Reclaiming Valentine’s Day for Poetry

It’s Valentine’s Day. People’s reaction to this seems to vary sharply between the blissful and the bitter, depending on a variety of factors including whether or not they’re in a relationship, their tolerance for public displays of affection and how well they respond to a traditional holiday whose rituals have been totally erased and rewritten by the forces of capitalism.

See? I’m sounding bitter already, and I’m not even trying. In fact, I’m in clover; this is only the second Valentine’s Day of my life I’ve spent in a relationship. Unfortunately, the lovely lady concerned is five thousand miles away with the whole continent of North America and the Atlantic Ocean in between us, so we’re going to have to content ourselves with a Skype date.

I also sent a card, which I don’t usually do. I worked for nine months in a branch of WHSmith, and daily exposure to their rack of greetings cards, which varied from the nauseatingly crude to the nauseatingly saccharine, put me off sending any kind of birthday, valentines or mother’s or father’s day card for the next several years. I sent letters and phone calls instead.

So, for much of my life, this day has been marked by no cards and no girlfriends. But I’ve had fun anyway, because I’m a practicing poet, and I have a mission – to reclaim Valentine’s Day for poetry.

Looking at my files, I’m surprised to discover I’ve written at least two sonnets every year since 2009. I knew I had a habit, but still… In 2010 I wrote four for Valentine’s Day – one for a good friend, two on spec. for other friends where I thought things might go further (they didn’t) and a silly one for a woman where romance would have been wildly inappropriate, because I came up with an amusing rhyme and couldn’t resist. It’s actually, looking back on it, the least embarrassing of the set, as the one least inflected by the phase of Miltonic grandiosity my poetry was going through.

Beatrice – or should I say Beatrice?
No, I’ll use English, not Italian stress;
The former one offends the ear the less,
The latter makes this sonnet far from easy.
Beatrice – in your jacket warm and fleecy –
O God! This octet really is a mess!
I wish I’d never started, I confess…
Yet still, I’ll come out of it in one piece, eh?
Beatrice, since my mania for rhyming
Has put this poem in utter disarray
And left me desperately short of timing
To tell you what it was I want to say…
No, I’ll leave off. The midnight bells are chiming
And I shall write again some other day.

In 2012 and 2013, I flipped through my poets and anthologies a few days before and matched my friends to poems: Michael Donaghy’s ‘The Present’ for an astrophysicist, Richard Lovelace’s delightful ‘Song to Amarantha, that she would dishevel her hair’ to a particularly gorgeous Irish blonde who had much to forgive me, Christopher Marlowe’s splendidly over-the-top ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ for an old flame I’d moved away from – and maybe three or four others. On the day, I posted each poem publicly on their Facebook walls, without any comment other than a ‘Happy Valentine’s’ at the bottom. I never got a lasting relationship out of it, but I was surprised how much love and appreciation got channeled my way. I’d do it again, and recommend it to any single poet with a few good anthologies to hand.

I was going to dedicate Valentine’s Day 2015 exclusively to feeling miserable and sorry for myself, but at the last moment I copied out the first stanza of Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’ onto good notepaper, folded it, sealed it with wax and posted it to a fellow PhD in Newcastle I’d been nursing a crush on. She guessed it was me.

This year things are going so rosily that I actually have the chance to write a full-on, bona fide love poem without bothering with the tiresome unrequited bit. This is an interesting challenge. Usually I try to write poetry that’s beautiful and complicated without being wildly obscure; now I had to switch gears and write something simple and beautiful without being saccharine.

Without further ado, this one’s for Valerie:

In the night sometimes I reckon
All that keeps us two apart,
All the dry and dreary distance
In between each sundered heart.
All the deserts and the mountains,
All the empty, silent plains
Stretching out into the twilight;
The wide, wide ocean that remains.

Every desert has a well
And every mountain has a spring;
Every trickle gets its chance
To growl and gurgle, roar and sing;
Every raindrop finds a river;
Every stream leads to the sea,
And brings my lover back to me,
And brings my lover back to me.

