Cherry trees for Spring

I can’t give you snow-white cherry blossoms this morning, but I can offer this picture of pinkish blossoms in full bloom outside my house this fine, clear April morning.

Which brings me to AE Housman again, who despite sounding a typically mournful note in this poem from A Shropshire Lad, still (perhaps) manages to keep it upbeat enough for Spring. It’s not Eastertime today either, but I can only assume it was an Easter later in April which Housman imagined…

Still, whatever the more maudlin traits if this poem, one of its strands remain clear: enjoy
the blossoms while you can.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

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What should I make of Matthew Arnold?

This blog is written more as an extended question than as an attempt to pass some critical judgement or make a recommendation.

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was a poet and a cultural critic, who also worked for some years as a public servant (an inspector of schools). His like does not really exist today. Can you imagine an Ofsted inspector maintaining a relatively high profile as both a writer on society AND a poet? In fact, can you think of a poet in contemporary Britain with anything like a ‘high media profile’?

Those were different days indeed, and so what am I to make of this writer?

I admit that I like the idea of someone like Matthew Arnold, who combined a fair degree of poetic talent also with an attempt to describe and influence the culture of his times, while at the same time being rooted in a job other than literature or letters, which in some degree must have kept his head out of the clouds and his feet somewhat on the ground.

In this he’s something like a Victiorian version of TS Eliot, although having read them both Eliot is (in my opinion) the far greater poetic talent and a the more provocative and influential critic.

Anyway, I have a copy of the famous anthology called Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and in my version there are a couple of poems by Arnold: the famous “Dover Beach” and “The Scholar Gypsy” which I really got to like a great deal. This latter poem is too long to reproduce here, but its start point is the legend of an Oxford scholar who packed in his studies to run away and live a life on the road with the gypsies.

Intrigued, I bought a book of Arnold’s poems, which also contained extracts from his cultural criticism (lectures, essays and the like). Upon receiving the book and trying to get to grips with it, I was distinctly underwhelmed.

I am quite ready to admit that I might be just an uncouth, lazy and uncultured so-and-s0 who should have given Arnold more time. However, in my defence I tend to like authors who observe Polonius’s belief that ‘brevity is the soul of wit’. For example I blogged yesterday about Keats and said among others things that I admire him so much because he was able to say a lot in a few words. Arnold achieved this in “Dover Beach” and gets there here and there elsewhere, but a lot of his other verse is very long. Another thing I wasn’t really prepared for (again “Dover Beach” acted as another red herring here) is that his poetic diction in other poems I grappled with was strikingly more archaic and archly ‘poetic’ than I thought it would be.

And what of his cultural criticism? Well I tried, but I think that’s one for the scholars right there, certainly nothing for a ‘general reader’ with plenty of other claims on his time and attention.

What provoked this blog post was that the other day I got hold of a second hand Oxford University Press anthology of English poetry, first published in 1986 and chosen by the writer John Wain. It’s pretty standard stuff, covering all the main names and including all their greatest poetic hits. Interestingly when it came to Arnold, Wain though it best to represent him through a short poem on Shakespeare, and the aforementioned “Dover Beach” and “The Scholar Gypsy”. In comparison, those poetic contemporaries alongside whom Arnold is most often mentioned, viz. Tennyson and Browning, get a more generous showing, including excerpts from their respective longer works and long poems published in their entirety.

So am I wrong? Are the anthology editors wrong? Is Arnold destined to be a two (or three) hit wonder in the poetic pantheon? Or should I give his other work another chance?

Feel free to leave me a comment to point me in the right direction.

 

 

 

Why Keats is now my favourite Romantic poet.

Like a lot of people who’ve read a lot of poetry, I had my phase when I read the Romantics. I was always rather sniffy about Keats, however. Taking my cue from a very fine teacher whose class I was very lucky to be in, and who was very much a Shelley man, I took the view that Keats fundamentally “had nothing to say”. It was all Odes to this and that and well-tuned, finely-wrought (overwrought?) stuff about things that didn’t really matter.

