Books I read this September

img_1451.jpgThis was my first month teaching in the secondary school system, and if I still managed to read eleven books, it’s only down to the fact that many of them are slim Penguin biographies of under a hundred pages. I’m looking forward to breaking into something substantial over October half term.

Accelerando, by Charles Stross

Nothing dates faster than the future, and this early work by one of my favourite writers already seems a touch dated. The opening chapters are cyberpunk to the point of self-parody, but each of the chapters time-jumps a decade or more, and halfway through the book most of the inner solar system is already being broken down for computational substrate, while an interstellar mission has discovered an alien wormhole network out in the Oort cloud. It’s a bit like watching The Expanse on fast forward. Exhausting at times–Stross does love to ping the ideas about–but never dull.

The Homeric Hymns, trans. Jules Cashford

Worth reading as the earliest source for Greek myths–the abduction of Prosperine, for example, which my girlfriend maintains is the cover for an awesome Goth romance, but as told here is more of a mother-daughter story. The longer ones–to Apollo, Demeter, Aphrodite and especially Hermes–are most interesting, since most of the others are short and unremarkable, and Cashford doesn’t do these many favours by centre-spacing them, in a bid to make them look poetic by the standard of Instagram. Hermes is far and away the highlight, since the hymn to him as a wildly precocious young trickster God is a total tonal leap apart from the rest of material. It’s funny, sarky, and full of life, and I may try my hand at writing my own slang version.

The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester

Another dated future, this one of the 1950s. The solar system’s colonised and a sizable proportion of the human race have developed telepathy, but computers are still specialised devices the size of rooms. This one’s a crime proceedural, rather than a mystery. Ben Reich, head of the Monarch corporation, plots the perfect murder, and then Lincoln Powell, the telepathic Chief of Police, has to catch him out. The Freudian twist is that Reich’s motives aren’t what he assumes. Would make an interesting companion to a Philip K. Dick novel.

George I: The Lucky King, by Tim Blanning

Blanning admits immediately that the first Hanoverian King isn’t the most interesting in the dynasty, but the advantage of these sub-100 page Penguin Monarchs is that you can learn a good deal about the lesser lights without having to swallow a doorstopper. The biography of Henry VIII I read in this series felt overstuffed–poor Catherine Howard was married and killed off in the course of a paragraph–but here we get an easy tour of the reign’s highlights: Handel’s water music, the South Sea Bubble, Walpole scheming, ructions with the Prince of Wales, and endless European wars handled with admirable clarity and lightness of touch. Blanning has a good eye for anecdotes, and never lets the Electorate of Hanover slip out of focus while he’s narrating the affairs of England. Overall, rather a lucky commission.

James II: The Last Catholic King, by David Wormsley

The cover of this one presents James II as a looming, bewigged panto villain, so it’s a surprise how handsome he is in his portraits, particularly in his younger days as Duke of York and Lord Admiral, with a strong chin, good posture, and none of his father’s wispy facial hair. Wormsley likes to focus on this period, the colourful Restoration days when Pepys, Evelyn and Dryden were writing, and we’re halfway through the book before James comes to the throne. The question Wormsley focusses on is how it all went so wrong so fast, and while this threatens to enmesh him in tangles of historiography, he pulls through and gives a vivid portrait of a tactless, stubborn and imperious monarch who kept blundering and blundering until he finally had to flee the country. Plus, I have a soft spot for any historian still willing to quote Macaulay with enjoyment.

Edward II: The Terrors of Kingship, by Christopher Given-Wilson

Another failed King, this one famously a) gay and b) executed by red-hot poker up the jacksie, though both these received facts are questioned in this book. His struggles with the barons are rather hard going at times, since there are a lot of Mortimers, Pembrokes and Gloucesters to keep track off. Given-Wilson does manage to give a character to Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, and keeps us clued in to Robert the Bruce’s nation building and the dizzy throne-swapping in France. The life is briskly run through in four equal chapters, plus a welcome epilogue on legacy, which touches on a failed sainthood bid, Marlowe’s history play, and his adoption as a gay icon.

William I: England’s Conqueror by Marc Morris

William the Conqueror (or the Bastard, as he was known in his own times) is one of those Kings who exist as dates and battles rather than personalities. Aside from sketchy representations on his coinage and the Bayeux Tapestry, there isn’t even a portrait of him, so while Morris fills in the build-up and aftermath of the famous battle in Hastings well enough, the material can sometimes be a little dry. Two new facts leapt out at me: firstly, William was England’s first abolitionist, abolishing chattel slavery among the Anglo-Saxons, something that sits very oddly alongside his reputation as a brutal overlord. Secondly, it looks like the Domesday Book wasn’t a tax record after all, but a land register: a way to establish property ownership, alongside the principle that all land was held from the King.

