Sorrows, joys, magpies

magpies

Watching a magpie on the garden fence, trying to identify the memory that its gestures and movements called to mind, I realised that it was Jacques Tati, in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. (One of my earliest visits to the cinema: the only time I ever saw my father crying with laughter.) The abrupt uplifting and lowering of the head, the stiff yet rapid leaning forward from the waist, the quick flicks of the head to left and right: mais oui, c’est Monsieur Hulot!

Tati

Their distinctive staccato chatter sounds from the roof, the fence, the tree, the neighbouring chimneys. It’s everywhere in the nearby park, though generally singly. There was a period during which we would see five or six in a group, strutting, leering, looking distinctly thuggish. But lately it’s one at a time. More than a dozen years ago now, my wife was walking to work over the park and had just noted two magpies when she slipped on black ice and fractured her wrist. Since then, we have been wary of rhymes’ prophetic validity. Two may not be lucky but do the loners necessarily signify misfortune?

One for sorrow, two for joy
Three for a girl, four for a boy

That’s the version most people know, at least if of a certain age and able to recall the television programme. What is, presumably, the older rhyme runs:

One’s sorrow, two’s mirth,
Three’s a wedding, four’s a birth[1]

This survives in the version – from a sixteen-year-old Birmingham schoolgirl, recorded by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey:

One for anger, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth

This version gets ‘saltier’ (their word) as it progresses:

Five for rich, six for poor
Seven for a bitch, eight for a whore[2]

The origin of the name runs back through Shakespeare’s Macbeth (‘maggot-pie’) to ‘Margaret’ or ‘Margot the pye’, from a French equivalent. Iona and Peter Opie have a nice story of the poet laureate, Henry James Pye, appointed in 1790, whose first (very poor) ode was for the king’s birthday, and was guyed by a punster named George Steevens (‘when the PYE was opened’), unimpressed as he was by Pye’s feeble effort. The Opies quote a version of ‘Sing a song of sixpence’, the rhyme published in 1784, which ends with ‘Up came a magpie and bit off her nose.’ The maid still suffers, then, but at the hands – beak, rather – of a different bird.[3]

‘Pie’ is ‘pied’, of course, the black and white plumage, and bishops were sometimes termed ‘magpies’ because of the similarly contrasting colours of their vestments. The magpie’s occurrences in literature include one in Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto 81’:

Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail[4]

The black and the white together is a handy representation of the opposing strains of interpretation of this passage and the question of just who is being addressed here (‘Pull down thy vanity’): some say it’s Pound himself, others the U.S. Army (Pound’s captors at that time, in the Disciplinary Training Center at Pisa).[5]

Ezra_Pound_1945_May_26_mug_shot

In ‘House and Man’, Edward Thomas recalls a man in his house amidst ‘forest silence and forest murmur’, the only house for miles:

But why I call back house and man again
Is that now on a beech-tree’s tip I see
As then I saw – I at the gate, and he
In the house darkness, – a magpie veering about,
A magpie like a weathercock in doubt.[6]

This is, as you’d expect from Thomas, quite accurate: I’ve watched magpies, precisely, veering about; and ‘a weathercock in doubt’ is wonderfully suggestive.

John Fowles had a bookplate which showed his name surrounded by magpies, a pictorial representation of his habits as both reader and buyer of books. ‘A quite literal pair of magpies breed in my garden every year,’ he closes his essay on the subject. ‘Wicked creatures though they are, I let them be. One must not harm one’s own.’[7]

‘Wicked’? The magpie certainly has a justified reputation for being omnivorous: eggs and nestlings feature among many other food sources. It’s a famously intelligent bird, sociable, mischievous and, I’d venture, with a strong sense of humour. Pretty widespread too: Jonathan Trouern-Trend, who served in Iraq, notes sightings of grebes, egrets, kites, vultures, bustards and avocets galore but, happily, our friend Pica pica is also there: ‘Seen year round at LSAA [LSA – Logistics Support Area is my guess – Anaconda, his home base], seemed more common at higher elevations.’[8]

 

References

[1] The version quoted by Sylvia Townsend Warner, in a letter to Julius Lipton, 21 October 1935: Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 36-37.

[2] Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 400.

[3] The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, edited by Iona and Peter Opie, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 471, 472.

[4] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 521.

[5] So, for instance, Christine Froula—‘self-accusations’—in A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1983), 236; and A. David Moody—‘humbled’—Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 159; as against Jerome McGann—‘not himself but the US Army’—in Towards a Literature of Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 114.

[6] Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, edited by Edna Longley (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2008), 60.

[7] John Fowles, ‘Of Memoirs and Magpies’, in Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings, edited by Jan Relf (London: Jonathan Cape, 1998), 33.

[8] Jonathan Trouern-Trend, Birding Babylon: A Soldier’s Journal from Iraq (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 79.

 

Gathering Roses

Rose

There are seven, or is it eight, buds on our rosebush now. Like many readers, I can call to mind the first line of Robert Herrick’s ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may’ but then I tend to falter. The poem’s usual title, ‘To the Virgins, to make much of time’, points to those preoccupations with sex and death which are so common in the poetry of that period, perfectly reasonably so, given wars, plagues and an average life expectancy of less than forty years (that this was heavily influenced by a very high infant mortality rate can’t have been that much comfort). So the other three lines of Herrick’s first stanza are:

Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
Tomorrow will be dying.[1]

Be not coy, he advises those maidens, an admonition moved up to headline status in Andrew Marvell’s wonderful To His Coy Mistress. Marvell is also extremely keen to get his lover into bed: of course, he’d like nothing better than to devote tens, hundreds, even thousands of years to praising and adoring her eyes, forehead, breasts and heart. ‘But’, alas, ‘at my back I always hear/ Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near’. And he points out, quite sensibly, that ‘The grave’s a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace.’[2]

So the rose, or rather, the beauty of the rose, is inextricable from the brevity of its flowering. There are, I see now, a staggering number of poems about roses and often, simultaneously, about beauty, sex and death also. They stretch back to the ancient world—Homer, Horace, Sappho—up through Shakespeare and Milton to the modern period of Frost, H. D., Yeats, De la Mare, Randall Jarrell and Charles Tomlinson.

