Change of Season

As summer slips into autumn we celebrate the change of season with two very different poets, starting with Audre Lorde

“A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. “

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/audre-lorde

I don’t want to make this session all about politics, but I don’t want to downplay or skate over her importance as a feminist and black, and gay, activist either, so in an attempt to square this circle I urge you to read this excellent article by Jackie Kay:

“Lorde – black, feminist, mother, lesbian, poet, teacher, Zami – always introduced herself with a long list. It was unusual then to name yourself so particularly. She wanted to show that she was complex, that she contained multitudes, that she would not prioritise one aspect of her identity over another. The kind of person who would ask, “Is being black more important to your identity than being a woman or a lesbian?” baffled and annoyed her.”

An altogether more literal take on the year turning to autumn is this one by Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh which is more Cider With Rosie than New York City. Both poets are looking back at their youth, though.

And both mention apples!

‘Of all the Irish poets who wrote before Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh (1904-67) is the one who most clearly prefigures – and perhaps the one who most strongly influenced – Heaney’s direct, intimate style. Here, Kavanagh recalls walking through the fields on a September morning, with a pitchfork, ready to go and help with the threshing at the mill.’

Dr Oliver Tearle https://interestingliterature.com/2019/08/the-best-poems-for-september/

On an apple-ripe September morning

On an apple-ripe September morning
Through the mist-chill fields I went
With a pitch-fork on my shoulder
Less for use than for devilment.

The threshing mill was set-up, I knew,
In Cassidy’s haggard last night,
And we owed them a day at the threshing
Since last year. O it was delight

To be paying bills of laughter
And chaffy gossip in kind
With work thrown in to ballast
The fantasy-soaring mind.

As I crossed the wooden bridge I wondered
As I looked into the drain
If ever a summer morning should find me
Shovelling up eels again.

And I thought of the wasps’ nest in the bank
And how I got chased one day
Leaving the drag and the scraw-knife behind,
How I covered my face with hay.

The wet leaves of the cocksfoot
Polished my boots as I
Went round by the glistening bog-holes
Lost in unthinking joy.

I’ll be carrying bags to-day, I mused,
The best job at the mill
With plenty of time to talk of our loves
As we wait for the bags to fill.

Maybe Mary might call round…
And then I came to the haggard gate,
And I knew as I entered that I had come
Through fields that were part 

And to finish off this seasonal post some Corinne Bailey Rae

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Dougie Maclean’s house is in this picture… just!

This week’s topic is musical, featuring songs about travelling – or more specifially about that tension between the desire to move on to new adventures versus the urge to find a home/return home.

The Grateful Dead sum this up for me with the line in Truckin’ ‘You’re sick of hangin’ around and you’d like to travel. Get tired of travellin’ you want to settle down…’

But instead of burbling on, for once, I am going to let these great lyrics speak for themselves

Another West Coast classic: Janis Joplin’s rendition of Me and Bobby McGee, where the pertinent lines are: ‘One day up near Salinas, Lord I let him slip away. He’s looking for that home and I hope he finds it.’

Closer to home, Glaswegian John Martyn singing a traditional English folk song that goes to show that these conflicting urges are nothing new

An older version vy the Copper Family

” Bob Copper collected it in about 1954 from Jim Barrett, at the Fox in North Waltham, Hants, and printed this version in his book Songs and Southern Breeze…” https://mainlynorfolk.info/copperfamily/songs/spencertherover.html

Nearer still is Dougie Maclean’s Caledonia, especially as Dougie had a house in Uig. Though as, I think, it is a holiday cottage so I am not quite sure if it represents travel or home.

And finally, you could always resolve the dichotomy by staying home but driving around in a transit van (but not, please, at 106 through Balallan!)

Nostalgia

Nostalgia nowadays  is thought of as a bittersweet emotion, associated with longing for times or places past. But originally it was thought to be a serious medical condition that afflicted the Swiss.

The term was coined by medical student, Johannes Hoffer in his dissertation of 1688 after observing Swiss mercenaries afflicted with home sickness to the point of becoming seriously ill.  With time both medical and cultural understanding of the phenomenon have changed completely, to the point that it is now considered to have potential mental health benefits.

There is a very short summation of the history of nostalgia here:   https://www.ted.com/talks/clay_routledge_why_do_we_feel_nostalgia?language=en

Writers have mined the poignancy of memory and its power to evoke emotion from well before the term was coined.  Take Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

The line “Remembrance of Things Past” is used for the title of Scott Moncrieff’s first English translation of Marcel Proust’s,  À la recherche du temps perdu, perhaps the most celebrated literary work to focus on memory. Shakespeare himself borrowed the line from, The Wisdom of Solomon, one of the apocryphal books of The Bible

While it is fair to say that, In Search of Lost Time (to give Proust’s work it’s literal translation) does have memory as a major theme it is a huge work that covers many other things in depth. To look at literature that is  more firmly fixed on memory and nostalgia, we are probably better off sticking with poetry.

laburnum

I Remember, I Remember

By Thomas Hood

I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon,
Nor brought too long a day,
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away!

I remember, I remember,
The roses, red and white,
The vi’lets, and the lily-cups,
Those flowers made of light!
The lilacs where the robin built,
And where my brother set
The laburnum on his birthday,—
The tree is living yet!

I remember, I remember,
Where I was used to swing,
And thought the air must rush as fresh
To swallows on the wing;
My spirit flew in feathers then,
That is so heavy now,
And summer pools could hardly cool
The fever on my brow!

I remember, I remember,
The fir trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now ’tis little joy
To know I’m farther off from heav’n
Than when I was a boy.

Thomas Hood was the son of a London bookseller who moved to Dundee where he had relatives due to ill health. In 1818 he returned to London , eventually becoming an editor and poet and part of the literary scene.

Philip Larkin expressly references Hood’s poem in his work of the same name, rather sourly contrasting his own lack of happy childhood memories. I think that he may also be referencing D.H. Lawrence’ Sons and Lovers. Certainly the “farm where I could be ‘really myself,’” doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Hood’s poem or life but suggests Lawrence’s friendship with the Chambers family of Haggs Farm (fictionalised as the Leivers in the book).

Letters

Reply of the Zaphorozian Cossacks – Ilya Repin

That many celebrated authors and poets should also be celebrated letter writers comes as no surprise. Skill with words in one format is likely to give facility in another. But there is something else; writers often (not always) afflicted by extreme loquacity. When not writing War and Peace or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,* the writer is typically to be found expounding on the uses of the free indirect narrative voice to the bloke who has come round to read the meter or explaining the set up of The Wasp Factory to the mystified small child they are supposed to be babysitting.

But what unites ninety eight percent of writers of all types is the extreme lengths we will go to to avoid getting down to actually doing some “work.” In my own case I have even, on occasion, gone so far as to do the washing up in order to put off the moment when I had to start writing.

Writing letters might seem an odd, nay ineffective way of avoiding writing but it generally isn’t the writing that a novelist is contracted to do or the poet needs to complete before a reading. The proof of this is that when letter writing is the obligate activity the situation is reversed and writing letters becomes the thing to be avoided. James Joyce, for example, wrote Ulysses  as a way to put off writing a thank you letter to his Aunt Josephine for a  present of some socks.

The fact is that many famous writers are celebrated of their letter writing and many have had their correspondence collected into books (often posthumously). Some of the most celebrated are:  Alexander Pope, Flannery O’Conner, George Orwell and (inevitably) Emily Dickinson and equally inevitably, Jane Austen. 

To no one’s surprise the novelist famed of her sharp wit wrote amusing letters. What is a bit surprising is how brutal they can be. Austen had learned to temper her rapier wit in the novels. And bear in mind, the published letters are the ones that her sister, Cassandra did not destroy in order to maintain Jane’s reputation, which makes you wonder what was in the ones she did burn!’

“Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed[30] yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”

Sir Tho. Miller is dead. I treat you with a dead baronet in almost every letter.

On a more serious note, Kurt Vonnegut is a celebrated letter writer, but none are more poignant than the one he wrote to his father to let him know that he was alive after his capture by the Germans in WWII. The letter shows that Slaughterhouse Five, for all its aliens and time travel, is fundamentally a memoire and it exhibits all the melancholy humour that characterises Vonnegut’s fiction.

“Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, unheated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations — the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn’t room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood. We spent several days, including Christmas, on that Limberg siding. On Christmas eve the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hundred-and-fifty of us. We got a little water Christmas Day and moved slowly across Germany to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year’s Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn’t.”

Letters Live first took place in December 2013 at the Tabernacle in London and quickly established itself as a very powerful and dynamic event format that attracted outstanding talents to performing remarkable letters in front of a live audience.

Inspired by Shaun Usher’s international best-selling Letters of Note series and Simon Garfield’s To the Letter, Letters Live is a live celebration of the enduring power of literary correspondence. Each show always features a completely different array of great performers, reading remarkable letters written over the centuries and from around the world. One of the joys of Letters Live is that one never knows who is going to take to the stage or what letter they are going to bring alive.

Warning: contains offensive language

*Coleridge may have been in a class of his own when it came to garrulosity :   

‘It was Green, too, who introduced Keats to Coleridge in April 1819, legend has it in Millfield Lane, “Poets’ Lane”. Keats and Coleridge each left an account of this, their only meeting. Keats’s: “After enquiring by a look whether it would be agreeable, I walked with him at his alderman-afterdinner pace for nearly two miles, I suppose. In those two miles he broached 1,000 things – let me see if I can give you a list – Nightingales-poetry-on poetic sensation-Metaphysics-Different genera and species of Dreams-Nightmare-a dream accompanied by a sense of touch-single and double touch-a dream related-first and second consciousness-The difference between Will and Volition-so my (many) metaphysicians from a want of smoking the second consciousness-monsters-The Kraken-Mermaids-Southey believes in them-Southey’s belief too much diluted-a Ghost story-Good morning- I heard his voice as he came towards me- I heard it as he moved away- I heard it all the interval- if it may be called so.”  https://www.friendsofcoleridge.com/membersonly/highgate.html

Kid’s Stuff

Children’s literature has enriched our culture for generations. Actually for centuries;  Kathryn Walton argues convincingly that there was a rich seam of children’s literature in the middle ages, albeit much of it oral.  https://www.medievalists.net/2021/07/childrens-literature-middle-ages-read/

We read children’s books as children, obviously, but they are often enjoyed by adults. Although this has long been the case with books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows I think that books originally aimed at younger readers are more readily enjoyed by older readers than ever before. You might call this the Harry Potter effect. I am old enough to remember when The Hobbit was firmly considered a children’s book (actually, we did it at school) and Lord of the Rings was regarded with considerable disdain by the literati, at least partly because it dealt with what were seen a children’s book subjects while clearly being aimed at adults.

Fantasy has, in fact, long straddled the divide between children’s literature and books for adults with many classic fantasy writers: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Ursula LeGuin, Alan Garner and more, writing wholly or partly for children. Perhaps because fantasy, like children’s books, were rather looked down on by the literary gatekeepers, so there was less to lose.

It seems to me that there are two aspects to children’s literature, coming at the subject as adults: the books we enjoyed as children and those we enjoy as adults. These may be the same books or they might be very different.

As a child I loved Alan Garner and I re-read, and enjoyed The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Elidor a few years back. I compulsively read Enid Blyton’s “Adventure” books and can’t imagine enjoying them now.

I have also enjoyed some children’s books for the first time as an adult. Laura Ingles Wilder’s, The Little House on the Prairie was fascinating but I really loved Diana Wyn Jones’s, Howl’s Moving Castle.

But what about you? What children’s literature did you devour when you were young and what have you enjoyed as an adult – and how much do they overlap?

Finally, which children’s and YA books should go on a list of essential reading?

Underground

Tree Buriel by Denny Derbyshire

Underground is a word with many meanings and connotations. It might mean literally under the earth, like the First World War battle of the miners trying to undermine each others’ trenches as described in Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks). Or it could be the spiritual or intellectual sort of Dostoevsky’s, Notes from the Underground.  More playfully it could be the rabbit hole to another world in, Alice in Wonderland or simply a snug underground chamber like Badger’s house in, Wind in the Willows or a hobbit hole (though, there is nothing snug about the Mines of Moria.)

Perilous expeditions to underground worlds have been with us at least since the Ancient Greeks and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the most compelling tales to have come down to us. The story has

remained popular until the present day and has inspired countless writers and artists to create their own interpretations.

