Erasmus Darwin by Desmond King-Hele

This is a biography of Charles Darwin’s grandfather. He was a doctor by trade, and one of the most highly rated in the country, but was one of those classic Enlightenment figures whose interests included botany, meteorology, physics, chemistry, engineering, philosophy and just about anything else that came his way. And for a few years he was the most successful and critically acclaimed poet in England.

He seems to have been effortlessly brilliant at everything; the list of inventions and discoveries which can be attributed to him is startling. The inventions include: an improved steering system for carriages, a machine for writing in duplicate, a temperature-regulated system for opening and closing the windows of a greenhouse, a machine that reproduced human speech, an artificial bird, an improved seed-drill, the gas turbine, the rocket motor, cataract surgery and the canal lift. Scientific principles include: the ideal gas law, the chemical composition of water, the structure of the atmosphere, the formation of clouds, the artesian well, and of course evolution.


Even so, there’s a touch of defiance in the book’s full title: Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unequalled Achievement. That’s because almost everything on that list comes with a caveat of one kind or another. For example, many of them are based on a few lines or a quick sketch appearing in his Commonplace Book or in one of his letters; and while it’s undoubtedly takes a remarkably inventive mind to come up with the principle for the gas turbine a hundred years ahead of its time, if it never gets beyond a quick scribble it’s a very limited achievement. Another example is his improved steering system, which worked by just angling the wheels left and right instead of turning the whole axle. This creates a much more stable carriage and is the principle used by all modern cars. Darwin built a carriage on this model, and used it successfully for decades going over thousands of miles of bumpy roads to visit his patients; but he never made a real effort to market the idea and it died with him.

Which isn’t to say he had nothing to show for his scientific brilliance. He submitted quite a few papers to the Royal Society on subjects like meteorology and geology; he did the first English translation of Linnaeus, and wrote a major book on medicine. But there is no one major achievement you can attach his name to. Partly that’s because he was a very hard-working doctor. Not only did it take up a lot of time; he was also very worried about his professional reputation. Much of his work was published anonymously because he didn’t want to detract from that reputation, and the biggest single factor that prevented him from achieving more as a scientist was probably that he always put his career first.

And when he did commit to major works he didn’t always make the best choices. His translation of Linnaeus’s botanical taxonomy was drudgery really, the scientific equivalent of translating a phonebook, even if it did add a few words to the English language, like bract, floret and leaflet. And his major work on medicine doesn’t hold up at all because, frankly, no-one at the time knew enough about the workings of the human body. No-one knew about germs, microscopes had been invented but weren’t really used, and they had very few treatments that did any good, so they just gave everyone lots of opium.

opium poppy

Comparisons between Erasmus and Charles are inevitable, and it’s tempting to put the difference between them down to personality: to suggest that Charles was less brilliant but made up for it with dogged single-mindedness. Personally I think the financial aspect is just as important. Erasmus and his son Robert were both highly successful doctors and Robert also had a very good eye for investments, with the result that Charles was a wealthy man. If Erasmus hadn’t had to work, who knows what he would have achieved. His medical practice certainly proves he was capable of hard work; his calculations suggest he travelled about 10,000 miles a year, which on C18th roads is a hell of a long way.

I find the poetry the most interesting thing, though. Science is not a subject that has often been successfully treated in poetry, so someone like Erasmus Darwin writing poems about science is really intriguing. If you have an interest in science and poetry, it’s always fun when the two overlap, as with the reference to Galileo in Paradise Lost. But it’s rare to have poetry written by someone right at the heart of the scientific culture. Darwin’s friends and correspondents include people like Joseph Priestley, Joseph Banks, Benjamin Franklin, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton and Richard Arkwright. He writes about science and technology as a complete insider. And for a few years he was very successful and critically acclaimed, before being left behind by a shift in fashion—he represents everything Coleridge and Wordsworth were reacting against—and in politics. As the French Revolution turned bad, his radical views became a public liability.

detail of Gillray cartoon, tree of liberty

So I find the idea of Darwin’s poetry fascinating. I’m undecided about the poetry itself. All the mythological trappings seem so unnecessary, and the ornate style can border on self-parody; one of his particular quirks is phrases like this:

Swords clash with swords, on horses horses rush,
Man tramples man, and nations nations crush

Still, I love the very fact that he’s applying this high style to such non-literary subject matter. In another poem, someone might only apply this kind of language to a subject like a tadpole to make a joke out of the incongruity. Darwin did have a sense of humour, and if not actually tongue-in-cheek, I think the poems are intended to have a fairly light touch; but he seems to be trying to communicate a real fascination and beauty he finds in nature, as in this passage where he is invoking tadpoles and mosquitos as a comparison with life emerging from the sea:

So still the Tadpole cleaves the watery vale
With balanc’d fins, and undulating tail;
New lungs and limbs proclaim his second birth,
Breathe the dry air, and bound upon the earth.
So from deep lakes the dread Musquito springs,
Drinks the soft breeze, and dries his tender wings,
In twinkling squadrons cuts his airy way,
Dips his red trunk in blood, and man his prey.

