Arabic Script , and an emergency mini-volume of Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece.

Languages that were only recently literate have tended to adopt the Roman or other major alphabets. But languages with long literary traditions preserve their own alphabets... or scripts... or let's just say, ways to write words. Arabic is definitely a script. Yes, it has an alphabet of twenty or so characters, but the alphabet isn't enough to know how to read or write a word. You have to know how to combine the letters together. There are no capital letters. Whether letters are joined or disjoined is not a matter for personal taste. The invisible "line of writing" is of great importance.

A word is itself a complex line. Its breaks and its outlying dots and squiggles are all part of it.

The same alphabetical letter may have several forms, depending on where it appears within the word (at the beginning, in the middle, at the end).  The end form is usually also the "full" form, the one you use when the letter stands alone.

Words and sentences are parsed right to left, but numbers (in figures) are parsed left to right (from an English perspective).

Some consonants are dark (tongue lowered to base of mouth) and this changes the vowel sounds around them. . Other sounds not in Standard English include gutturals, glottal stops, a back K, and a heavy (blown) H.

There is no sound equivalent to English P or V.  There are comparatively few vowel sounds. No short -e  or -o (eg "get", "got") and no "awe" or "air" or "oy" or "ear".

The consonants are either "sun" or "moon" letters. Sun letters are formed with the tongue tip and assimilate the definite article "al" when pronounced; moon letters don't.  Thus the pronunciation is "al-bayt" (the house) because b is a moon letter, but "ar-rial" (the rial) because r is a sun letter. The spelling of "al" is unaffected.

Midland Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) looking dotty


Sunday, May 13, 2018


I'm off to Dubai for a week... posting will probably be minimal....

Thursday, May 10, 2018

some bluebells

Hybrid Bluebell (Hyacinthoides x massartiana). Swindon, February 20th, 2018.

Hybrid Bluebell (Hyacinthoides x massartiana). Swindon, April 20th, 2018.

Hybrid Bluebell (Hyacinthoides x massartiana). Swindon, April 21st, 2018.

Hybrid Bluebell (Hyacinthoides x massartiana). Swindon, April 22nd, 2018.

Hybrid Bluebell (Hyacinthoides x massartiana). Swindon, April 26th, 2018.

Hybrid Bluebell (Hyacinthoides x massartiana). Swindon, April 27th, 2018.

Hybrid Bluebell (Hyacinthoides x massartiana). Swindon, May 2nd, 2018.

Hybrid Bluebell (Hyacinthoides x massartiana). Swindon, May 5th, 2018.

Hybrid Bluebell (Hyacinthoides x massartiana). Swindon, May 6th, 2018.

Hybrid Bluebell (Hyacinthoides x massartiana). Swindon, May 7th, 2018.

Hybrid Bluebell (Hyacinthoides x massartiana). Swindon, May 7th, 2018.

Hybrid Bluebell (Hyacinthoides x massartiana). Swindon, May 9th, 2018.

Pictures of the bluebells outside my door in West Swindon. They look like Spanish Bluebells, with characteristically broad leaves and pale blue bell-shaped flowers, but the pollen is green-creamy rather than blue, so they must be Hybrid Bluebells.

That is, according to this simple tripartite scheme:

Common Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)  The one you find in (usually old) woodland, often in huge quantities. Prefers shade. Narrow deep-blue flowers with reflexed tips, narrow leaves. Pollen cream-coloured. Flowerhead usually drooping to one side.

Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica)  Garden introduction. Happy in full sun.  Paler blue, broader, bell-shaped flowers, tips not reflexed, broad leaves. Pollen blue.  Flowerhead usually upright. Less common now in gardens than Hybrid Bluebell.

Hybrid Bluebell (Hyacinthoides x massartiana)  The cross between the above two species. Looks generally similar to Spanish Bluebell but pollen is usually green-creamy.

It sounds straightforward enough, but none of the diagnostic features is entirely reliable. If the parents hybridize so freely, and the hybrid is as fertile as it appears to be, you would expect continuous back-crossing producing a spectrum of forms. Recently the idea has even been floated that Common and Spanish might best be considered different forms of a single species.

There's evidently much more to discover about this. There has been well-publicized concern about the risk of diluting "native" Common Bluebell populations, but it's not clear if that's really happening.

Anyway, let's head for the woods.

Common Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), Hagbourne Copse, Swindon, 20th April 2018.

I took these photos in Hagbourne Copse, a fragment of ancient woodland on the edge of Swindon, on 20th April, when the flowering was only just starting, and the ground by no means as overwhelmingly blue as it would later become. The plants were strongly uniform, smallish at this stage, with deep blue flowers and very narrow leaves.

Common Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), Hagbourne Copse, Swindon, 20th April 2018.

Common Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), Hagbourne Copse, Swindon, 20th April 2018.

[My previous visit to Hagbourne Copse was in mid-February: ]

Pink bluebell in secondary woodland, Swindon, May 10th, 2018

What to make of these, in woodland that is not ancient at all?

