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So Here We Are: Poetic Letters From England
Travelling on the Damory Bus from my home to Salisbury is an event in itself. The bus company’s website and bus stop timetables offer no reliable information on the Service. We rely upon memory that there is a bus leaving the village some time between 9.20 am and 9.40 am and the hope that it continues. So here we are on the bus filled with retired professionals looking out at the summer landscape. There are plenty of horses and sheep in fields, signs of turf cutting and wheat ripening. We see deer, pheasant, buzzards and no one in the fields. We pass by Ashmore with its iconic dewpond, ill-kempt wood and no indigenous population, not far from Society photographer, Cecil Beaton’s old home, Ashcombe House, now occupied by Mr & Mrs Ritchie. The bus falters going up hill as we leave Fontmell Magna and descend deeper into Cranborne Chase, a downland with dense woodland vestiges, Neolithic and Bronze Age earthworks that straddles parts of Dorset, Hampshire and Wiltshire. The name refers to the land as a place of hunting and has been sparsely populated since Saxon times. It is easy to see the contours of history here. There are houses and entrances designed by the dramatist and architect, John Van Brugh, and humbler buildings that carry with them the association of bloody struggles between landowners, with their retinue of keepers, foresters and verderers, and poachers. Open an OS map and you will see that struggle in location and place names around the Chase.
Dominated by the Cathedral, with its tall spire and chapter house holding one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, Salisbury is a compact, lively city on the edge of the Plain, a barren chalk plateau to the north west of the Chase. In recent years it has suffered from an overdose of literature development officers and writers in residence who visit and leave little behind. This has been happening throughout the country and does not produce local literary communities. In fact, they can be counter-productive. The idea of introducing outsiders as experts, often people at the beginning of their career and without much literary experience, is fatally flawed and a waste of public money. It is a fragmented poetry scene, with people travelling in a thirty-mile radius to attend poetry events, lacking in leadership and direction. There are no magazines or poetry publishers to support the local scene. Yet it has an International Arts Festival and a vast literary history from Sir Philip Sidney, William Browne through George Herbert, Henry Fielding, to Hazlitt, Trollope, Hardy, W.H. Hudson, William Golding and David Gascoyne. John Constable’s painting The Cathedral From The Bishop’s Grounds (1825) is often cited as one of England’s best views. It is an extraordinary confluence of place, spirit and identity and is worth investigating in terms of how poets have used the confluence to probe history, identity, and the georgic.
It was in March 1913 that poet, Edward Thomas, crossed over Harnham Bridge, near the Cathedral, ‘where the tiled roofs are so mossy, and went up under that bank of sombre-shimmering ivy just to look where the roads branch’, on his literary pilgrimage by bicycle from Clapham in London to the Quantock Hills and Coleridge’s home at Nether Stowey. Thomas’s journey, with the Other Man, who eats brown bread and monkey-nuts, the status of whom is uncertain, has a potent relevance. Although, on the surface, it is a journey searching for signs of spring and observing what is present through earlier poetic responses, it is also a journey of self-discovery, written against the threat of a World War, and a probing of identity, the unconscious, spiritual purpose and landscape looking for rebirth. In Pursuit Of Spring (1914), is a search for poetic understanding with Coleridge the dissenter, the man in black as Hazlitt called him, as a figurative destination, that is to say it is a journey that extends from the superficial to the dark and disturbing.
Thomas was moved to have the Other Man quote in full and with relish George Herbert’s sonnet on Sin on his way to St Andrew’s Bemerton, where Herbert was rector and died in 1633. It is a chilly, tiny Low Anglican church, with a strong atmosphere of piety, a stained glass portrait of Herbert, and well worth a visit. The adjacent old rectory, rebuilt by Herbert, is now in private hands. My phone call asking to visit was declined.
