Fern Hill – Dylan Thomas

From the Phoenix Poetry 60 paperbacks of 1996 comes this great collection of Dylan Thomas poems featuring most of his most popular works other than ‘Under Milk Wood’ which I have covered in a previous blog back in 2018. There are thirty three poems in the collection including the brilliant ‘Do Not go Gentle into that Good Night’, a refusal to meekly accept death and of course the titular work ‘Fern Hill’ which describes an idyllic childhood, all life is here. What I love about Dylan Thomas is his wonderful sparse descriptive writing epitomised by the first poem in the book ‘Prologue’

This day winding down now
At God speeded summer's end
In the torrent salmon sun,
In my seashaken house
On a breakneck of rocks
Tangled with chirrup and fruit,
Froth, flute, fin, and quill
At a wood's dancing hoof,
By scummed, starfish sands
With their fishwife cross
Gulls, pipers, cockles, and snails,
Out there, crow black, men
Tackled with clouds, who kneel
To the sunset nets,
First 14 lines of Prologue by Dylan Thomas

This small book is an excellent introduction to the works of Thomas who despite being Welsh wrote only in English and the cover illustration is a lovely portrait of him by Augustus John which now hangs in the National Museum of Wales. Despite this being just a short collection it took me several days to read as I kept going back over the poems, savouring the words and pausing over particularly beautiful phrases that caught my imagination. The subject matters are often dark, and death is a frequent topic making him a difficult read at times but well worth persevering with. The powerful verse will pull you in even though I sometimes had to read a poem a few times to fully pick up the rhythm and appreciate it fully before I discovered that as part of his broadcasting career with the BBC a lot of his works are available on youtube being read by him such as this example of Fern Hill.

Sadly Thomas died in 1953 just two weeks after his 39th birthday, primarily from pneumonia although his heavy drinking could not have helped, and with his passing the world was deprived of arguably one of its finest poets who had only just finished his famous play for voices ‘Under Milk Wood’. I want to finish with extracts from the poem that first brought me to Dylan Thomas and which shows the raw power of his verse probably more than any other of his works.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

First three and last four lines of Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas

A Shropshire Lad – A E Housman

I have lived in Shropshire for the past eleven years and have seen copies of A Shropshire Lad numerous times in various bookshops across the county but never bought it. I think mainly because I knew that Housman never visited Shropshire before writing this collection of poems celebrating the county and he only came here briefly after becoming permanently associated in the public’s mind with Shropshire so doubted that he would have much insight into this extremely beautiful part of England. Sure enough whilst reading it became clear that even geographic details, which he gleaned from a tourist guidebook whilst writing the poems in London, were incorrect but the poems are not really about Shropshire anyway but about war and the untimely death of youths both in conflict and otherwise, including suicide. It cannot be described as a cheery read.

Let’s tackle a couple of the poems with more glaring geographic issues first just to get these out of the way, starting with one of the few poems to have a title rather than just a number, XXVIII The Welsh Marches which starts

          High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam
          Islanded in Severn stream;

Well Shrewsbury may be built in a loop of the river Severn but it certainly isn’t on an island, indeed Shrewsbury castle stands guard on the northern side of the river defending the land entrance to the town. The poem continues in it’s fourth verse with

          When Severn down to Buildwas ran
          Coloured with the death of man,

Buildwas is roughly seventeen miles (27½ km) from Shrewsbury and the river has a significant volume by then so there is no way that blood from a Saxon battle, which would have involved hundreds rather than tens of thousands of combatants at that period of history, would still be visible in the water by the time it got there. The most obvious error though is in poem LXI Hughley Steeple, I don’t even need to quote the poem as Hughley church has a timber framed belfry but it certainly doesn’t have a steeple. But that doesn’t stop Housman giving it one with a prominent weather vane on top, which it also doesn’t have.

Ludlow gets mentioned in five of the sixty three poems and Wenlock Edge, which is a nineteen mile (30 km) long escarpment appears twice. Although even in, probably the most famous poem from the set, known as ‘On Wenlock Edge’ although not actually titled, geography isn’t Housman’s strong point as it mentions the Roman city of Uriconium, the ruins of which are fifteen miles (24 km) from Wenlock Edge. But the poem is a really good example of the style of the collection and has been set numerous times to music, most notably by Ralph Vaughan Williams who included other poems from the set as well in his song cycle On Wenlock Edge.