Orpheus was the son of Apollo and the muse Calliope. He was the ultimate musician able to charm the birds from the trees with the beauty of his lyre playing and singing. Before his expedition to the underworld, Orpheus was one of the Argonauts accompanying Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece. Orpheus saved most of his shipmates by drowning out the entrancing singing of the Sirens with his own music – which suggests less lyrical melody and more heavy metal.

Rather appropriately, as “underground” rock music was a precursor to heavy metal and Orpheus’s next adventure was to venture into the underworld seeking to get his wife, Eurydice (recently deceased from a snakebite), back. From the dead  His music so charmed Hades and his wife (for half the year) Persephone that they agreed but warned that, as Eurydice followed him out of the underworld, Orpheus must not look back.

Guess what happened nexr?

The Underground by Seamus Heaney

There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
And me, me then like a fleet god gaining
Upon you before you turned to a reed

Or some new white flower japped with crimson
As the coat flapped wild and button after button
Sprang off and fell in a trail
Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.

Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons

To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Bared and tensed as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.

For an altogether different take on the story, check out Carol Ann Duffy’s “Eurydice”

“…Like it or not,
I must follow him back to our life –
Eurydice, Orpheus’s wife –
to be trapped in his images, metaphors, similes,
octaves and sextets, quatrains and couplets,
elegies, limericks, villanelles,
histories, myths…”

https://genius.com/Carol-ann-duffy-eurydice-annotated

There is lots of music with an underground theme – here are a few (thanks due to Norman M for introducing me to Lindsey Stirling)

Space

Picture: NASA

Space is famously quite big. And as we are looking at space as a subject as it is the anniversary of the first moon landings let’s shrink it down, down, down to moons.

Before going right down to our own moon let’s consider the moons of the solar system. There are quite a few of them (at least 200)

Most moons that have names are called after mythological deities. The first to be identified were named, like the planets, for classical mythology – so Jupiter and Saturn’s major moons are called things like Ganymede, Europa, Titan.  Uranus is the big exception having literary moons.  Most of these are named after characters from Shakespeare: Puck, Titania and, er, Margaret. I do love the fact that the Solar System contains a moon called Margaret.  A few of the moons of Uranus have names taken from Alexander Pope’s satire, The Rape of the Lock, so there is one called Belinda and an Ariel (who figures in both Pope and Shakespeare’s work).

Further out the moon names stay mythological but get more diverse. My favourite moon of all is Weywot, moon of the dwarf planet Quaoar, (50000 Quaoar to give it its full name) way out in the distant Kuiper Belt. Weywot and Quaoar are gods of the Tongva native American tribe that occupied the Los Angeles basin.

Sadly, as far as I know, no one has written poems songs or stories about little Weywot yet. Bigger moons have featured in literature – Kurt Vonnegut’s, The Sirens of Titan springs to mind. As watery moons bigger than Mercury      increasingly seem to offer the best chance of discovering extra-terrestrial life we can expect lots more sci-fi based around the bigger moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

Poetry, though, very largely focuses on our own moon, and for the obvious reason that few poets are astronomers  (A.E. Housman being a notable exception) and they tend to be more interested in what they can see than theoretical  knowledge of distant celestial bodies. Other moons may well interest us but our moon affects us, influences our moods, causes tides and in the past and for people in deep countryside still, sometimes provides illumination.

Most of all it is the experience of looking at the moon and moonlight, and our responses to it, that tend to inspire poets.

Hymn to the Moon By Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Written in July, in an arbour

Thou silver deity of secret night,
Direct my footsteps through the woodland shade;
Thou conscious witness of unknown delight,
The Lover’s guardian, and the Muse’s aid!
By thy pale beams I solitary rove,
To thee my tender grief confide;
Serenely sweet you gild the silent grove,
My friend, my goddess, and my guide.
E’en thee, fair queen, from thy amazing height,
The charms of young Endymion drew;
Veil’d with the mantle of concealing night;
With all thy greatness and thy coldness too.

Lady Mary Wortley Montague 1689-1762) was a very remarkable woman. Much of her writing was satirical and she       prosecuted a celebrated literary feud with Pope. She is also famous for introducing smallpox inoculation to Britain, having observed it in Turkey while living there with her husband who was  ambassador. More information about the poem, and how she popularised inoculation, can be found through the links below:

https://time.com/5542895/mary-montagu-smallpox/

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/jun/29/poem-wortley-montagu-moon

Star-Gazer by Louis Macneice

Forty-two years ago (to me if to no one else
The number is of some interest) it was a brilliant starry night
And the westward train was empty and had no corridors
So darting from side to side I could catch the unwonted sight
Of those almost intolerably bright
Holes, punched in the sky, which excited me partly because
Of their Latin names and partly because I had read in the textbooks
How very far off they were, it seemed their light
Had left them (some at least) long years before I was.

And this remembering now I mark that what
Light was leaving some of them at least then,
Forty-two years ago, will never arrive
In time for me to catch it, which light when
It does get here may find that there is not
Anyone left aliveTo run from side to side in a late night train
Admiring it and adding noughts in vain.

Image by Hokusai

The thief left it behind— Ryokan

                  The thief left it behind:
                   the moon
                   at my window.

‘Ryokan had a reputation for gentleness that was sometimes carried to comical extremes. A      famous story about him relates that one day when Ryokan returned to his hut he discovered a robber who had broken in and was in the     process of stealing the impoverished monk’s few possessions. In the thief’s haste to leave, he left behind a cushion. Ryokan grabbed the cushion and ran after the thief to give it to him.

This event prompted Ryokan to compose this haiku. Ryokan is laughing at the absurdity of the theft. “The thief left it behind,” he foolishly couldn’t recognize the one great treasure the poor monk possessed — “the moon,” ’

From the chaikhana poetry blog

Seaside

At The Seaside: William Merritt Chase

The term “the seaside” might be held to be a synonym for, “coast,” but it conjures up the image of holiday resorts: ice cream on the promenade, donkey rides and Butlins . Ness and Hartlepool are on the coast, but they are not really at the seaside, Europie Beach notwithstanding.

The seaside, like most good things: scrabble, detective stories, baseball and the free indirect narrative voice, etc, etc, was invented by Jane Austen.

No one had heard of the seaside before Jane took up her pen. OK, the Romans had summer villas on the coast around Naples but their amusements were more along the lines of feeding unsatisfactory slaves to their pet moray eels than sunbathing in deck chairs with knotted handkerchiefs on their heads, so I submit that they don’t count.

And sea bathing had begun to be prescribed as a medicinal cure from the 17th Century. As the 18th Century wore on Britain became richer (see certain Bristolian statue controversies for a clue to one reason for the increase in wealth) but medicine hardly developed at all, so taking the waters at spa’s like Bath and sea bathing at new resorts like Brighton and Scarborough (which managed to be both spa and bathing spot) became ever more popular amongst doctors and their patients, and the presence of so many wealthy people concentrated in these spots made them fashionable…

It is even possible that other writers mentioned this phenomenon before Austen, but I haven’t come across any, so again they don’t count.

Jane mentions seaside in Pride and Prejudice where Brighton plays a part, though the massing of soldiers is more the attraction than sea bathing. In Emma, Southend, Cromer and Weymouth all get a mention, but things get really seasidey in Persuasion with a pleasure trip to Lyme Regis playing an important part.

Sanditon, the book she was working on when she became ill and died was about the seaside, set in a resort that is actually in the process of being developed. Sadly, very little was competed by the time she became too unwell to work, but it would certainly have been the first seaside novel.

Sonnet 75: “One day I wrote her name upon the strand”  by  Edmund Spenser

One day I wrote her name upon the strand;
But came the waves, and washed it away:
Again, I wrote it with a second hand;
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
Vain man, said she, that dost in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise.
Not so, quoth I, let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name.
Where, when as death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.

Smooth between sea and land

A.E. Housman

Smooth between sea and land
Is laid the yellow sand,
And here through summer days
The seed of Adam plays.

Here the child comes to found
His unremaining mound,
And the grown lad to score
Two names upon the shore.

Here, on the level sand,
Between the sea and land,
What shall I build or write
Against the fall of night?

Tell me of runes to grave
That hold the bursting wave,
Or bastions to design
For longer date than mine.

Shall it be Troy or Rome
I fence against the foam,
Or my own name, to stay
When I depart for aye?

Nothing: too near at hand,
Planing the figure sand,
Effacing clean and fast
Cities not built to last
And charms devised in vain,
Pours the confounding main.

Prompts

Two rather different themes have emerged, the first is seaside, beaches, coast, the juncture of sea and land

But the poems and one of the songs are more about the impermanence of life and the futility of trying to make lasting monuments, or lasting anything.

Or, to put it more positively, the importance of seizing the moment and enjoying it, rather than trying to set it in stone.

Night Owls

Night owls means people who are active at night, the mortal enemies of the early birds. But my trawl through the googlesphere in search of night owl literature has come up short. So I am going to talk about feathery owls and pretend that that is what the theme is.

Owls feature in a fair few novels but they tend to flock to certain genres. There is not a whole lot of romantic fiction starring owls (maybe in some gothic ones). Leaving out the odd owl hooting in a bit of background atmosphere owls mostly swoop into fantasy writing, especially that aimed at young adults.

In, The Once and Future King, (19580 T.E. White’s retelling of the King Arthur story, Merlin has an owl called Archimedes who helps Wart (the young Arthur) learn the secrets of the animal kingdom. The Disney film, The Sword in the Stone, cherry picks the most Disney bits from the first part of the book, leaving out the darker, more disturbing elements, but they kept the irascible, clever owl .

The idea of owls being intelligent goes way back. In

Ancient Greece Athena, goddess of wisdom was often depicted with a little owl (which also featured on some Athenian coins). White’s choice of Archimedes as a name for Merlin’s feathery familiar references this.

A more explicit use of ancient mythology occurs in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (1967), in this case Welsh.  Three teenagers find themselves compelled to re-enact the legend of Blodeuwedd, a woman created from flowers who is turned into an owl as punishment for inducing her lover to kill her husband., from the 12th centuryMabinogion . https://www.globalgreyebooks.com/mabinogion-ebook.html

Owls feature rather differently in Titus Groan, the first volume of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast “trilogy” (the third volume was unfinished and he had planned more).  Lord Sepulchrave, losing his wits after his beloved library is destroyed by fire, believes himself to be a “death owl,” perching on the mantelpiece and eating mice, before being consumed by the real death owls in the Tower of Fints.

The last in this quartet of fantasises, Susannah Clarke’s short story, The Ladies of Grace Adieu (2006), pulls together several of the other stories’ themes: the transformation of man or woman into birds of the  Blodeuwedd/Owl Service and Once and Future King, the mouse eating of Gormenghast.

The idea of owls being intelligent and wise goes back, as we have seen, to Ancient Greece at the least. It is also widespread, cropping up from Indonesia to Greenland. The other attributes common to many cultures are that they are evil/bad luck or the familiars of witches/wizards/sorcerers.

I have only come across one place where they  have been associated with stupidity – Scotland!  

The following learned piece is from the Scots Language Centre Website:

https://www.scotslanguage.com/articles/view/id/4421

“HOULET n owl

This bird was the subject of a humorous allegorical poem, The Buke of the Howlat, written by Sir Richard Holland in the middle of the fifteenth century. It is an interesting poem, not only for the story it tells but also because of its form. It is one of the first Scots poems in the ornate, alliterative, thirteen-line stanzas which remained popular until the late sixteenth century. The houlet, unhappy with his appearance is given a feather by all the other birds so that he is “Flour of all fowlis throw fedderis so fair”, but he gets “So pompos, impertinat and reprovable” that the birds strip him again. Houlets are regarded with distaste. We find the word used insultingly in flytings; Dunbar (a1508) uses it in a simile drawn from nature: “Than fleis thow, lyk ane howlat chest with crawis”, and Montgomery (a1605) attacks Polwart: “Hurkland howlat, have at the!” An entry in the Register of the Privy Council (1663) records some non-poetic but still eloquent flyting: “Calling her ill-faced houlett, lyk that catt, thy sister”. They are creatures of the dark; James Dalrymple in his Historie of Scotland (1596) writes: “Thir traytouris, like howlets, culd nocht suffir to sie the bricht lycht of sa meruellous vertue”. By contrast, we have this character reference from the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch (1891): “There’s a new ane come to the Free Kirk — a douce lad wi’ a daylicht face, they say, an’ nane o’ the hoolit aboot him”. Betsy Whyte uses the houlet as a symbol of stupidity in Red Rowans and Wild Honey (1991): “I scanned his face, then relaxed a bit. His howlet eyes and sticking-out ears, the general look of his face, had told me that his intelligence was rather limited”. ” Odd how one person’s wise old owl is another person’s daft houlet.