Go, lovely Rose—
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be.[3]

Edmund_Waller_John_Riley

(Edmund Waller, after John Riley)

This is the first stanza of the famous lyric by Edmund Waller (1606-1687), poet and politician; involved in a 1643 plot in the interest of the king, he escaped execution and was banished to France, returning to England in 1652 and becoming an admirer and friend of Oliver Cromwell.

And here’s the first stanza of the ‘Envoi’, carefully dated (1919), to the first part of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:

Go, dumb-born book,
Tell her that sang me once that song of Lawes:
Hadst thou but song
As thou hast subjects known,
Then were there cause in thee that should condone
Even my faults that heavy upon me lie
And build her glories their longevity.

The speaker then thinks of how the grace and beauty might be made to outlast its moment, its natural lifespan, as roses might be made to do:

Tells her that sheds
Such treasure in the air,
Recking naught else but that her graces give
Life to the moment,
I would bid them live
As roses might, in magic amber laid,
Red overwrought with orange and all made
One substance and one colour
Braving time.[4]

Henry Lawes set Waller’s ‘Goe lovely Rose’ to music; ‘her that sang me once that song of Lawes’ was almost certainly Raymonde Collignon (Madame Gaspard-Michel), who made her professional debut in 1916, was favourably reviewed several times by Pound when he reviewed music for the New Age under the name ‘William Atheling’, and performed in Pound’s opera, The Testament of François Villon.[5]

A quarter of a century later, in the last pages—what I think of as the ‘English’ pages—of Canto LXXX, part of the Pisan sequence, Pound wrote:

Tudor indeed is gone and every rose,
Blood-red, blanch-white that in the sunset glows
Cries: ‘Blood, Blood, Blood!’ against the gothic stone
Of England, as the Howard or Boleyn knows.[6]

Catherine-Howard

(© National Portrait Gallery, London
Unknown woman, formerly known as Catherine Howard
after Hans Holbein the Younger; oil on panel, late 17th century)

The red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of Yorkshire: the thirty-year-long Wars of the Roses and the passing of the Plantagenet dynasty; then the deaths of Katharine Howard and Anne Boleyn on the block; followed by the end of the Tudors with the death of Elizabeth.

But Pound used roses in another context: their delicacy, fragility and vulnerability set against the patterning of energy made visible by, for instance, iron filings acted upon by a magnet.

Hast ‘ou seen the rose in the steel dust
(or swansdown ever?)
so light is the urging, so ordered the dark petals of iron
we who have passed over Lethe.[7]

Pound first mentioned his magnetic ‘rose’ in a 1915 piece on Vorticism, at a time when he was preoccupied with forms of energy. ‘An organisation of forms expresses a confluence of forces [ . . . . ] For example: if you clasp a strong magnet beneath a plateful of iron filings, the energies of the magnet will proceed to organise form. It is only by applying a particular and suitable force that you can bring order and vitality and thence beauty into a plate of iron filings, which are otherwise as “ugly” as anything under heaven. The design in the magnetized iron filings expresses a confluence of energy.’[8]

He returned to the theme—and the image—again in an essay on the medieval Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti,[9] and in 1937, once again found the rose revivified by magnetic energy: ‘The forma, the immortal concetto, the concept, the dynamic form which is like the rose pattern driven into the dead iron-filings by the magnet, not by material contact with the magnet itself, but separate from the magnet. Cut off by the layer of glass, the dust and filings rise and spring into order. Thus the forma, the concept rises from death’.[10]

The idea and the image tend to divert attention from the language used: but the words themselves form highly effective, opposing clusters: ‘dead’ and ‘death’, ‘separate’ and ‘cut off’ set against ‘immortal’, ‘dynamic’, ‘rise’, ‘spring’, ‘rises’.

Ruskin

Eighty years earlier, another writer—another highly contentious figure—began his own rose-centred obsession. John Ruskin, in the preface to his autobiography, Praeterita, referred to ‘passing in total silence things which I have no pleasure in reviewing, and which the reader would find no help in account of.’ Later in the same book, he writes that ‘Some wise, and prettily mannered, people have told me I shouldn’t say anything about Rosie at all. But I am too old now to take advice…’[11]

Rosie—Rose La Touche—was ten years old when she first met Ruskin. She died at the age of twenty-seven. He seems to have asked her to marry him around her eighteenth birthday, though he had clearly fallen in love with her some time before that: she asked him to wait for an answer until she was twenty-one. The story of this long, sad affair, complicated by parental concern, religious mania and Ruskin’s well-documented predilection for young girls, has been traced at length by Ruskin’s biographers. Tim Hilton states baldly that Ruskin ‘was a paedophile’,[12] which, certainly in today’s cultural climate, seems to say both too much and too little. As Catherine Robson points out, ‘There is no evidence that Ruskin sexually abused little girls: the exact dynamics of his encounters with real girls—with Rose La Touche, with the pupils at Winnington, with girls in London, France, Italy, Switzerland, the Lake District—remain essentially unknowable.’[13] Given the ‘non-consummation’ of Ruskin’s marriage with Effie Gray, it seems highly likely that Ruskin never had a full sexual relationship at all.