Complete Poems, by Basil Bunting

I’d read through Briggflats a couple of times, and always put it aside as a poem needing more study and annotation that I could spare. So the sheer readability of this collection came as a surprise to me. Bunting’s other long poems, or sonatas as he calls them, are relatively accessible, filled with a pugnacious vitality, and very much of their eras. The 30s stuff, filled with meditations of castration and sterility, is influenced by Eliot’s The Waste Land without being slavishly imitative, and Bunting, never without as sense of humour, can be entertainingly brusque with Eliot’s elegaic postures. The short poems, or Odes, are a marvellous assortment. I was delighted by the pair of emigrant ballads smuggled in alongside the verse libre, and sniggered at the appendix of limericks.

Henry V: Playboy Prince to Warrior King, by Anne Curry

A neatly structured pocket biography, but I got to the end feeling like Shakespeare had covered all the major points. It was good to hear about some of the behind the scenes events–troubles with Lollard heresy, Henry IV’s probable syphilis and relations between King and parliament–but nothing here challenged the narrative shape and characterisation set by the history plays.

Pericles and Fabius Maximus, by Plutarch

Not the most obvious pairing in the Parallel Lives, Pericles being the politician’s politician, and F.M. the general’s general. I find the latter more sympathetic, in the stoic tradition of generalship that extends to Grant and Patton, fighting off Hannibal and public opinion simultaneously. With Pericles in the golden age of Athens, you can see why the rest of Greece hated them, and how much effort it took Pericles to keep the wheels on while he lived. Still, it was worth it to leave us the Parthenon.

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

My first time reading through this Dickens novel, as part of the project of reading all the school set texts I should probably have read by this stage. George Bernard Shaw does right to call it his most compactly perfect novel; Our Mutual Friend is still my favourite, but that’s an enormous, baggy, novel full of tour-de-force chapters, while this is one complete, compelling tale with nothing superfluous in it.

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Excerpt from The Fortress Unvanquishable

Some of you may remember my high-fantasy ballad, The Fortress Unvanquishable Save For Sacnoth; I wrote a making-of blog here. Here’s two minutes of the full thirty minute run time, presented as an audition piece.

In this part of the poem, the hero Leothric has been told that he must defeat Tharagaverug, the metal crocodile, in order to forge the sword Sacnoth from his body. Accordingly,

He wore his coat of shining mail,
He wore his battle-helm…

 

Books I read this August

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This wasn’t my most ravenous month for reading, distracted as I was by a two week residential course and preparations to move to Birmingham. Lord knows how far my rate will fall off do when I’m holding down a job! Most of these were rather slim things, apart from one mighty tome I’d been nibbling away at for months.

William Morgan, by Richard Tudor Edwards

A biography of the first Welsh translator of the Bible, read because a friend of mine is looking after his birthplace for the National Trust. It’s beautifully printed, and the first chapter is a charmingly dated sketch of Tudor Wales compared to the Wales of the 1960s, before the A470 linked the country up. As a biography, however, it’s a bust: tedious in its speculations, boringly repetitive in its use of the few known facts of Morgan’s life, and without any useful insight into his character.

The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter, by Ambrose Bierce

An enjoyable little Gothic novella by a writer I always get confused with Algernon Blackwood. From what I’ve read, however, Bierce seems to be a better and less anti-Semitic author.

Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt, by Nicola Shulman

A good biography that leverages the little that’s known of Wyatt’s early career to give us a potted history of Tudor intrigue at the court of Henry VIII, sustained by brilliant and accessible close readings of Wyatt’s poetry. Particularly good on Wyatt’s later life, when we’re past the reigns of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn (rather familiar ground for me) and Wyatt starts to come into his own as a diplomat. Made me keen to reread the poetry, armed with new knowledge.

Othello, by William Shakespeare

Read while dogsitting for my girlfriend’s mother, a Shakespeare PhD, and the Irish wolfhound tried to eat it. Not one I’ve seen onstage, so I imagined Daniel Kaluuya as Othello and Gemma Arterton as Desdemona.

The Hound of Ulster, by Rosemary Sutcliff

A beautifully written retelling of the story of Cuchulain for children. I had only very vague ideas of the Irish myths before hand, so this was an education, and will be handy next time I try to read William Butler Yeats’s early poetry. Rather similar to the Iranian stories of Rostam in the Shanameh, the book focuses on a superhuman hero who kills his own son without learning his identity. Reading Sutcliff, however, is much easier than battling through Ferdowsi in translation.

Maigret, Lognon and the Gangsters, by Georges Simenon

A thriller rather than a detective novel, which is not quite what I want when I pick up a Maigret, but the Paris of the 1950s comes through vividly, and the French impressions of the American gangsters give the book an interesting viewpoint.

Life of Numa, by Plutarch

A biography of Rome’s almost mythological second King, the one who is credited with first bringing peace to the city state and instituting their religious practices. Like the biography of Lycurgus the Spartan it’s paired with, it’s less interesting for any insight into character than it is for customs, especially in the case of the Vestal Virgins, and the special priest-caste who had the responsibility of declaring war. It’s also amusing, as a recovering academic, to see Plutarch spend pages defending his thesis of Pythagoras’s influence on Numa, only to conclude that to spend much longer on this vexed issue would savour of youthful contentiousness.