Thomas cycles on through the Plain, with its five river valleys, interrupted only by a railway line and military camps, noting in this remote and treeless landscape the rooks, pewits and larks. Like Coleridge, Thomas has a fondness for birds (he notes that there are more birds than people in Salisbury that Sunday morning) and is less godly than his alter ego, the Other Man. Just outside Erlestoke he meets two ex-sailors, vagrants, who mention the Titanic, bless him and appear to be asking for money, which he refuses to give, and cycles on. He is more concerned with his uneasy conscience than whether the beggars ‘slept dry and ate enough’. Thomas is arguing with himself about the Christian idea of charity so beloved by Herbert. He is struck by seeing the whole through the inner and outer nature of small things, through the particulars of place, through oppositions, the mildness and wildness of nature, those defining imaginative characteristics he also saw in Coleridge.
Salisbury, its river confluence, the Plain and Stonehenge feature in Song Three of Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, Or A Chorographicall Description of Tracts, Rivers, Mountaines, Forests, and other Parts of this renowned Isle of Great Britaine, With intermixture of the most remarquable Stories, Antiquites, Wonders, Rarityes, Pleasures, and Commodies of the same (1612), a curious work written in rhyming couplets of twelve syllable lines and engraved maps decorated with goddesses and allegorical figures. Here the traveller-poet uses the marriage and competition between rivers as a unifying symbol. Drayton was part of the Sidney–Spenser literary grouping that came to nearby Wilton House, where Sir Philip Sidney had written most of The Arcadia (1590), a prose romance, that later so outraged Hazlitt that he called it ‘one of the greatest monuments of abuse of intellectual power upon record’ and A Defence of Poetry (1595), which defends poetry as the highest art and equal of nature under God. Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, preserved and published her brother’s work after his death in 1586, completed his translation of the Psalms and made Wilton into a college of learning, poetry and alchemy. It was the spiritual centre of the Sidney-Spenser movement in English poetry, with many links to poets and writers associated with the Mermaid Tavern in London. Mary was patron to Samuel Daniel, Ben Jonson, Drayton and William Browne. Shakespeare is thought to have attended the 1603 royal performance of As You Like It at Wilton. Donne is said to have visited. Ralegh’s half brother, Adrian Gilbert, was her resident advisor and Fulke Greville, as elder statesman of the group was Mary’s most trusted ally.
Drayton’s attempt to preserve Albion’s history through topography and to forge a national identity was inspired by William Camden’s Britannia (1586). The ‘chorography’ of the book’s title refers to the physical and historical description of a single locality. These included written itineraries and routes across a territory with particular histories, points of interest and local lore. The controlling image of the river stems from Edmund Spenser’s Prothalamion (1596). This idea and image fuels Poly-Olbion’s celebration of national diversity, with rivers, as loci of conflict and song, serving to unify the country. Drayton essentially produces a map of England based upon rivers and ancient monuments that is linked to ideas of visual memory and national identity. The final part of Book One ends with a celebration of Kentish independence and liberty against Norman yoke and placing Kent as the foremost English shire. William Wordsworth echoes this in ‘To the Men of Kent’, one of the ‘Sonnets dedicated to Liberty’, in Poems (1807).
Ye, of yore
Did from the Norman win a gallant wreath;
confirm’d the charters that were yours before.
This patriotism is rooted not in Westminster but in the tradition of local defence of liberty. Wordsworth’s debt to Drayton is evinced by the many references to rivers and can be read as a kind of up-dated sense of history through topography. Wordsworth as a public poet helped the idea of history through topography further permeate English culture and identity.
Tony Blair’s New Labour Government in 1997 somewhat incoherently tried to produce a national brand with its slogan, ‘Cool Britannia’, based on one of Ben & Jerry’s ice-creams, using pop musicians as symbols of youthful vibrancy and referring to a transient fashionable London scene. It completely misread how national identity comes to be ingrained as an image and viewpoint as well as the politics behind such images and viewpoints.
Here’s E.M. Forster in The Longest Journey (1907):
‘He saw how all the water converges at Salisbury; how Salisbury lies in a shallow basin, just at the change of soil. He saw to the north the Plain, and the stream of the Cad flowing down from it, with a tributary that broke out suddenly, as the chalk streams do: one village had clustered round the source and clothed itself with trees. He saw Old Sarum, and hints of the Avon valley, and the land above Stonehenge. And behind him he saw the great wood beginning unobtrusively, as if the down too needed shaving; and into it the road to London slipped, covering the bushes with white dust. Chalk made the dust white, chalk made the water clear, chalk made the clean rolling outlines of the land, and favoured the grass and the distant coronals of trees. Here is the heart of our island: the Chilterns, the North Downs, the South Downs radiate hence. The fibres of England unite in Wiltshire, and did we condescend to worship her, here we should erect our national shrine.’