Scots Word of the Week is written by Chris Robinson of Scottish Language Dictionarie “

https://www.scotslanguage.com/articles/view/id/4421

It is worth noting that houlets feature more conventionally in the poetry of Burns. For example in Tam o’ Shanter:

Weel mounted on his gray mare, Meg,
A better never lifted leg,
Tam skelpit on thro’ dub and mire,
Despising wind, and rain, and fire;
Whiles holding fast his gude blue bonnet;
Whiles crooning o’er some auld Scots sonnet;
Whiles glowring round wi’ prudent cares,
Lest bogles catch him unawares:

Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh,
Whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry.—

The final poem is also in Scots but is not by a Scot.

Humberto Akʼabal, also Akʼabʼal or Akabal (31 October 1952 – 28 January 2019), was a Kʼicheʼ Maya poet from Guatemala. Akʼabʼal wrote in his native language of Kʼicheʼ, and then translated his poetry into Spanish. From Spanish his poetry has been translated into many languages, including Scots.

In the heich oors o the nicht
stars strip aff
and douk in the rivers.

Hoolets grein for them,
the wee feathers on their heids
birse up.

Humberto Ak’abal

from Drum of Stone (Kettillonia Press, 2010)

Prompts: You could go conventional with human “night owls” whether others, or yourself if you are one – or go literal with feathery owls, real or magical

The Sun Now Rose Upon the Right…

This week’s theme is a line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic (and very weird) The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I realise that we have been visiting the romantic poets rather a lot recently and promise that we will explore other literary topics soon, but William Blake and John Clare are very much outliers of the romantic movement, kept somewhat apart from the mainstream by social class and circumstances. And Blake’s poetry and art would never fit into the mainstream of anything at all.

Coleridge was different. He was at the very heart of the Romantic Movement, together with William Wordsworth and Robert Southey.  Southey is less well known these days but he was very popular in his own, and he was Poet Laureate, like Wordsworth but unlike Coleridge.

All three were radical young men, enthused by the French Revolution. Southey and Coleridge were involved in a scheme to set up an utopian community in America, which came to nothing, whilst Wordsworth went to Paris to support the Revolution. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”

Wikipedia says that, “ Like the other Lake Poets, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Southey had begun as a radical, but became steadily more conservative,”  This seems a bit unfair to Coleridge who, though he became less radical, continued to support progressive causes like the anti-slavery movement and the Factory Act protecting children from industrial exploitation.  Southey became a real reactionary and, at one point, a Tory MP, and he blamed the victims of the Peterloo Massacre for what happened there.

The three had lives entwined beyond poetry. Southey married the sister of Coleridge’s wife, Sara. Coleridge then fell hopelessly in love with Sara the sister of Wordsworth’s wife, Mary.

American comic, Rich Hall had a character called Otis Lee Crenshaw who kept marrying women called Brenda. Coleridge’s thing was Saras. His daughter was also called Sara and, presumably to lessen the confusion, he referred to the Sara who was Wordworth’s sister in law as Asra, and to the one who was Southey’s sister in law as Sara. Sara and her daughter, Sara moved in with Southey and his family when Coleridge left. Wikipedia says he abandoned his family, which again seems harsh to me as he struggled to support them financially for many years.

So Coleridge began writing in company with Southey but really blossomed when he met William Wordsworth and his sister (mercifully, not called Sara, but Dorothy), in the West Country. The two critiqued, discussed  and even worked on each other’s poems, often in the course of long walks in the Quantock hills. Wordsworth claimed credit for coming up with the albatross motif, for example. In 1798 they published Lyrical Ballads and the Romantic Movement in Poetry was launched. https://catch23writinggroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/06/r._l._brett_a._r._jones_lyrical_ballads_willia.pdf

Something that interests me is that, while the term Romantic Poets tends to conjure up images of daffodils and nightingales, this small group of people, if not invented, profoundly influenced modern horror. Some time ago we looked at the events  in the Villa Diodati in 1816 where Lord Byron challenged the company to come up with fantastic stories, which resulted in Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein and Dr Polidori producing the first modern vampire story.

But I have not been able to find an earlier example of the living dead in literature than the re-animated sailors in the Ancient Mariner.

Coleridge was a close friend of William Godwin, anarchist, father of Mary Shelley and husband of Mary Wollstonecraft the feminist writer of A Vindication of the Rights of Women.  One night after a dinner, Coleridge gave a recitation of The Ancient Mariner and Mary Shelley, then a little girl, was discovered hiding under a sofa with her step sister, Claire Clairmont (who was later to become Byron’s lover and was also at Diodati). Upon Claire’s mother sending them to bed, Coleridge interceded and the girls were allowed to listen to the grisly story.

Oh yes, and the actual term “zombie” was introduced into the English language by none other than Robert Southey (in his history of Brazil)

The poem is very long so instead of quoting a section, here is the complete work (with fabulous Gustav Dore illustrations) thanks due to Adelaide University and the Marine Cafe Blog: https://catch23writinggroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/06/coleridge-samuel_taylor-ancient-b20122-37.jpg

And if you would prefer to hear it read, as we did in the group, this link is to the Big Read reading of the poem by forty different readers. If you have ever wondered how The Rime of the Ancient Mariner would sound read by Iggy Pop, now is your chance to find out! https://www.ancientmarinerbigread.com/readings

Summer Solstice

Midsummer is almost upon us.  And there is nowhere more solstiliceous than the Callanish stones.  But it doesn’t really feel like summer here so let’s take a respectful look and then scamper off to warmer climes. Much warmer for our first poem as Tess Taylor is a Californian poet—though Solstice is actually set in Massachusetts (and it makes me think of Hertfordshire).  It is reproduced by kind permission:

Solstice by Tess Taylor

How again today our patron star
whose ancient vista is the long view

turns its wide brightness now and here:
Below, we loll outdoors, sing & make fire.

We build no henge
but after our swim, linger

by the pond. Dapples flicker
pine trunks by the water.

Buzz & hum & wing & song combine.
Light builds a monument to its passing.

Frogs content themselves in bullish chirps,
hoopskirt blossoms

on thimbleberries fall, peeper toads
hop, lazy—

            Apex. The throaty world sings ripen.
Our grove slips past the sun’s long kiss.

We dress.
We head home in other starlight. 

Our earthly time is sweetening from this.
 

Copyright © 2015 by Tess Taylor. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 19, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.

Tess’s own website with details of her books is here:

https://www.tess-taylor.com/

https://mail.google.com/mail/u/3/#sent/KtbxLwGrTKVjKvlgSbdkmnkkrQpqrbPzLq?projector=1

Back over the pond to England. Edward Thomas has been cropping up a lot recently as a friend or supporter of other poets. Time to look at his own work:

Adlestrop by Edward Thomas

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Again this conjures memories of Hertfordshire for me. Specifically a station just before Hertford called Bayford.  There was nothing there. Not even a house. I could jump on a train at Finsbury Park in the middle of London and step off it and into countryside.

That feeling of longing for the country when in the summer city brings us to a paired poem and song.

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester by Rupert Brooke, surprised me, in my ignorance.

I was aware of it, and of the famous last line: ‘and is there honey still for tea.’ But like many, I suspect, led astray by its misuse and Brooke’s fatuous jingoism in The Soldier, I imagined it to be a straightforward paean to bucolic England. Actually reading it (generally a good plan when forming opinions about literature!) I discovered that it is a much more complex and interesting beast.

The poet is in Berlin and being nostalgic for Grantchester. There is real longing there. But there is also a sly critique of his own nostalgia. And  if he sounds a little xenophobic about Germany this is rendered absurd when he castigates the inhabitants of villages and towns around his glorified Grantchester (one of which is less than a mile away!)

It’s a long poem so I have reproduced it overleaf, but here is a taste:

And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

It’s companion is the entirely unironic Grantchester Meadows by Pink Floyd (actually by Roger Waters). It must be a direct reference as, apart from being about the same place it is also about thinking about the river and meadows when stuck in the city:

“Bringing sounds of yesterday into my city room”

What might be ironic is that hearing it for the first time in many years was almost unbearably nostalgic for me!

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester by Rupert Brooke
(Cafe des Westens, Berlin, May 1912)

Just now the lilac is in bloom,
All before my little room;
And in my flower-beds, I think,
Smile the carnation and the pink;
And down the borders, well I know,
The poppy and the pansy blow . . .
Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through,
Beside the river make for you
A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep
Deeply above; and green and deep
The stream mysterious glides beneath,
Green as a dream and deep as death.
— Oh, damn! I know it! and I know
How the May fields all golden show,
And when the day is young and sweet,
Gild gloriously the bare feet
That run to bathe . . .
                                 ‘Du lieber Gott!’

Here am I, sweating, sick, and hot,
And there the shadowed waters fresh
Lean up to embrace the naked flesh.
Temperamentvoll German Jews
Drink beer around; — and THERE the dews
Are soft beneath a morn of gold.
Here tulips bloom as they are told;
Unkempt about those hedges blows
An English unofficial rose;
And there the unregulated sun
Slopes down to rest when day is done,
And wakes a vague unpunctual star,
A slippered Hesper; and there are
Meads towards Haslingfield and Coton
Where das Betreten’s not verboten.

 . . . would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester! —
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad’s reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low: . . .
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . .
Still in the dawnlit waters cool
His ghostly Lordship swims his pool,
And tries the strokes, essays the tricks,
Long learnt on Hellespont, or Styx.
Dan Chaucer hears his river still
Chatter beneath a phantom mill.
Tennyson notes, with studious eye,
How Cambridge waters hurry by . . .
And in that garden, black and white,
Creep whispers through the grass all night;
And spectral dance, before the dawn,
A hundred Vicars down the lawn;
Curates, long dust, will come and go
On lissom, clerical, printless toe;
And oft between the boughs is seen
The sly shade of a Rural Dean . . .
Till, at a shiver in the skies,
Vanishing with Satanic cries,
The prim ecclesiastic rout
Leaves but a startled sleeper-out,
Grey heavens, the first bird’s drowsy calls,
The falling house that never falls.

God! I will pack, and take a train,
And get me to England once again!
For England’s the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go;
And Cambridgeshire, of all England,
The shire for Men who Understand;
And of THAT district I prefer
The lovely hamlet Grantchester.
For Cambridge people rarely smile,
Being urban, squat, and packed with guile;
And Royston men in the far South
Are black and fierce and strange of mouth;
At Over they fling oaths at one,
And worse than oaths at Trumpington,
And Ditton girls are mean and dirty,
And there’s none in Harston under thirty,
And folks in Shelford and those parts
Have twisted lips and twisted hearts,
And Barton men make Cockney rhymes,
And Coton’s full of nameless crimes,
And things are done you’d not believe
At Madingley on Christmas Eve.
Strong men have run for miles and miles,
When one from Cherry Hinton smiles;
Strong men have blanched, and shot their wives,
Rather than send them to St. Ives;
Strong men have cried like babes, bydam,
To hear what happened at Babraham.

But Grantchester! ah, Grantchester!
There’s peace and holy quiet there,
Great clouds along pacific skies,
And men and women with straight eyes,
Lithe children lovelier than a dream,
A bosky wood, a slumbrous stream,
And little kindly winds that creep
Round twilight corners, half asleep.
In Grantchester their skins are white;
They bathe by day, they bathe by night;
The women there do all they ought;
The men observe the Rules of Thought.
They love the Good; they worship Truth;
They laugh uproariously in youth;
(And when they get to feeling old,
They up and shoot themselves, I’m told) . . .

Ah God! to see the branches stir
Across the moon at Grantchester!
To smell the thrilling-sweet and rotten
Unforgettable, unforgotten
River-smell, and hear the breeze
Sobbing in the little trees.
Say, do the elm-clumps greatly stand
Still guardians of that holy land?
The chestnuts shade, in reverend dream,
The yet unacademic stream?
Is dawn a secret shy and cold
Anadyomene, silver-gold?
And sunset still a golden sea
From Haslingfield to Madingley?
And after, ere the night is born,
Do hares come out about the corn?
Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

Flowers

Some themes are popular throughout literary forms. Love, for example, is pressed into service across the board: novels, poetry, plays, song lyrics, film scripts.  I would guess that when sermons were an important literary form that love was a popular subject there too. From the poems of Sappho, through Romeo and Juliet, right through to Ordinary People, love will find a way whatever type of literature we look at.

