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So Here We Are: Poetic Letters From England
So Here We Are 1
You are listening to So Here We Are: poetic letters from England on Miporadio: where poetry tunes in.
Hello. My name is David Caddy. I am an English poet and editor. In these poetic letters I shall be talking about English poetry.
I should say that I love both English and American poetry and that I read both in equal measure and delight. I suppose that that already marks my card as a figure concerned with what might be usefully called the melting pot of Anglo-American poetry and poetics. In England there is great hostility from the poetry establishment and mainstream towards Anglo-American poetry, not to mention modernist and post-modernist developments.
In this sense, by my very interest, I am an English outsider. Indeed I have been called the outsider’s insider and I do like to challenge accepted versions of literary history. Given this position I may be able to shed light on aspects of English poetry, Anglo-American poetry and the state of the art. Having said that, we all have our prejudices and I shall be trying to curb mine. I rather like the idea of being a reporter from the frontline, an Alistair Cooke producing a poetic letter from England. So Here We Are.
To start with in this first letter or two, I want to talk about my poetic heritage, the one that impacted during my childhood and beyond, and hopefully through this approach reveal some things that are peculiarly English.
I have lived most of my life in tiny villages and towns in rural
north Dorset, which is situated in central southern England, and some twenty fives inland from the Jurassic coast, as it now called by those eager to drum up tourist trade, and some thirty miles south west of Stonehenge, the Neolithic and Bronze age megalithic monument.
I live in an ancient landscape where the past looks at you from every angle. I look out of my study window at wild deer grazing and at the Neolithic hill fort, Hod Hill, with its visible Roman settlement from the first century AD. In England you feel you are part of the long march of everyman.
When I went to Sturminster Newton primary school, the first poetry that I can recall hearing and reading after nursery rhymes, hymns and folk ballads were the poems and songs of William Shakespeare.
When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail.
This comes from the end of the play Love’s Labour Lost and I suspect my teacher thought was suitable for us country boys and girls.
Coming from a family where there were no books and no one had ever gone to University, I resisted such things. I recall complaining about the irrelevance of such old writing and saying that I would never become a poet. However, I was crestfallen at not being selected ever to appear in any school production or sports team. I felt excluded and was. I was surely as good as the others. I loved that magical school play, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, which I could only watch but not be part of. Access to the heritage is closely guarded and if you can find a way in to this, it may not be easy.
I think we may have read some of the Sonnets but cannot remember for certain. I was a dreamer, looking out of the window. I was also a playground fighter, hitting back hard at the bullies, trying to be left alone. I am more certain that we read The Passionate Pilgrim poems VII and VIII:
Fair is my love, but not so fair as fickle
Mild as a dove, but neither true nor trusty
Brighter than glass, and yet, as glass is, brittle
Softer than wax, and yet, as iron, rusty:
A lily pale, with damask dye to grace her
None fairer, nor none falser to deface her.
Shakespeare was standard fare for eleven year olds at the time. I did know creative writing and when it came to the age 11 plus examinations I recall writing a story (a composition) where the characters were subordinate to the detail and structure and the end was the same as the beginning. I certainly had know idea of the Nouveau Roman at that time and I rather suspect that neither did my examiner, for I failed my 11 plus exam and was confined not to the local Grammar School but to the Secondary Modern, a school designed to produce farm workers and more secretly, I suspect, poets.
The school was divided into Houses named after local poets:
Ralegh, Barnes, Young and Hardy. Walter Ralegh (1552-1618),
William Barnes (1801-1886), dialect poet, Robert Young (1811-1908) and Thomas Hardy (1840-1926) were the forces for which we applied ourselves. Old people in Stur had known both Young and Hardy. The Hardy Players had brought his plays to the town for years. My friend, Jean Guy, lived in the farmhouse at nearby Bagber where Barnes had been born. The old School House where he had gone to school was now being used by the primary school as a dining room. Hardy had written poems, such as ‘Overlooking The River Stour’ and ‘On Sturminster Footbridge’ and the novel, The Return of the Native when he lived at Sturminster Newton in 1877. Poets permeated the town.