On Undergraduate Essays, in Imitation of Alexander Pope

ScanFor a few months now, I’ve been working as a seminar tutor for first year English Literature students. It’s really satisfying – they’re lively, engaged, and the teaching itself appeals to my theatrical side. I love getting to shout, wave my arms, say outrageous things to spark arguments, and demonstrate why poetry and literature matter. The only bad parts of the job are the long hours dedicated to marking and essay coaching – trying to get the students to understand the difference between active and passive voice, or master the particularly recondite subtleties of Cardiff’s referencing system.

I was preparing a seminar on Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock the other week, and browsing through his Essay on Criticism, which is still the best – and funniest – introduction to his writing. Then I started wondering – what if the famous eighteenth century satirist had to write undergraduate essay advice? What would that sound like?

It was a slow weekend. The couplets sprang to mind in great profusion, and before long I had threaded them together in a coherent order and printed them out for my seminar, who were delighted. I share them here, edited for general use. If any fellow teachers stumble across this, feel free to use them and – if you have any talent for metre – adapt them to your institution’s own essay writing foibles.  Altering the list of modern critics to flatter your academic supervisor/mentor is highly recommended.



On Undergraduate Essays.

In Imitation of Alexander Pope’s Essay On Criticism.
By Thomas Tyrrell

The Essay! The invention of MONTAIGNE,
With whose familiar style the form began,
Where BACON’s scientific method rose
Among the varied beauties of his prose,
Where JOHNSON’s pen, august and lucid still,
Surveyed mankind from China to Brazil,
And ORWELL, in a plain yet brilliant style
Exposed the flaws and glories of our Isle,
While GREENBLATT, WILSON, EAGLETON, and BATE,
Are modern critics of the highest rate.
To these heights, O my seminar, aspire!
Permit no mild critique to damp thy fire,
For academic essays stand alone,
Requiring a restrained and formal tone,
That demonstrates how well you understand
The complex meanings of the text in hand.
To science students it may seem absurd,
How hard we labour over every word,
But all will be rewarded! For, in sum,
Master the basics! And the rest will come.
Lest your assessors should be justly vexed
Be sure to match the author to the text;
Answer the question that you have been tasked
And not the one you think they should have asked;
And lest you should the Stagyrite offend
Have a beginning, middle and an end.
Show no false bias, but be circumspect,
Also incisive, learned and direct;
Spelling and grammar must be quite correct.
A semi-colon in its proper place
Will bring a smile to every marker’s face;
Misplaced apostrophes and comma splices
Will be regarded as the worst of vices;
In case, before the end, the reader drops
From want of breath, be generous with full stops,
Rather than hold them as your last resort.
No sentence is marked down for being short.
To use contractions is accounted bad;
Instead of ‘they’d’ make sure you put ‘they had’;
‘I used the active voice’ should be your plea,
And not ‘The passive voice was used by me.’
In introduction to your essay, lay
Out clearly all the things you wish to say,
And having set these limits, do not stray.
But now your argument begins at last!
Now analyse, unpick, compare, contrast,
Contend, defend, explain – but chiefly THINK,
Vague generalising is a waste of ink.
So never be afraid to quote at length,
Well-analysed quotations are a strength:
Essays are weary, parching, dry and bland;
Quotation are oases in the sand.
Yet every time you quote, within the course
Of writing out your essay, give your source:
Naught is more rare, nor pleasing to the sight
Than someone who has got their footnotes right.
Citation styles there are in wide array,
Harvard, Chicago, and the MLA;
To make your essay pleasing to the view,
Hold fast to these! And they shall see you through!
So ultimately, to conclude, therefore
In summary – conclusions are a bore;
A place to say again things better said before.
If these important precepts you obey,
And breathe life into them upon the way;
If all your arguments prove firm and just,
Your grammar faultless and your style robust;
High marks in modules you may hope for then,
Nor fear the wielder of the crimson pen!