Is that good poetry? Maybe not. Maybe the style is just a distraction. On the other hand I think you can pick out passages which are more successful, like this:

“Yes! smiling Flora drives her armed car
Through the thick ranks of vegetable war;
Herb, shrub, and tree, with strong emotions rise
For light and air, and battle in the skies;
Whose roots diverging with opposing toil
Contend below for moisture and for soil;
Round the tall Elm the flattering Ivies bend,
And strangle, as they clasp, their struggling friend;
Envenom’d dews from Mancinella flow,
And scald with caustic touch the tribes below;
Dense shadowy leaves on stems aspiring borne
With blight and mildew thin the realms of corn;
And insect hordes with restless tooth devour
The unfolded bud, and pierce the ravell’d flower.

“In ocean’s pearly haunts, the waves beneath
Sits the grim monarch of insatiate Death;
The shark rapacious with descending blow
Darts on the scaly brood, that swims below;
The crawling crocodiles, beneath that move,
Arrest with rising jaw the tribes above;
With monstrous gape sepulchral whales devour
Shoals at a gulp, a million in an hour.
— Air, earth, and ocean, to astonish’d day
One scene of blood, one mighty tomb display!
From Hunger’s arm the shafts of Death are hurl’d,
And one great Slaughter-house the warring world!

I find that to be a strong piece of writing and a striking vision of violent nature. It’s from Canto IV of The Temple of Nature, where Darwin comes within a whisker of stating the principle of natural selection. Here’s another bit from later in the same canto:

“HENCE when a Monarch or a mushroom dies,
Awhile extinct the organic matter lies;
But, as a few short hours or years revolve,
Alchemic powers the changing mass dissolve;
Born to new life unnumber’d insects pant,
New buds surround the microscopic plant;
Whose embryon senses, and unwearied frames,
Feel finer goads, and blush with purer flames;
Renascent joys from irritation spring,
Stretch the long root, or wave the aurelian wing.

“When thus a squadron or an army yields,
And festering carnage loads the waves or fields;
When few from famines or from plagues survive,
Or earthquakes swallow half a realm alive; —
While Nature sinks in Time’s destructive storms,
The wrecks of Death are but a change of forms;
Emerging matter from the grave returns,
Feels new desires, with new sensations burns;
With youth’s first bloom a finer sense acquires,
And Loves and Pleasures fan the rising fires. —
Thus sainted PAUL, “O Death!” exulting cries,
‘Where is thy sting? O Grave! thy victories?’

I love the cheeky jabs at both royalty and religion; firstly in lumping together a monarch and a mushroom as comparable lumps of organic matter, and then the way he implies that acting as compost for plants and food for insects is what St Paul had in mind with ‘Oh Death! Where is thy sting?’ But there is also a kind of slightly nutty grandeur to the poetry.

Some bits of his poems hold up better than others, both scientifically and aesthetically. But I think the best of it is good enough to be worth reading, particularly because the subject matter makes it so unique.

» passages from The Temple of Nature are taken from this site where you can read it in full. The picture of a rocket is by jurvetson on Flickr and is used under an attribution CC licence. The opium poppy is from a C19th German herbal and is used courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden at under a by-nc Creative Commons licence. The hat is a detail of a Gillray cartoon, the Tree of Liberty, from a page of cartoons from the period at the University of Lancaster.

Welcome to a Golden Age

Apparently someone has declared that poetry is dead again. Or still dead.

As a critical stance this lacks originality, but never mind. I’m just surprised anyone thinks they can tell. Looking back at the canon, the total difference between a Golden Age Of Poetry and a leaden one is two or three great poets who happen to live at the same time. And if you think you can tell whether any of the dozens of good poets currently writing will be regarded as great in 50 years time, let alone 100: you’re kidding yourself. Even if none of the established names make the cut, those three poets might be starting their careers somewhere right now. Perhaps they are recent graduates of one of those MFA programs that always seem to be one of the targets of these essays.

Anglo-Saxon names

Teju has a couple of great posts about names and what they mean (1, 2), specifically relating to Yoruba. Which set me thinking about Anglo-Saxon naming.

bit of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle

I have no idea exactly what relationship the Saxons had with their names, and I don’t know what academic work has been done on it—I’m just going on the impression I get from the names themselves—but the names are often easily parseable into combinations of words. Rather than take them from a literary source like Beowulf, here’s a list of names found in a poem which was about fairly contemporary events, The Battle of Maldon. The spellings are adapted somewhat to be closer to modern English pronunciation; i.e. ‘Æscferð’ becomes ‘Ashferth’, ‘Æþeric’ becomes ‘Atherich’.

Offa, Eadrich, Byrhtnoth, Athelred, Wulfstan, Ceola, Maccus, Alfere, Byrhtelm, Wulfmar, Alfnoth, Godrich, Godwin, Godwig, Alfwin, Alfrich, Ealhelm, Leofsunu, Dunnere, Edglaf, Ashferth, Atherich, Sibirht, Gad, Wistan, Thurstan, Wigelm, Oswold, Eadwold, Athelgar.