Although, I will mostly be talking about Ralegh, I am going to take a brief detour.
Here’s ‘On Sturminster Footbridge’
Reticulations creep upon the slack stream’s face
When the wind skims irritably past,
The current clucks smartly into each hollow place
That years of flood have scrabbled in the pier’s sodden base;
The floating lily’s leaves rot fast.
On a roof stand the swallows ranged in wistful waiting rows.
Till they arrow off and drop like stones
Among the eyot-withies at whose feet the river flows:
And beneath the roof is she who in the dark world shows
As a lattice-gleam when midnight moans.
In December 2005 this poem was widely used as part of a local protest against the development of a large house that altered the historic Sturminster Mill view. It was published in national newspapers along with photos of the Mill and proposed building plans that had been passed by bare quorum of local councillors on quiet night. The house is currently on the market at a cost of one million pounds. The local artists, musicians, writers and councillors that protested felt that it was an eyesore development planned by people who had know regard for the historic Mill view. The water mill is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, that great survey of England made by William the Conqueror, and could well have been painted by John Constable when he travelled through Sturminster Newton from Salisbury on the way to Lyme Regis, on the Dorset coast, in 1821.
Such poetic protests are not uncommon. The Northern Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, is currently involved in trying to prevent a dual carriageway being built through the wetlands of South Derry, where he grew up and has written so eloquently about.
William Barnes prevented a railway cutting through both the heart of Dorchester and Maiden Castle by leading a poetic protest in 1845-6.
Ralegh was a dashing gentleman poet, soldier and explorer, born in Devon, and a Dorset man by choice. His relationship with Queen Elizabeth is the subject of a forthcoming film, The Golden Age, due out this autumn. Cate Blanchett is playing Elizabeth, Clive Owen, Ralegh, Geoffrey Rush, Walsingham and Samantha Morton, Mary Queen of Scots. Doubtless you will see Ralegh etch with a diamond ‘Fain would I climb, yet fear I to fall’ on a Court window pane and Elizabeth reply, ‘If thy heart fails thee, climb not at all’.
Ralegh was a poetic role player. His friend, Edmund Spenser, said that he was ‘the sommers Nightingale’, writing poetry of ‘melting sweetness’. Ralegh was imprisoned for secretly marrying the Queen’s Lady-in-Waiting, Bess Throckmorton, and was forced to write his way out of prison. He was banned from Court. He was imprisoned and close to death many times, yet managed to write his way to freedom with a vigour bordering on fury. During his years of disgrace at Sherborne Castle, Dorset, he wrote this condemnation of his world:
Go, soul, the body's guest,
Upon a thankless errand;
Fear not to touch the best;
The truth shall be thy warrant:
Go, since I needs must die,
And give the world the lie.
Say to the court, it glows
And shines like rotten wood,
Say to the church it shows
What's good, and doth no good:
If church and court reply,
Then give them both the lie.
Tell potentates, they live
Acting, by others' action;
Not lov'd unless they give;
Not strong, but by affection.
If potentates reply,
Give potentates the lie.
Tell men of high condition,
That manage the estate,
Their purpose is ambition;
Their practice only hate.
And if they once reply,
Then give them all the lie.
Tell them that brave it most,
They beg for more by spending,
Who in their greatest cost
Like nothing but commending.
And if they make reply,
Then give them all the lie.
Tell zeal it wants devotion;
Tell love it is but lust;
Tell time it meets but motion;
Tell flesh it is but dust:
And wish them not reply,
For thou must give the lie.
Tell age it daily wasteth;
Tell honour how it alters;
Tell beauty how she blasteth;
Tell favour how it falters:
And as they shall reply,
Give every one the lie.
Tell wit how much it wrangles
In tickle points of niceness;
Tell wisdom she entangles
Herself in over-wiseness:
And when they do reply,
Straight give them both the lie.
Tell physic of her boldness;
Tell skill it is prevention;
Tell charity of coldness;
Tell law it is contention:
And as they do reply,
So give them still the lie.
Tell fortune of her blindness;
Tell nature of decay;
Tell friendship of unkindness;
Tell justice of delay:
And if they will reply,
Then give them all the lie.