          XXXI

          On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble;
           His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
          The gale, it plies the saplings double,
           And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

          'Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
           When Uricon the city stood:
          'Tis the old wind in the old anger,
           But then it threshed another wood.

          Then, 'twas before my time, the Roman
           At yonder heaving hill would stare:
          The blood that warms an English yeoman,
           The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

          There, like the wind through woods in riot,
           Through him the gale of life blew high;
          The tree of man was never quiet:
           Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.

          The gale, it plies the saplings double,
           It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone:
          To-day the Roman and his trouble
           Are ashes under Uricon.

As said above most of the poems don’t concern Shropshire in particular but rather the perils of war and death. The collection was first published in 1896 but didn’t really start to sell in significant numbers until the start of the Second Boer War and massively rose again during the First World War when the death of young soldiers was so keenly felt across the country. The overall body count across the series of poems is surprisingly high and it is nearly always young men who are speaking from the grave (a common theme of the poems) to those yet to die. I don’t really know what I expected from the poems as I genuinely didn’t know anything about them apart from the title before I came to read the book but I can’t say they particularly appealed to me. There is however a brief glimpse or two of albeit grim humour amongst the largely unrelenting gloom.

          XXVII

          "Is my team ploughing,
           That I was used to drive
          And hear the harness jingle
           When I was man alive?"

          Ay, the horses trample,
           The harness jingles now;
          No change though you lie under
           The land you used to plough.

          "Is football playing
           Along the river shore,
          With lads to chase the leather,
           Now I stand up no more?"

          Ay, the ball is flying,
           The lads play heart and soul;
          The goal stands up, the keeper
           Stands up to keep the goal.

          "Is my girl happy,
           That I thought hard to leave,
          And has she tired of weeping
           As she lies down at eve?"

          Ay, she lies down lightly,
           She lies not down to weep:
          Your girl is well contented.
           Be still, my lad, and sleep.

          "Is my friend hearty,
           Now I am thin and pine,
          And has he found to sleep in
           A better bed than mine?"

          Yes, lad, I lie easy,
           I lie as lads would choose;
          I cheer a dead man's sweetheart,
           Never ask me whose.

My copy is from the 2009 series of twenty books by Penguin called ‘English Journeys’ and I do have the complete set, all of which have very attractive covers. If there is any of these that you would like me to cover in a future blog entry then please send me a comment.

The Knight in Panther Skin – Shota Rustaveli

This prose translation of Rustaveli’s Georgian epic poem from the twelfth century by Katharine Vivian was praised by The Director of the Institute of the History of Georgian Literature in Tibilisi, A G Baramidze, as

an interesting attempt to render Rustaveli’s poem in prose – not to give a literal word by word translation, but rather a free rendering which may bring to the reader the contents of the poem and thus contribute greatly to Rustaveli’s popularity throughout the English-speaking world.

Prefatory note

The poem is seen as one of the greats of Georgian literature and Rustaveli is regarded there in much the same way as Shakespeare is here so it was a surprise on reading it that it doesn’t appear to have any action take place in Georgia. Instead Avtandil and his great love Tinatin are portrayed as coming from Arabia whilst Tariel and his love Nestan-Darejan are Indian. The story concerns how Avtandil and Tariel are separated from the loves of their lives and ultimately win their hands in marriage although in two very different ways. But let us start at the beginning because that is where the story is closest to Georgian history. The first chapters deal with Tinatin being raised to be Queen of Arabia by her father as he steps aside and this mirrors the ascension of Queen Thamar in Georgia who was monarch during Rustaveli’s lifetime and this is still seen as a golden age for Georgia. Avtandil is commander of Tinatin’s army and a favourite of her father Rostevan whilst Queen Thamar’s second husband was a highly successful military commander. From here onwards though the poem leads off on a mythical path.