My favourite Homeric Hexameter

100_0659 Time has not done any favours for Sir William Watson. Time, in fact, has not served any of the patriotic verse writers of the early twentieth century particularly well, but Rudyard Kipling gets credit for hidden depths as well as sympathy for losing his son in World War One, and Henry Newbolt (‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’) still gets quoted for British Imperial Poetry at its most jingoistic. The poetry of Sir William Watson, by contrast, was neither subtle or ambivalent enough to stand on its own merits, nor tasteless enough for notoriety. Born in 1858, he proved to be a staunch Victorian and literary conservative and could not or would not assimilate the increasingly influential modernist movement into his poetry. By the time of his death in 1935, his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography records that he was almost totally forgotten, and many were surprised that he had survived so long into the new century. He is now out of print, rarely anthologised and few even among academic specialists spare him a thought from day to day.

Such is literary fame. Some very few writers, like Shakespeare or Austen, may write volumes, and find that future generations will prize every word of them, and treasure every signature and trace they leave in the world. Others write volumes, and find of their hundreds of thousands of words a couple of poems survive, or a single book. Others may only contribute a single line or a phrase that bobs like a lonely spar on the surface of an ocean, into whose forgotten depths the edifice it was once part of has plunged without a trace. Some, like Sir William Watson, are almost completely forgotten – yet if I had to nominate a single line of his poetry to survive the cataclysm, I’d opt for the first line of his Hymn to the Sea:

Lover whose vehement kisses on lips irresponsive are squandered

This is a verse form called a Homeric, or Dactylic, Hexameter, consisting of a metrical foot of one stressed and two unstressed syllables, repeated six times. It is an English version of the Ancient Greek metre in which the Iliad and Odyssey were written, and one that proved to be bizarrely popular throughout the nineteenth century. The flaws of the English hexameter are obvious to anyone who tries to read or to write a such a poem – such as Coleridge, who complained:

All my hexameters fly, like stags pursued by the staghounds,
Breathless and panting, and ready to drop, yet flying still onwards,
I would full fain pull in my hard-mouthed runaway hunter ;
But our English Spondeans are clumsy yet impotent curb-reins ;
And so to make him go slowly, no way left have I but to lame him.

In English, it is a forced, unnatural metre, turgid, droningly repetitive, almost impossible to rhyme (though Swinburne made a good shot at it) and which owes its nineteenth century popularity entirely to the novelty and difficulty of the metre, and the cultural cachet of its Homeric associations. The most famous and readable works in it are Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline, and Robert Southey’s notorious A Vision of Judgement, which includes lines like:

Thus as I stood, the bell which awhile from its warning had rested,
Sent forth its note again, toll, toll, thro’ the silence of evening.

And which inspired a brilliant parody by Byron, in the far more expressive form of ottava rima.

Having found the dactyllic hexameter completely unsuited to the English language, it is surprising to find that in Sir William Watson’s line, it almost works. The poem as a whole quickly gets repetitive, but in the musical phrase

Lover whose vehement kisses on lips irresponsive are squandered

I can find what the English hexameter has universally lacked: the marriage of sound and sense. In the whispering of the repeated sibilance; in the crash of the opening stresses and the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of the weaker syllables, there is something evocative of the very motion of the sea, the ‘tremulous cadence slow’ that haunts Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ and Tennyson’s ‘Passing the Bar’. Counterpointed by the strikingly original image of the sea imparting her passionate kisses to the land, it makes this single dactylic hexameter as close to perfect as the English language can make it. It is a line well worth remembering, and one which I do remember, every time I go down to the seashore.

Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Chapman

One evening in 1816, a minor poet named Charles Cowden Clarke invited another minor poet friend of his to spend a few hours reading a new antiquarian book he’d recently purchased: an outdated Elizabethan translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The translator was George Chapman, a man who, even in the Renaissance, boasted of being too obscure for the common reader. It was not a night out that seemed initially promising: but as it happened, Clarke’s minor poet friend was John Keats, and the sonnet he found on his breakfast table next morning commemorating their evenings reading is likely to last as long as the English language – and a good deal longer.