Flowers aren’t like that. In fact, as themes go, they blossom at quite the other end of the spectrum. There are almost no novels, or plays about flowers. Oh, they might put in a fleeting appearance at the end of Chapter Seven. Kiera Knightly might cut some roses, briefly, in a Pride and Prejudice adaptation, but these scenes aren’t about flowers. There is a well received book called The Language of Flowers (Vanessa Diffenbaugh 2011) about a florist, but flower books, films, plays and (I am guessing again) sermons, are very thin on the ground.

Poems about flowers, on the other hand, are absolutely legion. Many of our old friends at writers have penned flower poems: Robert Frost, Blake, Dylan Thomas; Emily Dickinson predictably wrote lots. Wordsworth is famous for his daffodils and Coleridge penned a flower poem or two too.

But I wanted to look at someone we have not featured before: Wendy Cope

Small is Beautiful

Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, (1973) is the title of a collection of essays by the economist E.F. Schumacher. It was very popular in the counter culture of the time and many of its arguments are now more widely made, as we face problems like global warming.

From a literary point of view it is interesting because Schumacher argued that the humanities, and literature in particular, are of prime importance because they teach us how to live. Not a unique point of view but most unusual coming from an economist:

“What do I miss, as a human being, if I have never heard of the Second Law of Thermodynamics? The answer is: Nothing. And what do I miss by not knowing Shakespeare? Unless I get my understanding from another source, I simply miss my life. Shall we tell our children that one thing is as good as another– here a bit of knowledge of physics, and there a bit of knowledge of literature? If we do so, the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation, because that normally is the time it takes from the birth of an idea to its full maturity when it fills the minds of a new generation and makes them think by it.” E.F. Schumacher

n 1995 The Times Literary Supplement ranked Small Is Beautiful among the 100 most influential books published sinceWorld War II

If you would like to read more about it, here is a Guardian article by Madeleine Bunting:

“Looking back over the intervening almost four decades, the book’s influence has been enormous. “Small is beautiful” was a radical challenge to the 20th century’s intoxication with what Schumacher described as “gigantism”. “

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/nov/10/small-is-beautiful-economic-idea

For a completely different take on the theme I’d like to return to William Blake. I don’t think that Auguries of Innocence is his finest poem, much of it is a long series of moralising couplets, but the beginning is Blake at his transcendental best.:

‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour’

William Blake, (published 1863 but thought to be written in 1803)

The rest can be read here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43650/auguries-of-innocence

Back to Life

The subject of this week’s blog is a bit ironic, given that rapper Tupac Shakur was famously murdered in 1996 in a drive by shooting. But I thought his poem/lyric, The Rose that Grew from Concrete was a great celebration of the resilience of life, in even the toughest conditions.

The Rose that Grew from Concrete appears in a collection of Tupac’s poetry of the same name, posthumously published in 1999.

The other reason for highlighting Tupac’s work is that the C23 film showing on Wednesday of this week is, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Ricky, the orphan kid in the movie, is a massive Tupac fan!

The Rose that Grew from Concrete

Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s law is wrong it
learned to walk with out having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.

Reconnecting

Beth Ann Fennelley evangelising (photo Gaetano Catelli )

I have to hold my hand up here. This blog post is more about connecting than reconnecting, which would not be so bad had I not been the one who suggested “Reconnecting” after Lesley proposed “Connections.”

I had in mind the way we are tentatively reconnecting as covid restrictions are eased. But, quite soon into my search for interesting literature on the theme, I came across something so interesting that I wanted to share it.

It is different to our usual posts because it is a Ted Talk (a free educational video). I am not going to say much about it but, instead, urge you to watch the video. However, I will say that it presents hard scientific evidence that Jane Austen is good for you. Which is enough reason to promote it in itself.

Beth Ann Fennelley is the poet laureate of Mississippi and a self-proclaimed “evangelist for literature.” In her talk she presents evidence that literature fosters empathy and can counter racism.

If you prefer to read than watch the video, the gist of Fennelley’s argument is here: https://ideas.ted.com/how-literature-yes-literature-can-help-you-better-connect-with-others/

Joy

William Henry Davies

Joy is a great theme for blogging. Lots of poets, including many great ones, have written about Joy. Some I rejected because we have looked them quite recently (William Blake https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43665/infant-joy) Or because we keep returning to them ( Emily Dickenson https://bloggingdickinson.blogspot.com/2012/01/tis-so-much-joy-tis-so-much-joy.html) And Wordsworth’s sublime Surprised by Joy might seem a sad take on such a joyful subject.

When I encountered William Henry Davies’ Joy and Pleasure I was unsure at first. It seemed a bit “Victorian morality poem” albeit of a superior sort, Christina Rossetti in a religious, ungoblinificated mood, rather than piously sentimental. But that wasn’t quite it. The more I read it, the more I liked it, though I remained unsure why until I googled him.

W.H. Davies was born in Wales in 1871, so was Victorian in a way although he is generally considered one of the “Edwardian Poets.” But he was a very long way from a pious middle class Victorian paterfamilias. Of working class origins he was apprenticed as a picture frame maker, but didn’t like the work and took to the road as a tramp. In the UK, USA and Canada he lived rough for some years, doing casual work and panhandling and jumping freight trains. It was this hobo practise of riding the rails that stopped this lifestyle in the end as he slipped trying to jump a freight train which severed his leg.

He came back to England and, slowly over time, with many setbacks, his writing became recognised and he ended up being part of high literary society.

His most famous poem is Leisure (1911) which starts with the much quoted lines:

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

Knowing more about his life helped me, I think, understand why the poem transcends the moral homily that it superficially resembles. Davies isn’t moralising about the superiority of joy over pleasure he is telling it how it is, at least for him. As a man who has experienced the extremes of hardship, destitution and crippling injury as well as pleasure and joy, who has shared hooch with fellow hobos, and fine claret with George Bernard Shaw and the Sitwells. The poem, and the comparison, spring from the experience of a man who has really lived.

Joy and Pleasure

Now, joy is born of parents poor,
And pleasure of our richer kind;
Though pleasure’s free, she cannot sing
As sweet a song as joy confined.

Pleasure’s a Moth, that sleeps by day
And dances by false glare at night;
But Joy’s a Butterfly, that loves
To spread its wings in Nature’s light.

Joy’s like a Bee that gently sucks
Away on blossoms its sweet hour;
But pleasure’s like a greedy Wasp,
That plums and cherries would devour.

Joy’s like a Lark that lives alone,
Whose ties are very strong, though few;
But Pleasure like a Cuckoo roams,
Makes much acquaintance, no friends true.

Joy from her heart doth sing at home,
With little care if others hear;
But pleasure then is cold and dumb,
And sings and laughs with strangers near.

William Henry Davies (1871-1940)

This week’s theme is Joy, but as a special bonus, here is Leisure!

The Landscape

Claremont Landscape Garden, designed by Capability Brown

Landscape has been important in Western Literature since the mid 1700s.

Before that it existed, but was largely utilitarian: one of Arthur’s knights might need to gallop through a deep dark forest, Robison Crusoe had to have a desert island to be wrecked on, Shakespeare’s tales might require an Arcadian grove for Puck to perform his mischief in.

Or else landscape was moral allegory: Piers Plowman’s fortress on the hill with a “fair field of folk below it (Langland, 1380s) or “the Slough of Despond” and the “Delectable Mountains,” in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1664). There is also the tradition of “Topographical Poems” such as Sir John Denham’s, Coopers Hill (1642) in which real landscapes are bent to serve political and moral reflections. https://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poems/coopers-hill-1642. But landscape remained mostly symbolic, allegorical or stage setting for the story, not a subject in itself.

In the mid eighteenth century, however, things began to change. Credit is usually given for this to William Gilpin, whose,  Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770  was published in1782 and was a huge success. Gilpin was undoubtedly influential but attitudes to landscape had already changed. Capability Brown, for example, died in 1782 and had already spent over forty years transforming great gardens to make them more naturalistic, not to mention picturesque as Gilpin would have understood it.

Landscape painting had been important for much longer, since the 1600s, when it was pioneered by Dutch and Flemish artists.  Landscape painting in the Low Countries departed from the allegorical and began to represent concerns that would be very familiar today, albeit framed more religiously:

The Avenue at Middelharnis by Meindert Hobbema. Oil on canvas, 104 × 141 cm. 1689. National Gallery, London.

“many Dutch landscapes suggest walks in the countryside, as a break from city life), and the sheer pleasure of physical sensation: fresh air, daylight, wind, moisture, cold and warmth, colors, textures—all of which was seen as God’s creation.”  (Walter Liedtke, Met Museum https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/lpnd/hd_lpnd.htm )

By the mid 1700s, naturalistic, non-allegorical landscape painting had become well established in Britain too. Thomas Gainsborough was producing landscapes “in the Dutch style” from the 1740s.

Gilpin himself was an accomplished painter and his idea of the picturesque was framed with a landscape painter’s eye. He helped build a bridge between the visual and landscape artists and the writers, that would lead to a blossoming of landscape literature, from the Romantic poets onwards, and which continues unabated to this day.

There are far too many modern writers, for whom landscape is central or important, to look at here, so I will just say a word about one with local significance.  Robert Macfarlane is celebrated for his prose reflections on landscape, especially the loose trilogy: Mountains of the Mind, Wild Places and The Old Ways. The last of these explores ancient routes and the landscapes they access, by land and sea, from Palestine to southern England. But a significant part of the book is about Lewis and Harris, and Macfarlane sails to the Shiant Isles with Iain Stephen, an old friend of the writers group.

It is well worth a read, both for itself and as an introduction to other landscape writers like the poet (and walker) Edward Thomas and nature writer (and walker) Nan Shepherd whose wonderful book about the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain we have looked at in the writers group previously.

The Lane

BY EDWARD THOMAS (1878–1917)

Some day, I think, there will be people enough
In Froxfield to pick all the blackberries
Out of the hedges of Green Lane, the straight
Broad lane where now September hides herself
In bracken and blackberry, harebell and dwarf gorse.
Today, where yesterday a hundred sheep
Were nibbling, halcyon bells shake to the sway
Of waters that no vessel ever sailed …
It is a kind of spring: the chaffinch tries
His song. For heat it is like summer too.
This might be winter’s quiet. While the glint
Of hollies dark in the swollen hedges lasts—
One mile—and those bells ring, little I know
Or heed if time be still the same, until
The lane ends and once more all is the same.

Mental Health: State of Mind

Something a bit different this week. I came across this spoken word poem, Heart Cry, by Samuel Cole on the Mind website.

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/your-stories/talking-about-mental-health-through-spoken-word-poetry/

It tackles challenging themes but ends positively:

Neil Hilborn is an American spoken word poet who lives with mental ill health. Personally, I think his most celebrated poem, OCD, is absolutely brilliant.

I am looking forward to seeing everybody’s take on this week’s theme

Spencer

Spring: An Inventory

This week’s theme is a straight steal from the National Trust who have commissioned Elizabeth-Jane Burnett to create a poem for Spring from crowd sourced contributions.

I thought this was such a good idea that it would be better to look at the poem and project themselves, rather than borrow this idea or that, but I hope that something from it will inspire your own thoughts on Spring. Elizabeth-Jane Burnett has numbered things, inventory style, according to how often various words were suggested. But there is no need for you to go down that route unless you want to. An inventory of the gorse blossoms in bloom on the island just now would be a bit difficult.

Fritillaries in bloom at the castle

Here is an extract from the poem:

An extract from Spring, An Inventory by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett

Fifty-four hopes in the hardwood held,

slow, the hour brightens

through damp roots and fused shoots the pressure wells,

fifty-one blossoms on the cherry swell,

tiny beech leaves ripen.

Fifty-four hopes in the hardwood held

slow, the hour brightens.


Forty-four trees in the waking woods,

forty-one spilling gardens.

Five cherry trees where the blackbirds stood,

thirty-five joys through their gleaming broods,

thirty-eight buds nectar-guarding

in forty-four trees in the waking woods,

in forty-one spilling gardens.

Insects

We looked at a William Blake poem last time. and for this week’s theme I wanted to focus on Insects by John Clare. I make no apology for pairing two Romantic poets this way though because both are outliers from the Romantic Movement and in quite similar ways – and yet they produced very different poetry.

The similarity is that they were both from working class backgrounds, with minimal formal education, and that they both experienced poor mental health. It should be said that Blake would probably dispute this, what others would call hallucinations he might claim as prophetic visions, but his contemporaries certainly thought him mad. Clare, sadly, spent the latter decades of his in an asylum.