One day whilst Rostevan and Avtandil were out hunting they see in the distance a knight on a black charger clad in a panther skin and when they get nearer it can be seen that he is weeping. Rostevan dispatches some of the soldiers with them to bring the knight to him but he seeing soldiers approach kills them assuming that they meant him harm. When the king attempts to get near the knight turns his horse and vanishes. Greatly intrigued by this mysterious knight and saddened by the loss of his men Rostevan sends Avtandil on a three year quest to find the knight in the panther skin. Now this is where the tale could have been padded out considerably in describing Avtandil’s journey, and the poem is already 200 pages long, but within a page we find ourselves near the end of the three years and all we are told is that he hadn’t found him, Rustaveli is clearly keen to get to the action.

Finally about to turn back and report failure Avtandil spies his quarry but remembering what happened to the last soldiers he saw approach the knight decides to track him rather than approach directly. He discovers his home in some caves and finally manages to talk to the woman who lives with him and persuades her to get the knight to talk to him. This knight turns out to be Tariel and king of one of the seven kingdoms of India and prospective heir to other six who are all held by one man, he is also maddened by grief. It turns out that he is desperately in love with Nestan-Darejan who is the daughter of the other king and she is in love with him but that he had killed the man who had been arranged to be her husband and fled the country to avoid the repercussions. Nestan-Darejan, once it was discovered that she was in on the plot was exiled in secret and Tariel had been looking for her ever since and this is where the story really begins to pick up.

The tale of how Avtandil returns to Arabia to report finding the knight and then heads back to him against the wishes of Rostevan, thereby making himself an outcast, but he does so in order to aid Tariel find Nestan-Darejan. The great quest he makes in this search (which this time is covered by the poem) and the ultimate success not only in defeating the many enemies he comes up against but also in rescuing her and into the arms of Tariel is the main part of the story. That all ends well for our heroes, including the other characters that assist them greatly is happily the result and the way the story builds in excitement is really well done. Avtandil and Tariel are endowed with mythical abilities in war and either singly or with a few hundred men are capable of taking on foes with considerably greater numbers whilst emerging with at worst a minor injury to themselves. This truly is a tale of the Heroic Age and what would probably have been a daunting read, a 200 hundred page poem is something to take care with, was transformed in Katharine Vivian’s prose to be a romp through a great story. Georgian literature is poorly represented in English translation so I am glad I finally took this book off the shelves.

The book was published by The Folio Society in 1977, unusually by using letterpress, and is bound in Princess Satin cloth with a very attractive device on the cover by Levan Tsutskiridze. Sadly for A G Baramidze’s hopes that this would spread the word about their great epic it was never reprinted and I cannot find Katharine Vivian’s translation being subsequently published by anyone else. In fact this appears to be the only English translation of Rustaveli’s masterwork ever printed in the UK.

Gipsy-night and Other Poems – Robert Hughes

Printed this week in 1922, the year Hughes graduated from Oxford, this was his first book and remarkably it was selected to be only the eighth title printed by what would become recognised as one of the finest Private Press publishers, Golden Cockerel Press. The image above is of the title page as my copy is missing its dust wrapper but that is not surprising in the one hundred years since it was published as the wrapper was quite delicate. Only 750 copies of this book were published by Golden Cockerel and it is one of the just fifteen titles published under its control of the original founder, Harold ‘Hal’ Taylor before his recurrent bouts of tuberculosis which eventually killed him in 1924. Before his death the press was sold to artist and author Robert Gibbings who transformed the business into a publisher of finely illustrated editions and really made the name of Golden Cockerel over the next nine years producing seventy one titles in that period before he too sold the business on. The press went through another couple of owners before ultimately closing down in 1961.

As I said at the beginning Robert Hughes had not been published before this collection but just two years later he was to be commissioned by the BBC to write ‘Danger’ which became the first ever play written specifically for radio broadcast anywhere in the world. In 1929 he also wrote ‘A High Wind in Jamaica’ which was filmed in 1965 starring Anthony Quinn and James Coburn so it’s clear that Hal Taylor had recognised some early talent in this young author. Hughes would later become a good friend of Dylan Thomas and his first book of prose ‘A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Dog’ was written whilst staying with Hughes. But enough of the history behind the press and the author, what of the poems themselves? Well as you would probably expect for a first collection from somebody who was still only twenty one when the book was published it’s a bit of a mixed bag, I tended to prefer the longer pieces, but of the ones that are short enough to include within the blog The Ruin is probably my favourite and gives a good overview of his style.