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken…

chapmans keats

The original manuscript of Keat’s sonnet On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer

It’s a beautiful, resonant image that has now become part of the common cultural currency, but modern reader of Chapman’s Homer, when faced with the same passages that inspired and electrified Keats, will probably experience something more like William Herschel’s original sensation of squinting down a large glass tube at a faint, blurry object he initially mistook for a comet.

In Keats’s day, Chapman’s translations were long out of print and hard to get a hold of, displaced and superseded by the trim, correct, neo-Augustan translations of Alexander Pope. Today, you can buy a cheap paperback edition for a couple of quid from Wordsworth Classics, a publishing company with a knack for getting a hold of the oldest, creakiest translations of any work of world literature. Their texts are often a century or so out of copyright, but by reaching back five hundred years to Chapman’s Odyssey and Iliad they excelled themselves.

Yet why should you read the Elizabethan version when there are excellent modern versions by Robert Fagles, D. C. H. Rieu and Robert Fitzgerald, doubtless for similar prices should you find the right second-hand bookshop? Is there anything remaining of that spark that electrified Keats?

Well, if you take it from the beginning and try to read it all through, it’s undeniably a tricky read. Chapman’s Iliad begins in magisterial form:
Achilles baneful wrath resound, O Goddess, that imposed
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls los’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son.
Thereafter, it’s far too easy to become bogged down in the ghastly ingenuity required to force Homer’s catalogue of Grecian ships and captains into rhyme and metre, and in the intentionally confused syntax that is used to reflect the mayhem of the battlefield. The Odyssey is an easier read, and its episodic adventures are much more palatable than the continuous war of attrition the Iliad chronicles. It’s hardly surprising the imagery of the Keats sonnet draws heavily on the former while hardly featuring the latter. Still, a better bet might be to read one of the modern translators mentioned above, or start where Joyce started, with Charles Lamb’s The Adventures of Ulysses, to gain an idea of the plot, where the good bits are, and which bits you can afford to skip. It may feel like cheating, but skipping to the most dramatic episodes is probably the best way to enjoy the Odyssey and the Iliad – and probably Joyce’s own masterwork, too.

Things are complicated in The Odyssey too: Odysseus is referred to throughout by his Roman name of Ulysses, except where Chapman decides the metre or rhyme require he be called Ithacus (man from Ithaca) or Laertiades (son of Laerties), confusing matters somewhat. Things get even more complicated when he starts calling Odysseus’ son Telemachus as ‘Ulissides’.

Chapman’s freewheeling couplets are a delightful experience and an obvious inspiration for Keats’s own loose couplets in his long poem Endymion, but Chapman does occasionally come out with doggerel like:
But his decrees,
That holds the earth in with his nimble knees,
Stand to Ulysses longings so extreme,
For taking from the god-foe Polypheme
His only eye – a Cylop, that excell’d
All other Cylcops…

The god with the nimble knees is Poseidon, by the way – not one of his most renowned characteristics. (Fitzgerald translates ‘Only the god who laps the land in water.) Then again, those of us inured to the rigours of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Spenser will have little difficulty ingesting Chapman’s archaic language, and our reward is the experience of reading a unique version of the Odyssey with none of the neoclassical coolness of Pope, the plain novelistic narration of D.C.H. Rieu, or the beautiful, spare modern verse of Fagles or Fitzgerald. It’s the kind of tale Odysseus’s crewmen might have told themselves, if any of them beside the hero had endured being eaten alive by the Lestrygonians, drowned in the whirlpool Charybdis, or waking with a bit of a start and falling off Circe’s roof (way to go, Elphenor)! It’s a delight to read aloud, a rollicking, freewheeling, anarchic collection of adventures with plenty of tall stories thrown in and plenty of swagger. It’s hard not to love Chapman for the moments where the Anglo-Saxon vernacular breaks through in ways no modern translator would dare. Most dramatic is this passage, in which Odysseus finally reveals his true identity to the suitors who have been wooing his wife while feasting and drinking at his expense, and exacts a bloody revenge upon them all.
The upper rags that wise Ulysses wore
Cast off, he rusheth to the great hall door
With bow and quiver full of shafts, which down
He pour’d before his feet, and thus made known
His true state to the wooers: ‘This strife thus
Hath harmless been decided; now for us
There rests another mark, more hard to hit,
And such as never man before hath smit;
Whose full point likewise my hands shall assay
And try if Phoebus will give me his day.’
He said, and off his bitter arrow thrust
Right at Antinous, that struck him just
As he was lifting up the bowl, to show
That ‘twixt the cup and lip much ill may grow.

