Radical calendar, pronouns, rats’ alley

March-poster

It’s a Radical Calendar for us this year, each page headed by a stirring quotation to put fire into the bellies of those fighting for justice, equality and other unfashionable things. (I have an exhortatory poster on the wall behind me, come to think of it: that particular ‘March’ is not the name of a month.)

https://www.radicalteatowel.co.uk/

January’s legend was from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, written in 1819, after the massacre at Peterloo:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.

That last line is now more widely familiar because of its adoption as a Labour Party slogan. It’s also one that I’ve tended to misremember as ‘We are many – they are few’. A little risky for the eldest – legitimate – ­ son of the MP Sir Timothy Shelley to designate himself one of the many, you might think. But of course he doesn’t, distancing himself from both the ‘Ye’ and the ‘they’, reasonably enough given his belief that poets, as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, can’t easily be positioned within any conventional constituency.

But then – who can? ‘The others’, no doubt. The deployment of such pronouns – ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘they’, ‘us’ – has probably never been a simple matter. It sure as hell isn’t now. Ironically, as this country becomes more conformist and more tribal and more wedded to willed simplicities, the issue is becoming thornier by the day.

February boasted a mention of Benjamin Lay (1682-1759), the four feet tall Anglo-American Quaker humanitarian and abolitionist, vegetarian and author of around two hundred pamphlets. And that chimed in nicely with the book I was reading at the time, Madge Dresser’s Slavery Obscured: The Social History of the Slave Trade in an English Provincial Port, the port in question being Bristol, of course.

Calendar

March offers a sliver of John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel:

Nor is the people’s judgment always true:
The most may err as grossly as the few.

Indeed. Then under 29 March is printed the notice: ‘Brexit Day’. The news has now come through about how well it all went this afternoon. It was diverting to learn that, before that particular piece of parliamentary business, Liam Fox, urging his Westminster colleagues to vote the prime minister’s deal through, was warning that they would undermine faith in mainstream politics by creating a ‘chasm of distrust’ if they failed to do so. Yes, really: that Liam Fox; and ‘would undermine faith in mainstream politics’ and would create distrust. There’s a man with his finger on the pulse of current attitudes towards ‘mainstream politics’.

So where are we (them, us)? One speaker in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land remarked:

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones

That’s definitely a possibility. Or is our whole planet a speck of dust beneath the fingernail of a trickster god unimaginably vast? There’s another one.

Will we ever come back from this, whatever happens now? Probably not. Still, I do enjoy having people with mad eyes explain to journalists that if X, Y or Z doesn’t happen, there’s ‘a risk of no Brexit at all’.

I think that’s a risk we’re—me, us, some of them—prepared to take. So why not just revoke Article 50? That, by the way, is called ‘a clean non-Brexit’.

 

Soil, bones, grass

Buson-narrow-road-deep-north

(Yosa Buson, Narrow Road to the Deep North)

I was reading Bashō, who wrote: ‘I went to see the Atsuta Shrine, but it had been reduced to utter ruins. Walls had crumbled and dry grasses were standing among the falling blocks.’[1]

Grass as witness to decay, deterioration, disappearance. Or grass signifying growth, fertility, recovery. Times, circumstances, characters.

For A. E. Housman, born on this day in 1859, it could be positive, as in ‘Spring Morning’:

Now the old come out to look,
Winter past and winter’s pains,
How the sky in pool and brook
Glitters on the grassy plains.

But, as Nick Laird writes in the introduction to the Penguin edition of Housman’s poems, ‘Like Webster, Housman was much possessed by death’—death and lads would cover a lot of it, in fact—so there is also:

The sigh that heaves the grasses
Whence thou wilt never rise
Is of the air that passes
And knows not if it sighs.[2]

Robert Frost, also born on this day, in 1874, published one of his most famous poems, ‘The Road Not Taken’, in August 1915. It is, as Frost himself said, ‘a tricky poem – very tricky’, and the poet seems to have had his friend Edward Thomas in mind when he wrote it.[3] The narrator of Frost’s poem looks down one path as far as possible before it bends into the undergrowth:

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

‘About the same’ – and both paths covered in freshly fallen leaves anyway.[4]

One more: on this day, in 1892, Walt Whitman died, the great poet of Leaves of Grass, thinking not only of graves but also of growth, expansion, burgeoning power.