Roses are everywhere in Ruskin’s work, from the title of his botanical book, Proserpina—not only does the title embrace the word ‘rose’ but Ruskin associated Rose La Touche with Proserpina since at least the spring of 1866[14]—to numerous pages in Fors Clavigera, not least thelittle vignette stamp of roses’ on the title page, of which he writes in ‘Letter XXII’: ‘It is copied from the clearest bit of the pattern of the petticoat of Spring, where it is drawn tight over her thigh, in Sandro Botticelli’s picture of her, at Florence.’[15]

 

 Ruskin-Rosie-1861

(Rose La Touche by John Ruskin, 1861)

And at the last, in ‘Letter XCVI. (Terminal)’ of his great work, Ruskin talks of ‘a place called the Rosy Valley’, which becomes ‘Rosy Vale’, the title of the letter. Rosy Vale, ‘Rosy farewell’. At the head of the letter is a drawing by Kate Greenaway, called, of course, ‘Rosy Vale’. And Fors Clavigera closes with these words: ‘The story of Rosy Vale is not ended;—surely out of its silence the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing, and round it the desert rejoice, and blossom as the rose.’[16]

How much this painful history contributed to Ruskin’s depression and mental decline is impossible to gauge. Rose had died mad in 1875; from 1889 to his death in 1900, Ruskin produced little and, apparently, spoke little, that span of a dozen years eerily echoed in the life of Friedrich Nietzsche, who suffered a mental collapse in 1889 but lived on until 1900. For the last dozen years of his life, Ezra Pound produced practically nothing and spoke—in public—barely at all.

‘You think I jest, still, do you? Anything but that; only if I took off the Harlequin’s mask for a moment, you would say I was simply mad. Be it so, however, for this time.’[17]

References

[1] The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 274.

[2] Andrew Marvell, ‘To His Coy Mistress’, in The Complete Poems, edited by Elizabeth Story Donno (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 50. Some readers of Ford Madox Ford prick up their ears at this point, remembering General Campion’s quoting (and misquoting) of this poem: No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 219-220.

[3] The Oxford Book of English Verse, 318.

[4] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 557.

[5] Eva Hesse, ‘Raymonde Collignon, or (Apropos Paideuma, 7-1 & 2, 345-346): The Duck That Got Away’, Paideuma, 10, 3 Winter 1981), 583-584.

[6] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 516.

[7] ‘Canto LXXIV’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, 449. Pound critics point to Ben Jonson’s ‘Her Triumph’ here; and to the form of Edward Fitzgerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in the case of the previous quotation.

[8] Ezra Pound, ‘Affirmations II. Vorticism’, New Age, XVI, 11 (14 January, 1915), 277. Later in the series, an article on Imagism mentioned ‘energy’ or ‘energies’ twelve times, ‘emotion’ or ‘emotional’ sixteen times.

[9] Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 154.

[10] Pound, Guide to Kulchur (1938; New Directions, 1970), 152,

[11] Ruskin, Praeterita and Dilecta (London: Everyman’s Library, 2005), 9, 471.

[12] Tim Hilton, John Ruskin: The Early Years (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), 253.

[13] Catherine Robson, Men in Wonderland: The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001), 122.

[14] Tim Hilton, Ruskin: The Later Years (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), 311.

[15] Ruskin, Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, new edition (Orpington & London: George Allen, 1896), I, 427.

[16] Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, IV, 507.

[17] Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, III, 257,

Waking, Sunday morning

Dante_Inferno_XV

(Gustav Doré, illustration for Dante, Inferno, Canto XV)

Waking on Sunday morning, I listen to the headlines, just to be sure that the 45th President of the United States has not brought about the incineration of a large part of the world because someone called him names in the playground. Then downstairs, to resume my book over coffee, hoping that there’s no significance in the title of the long story I’m finishing: ‘The Nemesis of Fire’.[1]

Sunday seems to preoccupy poets, with its unsettling conjunction of religion and war, of prophecy and delusion.

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

An attractive setting in which to consider questions of religious belief, the possibility of paradise on earth and the acceptance of inevitable endings. There are unsettling moments, to be sure:

Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.[2]

More direct, perhaps, is Robert Lowell in ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’, the poem which opens Near the Ocean. Politics and religion in the era of the Vietnam War and, of course, the Six-Day War,[3] bled profusely into one another:

O Bible chopped and crucified
in hymns we hear but do not read,
none of the milder subtleties
of grace or art will sweeten these
stiff quatrains shovelled out foursquare—
they sing of peace, and preach despair;
yet they gave darkness some control,
and left a loophole for the soul.

Lowell

(Via The Poetry Foundation: www.poetryfoundation.org/)

The last three stanzas move from an imagined glimpse of the President (Lyndon B. Johnson on his Sunday morning) to end thus:

No weekends for the gods now. Wars
flicker, earth licks its open sores,
fresh breakage, fresh promotions, chance
assassinations, no advance.
only man thinning out his kind
sounds through the Sabbath noon, the blind
swipe of the pruner and his knife
busy about the tree of life . . .

Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war—until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.[4]

On a Sunday in September 1819, John Keats wrote ‘To Autumn’. The Odes, of which this is one of the most famous, were written, Robert Gittings notes, ‘in what Keats had now come to regard as a fever, a beating at the bars of life.’ Less than five months later, on the night of Thursday 3 February 1820, came the first showing of arterial blood, followed by a second, massive haemorrhage.[5]

Gittings_Keats

There are less portentous Sundays, some offering simple (or complex) pleasure. ‘This is the day that Robert Burns delighted in,’ the Reverend Francis Kilvert remarked in his diary, ‘the first fine Sunday in May.’[6] Fifty years later, D. H. Lawrence was in receptive mood: ‘This Sunday morning, seeing the frost among the tangled, still savage bushes of Sardinia, my soul thrilled again. This was not all known. This was not all worked out. Life was not only a process of rediscovering backwards. It is that, also: and it is that intensely. Italy has given me back I know not what of myself, but a very, very great deal.’[7]

There was a time, not that long ago, when Sunday in this country was either a huge relief, peaceful and relaxing; or stupendously boring, enough to drive you up the wall, depending on your age, character and predilections. Norman Lewis remembered that ‘England, this April [1946], was an everlasting Sunday morning, lying under a spell of emptiness and silence.’[8]

And in the United States? Charles Reznikoff remembered ‘Sunday Walks in the Suburbs’, hardly an Edenic setting:

On stones mossed with hot dust, no shade but the thin, useless shadows of roadside grasses;
into the wood’s gloom, staring back at the blue flowers on stalks thin as threads.