But for a sample of Chapman’s verse at its most intense and characteristic, it is hard to fault the passage which Cowden Clarke tells us Keats was most struck by. It is in Book Five, where Odysseus has been shipwrecked and tossed in a storm for days, at the mercy of Poseidon’s wrath. Finally, spent and all but drowned, he makes landfall on Phyrigia.
Then forth he came, his both knees falt’ring, both
His strong hands hanging down, and all with froth
His cheeks and nostrils flowing, voice and breath
Spent to all use, and down he sunk to death.
The sea had soaked his heart through; all his veins
His toils had rack’d t’a labouring woman’s pains.
Dead weary was he.

A-roving by the light of the moon

moon_20020517

It was a brisk February night and I was camping out in the Lake District with my mountaineering friends. I had been hoping to get a spell of stargazing in, and things looked pretty good as I dismounted from the minibus, with Orion above the mountains, and the usually faint constellation of Lepus (the hare) clear beneath his feet. Unfortunately by the time we’d put our tents up a high light cloud had swept in across the sky like a veil, hiding everything except the waning crescent of the moon, to which it gave a diffuse and lovely lustre. My hopes of stellar observations were evidently thwarted. It was time we gave up and headed for the pub.

Yet as my friends pulled their head torches over their foreheads, and brilliant white diodes illuminated the road ahead in their wavering glare, the poet in me rebelled, and I hung back. The moon gave enough light to walk by, and I was keen to enjoy the night on its own terms. If I couldn’t admire the beauty of the heavens, this was the next best thing.

It took my friends a long time to pass me, and they would keep turning back for some parting comment on my eccentricity, and inadvertently dazzling me by the glare of their head torches. Finally, the last of them turned the corner, and I was alone on the unlighted road. The moon was behind me as I walked, and my eyes fed upon the darkness, slowly weaning themselves from the light. From the first I could make out the lines of the mountains that surrounded the valley, stark against the skies – then the trees overhanging the road – then the stones in the dry stone walls, and the sheep in the fields beyond them. A puzzling fork in the road turned out to be the twin arches of a bridge beneath which the river roared unseen.

Surprisingly, I find tarmac is one of the hardest things to walk on at night simply because it’s so featureless, so black and so even. The eye can’t pick out its texture, and each step is a battle against the half-conscious suspicion that a yawning pit is about to open beneath my feet and swallow me. In the woods, by contrast, the very roughness ground makes me swifter and more sure of myself. This added a new frisson to the fine chill February night, which already had more than a touch of the Gothic about it for those of us wandering beneath the moonlight. It was such a night as Coleridge describes:

Is the night chilly and dark?
The night is chilly but not dark.
The thin grey cloud is shed on high;
It covers, but not hides, the sky.
The moon is behind and at the full
And yet she looks both small and dull.
The night is chill, the cloud is grey.

I half expected to glimpse Christabel kneeling beside an old oak tree as I passed by. There were no electric lights in sight now, and I had become an anonymous traveller in the anonymous, timeless night.

In the eighteenth century, to travel at night and by moonlight was common. Country balls would be held at the full moon, so as to give enough light for the coaches to drive home when the evening wound to its close. In the great comic novels of Henry Fielding, Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews, the heroes travel as much by night as they do by day, frequently striking out from unfriendly inns at unlikely hours. They would have relied solely on their night vision. Only in the big cities would you have linkboys with flaming torches to guide late night drinkers from door to door.