Now if I say that athel* means ‘noble’ and gar means ‘spear’, it looks an awful lot like ‘Athelgar’ means ‘noble spear’. Here are some other bits of A-S vocab so you can pay along at home:

ash – ash (the type of tree)
byrht – bright
ead – rich, blessed, happy
edg – edge, sword
ferth – soul, spirit, mind
god – good, God
helm – helmet
leof – desirable, pleasant, loved, a friend, a loved one
laf – what is left, remnant
noth – boldness
rich – power or powerful
sunu – son
stan – stone
wulf – wolf

So what happened to all these meaning-full names? Well, the Norman Conquest, basically. Skip forward a couple of centuries and despite English remaining in continuous use, very few of the old English names hung around. A few, mainly associated with saints and kings, are used to this day: Alfred, Edward, Edmund, Harold and Oswald must be the most common, but you occasionally meet a Godwin, Cuthbert or Dunstan.

By the 16th century, about 30% of men were called John, with another 40% called Thomas, William, Richard or Robert. And I believe they were generally named after their godparent, so there wasn’t much room for creativity there. And of the top 50 mens’ names from the 1560s and 1570s on this page, only two, Edward and Edmund, are of English origin rather than French or biblical.

Actually, it’s quite interesting that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t use Bible names; they’d been Christian for several hundred years by the time of the Battle of Maldon.

I doubt if we’re going to have a revival of these names any time soon; most of them sound distinctly harsh to the modern ear. I rather like Ælfric (i.e. Alfrich); apart from the sound of it, there was a man called Ælfric who was a grammarian, translator and hagiographer. According to Bosworth and Toller, ælf is ‘elf, genius, incubus’, so ‘Aelfric’ must be something like ‘elf-power’. Powered by elves? With the power of an elf?

And since ræd means ‘advice, counsel’, Alfred means ‘elf-advised’. That’s the joke in the name Ethelred the Unready, of course. He was Æthelræd Unræd— his name, Æthelræd, means ‘advised by princes’ or ‘noble advice’ and unræd means ‘ill-advised’. So called because it was on his watch that the Danes took over half of England.

*again, strictly speaking that would be æðel. I’m not going to footnote my spelling every time, but similar tweaks apply throughout.

Poetry and ‘truth’

It’s Poetry Thursday, and I don’t feel like writing a poem after napowrimo. Instead, some thoughts about poetry and ‘truth’. It always used to annoy the hell out of me when I heard people suggest that poetry—or more generally literature, or art—was somehow a search for truth, or that the success of a piece of art could be measured in terms of its truth.

That’s because most poetry isn’t ‘true’ in the normal sense of the word. I know this is shockingly reductive and literal-minded of me, but there wasn’t actually a woman called Arachne who had a weaving competition with the goddess Athena and was turned into a spider. So using the ‘truth’ criterion, Ovid’s Metamorphoses must be a failure as art. And it’s not just Greek myths; a large proportion of poems, even the naturalistic ones, describe things that didn’t actually happen, or didn’t happen exactly the way the poem says they did.

Wryneck 2, originally uploaded by Jen the wren.

Yes, I know; that most basic kind of ‘truth’ isn’t what people mean. And obviously it’s reasonable that they should apply the word in some kind of specialized sense to mean something slightly different; but it’s very hard to get anyone to pin down exactly what they do mean. It never seemed very productive, explaining what poetry is by invoking a common word to mean something vaguely and indefinably other than what it normally means.

It was frustration at that kind of waffly, hand-wavy traditional approach to the questions of what literature is, and how it works, that lead me to take a course in critical theory when I was at university, in the hope that one of those philosophers or theorists would have come up with a more rigorous and precise language for discussing literature. Instead I just encountered a whole different set of irritatingly bad arguments which I was equally impatient with.

But recently, and somewhat reluctantly, I’ve become more sympathetic to the idea of poetic ‘truth’. And that’s because sometimes, when I’m trying to write a poem, I’ll come up with, let’s say, an ending for a poem; and it’s the best I’ve got, and it works as a way of ending the poem, and I may settle on it, but it just niggles away at me because in some indefinable way it’s not right. Not that there’s anything technically wrong with it, but in some way it’s just not [something]. And the best word I can come up with to end that sentence is ‘true’.

Wryneck, Sheringham (Norfolk), 1-May-04, originally uploaded by Dave Appleton.

So what do I mean when I say that? Well, that’s the difficulty. I spent some time thinking about it while I was looking for wrynecks on Crete, and came up with all sorts of shades of meaning for ‘true’; ways that something can be ‘true’ without being an accurate account of a specific thing that happened. It can be true to the way the universe works, or how the poet sees the universe, or to the kind of universe the writer wants to project in the poem; or say something true via a metaphor, or accurately convey what the poet wants it to convey. And to get into even murkier waters, it can be morally true or emotionally true, although I’m not sure those concepts are much more informative than ‘poetic truth’ was in the first place. And, to quote myself, it can be ‘true, not like an axiom, but like a bell’; soundly constructed so that all the parts work together as a greater whole. And all these overlapping kinds of truth seem relevant without any of them being the answer.