The Ruin

Gone are the coloured princes, gone echo, gone laughter:
Drips the blank roof: and the moss creeps after.

Dead is the crumbled chimney: all mellowed to rotting
The wall-tints, and the floor-tints, from the spotting
Of the rain, from the wind and slow appetite
Of patient mould: and of the worms that bite
At beauty all their innumerable lives.

—But the sudden nip of knives,
The lady aching for her stiffening lord,
The passionate-fearful bride
And beaded pallor clamped to the torment-board,
—Leave they no ghosts, no memories by the stairs?
No sheeted glimmer treading floorless ways?
No haunting melody of lovers’ airs,
Nor stealthy chill upon the noon of days?
No: for the dead and senseless walls have long forgotten
What passionate hearts beneath the grass lie rotten.

Only from roofs and chimneys pleasantly sliding
Tumbles the rain in the early hours:
Patters its thousand feet on the flowers,
Cools its small grey feet in the grasses.

Hughes doesn’t appear to have published another collection of poetry and apart from his plays wrote four novels although he was working on a fifth, which was supposed to be the final part of a trilogy, at the time of his death in 1976. Gipsy-Night and Other Poems itself is a good example of the work of a Private Press, using handmade paper and high quality letterpress printing and although it is dated the 24th March 1922 that is when printing was completed. The fact that only fifteen titles were published in the first three years gives some idea of the length of time it would take to print and bind the books using a relatively small hand press with often just two people working at a time. It was really a labour of love, Golden Cockerel never made much of a profit and some of the books in the Gibbings era definitely lost money despite their high initial purchase cost.

Love in a Life – Andrew Motion

This is Andrew Motion’s sixth collection of poems and seemed an appropriate read for valentines day. Published by Faber and Faber in 1991, so eight years before he became Poet Laureate, it is a deeply personal selection of poetry largely telling stories from his two marriages (up until then) spread over multiple poems in a series of emerging themes. Again it is a book that has sat on my shelves for many years (presumably thirty as it is the first edition) and remained unopened until yesterday having constantly slipped down the ‘to be read’ pile for various reasons. Having now read it I am forced to wonder why it kept failing to make it to the top until thirty one years after I bought it. This was the first of Motion’s books to be published by Faber and Faber and they have gone on to publish most of his collections of poetry since then.

The wife referred to in the first verse is his second spouse, Jan Dalley, whom he had married in 1985 and had three children with including the twins mentioned, there are also poems referring to his first wife, Joanna Powell, that marriage ended in divorce in 1983. The second verse is considerably more tragic, Motion’s mother had a riding accident in 1969 when he was just seventeen and was in and out of a coma for the next nine years until she died in 1978, there are a few references to her in this collection. My favourite poem in the book is about his time with Joanna Powell and is called Toot Baldon where it is clear that he is still at work on his Masters degree when they married as he refers to himself as Edward Thomas, the poet whose work he analysed for this qualification and who he must have totally immersed himself in to get his MLitt after his first class honours degree from Oxford University.

The poems all have a strong narrative flow, he is definitely telling a story in each example particularly in the poem The Prague Milk Bottle which was written in spring 1989, so just a few months before the Velvet Revolution that saw the freeing of Czechoslovakia from the Soviet block, in this there is a repeated two line stanza

It’s not suppression
It’s humiliation

Those two lines appear four times in the poem and give a powerful tension to the work as he details the woes of living in the country at the end of the communist regime and dedicates the poem to the Czech writer, his friend Ivo Smoldas.

Motion was the first poet to refuse to accept the post Laureate as a life long role and stipulated that he would only take the position for ten years, a situation that the poets that have followed him (Carol Ann Duffy and currently Simon Armitage) have also stuck to. Before him just eighteen people had held the position of Poet Laureate since its creation in 1631.

