Upon Chawton House: A Poem

What would you have done if you had invented one of the key components of the internet and promptly become very rich indeed? It would be hard to think of a better solution than that of Sandy Lerner, co-inventor of the router, who bought up a rundown manor house in Chawton, Hampshire, which had once belonged to Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen-Knight. After a decade of extensive restoration, Chawton House reopened as one of Britain’s newest research libraries, specialising in women’s literature.

Last year, I fulfilled a dream of mine from my MA days, and got to spend a month there as a visiting fellow, researching my PhD. From the Steinway grand in the living room to the shiny copper pans hanging over the kitchen table to the four-poster bed, I’d never lived like it before and never will since.

This must be what it was like to have an aristocratic patron, I thought to myself. The idea sprang into my head of a modern take on the country house poem, in the tradition of Ben Jonson and Andrew Marvell, that would thank the staff for my unforgettable month here. I daydreamed of being appointed Chawton House’s poet laureate and being given my own tiny office in the eaves of the house, where I would write poems to Sandy Lerner’s cats and subsist solely on sherry. Alas, it was not to be—but I did manage to see my poem printed in the library’s newsletter, The Female Spectator.

Now that Hampshire’s poet laureate has paid a visit and written a sequence of poems about her time there, I thought it high time I gave my poem a new airing.

Fruitful October’s been and gone
And drear November’s drawing on
At Chawton House, so much renowned
For wholesome air and fertile ground
As every fruit tree here evinces,
Weighed down with apples, pears and quinces.
Though roses droop and leaves may fall
Before the threat of frost and squall,
From every pamphlet, every tome
A harvest has been gathered home,
From every essay, poem and story:
And still the grounds are in their glory
Of gold and brown and yellow green
And mixtures hardly sung or seen.
To stroll amid the wilderness
And see the woods in autumn dress
Adds a fresh pleasure to the store:
Then back into the house once more!
For there are concerts to applaud
Upon the polished harpsichord,
And morning light that gilds and graces
The panelled rooms and fireplaces,
And portraits splendid in their frames
Of gay coquettes and haughty dames,
And Knights of centuries gone by
Who gaze with an approving eye.
Plush window seats, where I am certain
To hide behind th’embroidered curtain
And read for hours like Jane Eyre
Or even – dare I? – take the chair
Where Austen used to sit and write.
There is no end to my delight,
For there are shelves and stacks and hoards
Of Books en dishabille in boards,
Or paperbacks – pert springy nippers,
Or grave octavos in their slippers,
Or volumes – three or four together
All bound in fine Morocco leather,
Whilst slim selecteds – bold young turks –
Vie with august collected works
To entertain me with their art:
How sad that they and I must part!

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Poetry Reading: The Astronomer dreams of Winter

Sleeping in summer, the stars of winter night
Blaze with a cold clear blaze in his dull dreaming.
Sirius arises, the hard-to-see hare,
Lepus, lies plain at the feet of Orion,
Bright as Taurus, Auriga and Cassiopeia,
In the untinted ink of a sun-deserted sky.
Who would prize those months of midnight haze
Over the cold crispness, when the air catches
And bites cleanly, steaming as it leaves the lungs
Like the breath of the dragon, wound between the lesser bear
And the greater? He groans for it, stewed in his night-sweats,
Suffering his sky-lack, his star-thirst.
Meantime, at four in the muggy morning
The day’s dawned a dull blue-grey.

Sometimes I dream in verse, but all that ever seems to leave me in the mornings is a few maddening, strange fragments of poetry. This one is the other way around – a dream I had one extremely hot, muggy summer night, where I hadn’t seen the night sky for days, and which I worked into a poem when I woke up.

Since then, I’m glad to say the sky has cleared a bit, and I recently spent a pleasant hour stargazing in the middle of a dark cricket pitch. During that time I learnt a few new constellations and spotted one of the Aquarid meteor shower streaking through the southern horizon, so it hasn’t all been as bad as the poem makes out.

Poetry Reading: A Chilean Pine in Wales

The monkey-puzzle tree tosses its boughs
Like great green fishbones swimming on the wind,
The wind that swept the high Welsh hillside bare
And tumbled every stone from stone to ruin
Where once a farmhouse stood beneath its shade,
Now roofless, roomless, shelterless and lone.
Made fanciful, I wonder at the cat
That stripped the fishflesh from these kippered bones
And who would hang them up and let them grow
So mouldering and green – so dead and full
Of life. This might have been a home of giants;
These branches might have been the skeletons
Of salmon, spawned from him that secret lies
In Llyn Llifon, the Ancient of the World
That once bore Arthur’s knights upon his shoulders.
The family that planted first the seed
Is vanished into history or myth,
Yet still the Chilean pine remains and thrives.
You might have thought it swam its way across
The wide Atlantic on its own, so strong
And agilely the branches tailfins flick
With stroke on stroke upon the fluid air.