He details rubbish, rats, scared dogs, old women, old men and remarks that:

This is where I walked night after night;
this is where I walked away many years.[9]

Henry Thoreau, though, sought to reach back to something precisely Edenic, before the religious disagreements that complicated the life of his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘It was a quiet Sunday morning, with more of the auroral rosy and white than of the yellow in it, as if it dated from earlier than the fall of man, and still preserved a heathenish integrity’.[10]

SundayBloodySunday

We could certainly do with a large infusion of integrity in public life. But heathenish? No, probably not. Always these complications. Sunday bloody Sunday, as they say. (U2, yes, but John Schlesinger first.)

 

References

[1] ‘Nemesis of Fire’, in The Tales of Algernon Blackwood (London: Martin Secker, 1938), 440-513. The story is about a ‘fire-elemental’, enraged by the desecration of a tomb and the theft of a ‘scarabaeus’, a gem in the form of the dung-beetle, sacred to the ancient Egyptians.

[2] Wallace Stevens, ‘Sunday Morning’, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 66-67, 69.

[3] See Lowell’s comments on the poem in The Letters of Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 485-486, 487.

[4] Robert Lowell, Collected Poems, edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 384, 385-386. See 933-936 for the magazine version of the poem, which included two more stanzas between the last two quoted here.

[5] Robert Gittings, John Keats (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), 507, 508.

[6] Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969). Volume One (1 January 1870—19 August 1871), 329: entry for Sunday 7 May 1871.

[7] Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia (1921), in D. H. Lawrence and Italy (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 123.

[8] Lewis, The World, the World (London: Jonathan Cape, 1996), 18.

[9] Charles Reznikoff, Poems 1918-1936: Volume I of The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff, edited by Seamus Cooney, two volumes (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1978), 41.

[10] A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, in Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod (New York: Library of America, 1985), 36.

 

‘Remember that I have remembered’

Binyon_via_BBC
(Laurence Binyon via BBC)

A great many people in the English-speaking world, even if unfamiliar with the name of Laurence Binyon, would probably recognise his words. These words anyway:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.[1]

The fourth stanza of seven, used in all manner of places on Remembrance Day, formerly Armistice Day—of course, many people still call it that, though the date refers to only one armistice: the signatures on a document in a railway carriage in a clearing in the forest of Compiègne on 11 November 1918.

Binyon was born on 10 August 1869 (he died in 1943). For literary historians and, perhaps, some art historians, the authorship of those famous words might easily be forgotten or set aside as a mere detail in Binyon’s story, interesting in its own right but also connecting with a great many other stories.

One example would be the Abstract & Concrete exhibition (February 1936), which was organised by Nicolete Gray. She was a friend of Myfanwy Evans, who edited a periodical called Axis, devoted to abstract art, from 1935 to 1937, and married John Piper in the latter year. Nicolete was an art scholar and calligrapher, later a friend of David Jones, publishing a book about his paintings  – and the youngest of Laurence Binyon’s daughters: she married Basil Gray, Binyon’s assistant at the British Museum.[2]

Gray-Jones

(The jacket illustration is Jones’s 1931 self-portrait entitled Human Being).

Another example would be an encounter in the Vienna – or Wiener – Café:

So it is to Mr Binyon that I owe, initially,
Mr Lewis, Mr P. Wyndham Lewis. His bull-dog, me,
as it were against old Sturge M’s bull-dog, Mr T. Sturge Moore’s
bull-dog[3]

The poet and playwright Thomas Sturge Moore was, in a way, Lewis’s mentor at that stage and, thirty years later, Lewis would write from his self-imposed wartime exile in Toronto: ‘How calm those days were before the epoch of wars and social revolution, when you used to sit on one side of your work-table and I on the other and we would talk’.[4] Thirty years before the Pisan Cantos, Pound wrote in Poetry magazine (June 1915) an appreciation of Sturge Moore in which he referred to the poet as ‘more master of cadence than any of his English contemporaries.’ In the same piece, he wrote a famous line that William Cookson would isolate many years later in his edition of Pound’s Selected Prose: ‘The essential thing in a poet is that he build us his world.’[5] And Pound said that these lines of Sturge Moore’s had stayed with him: ‘Aie, aie, aie!/ Laomedon![6]

At the time of that meeting in the Wiener Café, Binyon was Assistant Keeper at the British Museum. He became, in 1913, Keeper of the new Sub-Department of Oriental Prints and Drawings, with the orientalist Arthur Waley as his assistant. The exhibition Binyon organised of Chinese and Japanese paintings ran throughout 1910-12. His access to, and wide knowledge of, oriental art was hugely influential in the development of modernism. He published over forty books, including more than a dozen volumes of poetry and almost as many on British art and literature, another eight on oriental art, plus plays and biographies.

Binyon_Flight_Dragon

Pound often referred approvingly to Binyon’s 1911 book, The Flight of the Dragon, on Chinese and Japanese art (one factor in preparing Pound to respond as he did to the gift of Ernest Fenollosa’s notebooks from his widow, Mary, which resulted in Cathay); and he remembered too Binyon’s thirty-page poem Penthesilea (1905), about the queen of the Amazons, her involvement in the Trojan War and her eventual death at the hands of Achilles, whose spear penetrates her shield:

in her side it pierced
And bore her down; imperially she fell
Without a cry, sank on lost feet, nor heard
Achilles’ dread voice, ‘Art thou satisfied,
Penthesilea?’ but the heavy shield
Rang on her fallen, the helmet rolled in dust
From her proud head, and the long, loosened hair
Tossed one tress richly over throat and bosom
Shuddering strongly up from where the blood
Welled dark about the spear forced deep within;
And sudden as a torch plunged in a pool
Her face lay dead-pale with the eyes quite closed.[7]