Charmenides, by Plato

A brief inconclusive dialogue on wisdom or temperance (language barriers make the distinction confusing). Socrates is introduced to the beautiful youth, Charmenides, but instead of accepting his host’s invitation to look at him naked, he debates philosophy with him (only in Plato). Read online, in a Victorian translation that held up surprisingly well.

The High Deeds of Finn MacCool, by Rosemary Sutcliff

While reading The Hound of Ulster I never lost sight of the fact I was reading a high, gloomy myth cycle about the days when the great heroes bestrode Ireland like giants. With Finn MacCool, I relaxed, and started enjoying it the same way I enjoy a children’s fantasy like The Wizard of Earthsea. It helps that Finn is so much more human than Cuchulain, with his love for his hunting dogs and his first wife doing a lot to make him identifiable. Even when jealousy turns him against his friend Dearmid at the end, he’s still more engaging than the gloomy beserker of Ulster, and the stories that cluster around him are a stranger and more varied bunch, including the same origin story, regarding the salmon of knowledge, that the Welsh give to Taliesin.

Ion, by Plato

Socrates in dialogue with Ion, a vain and rather silly rhapsode (reciter of Homer) who he ties in rhetorical knots. Worth reading for its conception of the work of art as a magnetic chain: the Muse inspires the poet who inspires the performer who inspires the audience. The poet in me rather than the philosopher, however, wishes that Ion had put up more of a fight.

The Moon-Eyed People, by Peter Stevenson

A rather mixed bag of Welsh and American folk tales, with delightful illustrations. Reviewed for Wales Arts Review.

Mason and Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon

A 700+ page tome I read a few chapters at a time as the mood took me, like Les Miserables and some of Dickens. As an eighteenth centuryist, I caught a few of the obscure references in this rambling novel, but no doubt many others passed me by completely. The loose structure allows for charming digressions and excursions: a Samuel Johnson cameo, a mechanical duck that achieves consciousness, and most agreeably, a retelling of the story of the Lambton Worm, which I remember from my childhood. Of the Pynchon I’ve read, it’s more satisfying than Bleeding Edge, but less approachable than Inherent Vice.

Doctor Who: The Roundheads, by Mark Gatiss

Some find period scene setting, and Gatiss, who went on to write for the modern show, has a good grasp of how to write dialogue, run scenes in parallel, and end on a cliffhanger. In the end, though, this felt like a runaround without much substance behind it.

Nine Perfect Strangers, by Liane Moriarty

A 12 hour read, pacy and deeply enjoyable, with a little post-modern frisson in its later pages. One of the rare ones where the writer seems to be having as much fun as the reader.

Lives of Publicola and Timoleon, by Plutarch

Publicola drops you right into the middle of the aftermath of the rape of Lucrece, a period I vaguely know from Shakespeare, Macaulay and obscure Restoration tragedy. It would be hard to understand without that assumed background knowledge. Timoleon is from a period entirely unknown to me, but I caught up fast, and found the eviction of the tyrants and the restoration of democracy to Greek Sicily rather stirring.

Books I read this July

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Some good reading in the sunshine this month, as I worked my way through fourteen books, some of which were read in a hammock.

Byron: The Years of Fame, by Peter Quennell

The only people I’ve read more than one biography of are Samuel Johnson, John Milton and Lord Byron–and for all that Byron’s life was cut short at half the age of the two latter poets, his life is immeasurably greater in incident. Witness this charming Penguin paperback from the 1950s, which devotes 270 pages to the five years he spent in London between continental trips.

The book suffers a little from the limitations of its era–Lord B’s bisexuality is barely explored and the author sometimes gives him the benefit of the doubt where he really doesn’t deserve it. It’s impossible to write a boring book about Byron, however and the poet’s meteoric trajectory from prickly outsider to literary celebrity, from Don Juan to Bluebeard, from socialite to exile, is grippingly traced. Byron himself never writes a dull word. I particularly like his put down of a society beauty: ‘Her figure, though genteel, was too thin to be good, and wanted that roundness which elegance would vainly supply.

Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges

Many of these I’ve read before–starting with ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’, which I ploughed through in my early teens because Douglas Adams told me to. Their cleverness can be exhausting in the aggregate; if Samuel Johnson accused Milton of looking at nature through the spectacles of books, Borges looks at books through the spectacles of books through the spectacles of yet more books!

One of the delights of this reread is that I’ve caught up with the master, and can cast a knowing eye over his references and even catch him out where he fudges the plot of Attar’s poem The Conference of the Birds.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Feeling a sudden appetite for a long, dense Dad book, I devoured this 750 page doorstop. I found myself surprising exercised by the arrogance and constant procrastination of General McClellan, and relishing it whenever Lincoln would digress into storytelling. Following Lincoln’s rivals for the presidential nomination into his cabinet means we follow four protagonists over decades–the events of Spielberg’s film Lincoln take up about 4 pages! Huge in scale and ambition, you feel a genuine pang when Lincoln is shot and Seward stabbed.

The Unexplored Ocean, by Catherine Fisher

Found this in the library, to follow on from The Bramble King last month. Recognised a handful of poems from anthologies. Enjoyed the title sequence, but preferred Bramble King overall, where the themes and sequences seemed tighter and better formed.