Today it seems hard to imagine. My mountaineering friends had a gorgeous story of how they had arrived in Snowdonia on a brilliantly clear night, and decided on a whim to forsake their tents and climb Snowdon by starlight – but I had little doubt they’d done it all with their head torches shining out before them. In these days of constant lamplight and pocket torches, the darkness beyond has become more sinister, peopled with God knows what. It requires a real effort of will to step into it, to let your eyes adjust to the darkness, and resign yourself to the fact that each footfall is a leap of faith.

I turned a corner, and the electric lights of the pub dazzled me. The night vision I’d acquired over the course of half an hour was gone in a flash. My thoughts turned from Coleridge and Fielding to those famous lines of Byron:

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

Book rhymes

When I was cataloguing marginalia and provenance information in the Cardiff University Rare Books Collections, I discovered many interesting things – not least how dirty three century old books could be. Inside a tiny duodecimo copy of The Whole Duties of a Communicant, I found a beautiful hand-drawn map of Bath that someone had tucked away for safe-keeping. There was a wonderful, lavishly illustrated 17th century book on The Buccaniers of America that I would have given my whole months wages to walk off with, and plenty of the marginal annotations I’d been told to catalogue – some learned, some argumentative, some very funny.

One of my favourite discoveries were the book rhymes. They were the precursors of bookplates, lines of catchy doggerel that interested readers would scribble inside their front covers along with a few personal details, to mark the book as theirs and remind recalcitrant borrowers to return it promptly. The first one I came across was:

If thou art borrowed by a friend,
Right welcome shall he be
To read, to study, not to lend,
But to return to me.
Not that imparted knowledge doth
Diminish learning’s store,
But books, I find, when once they’re lent,
Return to me no more.

A nice enough piece of doggerel, but my favourite book rhyme is somewhat shorter, snappier, and more punchy:

If this book you steal away
What will you say
On judgement day?

Which summons the pleasant thought that when Christ descends from Heaven on the Last Day, to judge the quick and the dead, he will be particularly harsh on the subject of stolen books. Let the unrighteous tremble!

As to a book rhyme for the title page of my own volumes, I gave the matter five minutes of thought while I was in the shower the other night, and came up with the following attempt:

Steal this book away from me;
You are my enemy.
Drop it idly in the bath
And taste my wrath.
Tear or dog-ear any page
And feel my rage.
Break the spine, or spoil the story
And know my fury.
Return it safely to the shelf;
And stay in perfect health.

A little over-protective, perhaps – but no more than any of my treasures deserve.

The City of Dreadful Night

durer_melancholia_i

Lo, thus, as prostrate, “In the dust I write
My heart’s deep languor and my soul’s sad tears.”
Yet why evoke the spectres of black night
To blot the sunshine of exultant years?
Why disinter dead faith from mouldering hidden?
Why break the seals of mute despair unbidden,
And wail life’s discords into careless ears?

So begins James Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night, a work with justifiable pretence to the title of the most depressing poem ever written. Throughout its 21 separate sections it fleshes out an urban nightmare – a lifeless city of perpetual darkness illuminated only through the baleful glare of street lamps, along the streets of which lost souls wander aimlessly, each weighed down by their own tragedies. It is a place where the poet’s own alcoholism and depression, interlocked with the poverty and inequality of Victorian London, becomes solidified in bricks and mortar. No resolution or glimpse of a happy ending is offered, and at the close of the poems alternating sections of tragic narrative and Gothic description, Thomson leaves us only with ‘confirmation of the old despair.’ As far as I know, it is the only poem ever to advocate mass suicide:

They leave all hope behind who enter there:
One certitude while sane they cannot leave,
One anodyne for torture and despair;
The certitude of Death, which no reprieve
Can put off long; and which, divinely tender,
But waits the outstretched hand to promptly render
That draught whose slumber nothing can bereave.