Buson-Basho

(Yosa Buson, Matsuo Bashō)

For Ezra Pound’s Li Po, in eighth-century China, grass grows over the piled bones of the dead:

Bones white with a thousand frosts,
High heaps, covered with trees and grass;
Who brought this to pass?
Who has brought the flaming imperial anger?
Who has brought the army with drums and with
kettle-drums?
Barbarous kings.[5]

Lucille, in A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel’s novel about the French Revolution, looks to a future which will evidence recognisably similar signs: ‘With all the desperate passions in our heads and bodies, one day these walls will split, one day this house will fall down. There will be soil and bones and grass, and they will read our diaries to find out what we were.’[6]

rousseau-portrait-of-pierre-loti

(Henri Rousseau, Portrait of Pierre Loti, 1891)

In his translator’s note to Pierre Loti’s 1917 pamphlet, L’Outrage des barbaresThe Trail of the Barbarians (1918), Ford Madox Ford disagreed with Loti’s use of the word ‘irreparable’, believing that the land in France would indeed recover, thanks to its ‘little industries’ and its traditions of husbandry: ‘ . . . I am more sure than Mr Loti that the grass is already moving that shall cover the graveyards and the rusty heaps of recovered provinces.’[7]

Still, circling back to Bashō, I find: ‘When a country is defeated, there remain only mountains and rivers, and on a ruined castle in spring only grasses thrive. I sat down on my hat and wept bitterly till I almost forgot time.’[8]

As we know, not all a country’s defeats are military – nor even caused by external forces.

 
References

[1] Matsuo Bashō, ‘The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton’, in The Narrow Road to the Deep North and other travel sketches, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa (London: Penguin Books, 1966), 59.

[2] A Shropshire Lad and Other Poems: The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman, edited by Archie Burnett, with an introduction by Nick Laird (London: Penguin Books, 2010), 102, xi, 114.

[3] As discussed by Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas (London: Faber, 2012), 233-236.

[4] The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem (London: Jonathan Cape, 1977), 105.

[5] ‘Lament of the Frontier Guard’, in Cathay (1915): Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 254.

[6] Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 722.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, War Prose, edited by Max Saunders (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1999), 191.

[8] Bashō, Narrow Road to the Far North, 118.

Gentleman farmer, amiable grouch, Jonathan Williams

JW

(JW via http://thisrecording.squarespace.com/today/tag/jonathan-williams)

Today is the birthday of Jonathan Williams (1929-2008), poet, publisher, photographer, essayist, ‘gentleman farmer and amiable grouch’, as Thomas Meyer phrased it—he would have been 90. His last unpublished manuscript, Walks to the Paradise Garden, has just been released by Institute 193, the non-profit arts organisation based in Lexington, Kentucky—yes, Guy Davenport country—which collaborates with artists, musicians, and writers to produce exhibitions, publications, and projects that document the cultural landscape of the modern South. The 240-page book chronicles Williams’ road trips across the Southern United States with photographers Guy Mendes and Roger Manley ‘in search of the most authentic and outlandish artists the South had to offer.’

Walks-Paradise-Garden

More information here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/801455684/walks-to-the-paradise-garden-a-lowdown-southern-od?ref=email

The exhibition associated with the book has just opened: Way Out There: The Art of Southern Backroads at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, March 2 – May 19, 2019.

https://www.high.org/exhibition/way-out-there-the-art-of-southern-backroads/

A post about Williams last year brought me into contact with the poet Jeffery Beam, co-editor with Richard Owens of Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards, (Wesport: Prospecta Press, 2017).

Here—and why not?—is a Williams poem, ‘An Omen for Stevie Smith’, which caught my eye earlier today.

this is your aunt, Stevie,
and oh you must hurry!

The Man in Black
who waits tonight along the Lyke Wake Walk
has a gown for you
the colour of rowan berries;

a gown borne in air by hornets,
hagworms, and ants, riding
the backs of great bustards and herons. . .

your cats,
Brown and Fry and Hyde,
yes, Stevie, they too
shall come at last
to Whinny-Moor. . .

the five of you
shall dance that heath
to Death!