Sonnets, by Cecco Angiolieri, trans C.H. Scott and Anthony Mortimer

I’m a fan of Mortimer’s translations, and this collection of 130 sonnets by the black sheep of the age of Dante preserves form and metre faultlessly, together with a rowdy sense of humour. It’s not as infectious or compelling as Mortimer’s translation of Villon’s Testament, but that’s a difference in the original authors, not a lapse in the translator’s craft.

61 hours, by Lee Child

A swift punchy Jack Reacher novel to follow Team of Rivals. I like the small town Reacher novels best, and this one has him in a South Dakota winter, which is a whole new element to fight. The bad guy is satisfyingly evil, and it ends on an effective cliffhanger. Of course, I know Reacher survives, because I’ve already read the fourth book on from this one.

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita is the one everyone raves about, but I liked this a great deal more. Imaginatively constructed as a poem and commentary that tell wildly different stories. Hugely entertaining and amusing. Thought, however, that the proposed alternative solution–that the commentator is mad–was a sop thrown to the kind of dreary critics who can’t suspend disbelief for anything.

Reflections on Writing, by Diana Wynn Jones

An essay collection by a children’s author I never got into at the right age, but am thinking of seeking out. The same old anecdotes recur, as is inevitable in a collection of pieces, but there’s usually a new phrase or detail in them, and the advice on writing is cogent, helpful and nowhere near as repetitive as Terry Pratchett’s in A Slip of the Keyboard. My favourite parts were her memories of being taught by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, her superbly funny memory of what must have been a difficult childhood, and the transcript of a radio talk by her son, which helps put the whole book into perspective and makes sure the sympathy’s not wholly on her side.

Half a War, by Joe Abercrombie

I’ve waited so long for this book to hit the library! The third and probably my least favourite of the trilogy, but largely because the set-pieces in the last two books were so thrilling, and this one, for all of its battles and stratagems, has nothing to rival them. The characters are still just as intriguing, however. Yarvi, the unlikely hero of Half a King, warped by the years into a Machiavellian manipulator as cruel as the power he seeks to supplant; rough-edged Thorn Batthu, the female warrior of Half the World; and the new pair, Raith, a beserker, and Skara, thrust into the role of Queen. Pacy read, making good use of multiple perspectives.

Afternoons Go Nowhere, by Sheenagh Pugh

Wry and wide-ranging poetry collection, reviewed for Wales Arts Review.

Once Upon A Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, by Marina Warner

A deeply read history of fairy tale collections: Grimm, Perrault, Hans Christian Anderson, the Arabian Nights, and separate chapters dedicated to psychological and feminist response. Interesting, but somewhat dry and rather a chore–and it gets tiring being bombarded with references to books one hasn’t read and films one hasn’t seen, even if familiar figures like Angela Carter do occasionally pop up. Closest thing to an academic book I’ve read since my Viva!

American Supernatural Tales, ed. S.T. Joshi

I skipped the House of Usher and Cthulu as overfamiliar. The immediately post-war era was a particular favourite of mine–enjoyed Clark Ashton-Smith’s Martian grave ghouls, Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame) doing a Faustian pact story, and Fritz Leiber (who I mainly know from fantasy) writing a vampire supermodel who, I think, inspired a Neil Gaiman story. My interest wanes a little in the post-modern reference and stylistic pyrotechnics towards the end of the book, but Ligotti and McKielan produce a good shudder. Joshi is good on the changing dynamics of the publishing industry, but rather snobbish towards Stephen King, whose genre claims he artificially weakens by selecting ‘Night Surf’, a forgettable dry-run for The Stand, rather than the genuine pulpy thrills of something like ‘The Mangler’.

On Watching a Lemon Sail the Sea, by Maggie Harris

This book was sent to me by a woman who liked my review of The Bramble King. The deliberately eccentric title heralds a collection interested in the unlikely juxtapostions of Harris’s Guyanese-British heritage. The mood throughout is lyrical and overflowing with colours and tastes, leaning towards long lines that droop off the pages of even this squarish book. I like the way the Guyanese poems use a dialect not present anywhere else in the word, and the relationship with the inanimate in ecstatic apostrophes and personifications. The third person poems where the person described is clearly the poet herself strike me as rather arch; better is the Yeatsian title of ‘Daphne laments her coming of age’ with its rueful beginning ‘We are no longer friends, my body and I.’

Selected Prose, by Sir Thomas Browne

I found myself avid for more Browne after the brief excerpts from In Search of Sir Thomas Browne last month, and thankfully this Carcanet anthology, bought purely out of love for Carcanet anthologies, was already on the shelf. Broken into thematic chunks, it’s more suitable for browsing than reading through, except for the central chunk, which produces Browne’s most famous prose piece, Urn Burial, in full. Gorgeously ornate in his musings on mortality, his scientific writings on biology are also entertaining for their insight into the 17th century world, and the sheer charm of his descriptions. I revived the contemporary habit of leaving a manicule in the margin of sections I found particularly arresting.