The narrow leaves and narrow flowers with reflexed tips would tend to place them as Common Bluebell rather than Hybrid or Spanish. But the high proportion of pink and white individuals (such a contrast with Hagbourne Copse, only a few hundred yards away) suggests that these are some sort of selection intended for gardeners. In any case, they look like garden chuck-outs rather than an established population.

White, pink and blue bluebells in secondary woodland, Swindon, May 10th, 2018

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Tuesday, May 08, 2018

two poems in space

Arto Melleri in 1994 (still from TV interview)

[Image source:]

About once a year someone gets in touch to ask me about some poetry query. This poetry consultancy of mine is free, extremely unpopular, and rarely leads to helpful results, as my knowledge of poetry is patchy to say the least. However, I always enjoy it.

This was a case in point. A brief IM exchange with Yaşarcan Özdemir, a student at Anadolu University, last week led me to this personal anthology web page put together by Lee Bajuniemi:

The contents, Lee tells us, are Finnish poems translated into English. They seem generally popular and accessible pieces, by fairly well-known poets. Yaşarcan and I were debating the final two poems.

The penultimate poem is attributed to "Arto Mellar" (= Arto Melleri, presumably).


A person's life: width of a hand
I have heard it said
I look at the early morning sky:
from star to star
even less
The happiness that you wait for,
something that
cannot be measured, only possible
if not measured.
At sunrise small birds, without bursting,
sing out loud the morning dew,
the bright sound of countless droplets.

The final poem is attributed to Anselm Hollo:


Given the heavy jar full of all relevant
information, he dropped it on the sidewalk
and burst out laughing as the container and
its contents shattered and scattered in the
raging blizzard; he had been on his way to
present it to her, for her to dispose of as
she wished, but with the surreptitious expec-
tation that they might "go through it" together.

Now, the absurdity of the understanding had
become blatantly apparent, and he vowed to
tell the next full moon that he abjured such
subterfuge for ever: silence and starkness,
these were the perennial conditions of birth,
& love & death, the so-called great subjects,
the ones no one could ever say anything but
the dramatically obvious about.

"Proportions" isn't a poem I've seen before, but I feel I recognize it as Melleri's kind of thing;  popular nature-mysticism, a sort of precipitous visionary insight, indifference to modern poetic schools.

More on Arto Melleri (1956 - 2005):

It's possible that Anselm Hollo was also the translator of the poems by Arto Melleri and the others, but Lee doesn't say so, not explicitly anyway.

"Heavy  Jars #6" is, I'm guessing, an original poem in English, not a translation: casual and conversational, deploying standard-issue beat-poet ampersands. combining the well-wrought urn, the golden bowl and the empty vessel in its floaty transparent medium.

Anselm Hollo (1934 - 2013) was Finnish by birth but nearly all his forty books of poetry were written in English: he moved to the UK in c. 1959, then to the USA in 1967. The above poem presumably came from the chapbook Heavy Jars (1977).

Camille Martin wrote about the chapbook here:

The two poems converge on a similar claim:  that the most important things are beyond expression. In Melleri's poem  happiness cannot be measured, in Hollo's poem no-one can say anything about birth and love and death, apart from the "dramatically obvious".


The only other text of either poem that I could track down is here:

(where "Proportions", the Melleri poem above, is attributed to Hollo.)

On the other hand, Yaşarcan had been told that both poems were Melleri originals, translated by Hollo.

My attempts to locate a presumed Finnish original of "Proportions" have been an abject failure.


Poems that circulate on the internet often remind me of medieval poems in manuscripts. In both cases the transmission method of multiple copying is very likely to wear away everything that isn't embedded in the text itself.  Metadata, such as title, author, translator, original publication, date, etc are all highly vulnerable to being lost or discarded. And when a poem does appear with a title or author's name, these are not to be accepted without question.

Anselm Hollo in 1965

[Image source: Photo by John "Hoppy" Hopkins (1937 - 2015), the London counterculture dynamo, photographer and political activist.]

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Wednesday, May 02, 2018

The Verb

Spruce trees in Klövsjö, Jämtland

[Image source: Photo by Rolf Boström.]

This is the name of the popular poetry show on Friday nights on Radio 3,  hosted by Ian McMillan.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the verb was indeed feted in some poetry circles. Poets like Ted Hughes and Robert Lowell and Seamus Heaney were admired for fierce and forceful verbs, a hint at the vigour of medieval alliterative poetry.

The sea was still breaking violently and night
Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet,
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net.    (Robert Lowell, "The Quaker Gaveyard at Nantucket")

The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun.
The parrots shriek as if they were on fire, or strut
Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.... (Ted Hughes, "The Jaguar")

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.  (Seamus Heaney, "Digging")


It's often claimed (and not always by poets) that poetry is the deployment of language at its most strenuous and complex. But this is misleading. Poetry can be markedly complex in certain ways, but this play of forces can only be unleashed if there is, in other respects, an equally marked simplicity.