Stevie Smith has a poem called ‘My Cats’:

I like to toss him up and down
A heavy cat weights half a Crown
With a hey do diddle my cat Brown.

I like to pinch him on the sly
When nobody is passing by
With a hey do diddle my cat Fry.

I like to ruffle up his pride
And watch him skip and turn aside
With a hey do diddle my cat Hyde.

Hey Brown and Fry and Hyde my cats
That sit on tombstones for your mats.

Spectral-Pegasus

Jeffery Beam has a new book out, which I’ve just begun reading, a collaboration with the Welsh painter Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Spectral Pegasus / Dark Movements: Poems by Jeffery Beam; Paintings by Clive Hicks-Jenkins (Higganum, Connecticut: Kin Press, 2019, ISBN 9780998929316) A limited edition CD of the poems and songs is included with the first 500 copies and available thereafter through Beam’s website: www.jefferybeam.com

Jeffery has a series of readings and launch events coming up, mostly in the United States, but he’ll be at MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in Machynlleth, Powys, Wales on 15 May 2019.

 

Positive Blossoming

Blossom

A large bumble bee, having perhaps misread the calendar, veers about in our small garden. The plump, intellectually challenged grey cat, perched on a stone pillar, dabs in its general direction with an ineffectual paw. The grey cat is still in recovery mode, having all but fallen from the fence just now, scrabbling frantically, clutching and scraping, hauling itself back only to be plunged into embarrassment by finding me watching its antics from the kitchen table, where I sat over a fat volume.

‘“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain,” I recall James Taylor singing over and over on the news radio station between updates on the 1978 Mandeville and Kanan fires, both of which started on October 23 of that year and could be seen burning toward each other, systematically wiping out large parts of Malibu and Pacific Palisades, from an upstairs window of my house in Brentwood.’[1]

Oddly, I’d been thinking of James Taylor myself the previous day, when I passed trees in the park already in blossom. I say ‘already’ but, if they were autumn cherry, they’d be blossoming fitfully from November to March. Almond blossom? Not sure.

Blossom, anyway. Meteorologically, spring has started, psychologically not so much, though, when the breeze quickens and becomes something else, the Romantics among us murmur: ‘O, Wind,/ If Winter comes/ Can Spring be far behind?’[2]

Sweet-baby-James

James Taylor’s ‘Blossom’ was the second track on the second side of his second album, Sweet Baby James, melodic and, as they say, reassuringly unthreatening, though not without its darker tints. It’s one of two tracks on the album—the other was ‘Country Road’—on which Randy Meisner, founder member of The Eagles, played bass.

The word ‘blossom’ is one of those whose syllables seem to act out the actions and qualities associated with it. Ivor Gurney wrote of his beloved Gloucestershire, ‘where Spring sends greetings before other less happy counties have forgotten Winter and the snow. Where the talk is men’s talk, and eyes of folk are as soft as the kind airs. The best roads in England, the finest cider, the richest blossom in the most magical orchards, beauty content in security, strength quiet in confidence controlled, blood mixed of plain and hill, Welsh and English; are not these only of my county, my home?’ Though he added—he was writing to Marion Scott from near Tidworth in March 1916—‘And yet were I there the canker in my soul would taint all these.’[3]

Blossom fits with sweet reasonableness into contexts of ironic undercurrent and ambiguity, say, the final stanza of Henry Reed’s ‘Naming of Parts’:

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.[4]

And here is the narrator of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, blossom a part of his learning to read the English landscape and its complicated history:

‘When I grew to see the wild roses and hawthorn on my walk, I didn’t see the windbreak they grew beside as a sign of the big landowners who had left their mark on the solitude, had preserved it, had planted the woods in certain places (in imitation, it was said, of the positions at the battle of Trafalgar – or was it Waterloo?), I didn’t think of the landowners. My mood was purer: I thought of these single-petalled roses and sweet-smelling blossom at the side of the road as wild and natural growths.’[5]

Brett, Dorothy Eugenie, 1883-1977; D. H. Lawrence

Dorothy Brett, D. H. Lawrence
© National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