One more thing that they have in common is a slow-burning reputation. Clare had some celebrity as a “plowman poet” for a brief period before falling out of fashion, while Blake was barely recognised at all in his own lifetime. But both became more critically acclaimed in the 20th Century and are now regarded as amongst the best and most important poets of the era. There is a bitter irony here in that some Romantic poets who have fallen out of fashion such as Southey, had less need of recognition in their own lifetimes than the impecunious Clare and Blake.

But their poetry is very different. Cymbals clash and trumpets sound in Blake’s work while the musical background to Clare’s poetry is birdsong. Blake did write about smaller things but they are usually metaphors for something vast or universal. Clare’s focus is often on the small and usually disregarded but he tends to celebrate them for their own sake.

It is true that in Insects he fancies that:

“such happy things,
With coloured hoods and richly burnished wings,
Are fairy folk, in splendid masquerade”

But this is not a metaphor for something wonderful, or sinister, still less is he suggesting that the insects buzzing round the cornfield actually, are fairies. He is describing the feeling of watching insect life and the thoughts it sets off in one’s mind and is thus, at least to my mind, completely realist. And there is quite brutal realism hidden here because the fanciful insects (if not the real ones) bear no kin “to labour’s drudgery.” Clare was an agricultural labourer, he knew all about drudgery, but he was also a man with a deep love of the countryside, a man who could rest after his back-breaking day’s work in the field and enjoy imagining that the bumblebees and beetles were disguised fairies.

photo by T.Voekler

Insects

These tiny loiterers on the barley’s beard,
And happy units of a numerous herd
Of playfellows, the laughing Summer brings,
Mocking the sunshine on their glittering wings,
How merrily they creep, and run, and fly!
No kin they bear to labour’s drudgery,
Smoothing the velvet of the pale hedge-rose;
And where they fly for dinner no one knows –
The dew-drops feed them not – they love the shine
Of noon, whose suns may bring them golden wine
All day they’re playing in their Sunday dress –
When night reposes, for they can do no less;
Then, to the heath-bell’s purple hood they fly,
And like to princes in their slumbers lie,
Secure from rain, and dropping dews, and all,
In silken beds and roomy painted hall.
So merrily they spend their summer-day,
Now in the corn-fields, now in the new-mown hay.
One almost fancies that such happy things,
With coloured hoods and richly burnished wings,
Are fairy folk, in splendid masquerade
Disguised, as if of mortal folk afraid,
Keeping their joyous pranks a mystery still,
Lest glaring day should do their secrets ill.

Everything is Beautiful, in its own way

This week’s theme, suggested by Ivor, comes from the Dolly Parton song. But Rebecca suggested another take on it with William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence.

I have wanted to discuss Blake in the writers group for a long time as he is such a fascinating and important figure, both as a poet and an artist. So, over to Rebecca…

“To See a World…”

(Fragments from “Auguries of Innocence”

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour.

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.
A Dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A Horse misus’d upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fiber from the Brain does tear.

He who shall train the Horse to War
Shall never pass the Polar Bar.
The Beggar’s Dog and Widow’s Cat,
Feed them and thou wilt grow fat.
The Gnat that sings his Summer song 
Poison gets from Slander’s tongue.
The poison of the Snake and Newt
Is the sweat of Envy’s Foot.

A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent.
It is right it should be so;
Man was made for Joy and Woe;
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the World we safely go.

Every Night and every Morn
Some to Misery are Born.
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight.
Some are Born to sweet delight,
Some are Born to Endless Night.  
Good AfternoonI was reminded of this lovely poem by William Blake and wanted to share it as my contribution for this week's creative theme of 'Everything's Beautiful (In it's Own Way).I got into reading poetry kind of by accident. I normally love reading books but when going through a past period of depression found that I got readers 'block' and didn't have my usual attention span for reading. I found that I could manage to read poetry still & it really helped bring some light into my life during a period that otherwise felt quite dark. I have rediscovered reading poetry during lockdown and found it a really good companion & perfect antidote for me when feeling a bit down or fed-up.Rebecca Mahony
Titania, Oberon and Puck, with faries dancing. William Blake

Eggs

Oefs-fixed Adolphe Millot

I will be honest, this poem by Hayden Carruth is only peripherally about eggs, and not at all about Easter, it’s about the feeling of being in a band, the morning after having played a blinding set and being to buzzed to sleep. It’s not an experience I have ever had but I think the poem describes it brilliantly

Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey

by Hayden Carruth

Scrambled eggs and whiskey
in the false-dawn light. Chicago,
a sweet town, bleak, God knows,
but sweet. Sometimes. And
weren’t we fine tonight?
When Hank set up that limping
treble roll behind me
my horn just growled and I
thought my heart would burst.
And Brad M. pressing with the
soft stick, and Joe-Anne
singing low. Here we are now
in the White Tower, leaning
on one another, too tired
to go home. But don’t say a word,
don’t tell a soul, they wouldn’t
understand, they couldn’t, never
in a million years, how fine,
how magnificent we were
in that old club tonight.

Pets: Past, Present or Imaginary

Pets have a rich literary history, both as fictional ones and real animals belonging to writers. I thought I would focus on the latter.

Some literary figures kept exotic pets. The Pre-Raphaelite, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, these days, is more celebrated for his painting and his poetic reputation has been eclipsed by that of his sister, Christina. But he was a successful poet in his day.  And, as well as his artistic and poetic prowess he was known for his partiality for wombats. His first died quite soon after it arrived (according to the painter, Whistler, Rossetti’s wombats were brought to the table at dinner parties for brandy and cigars, which may have had something to do with their lack of longevity). |Rossetti commemorated his pet with his best known, but not his only, wombat poem.

I never reared a young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye
But when he was most sweet and fat
And tail-less, he was sure to die!

(D.G. Rossetti 1869)

A century earlier, Samuel Johnson’s pet, Hodge was far from exotic. In fact he seems to have been an unremarkable cat. Which makes it the more amazing that he is commemorated by two poems, a statue and a passage in, perhaps, the most celebrated literary biography of all time. It is from that biography, James Boswell’s The Life of Samueel Johnson, that we find most of what we know about Hodge.

‘I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, ‘Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, ‘but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’

Oysters were, at the time, a very cheap food and Johnson may have thought his servants would think it an indignity to be seen buying them. The statue of Hodge in Gough Square, London, by Jon Buckley, portrays him sitting on Johnson’s dictionary with oyster shells by his feet.

Percival Stockton was a campaigner against slavery and a friend of Johnson. He is not much remembered as a poet now, but I think his: An Elegy on The Death of Dr Johnson’s Favourite Cat, is delightful.

An Elegy on The Death of Dr Johnson’s Favourite Cat

Let not the honest muse disdain
For Hodge to wake the plaintive strain.
Shall poets prostitute their lays
In offering venal Statesmen praise;
By them shall flowers Parnassian bloom
Around the tyrant’s gaudy tomb;
And shall not Hodge’s memory claim
Of innocence the candid fame;
Shall not his worth a poem fill,
Who never thought, nor uttered ill;
Who by his manner when caressed
Warmly his gratitude expressed;
And never failed his thanks to purr
Whene’er he stroaked his sable furr?
The general conduct if we trace
Of our articulating race,
Hodge’s, example we shall find
A keen reproof of human kind.
He lived in town, yet ne’er got drunk,
Nor spent one farthing on a punk;
He never filched a single groat,
Nor bilked a taylor of a coat;
His garb when first he drew his breath
His dress through life, his shroud in death.
Of human speech to have the power,
To move on two legs, not on four;
To view with unobstructed eye
The verdant field, the azure sky
Favoured by luxury to wear
The velvet gown, the golden glare –
–If honour from these gifts we claim,
Chartres had too severe a fame.
But wouldst though, son of Adam, learn
Praise from thy noblest powers to earn;
Dost thou, with generous pride aspire
Thy nature’s glory to acquire?
Then in thy life exert the man,
With moral deed adorn the span;
Let virtue in they bosom lodge;
Or wish thou hadst been born a Hodge.

Percival Stockton

Sarah Chauncey Woolsey (January 29, 1835 – April 9, 1905) on the other hand, is still celebrated as the author of, What Katy Did (under the pen name Susan Coolidge.)

Hodge The Cat

Burly and big, his books among,
Good Samuel Johnson sat,
With frowning brows and wig askew,
His snuff-strewn waistcoat far from new;
So stern and menacing his air,
That neither Black Sam,
nor the maid
To knock or interrupt him dare;
Yet close beside him, unafraid,
Sat Hodge, the cat.

“This participle,” the Doctor wrote,
“The modern scholar cavils at,
But,” – even as he penned the word,
A soft, protesting note was heard;
The Doctor fumbled with his pen,
The dawning thought took wings and flew,
The sound repeated, come again,
It was a faint, reminding “Mew!”
From Hodge, the cat…

The Dictionary was laid down,
The Doctor tied his vast cravat,
And down the buzzing street he strode,
Taking an often-trodden road,
And halted at a well-known stall:
“Fishmonger,” spoke the Doctor gruff,
“Give me six oysters, that is all;
Hodge knows when he has had enough,
Hodge is my cat.”

Then home; puss dined and while in sleep
he chased a visionary rat,
His master sat him down again,
Rewrote his page, renibbed his pen;
Each “i” was dotted, each “t” was crossed,
He labored on for all to read,
Nor deemed that time was waste or lost
Spent in supplying the small need
Of Hodge, the cat.

The dear old Doctor! Fierce of mien,
Untidy, arbitrary, fat,
What gentle thought his name enfold!
So generous of his scanty gold.
So quick to love, so hot to scorn,
Kind to all sufferers under heaven,
A tend’rer despot ne’er was born;
His big heart held a corner, even
For Hodge, the cat.

Sarah Chauncy Woolsey (Susan Coolidge)

Hodge, looking towards Johnson’s house (now a museum)

Wildflowers Don’t Care Where They Grow

This week’s theme was suggested by Ivor and was inspired by the song by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris from their album, Trio. 

Written by Parton, she sings of being restless and feeling confined, using the metaphor of wild flowers which can thrive anywhere, so she has no reason to be afraid of branching out and exploring.

It is a classic Dolly Parton song, telling a story with an autobiographical flavour, with a straightforward metaphor, in language that in less deft hands might feel corny.   Dolly, with her trademark sincerity,  simplicity and deceptive skill makes it a delight.

I won’t put up the lyrics due to copyright but you can read them here: https://www.metrolyrics.com/wildflowers-lyrics-dolly-parton.html

Better yet, listen to the Trio perform it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nC1HI84Enwk

Prompt:  As usual there is scope for both literal and metaphorical  flowerings this week. Like Dolly you could write about feeling restless and confined as so many islanders (and others) do, especially as teenagers and young adults. So you could write about that feeling, or the experience of spreading your wings and going out to explore the world.

Then there is the literal –  wildflowers are all around us. Only a few are in flower now but the gorse is beginning to bloom and looks like it is getting ready for a spectacular display in a few weeks, and from now on there will be more and more until the truly matchless spectacle of the machair in full bloom. Last year the verges round town, left uncut because of lockdown produced more wild flowers than I have ever seen there before.

 But I think that sometimes the most beautiful wild flowers are not the great spectacles but the tiny flowers growing in a crack in the wall or pavement – the wildflowers that don’t care where they grow.

https://catch23writinggroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/03/wildflowers.pdf

Containers and Vessels

There is a literary usage of “container” but it is a) quite obscure and technical and b) there seems to be some disagreement about whether it means a narrative structure or framing device or refers to the publication format: an anthology of poetry, a collection of short stories, The Beano Bumper Book of Fun, or whatever.

So let’s not risk that literary quagmire and look at a particular sort of narrative container, Chinese boxes. Chinese boxes are sets of boxes that fit inside each other, as do Russian dolls (matryoshka).

In literature the term Chinese box refers to stories within stories. Most often it is a narrative effect when a first person narrator says: “I met so and so, who said to me, ‘I met whatshisname, who said to me, ‘I just ran into thingummy…’ and so on.

A notable example of this (possibly the first) is in Plato’s Symposium.  The story of Agathon’s famous symposium (a drinking and talking party) is recounted to a friend by Apollodorus, who was not present but who has heard the story from Aristodemus.  Attendees discourse on Love until Socrates takes his turn and tells the party what the oracle Diotima taught him. All speak in the first person so you have Diotima’s words recounted by Socrates, whose story is being told by Aristodemus, whose account is being relayed by Apollodorus.

A slightly different usage is that in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein where there are also several first person narratives nested.  Walton writes a letter to his sister and in it he recounts Victor Frankenstein’s story (in the first person) within which is the monster’s account of his life (also told in the first person) as the monster’s story includes the words of Mr De Lacey you could argue that the narrative goes four boxes deep.