Much later in life, Binyon produced a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy in terza rima, which was the version used in the Portable Dante, published by Viking and available from Penguin Books for many years. Pound corresponded with him about his ten-year project and involved himself quite actively in it. In 1934, he published a long, complimentary review, in T. S. Eliot’s Criterion, of Binyon’s version of Inferno. In the course of that review, looking back to his pre-war acquaintance with Binyon at the British Museum, he recalled how he ‘perused, it now seems, in retrospect, for days the tales of . . . demme if I remember anything but a word, one name, Penthesilea, and that not from reading it, but from hearing it spoken by a precocious Binyonian offspring.’[8]

Pound wrote several detailed letters while Binyon was working on the Purgatorio and went through the proofs, commenting to his old teacher William Shepard that Binyon ‘sheds more light on Dante than any translation I have ever seen.’[9]

Ezra Pound 1939 by Wyndham Lewis 1882-1957
(Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound (1939): Tate Modern
© Wyndham Lewis and the estate of Mrs G A Wyndham Lewis
A major exhibition, Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War, is currently at IWM North (until 1 January 2018): The Quays, Trafford Wharf Road, Manchester, M17 1TZ)

His attitude to Binyon was often one of ‘baffled exasperation’, as Donald Davie phrases it in some fascinating pages on the relationship between them. Binyon, Davie says, ‘knew the unformulated rules of the society that he moved in, and played the game consistently as the amateur that that society required him to be. It is true to this day in England that, if one has learning, one must wear it so lightly that it is unnoticeable.’[10] (That was 1976. Forty years later—?)

before the world was given over to wars
Quand vous serez bien vieille
remember that I have remembered[11]

One other thing that Pound remembered was mentioned in a letter of 6 March 1934, when he asked Binyon: ‘I wonder if you are using (in lectures) a statement I remember your making in talk, but not so far as I recall, in print. “Slowness is beauty,” which struck me as very odd in 1908 (when I certainly did not believe it) and has stayed with me ever since’.[12]

It stayed with him for at least another twenty years, until ‘Canto LXXXVII’: ‘BinBin “is beauty”./ “Slowness is beauty.”‘

 

References

[1] Laurence Binyon, ‘For the Fallen’, first published in The Times, 21 September 1914. See Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, edited by Tim Kendall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 44.

[2] Frances Spalding, John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 86-89.

[3] Ezra Pound, ‘Canto LXXX’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 507.

[4] Letters of Wyndham Lewis, edited by W. K. Rose (New York: New Directions, 1963), 293.

[5] Pound, ‘Hark to Sturge Moore’, Poetry, VI, 3 (June 1915), 139-145 (141, 140). The line was used as epigraph to ‘Part One’ of Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 19.

[6] Richard Sieburth points out that this is the opening to Sturge Moore’s 1903 work, The Rout of the Amazons: Ezra Pound, The Pisan Cantos, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: New Directions, 2003), 148, note.

[7] Collected Poems of Laurence Binyon (London: Macmillan, 1931), 215. More Amazons! Why just then? The Suffragette group called The Bodyguard was dubbed ‘The Amazons’ by sections of the press, but this was a few years later.

[8] Pound, ‘Hell’, in Polite Essays (1937; Plainview, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1966), 28-46 (29). Nicolete was born in 1911; Pound’s memory is probably of 1909 (he met Binyon in February of that year), and thus of one of the twins, Helen or Margaret (born in December 1904). See ‘Canto LXXX’, 506: ‘Mr Binyon’s young prodigies/ pronounced the word: Penthesilea’.

[9] Ezra Pound, Selected Letters, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 311. These letters to Binyon are concentrated in the period April–May, 1938.

[10] ‘Ezra Among the Edwardians’ (1976), collected in Studies in Ezra Pound: Chronicle and Polemic (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1991), 227-231.

[11] Pound, ‘Canto LXXX’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, 506.

[12] Pound, Selected Letters, 255.

[13] Pound, ‘Canto LXXXVII’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, 572.

Butterflies in ruins

Small White - Male

http://urbanbutterflygarden.co.uk/

In our small back garden, I doubt whether I’ve seen more than half a dozen butterflies so far this summer, perhaps fewer than that. It’s hardly surprising in the light of recent research, which suggests that 2016 was one of the worst on record for butterflies in this country, with nearly three-quarters of all species experiencing a decline in numbers.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/12/uk-butterflies-worst-hit-in-2016-with-70-of-species-in-decline-study-finds

A rare sighting of butterflies now often brings back memories of a holiday in Greece nearly twenty years ago in Ayía Efamía, on the island of Kefaloniá, but with a week on the mainland. Against the scarcity of England now, profusion and abundance then: the wild flowers, the scutter of lizards, the columns of ants—and butterflies everywhere, starting up in clouds as you stepped along the grassy lane, red and yellow and white, one with paper thin white wings with, at their base, an intricate pattern like leaves and branches, in vivid green.

The Greek word psyche meant both ‘butterfly’ and ‘soul’. Some vase paintings contain images of butterflies emerging from the mouths of the dead. ‘To have heard the farfalla [butterfly] gasping as toward a bridge over worlds . . . ’ Ezra Pound writes of that hazardous terrain between life and death.[1]

And butterflies were always there among the ruins, at Delphi, Mystras, Mycenae, flickering above and around broken blocks of stone, fallen pillars, fractured arches. Butterflies amidst the ruins of empire.

Olympia

Olympia via www.discovergreece.com/

The collapse of empires recurs through history, as does the collapse of financial systems. We, of course, continue to add those contemporary extras, not only terminal climate change, but also the rapid extinction of species—butterflies among them.