For D. H. Lawrence, it seems a symbol of a stage on the road to moral growth: ‘You have to suffer before you blossom in this life’, Lettie tells George in The White Peacock. ‘When death is just touching a plant, it forces it into a passion of flowering.’[6] His short story, ‘The Last Laugh’, centring on an encounter with Pan ends with a faint scent of almond blossom in the air[7]—and Pan is not only a recurrent element in Lawrence’s work but crops up all over the place at that time: from E. M. Forster to The Wind in the Willows. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, what Lawrence sees as our separation from the natural world finds blossom on the casualty list as he gets into his stride in the last year of his life:

‘Sex is the balance of male and female in the universe, the attraction, the repulsion, the transit of neutrality, the new attraction, the new repulsion, always different, always new. The long neuter spell of Lent, when the blood is low, and the delight of the Easter kiss, the sexual revel of spring, the passion of midsummer, the slow recoil, revolt, and grief of autumn, greyness again, then the sharp stimulus of winter, of the long nights. Sex goes through the rhythm of the year, in man and woman, ceaselessly changing: the rhythm of the sun in his relation to the earth.’ [ . . . ] This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table.’[8]

Cherry-Blossom-Japan-Guide

(Via www.japan-guide.com )

When it comes to national obsessions, some Western countries might do better to look to Japan: ‘Residents of Kochi Prefecture in the Shikoku region will be the first to see cherry blossoms of the Somei-Yoshino tree this year, as early as March 18, according to a forecast by an Osaka-based meteorological company that predicts Japan’s iconic sakura may bloom earlier than usual’, the Japan Times reported:
https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/01/15/national/cherry-blossoms-across-japan-forecast-arrive-earlier-usual-2019/#.XH-WyFP7RQM

I don’t pitch my own interest and enthusiasm quite that high but I’ll still lean towards the positive side: new growth, new life, new beauty. Some news as good news. ‘The positive side’—here, now, England, March 2019.

Remarkable.

 
References

[1] Joan Didion, ‘Fire Season’, in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Knopf, 2006), 656.

[2] Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Ode to the West Wind’, The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1909), 574.

[3] Ivor Gurney, Collected Letters, edited by R. K. R. Thornton (Mid Northumberland Arts Group & Carcanet Press 1991), 75.

[4] Henry Reed, ‘Naming of Parts’, in Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2007), 49.

[5] V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel in Five Sections (1987; London: Pan McMillan, 2002), 20.

[6] D. H. Lawrence, The White Peacock (1911; Cambridge University Press, edited by Andrew Robertson, Cambridge 1983), 28.

[7] D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Last Laugh’, in The Collected Short Stories of D. H. Lawrence (London: William Heinemann, 1974), 587-602.

[8] D. H. Lawrence, ‘A Propos of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, in Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished and Other Prose Works by D. H. Lawrence, Collected and Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore (London: William Heinemann, 1968), 504.

 

Lesbia’s lively guest

hokusai-sparrows

(Hokusai, Sparrows)

Snow still on the ground from the falls of Thursday night, which produced enough to satisfy the Librarian’s appetite for such things and to allow for taking impressive photographs of a crow in the park. Nothing much since but the temperature hasn’t climbed enough to clear it. And still no sign of the robin – which, I gather, doesn’t do well in cold weather. I clear the water dish each morning of its solid disc of ice and refill it, and have scraped off the hillocks of snow from the seed tray and feeder, but I’ve noticed only one pigeon and one sparrow turn up so far.

The sparrow has been the more persistent: two visits on Friday and three on Saturday. Long ones too, perched in the seed tray for up to ten minutes. Apart from their inherent attractiveness, I’ve always felt particularly sympathetic towards sparrows since reading about how they were regarded as unusually lustful by earlier ages. Apparently, the Greek strouthos (sparrow) could mean ‘lewd fellow’ or ‘lecher’.[1] Sappho had Aphrodite’s chariot pulled by them:

In that chariot pulled by sparrows reined and bitted,
Swift in their flying, a quick blur aquiver,
Beautiful, high. They drew you across steep air
Down to the black earth[2]

More famous is Catullus, first detailing the interaction between Lesbia — Clodia Metelli – and her pet sparrow. In Walter Savage Landor’s version:

Sparrow! Lesbia’s lively guest,
Cherish’d ever in her breast!
Whom with tantalizing jokes
Oft to peck her she provokes:
Thus in pretty playful wiles
Love and absence she beguiles.