All of which seems frustratingly inadequate. Perhaps the problem is that one word is being made to do too much work; that we need not one alternative word but several. Or perhaps the traditional tools of philosophy are inadequate, and if we are ever going to gain a deeper understanding of how poetry works it will be from a deeper understanding of how the brain works, and not from worrying away at definitions of truth. And perhaps my time would be more productively spent reading and writing poetry anyway.

Napowrimo: consider yourself warned

If you started reading this blog in the past 11 months, you may not know about Napowrimo. Napowrimo is modelled on Nanowrimo—National novel-writing month—a scheme which encourages people to try to write a novel (or at least 50,000 words) in the month of November. Napowrimo is national poetry-writing month, and the target is a poem a day for 30 days; in April because April is National Poetry Month in the US. And yes, the ‘national’ part of the name is a bit of a misnomer; blame whichever short-sighted person came up with the name for nanowrimo. I’m occasionally tempted to refer to it as wopowrimo or glopowrimo, but I think the name has pretty much stuck now.

Which means that this blog is going to be taken over with poems for a month. I can tell you now that many of them will be truly awful. Sorry about that. I’ll probably write the occasional non-poem post as well, but if you really can’t stand slapdash amateur poetry, you might want to avert your gaze until May.

There’s no convenient central napowrimo website as there is for nanowrimo. The idea was invented by Reen, who was the first ever napowrimo-er back in 2002. I introduced the idea to PFFA in 2005, so this will be my third year. I reckon in 2005 I produced some quite good poems, like this one, this one and this one. Last year I was much less pleased with my output and I didn’t manage the 30 poems anyway. So my target is to improve on last year. In the meantime, here’s a picture of a fluffy kitten:

Max, originally uploaded by Tante Bluhme’s.

Wish me luck.

More crakery from the canon

I didn’t want my post on rails and crakes to suffer from poetry bloat, so I didn’t quote it before, but John Clare isn’t the only Dead Famous English Poet who mentioned corncrakes in a poem.

This is the mowing scene from Upon Appleton House, to My Lord Fairfax by Andrew Marvell. I went through modernising the spelling and capitalisation, because frankly I can’t see any advantage to keeping it old-school, so if I’ve missed anything, my apologies:

And now to the abyss I pass
Of that unfathomable grass,
Where men like grasshoppers appear,
But grasshoppers are giants there:
They, in their squeaking laugh, contemn
Us as we walk more low then them:
And, from the precipices tall
Of the green spires, to us do call.

To see men through this meadow dive,
We wonder how they rise alive.
As, under water, none does know
Whether he fall through it or go.
But, as the mariners that sound,
And show upon their lead the ground,
They bring up flowers so to be seen,
And prove they’ve at the bottom been.

No scene that turns with engines strange
Does oftener then these meadows change,
For when the sun the grass hath vexed,
The tawny mowers enter next;
Who seem like Israelites to be,
Walking on foot through a green sea.
To them the grassy deeps divide,
And crowd a lane to either side.

With whistling scythe, and elbow strong,
These massacre the grass along:
While one, unknowing, carves the rail,
Whose yet unfeathered quills her fail.
The edge all bloody from its breast
He draws, and does his stroke detest;
Fearing the flesh untimely mowed
To him a fate as black forebode.

But bloody Thestylis, that waits
To bring the mowing camp their cates,
Greedy as kites has trussed it up,
And forthwith means on it to sup:
When on another quick she lights,
And cries, “he called us Israelites;
But now, to make his saying true,
Rails rain for quails, for manna dew.”

Unhappy birds! what does it boot
To build below the grasses’ root;
When lowness is unsafe as height,
And chance overtakes what scapeth spite?
And now your orphan parents call
Sounds your untimely funeral.
Death-trumpets creak in such a note,
And ’tis the sourdine in their throat.

I think it calls for a couple of  vocabulary notes. The ‘scene that turns with engines strange‘ is a reference to stage machinery in the theatre; ‘Thestylis’ is a poeticism for a female mower; ‘cates’ are delicacies, and ‘sourdine’ is some kind of musical instrument. The dictionary can’t decide whether it’s a miniature violin or a woodwind of some kind, but presumably it’s a reference to the distinctive sound made by the corncrake.

I think this passage is a fair illustration of what a magnificently odd poem Upon Appleton House  really is. Especially since the genre—a poem about a country estate designed to flatter its powerful owner and his family—seems so doomed to the formulaic. Perhaps he felt that the more remarkable the poem, the more effective the flattery. Or perhaps he was just enjoying himself. Or showing off.

Not all of this conspicuous ingenuity is equally successful, but sometimes it’s remarkable; the image of men bringing up flowers to prove they’ve sounded the depths of the grass is a brilliant way of making a relatively obvious comparison vivid and memorable. And the bit where Thestylis breaks out of character by commenting on something he’s just said is so unexpected. I can’t decide whether I think it’s effective as a literary device, but it’s certainly surprising in a C17th poem.

It’s good to be reminded occasionally that ingenious, peculiar, unconventional, clever-clever poetry isn’t just the preserve of Modernism.