Books I read this June

IMG_1352As an English Literature PhD, you can expect that I read a fair bit. Eighteen books this month, in fact. Here’s the full list from my journal:

An Irish Navvy: The Diary of an Exile by Donall MacAmhlaigh, trans. Valentin Iremonger

Colourful and insightful diary of a working-class immigrant from Kilkenny to Northampton. Interesting insight into how important talk and storytelling were in the absence of TV and radio, and how much the navvies lived a life of the mind even after a day of backbreaking labour.

The Bramble King by Catherine Fisher

Poetry collection that’s more like the material for an autobiography and several fantasy novels, laid by and preserved. Full review here.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

I fell in love with this for the footnotes, but despite the abundance of local colour and fascinating glimpses into a closed society, there wasn’t enough plot to urge me to seek out the sequel, and the central couple were considerably less interesting than the supporting cast. Would be tempted to seek out the film, however.

Aladdin, or The Wonderful Lamp, trans. Sir Richard Burton

Enjoyed reading this Arabian Nights original and noting its many variances from the Disney movie, but rather missed Burton’s lengthy and eccentric footnotes, not included in this edition.

Nets to Catch the Wind by Elinor Wylie

A recommendation from Jo Walton’s Tor blog, which I read on Project Gutenberg. Lush Yeatsian verse. Discovered the last line of ‘The Falcon’ has been haunting me since first I read it in some anthology or the other. Ordered the collected works.

In Search of Sir Thomas Browne by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Not a biographical study, but a meditation on what unites and divides two science writers across 350 years. Both are genial company, and Aldersey-Williams has some intriguing thoughts on how Browne’s worldview differs from his own.

The Birthplace by Henry James

Enjoyable novella where the Jamesian style is distinctive but not laid on thick enough to suffocate, coupled with an insufferable smug introduction by Mark Rylance.

Doctor Who: Interference Book One by Lawrence Miles

I got into Doctor Who in the years prior to RTD’s big 2005 relaunch, when BBC books were still printing an Eighth Doctor novel every month or so. They were meant to be read sequentially, but as an impoverished teen I was limited to what I could get out of the library and the occasional remaindered stock that turned up in the works. The effect was rather like being introduced to the Steven Moffat era through Let’s Kill Hitler, only worse.

There’s a hardcore completionist still lurking in me fifteen years later, so spotting this book in a secondhand bookshop for half what it goes for on eBay, I took a pop at this famous novel from the enfant terrible of the range. It’s brimming with ideas and well-written, with a pleasantly period tinge of the nineties, but it suffers from the BBC author’s habit of putting the Doctor through as much torture as possible. I’d be tempted to go on to Part Two–but have you seen what that goes for on eBay?

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirilees

An English fantasy novel, drawing from Goblin Market and The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and influencing Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. Deals with the lives of folk who live on the borders of fairyland, and the attractions and dangers of luscious contraband fairy fruit.

Doctor Who: The Taking of Planet Five by Simon Bucher-Jones and Mark Clapham

Interference tempted me to return to old Doctor Who novels, and this crossover with H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness was less solemn than the last book but very successful at presenting a huge-scale science-fiction adventure–entire universes hang in the balance–without drowning in technobabble. A very satisfying munch, and a surprisingly good entry-point to the arc.

Poirot’s Early Cases by Agatha Christie

Eighteen stories makes this collection overstuffed–I would have liked fewer stories of greater length–but Poirot and Hastings are charming, and some of the stories are little masterpieces, particularly ‘The King of Clubs’, ‘The Third Floor Flat’ and ‘How Does Your Garden Grow’. They need to be read over a course of evenings, however, because all at once is too much.

Solon and Alexander in Plutarch’s Lives

Two very different men–one a lawgiver so ambivalent about power he left Athens for ten years in order to give his laws time to bed in, and the other the conqueror of one of the greatest empires known to man. Solon’s is the more endearing story but Alexander’s is the most marvellous. I may steal some details of the Siege of Tyre for a short story.

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

The sequel to The Just City, a book that enthralled me but ended unsatisfactorily, The Philosopher Kings ends with a literal deus ex machina so complete that seeking out the third volume, Necessity, hardly feels necessary. I still find the plain, unsensuous philosophical style a great draw, even as its attention to torture and sexual violence repels. I still enjoy the long stretches of conversation and debate, and still skip ahead to read the sections narrated by Maia, unquestionably the best character–the two others, Apollo and Arete, start to sound the same after a while. Where the previous book made me eager to read more Plato, however, this book with its long sea voyages made me keener to reread Homer. With the Platonic cities removed, at the book’s conclusion, from the pre-historic Aegean to a far-future planet, my enthusiasm for the series drops off.

To Catch A King: Charles II’s Great Escape by Charles Spencer

Read over a period of several months. A compelling history borrowed for a mooted historical novel I will likely never write. I already knew more than most about Charles II’s famous sojourn in the Royal Oak, but the book is particularly good on the background of the Battle of Worcester and the details of the escape, narrated in a moment by moment fashion. The final forty pages of wrapping up are rather dull.