One valuable  thing I learned from my TEFL course (I've qualified, by the way) was the grammar of English, for example its 12 standard verb tenses in a table (plus all the others that aren't in the table).

I realized that poetry is characterized, probably always has been, by a limited palette of verb forms.
In the modern poetry that I like best, the impoverishment of verb forms is particularly severe. Indeed the verb itself is an object of suspicion.

And yet verb tenses such as the past perfect continuous (e.g. "had been feeling unwell"), which are so rare in poetry, are everyday working forms of language. They're common in discursive prose, but also in vernacular speech; in fact anywhere there's narrative. With few exceptions there's nothing academic or high-falutin about these verb forms. They are, however, definitional. They place action in a certain relation, most commonly a time relation, to other events.

But the lesson poets have absorbed from such forms as the haiku is that the world comes through the poem in a less mediated way if, so far as possible, we eliminate extraneous matter. Naturally I've always understood about the resulting distaste for adjectives and adverbs: the instinct that if we write




we bring an experience to the reader's mind with a sort of  integrity and directness, compared with when we write of "the dark, brooding stand of fir trees that dripped with rain..."   , or  "the corporal shrugged rapidly, hunching over the embers, ..."

What I had not understood (probably through mere ignorance) is that the same argument tells equally against the verb in poetry. 

For verbs are nothing if not interpretive. A discursive text full of verbs provides, as it were, a running commentary on the actions performed by its agents, an interpretation of what happened by an observer (which may sometimes be the agent her/himself, but this makes the commentary no less suspect).

This is most apparent when our agents are non-human. Most verbs originate in human activity. When we say that a tree "stands", or that a deer "walks", we assert an interpretation that cannot be shared by the agents themselves. Isn't the rangy springy floaty movement of the deer's legs utterly traduced by such a misleading image as the movement of human legs? Isn't the tree's  slow occupation entirely different from the stiffening pause that we experience as standing?

But the same argument applies, to a large degree, when our agents are human. When we report that a person gestures, or shrugs, defends, or agrees, hits out, strokes, and so on, we allege these things on the basis of a commentary from outside. Everyone knows how often such commentary is disclaimed by the parties involved. But when this is not so, what all consent to is rather a manner of speaking, that is, a communal cliche, a cliche of literature, than the real quality of the event itself.  Yes, I am happy that my behaviour is categorized under the received idea of "gesturing": the accumulated bundle of stereotypic movement connoted by that word. The reality is that action, behaviour, movement, thought, have no boundaries, no species, and no borders: the world of action is entirely fluid and continuous. The verb, however, seizes (or even creates) a certain event from this continuum, and drops it into a little pre-defined pigeonhole, such as "gesture" .... or "break", "steam", "clutch", "yawn" ...

A poem consisting only of nouns (like the rather short poems  above), makes no such allegation. The nouns and noun phrases float there, for the readers to make of them what they will.

Movement can be implied by verbal nouns and suspended tenses such as floating participles, but without specifying who or when: in other words, by dropping tenses.  So widespread is this poetic diction that sometimes when we are reading a modern poem and we do run across a more definitional phrase it looks like an intrusion; it looks like a quotation. The assertion was asserted somewhere else, we suppose; but it isn't asserted in the poem we are reading.

In mainstream poetry, often anecdotal or narrative in nature, the verb and some of its leaner tenses have survived. That was the point of my earlier post , in which I proposed that the presence of the words I'd/He'd/She'd was characteristic of modern mainstream poetry, their absence equally characteristic of modern non-mainstream poetry.


This proposal was vulnerable to counter-examples sourced from non-mainstream poetry, and Jamie McKendrick wasn't long in discovering one. He pointed out that Denise Riley, a poet commonly agreed to be non-mainstream, used my indicator words quite a bit in her recent collection Say Something Back (Picador, 2016).

He was right.  As early as the first poem, "A Part Song", she writes:

You'd rather not, yet you must go
Briskly around on beaming show.

And in a poem such as "The patient who had no insides", we read: "I'd slumped at home"... "I'd glimpsed the radiographer's dark film"... "How well you look, they'd said to me at work".

But I wasn't put out by this anomaly, it being apparent that Denise in this collection wrote in a great number of styles, some of them (such as "The patient who had no insides") unapologetically close to mainstream. In fact, Denise has always been strikingly individual in her poetic,and not easily assimilated to the common interests of the Cambridge School. She adopted almost none of the fashionable strategies and mannerisms of alternative poetry, and her own probing of the epistemology of personal sentiment and anecdotal poetry has often involved a kind of parodic immersion rather than a rebarbative resistance. Some of this work has communicated beyond the confines of theory; it's not a sheer accident that she was the only "alternative" poet to appear (albeit with one short poem only) in Paul Keegan's Penguin Anthology of English Verse.

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