From my diary of the time: ‘Sunday [29th May 2012] I dared the rain and high winds & set off to Neath with the ramblers. We had an interesting walk on the Afan forest trail. I enjoyed the windswept ridge, & the ruined farmhouse where we stopped for lunch, with the wildly out of place monkey puzzle tree tossing its branches above us, like great green fishbones trying to swim on the wind. Unfortunately, by the walk’s end my arms were stinging with the cold, & my toes wet in my boots, so it was a relief to reach the minibus & be back to James and Julie’s house for tea and biscuits.’

The first image of the fishbones was with me from the start, but the rest of the poem was slow in coming. The tree was stuck in my imagination. Flourishing and verdant and completely out of place, it seemed to have a mythic power that was completely disproportionate to its origins. It reminded me in some ways of the dragon bones I once saw, which they still keep chained up outside the Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, Poland. The guidebook said that they were probably bones of a mammoth, or a rhinoceros, or a whale, but it was impossible to believe they were anything other than a dragon. Equally, it was impossible to believe that such a tree had been so prosaically carried across the ocean and planted here, as the noticeboards said, and I began to think of other explanations.

The salmon of Llyn LLifon is one of the most fascinating figures in the surviving Welsh mythology. He first appears in the magnificently bonkers tale of How Culhwch won Olwen, in the Mabinogion, where Kei and Bedwyr (Kay and Bedivere) ride upon his shoulders to the rescue of the imprisoned knight, Mabon son of Modron. I borrowed him from a wonderful early R.S. Thomas poem, ‘The Ancients of the World‘.

Poetry reading: Love song of Iron

 

Love song of Iron

“Like a blacksmith the Love God has hammered me and crushed me
on his anvil, and has plunged me in a wintry torrent”
Anacreon of Teos, translated by Richmond Lattimore

Blacksmith girl, bright sweat pearled, copper skin flaring red,
Seizing me up from the flames of your forges, you
Held me in tongs as you hammered me, moulded me.
Pinned on your anvil, by hot fires made pliable,
Slowly I yielded, I bent to your rhythmic strokes,
Took to the shapes that your great strength impressed on me;
Ornamentations and stamps of your craftsmanship,
Bent to your blows, till at last you were satisfied.
Then when you took me and plunged me in cold water,
Hissing and spitting around me in spitefulness,
Chilling my heart till I set hard, unchangeable;
No longer flexible, fluid, mercurial;
Lumpen and cold with a frigid solidity.
Now as I lie here forgotten and purposeless,
Rusted, decaying and crumbling to uselessness,
Buried in scrapheaps in desolate wastelands, I
Yearn for the forges, the touch of high temperatures,
Scorching away at the tarnish of centuries,
Rending me down and restoring to purity
My mundane metal, recasted, reborn again
Reshaped anew at the hands of the blacksmith girl.

 

As a self-taught poet, the hardest part of learning the craft was iambic pentameter. No-one could seem to make it clear. They would say “It has ten syllables, and goes “dee-dum dee-dum dee-dum dee-dum dee-dum”, and I would be as in the dark as I ever was. Fortunately, I had a job on the tills at WHSmiths at the time, and had taken up memorising poetry as something to do to keep my brain alive and prevent me from becoming a check-out zombie. Halfway through Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, iambic pentameter simply decoded in my head. Like the proper union of gin and vermouth, it was a great and sudden glory.

It was still a long while and many scratched out lines of verse before I could write confidently in metre. ‘Love song of Iron’ is only the second poem I ever wrote that I am prepared to exhibit, and dates that my learning period. Yet this ended up somewhat to the poem’s advantage. It was not written in iambic pentameter, but in a spondaic metre I devised from scratch while I was trying to get my head around the difficult metres of Ancient Greek poetry. If it ever sounds forced, it’s because it was written to the sound of hammer on metal – a repetitive three-beat DONG-DONG-dong. That beat rang out in my head for years, and made it impossible to read the poem properly. I was reading to the hammer blows, not to the natural rhythm of the words, and under those impacts the poem shattered to pieces in my mouth. Much later, when the hammer beat had faded, I came back and read it again, and – to my surprise – found it satisfactory. This is a natural, unforced reading of the poem – yet I think you can still hear the hammer beats beneath it, the relentless rhythm that is driving the poem on.