Still cormorants, flickering authors

From close to the Arnolfini centre for contemporary arts, in the heart of Bristol’s harbourside, I’d seen a cormorant from time to time, as I had in other locations around the city, such as Wapping Wharf. Once I’d seen two, here, by the ferry stop at Nova Scotia Place. Now there were three. Apart from liking the distinctive look of them, and the dramatic gesture they sometimes make, of spreading their wings wide to dry them and holding that position for minutes on end, I had at the back of my mind two poems, or fragments of poems. One was a bit of doggerel from Christopher Isherwood, which runs:

The Common Cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag.
The reason you will see, no doubt,
It is to keep the lightning out.

But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

Cormorants_three.JPG

The second was a poem that I recalled as being one of the first to make an impression on me in my schooldays, probably around the age of nine or ten. It was called ‘Flannan Isle’.

There’s a small history trailing after that first brief exhibit. Isherwood had written the verses in 1928 to accompany a cartoon in the book that eleven-year-old Sylvain Mangeot was making, entitled People One Ought to Know.[1] In 1935, it appeared in The Poet’s Tongue, credited to ‘Anon’ before being included in Isherwood’s collection, Exhumations, thirty years later.[2] Since the anthology was co-edited by W. H. Auden, with whom Isherwood was intimate for many years—and they collaborated on at least four works during the 1930s—it seems unlikely that Auden was unaware of the poem’s true authorship.[3]

Cormorants_two

As for the second poem, ‘Flannan Isle’, there were no complications, no curious details, no story there: I knew it was by James Elroy Flecker. My interest in him was slightly obscure, or at least removed from the man himself: the most enthusiastic praise of Flecker that I’d seen was by Douglas Goldring, the novelist, playwright, travel writer, polemicist—and author of several books dealing in part or entirely with Ford Madox Ford, including the earliest biography of him.[4] So, to work: ‘Flannan Isle’, by James Elroy Flecker.

Except that it isn’t.

The inimitable Guy Davenport once wrote, in a short and extremely funny essay about Joseph Cornell and the film-maker Stan Brakhage: ‘We are never so certain of our knowledge as when we’re dead wrong.’[5] ‘Flannan Isle’ is in fact by Wilfred Gibson, who featured strongly in several volumes of Georgian Poetry and was one of the ‘Dymock Poets’, so called because several of them lived around that Gloucestershire village in the years immediately preceding the First World War. Robert Frost and Edward Thomas are usually mentioned in this context, along with Gibson, Rupert Brooke, Lascelles Abercrombie and John Drinkwater.

Not only is the poem not by Flecker but it doesn’t specifically mention cormorants. Gibson’s 1912 poem is about the mysterious disappearance of three lighthousemen from the island. The narrator is on a boat sent to investigate, in response to puzzling reports:

And, as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds—
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For guillemot or shag—
Like seamen sitting bold upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we near’d, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.[6]

Close: the shag is similar to a cormorant, though smaller. And Isherwood, a.k.a. ‘Anon’, made them sound closer than that (‘The common cormorant or shag’).[7]

Barker, Thomas Jones, 1815-1882; The Charge of the Light Brigade

(Thomas Jones Barker, The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1877
© Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, Shrivenham)

Still, I can manage to see it as very positive, that, as a child, I was struck by the poem rather than the poet. At that age, I think, for a poem to stick in my head, it  needed either strong repetition, as in Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’:

Cannon to right of them
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volleyed and thundered

or an unsettling image or situation, as in ‘Flannan Isle’; or a combination of both, as in Alfred Noyes’ ‘The Highwayman’, long a favourite anthology piece:

Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.[8]

Poems aside, I find that I can watch cormorants for quite a long time. That stillness, that sleek darkness. They stand, I stand. A restful arrangement. I wasn’t really aware of the ferocious, often murderous, anti-cormorant sentiment among anglers[9] and not familiar with  the negative associations of the word common among the Elizabethan writers. As a noun, then, it seems to mean ‘glutton’; as an adjective, ‘rapacious, ravenous’. Thomas Nashe uses the noun to mean a rapacious person—and employs it fairly often. In Pierce Penniless his Supplication to the Devil, Nashe’s persona is a ‘half-starved malcontent young poet who petitions the Devil to spirit away those capitalist ‘“cormorants”’[10] who ‘bung up all the wealth of the land in their snap-hance [with snap-locks] bags, and poor scholars and soldiers wander in back lanes and the out-shifts of the city, with never a rag to their backs.’ (What Nashe would think—and write— of our contemporary social and economic inequalities is rich food for thought.) Elsewhere, he divides companies of men into ‘corn’ and ‘chaff’: ‘the corn are cormorants, the chaff are good fellows which are quickly blown to nothing with bearing a light heart in a light purse.’[11]

The word’s origin hardly helps, apparently from the medieval Latin corvus marinus, ‘sea raven’, with clear links between ‘raven’ and the old verb meaning to hunt voraciously for prey. Shakespeare writes of ‘cormorant devouring time’, and the footnote in my copy of Love’s Labour’s Lost has: ‘Cormorant: ravenous. Elsewhere Shakespeare has “cormorant war” and “cormorant belly”.’ The character of Moth in the play is generally seen now as based on Nashe.[12]

All pretty hard on the cormorants, anyway, and in the teeth—ravenous, rapacious, gluttonous—of literary and angling disapproval, I shall continue to take pleasure in the sight of them.

 

References

[1] David Garrett Izzo, Christopher Isherwood Encyclopedia (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2005), 37. People One Ought to Know was published in 1982.

[2] The Poet’s Tongue: An Anthology of Verse, edited by W. H. Auden and John Garrett (London: G. Bell, 1935), 123; as late as 1997, the author is given as ‘Anon’ in Old Chestnuts Warmed Up, edited by John R. Murray (London: John Murray, 1997), 17, there entitled ‘Birds, Bags, Bears and Buns’; Isherwood, Exhumations: Stories, Articles, Verses (London: Methuen, 1966), 7.

[3] The collaborative works are The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936), On the Frontier (1938), Journey to a War (1939).

[4] The Last Pre-Raphaelite: A Record of the Life and Writings of Ford Madox Ford (London: Macdonald, 1948; published in the United States as Trained for Genius). Goldring’s essay, ‘James Elroy Flecker: An Appreciation and Some Personal Memories’, was included in his Reputations: Essays in Criticism (London: Chapman & Hall, 1920), 1-35.

[5] Davenport, ‘Pergolesi’s Dog’, in Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 145.

[6] A. Methuen, An Anthology of Modern Verse (London: Methuen & Co., 1921), 84.

[7] The version of ‘the well-known nonsense poem’ quoted by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, in Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 34, begins: ‘The common cormorant (or shag)’, making the identification (or misidentification) more explicit.

[8] Taken from The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse, chosen and edited by Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 344.

[9] Birds Britannica, 34-37.

[10] See Charles Nicholl, A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 2.

[11] The second quotation is from The Unfortunate Traveller: see The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, edited by J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), 104, 255: the spelling is modernised in this edition.

[12] Love’s Labour’s Lost, edited by R. W. David (London: Methuen & Co., 1987), 3, xxxvi.

 

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