Phaedrus by Plato

A brisk short dialogue, by no means as intimidating as The Republic, covering love, virture, reincarnation, the use of rhetoric, and the translation from an oral to a textual culture. Socrates is wonderfully sarky throughout (a modern translation helps bring this out) and it has a pleasing outdoor conviviality to it, rather than some of the more public, competitive dialogues.

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers

My first Lord Peter Wimsey, a whodunnit set at a 1930s ad agency, like a British version of Mad Men. Surprised it isn’t the highlight of ITV’s autumn schedule–like Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, it speaks strongly to our own times and is more than ripe for adaptation.

Doctor Who: Festival of Death by Jonathan Morris

A past Doctor adventure with the Fourth Doctor and Romana II, the novel faithfully recreates the feeling of a 1970s serial right down to the retro-futurism and the bungling bureaucrat. An interesting exercise in story-telling in reverse, but lacking a little in atmosphere. Made a good beach read.

Theseus and Lycurgus in Plutarch’s Lives

On the borders of history and legend, Theseus is not Plutarch’s most vividly drawn subject, though his theories on the real-life inspiration of the minotaur myth can be fascinating. With Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver, details of his life are thin on the ground, but the details of how he reformed the Spartan state are fascinating, and rich material for young-adult authors looking for a new dystopian society.

And that’s it for June; more next month!

The Best (And Worst) Poems of Thomas Hardy

220px-Thomas_Hardy_by_William_Strang_1893The collected poems of Thomas Hardy is a brick, even by the standards of collected works. An average edition runs to 947 separate poems across 1002 pages, counting the index and the notes. It’s an incredible body of work from a Victorian author far more renown for his novels, even if he did devote the later part of his career exclusively to writing and publishing poetry.

Most readers of poetry have never gone further than the handful of poems that have become anthology favourites, but over four months last year I worked through the whole book from cover to cover, at the rate of ten poems a day. What I discovered is firstly, that Hardy’s poetry is remarkably consistent, and secondly, that he returns repeatedly to the same themes. This consistency means that while deciding which is the best Thomas Hardy poem is almost impossible, the absolute worst poem, Genoa and the Mediterranean, is easy to spot, and plumbs a depth of pompous silliness never thereafter attainted. The repeated themes mean that many poems that rarely see the light of day are as good or better than usual representative pieces that get printed over and over again. Anthologies of Hardy’s love poems used to be popular, but it would be just as easy to make up anthologies on the subject of War, Nature, Ghosts, or Religious Doubt. By limiting our reading to a trimmed slimmed selection we do the poet wrong, for it is his enthusiasm to engage with the big themes and explore them from many angles that forms Hardy’s greatest achievement. Here below are a few of the lesser known poems exploring these themes.

Religious Doubt

Living an age when Victorian science was beginning to dismantle many of the key props of the Christian worldview, much of Hardy’s poetry wrestles with the dismaying Victorian experience of losing one’s faith. The most famous examples are The Oxen, a touching elegy for an earlier era of belief, and God’s Funeral, a formal mourning procession for the deceased deity. A Drizzling Easter Morning and the late bitter epigram Christmas 1924 make great, neglected companions for The Oxen. God’s Funeral is best followed by one of Hardy’s favourite subgenres, the many poems where the narrator harangues God, and/or God harangues humanity (one might call them deitribes). Examples include Doom and She, A Plaint to Man, By the Earth’s Corpse and (perhaps the best of them) God-Forgotten. A late discovery in my reading was the innocuously named Drinking Song, printed in Hardy’s last collection of poetry, a poem which narrates the triumph of science all the way from Copernicus to Darwin… and beyond.

And now comes Einstein with a notion—
Not yet quite clear
To many here—
That’s there’s no time, no space, no motion,
Nor rathe nor late,
Nor square nor straight,
But just a sort of bending-ocean.

I had no idea Hardy and Einstein overlapped, and something in the idea of the ninety-year old poet sitting up late at nights puzzling over the theory of relativity delights me.

Ghost Stories

I love a good Edwardian ghost story, and some of Hardy’s chillers are as good as anything by M.R. James. Something Tapped, a title well worth stealing, distills the shudders down into three verses of four lines each.

Something tapped on the pane of my room
When there was never a trace
Of wind or rain, and I saw in the gloom
My weary Beloved’s face.

“O I am tired of waiting,” she said,
“Night, morn, noon, afternoon;
So cold it is in my lonely bed,
And I thought you would join me soon!”

I rose and neared the window-glass,
But vanished thence had she:
Only a pallid moth, alas,
Tapped at the pane for me.

The Glimpse and The Second Night are eerie tales of men haunted by their dead lovers, while The Dead Quire, The Choirmaster’s Burial, No Bell Ringing and The Paphian Ball are no less effective because they use the supernatural to point a Christian moral, despite the author’s own religious disbelief.

Love

Hardy’s best love poems are in the elegaic mood, and for once here I have to agree with the anthology wisdom; he wrote a whole suite of poems following the death of his first wife, but nothing can touch The Voice for sheer musicality and depth of emotion. Triple rhymes, usually employed for comic effect, serve to give the poem a haunting, diminishing rhythm that perfectly suits the poem’s tone.