Perversely, I love it. I must have read it twenty times over, and no matter how miserable, worthless and forlorn I feel at the time I pick up the book, by the time I put it down I always feel that perhaps my life really isn’t quite that unbearable after all. The world seems a brighter place in comparison with the gloom of the City, and after bearing with the unnameable sins and sorrows of the characters for a thousand lines or so, my heart leaps with catharsis. Not only that, but much of the poem’s violent atheist rhetoric is enjoyable and intensely quotable.

“The vilest thing must be less vile than Thou
From whom it had its being, God and Lord!
Creator of all woe and sin! abhorred,
Malignant and implacable! I vow

“That not for all Thy power furled and unfurled,
For all the temples to Thy glory built,
Would I assume the ignominious guilt
Of having made such men in such a world.”

“As if a being, God or Fiend, could reign,
At once so wicked, foolish and insane,
As to produce men when He might refrain!

A more pungent antidote to the mellifluous platitudes of Victorian religious verse cannot be imagined!

Its extremism offends perhaps as much as it entertains, but it is a helpful extremism, a place which marks the far end of the scale of disillusionment on which we all have to live. Somewhere between the rose-tinted glasses, and Thomson’s ‘bitter, old and wrinkled truth’, we have to strike a balance. The City of Dreadful Night is a warning not to slide too far to one end of the scale, and let your worldview become an unbearable trap. Even Thomson himself was happy for a good deal of his life, and other’s among his collected poems, such as ‘Sunday Up the River’ are joyous celebrations of bourgeois domesticity. Unsurprisingly, they don’t exact the same pull as the great gloomy Gothic edifice of his most famous work.

I have never believed in Thomson’s City to the extent that I have been prepared to throw myself off a bridge, but I have found the scale of disillusionment has tipping his way more than once. Here, for example, is a recording of Part IV of The City of Dreadful Night I made some years ago while suffering from a broken heart and an extremely bad cold:

City of Dreadful Night Part IV

Dreaming in Verse

English: Draft of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's po...

English: Draft of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was hired to take in the harvest in the autumn, I used to dream every night that I was back in the orchard rows, picking apples. When I was working as a shop assistant, I used to dream I was serving customers all night. This was, as you can imagine, absolutely exhausting.

Now that work involves reading books, or in the worst case critics (O happy state of University life!) my dreams have taken a different turn. Sometimes, after falling asleep in the middle of Keats’ Endymionor Wordsworth’s Prelude I end up dreaming in poetry, which is infinitely more interesting.

This is no new thing. Tennyson apparently composed a fifty line poem about fairies in his sleep, and forgot it all the moment he woke up in the morning. Coleridge worked out a three hundred line poem on Kubla Khan, of which he famously only wrote fifty before he was rudely interrupted by an anonymous person from Porlock and forgot the rest (though as his was an opium induced slumber, it shouldn’t, strictly speaking, count). My favourite is A.E. Housman, who woke in the small hours with these words on his lips:

 

When the bells justle in the tower
The hollow night amid,
Then on my tongue the taste is sour
Of all I ever did.

Which makes it look as easy as pie. It isn’t. Most of the time, the poetry gets forgotten the moment, or I gradually come to consciousness clutching to myself a golden and gleaming fragment of verse, which melts away to the profoundest nonsense in the morning’s rational light. One example which I did note down:

The Comte is the Comte
A most unhappy man
And these three creatures, strange and rare
Would cuckold him of his despair
And from her breed some bastard heir:
That seems to be their plan.

God (or Freud) alone knows what that means, except that possibly I’d been reading too much Byron. Yet I liked the idea of cuckolding someone of their despair so much I actually bothered to roll out of bed and fetch my notebook. There was one time where I did get a usable lyric out of a dream:

Are you cold? she asked me. I said I was
Though I was not really, for even then
I slept naked, beneath a thin duvet
And counted myself in the warm. But when

The voice seductive from the darkness calls
To ask you if you are not feeling cold
She wants the truth no more than you to tell it.
Go meet and warm her ere the night grows old.