You could give me the sturm and drang, the passion and cynical humour of Byron. Or better still the intensity of Shelley, with his tempestuous imagination and his wide-ranging taste for experimentation.

Now my tastes have changed. There are still bits of Keats that I don’t much care for (his ‘comic’ verse, perhaps, and his taste for slightly whimsical stuff every now and again). But credit where it’s due: as a technician, as a craftsman, as a man with the sense of which is the right sounding word with just the right sense, he has very few equals. It was reading a biography of the italian writer Giuseppe Tomassi di Lampedusa (of The Leopard fame) that got me thinking about Keats again. Tomassi was exceptionally well read in other literatures, especially english, and he considered Keats’s work, especially the famed Odes, to be one of the crowning glories of the language. I took a look at them again and decided he was right.

What I see in Keats now is someone whose passion matched Shelley’s; whose technical skill matched Byron’s; whose imagination could be as wild as Coleridge’s; whose ability to take his own personal thoughts and reflections and make them applicable to his readers in such an enlightening and sympathetic way was the equal of Wordsworth’s.

Where he outdid them all was in his mastery of brevity, and I think that this is one of his great qualities. Put simply, at his very best, I think that Keats says what he wants to say and that’s it. Yes, he wrote long poems, but even these don’t come across as being half so long winded and ponderous as- for example- Wordsworth’s Prelude.

He only had a short time to live, and of course he knew it. I think, then, that this lends his poetry a seriousness of intent and a level-headed and unflinching quality when it comes to confronting some of the very big human themes. It also gives his very best work a refreshingly crisp directness. John Keats, therefore,  is one of my favourite English poets because with him there is no flannel and barely any messing around. The only annoying thing is that it’s taken me so long to realise it.

I now think that rather than being someone who “had nothing to say”, Keats is someone with so much to say, and who says it so much better than most others.

 

When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,

Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,

Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,

That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

 

 

 

In the race for poetic immortality, a few get to enter the Pantheon. Others seem destined for the library store of history…

Against Oblivion is a fascinating and eye-opening book. Written by Ian Hamilton, a British poet, biographer and critic, it was his final (posthumously published) work, dating from 2002. It consists of a series of potted biographies-cum-short critical appraisals of 45 poets who were active and published in the twentieth century. According to Hamilton’s introduction, the book’s genesis came when he was approached to write a modern version of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Thinking this a decent idea, if a little gimmicky, Hamilton says that he duly went back to Johnson’s book to get some ideas and inspiration. However, of the sixteenth and seventeenth century poets ‘immortalised’ by Johnson,  Hamilton says there were a number he’d never heard of at all, and of those names he recognised there were not many he had read in great depth.

This set Hamilton’s mind off in a different direction, and it seems that he was soon pondering which of the twentieth century poets he had planned to include would still be read in decades and centuries to come.  If Johnson’s book was any indication, it seemed that very few would survive. Hence the approach of  Against Oblivion as it appeared in its final form, which outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the poets put forward. For good measure,  a representative poem or two or three is printed at the end of each section. The resulting book is interesting, provocative and enlightening.  What Hamilton doesn’t do (though it is implied in a few instances) is make himself a complete hostage to fortune by coming out and explicitly saying who he thinks will be for posterity’s chop and who will survive to be read in ages to come. While he gives some hints about who he’d back to survive, the odds for most of them are not probably good since this seems to be just the way these things go.  As he states in the introduction, “it does seem a fair bet than in, say, one hundred years from now, about half of the poets I have chosen […] will have become lost to the general view”.

If you are interested in poetry in whatever capacity, I would highly recommend you take a look through this book if you come across a copy. It’s not perfect, but it is supremely good at getting you thinking, and some of Hamilton’s judgements are very sound indeed. He was a very good writer, capable of a memorable turn of phrase. In the months to come I think I may take a closer look at some of the poets mentioned in the book, and see if I agree with Hamilton in his judgements.