Tell arts they have no soundness,
But vary by esteeming;
Tell schools they want profoundness,
And stand too much on seeming.
If arts and schools reply,
Give arts and schools the lie.
Tell faith it's fled the city;
Tell how the country erreth;
Tell manhood, shakes off pity;
Tell virtue, least preferred.
And if they do reply,
Spare not to give the lie.
So when thou hast, as I
Commanded thee, done blabbing;
Because to give the lie
Deserves no less than stabbing:
Stab at thee, he that will,
No stab thy soul can kill!
One reading of this poem is that is the defence of ‘outside thinking’ against rigid dogmatism. Ralegh had been accused by Jesuits and pro-Catholics of being an atheist and leader of the ‘School of Night’ a group that included Dr John Dee, Christopher Marlow, George Chapman and so on. Although this is a modern name derived from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour Lost’ in which the King of Navarre says ‘Black is the badge of hell / The hue of dungeons and the school of night’.
Ralegh made his fortune as a man of action centrally involved in the occult expansion of Elizabethan Protestant England. He established the first English colony in the New World, in present day, North Carolina. He had failures of exploration and lost his fortune. Writing his way out of trouble. He employed his own magus, Thomas Harriot, as well as having two other mathematician / alchemists / explorers in his household. Harriot was a mathematician imbued in Neoplatonist mysticism. Ralegh had studied with Dr John Dee, royal astrologer, (the basis, in part, of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and of Prospero in The Tempest), and the intellectual leader of Elizabethan expansion and the group of poets surrounding the Earl of Leicester in the 1580s. These included Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Fulke Greville, Edward Dyer and so on. They were concerned with rationalising a role for the poet and sovereign within a divine Protestant universe. They saw the poet’s role as essentially moral and religious, and sought to renew English as a poetic tongue. English rather than Latin poetry should be used to move English people to virtue and knowledge. Ralegh knew these aristocratic and self-made men well. He was a leading member of what became known as the Sidney-Spenser circle. Ralegh, though, also knew another club of poets, much lower down the social scale, those writers that lived exclusively by the pen. Whereas Leicester’s coterie, including Ralegh, lived in the mansions along the Strand by the river Thames, these poets and dramatists frequented the margins of London, the theatres to the south of the river at Southwark and to the east in the City of London at Blackfriars and Bishopsgate. Ralegh is credited with being the founder of the Mermaid Tavern’s club of poets in 1603. The club included Donne, Ben Jonson, Christopher Brooke, George Chapman, Shakespeare, Francis Beaumont. John Fletcher, Michael Drayton, John Marston and Thomas Dekker in a floating population of writers, law students and politicians. The Mermaid was a safe house where they could exchange manuscripts and discuss potential patrons and news of court intrigue.
You are listening to So Here We Are, poetic letters from England, on miporadio: where poetry tunes in.
Ralegh is, to me, almost a contemporary. His oeuvre is as fluid as any post-modern critic would want. His name has variant spellings and his words are changed at will. His legendary stories could be claimed as most probable or even fact by a New Historicist critic any day now. In my local weekly paper, the Blackmore Vale Magazine, houses are sold with dubious connections to the man.
The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage
Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage;
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.
Blood must be my body’s balmer,
No the balm will there be given:
Whilst my soul, like a quiet palmer,
Travels towards the land of heaven:
Over the silver mountains,
Where spring the nectar fountains:
There I’ll kiss
The bowl of bliss:
And drink my everlasting fill
Upon every milken hill:
My soul will be a-dry before:
But after, it will thirst no more.
And by that happy blissful way,
More peaceful pilgrims I shall see,
That have cast off their rags of clay,
And walk appareled fresh like me.
I’ll bring them first
To quench their thirst,
And taste of nectar suckets,
At those clear wells
Where sweetness dwells
Drawn up by saints in crystal buckets.
And when our bottles and all we
Are filled with immortality,
Then the blessed paths we’ll travel
Stowed with rubies thick as gravel:
Ceilings of diamonds, sapphire floors
High walls of coral, and pearly bowers.