Oft, like her, to ease my pain,
I thy little fondness gain.
Dear to me as, bards have told,
Was the apple’s orb of gold
To the Nymph whose long-tied zone
That could loose, and that alone.[3]

Bewick-Dunnock

(Thomas Bewick’s Dunnock, or Hedgesparrow)

In the following poem, Catullus responds to the sparrow’s death. It has ‘now hopped solitarily/ down that dark alleyway of no returns’, its loss ‘swelling my girl’s veiled eyes/ which redden with tears.’[4]

There’s a remarkable Scots version of Catullus 3 by G. S. Davies (1912):

Weep, weep, ye Loves and Cupids all,
And ilka Man o’ decent feelin’:
My lassie’s lost her wee, wee bird,
And that’s a loss, ye’ll ken, past healin’.

The lassie lo’ed him like her een:
The darling wee thing lo’ed the ither,
And knew and nestled to her breast,
As only bairnie to her mither.

Her bosom was his dear, dear haunt—
So dear, he cared na lang to leave it;
He’d nae but gang his ain sma’ jaunt,
And flutter piping back bereavit.

The wee thing’s gane the shadowy road
That’s never traveled back by ony:
Out on ye, Shades! Ye’re greedy aye
To grab at aught that’s brave and bonny.

Puir, foolish, fondling, bonnie bird,
Ye little ken what wark ye’re leavin’:
Ye’ve bar’d my lassie’s een grow red,
Those bonnie een grow red wi’ grieving.[5]

I’ve just found it quoted too in a post by the poet and translator A. E. Stallings on the Poetry Foundation website, where she discusses several version of Catullus, including those of Louis and Celia Zukofsky:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2007/09/miss-her-catullus

Then again, there’s this post by Katherine Langrish:

http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com/2018/04/lesbias-sparrow-katherine-langrish.html

In short, once again, a small bird (or its equivalent in other contexts) expands into flocks, squadrons, gigantic murmurations, up and out into limitless stretches of space and light.

I’m still keeping an eye open for the robin.

 

References

[1] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 198.

[2] Sappho 1, in Guy Davenport, Seven Greeks (New York: New Directions, 1995), 69.

[3] Walter Savage Landor, ‘To the Sparrow of Lesbia’, in Charles Tomlinson, editor, Eros English’d: Classical Erotic Poetry in Translation: from Golding to Hardy (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1992), 203.

[4] The Poems of Catullus, translated with an introduction by Peter Whigham (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966), 52.

[5] The Oxford Book of Classical Verse, edited by Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 265-266.

 

The hunter hunted, or: hounded by Diana

Rubens-Diana-and-Actaeon

(Peter Paul Rubens, Diana and Actaeon)

Over two days at the home of the Librarian’s parents in Somerset, I find I don’t read much at all, the time slipping pleasantly away in a great deal of conversation, some eating, drinking, the odd quiz, a couple of games – not even much walking this year. Still, we return home on Boxing Day with as many books as we set out with.

Among my new acquisitions are two volumes of poetry, Like by A. E. Stallings and Michael Hofmann’s One Lark, One Horse, poets and translators linked in my mind by Ovid. Stallings is one of the many poets—I hadn’t realised until recently just how many—to have translated, recast or reimagined Ovid’s telling of the story of Actaeon, the hunter who came by chance upon the goddess Diana bathing naked. Outraged, she transformed him into a stag and he was torn to pieces by his own hounds. Stallings’ poem begins:

The hounds, you know them all by name.
You fostered them from purblind whelps
At their dam’s teats, and you have come
To know the music of their yelps[1]

There have been numerous translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses since the sixteenth-century version by Arthur Golding, ‘the most beautiful book in the language’, Ezra Pound called it, ‘from which Shakespeare learned so much of his trade’.[2] Golding’s translation has the goddess conjuring antlers onto Actaeon’s head. Then:

She sharpes his ears, she makes his necke both slender, long and lanke.
She turns his fingers into feete, his arms to spindle shanke.
She wrappes him in a hairie hyde beset with speckled spottes,
And planteth in him fearfulnesse.[3]