Poems – St John of the Cross

For this, the 200th post in this blog, I have chosen a Penguin Classic translation of the poetry of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic christian and follower of Teresa of Ávila whose writings have also appeared in the Penguin Classics catalogue. The book is actually rather more than a translation as it is a parallel text edition with the original Spanish text on the left hand pages and the English on the right. Saint John (Juan de la Cruz in Spanish) was a Catholic priest and Carmelite friar involved in setting up religious houses in northern Spain but was also the greatest of the mystic poets in Spanish literature and indeed one of the giants of Spanish literature regardless of style or theme.

However, before discussing the poems, I would like to take a little time over the translator, much as the book does with a preface by his widow Mary Campbell. Roy Campbell was born in South Africa in 1901 and first came to England in 1919 where he met and married Mary in 1922 and they moved back to South Africa in 1925. He worked as an editor on a literary magazine whilst writing poetry but disagreed with the apartheid regime so moved back to London in 1927. On their return to England they fell in with the Bloomsbury Group and Mary started a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West at the same time as Virginia Woolf was also having an affair with Vita. Roy strongly, and reasonably, disapproved of his wife’s affair and to separate Mary and Vita the Campbell’s moved first to Provence and then to Toledo in Spain where Roy Campbell discovered the works of St John of the Cross and the couple converted to Roman Catholicism. It was in Toledo that St John had been imprisoned by rival Carmelite monks opposed to the very strict variant of the calling espoused by Teresa and John, he wrote most of his poems during his confinement. Roy Campbell, by the 1930’s, was becoming a well known poet in his own right and was fascinated by the poems of St John and whats more his heroic poetic style seemed ideally suited to the extant works of St John so he began work on a translation that was finally published by Harvill in 1951 and won the 1952 Foyle Prize. It is this verse translation that is reprinted in the 1960 Penguin first edition that I have, Roy Campbell having died in 1957 hence his widow penning the preface where she completely fails to mention the lesbian affair that took them to Spain in the first place.

The Spanish text is by Padre Silverio de Santa Teresa CD, and first appeared in an UK book in 1933 published by the Liverpool Institute of Hispanic Studies.Roy Campbell has done an excellent job of translating the poems as not only has he translated the text but found English words which allow the lines to largely scan and always rhyme as the originals do. A moments thought would tell you how difficult this is and why many poetry translations don’t attempt this.The longest work is ‘Songs between the soul and the bridegroom’ where the poem is in the form of a conversation between the two parts where God is gradually revealed to be the bridegroom that the soul or bride is conversing with. I really enjoyed this one as there is more time for development of the story within the poem as it goes on for seven pages, most are less than a page and a half and some are simply one verse.

Several of the poems use repetition of the last line of each verse such as ‘Song of the Soul that is Glad to Know God by Faith’ where each verse, apart from the eleventh, ends “Aunque es de noche” (Although it is night) although with this particular poem Campbell varies the last line between “Although by night” and “Though it be night” and I’m not sure why he made the change as reading it with “Although by night” seems to scan perfectly well with each verse. My favourite poem of the collection though is ‘Verses about the soul that suffers with impatience to see God’ and this is another where repetition of the last line of each verse is utilised although this time it is the sense of the last line that is repeated as the words vary between “Am dying that I do not die”, “And die because I do not die”, “The more I live the more must die” etc. culminating in the more hopeful “I live because I’ve ceased to die”.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this volume of poetry as I’m not remotely religious, let alone Catholic, so am clearly not the target audience. I suspect this is partly down to the way religion is handled in English schools where is is taught as a ‘normal’ subject and after all nobody asks you to believe in geography.

Kierkegaard’s Cupboard – Marianne Burton

A collection of poems inspired by the life and works of Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard, what an unusual idea and so it had to be bought and read if only for the concept. What I didn’t expect was just how readable Burton’s poetry is, and how difficult to put the book down proved to be. It is only a slim volume but I read it within a couple of hours of purchasing, this was helped by the fact that each poem is a variation on the sonnet form and at least retains the limit of fourteen lines even if Burton doesn’t keep to iambic pentameter and certainly not to the normal eight line, six line stanzas structure. This made it an ideal book to have with lunch as I could read a poem then have a bite of lunch or a swig of beer whilst thinking about it before diving back in to the next poem; which made for a very enjoyable, and enlightening, hour and a half in a very good pub.