Fave books of 2006

It’s end-of-year list time. These weren’t all first published this year, and I daresay I’ve forgotten some, but they are at least all books I’d recommend. In no particular order:

Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama.

I blogged about this before. Simon is a serious historian (rather than, say, a journalist who writes occasional books) who writes brilliantly and is a firm believer in the virtues of a narrative approach to history. So I think he’s usually worth checking out. In this case I think he does a really good job telling the life of Rembrandt and establishing it in context. As a bonus, the book is full of gorgeous glossy plates of the paintings — it would almost be worth buying for the pictures alone.

Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin.

Another one I blogged about earlier. I’ll just quote some of what I said then: “Oliver Sacks fans will remember Temple Grandin as the autistic slaughterhouse designer in An Anthropologist on Mars. She has a particular affinity with animals and has used her talent for understanding them to help her design corrals, feedlots and slaughterhouses which are less stressful for the animals. The subtitle of Animals in Translation is ‘Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior’. Grandin uses her insights as an autistic person to help explain how animals behave and in the process explores the nature of autism itself.”

A Social History of English Cricket by Derek Birley.

The title is an accurate description of the book. On the basis that everything people do is shaped by their times, I guess you could write a social history of English anything – theatre, banking, food – and there would be plenty of subject matter. But cricket does seem especially appropriate, and not just because it’s a stereotypically English pursuit.

The reason cricket neatly brings out some of the tensions in English society is that cricket was the one sport that attempted to combine amateurs and professionals. Of the other English sports, football quickly became a commercial activity, played and watched by mainly working-class men in professional leagues dominated by the great industrial cities. Rugby split into two sports: Rugby League (professional, working class) and Rugby Union (amateur, middle class). But cricket rose to prominence in the gambling culture of the C18th with aristocrats fielding teams against each other for high stakes, and the teams would include talented men from their estates or the local villages – grooms and blacksmiths and so on – who were paid to play. So from the beginning there was a culture of gentlemen amateurs and working class pros in the same team. Given the class-riddled state of English society for most of the past 250 years, a staggering amount of hypocrisy and doublethink was the result.

Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl by Wendy Jones.

The memoirs of the Turner Prize winning potter. I blogged about this before here and here.

Lorca: A Dream of Life by Leslie Stainton.

A well-written biography of an interesting man I didn’t know much about before. Being a gay socialist modernist poet from one of the most conservative regions of Spain in the 1920s and 30s didn’t exactly make Lorca’s life easy. But it does make for an involving story. The poetry was interesting too, though it’s the kind of work that leaves you wondering how much you’re missing in translation.

The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

A book about cooking meat which combines practical information — the various cuts, how to choose the best meat and the underlying principles of different cooking methods — with information about different meat production methods and labelling schemes and a thoughtful consideration of the ethical aspects of buying and eating meat. And indeed a lot of recipes and a list of high-quality meat suppliers. A rare example of a food book which manages to be much more than just a list of recipes.

And finally, a book which I didn’t buy or read for the first time this year but deserves a plug – the Collins Bird Guide (to the birds of Britain and Europe) by Lars Svensson, Peter J. Grant, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom. I’ve had the book for a bit, but I was struck again by how good it is when I was in Spain this year. You never quite know how good a field guide is until you use it, and this one seems to consistently provide the right information to allow you identify the bird you’re looking at. The illustrations are excellent and the text is thorough and lucid. I’ve used plenty of different field guides over the years, of insects and flowers and birds from different parts of the world. This is certainly the best of them.

The market value of a poem

If poems were not easily reproduced — if, as with paintings, owning a copy of a poem was obviously a poor alternative to owning the original — how much would an original Armitage sell for? A Larkin? An Eliot? A Marvell?

Shelley the lost Victorian

Well, I’ve finished Richard Holmes’s Shelley:The Pursuit. I didn’t find it as gripping as his superb biography of Coleridge, but it became more enjoyable as it went along. Mainly, I think, because Shelley became much more likeable as he matured personally, politically and poetically. Not that he became less radical, or completely lost the restlessness that tended towards recklessness, but he did become a good deal more nuanced and thoughtful. And what one particularly looks for in a poet – his poetry got much better. He’s never going to be one of my favourite poets, but I’m more positively inclined towards his work now than before I read the book.

An odd fact about the five major English Romantic poets: their lifespans were nested inside each other like a set of Russian dolls. Keats was born last and died first; Shelley was a little older and died shortly after him, and so on through Byron and Coleridge to Wordsworth, born way back in 1770 and going on to outlive them all.

The deaths of Keats, Shelley and Byron really do create an extraordinary discontinuity in English poetry. Not just in terms of the poetry they might have written – if Coleridge and Wordsworth are anything to go by, their later work might not have been very exciting – but just as part of the normal progression of generations of influence. Who knows how Browning’s poetry might have been affected if instead of Shelley the idealised poet, he’d had a chance to meet Shelley the neurotic radical.