Golding-Metamorphoses

Michael Hofmann was one of the editors – with James Lasdun – of the celebrated anthology, After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, which included four pieces (more than fifty pages in total) by Ted Hughes, a milestone on the road to Hughes’ later Tales from Ovid.[4] His ‘Actaeon’ begins:

Destiny, not guilt, was enough
For Actaeon. It is no crime
To lose your way in a dark wood.[5]

Absolving Actaeon of blame (and apparently absolving Dante too in passing, perhaps all of us, come to think of it) aligns Hughes with several other translators and commentators. A. D. Melville’s version, after stating that Actaeon’s hounds were ‘sated with their master’s blood’, goes on:

Though, if you ponder wisely, you will find
The fault was fortune’s and no guilt that day.
For what guilt can it be to lose one’s way?[6]

No crime, no guilt ­ – but was he not at fault at all? There’s a moment in Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry when Amar tells his girlfriend Maddie a story as they skirt around the question of religious belief and she says ‘something about how, once we know the end of an unfortunate story, it’s tempting to ask why its protagonist did not do better to swerve his fate.’[7] It’s certainly easier to ask such questions if it’s not us in the story – or if we believe that we are, unaided, writing our own.

fontainebleau-diana

(Diana the Huntress: École de Fontainebleau, c. 1550-1560)

In Ford Madox Ford’s The Young Lovell, after the battle of Kenchie’s Burn, Lovell is pursuing the Scots and is lost in a great valley between moors where he sleeps on the heather. ‘There he heard many strange sounds, such as a great cry of dogs hunting overhead, which was said by those who had read in books to be the goddess Diana chasing still through the night the miserable shade of the foolish Actaeon.’[8]

Heartless fellow. Ten years after that novel was published, Ford was in Paris, feeling the mounting pressure of people’s expectations upon him to launch what became the transatlantic review: ‘not even Diana herself would preserve me from their fury if I did not provide harbourage for their compositions. I should be torn to pieces as was Actaeon by the hounds of that Goddess’.[9]

A little more sympathy from Ford than from his fictional creation – or at least no disparagement here of the unfortunate Actaeon.

Actaeon also figures in poems by writers as varied as Seamus Heaney, George Szirtes, Wendy Cope, Robin Robertson and Simon Armitage. In March 1915, Poetry published six poems by Ezra Pound, among them ‘The Coming of War: Actaeon’:

An image of Lethe,
and the fields
Full of faint light
but golden,
Gray cliffs,
and beneath them
A sea
Harsher than granite,
unstill, never ceasing;
High forms
with the movement of gods,
Perilous aspect;
And one said:
“This is Actaeon.”
Actaeon of golden greaves!
Over fair meadows,
Over the cool face of that field,
Unstill, ever moving,
Host of an ancient people,
The silent cortège.[10]

It’s not immediately obvious what Actaeon is doing here; or rather, why it’s Actaeon as opposed to any other of the illustrious dead who have crossed into Hades. (He appears in Pound’s Canto IV but in his familiar context of pool, goddess, stag and hounds.) James Longenbach comments that here Pound ‘was able to pull his experience of the war into the private world of the Image’ but points out that ‘the sacrifice was a large one’ since the poem ‘addresses the war only by mythologizing it out of its place in history and ignoring the brutality of the actual experience.’[11]

Titian, c.1488-1576; Diana and Actaeon

(Titian, Diana and Actaeon, National Galleries of Scotland)

The story that Ovid tells is, in any case, a wonderfully suggestive one, presumably accounting for its strong attraction for poets and translators. The hunt is itself a potent idea, especially the sexual politics of the hunter become the hunted, the mortal man doomed by the arbitrary act of the divine woman. Or is it arbitrary, since the intrusion may be seen as not merely a social solecism but a sacrilegious blunder, a subversion of the natural order? As for the metamorphosis, the transformation, every translation – perhaps every work of art – can be seen as a metamorphic act. But another attraction is surely the tumultuous unfurling in Actaeon’s mind, the dizzying terror, the internal screaming as the words come to his lips, the things he would utter ­ – but his power of speech is gone, his human faculties fled.