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Telling me you are not now as you were
When you had changed from the one that was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Perhaps less satisfying is another fixation of Hardy’s: the story of a young man journeying to visit an sweetheart he remembers from the halcyon days of his youth, only to find she is old, ugly, or—horror of horrors—a barmaid. Like it or loathe it (and I don’t like it much) they’re a fixture of the works, from Amabel in his first collection to The Woman Who Went East in the last.

You could probably assemble from the works a collection of sunny poems for besotted lovers to read to one another whilst punting, poems like I sometimes think or To a lady playing and singing in the morning, but most of them are like a pailful of cold water in the face. In Hardy, the course of true love never does run smooth.

 

Tragic Ballads

As a novelist, Thomas Hardy put his characters through the wringer with a willingness that rivals George R.R. Martin. Neither are his poems rosy tinted: some of my content notes read ‘Dog drowns’, ‘Woman goes mad’, ‘Dark as all hell’ and ‘Crabs on his face’. For tragic endings, there’s little to beat A Sunday Morning Tragedy, a tale of botched abortion, or San Sebastian, a character study of a rapist’s remorse. Both guaranteed to make the reader shudder.

Others poems lay the blame more squarely at society’s door, such as The Vampirine Fair, in which a scheming woman steals her lover’s estate out from under him, and which has some fine passages of brutal irony.

And while I searched his cabinet
For letters, keys, or will,
‘Twas touching that his gaze was set
With love upon me still.

And when I burnt each document
Before his dying eyes,
‘Twas sweet that he did not resent
My fear of compromise.

The steeple-cock gleamed golden when
I watched his spirit go:
And I became repentant then
That I had wrecked him so.

Meanwhile, The Ruined Maid is reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw in its send-up of Victorian attitudes to prostitution. Hardy’s earlier career as a novelist is perhaps most evident in these novels in miniature, each presenting in a few dozen lines the kind of scenario that could easily fill a three volume novel.

War

Hardy is fascinated with the Battle of the Waterloo in the same way we’re fascinated with 9/11. It changed the course of whole nations, and yet, had any of the circumstances been different, the whole outcome might have altered. His obsession with the Napoleonic Wars would eventually develop into the unperformable 131-scene verse drama, The Dynasts, but a brief song from that play, The Eve of Waterloo, coupled with The Peasant’s Confession from Hardy’s first collection will probably suffice for all but die-hard Hardy enthusiasts.

The Boer War broke out during Hardy’s emergence as a public poet, but his war poems are equivocal in the extreme. He comes closest to exhortation in the likeable bluff officer presented in The Colonel’s Soliloquy, but dwells most often on the fears of the women left behind. Drummer Hodge, the most famous poem of the sequence, anticipates Rupert Brooke’s famous lines about there being ‘some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England’, but the transformation Hardy describes is much richer, stranger and more Shakespearean.

Young Hodge the Drummer never knew—
Fresh from his Wessex home—
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.

Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge for ever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.

World War One found him officially called upon to join the patriotic poetry movement urging men to join up and do their bit. The poems from that era are an odd mixture of on-message propaganda, such Men Who March Away and A Call To National Service, and moments where the pity of it seems to catch hold of him, such as the (still relevant) His Country and the bitterly self-accusatory I Looked Up From My Writing. Unlike Wilfrid Owen or Siegfried Sasson, he never fought in the army, and his disillusionment is not equal to theirs. He sees the War not as a crisis point where the horror of modern mechanised warfare became apparent, but as the continuation of old foolish habits of struggle, a worldview best expressed in Channel Firing, where the guns are heard roaring ‘As far inland as Stourton Tower, / And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.’

Nature

Hardy’s verse flowed best at midwinter, peaking around new year, and accordingly there’s a pronounced winteriness to his best nature verses. Though Hardy may occasionally venture as far as The Later Autumn, most of his poems are as the title of his last collection would have it, Winter Words. Snow in the Suburbs, A Light Snow-Fall after Frost and Winter Night in Woodland are perfect verses of their kind, poems that keep the narrator, the moral and the self as far out of it as possible and aim entirely at description. The poems that dare to poach on Wordsworth’s grounds and present the poet in his relationship to nature are rarer and more celebrated: we have to turn to The Darkling Thrush or Hardy’s delicate elegy on himself, Afterwards.

When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
“He was a man who used to notice such things”?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
“To him this must have been a familiar sight.”

The poem’s season may be May, but the mood throughout is autumnal, its subject being the autumn of Hardy’s own life. He may not be a poet for the whole year, but as a poet for the darker seasons he has rarely been surpassed.

Writing a High Fantasy Ballad

the_fortress_unvanquishable3Many stories aspire to the condition of ballads, to the roots of folk storytelling. After reinventing myself as a writer of pirate ballads, I decided to go in search of one such story, preferably out of copright, in order to test my ballad-mongering craftsmanship.