It also mires a group of poets in the Regency who, by rights, ought to have been Victorians. The would have been getting on a bit by the time of many of the landmarks of High Victorianism; even Keats would have been 64 when The Origin of Species was published in 1859. Byron would be 73, assuming that he hadn’t died of syphilis or liver failure. But by that time they’d have lived through the coming of the railways, the full impact of the Industrial Revolution, the 1832 Reform Act, the abolition of slavery, the Irish potato famine, the publication of the Communist Manifesto, the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. Shelley would certainly have had a few opinions.

I suppose they might have been less influential if they were still alive. In the increasingly stern moral climate of the time, it might have been more difficult for people to see past the unconventional lifestyles of Byron and Shelley if they were sill alive and racketing about in Italy. There’s a fascinating comment I read once, which I think came from the letters of Fanny Burney, although Google isn’t helping me. She is returning someone’s copy of Oroonoko, which she found too indecent to read. She comments how strange it is that she should find herself unable to read a book in the privacy of her own room which she had heard in her youth being read aloud at polite parties. Perhaps Byron and Shelley would have inevitably changed with the times in the same way; perhaps they would have become increasingly embarrassing relics.

The titling of poetry journals

Why is it that almost every poetry journal in existence is titled according to one of two models?

The [placename] [publication]


[catchy, non-poetry-related noun]

Surely the language allows other possibilities?

Shelley update

I’m still reading the Shelley biography. Remarkably, his personal life seems to have stabilised somewhat, I suspect mainly because his grandfather died and so, while the exact terms of the legacy are still with the lawyers, he’s not actually having to hide from the bailiffs any more.

The chances of his life running smooth are reduced by the fact that, as well as being atheist, vegetarian, republican and probably revolutionary, he’s a believer in free love of a rather high-minded sort. So the second wife in succession has had to deal with him being keen to share her with his friends. And what she seemed to find even more difficult, it rather looks like she was having to share him with her sister. The exact details are a bit conjectural because apparently there are lots of diary entries torn out from the relevant period.

It’s like Hello! for people who can’t bring themselves to read the real thing. Though I don’t suppose Jude Law’s love notes to Sienna Miller are couched in terms of high-flown philosophy.

Shellier than thou

I didn’t mention in the last post that, as well as the two elopements, Shelley has been shot at by a Welsh ghost, is under observation by the government because of his seditious publications, and is going extravagantly into debt in expectation of an inheritance from a family which has disowned him.

Was there ever a time when I would have found all this romantic? Reading it now it just seems like complete car-crash biography.

Shelley, Shellier, Shelliest.

I’m reading a biography of Percy Bysshe. An interesting and talented man, but perhaps just a wee bit erratic; he’s just eloped for the second time, abandoning his first wife and their new child in order to run off with a 16-year-old. And her sister. And he’s still only 21.

Stereotyping, cultural appropriation and such

Alan Sullivan has posted a poem called Long Bay Jump, both to his blog and to Erato, which is in a West Indian voice. It starts:

Sun drop down with a flash of green.
Moon lift up, and the palm tree lean.

Jack fish bake in banana wrap.
Pi-dog snatch all the table scrap.

Ganja and rum, ganja and rum–
Long Bay jump ’til the morning come.

Not surprisingly, some people were uneasy with it. Or, as Alan put it:

I posted this reggae-style lyric at Eratosphere today and got a face full of PC, just as I expected.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read the whole thread at Erato because, well, other people’s pissing matches get dull fairly quickly. But I was somewhat struck with this comment:

Although I can see why someone might be offended by the association of a whole group of people with ‘ganja’ and a careless demeanor, the practice of friendly caricature is generally accepted. No one would bat an eye at a poem that portrayed a British man with a cup of tea in one hand, a cane in the other, and a ‘Jolly good day’. No one would be shocked at a poem about a racist Southerner who irresponsibly uses Biblical quotations to justify cruelty — a far more offensive caricature, in my opinion, because it is a negative and unsympathetic stereotype. No one would even blink at a poem about fat and boisterous Americans visiting foreign nations. So what’s wrong with a friendly caricature of a non-white group of non-European descent?

Nothing, in my opinion.

Now there are various cans of worms there which I think I’ll leave unopened, and just comment on the bit which jumped out at me. “No one would bat an eye at a poem that portrayed a British man with a cup of tea in one hand, a cane in the other, and a ‘Jolly good day’.” Umm, well actually, speaking as an Englishman, that would annoy the fuck out of me. It’s outdated, inaccurate and patronising. So I guess that’s one point – you may not be as good a judge as you think of whether a caricature comes across as ‘friendly’.

I’m not going to try to judge how Alan’s poem would come across to someone from the BVI . But actually it makes me uneasy without having an opinion about whether it’s inaccurate and/or insulting.

It’s not the fact that it’s ventriloquising a West Indian voice, although that’s certainly relevant. Nor is it related to post-colonialism or the legacy of slavery or any other specific political issue associated with the region, though those are also relevant. It’s that it’s a stereotype. Not just a stereotype, but the stereotype of the Caribbean – rum, ganja, palm trees and music. Alan says, in response to some of the comments:

I tried to avoid a POV in the poem. It bears witness. It does not judge. Every detail is true, and known to me at first hand.