From thence to heaven’s bribeless hall,
Where no corrupted voices brawl:
No conscience molten into gold,
No forged accuser bought or sold,
No cause deferred, nor vain-spent journey:
For there Christ is the King’s Attorney,
Who pleads for all without degrees,
And He hath angels, but no fees.
And when the grand twelve-million jury
Of our sins, with sinful fury,
‘Gainst our souls black verdicts give,
Christ pleads His death, and then we live.
Be Thou my speaker, taintless pleader,
Unblotted lawyer, true proceeder!
Thou giv’st salvation even for alms:
Not with a bribed lawyer’s palms.
And this is my eternal plea
To him that made heaven, earth, and sea,
That, since my flesh must die so soon,
And want a head to dine next noon,
Just at the stroke, when my veins start and spread,
Set on my soul an everlasting head!
Then I am ready, like a palmer fit:
To tread those blest paths which before I writ.
Ralegh wrote at a time when poets could rapidly run out of favour at court and writing was a dangerous and precarious living. Playwrights and poets that upset courtiers, diplomats, religious leaders and, above all, the monarch, were imprisoned and sentenced to death. You could even by arrested for not writing to order as happened to Dekker in 1599. Ralegh was tried for treason and atheism several times and won the legal arguments. He wrote much of his poetry in the Bloody Tower where he lived with his family between 1603 and 1616. He only published five poems in his lifetime. His theological, philosophical and poetic work circulated in manuscript form. If the poems got into the wrong hands, it could be well be the end. His accounts of the consequences of tyranny in The History of the World, written in the Tower, inspired both John Milton and Oliver Cromwell.
His last poem, written the night before he was beheaded, provides a partial epitaph:
Even Such Is Time
Even such is time, that takes on trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust
My God shall raise me up, I trust!
Ralegh’s head was embalmed and given to her. She returned to Dorset, famously carrying his head in a basket, to display that head so that his friends and enemies could say goodbye to him.
Bess worked tirelessly to restore his reputation and ensure that his work survived. She kept his head for the next 29 years until her death. Their son, Carew, then took care of his head until his death in 1666 and it was buried with him.
Before I close with my poem inspired, in part, by Ralegh and the transmigration of the soul, I must say that I have come to realise that reading The Passionate Pilgrim, which contained the work of Marlowe, Shakespeare and Ralegh, at age 11, was an unconscious inspiration for my founding of a theatre company when I was aged eighteen. That company was called The Pilgrimage for Pleasure Theatre and I wrote my first love poems and comedy sketches for that group.
Looking west to the sounding sea shore
the eternally present in eyes and ears.
Discrete hatching the wood, weed and wag
outside tainted coercion clasped in conjunction.
Light shining in silent stillness before the door
this non person out of action and fear.
Mapping out and mapping subsong of home
racked with flight, darker plumes, pelt in blur.
This prisoner alive with jays and kingfishers
manic to God the sufferer in us all.
Black the night, badge of heat and dungeons
abuses ‘stript n’ spit’ into the cauldron.
In this Night School there is no hell eternal,
no damnation, only the soul’s ground.
Not born to inherit land or heaven’s graces
the substance of things hoped for anchors
This wayward vessel, unearthed to drink
and drink to abandon, disseminate.
Blood drips, coheres into tears and operative
phraseology of sins, transfigured matter
internecine with all forms of lack
and judgment of warring bodies
around the wound from body to text
this scallop shell of quiet unleashed.
Inside the skin creasing compass borne
talisman of shepherds and new worlds
brief ripple of leaves and lineage
earth’s shadows fly, black on white.
Beyond those that have power to hurt
this jack, black emissary of dirt, deposits,
stabs and weaves. Twist of hair and moss.
Inside the song. Trail of blood and bit.
Fine hair wisps. Beauty in purpose. Back of throat
longing. Ale and more ale. Head opens to thrill.
Trailed withered root. Multilingual litter brack,
scored with pitch scrapings fed to cattle over-feed
dumped carcass bleeds pink to purple gut
womb intestinal matter left by all but yes
but no but yes but no but butts head feed
pulled water spots wheeling tracks past sings
oh movement continuous untamed and well-
tempted to steal the voice of men.