I am currently reading William Langland’s Piers Ploughman (c 1370-90).  I don’t recommend it unless you have a taste for tediously repetitive and pious allegory.  But I am persisting because the long narrative (it is about 250 pages) is studded with very occasional interesting facts.  The next time someone tells you that the expression “dead as a doornail” was coined by Shakespeare* you can reply, no it wasn’t because it appears in Piers over 100 years earlier.  Which is obviously very important. It also contains the first known written reference to Robin Hood.

And it is a Chinese box of a peculiar kind; a dream within a dream. The narrator “Long Will” has a tendency to fall asleep and recount his dreams.  But in Passus 11 (the chapters are called passuses, which apparently means, “steps,”) he falls asleep and dreams, when he is already asleep and dreaming.

My guess is that Langland got so bored with his own story that he forgot that Will was already asleep and dreaming.  I also wonder if Plato and Shelley nested their narration through so many voices by accident rather than intent. I know, sacrilege to two, or possibly three different sets of people with perhaps a bit of ven diagram overlap.  And you will find no end of literary criticism online expounding on why they used such sophisticated narrative techniques. But… Plato was a philosopher rather than a virtuoso storyteller and Mary Shelley was a teenager writing her first substantial work and hanging about with poets rather than novelists.

And it doesn’t really matter anyway.  What makes Frankenstein great is its imaginative power rather than a narrative complexity that I am willing to bet few of its readers even notice – and what makes The Symposium great is Socrates talking about how the oracle Diotima taught him about love (and Aristophanes’ account of how we were originally two headed, eight limbed creatures who were cut into two by Zeus and doomed to spend our lives searching for our “split aparts.”)

The Chinese boxes are really incidental. They don’t make Socrates more clever or Frankenstein any more terrifying, and the dream within a dream entirely fails to make pious old Piers Ploughman any more fun.

Spencer

Prompt: Lots of scope here. You could write about a real container, a box of old letters, perhaps, or a treasure chest, even a vessel as a ship. Or you might prefer to think about an idea within an idea, a dream within a dream like Piers Ploughman, or tell a story that someone told you in the first person.

*Shakespeare was, of course, no stranger to Chinese boxes – take the play within a play performed by the rude mechanicals in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Lighthouse

I will be honest. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) is not a favourite poet of mine. Though extremely learned (he was fluent in over a dozen languages) and very skilled in rhyming scheme and meter, his metaphors seem a bit hackneyed and his subject matter (like Tennyson* in this regard) tending to the

 portentously Victorian. Some of Longfellow’s poems strike me as the sort of thing that William Topaz McGonagall would have written if he had possessed any poetic skill.

So why highlight him for this week’s theme? Well, several reasons. Our theme is “Lighthouse” and we looked at, Flannan Isle last year. It is a popular theme but less so with celebrated poets. We could have looked at Virginia Woolf, of course, and we should do sometime but her, To the Lighthouse isn’t really

about lighthouses at all, and I probably had better finish it (a project that has taken nearly fifty years to date) before pontificating about it.

But a more important reason is that Longfellow was massively popular in his time and if he is no longer as revered as contemporaries like Emily Dickenson, I think this tells us something about poetry and its place in our society. Longfellow and Tennyson were writing in an era without film or television to a mass popular audience, and to judge them against modernist and post modernist literary standards is probably to miss the point. Longfellow and Tennyson belong to a time when there was a huge popular appetite for accessible poetry that told stirring stories and, beyond that era, generations of children learned these epics by rote, and often enjoyed them.

But most of all, this is my opinion. You might love Hiawatha and revere Longfellow, so by all means feel free to disagree.  And anyway, there are no Minihahas in this poem about a lighthouse!

If you would like to know more about Longfellow, his work and life there is an excellent and well balanced New Yorker article by James Marcus here:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/what-is-there-to-love-about-longfellow

*Longfellow was accused of plagiarising Tennyson by Edgar Allan Poe

The Lighthouse

The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
  And on its outer point, some miles away,
The Lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
  A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day. 

Even at this distance I can see the tides,
  Upheaving, break unheard along its base,
A speechless wrath, that rises and subsides
  In the white lip and tremor of the face. 

And as the evening darkens, lo! how bright,
  Through the deep purple of the twilight air,
Beams forth the sudden radiance of its light
  With strange, unearthly splendor in the glare! 

Not one alone; from each projecting cape
  And perilous reef along the ocean’s verge,
Starts into life a dim, gigantic shape,
  Holding its lantern o’er the restless surge. 

Like the great giant Christopher it stands
  Upon the brink of the tempestuous wave,
Wading far out among the rocks and sands,
  The night-o’ertaken mariner to save. 

And the great ships sail outward and return,
  Bending and bowing o’er the billowy swells,
And ever joyful, as they see it burn,
  They wave their silent welcomes and farewells. 

They come forth from the darkness, and their sails
  Gleam for a moment only in the blaze,
And eager faces, as the light unveils,
  Gaze at the tower, and vanish while they gaze. 

The mariner remembers when a child,
  On his first voyage, he saw it fade and sink;
And when, returning from adventures wild,
  He saw it rise again o’er ocean’s brink. 

Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same
  Year after year, through all the silent night
Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,
  Shines on that inextinguishable light! 

It sees the ocean to its bosom clasp
  The rocks and sea-sand with the kiss of peace;
It sees the wild winds lift it in their grasp,
  And hold it up, and shake it like a fleece. 

The startled waves leap over it; the storm
  Smites it with all the scourges of the rain,
And steadily against its solid form
  Press the great shoulders of the hurricane. 

The sea-bird wheeling round it, with the din
  Of wings and winds and solitary cries,
Blinded and maddened by the light within,
  Dashes himself against the glare, and dies. 

A new Prometheus, chained upon the rock,
  Still grasping in his hand the fire of Jove,
It does not hear the cry, nor heed the shock,
  But hails the mariner with words of love. 

“Sail on!” it says, “sail on, ye stately ships!
  And with your floating bridge the ocean span;
Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse,
  Be yours to bring man nearer unto man!”

Prompt: Of course a lighthouse does not have to be literal. A guiding light might be a person, or a book.

And even literal lights convey multiple meanings. For example, for many islanders returning at night on the ferry, this one signifies home.

Flotsam

This week’s theme was inspired by this ring of sea glass, artfully arranged by some unknown beachcomber, on the picnic table at the town end of Sandwick’s shingle beach. I was entranced by the subtle colours which seemed to complement the February light perfectly.

So I looked for a poem to go with the picture and came across Flip flotsam by  Edinburgh based poet, Elspeth Murray.

Anything less relevant to subtle sea glass and icy oceans is hard to imagine as it is about plastic flotsam in the

Indian Ocean but, well, I liked it so much that I wanted to share it:

Flip flotsam by Elspeth Murray

This is the beach
where the flip flops come
at the end of their
flip flop trip.

And where does a
flip flop trip begin?

the floor of a flip flop factory;
on the shelf of a flip flop shop;
or the foot of a flip flop fan?

And what snaps the strap
of each flip flop
that finds its flip flop fate?

a flip too far;
a flop too fast;
or a slip that
flapped it back?

And what does the sea say
when she sees another flip flop fall?

‘Oh, flip flop and flotsam
fair and foul,
I’ll freely float you all!’?

Or, do the waters, wavey and wide
curse each clutch of clutter
that comes on each tide
and storm up the sand
with curses that worsen
at each
beach-tripping
strap-snapping
flip-flopping person?

reproduced with the author’s permission

“With a strong record of collaborative work in education, health, business and the performing arts, Elspeth Murray is a writer who enjoys the unpredictable. Her poetry residencies have taken place in shopping centres, distilleries, international conferences, hospices and schools. Her workplace residencies feature in a 2008 BBC Radio 4 documentary Blood, Sweat, Tears and Poetry and a 2009 Third Way article Shall I Compare Thee To a Sunny Delight?”

http://www.elspethmurray.com/mememe.htm

Blowin’ In the Wind

That poets like the theme of wind was shown in a previous theme on the subject https://catch23writinggroup.wordpress.com/2020/09/24/wind/ with poems on the subject by old friends of this blog Emily Dickenson and Christina Rossetti, not to mention Keats.

Of course, Bob Dylan’s song is not really about wind – it is a metaphor for the uncertainty of truth, especially in a time of dogmatic politics: “There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind — and it’s blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some .” Bob Dylan.

Well, if there ain’t too much Dylan can say about it I am certainly not going to jump in, but there is a really interesting article about how it was first made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary (and much more) https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/12/08/bob-dylan-blowin-in-the-wind ] The article includes the quote from Dylan:

“This here ain’t no protest song or anything like that, ’cause I don’t write no protest songs.” Ironic because it became an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement

Wolf Moon

Photo by Vossman https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode

The Wolf Moon is the first full moon of the year.

Wolves and the moon have a long association from werewolves changing at full moon to real wolves howling at the moon – for me the stand out literary association occurs (several times) in Jack London’s, White Fang. In this passage White Fang’s mother and father are hunting. I chose it because it could have represented last week’s them as well as this one:

“As they slid along, noiseless as shadows, in the moonlight, they came upon a run-way.  Both noses went down to the footprints in the snow.  These footprints were very fresh.  One Eye ran ahead cautiously, his mate at his heels.  The broad pads of their feet were spread wide and in contact with the snow were like velvet.  One Eye caught sight of a dim movement of white in the midst of the white.  His sliding gait had been deceptively swift, but it was as nothing to the speed at which he now ran.  Before him was bounding the faint patch of white he had discovered.” https://www.gutenberg.org/files/910/910-h/910-h.htm

Whitefang starts his journey to domestication in a Native American camp and most of the names we have for moons derive from Native American ones that passed into general use in North America and then were brought to Europe. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich has quite a comprehensive selection in this article:

https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/names-full-moons-throughout-year?gclid=CjwKCAiA9vOABhBfEiwATCi7GBZsrV2UydGc9IeP0YQo-p7hybCnfjKcdP-hjHOQ1PTs_oAC9h7yJhoCNEEQAvD_BwE

According to the Observatory the first January full moon is also known as the Old Moon and the Ice Moon, which feels about right considering the weather.

In February we have Snow Moon, aka Storm Moon and Hunger Moon, and in March we can look forward to the Worm Moon which has lot’s of alternatives including Crust Moon and Sap Moon, the latter because it is time to tap the sap of maple trees.

 Prompts: I think this theme cries out for rhymed poetry with Old Moons of January following Cold Moons in December – but as always whatever you like, poetry or prose, fiction or memoir, will be more than welcome.

Footsteps in the Snow

A Philip Larkin poem for this ween’s theme (thanks to Urszula for suggesting it). It is a bit of a melancholy poem but I think it is beautiful.

Morning At Last: There in the Snow
Philip Larkin

Morning at last: there in the snow
Your small blunt footprints come and go.
Night has left no more to show,

Not the candle, the half-drunk wine,
Or touching joy; only this sign
Of your life walking into mine.

But when they vanish with the rain
What morning woke to will remain
Whether as happiness or pain.

Prompt: Urszula was given the idea from seeing goose and duck prints. Animal or human tracks is one way to go but you could also write about walking in the snow, or use snow as a metaphor. We have looked at it before but this seems like a good time to revisit Robert Frost’s, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

Little Green

This week’s theme is “Little Green” inspired by the Joni Mitchell song from her 1971 album, Blue.

The emergence of green shoots, foreshadowing spring, is what prompted Hilary to suggest it. Spring is still a way away as is recovery from the pandemic and its associated woes – but I think we can all take heart from daffodil shoots pushing their way up through the cold earth.

Nature can sense spring coming, even if it still feels like midwinter to us. Sparrows are getting ready to breed. Gorse flowers are already starting to come out but closer examination of the bushes shows huge numbers of flower buds primed to provide a sunburst of yellow in a few weeks’ time.

Little Green is a sad and poignant song about Mitchell giving up her daughter for adoption when she was an impoverished folk singer in Canada. But it does contain glimmers of hope, most literally relevant in this context when Mitchell imagines her daughter having a better future:
“There’ll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow” And, most of all, in the repeated line: “Like the color when the spring is born”

Prompts: You could write about the early signs of spring, or your favourite shades of green and what they mean to you. Or, alternatively write about whatever gives you hope in challenging times.

Winter Sun

You can’t count on it in the Western Isles. We had some yesterday but today it’s back to dreich, grey and wet.      But that is what makes it so precious when the clouds relent and the winter sun breaks through. That, and the  landscapes and seascapes it illuminates. Because wherever you are on the islands you are never far from          somewhere stunningly beautiful.