In this symbolic and philosophical novel which contrasts the local waterways and ‘slowly modulating’ chalk downs with the quadrangular academic world of Cambridge, Rickie ‘the lonely and deformed’ character recites lines from Percy Shelley’s Epipsychidion (1821), at the Rings, that establish the novel’s theme and gives it its title.
I was never attached to that great sect
Whose doctrine is that each one should select
Out of the world a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion, - though it is the code
Of modern morals, and the beaten road
Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread,
By the broad highway of the world - and so
With one sad friend, perhaps a jealous foe,
The dreariest and longest journey go.
Forster draws upon Shelley’s poetry, with its ecological reading, G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica (1903), Greek and Wagnerian mythology within a mystical and symbolic structure to delineate his characters difficulties in choosing a life companion. Behind all this, Forster acknowledges an originating experience of talking to a young lame shepherd on Figsbury Rings, whom he offers a tip of sixpence and is declined.
The narrator sees Salisbury as a living creature with powers of movement, and ‘ugly cataracts of brick’ looking ‘outwards at a pagan entrenchment’ and away from the cathedral, neglecting ‘the poise of the earth, and the sentiments she has decreed.’ ‘They are the modern spirit’, he observes. He goes on in an unconscious echo of Drayton, although possibly not of Wordsworth. ‘Streams do divide. Distances do still exist. It is easier to know men in your valley than those who live in the next. It is easier to know men well. The country is not paradise,
(an embedded reference to both Sidney’s Arcadia and Milton) and can show the vices that grieve a good man everywhere. But there is room and leisure.’
Forster’s sense of national identity is defined like Wordsworth by topography and regionalism and is in the tradition of Camden and Drayton.
Wordsworth walked across the Salisbury Plain in August 1793, an experience that produced The Salisbury Plain Poems (Cornell 1975), ‘The Female Vagrant’ first published in Lyrical Ballads (1798), and fed into The Prelude. He changed these poems several times. The unpublished Adventures on Salisbury Plain (1795), a dark gothic poem concerns a sailor who, having been press ganged into the navy after war service, becomes a murderer and robber to provide for his family. Penniless and an outlaw, he meets a soldier’s widow, as he walks across the Plain. She is homeless, penniless, has lost her family. Both are outcasts and face the inhumanity of Justice. The poem relentlessly shows the human impact of war and links human waste to the historical landscape. This poem was later revised as Guilt and Sorrow: or Incidents upon Salisbury Plain (1842) with the image of the sailor’s suicide ‘hung high in iron case’ removed. This self-censoring of the younger, radical Wordsworth is a good example of how the struggles of the rural poor and outcasts can be written out of memory.
J.H. Prynne in Field-Notes: ‘The Solitary Reaper’ And Others (private publication distributed by Barque Press 2007), points out that W.H. Hudson on his cycle journey (A Shepherd’s Life: Impressions of the South Wiltshire Downs, 1910 pp 4-5) through the Salisbury Plain writes about a young boy, a bird scarer, running across the ploughed field towards the road merely to see him pass and consciously neutralises elegiac landscape writing by the avoidance of any polemical, ecological or contemplative input. It is a low pitch non-poetic narration without pathos or melancholy in contrast to Wordsworth’s high pitch narration. Hudson’s non-committal tones and registers, omitting the rawness of the georgic, caught the Edwardian mood of nostalgia for rural ways and were immensely popular. Bird scaring, though, did not die out in Dorset until the Thirties.