The book is split into six sections, ‘Childhood’, ‘Regine’, ‘Writings’, ‘After the Corsair’, ‘The Moment’, ‘Death’ and there are fifty poems spread through these sections along with one extra right at the front entitled ‘How To Write A Preface’. As stated above all the poems have just fourteen lines but Burton manages to pack a lot into her self imposed constraint and each section has a short biographical note which introduces the poems to come and places their significance in the life of Kierkegaard. ‘Childhood’, ‘Writings’ and ‘Death’ are pretty self explanatory but the others need explaining if, like me, you don’t know much about Kierkegaard. Regine Olson was an eighteen year old whom Kierkegaard was briefly engaged to but he called the engagement off when he realised that marriage was not for him and he could only make her unhappy trapped in a relationship with him. He never got over the loss of her though and had a cupboard which contained all the letters and mementos of their year together and that is what gave this book its title. The Corsair was a Danish satirical magazine which lampooned Kierkegaard not just for his writings and beliefs but also his appearance and the lost relationship with Regine and the resultant publicity made him a figure of fun for a while. ‘The Moment’ refers to a series of tracts by Kierkegaard criticising the Danish Lutheran church. It should be noted here that in the only factual error I have found in the book Burton states that Regine was seventeen when she was engaged to Søren but she was born in January 1822 and they became engaged in September 1840 so she was definitely eighteen, Søren by the way was twenty seven at the time.

A lot of the poems are written in the first person so the book reads as though Kierkegaard himself is talking to us through the medium of verse. Three particularly intriguing poems all have the same title ‘It was Early Morning. Abraham Rose’, these are in ‘The Writings’ section of the book and tell three very different versions of the biblical story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac one after another. Kierkegaard had a strong personal religious belief but an often fractious relationship with the dominant church in Denmark and some of the strongest works in this collection are in ‘The Moment’ where Burton takes on his mantle in a critique of the state run religion and its materialistic clergy. I must look out for Burton’s first collection of poems ‘She Inserts the Key’ as this collection has whetted my appetite for more.

I purchased the book last month during a trip to the small Shropshire town of Bishop’s Castle where there is a quirky shop called Poetry Pharmacy, which mainly sells poetry but also has other interesting books and a small children’s section along with a coffee shop, it’s definitely worth a visit if you ever find yourself deep in rural Shropshire.

The Dutch Riveter : Edition 9 – Edited by West Camel

I picked this up from my local bookshop the other week and have been thoroughly entertained by this selection from modern Dutch writing and amazingly it’s free. This is volume 9 and was launched on the 17th March 2021 via an online event from the British Library. I’d never heard of The Riveter until Megan, the bookshop owner, suggested I might like to read it as she had had some copies dropped off at the shop a few days ago.

The Riveter is a free magazine devoted to riveting European literature in English. The idea is to make international writing popular and accessible to readers everywhere and to celebrate excellent translation and great books from the rest of Europe.

The Riveter was launched in 2017 by the European Literature Network. Professionally edited and published by a small dedicated team, it attracts support from a wide range of publishers, authors, translators, critics, academics – and readers. It has achieved acclaim with its special issues on Polish, Russian, Nordic, Baltic, Swiss, Queer, German, Romanian and Dutch literature in English.

From the website of the publisher https://www.eurolitnetwork.com/the-riveter/

It is mainly available online, follow the link in the citation above, but apparently print copies of the Dutch and Romanian versions are readily available in the UK and as I have greatly enjoyed this very professionally produced little volume, 120 pages, I will definitely be looking out for more as I prefer to read an actual book rather than on a screen. I’ll just pick out a few highlights for me:

Someone Who Means It, by Maartje Wortel. Translated by Sarah Welling and Margie Franzen. This short story, which was first printed in 2015, is appearing for the first time in English translation. It’s eleven pages long so represents almost ten percent of the total book but it’s worth the dominance of space it takes up. It’s a story of love and loss, jealousy and passion beautifully told and definitely makes me want to read more by Maartje.