Here’s a favourite recent telling of the tale, by Lavinia Greenlaw:

He walks his mind as a forest
and sends of himself into dark places
to which he cannot tell the way.
The hunt comes on and he in his nerves
streams ahead – hounds flung after
a scent so violent no matter the path
or what’s let fall.
A burst of clearing.
Water beads and feathers her presence
as she thickens and curves.
He says words to himself not to look
but his eyes are of their own
and she at their centre a dark star
contracted to itself discarding
wave on wave on flare on fountain.
His skull erupting, branching . . .
And his blood is shaken down.
And he is all fours.
And his noise.
And his hounds.[12]

 

References

[1] A. E. Stallings, ‘Actaeon’, published in Poetry (May 2003).

[2] Ezra Pound, The ABC of Reading (London: Faber and Faber, 1961), 127; How to Read (London: Desmond Harmsworth, 1931), 45.

[3] Confucius to Cummings: An Anthology of Poetry, edited by Ezra Pound and Marcella Spann (New York: New Directions, 1964), 37, 40-41.

[4] After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, edited by Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), 3-20, 94-109, 114-117, 245-258.

[5] Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, edited by Paul Keegan (London: Faber and Faber, 2003), 937.

[6] Ovid, Metamorphoses, III, 140-142, translated by A. D. Melville (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 55. In a note (392), Melville suggests that Ovid had his own case in mind here, having insisted that the offence for which he was exiled was an error rather than a crime.

[7] Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry (London: Granta Books, 2018), 188.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, The Young Lovell: A Romance (London: Chatto & Windus, 1913), 27. On Actaeon’s connection to Peire Vidal in The Good Soldier, see my ‘“Speak Up, Fordie!”: How Some People Want to Go to Carcassonne’, in Ford Madox Ford and the City: International Ford Madox Ford Studies 4, edited by Sara Haslam (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 204.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 262.

[10] Ezra Pound, ‘Actaeon: The Coming of War’, Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 285.

[11] James Longenbach, Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats and Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 124.

[12] Lavinia Greenlaw, ‘Actaeon’, The Casual Perfect (London: Faber & Faber, 2011), 13.

 

The persistence of gulls

Herring-Gull

A crisp, cold morning and, walking up through the park, I see two sets each of four magpies but mainly wonder at the unusual number of common gulls, black-headed gulls and herring gulls. I recall, though, a day last year when the Librarian and I saw almost a hundred gulls scattered across the grass on either side of the park. Towards the centre of one large group of them on the left-hand side, a gathering of sparrows; towards the rear and again to one side, two loose groups of wood pigeons. All of them feeding, grazing, pecking, circling. Wet weather, the grass recently cut and still rich green. The upshot: a bad day to be a worm. That note to be scrawled in countless earthy diaries and gardening journals against the date of 16th November: Bad Worm Day.

Yes, we may outnumber the rats by six to one in this country – but there are always the gulls. . . Just a few weeks ago, walking along the front at Lyme Regis, holding tightly shut the box containing fish and chips, I was dive-bombed by a gull, its beak thumping against the lid. At Lyme these days the fish and chips stallholders routinely warn you about the gulls as they hand over your order but I’d naively thought that holding the box closed was a reasonable response to that warning.

Years ago, in my room at the top of an eighteenth-century townhouse in Bath, I would hear the gulls circling and crying outside the window. Later, living in a seaside town where gulls were, unsurprisingly, common, I would be reminded of Bath. Moving again, years later, I would recall the seaside town as a place in which I heard gulls and was reminded of Bath. And so on. On a day when their flight paths seem higher than usual, their calls still sometimes bring back a long ago holiday in Wales, in a cottage set back from the cliff edge above the beach, where gulls would ride the currents of air and be flung high up above the wall at the end of the thin garden, laughing like maniacs.

So immediately and unmistakeably evoking the sea; yet now perhaps even more familiar in urban settings, certainly in parks and on rubbish tips. As a child when I asked about seagulls spotted on pavements or rooftops, I was told: ‘It’s rough at sea.’ That was the assumption: seagulls unable to find food at sea had been driven inland, to try their luck in the cities. Now, of course, there’s so much rubbish in the streets, smeared with sugar and salt and sauces, with chunks of rotting meat and fish, why would they bother to do an honest day’s work out at sea?