I have no doubt that every detail is true. And yet somehow all they manage to add up to is the obvious stereotype. That’s the thing about stereotypes – they usually have some basis in truth. There really are effeminate gay man and Nigerian con artists. The reason stereotypes are insidious is precisely that they are somewhat true; that you can look at the person and just see the stereotype. It’s a short-circuiting of thought.

I think I’d have been happier if he had offered a POV, if he had judged. That would at least be an explicit attempt to engage with the culture. Attempting to neutrally portray a culture which is not your own strikes me as fraught with difficulty, not from any kind of cultural relativism but because the perspective of the visitor is so partial.

This is perhaps an over-analysis of a light poem that doesn’t seem to be attempting much more than local colour. I just wanted to try to articulate my sense of unease.

Yet another quick sonnet

I don’t know why I’m posting these really. Certainly not because I claim any merit for them. Still, as with NaPoWriMo, the exercise of writing to a time limit is quite interesting, I think. The need to get something written makes you work with material that, rightly or not, you would normally have rejected out of hand. And the poems have a habit of wriggling away from you in the process of being written.

Writing poetry is always a kind of negotiation – between what you intended to write about, what you can get to work as poetry, and what emerges in the process of writing. Speed-writing just exaggerates that process and leaves it undigested on the page.

It doesn’t help that I’m out of practice. I’m sure if wrote a quick sonnet every day for a fortnight they’d start getting a bit slicker. This one took me 25 minutes. I made a point of doing it in (almost entirely) proper IP this time.

Somewhere a man is lying on a bank
of grass, watching the swallows overhead.
All he can see is blue; the green and dank
entangled grass and thistles round his head
cannot impinge upon his dreams of flight.
He thinks of nothing, but simply follows
the swoop and flicker, finds himself as light
and dancing as the flightpaths of the swallows.

It tempts, that casual riding of the air,
it seems to hint at better ways of being;
we want to know that simple empty grace.
But still, remember if you stop and stare;
to see just one thing is to be unseeing.
We need to feel the thistles at our face.

Another quick sonnet

Down to 12 minutes, this time.

They sing of eels;
the fishmongers trill their local songs
and try to drown the spiels
of sellers of deceptive pongs.
The three-card trickers
hope to draw the punters from
the stall that sells the polyester knickers;
and little acned Tom
with his knock-off Louis Vuitton
hopes to get the cash
of those who know it is a con
but are willing to be fakely flash.
All of human life is here, and loud.
You should be proud.

Quick (ish) sonnet

This was my go at Rob’s quick sonnet challenge. In the event it took me about 26 minutes, which isn’t very good considering that the the classic challenge is 15 minutes.

The hiss of pebbles on a shingled beach,
the stranded bladderwrack, the grey
sea-holly, hard against the spray,
the oystercatchers calling each to each.

Where men are afterthoughts,
where cows have never grazed or hedges grown,
where gardens are driftwood and stone,
where ploughs would blunt against the quartz.

It is not cosy here.
It does not feel secure;
we feel some inkling of the ancient fear
in the waves on the shore.
In the grating of stones underfoot we can hear
an opening door.

I quite like the ploughs line and the final image, but the rest is pretty generic.

You’ll notice that it’s metrically a bit peculiar. I did at one point have the first eight lines in IP, but the sestet really wanted to be shorter lines and I just thought wotthehell. And once I’d stopped being metrically regular I went back to the octet and pruned out some bits.

On the occasions when I do sit down to try and write metrical poetry, I increasingly find myself drawn to shorter lines – trimeter, tetrameter – and to changing line lengths. Ballad meter and suchlike (of course even that doesn’t explain the outbreak of anapests at the end). The discursiveness and unmusicality of sustained IP just doesn’t appeal to me at the moment.

Not that IP is inevitably discursive or unmusical but, fairly or not, that’s how I feel about it at the moment.

Dada, modernism and suchlike

I seem to have gone a bit link-happy over the past 24 hours, producing a daily links post which is far too long. So I’ll single out one of them in case you miss it: Charles Simic on Dada.

I always think of continental Europe as being the natural home of modernism. The Great War, the Russian Revolution and the growth of fascism provided the context for art of real ferocity. There always seems to be a disconnect between that and the work of British and American modernists like Eliot and Woolf. That’s a terrible simplification, of course, but still, you get an odd perspective on modernism if you learn about it through the lens of English-language literature.

Anyway. Read the Simic.

9rules Writing Community

9rules strikes me as potentially a great idea. It’s basically a conglomeration of blogs, each of which has been approved as reaching a certain standard of quality.

The 9rules Network is a community of the best weblogs in the world on a variety of topics. We started 9rules to give passionate writers more exposure and to help readers find great blogs on their favorite subjects. It’s difficult to find sites worth returning to, so 9rules brings together the very best of the independent web all under one roof.

They have periodic application periods when they winnow out the sheep from the goats and accept the sheep. The approved blogs are then sorted by subject.

Since blogs are many and multiplying, any way of finding the good stuff has to be a good thing. But I decided to look at the blogs which have been accepted into the 9rules Writing Community. It hasn’t given me great faith in their quality control. One of the various principles they claim for themselves is that

A nicely-designed site might draw readers in, but it’s the content that keeps them coming back.