Molly Fisk is not from here, in fact she is a Californian poet. But I thought this poem expressed the fleeting joy of winter sun beautifully, and she has graciously given us permission to reproduce it.

Winter Sun

How valuable it is in these short days,
threading through empty maple branches,
the lacy-needled sugar pines.

Its glint off sheets of ice tells the story
of Death’s brightness, her bitter cold.

We can make do with so little, just the hint
of warmth, the slanted light.

The way we stand there, soaking in it,
mittened fingers reaching.

And how carefully we gather what we can
to offer later, in darkness, one body to another.

Molly Fisk

To find out more about Molly’s work, check out her website here: http://www.mollyfisk.com/

I’m really looking forward to seeing your responses to this theme, so I will shut up now and let the winter sun do the talking.  Spencer

Snowfall

Snow is an enduring subject of classical haiku. We have looked at the form before but for this week’s theme I thought we might take a look at Kobayashi Issa. I will quote from David Lanoue’s informative blog:

‘One of the four foremost poets of Japanese haiku tradition, Issa is in good company (Bashô, Buson, Issa, Shiki).

He was born in the little village of Kashiwabara in the mountains of Japan’s Shinano Province on the fifth day of Fifth Month, 1763: June 15 on the Western calendar. He died in the same village on the 19th of Eleventh Month in the old Japanese calendar year that corresponds to 1827: the equivalent of January 5, 1828 on the Western calendar. In the long time between these dates he learned the art of haiku (then called haikai) and wandered the length and breadth of Japan, writing everywhere he went. Though his real name was Kobayashi Yatarô, he chose Issa (Cup-of-Tea) as his haiku name. He called himself “Shinano Province’s Chief Beggar” and “Priest Cup-of-Tea of Haiku Temple.” A devout follower of the Jôdoshinshû sect, he imbued his work with Buddhist themes: sin, grace, trusting in Amida Buddha, reincarnation, transience, compassion, and the joyful celebration of the ordinary.’ http://haikuguy.com/issa/aboutissa.html

The Snow is Melting (translated by Robert Hass)

The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
      with children.

Issa might be classical but he can be far from conventional as my favourite Haiku of all demonstrates

Writing Shit about New Snow (translated by Robert Hass)

Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art.

Chance would be a fine thing, Kobayashi!

Christmas Gifts

Hi, sorry this is so late – my excuse is that I am on holiday! I am not going to write screeds therefore but put up O Henry’s classic short story, The Gift of the Magi in its entirety. OK, it is a bit Victorian/Sentimental but it is also beautifully constructed and has a sophisticated narrative technique which includes “free indirect” narration. So maybe we will return to it later in the year. For now, here is The Gift of the Magi

THE GIFT OF THE MAGI

BY

O. HENRY



ONE dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”

The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling—something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. Her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: “Mme. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”

“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”

Down rippled the brown cascade.

“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

“Give it to me quick,” said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation—as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value—the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends—a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do—oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty-seven cents?”

At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit of saying a little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two—and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again—you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say ‘Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice—what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”

“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”

Jim looked about the room curiously.

“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you—sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs—the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims—just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”

And then Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”

The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

The Holly and the Ivy

This week’s theme is The Holly and the Ivy – which is about as seasonal as I get!

The pairing of these evergreens is traditional in Christmas decorations since, at least, the fifteenth century as is celebrated in the carol of that name.  The carol uses the plants as Christian symbolism but to me it feels a bit grafted on and it did not surprise me to learn that an earlier ballad uses the holly and the ivy as symbols of man and woman.

It is a lovely song, in any event, and here is a great version by Annie Lennox.

What is surprising is that the natural world also pairs these evergreens in the shape of the holly blue butterfly which has alternate generations, the caterpillers of one feed on holly, the next generation on Ivy.

By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39793052

When it comes to literature Holly gives us a chance to look at Hollie MacNish,  whose poetry and other writings have made a real impact over the last few years, especially her memoir about motherhood, Nobody Told Me.  The expression, “warts and all” is a bit of a cliché but it really fits, Nobody Told Me. Perhaps “puke and all” puts it better.

Her poetry is copyright so I won’t reproduce it but take a look at her Hollie Poetry website https://holliepoetry.com/

And here she is on Youtube

As for Ivy, you can’t have Christmas without a bit of Dickens. Sometimes great novelists make very indifferent poets (I’m looking at you, Jane Austen!) but I think that this is rather good.

The Ivy Green – Charles Dickens

Oh, a dainty plant is the Ivy green,
That creepeth o’er ruins old!
Of right choice food are his meals, I ween,
In his cell so lone and cold.
The wall must be crumbled, the stone decayed,
To pleasure his dainty whim:
And the mouldering dust that years have made
Is a merry meal for him.
Creeping where no life is seen,
A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

Fast he stealeth on, though he wears no wings,
And a staunch old heart has he.
How closely he twineth, how tight he clings,
To his friend the huge Oak Tree!
And slily he traileth along the ground,
And his leaves he gently waves,
As he joyously hugs and crawleth round
The rich mould of dead men’s graves.
Creeping where grim death has been,
A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

Whole ages have fled and their works decayed,
And nations have scattered been;
But the stout old Ivy shall never fade,
From its hale and hearty green.
The brave old plant, in its lonely days,
Shall fatten upon the past:
For the stateliest building man can raise,
Is the Ivy’s food at last.
Creeping on, where time has been,
A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

This week’s theme reflects the news of a vaccine for Covid-19.

I couldn’t find any really good poetry or other literature reflecting the theme so, for once, I thought I would tell you about my own experience of light at the end of a tunnel. Please forgive me if it is overly literal.

About ten years ago I decided to walk from my flat in London to my mum’s house in Stornoway. I did this piecemeal. The first day I walked, with my friend Carole, from my place in Archway (Islington) to High Barnet at the end of the Northern Line which took me right back home. It was a lovely day, much more rural than expected, but we did get lost twice which was a bit worrying as I had hundreds of miles of wild Pennines and the small matter of the Scottish Highlands to navigate my way through.

The next weekend I got the Northern Line back up to High Barnet and walked out of London, ending up in Harpenden where I got a train back and so on.

Day four was a bit hellacious. It was winter and I had reached the muddy midland plain. Huge plowed fields with no paths, just a right of way across claggy clay soil. And footpaths are few in those parts. To avoid a busy road I had to take a zig zag path and I was exhausted by the time I reached Northampton.

So I was looking forward to the next leg. It was an icy but crystal clear winter’s day and my route took me, after a bit of getting out of Northampton, on a disused railway line that had been turned into a path and cycle track.

It was great, dead straight, due north. It might have seemed a bit tedious I suppose, but after the previous leg of tacking back and forth across enormous fields of mud, believe me, I was not complaining. There was no navigation to do so I put the map away and enjoyed the sun glinting off frost and the occasional bird life.

There was but one hazard on my route, well two. Large railway tunnels that the guide I had read said were really dark. No matter, I have a head-torch. In fact I was quite looking forward to them. The entrance, when I got there, did look a bit forbidding. But not half so daunting as it did when I realised, after a frantic search, that I had left my *%^*!! headtorch at home. Never mind, I had a wee maglite torch on my keyring. A maglite torch, it turned out, with a battery that was very nearly gone.

Walking around looked like a hassle and anyway I didn’t want to miss the main point of interest of the day so I entered. Within a few steps the sunlight from the entrance failed to illuminate the floor. It was pitch dark and my feeble torch was useless. I had to walk on, unable to see my feet, trusting that the track was even and not strewn with trip hazards. After a while I saw some lights dancing in the distance and hear voices. Cyclists coming towards me! I hoped the torch, useless to light my way, might gleam enough for them to see me and got out of their way as best I could.

‘Hello!’ I called out as they got closer and got a surprised sounding greeting in reply, then they were gone, their voiced echoing around the tunnel walls.

I got a respite when I reached an air shaft – a tiny sunlit island in the river of darkness. But staying there was not getting me through this, so I stepped back into the black and went on my blind way.

There had always been a tiny pinprick of light in the distance but for a long time it just seemed to hang there like a star in the night sky – my progress towards it changing it about as much as a star on the horizon grows when you walk towards it. But now, at last, it was visibly growing. The point became a circle of light and then I could see ironwork and even some lit up tunnel floor.

A little further and I had made it. Out in the winter sunshine I looked back at the gaping tunnel mouth with pleasure and relief.

Pleasure that lasted until I remembered that there was another long dark tunnel on my way.

Spencer

Love

This week’s theme leaves me spoilt for choice – is there any subject that has inspired more poems, novels, lyrics or plays than love?

I did consider writing about Plato’s Symposium in which a group of ancient Athenians discuss love, with Socrates expounding on what became known as Platonic love. The symposium attendees are all male but, interestingly, Plato makes Socrates credit a female oracle, Diotima for instructing him in the nature of love (which she does in an amusingly patronising way https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diotima_of_Mantinea )

The Symposium is also where Aristophanes explains love as a result at the gods punishing the previously two headed and eight limbed humans by dividing us into two – and condemning us to forever search for our missing “split-apart.”

But you don’t want philosophy (The Symposium is here if you do: http://faculty.sgc.edu/rkelley/SYMPOSIUM.pdf)  You want  poetry. Go on, admit it.

There are far too many love poems for me to even attempt a summation, so I am going to pluck one, more or less at random. I came across this one by Emily Bronte, which has the advantage of being seasonal with the championing of holly over rose wreaths as symbols of the more enduring virtues of friendship as compared to the more fugitive transports of romantic love.

I must confess that I am not a huge fan of the Bronte sisters.  This may be prejudice based on Charlotte’s disdain for Jane Austen – I freely confess to being card carrying Janeite – but also both Charlotte and Emily seem to me a bit over-blown and melodramatic with lashings of the gothic that Austen parodied so well in Northanger Abbey.  Perhaps because of this, although I knew that Emily had a considerable reputation as a poet, I had not read any of her poetry before.

But I really liked this poem. It has a touch of Victorian morality but it doesn’t slip into sentimentality or censoriousness and I think it is reminiscent of Christina Rossetti (at her simplest and clearest).

Ironically, Jane Austen also wrote something called Love and Friendship. It is a juvenile story (with little relationship to the recent film which is based on another of Austen’s early works, Lady Susan).

Austen’s Love and Friendship was written before she learned to curb her wicked sense of humour and craft credible stories. It concerns two young women who hurtle around the country from Wales to Scotland reacting to various Gothic catastrophes and ridiculous coincidences by either “running mad” or fainting. Eventually Sophia swoons to her death, prompting  her ,on her deathbed, to offer the sage advice:

“Beware of fainting-fits… Though at the time they may be refreshing and agreeable, yet believe me they will in the end, if too often repeated and at improper seasons, prove destructive to your Constitution… My fate will teach you this… I die a Martyr to my greif for the loss of Augustus… One fatal swoon has cost me my Life… Beware of swoons, Dear Laura… A frenzy fit is not one quarter so pernicious; it is an exercise to the Body and if not too violent, is, I dare say, conducive to Health in its consequences — Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint –-” https://pemberley.com/janeinfo/lovfrnd3.html

You can see why the Bronte sisters weren’t big fans!

Love and Friendship

BY EMILY BRONTË

Love is like the wild rose-briar,

Friendship like the holly-tree—

The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms

But which will bloom most constantly?

The wild rose-briar is sweet in spring,

Its summer blossoms scent the air;

Yet wait till winter comes again

And who will call the wild-briar fair?

Then scorn the silly rose-wreath now

And deck thee with the holly’s sheen,

That when December blights thy brow

He still may leave thy garland green.

Prompts:  Such a broad topic gives plenty of scope but remember, with Emily Bronte that it doesn’t have to be about romantic love, it might be about family, friends, a love of a place or community or even your abiding love of fish and chips…  um, it’s been a long time since I have had good, chip shop fish and chips.

Spencer

Seasonal

Roddy Lumsden died in January this year, tragically young. He was a quirky poet, born and brought up in the working class part of St Andrews although he did not see himself, particularly, as a Scottish poet. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/roddy-lumsden

This article in the Scotsman from 2009 offers the unusual scene of a poet working on a fashion shoot with Kate Moss. https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/roddy-lumsden-interview-poetry-kate-and-me-2444064

Intriguing but not particularly seasonal. However, I loved his poem, The Season of Quite with it’s genteel ladies plotting events that seem to be more gossip and the nuances of words than any actual activities. The gentility and the golfing reference makes me wonder if it is based on his native St Andrews? In any event it is worth reading for the line: Half-promised rain roosts in some clouds a mile out,” if you ask me. Rain “roosting” in clouds, just perfect!