In the Romantic era, poets, philosophers, artists, travellers had ruins often on their minds. Romanticism, Raphael Samuel remarks, was built on time’s ruins. Its idea of memory was premised on a sense of loss.[2]

In the midst of the revolution which made or unmade France, Comte de Volney, a deputy in the National Assembly, published Les Ruines, Paris 1791. (That same year, the sixteen-year-old J. M. W. Turner was working in Bristol; he was always, Peter Ackroyd remarks, fascinated by fire and ruins.)[3] In 1818, the eighteen-year-old poet Victor Hugo’s mother came to live on the third floor of 18 rue des Petits-Augustins. ‘An elderly visitor who frequently climbed the stairs of No. 18 was a cousin of Mme. Hugo, the Comte de Volney.’[4]

The Ruins of Kirkstall Abbey at Night c.1799 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

(J. M. W. Turner, ‘The Ruins of Kirkstall Abbey at Night’, c.1799, watercolour and graphite on paper: ©Tate Britain)

In an essay on Walt Whitman, Guy Davenport remarks that: ‘It is [ . . . ] worth reading Whitman against the intellectual background he assumed his readers knew and which is no longer remembered except sporadically: the world of Alexander von Humboldt, from which Whitman takes the word cosmos, Louis Agassiz, for whom Thoreau collected turtles, Volney’s Ruins, the historical perspective of which is as informative in Whitman as in Shelley, Fourier, Scott. A great deal that seems naif and spontaneous in Whitman has roots and branches.’[5]

‘Things have roots and branches’, Ezra Pound wrote in his later version of Confucius, ‘affairs have scopes and beginnings. To know what precedes and what follows, is almost as good as having a head and feet.’[6]

Volney crops up in a wide variety of contexts. Of Shelley’s ‘Philosophical poem’, Queen Mab, Richard Holmes remarks that ‘The conception of such a total approach to human knowledge was encouraged in Shelley by the reading of Count Volney’s notorious vision of corrupt society, The Ruins of Empire, and Erasmus Darwin’s poems of science and society.’[7]

Curran, Amelia, 1775-1847; Percy Bysshe Shelley

(Amelia Curran, Percy Bysshe Shelley, oil on canvas, 1819.
Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shelley’s famous ‘Ozymandias’ has a word or two to say about the ruins of hubristic ambition and the delusions of the powerful:

‘And on the pedestal, these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’[8]

But not only ruins. Just today, The Observer’s tribute to the photographer David Newell-Smith included one of his shots of the Rolling Stones performing in Hyde Park, 5 July 1969.

(A gallery of Newell-Smith’s photographs for The Observer is here:
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2017/jul/22/david-newell-smith-the-art-of-the-newspaper-photographer)

Planned as both a return to live performance and the debut appearance of new guitarist Mick Taylor, the Hyde Park concert became in large part a memorial for Brian Jones, who had died just two days earlier. Famously, Mick Jagger read an extract from Adonais, Shelley’s elegy for John Keats, before hundreds of cabbage white butterflies were released (there had been around 2500 but, in the hot weather, many had died).

Stones_Hyde_Park_1969

Rolling Stones on stage, Hyde Park, 5 July 1969
( https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39102141)

Out of interest, I looked back at what Mick Jagger actually read. Adonais is not a short poem: it consists of 55 stanzas, each of nine lines (so almost 500 lines in all). Jagger read stanza XXXIX and part of stanza LII (he left out the last two and a half lines): he also departed quite a few times from what Shelley actually wrote, usually adding short words—probably to make it easier both for him to read and for the audience to grasp.

And yet—ruins, after all. The two and a half lines that Mick Jagger omitted, probably because of the momentary confusion that mention of ‘Rome’ would cause, run:

Rome’s azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.[9]

Around the time that he was writing Queen Mab, Shelley also wrote a long poem called ‘The Retrospect: Cwm Elan, 1812’, contrasting his mental and emotional state of the time with that of a year earlier:

Changed!—not the loathsome worm that fed
In the dark mansions of the dead,
Now soaring through the fields of air,
And gathering purest nectar there,
A butterfly, whose million hues
The dazzled eye of wonder views,
Long lingering on a work so strange,
Has undergone so bright a change.[10]

Just two years before the Hyde Park concert, there had, of course, been another celebrated Mick Jagger link with Lepidoptera, when William Reese-Mogg, quoting (almost) a line from Alexander Pope’s ‘Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot’, headed his Times leader article ‘Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?’ This was in the wake of the dubious court case, in which the judge, Leslie Block, had imposed prison sentences on Jagger and Keith Richards for drug offences.[11]

‘We Love You’, the Jagger-Richards song that followed shortly after that court case, and that begins with the crash of prison cell doors closing, was released on 18 August 1967.

References

[1] ‘Notes for CXVII et seq.’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 802. See also Canto XCII, 619: ‘farfalla in tempesta/ under rain in the dark: / many wings fragile’.

[2] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1996), ix.

[3] Ackroyd, Turner (London: Vintage Books 2006), 9.

[4] Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (London: Chatto and Windus, 2001), 158-159.

[5] ‘Whitman’, in Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (London: Picador, 1984), 70.

[6] Confucius. The Unwobbling Pivot; The Great Digest; The Analects (New York: New Directions, 1969), 29.

[7] Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (London: Penguin, 1987), 202.

[8] The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1909), 546. On this poem, see Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination, 278-281.

[9] The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 438.

[10] The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 865.

[11] The Times, 1 July 1967. Pope’s line has ‘upon’ rather than ‘on’.

Very fine swans indeed

Swans.1

In Pavannes and Divisions, his prose collection of June 1918, Ezra Pound included ‘A Retrospect’, a group of ‘early essays and notes’, gathered from a period of some four or five years. Towards the close, under the heading ‘Only Emotion Endures’, Pound wrote: ‘Surely it is better for me to name over the few beautiful poems that still ring in my head than for me to search my flat for back numbers of periodicals and rearrange all that I have said about friendly and hostile writers.’[1]

The poets he names are, for the most part, predictable: Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Richard Aldington, H. D., Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce; and, of course, T. S. Eliot (‘I am almost a different person when I come to take up the argument for Eliot’s poems’). Two others are rather less expected: Alice Corbin, for instance, who, as well as a poet, was associate editor of Poetry magazine, for which Pound served as foreign correspondent, writing to her often in the 1912-1917 period.[2] He mentions her ‘One City Only’, which he himself published in his Catholic Anthology, 1914-1915. The second he alludes to—‘another ending “But sliding water over a stone”’—is ‘Love me at last’, published in Poetry in December 1914:
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=12993

The other slightly surprising inclusion is Padraic Colum—surprising, I mean, because, once again, this is a poet with a very traditional style yet with an evident appeal to Pound, even though he has been through the Imagist and Vorticist periods and publishes early versions of the first three Cantos in the summer of 1917. Indeed, it’s Colum whom he names first of all: ‘The first twelve lines of Padraic Colum’s “Drover”; his “O Woman shapely as a swan, on your account I shall not die”’.