I think the first verse is pretty much as dreamt, the second one mostly invented later. There was a lot of bizarre stuff about the sacrament of the snake which I had to cut out, and it took rather a long time to edit into a form where I was happy with it. I think it was either Pope or Swift who once made the lofty boast of never having excused a poem for the sake of a few lines, or a few lines for the sake of a poem. My notebooks are full of lingering, melodic lines without any context whatsoever, and it’s an unspeakable relief to finally hedge a poem around them. Dreaming up a few new fragments to puzzle over is no help at all.

While I was pouring over my files of snatches and doggerel for this, I also found this fragment, which I dug out of my 2007 diary, having completely forgotten about it since I was seventeen years old:

The lights go down, the music fades,
There’s silence in the aisles.
The first few frames begin to roll
Above the cinephiles.

It’s not a very remarkable poem. What spooks me slightly is that I wrote this almost two years before I developed any interest in writing poetry, and certainly long before I had any idea of iambics, and the metrical patterns of the ballad stanza – and yet this is a perfectly acceptable ballad verse. Odd, the things your brain can do while you aren’t really using it.

Last night, by contrast, I dreamt I was sharing my bed with an adder and a small baby leopard, which is much more typical. Of my dreams, that is.

On my sleeping bag

Each morning, when I drag
Out of my sleeping bag
Into the cold dawn air, my languid limbs
I bless the bag that keeps me warm
In frost and sleet and thunderstorm
And all the English weather’s whims.

Each evening, when I crawl
Into its folds, and fall
Asleep the moment that my eyelids shut,
I bless the bag that lets me sleep
So long, refreshingly and deep,
Within the draughty mountain hut.

In January or June,
Within this warm cocoon
I know a long and restful night will pass,
Though I am far from home and bed,
Without a pillow for my head
And with no mattress but the dewy grass.

And this, you see, is the problem with writing in metre. You scribble, and strike through, and scribble, counting stresses on your fingers and muttering rhyme words to yourself, and suddenly you realise you haven’t produced a poem but a jingle – something full of symettry, and alliteration, and vowel patterning, but completely destitute of any of the thought or feeling that made you want to write a poem in the first place. As I cannot find it in me to burden this glittering, silly little fragment with any more serious reflection, the only thing to do is continue in prose.

My sleeping bag is a Lamina O, which I bought for £99 three years ago from Cotswolds. It may have been the best purchase I’ve ever made. Quite apart from all the camping and sofa-surfing I’ve done over the years, my sleeping bag is, first and foremost, where all the work gets done. In the dark, skint days of my undergraduate, where it once dipped down to eight degrees celcius INSIDE my room, it was a haven of warmth, a cocoon of quiet reflection. I would do my reading in it, and write my essays in it; eat my dinner in it, and watch TV in it. If it had actually had legs, like one I saw in a hiking shop in the Lake District, I would never have taken it off. The basic format of my evening in, for a number of months, would be to get into my sleeping bag and read for my course until I nodded off mid-sentence (they may be great things to work in, but they don’t keep you awake!). I would then wake up around three AM in an extremely muzzy state, throw off all my clothes and tumble into my bed, which conveniently was only three feet away from the sofa where all the reading happened. Yes, I could have done all this under the duvet and saved myself the trip, but my bedsheets were never so versatile, and even more soporific than my sleeping bag.

Besides, there’s a feeling of smugness unique to the sleeping bag (and this is what I wanted to work into the poem, but couldn’t find the heart). Unlike the duvet, where there is always the risk of sticking my foot out of the covers into a frigid zone, or at least a colder part of the bed, a sleeping bag gives me complete enclosure. And with it, the delightful consciousness that it’s my own body heat, reflected back on me, that’s keeping me so nice and toasty. Never mind the radiators, or the gas fire, or the snow outside – while I’m in my sleeping bag, I’m entirely self-sufficient.

I suggested to a friend that this made the sleeping bag a fitting emblem of the happy bachelor state – of complete self-containedness and contentment with one’s wants. She just laughed. You can too – but I’ll be snug and warm inside my sleeping bag, so don’t expect me to care.