Herman Kock gets one of the subsections, with an extract from his latest book Finse Dagen (Finnish Days) and a review of the most recent one to be fully translated into English, The Ditch. I quite enjoyed the three page extract from Finnish Days and was pretty convinced I wanted to get a copy of The Ditch whilst reading Max Easterman’s largely positive two page review right up until the excoriating final paragraph

Sadly, as the story progresses, Herman Koch doesn’t manage to meld these various strands into a convincing whole: they just don’t hang together. The analytical insight he brings to Robert Walter’s jealousy is dissipated in the final third of the book. The old prejudices about Sylvia’s unnamed country are laid bare, but in the end, the resolution of the story, in which the significance of the ‘ditch’ becomes clear, doesn’t work for me: it is a dying fall, a whimper, which left me wondering: why?

Well that’s one book that needn’t make it to my to be read pile then.

On the other hand Dutch poetry has a huge amount going for it and is well represented here with a two page introduction, twelve pages of poems and a two page review of a poetry collection. Poetry has to be the hardest style of literature to translate for not only does the translator have to manage the words but the flow of the words has to be right. The choice of poems is well done with a good mix of serious and lighthearted works with for me two stand outs from each of those categories. The excellent ‘My Skin’ by Dean Bowen is crying out to be read aloud, this is performance poetry written down and you can’t help reading it out loud to appreciate the rhythm of the words. on the other hand ‘Pitying the Reader’ by Menno Wigman will make any dedicated reader chuckle as we have all been there. I’ll just include the start of the poem here so you can see what I mean.

A book? From cover to cover? I lack the strength.
Even poetry – just thinking about it –
exhausts me now. I’ve overdosed on poems,
stare blindly at the pages of my books.
For many months I’ve had a reader’s block,

I’ve grown allergic to the alphabet.

The articles by translators on their job and the problems and joys of translating were fascinating, there is so much crammed into this slim volume but now I need more, I will have to see if can get other volumes in the series.

The one criticism I have of this otherwise excellent publication is the choice of a grey font on a grey background for the majority of the pages, this is clearly done for aesthetic reasons rather than for the practical as it makes reading more than a few pages at a time very tiring.

The Flemish section which has a salmon pink background is not much better either.

I’m astigmatic so have enough problems distinguishing between letters without the heavily reduced contrast that this choice by an unthinking design team has come up with. It’s not enough to put me off reading but it is a problem and they really should drop the background shades to improve readability.

In Memoriam A.H.H. – Alfred, Lord Tennyson

By way of complete contrast with last weeks blog on happiness, this week I have read, to give the poem its full title, ‘In Memoriam Arthur H. Hallam’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson which is his long eulogy to his fellow student at Cambridge university who died in 1833 of a brain haemorrhage aged just twenty two. He started writing almost immediately after Hallam’s death and kept adding to the work over the ensuing years until it was finally published in 1850 by which time it had grown to 725 four line verses (2,900 lines in total) split into 131 cantos along with a prologue and epilogue although these first and last blocks of verse were not called that by Tennyson himself but rather have gained those titles over the years. Not only did this, one of Tennyson’s greatest works, finally get published in 1850 but in November that year he became Poet Laureate, a title he held until his death in 1892 the longest time that anyone has held the post.

Although the poem was published in 1850 Tennyson was still not satisfied with it and continued to tinker meaning that there are several versions produced by him over the next forty years and indeed the version included in my copy, and what is now regarded as the definitive version, was the one further amended by his son Hallam Tennyson after the poets death. For such a long poem on such a sad subject it is surprisingly readable once you get into the rhythm of the work. Each of the verses take the rhyming format of A B B A, meaning that the first and fourth lines rhyme as do the second and third, although sometimes the rhyme is rather forced as can be seen in the very first verse of the prologue. The middle lines are fine as they pair ‘face’ with ’embrace’ but lines one and four are rather shaky pairing ‘love’ with ‘prove’, I’m not sure what accent you would need for that to work but it is rather jarring and doesn’t get the work off to a flying start.