Always the gulls. Certainly with the poets, through whose work they wheel and wail endlessly. Jack Bevan’s translations of the Sicilian poet Salvatore Quasimodo, who won the 1959 Nobel Prize for Literature, were published in the Penguin European Poets series in the mid-1960s (my copy’s worn but dourly resilient). Here’s ‘Again I Hear The Sea’

Quasimodo

(Salvatore Quasimodo)

Many nights now I have heard the sound of the sea
once more, lightly rising and falling on smooth beaches.
A voice’s echo shut away in the mind,
rising from time; and, too, this persistent
crying of gulls; perhaps of
tower birds that April
is tempting onto the plains. Once
you, with that voice, were near me;
and I wish now that there could come to you
also an echo memory of me,
like that dark ocean murmur.[1]

There was a period in bookselling when a certain kind of reader would buy a sort of starter pack: this would include Gibran’s The Prophet and Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Then, as their reading muscles toughened, they’d move on to Trout Fishing in America and Siddhartha. And then – did they all train to be therapists or did it only seem so? Perhaps only the more disturbed ones.

Elizabeth-Smart

(Elizabeth Smart)

The poet George Barker published a novel, described somewhere as ‘tortuously symbolic’, called The Dead Seagull, which drew heavily on his relationship with the novelist and poet Elizabeth Smart. A paperback, published by Panther, I believe, with heavier perhaps silk coated paper and line drawings but this could be invention. I lent it to the poet Tony Lopez decades ago and didn’t see it again. That much is not invention. These poets…

A Roman amphitheatre
crumbling in bright sunlight

no christians or lions
only the brittle dried
body of a cat

He sits, halfway up the stalls
listening to the gulls
resting his eyes

listening to the sea, so sleepy
this damned heat and the flies

startled
by the fast train to Figueras
crashing through the arches[2]

William Carlos Williams observed, conscripted or devised some symbolically peaceable gulls:

And the next thing I say is this:
I saw an eagle once circling against the clouds
over one of our principal churches—
Easter, it was—a beautiful day!
three gulls came from above the river
and crossed slowly seaward!
Oh, I know you have your own hymns, I have heard them—
and because I knew they invoked some great protector
I could not be angry with you, no matter
how much they outraged true music—

You see, it is not necessary for us to leap at each other,
and, as I told you, in the end
the gulls moved seaward very quietly.[3]

John Masefield’s Billy had his own notions about them:

‘Goneys an’ gullies an’ all o’ the birds o’ the sea
They ain’t no birds, not really,’ said Billy the Dane.
‘Not mollies, nor gullies, nor goneys at all,’ said he,
‘But simply the sperrits of mariners livin’ again.’

[Goneys: albatrosses.
Gullies: seagulls.
Mollies: mollyhawks or fulmar petrels.][4]

Mariners living again. Some poetic sailors stay dead: like T. S. Eliot’s Phlebas, whose lapse of memory seems entirely reasonable in these circumstances, death having intervened:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.

Eliot wrote a little gloomily to Ezra Pound, who was editing what began as ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’ and ended as The Waste Land, cutting out long passages of Eliot’s draft, ‘Perhaps better omit Phlebas also???’ Pound replied: ‘I DO advise keeping Phlebas. In fact I more’n advise. Phlebas is an integral part of the poem; the card pack introduces him, the drowned phoen. sailor. And he is needed ABSOlootly where he is. Must stay in.’[5]

Phlebas stayed in, ten lines salvaged from a great many more. And the forgotten gulls stayed in too. Hardly forgotten now, though, neither gulls nor Phlebas.

 
References

[1] Quasimodo: Selected Poems, translated with an introduction by Jack Bevan (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), 80.

[2] Antony Lopez, Snapshots (London: Oasis Books, 1976), 22.

[3] William Carlos Williams, ‘Gulls’, The Collected Poems, Volume 1: 1900-1939, edited by A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1987), 67.

[4] John Masefield, ‘Sea-Change’, in The Puffin Book of Salt-Sea Verse, compiled by Charles Causley (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978), 172.

[5] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land: a facsimile and transcript of the original drafts including the annotations of Ezra Pound, edited by Valerie Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), 143, 129.