Season of Quite

With refreshments and some modesty and home-drawn maps,
the ladies of the parish are marshaling the plans in hand,
devising the occasions, in softest pencil: the Day of Hearsay,
Leeway Week, the Maybe Pageant, a hustings on the word   
nearby. Half-promised rain roosts in some clouds a mile out,
gradual weather making gradual notes on the green, the well,
the monument, the mayor’s yard where dogs purr on elastic.

Everything taken by the smooth handle then, or about to be,
hiatus sharp in humble fashion. A small boy spins one wheel
of an upturned bike, the pond rises, full of skimmed stones
on somehow days, not Spring, not Summer yet. Engagements
are announced in the Chronicle, a nine-yard putt falls short.
Dark cattle amble on the angles of Flat Field. The ladies close
their plotting books and fill pink teacups, there or thereabouts.

Prompts: “Seasonal” offers lots of scope. You could write about this season, as Autumn turns to winter – about the contrasting seasons. Or you could go Biblical with Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Well, I am not so sure about the hate and war bit but the basic message is sound: there are times when we should speak out and times when it is much better to hold our tongues…

But this isn’t one of them!

It’s time to write.

Light

Rama and Sita

This week’s creative theme is “Light”, in celebration of Diwali, the festival of lights of Hindu, Sikh and Jain religious traditions.

The lights are lit to guide Rama and his wife Sita safely home after their exile.

The story is recounted in the Ramayana, an epic poem that dates from between the fourth and first century BCE. That is to say that the written version dates from then, there is little doubt that it was transcribed from oral traditions that are much older. The Ramayana has inspired, and continues to inspire, countless retellings and variations including plays and shadow puppet shows as well as film and TV versions.

It is a huge poem but a very simple summation is that it concerns the travails of Rama (who in some versions is the god Vishnu in corporeal form) who, with his beautiful wife Sita and his brother Laksmana, is forced into exile by his wicked stepmother.  In the forest, Sita is abducted by the demonic , multi-headed  king  Ravana. Rama forms an alliance with the monkey god Hanuman and with an army of monkeys and bears defeats and kills Ravana.  When they return to Rama’s rightful kingdom the way is lit for them and so lights commemorate the defeat of evil and the triumph of good.

Ravana

https://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/whatson/exhibitions/ramayana/guide.html

Hanuman

There is a little more detail here https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/blogs/happy-diwali/  including that Sita is tested for her chasity (as she has spent a year as Ravana’s captive) she passes Rama’s test but is not believed by the people of the kingdom and is forced into exile again.

So not such a happy ending.  The Shakespeare Trust naturally enough draws parallels with Shakespeare’s plays but it reminds me much more of Homer’s Odyssey with Penelope fending off the suitors in her husband Odysseus’s absence (not to mention the mixed cast of heroes, gods and monsters (and various hybrids).  As, at least as oral traditions, these epics would have been told at the same time, it is hard not to wonder if they influenced each other.

Prompts: Light can be literal, lights at night perhaps leading you home like Rama and Sita, or metaphorical: seeing the light at the end of the tunnel or a moment of “enlightenment.” Light comes from the sun, moon, stars, streetlights ( originating in Battery Point power station at the moment ) or headlights – and here, of course, we also sometimes have the northern lights.

My Dream

Dreams are potent sources of inspiration for writers.  This is not surprising. In Dorothea Brande’s influential book, Becoming a Writer the subconscious is credited with pretty much all creativity. Brande was writing in the 1930s’ when an uncritical approach to Freud was common, but you do not have to be a devotee of psychoanalysis to find the book useful (and it is free online here: http://w3.salemstate.edu/~pglasser/18468462-Dorothea-Brande-Becoming-a-Writer.pdf) or to admit that strange and potentially interesting creative ideas are churning away beyond the conscious mind – or that dreams can be a way to access them.

This theme was suggested by my mother after I told her about a recent dream.  I was in a street in Walthamstow in London where I accidentally knocked over a wooden screen-like object outside a little antique/junk shop (there are no shops in that street).  A thing fell out and got damaged and I picked it up, smoothed it out as much as I could, righted the screen and found this little panel (rather smaller than A4, slotted in to the apex of the wooden thing.

This seemed to be a sort of altarpiece. I envisaged at the back of an alter, against a wall, it’s main purpose to display the picture I had damaged.  But this was no exquisite Ghent altarpiece, the woodwork was quite basic and the wood dried out, cracked and nearly black.

The panel I had damaged seemed to be wood and the painting on it was also quite primitive. It had figures and had been, I knew (how?) painted by a seventeen year old Ethiopian  illiterate shepherdess who had gained a modest reputation for her untutored style.

The shop owner came out and I expected a tirade but he was quite phlegmatic about the accident. Really, very little happened in this dream. What makes it remarkable, even incredible to me is that I dreamed this vivid, quite believable objet d’art without having read about the Ethiopian church or primitive religious painting, without having seen a documentary about such things for years, if ever, without being able to think of any book I had read or TV programme that I might have seen that could have prompted such an image. And anyway (it turns out, I checked) Ethiopian church art can be exquisite and sophisticated. The dream was convincing and credible fiction, but fiction nonetheless.

But even when you can spot where, in waking life, the elements of a dream have come from, no explanation for dreams I have seen credibly explains why they should have a narrative structure.  It is often a surreal story with unlikely or impossible elements barging in. But why do they have a narrative at all, rather than being a stream of random images?

It seems to me that Brande was on to something and that storytelling is something that is so fundamental to us that it is, or at least can be, generated deeper than our modern, conscious minds.

But enough of all that, here is Christina Rossetti dreaming about cannibalistic crocodiles.

MY DREAM

by: Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

https://www.poetry-archive.com/h_pic.gifEAR now a curious dream I dreamed last night

Each word whereof is weighed and sifted truth.

I stood beside Euphrates while it swelled

Like overflowing Jordan in its youth:

It waxed and coloured sensibly to sight;

Till out of myriad pregnant waves there welled

Young crocodiles, a gaunt blunt-featured crew,

Fresh-hatched perhaps and daubed with birthday dew.

The rest if I should tell, I fear my friend

My closest friend would deem the facts untrue;

And therefore it were wisely left untold;

Yet if you will, why, hear it to the end.

Each crocodile was girt with massive gold

And polished stones that with their wearers grew:

But one there was who waxed beyond the rest,

Wore kinglier girdle and a kingly crown,

Whilst crowns and orbs and sceptres starred his breast.

All gleamed compact and green with scale on scale,

But special burnishment adorned his mail

And special terror weighed upon his frown;

His punier brethren quaked before his tail,

Broad as a rafter, potent as a flail.

So he grew lord and master of his kin:

But who shall tell the tale of all their woes?

An execrable appetite arose,

He battened on them, crunched, and sucked them in.

He knew no law, he feared no binding law,

But ground them with inexorable jaw:

The luscious fat distilled upon his chin,

Exuded from his nostrils and his eyes,

While still like hungry death he fed his maw;

Till every minor crocodile being dead

And buried too, himself gorged to the full,

He slept with breath oppressed and unstrung claw.

Oh marvel passing strange which next I saw:

In sleep he dwindled to the common size,

And all the empire faded from his coat.

Then from far off a wingèd vessel came,

Swift as a swallow, subtle as a flame:

I know not what it bore of freight or host,

But white it was as an avenging ghost.

It levelled strong Euphrates in its course;

Supreme yet weightless as an idle mote

It seemed to tame the waters without force

Till not a murmur swelled or billow beat:

Lo, as the purple shadow swept the sands,

The prudent crocodile rose on his feet

And shed appropriate tears and wrung his hands.

What can it mean? you ask. I answer not

For meaning, but myself must echo, What?

And tell it as I saw it on the spot.

Shelter From The Storm

This week the theme suits the recent weather and also celebrates the lyrical brilliance of Bob Dylan.

But everyone knows about Dylan’s poetic prowess so I thought it was a good time to remind our writers of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (too late to enter this year, alas). This annual competition award challenges participants, “to write an atrocious opening sentence to a hypothetical bad novel.”

https://www.bulwer-lytton.com/

It takes it’s name from Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose famously purple opening sentence to his novel, Paul Clifford is appropriated by Snoopy in Charles M Shultz’s Peanuts cartoon. Snoopy endlessly tried to write a novel but despite his aspirations to literary greatness, always begins, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Though it has become a joke, the sentence is not too bad in itself. The problem was that Bulwer-Lytton didn’t stop there. Here is the opening sentence in its full glory:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

The challenge laid down by the English department at San Jose State University is to write a similarly grisly opening sentence to an awful imaginary novel. This year the prize was won by Lisa Kluber of San Francisco:

“Her Dear John missive flapped unambiguously in the windy breeze, hanging like a pizza menu on the doorknob of my mind.”

Your prompt this week is not to write the worst opening sentence to an imaginary novel that you can (though you are very welcome to do so if you wish!) But to write something about sheltering while the storm rages about you howling like a banshee…  in other words, an ordinary evening in the Hebrides in Autumn!)

Spencer

Turning Back the Clock

Turning back the Clock

This week’s topic, suggested by Cathy, is “Turning Back the Clock.” I did think about treating you all to another treatise on Marcel Proust’s Modernist masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, as the theme of trying to recapture lost time, famously achieved with the help of a madeleine cake and some lime flower tea (and less famously, with a “little phrase” of music and standing on some uneven paving) has obvious relevance. But I decided against that. The theme is obviously central to Proust but though it provides the spine, so to speak , of the multi-volume work, there is so much else there that tends to be obscured by references to his cake-time continuum.

But mostly because we have not done music for a long time. What? What do you mean “last week”? That was… well, yes, I suppose it was a song but it was from a film.  

And it was in Japanese so it doesn’t count,

Anyway, we haven’t had a proper music topic for a long time and the blog format, if I can get it to work, should lend itself to hosting songs.

So first up is one about turning back time by Johnny Hates Jazz. To be honest, it’s not a favourite but I include it because of its total relevance.

Van Morrison might be a bit controversial given that he has been ranting and singing anti-lockdown stuff recently. But, hey! Anyone who has been looking to Van to be a sensible role model as opposed to a brilliant musician simply hasn’t been paying attention for the last half century or so.  Got to Go Back  is from the brilliant 1986 album, No Guru, No Method, No Preacher.  Morrison muses about his childhood in Belfast while seeming to be returning geographically (from the US?) as well as yearning to go back in time. And perhaps looking to go back to a spiritual home too.

I can’t claim to be a Cher fan but I do love Cyndi Lauper and here she helps Cher out with , If I Could Turn Back Time

The next one is not really about turning back time but repetitive time. My excuse for including it is a)

Cyndi Lauper is brilliant and there wasn’t enough of her in the last video

and b) though you probably know the song you may not have heard Miles Davis’s version of it. And, really, everybody needs to hear the Miles Davis version.

Especially, Johnny Hates Jazz!

Hope you enjoyed the musical interlude. And if you want, as well as writing how about sharing your own favourite time/turning back the clock songs?   You can post your own links, email them to me, or just let me know your choices and I will see if I can find them.

Spencer

Home is Where the Heart Is

I considered some of the many poems (and especially songs) relating to this week’s theme.  Home is a common subject although not always a comfortable one for poets – Christina Rossetti is far from alone in connecting “going home” with death.

Songs about home and going home tend to be more upbeat.  I can’t claim to be a big John Denver fan but I do have a soft spot for Country  Roads (Take Me Home Country Road.)  This is entirely due to the version in the Japanese Studio Ghibli film, Whisper of the Heart and especially its use in the closing credits. I have watched this sequence innumerable times and entreat everyone to watch it right through to the end. It is not exactly literature, being wordless (apart from the song which doesn’t relate directly to the action) but it is storytelling and therefore writing.

The story is simple – just what happens in the evening on a Tokyo street – but to me is absolutely beautifully done.   Overweight salarymen get of their buses, some members of a running club run by.  A girl lets her friends walks on and waits, looks a bit pensive, has she been stood up? No! here comes a boy running, he must have got delayed. They greet each other with a demure Japanese bow and walk off, the boy declaiming about something.

I meant to link the video and beg everyone to watch it but it seems to have vanished from YouTube, so the best I can do is offer this scene in which Shizuku, the young protagonist, sings her version of Country Roads to the accompaniment of Seiji’s violin accompaniment. Violin maker Seiji’s grandfather and his friends steal  in, grab their own instruments, and play along.

I look forward to seeing what our writers make of, “Home is Where the Heart Is.”