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

There is, as you would expect for a Victorian English work of literature, a Christian emphasis to a significant part of the poem, but probably less than you would imagine. Tennyson is far more concerned about getting his feelings, along with those of his sister Emily who was engaged to Arthur Hallam at the time of his death, onto paper than expressing a strong religious position and the work is all the more powerful for it. It includes a very famous quote as the last two lines of canto twenty seven which can be seen in the image below as the third verse on the left hand side.

“Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ actually shows Tennyson starting to come to terms with the loss of his friend and prospective brother in law and contrasts with the last lines of canto one ‘Behold the man who loved and lost, but all he was is overworn’. The rest of the text in the image above is part of the three cantos that deal with the first family Christmas after the death of Arthur Hallam, which eventually has the family able to sing together although somewhat reticently. Canto seventy eight deals with the following Christmas in 1834 where things are somewhat more normal although still strained and later in the poem he also covers the 1837 and 1838 Christmas festivities as he finds greater solace in his faith. The poem ends on a bright note with the marriage of another of his sisters, Cecilia, signifying the gradual coming to terms with loss of his friend.

Another famous line from the poem occurs in canto fifty six “Nature, red in tooth and claw” which came to be associated with the theory of natural selection as set out by Charles Darwin nine years later and indeed some parts of In Memoriam can be read as indicating that Tennyson was at least passingly familiar with the concept even then as he wrestles with his faith in the aftermath of his friends death. The quote isn’t entirely original to Tennyson but this is the first appearance of the full phrase.

My copy of the book is by the Folio Society and was printed in 1975. It is quarter bound in fine grained black leather with olive green cloth boards and printed on Abbey Mills antique laid paper which makes the whole book lovely to handle and a pleasure to read. The headings to the cantos are particularly attractive and the Bulmer typeface chosen for the text is very clear. It is pretty easy to get hold of this edition, at the time of writing there were four copies available on abebooks starting at just £6.60 plus postage. I probably still wouldn’t have picked it off the shelf if I hadn’t been in lock down due to coronavirus as a poem of almost three thousand lines is rather daunting, especially given the subject matter but it is definitely worth a read.

Come Close – Sappho

Sappho died over 2,500 years ago and in the intervening millennia almost all of her poetry has been lost. That she was highly regarded in her time can be seen from contemporaneous sources some of which regard her as the tenth muse ranking her amongst the gods themselves. But sadly she was neglected during the medieval period possibly due to the interpretation of the subject matter of much of her verse which didn’t fit into the strict moral compass of the catholic church and it was the church which performed much of the transcription from ancient texts to works that have lasted into our modern era. However excavations have uncovered fragments of her work even as recently as the last decade and we now have 650 lines of the estimated over 10000 she wrote. Apparently there were nine papyrus rolls of Sappho’s works held in the great library of Alexandria, the first one alone represented twice as much verse as we have available in the present day but those would have been lost in the fire and subsequent neglect whilst controlled by the Roman empire. That this book has roughly 450 lines makes it a positive bargain as it only cost 80p when first published in 2015 and now retails at £2 but still as it represents over two thirds of her extant output this is still money well spent. It is taken from the 2009 Penguin Classic book ‘Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments’ translated by Aaron Poochigian and simply collates the poems without any biographical information or analysis of the works which is the feature of the longer book.

Sappho wrote mainly lyric poetry, that is words designed to be accompanied by music, not songs as such but embellished by a tune, they tend to be in praise of heroic deeds of men and gods along with love songs praising a partner, or potential partner. It is her love poetry that is most famous and was most admired in antiquity but it is the belief that it specifically praises love of a woman for another woman that has given us the word sapphic for women attracted to women and also from her nationality as a resident of the Greek island Lesbos the word lesbian. Having said that this is not a collection of erotic verse, far from it, the lines are expected to be performed, these are expressions of love but nothing more explicit and make for a pleasant afternoon’s reading. It should be borne in mind as well that for the most part these are just fragments of poems, only two works are believed to be complete, so there may be much context that is lost. However I am in danger of writing a review that is longer than the entire book I have just read so let me finish with all we have left of one of the poems.

Stand and face me, dear; release
That fineness in your irises

May you bed down,
Head to breast, upon
The flesh
Of a plush
Companion