It remains to be seen what role the internet may have in terms of keeping alive the names and works of poets otherwise destined for obscurity and ultimate oblivion. In a sense the internet acts as a place where anything is available at any time. To go back to Samuel Johnson’s lives of the poets for instance, had you read that twenty years ago and come away with a sudden urge to take a look at some of the works of, for example, Thomas Tickell, Mark Akenside or Thomas Sprat, it might not have been easy. Chances are most public libraries would not have the works of these men in store. University libraries would perhaps have been a better bet, but even then there’d have been no guarantee you could have tracked their works down easily. With the internet, however, suddenly almost everything is to hand. It doesn’t mean forgotten poets will be widely read again, but it means that things otherwise forgotten now have far more potential to be recalled at some future point.

Anyway, here’s the list of poets Hamilton includes in Against Oblivion.  For the record, there are 8 poets on it I’ve never heard of. There are 7 I’ve heard of but never read.  There are 12 whose work I’d say I know pretty well (and extremely well in a few cases). The rest I know and have read a few poems by over the years.

(Note: the list does not include Yeats, Hardy, Eliot or Auden. Hamilton does not write about them in his book since he states with some certainty that enough has already been done to establish their names in the canon for posterity. Do you agree?)

Rudyard Kipling

Charlotte Mew

Robert Frost

Edward Thomas

Wallace Stevens

William Carlos Williams

DH Lawrence

Ezra Pound

Hilda Doolittle (HD)

Marianne Moore

Robinson Jeffers

Rupert Brooke

Conrad Aiken

Edna St Vincent Millay

Hugh MacDiarmid

Wilfred Owen

EE Cummings

Robert Graves

Hart Crane

Allen Tate

Stevie Smith

Norman Cameron

William Empson

John Betjeman

Louis MacNiece

Theodore Roethke

Stephen Spender

Elizabeth Bishop

Roy Fuller

RS Thomas

Randall Jarrell

Weldon Kees

Henry Reed

John Berryman

Dylan Thomas

Alun Lewis

Robert Lowell

Keith Douglas

Philip Larkin

Allen Ginsberg

James Merrill

James Wright

Gregory Corso

Ted Hughes

Sylvia Plath

 

Who do you think will be forgotten in another hundred years? Who do you think will survive? And is there any twentieth century poet not in Hamilton’s list who you think stands an equal chance against oblivion? Feel free to leave a comment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poem of the day: A. E. Housman: “Far in a western brookland…”

woods

Where the tress whisper but the wind doesn’t blow: Let AE Housman be your guide.

 

 

Poem lii from A Shropshire Lad. 

 

Far in a western brookland

That bred me long ago

The poplars stand and tremble

By pools I used to know.

 

There in the windless night-time,

The wanderer, marvelling why,

Halts on the bridge to harken

How soft the poplars sigh.

 

He hears: no more remembered

In fields where I was known,

Here I lie down in london

And turn to rest alone.

 

There, by the starlit fences,

The wanderer halts and hears

My soul that lingers sighing

About the glimmering weirs.

 

 

A change of season brings a change of mood, and though it’s still not coat weather during the day round where I live, I did see a tree starting to drop its leaves this morning. If anything’s going to set me off thinking about Autumn, it’s that.

Time for that most melancholy of poets, then, Alfred Edward Housman, the ‘Shropshire lad’ himself (albeit one from Bromsgrove in Worcestershire).

I chose the above poem completely at random, and to be fair it could be set at any time of the year. Added to this is that whenever Housman does mention a particular season, he more often than not plumps for Spring. For me, though, there’s always a melancholy about his work that fits the season of Autumn. I’ve always thought of Housman as a great poet of the emotions, and he does crystalise in verse the rueful melancholy that a lot of people feel, however fleetingly, when the nights start drawing in. He is a poet of dark nights.

This poem may not be to everyone’s tastes. Personally I like it, although I’ll readily admit that there is a contrived element to it. The key words at play in the verse, however, are in stanza two, where despite the “windless” conditions the poplars are animated by some power, leaving the passer-by “marvelling”. And with that Housman takes what might be another routine lyric of loss and disquiet, and gives it an unsettling element, bordering on the supernatural.