The ‘first twelve lines’ of Colum’s ‘A Drover’ are:

To Meath of the pastures,
From wet hills by the sea,
Through Leitrim and Longford
Go my cattle and me.
I hear in the darkness
Their slipping and breathing.
I name them the bye-ways
They’re to pass without heeding.
Then the wet, winding roads,
Brown bogs with black water;
And my thoughts on white ships
And the King o’ Spain’s daughter.

Very simple; the kind of inversion (‘Go my cattle and me’) that you’d expect to set Pound’s teeth on edge. Yet this is quite skilled stuff: the subtle lengthening of lines to avoid the thud of the metronome; a light alliteration that never hits you over the head; the varies use of feminine line-endings; the twelfth line’s hint at a traditional children’s rhyme. Another twenty-four lines, though, beginning: ‘O! farmer, strong farmer!’ are less appealing, a bit more prone to poeticism and cliché.

The other poem, ‘I Shall Not Die’, begins:

O woman, shapely as the swan,
On your account I shall not die:
The men you’ve slain — a trivial clan —
Were less than I.
I ask me shall I die for these —
For blossom teeth and scarlet lips —
And shall that delicate swan-shape
Bring me eclipse?[3]

The swan, Michael Ferber notes, ‘has long been one of the most popular birds in poetry, not least because of the association of swans with poets themselves.’[4] There has certainly been an astonishing procession of literary swans, hardly surprising if the swan is the bird both of Apollo (god of poetry and music) and of Venus, goddess of love: from classical literature through to Shakespeare (the swan of Avon), Pope, Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and others. Among modern poets, the poet of swans is surely Yeats, who draws on the complex mythological links between Leda, Helen of Troy— long a Yeatsian symbol for Maud Gonne—and Clytemnestra in ‘Leda and the Swan’.[5] A swan is there too in that volume’s title poem, ‘The Tower’ when, mindful of death (in a section beginning ‘It is time that I wrote my will’), Yeats writes of ‘the hour’

When the swan must fix his eye
Upon a fading gleam,
Float out upon a long
Last reach of glittering stream
And there sing his last song.

Perhaps most memorable is the title poem of the wonderful 1919 volume, The Wild Swans at Coole. The weight and balance of those lines, ostensibly unremarkable language, in five six-line stanzas:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

There are phrases in this poem that echo lines in ‘Easter 1916’, which will appear in Michael Robartes and the Dancer in 1921 but which Yeats himself dates ‘September 25, 1916’—he held it back for political rather than poetical reasons.[6]

Yeats_Lady_Gregory.Coole.1915

(Yeats and Lady Gregory, Coole Park, 1915: http://yeats2015.com/event/major-exhibition-explores-w-b-yeats-connections-with-the-west/ )

The attractions of the swan for the poet are evident enough, I think: its colour, the purity of whiteness but with that intense dash of black and yellow on its bill; the grace of the curve and sweep of its body and wings and neck, the extraordinary spectacle of its landing on water; the size and strength and grandeur of it; the long history, traditions, myths and symbols attached to the bird: in brief, beauty and transformation.[7]

Transformation. I have a vague childhood memory of Danny Kaye, who’d starred as the title character in the 1952 Hollywood musical, Hans Christian Anderson, singing one of the songs from the film: ‘The Ugly Duckling’. There was an album of the songs released subsequently but I may simply have heard it played on the radio: it was internationally successful at the time. The duckling outsider turns out, of course, to be a very fine swan indeed (‘Me, a swan?’ ‘I am a swan’).

Danny_Kaye_HCA

In 1959, Ezra Pound wrote from Rapallo to William Cookson, who had just launched, in close association with Pound, Agenda, the highly influential poetry magazine (still current). At the top of the letter is a suggested ‘Motto for Agenda No 3 or 4’: ‘How can anyone go antisemite in a world that contains Danny Kaye’.[8]

I picture Cookson opening that letter and reading that line; then lowering his forehead to beat it softly but repeatedly against the desktop. But perhaps not.

 

References

[1] Reprinted in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber & Faber, 1960), 14: all quotations from the same page.

[2] See The Letters of Ezra Pound to Alice Corbin Henderson, edited by Ira B. Nadel (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993).

[3] Selected Poems of Padraic Colum, edited by Sanford Sternlicht (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1989), 41-42, 24.

[4] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 214.

[5] See A. Norman Jeffares, A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats (London: The Macmillan Press, 1984), 247-249.

[6] Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan London Ltd., 1950), 223, 147, 204. ‘Easter 1916’, though privately printed in an edition of twenty-five, ‘stayed out of public circulation’ until its publication in the New Statesman (23 October 1920): see R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life. II. The Arch-Poet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 58-64.

[7] On the complex, often destructive—and class-ridden—history of the swan, see Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 60-69.

[8] ‘Some Letters to William Cookson 1956-1970’, Agenda, 17, 3-4 — 18, 1 (3 issues: Autumn-Winter-Spring, 1979/80) ‘Twenty-First Anniversary Ezra Pound Special Issue’, 39.

Poppies by the million

Poppy.2

We bought a poppy plant at the garden centre yesterday and it had bloomed already this morning, even under such a glowering sky.

Apart from its fiery beauty, the poppy is blessed or cursed with an extraordinary array of literary, artistic, historical, mythological and medicinal associations, but is most widely recognised in the context of Armistice Day in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth countries.