But given that at least two of the ten in their ‘writing community’ are blogs which are nicely designed but whose content is seriously poor (1, 2), I find myself unpersuaded. The most likely scenario is that the people who selected the blogs just weren’t very literary by inclination; my point really is that they aren’t doing their credibility any good.

In the interests of balance I’ll point out one more 9rules literary blog, PoetryReviews.Ca, where they review Canadian poetry books and seem to do a good job of it.

But generally the 1rule which is most important seems to be ‘style over content’. Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps the many good blogs that can be found among my long poetry blogroll just haven’t applied, so 9rules don’t know what they’re missing.

God’s cock and hen

I woke up this morning to see something fluttering against the inside of the window-panes. Without my glasses, I couldn’t think what it was – it seemed too big for a moth and too small and whirring for a bird. It turned out to be a wren. They’re such nice things, but they are slightly unbirdy – like little russet mothmice.

Lucky it wasn’t a robin; I recently learnt from Birds Britannica that if a robin flies into your house it’s a omen of death. I assume that only applies to the European Robin and not its American namesake, but maybe the power of superstition is transferable through the power of names.

The robin and the wren are God’s cock and hen;
The spink and the sparrow are the de’il’s bow and arrow.

The ‘spink’ is the chaffinch. I guess it and the sparrow are damned mostly by rhyme and alliteration. You can find more wren rhymes and folklore here (pdf).

Anglo-Saxon literature

I was lying awake last night, unable to sleep because of the heat, and wondering whether translating a bit of Anglo-Saxon poetry would get me out of my lengthening barren spell. I think the majority of people who did my degree resented having to spend such a lot of time on Anglo-Saxon, but I always liked it.

I think what sticks with me about A-S verse is a mood more than anything. I remember hearing a documentary on Radio 4 a few years ago about different conversational styles across Europe. Apparently in Finland they have a culture of only speaking if they’ve got something important to say, with the result that for long periods at Finnish dinner parties, everyone is just sitting eating in silence. And then when they do speak, they speak slowly and deliberately. I suspect that the Anglo-Saxons had something of the same serious-minded taciturnity, laced with a mix of testosterone and pessimism. If that’s right, they probably looked on linguistic virtuosity with some suspicion. But I find that quality of seriousness makes up for any lack of verbal fireworks. It’s like the appeal of plainsong.

They were a gloomy bunch, of course. The most famous image in A-S literature is probably from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. King Edwin of Northumbria is considering whether to convert to Christianity, and one of his advisors says

The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, while the storms of rain and snow rage outside; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, while he is inside, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.

Feasting in the hall was the image of the good things in life for the Anglo-Saxons, but as in that passage, there’s always a sense of it as a refuge from the hostility of the world. That’s why exile is such a key theme, and why Grendel taking people from Heorot is so traumatic; because the hall is, above all, a safe haven.

And Anglo-Saxon pessimism goes beyond believing that the world is hostile; they believed that the world was in decline. They weren’t fools; they knew about the Romans and lived among Roman ruins. Archeologial evidence suggests that the Saxons in London held their folkmoots in the old Roman amphitheatre. They would have known that they were living the remnants of a more powerful, sophisticated, and technologically advanced culture than their own, and they foresaw humanity continuing its downward spiral. That adds to the foreignness. The last thousand years of European history have seen continuous growth in wealth, technology and knowledge, and however much people worry about the environment or nuclear annihilation or a clash of civilisations, deep down we believe that’s the norm.

All that pessimism created a literature in a minor key. The plot of Beowulf – heroism, treasure and dragonslaying – makes it easy to caricature it as a kind of C8th action movie. And in a sense that’s true. There’s no great psychological complexity to the characters. Even Arnie might just about be able to pull off the role of Beowulf, as long as the dialogue was kept to a minimum. What gives the poem substance isn’t so much the plot but the mood and context. Beowulf doesn’t save the world, he just holds back the inevitable for a while, and at the end he dies and his country collapses. If Predator had been directed by Ingmar Bergman it might have been something like Beowulf.

shook foil

I know why the phrase ‘like shining from shook foil’ is in my head — because I was putting some foil over a dish of coronation chicken. More peculiar is the other thing that’s been going around my head this morning:

“Bush and Saddam sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G”.

I think it’s unlikely that either of the Presidents Bush have ever snogged Saddam Hussein, and even if they have, a tree would be an unorthodox venue. But I suppose you never know.

In Praise of Shadows

‘Modern man, in his well-lit house, knows nothing of the beauty of gold…’

From Junichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, an essay from 1933 discussing the importance of lighting in traditional Japanese aesthetics. The gold, the lacquer, Nō theatre, even Japanese make-up are all, he suggests, dependent for their effect on low, indirect lighting; bright light makes them look garish.

He contrasts this with a Western ideal of brightly-lit rooms, but I’m sure the same applies. We have an inherited reverence for gold and diamonds, but do they really look anything special under electric light? When I read Anglo-Saxon poetry, I imagine the gold glowing by fire and lamplight.

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