As I say, some might find that Housman overdoes this. However, I don’t mind writers taking liberties like this in order to stir the emotions. After all, this is also the time of year when I like to go back to my books of ghost stories.

This is also the perfect kind of poem to give to schoolchildren: With skillful guidance from the teacher they’d be able to make personal sense of it in minutes, followed by an exercise where they could produce a personal response (a poem, a picture, a story)  based on the verse. There could also be a lot of interesting discussion as to the identity of the poem’s speaker.

 

Robert Graves Pt. 3: Another reason why he defies simple categorisation.

copse

The Suicide in the Copse

The suicide, far from content,

Stared down at his own shattered skull:

Was this what he meant?

 

Had not his purpose been

To liberate himself from duns and dolts

By a change of scene?

 

From somewhere came a roll of laughter:

He had looked so on his wedding-day,

And the day after.

 

There was nowhere at all to go,

And no diversion now but to pursue

What literature the winds might blow

 

Into the copse where his body lay:

A year-old sheet of sporting news,

A crumpled schoolboy essay.

 

[Poem ends, blogger’s rant begins].

gravesathisdesk

To the Editor. Dear Sir, In a recent review your publication had the sheer brass neck to categorise me as just a…

So only the other night  I blogged in anger about an Economist review of the new Graves selected poems that tried to pigeon hole the writer as ‘just another’ war poet. Since then I’ve read another more positive review, but still rather tangled, in The Independent. Here the writer acknowledges that “Graves’s range is wide”. However, there is still some pigeon-holing evident because the critic asserts that Graves essentially “espoused a single subject”.

What was this subject? Here I have no option but to let the critic have his say.

“For Graves the imagination was not a framer of secondary worlds but an inhabitant of an underlying reality where a fundamental narrative, “one story and one story only”, was always in progress: the poet’s enchantment in the service of the White Goddess, in the worldly form of a Muse.”

What the critic does here is to take Graves’s own lead in asserting that “all true poetry” is in its way a representation of the poet’s relationship with The White Goddess, or of some aspect of her story. To explain exactly who the Goddess was, and what Graves’s Muse-based poetic system consisted of, is the subject of another blog to follow in due course.

In the meantime it’s worth pointing out that Graves’s Goddess system, expounded in book form in 1948 (The White Goddess) had been some years in the making. But once set down in print it gradually came to inform the bulk of his verse. Hence his later poetic phase where love is perhaps the dominant theme, and his working method whereby he felt he could only really write true poetry if he was in thrall to a real muse (i.e. an attractive, much younger woman, assumed to be the living invocation of the Goddess at a given point in time).

From my point of view, if you really want to add an extra level to your understanding Graves’s verse, you really need to have a basic knowledge of what the Goddess mythos consisted of. It’s worth mentioning, however, that even after he’d developed his Goddess mythos, his poetry continued to reflect the wide range of his lively and enquiring mind. Though the Goddess took over to some extent, he was by no means as love-struck or muse-fixated as the critic seeks to assert above. (I’ve written before about Graves’s immensely varied output: https://alliread.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/robert-graves-part-one-never-mind-goodbye-to-all-that-try-saying-hello-to-all-his-other-writing/)

As I also wrote the other day (https://alliread.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/robert-graves-part-two-try-to-pin-this-writer-down-at-your-own-risk/) you can’t blithely state that Graves is a war poet and leave it at that. And neither can you just maintain the critical assumption that he is a muse-driven love poet (even if Graves did more than most to give that impression!).

For me, one of the reasons that Graves remains one of the greats is because he defies simple categorisation. Look through any edition of his verse and you will find gems like the one I chose at random above (it was written in the late ’30’s). Have a look at it again and, if you’ve time, have a think about what the poem means to you. The Great War and the Goddess might somehow be factored into some people’s reading of the poem at some stage. No doubt, though,  this will occur far later than a host of other themes will have become apparent.