One of this summer’s other recommended reads has been Roger Deakin’s Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, which will surely join Waterlog, his aquatic journey through Britain, as a classic of nature writing in the tradition of Gilbert White and John Stewart Collis. Wildwood argues, echoing W.H. Auden, that ‘the enemies of woods are always the enemies of culture and humanity’ and supports this with references from William Cobbett, John Ruskin and various poets. Deakin wanders from place to place seeking out, what Edward Thomas called the ‘fifth element’, wood. He succeeds in his aim ‘to excite a feeling for the importance of trees through a greater understanding of them’ by showing the links between the greenwood spirit and democratic freedom. In particular, he sketches the history of Great Wishford’s 1603 charter of rights to collect wood in the Royal Forest of Groveley some six miles outside of Salisbury and the annual May celebration of Oak Apple Day. This requires the whole village ‘to go in a dance’ to Salisbury Cathedral. The villagers legally protected their wood rights at court in 1292, 1318, 1332 and 1825 from landowners eager to use the wood for hunting. The Earl of Pembroke had the manor and wood enclosed in 1809, creating more restrictions that worsened the impact of the 1820s economic depression. More disputes followed leading in 1892 to the formation of the Oak Apple Club in the village, under the Labour banner ‘Unity is Strength’, to represent wood rights and customs and perpetuate the May celebrations. These involve pagan fertility and other rituals at the parish church and Salisbury Cathedral. The acorn and oak tree motifs were part of the socialist and anarchist movements defence of liberties. Further disputes occurred in 1931 and 1933 and it wasn’t until 1987 that a new accord was reached allowing the villagers their full rights. The annual Oak Apple Day continues and is an apt reminder of legal victory.
The economic depression following the wars with France, enclosure acts and the Corn Laws, which banned the import of foreign grain and kept the price of bread artificially high, hurt agricultural workers particularly badly as described by William Cobbett’s Rural Rides (1830) and there were riots in Salisbury. The painter, John Constable was not immune to what was happening and if you compare his Salisbury Cathedral From The River (1820), which shows the landscape as a social playground, with Salisbury Cathedral From The Meadow (1831), you will see the stark contrast. What is amazing is that the exact spot where Constable painted one of his most literary and symbolic works still exists and when you stand there the painting is more explicable.
Constable portrays two agricultural labourers crossing a stream by horse and cart set against Salisbury Cathedral under a rainbow, after a storm, and next to an outsized ash tree on the left, moving towards a shrivelled ash to the right. In the central foreground is a dog, with a grave to the left and fencing to the right. The ash trees are symbolic of life’s disparities, with the Cathedral representing faith and resurrection and the rainbow hope. The rainbow has to be symbolic as it is in the wrong meteorological place. The dog appears to be observing the scene and directing the viewer’s gaze toward the horse and cart, which is empty. They could have delivered grain to the city or come from the city without grain.
Conventionally read the painting is dominated on the left by the shrub and gigantic ash tree soaring above the distant Cathedral and the illuminated eye of the storm in the mid-central and upper part of the scene. The bright light is at a distance beyond the spire. The shrub and gigantic ash are unadulterated, untamed by reason, a life force, with which the agricultural labourer and waterman are seemingly in harmony. The rainbow encloses the darker half of the painting that is mirrored by the circling stream, representing consciousness and the enduring faith of the labourers in balance with the natural world during an economic and political storm. It is thus an emotional response, with the rainbow of hope encompassing faith and the labourers in harmony with the wildness of the natural world, to the social-political situation. However, when you stand at the exact place that Constable chose and widen the frame of reference you see to the left beyond the Church of St Thomas, is Fisherton Mill where grain was used for bread making and that to the right leads to the older water-mill at Harnham, where grain is used for bread-making and stock feeding. We are thus at the centre of the city’s agricultural economy and its supporting relationship to the neighbouring villages. The painting is thus built around an absence of the exact economic conditions that mark the empty cart. The painting has a nine line quotation from James Thomson’s The Seasons (1726-30). The Seasons was a celebration of the divine order behind the apparent chaos of nature. For the Romantics, including Constable, it was memorable for its descriptions of weather, landscapes, of the moods and colours of the natural world. Mood is dominating economic relations in this painting. Looking again, the dog, separated from the labourers by the stream and on the wrong side to be part of their company, centres the non-economic human connection with the land and acts as a psychological bulwark against wrenching economic conditions.
Constable’s Cathedral view, often listed as one of England’s greatest, serves to show how economic relations, poverty and the struggles behind them are blanked out of cultural memory.
It is a failure to appreciate local history and distinctiveness.