As for the paintings: leafing through art books once to settle on the one half-remembered picture after passing a school where a flowerbed had been thickly planted with poppies, I realised just how many there were to choose from. John Constable and Mary Fedden, Angelica Garnett and Vincent Van Gogh, Vanessa Bell and Georgia O’Keeffe, Christopher Wood and Ivon Hitchens, real one and paper ones by William Nicholson (in the early years, people wore real poppies on Armistice Day). But I finally decided that I must have been thinking either of Claude Monet:

Poppy_Field_Near_Argenteuil

(Claude Monet, Poppy Field Near Argentuil)

or, yes, of Stanley Spencer, whose irises and poppies stick in the mind just as surely as his resurrections, figures on beds, swans, soldiers and shipbuilding.

Spencer, Stanley, 1891-1959; Poppies

(Stanley Spencer, Poppies, 1938. Newark Town Hall Museum and Art Gallery:
© the estate of Stanley Spencer; all rights reserved 2014, Bridgeman Images)

And literary associations? The poppy’s connection with the First World War often takes off from the Canadian John McCrae’s poem, first published anonymously in Punch in December 1915:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

ending:

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.[1]

Edmund Blunden wrote, in ‘Vlamertinghe: Passing the Chateau, July, 1917’:

Bold great daisies’ golden lights,
Bubbling roses’ pinks and whites—
Such a gay carpet! poppies by the million;
Such damask! such vermilion!
But if you ask me, mate, the choice of colour
Is scarcely right; this red should have been duller.[2]

Rosenberg, Isaac, 1890-1918; Isaac Rosenberg

(Isaac Rosenberg, Self-Portrait, 1914: National Portrait Gallery, London)

The one that most stays with me, though, is probably Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, which ends:

Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe—
Just a little white with the dust.[3]

But then I think of a holiday in Greece more than fifteen years ago now, a vivid memory of Mycenae, with everywhere the bright clusters of blood-red poppies.

The poppy’s literary associations begin in classical texts, usually there the ‘sleep-bearing’ or garden poppy, the source of opium. Alethea Hayter notes that, ‘In an Egyptian medical treatise of the sixteenth century B. C., Theban physicians were advised to prescribe opium for crying children just as, three and a half millennia later, Victorian babies were dosed with the opiate Godfrey’s Cordial by their nurses to keep them quiet.’[4]

The ancient Greeks and Romans grew poppies in their gardens and ate the seeds, often mixed with honey.[5] The link between the poppy and sleep is implicit in the last lines of McCrae’s poem. Hypnos, the god of sleep, holds a poppy in the representations of him in Roman and Hellenistic sculpture. He worked in partnership with his brother Thanatos, god of death, to remove fallen warriors from the battlefield.[6]

The most notable association, though, is probably with Demeter who, frantic from the loss of her daughter Persephone, who had been carried off by the god of the underworld, ‘soothed her grief with the narcotic juice of the poppy’. The plant ‘has the reputation of giving life, hence the association of the poppy with Demeter, the earth goddess who bestowed fertility on fields.’[7] Alethea Hayter mentions the legend that tells of Demeter, in her search for Persephone, reaching Sicyon, ‘once called Mecone, the city of poppies’, and gathering their flowers. Slitting the seed-cases, she tasted the juice and ‘forgot her sorrows’. She was sometimes portrayed, then, holding a poppy instead of the more established sheaf of corn: the flower ‘adorned her altars and its drug was perhaps used in her rites at Eleusis, to bring forgetfulness of the sorrow of the dying year and to share, by a short winter sleep of the emotions, in the death and re-birth of the plants’.[8]

In his poem ‘In the Trenches’, Richard Aldington wrote:

But that each rush and crash
Of mortar and shell,
Each cruel bitter shriek of bullet
That tears the wind like a blade,
Each wound on the breast of earth,
Of Demeter, our Mother,
Wound us also[9]

In Homer’s Iliad, Teukros, aiming an arrow straight at Hector, misses him and strikes instead Gorgythion:

He bent drooping his head to one side, as a garden poppy
bends beneath the weight of its yield and the rains of springtime;
so his head bent slack to one side beneath the helm’s weight.[10]

This is how Alice Oswald renders that passage:

And now the arrow flies through GIORGYTHION
Somebody’s darling son

As if it was June
A poppy being hammered by the rain
Sinks its head down
It’s exactly like that
When a man’s neck gives in
And the bronze calyx of his helmet
Sinks his head down[11]

Death as slackening, bending, as sinking into sleep, all consciousness and memory gone. Hypnos and Thanatos, sleep and death, lived in Hades, near Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.

Allen Ginsberg, in ‘A Supermarket in California’, addressed to Walt Whitman, ends:

‘Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?’[12]

Also.Poppy

One more Poppy. . . .

 

References

[1] Robert Giddings, The War Poets (1988; London: Bloomsbury, 2000), 55-57.

[2] Blunden, Undertones of War (1928; London: Penguin Books, 1982), 256.

[3] Isaac Rosenberg (21st-Century Authors), edited by Vivien Noakes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 106.

[4] Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), 19. Godfrey’s Cordial was a mixture of opium, treacle, water and spices. See also Hayter’s introduction to Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), 14-15.

[5] See Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 160-161. See also: http://classicalanthology.theclassicslibrary.com/2015/02/17/poppies-in-classical-poetry-homer-catullus-virgil-dante-contributed-by-jane-mason-and-david-bevan/

[6] I. Aghion, C. Barbillon, F. Lissarragne, Gods and Heroes of Classical Antiquity (Paris: Flammarion, 1996), 162-163.

[7] Hellmut Baumann, Greek Wild Flowers and plant lore in ancient Greece, translated and augmented by William T. Stearn and Eldwyth Ruth Stearn (London: The Herbert Press, 1993), 69.

[8] Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination, 20.

[9]The Complete Poems of Richard Aldington (London: Allen Wingate, 1948), 62.

[10] Homer, The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richard Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 190, Bk.V., ll.306-308.

[11] Alice Oswald, Memorial (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), 32.

[12] Ginsberg, Selected Poems 1947-1995 (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 59.