I alit on ‘The Fortress Unvanquishable Save For Sacnoth’ by Lord Dunsay, freshly republished in a Penguin anthology of his shorter works. Dunsany, an Irish peer, belongs to the tradition of pre-Tolkien fantasy before it calved off into a whole genre. He had a prickly relationship with the Irish Literary Revival–a less than effusive introduction by W.B. Yeats makes it pretty clear that the future Nobel Prize winner hated his guts–but there was a strong public following for his plays, short stories and novels, the best of which are still in print.

Fortress is a simple tale, yet an eerie one. It tells how the villagers of Allathurion become plagued by nightmares, which the village mage determines to be the work of the evil wizard Gaznak. The only way for these nightmares to cease is for the Lord’s son, Leothric, to slay Tharagaverug, the metal crocodile, and forge from its spine the legendary sword Sacnoth. Only then will he be able to force an entrance to Gaznak’s fortress and face the wizard in single combat.

Appropriately for a story about the vanquishing of nightmares, ‘Fortress’ leans towards the nightmarish and dreamlike rather than Tolkien’s grounded worldbuilding or Lewis’s homely anthropomorphism. There maybe something silly about naming a dragon Wong Bongerok or a metal crocodile Tharagaverug, but Dunsany deploys the names carefully, using them to heighten the rich, melodious rhythm of his prose. Leothric and the sword Sacnoth have about the same depth of characterisation between them, but as in many fairy tales or stories from the Arabian Nights, the emphasis is not on the hero but on the strange and terrible marvels he encounters. Fantasy here is the last true refuge of the tall tale, and it ends with the frame story itself merging into the doubtful realm of dream, with the possibility that the defeat of the nightmare wizard was itself a long and terrible nightmare.

This is the tale of the vanquishing of The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth, and of its passing away, as it is told and believed by those who love the mystic days of old.

Others have said, and vainly claim to prove, that a fever came to Allathurion, and went away; and that this same fever drove Leothric into the marshes by night, and made him dream there and act violently with a sword. And others again say that there hath been no town of Allathurion, and that Leothric never lived.

Peace to them. The gardener hath gathered up this autumn’s leaves. Who shall see them again, or who wot of them? And who shall say what hath befallen in the days of long ago?

It’s also, I feel, an invitation to future adaptors, which is partly why the concluding verse were among the first parts of the ballad I wrote, not knowing I would spend months inching towards them, verse by verse.

Alas, it seems all splendid dreams
in morning light must fade.
The sweetest songs must have an end,
like this ballad I have made
of The Fortress Unvanquishable
Except Through Sacnoth’s Blade.

Yet fair things gone do linger on
as phantoms of delight
to charm away the dullest day;
sweet be your dreams this night.

I wanted, in my retelling, to capture the quality of a healthy bed-time story–something that thrills and scares but ultimately sends you to sleep reassured. I had in mind G.K. Chesterton’s words, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” And so I set to work.

Many of Dunsany’s grace notes and side-details are an absolute gift to the versifier. The village-mage’s spell, for example, ‘had in it the word wherewith the people of the plains are wont to curse their camels, and the shout wherewith the whalers of the north lure the whales shoreward to be killed, and a word that causes elephants to trumpet; and every one of the forty lines closed with a rhyme for “wasp.”‘ I followed this description closely, with a ‘rasp / grasp / wasp’ off-rhyme had often qets a chuckle in my recitations. On the other hand, I thought some of his structure could use a little polish and rearrangement. In the first part of the story, the mage tells Leothric exactly what he must do to kill Tharagaverug, and Leothric goes off and does it like someone ticking off a to-do list. I decided to split the exposition between the village mage and an old man at the gate of the marsh people’s village, which had the multiple advantages of giving the poem a different voice, and giving the marsh people a modicum of agency in their own deliverance. Likewise, once inside the castle, I decided to reorder events to follow a more allegorical scheme: before he can confront Gaznak, Leothric is threatened first by an ambush of naked power, then by his feudal overlords, by a giant spider who represents fatalism and depression and finally by a vast abyss. My castle descends more slowly into the surreal that Dunsay’s original, where elephants flee trumpeting the moment Leothric forces and entrance. I also cut, with a twinge, the ball-room full of beautiful women who turn out to be Gaznak’s fever dreams. There were some lovely details, such as the wolves gnawing at the wainscot and the flames flickering in the sockets of their eyes, but I was determined to keep the episodes from overwhelming the forward thrust of the poem as a whole, and the seducing temptress angle seemed a little overtired.

In the final duel with Gaznak, I faced the age-old problem of making a sword-fight interesting on the page, but as Dunsany had already done it in prose, it wasn’t too difficult to pull off in verse. The traditional motif of the wizard’s castle dissolving into air after his death was satisfying to perform.

Sacnoth laid all his magic waste
and sundered every spell
and with a sound to rival all
the screaming choirs of Hell
in ruin unimaginable
the vanquished fortress fell.

RUIN UNIMAGINABLE!!! would probably be a more accurate representation of the way I bellow it out.

When the last rhyme was honed and the last verse polished, I had the longest poem I’d ever written: 575 lines and 132 stanzas, across two separate parts. The poem had taught me how to merge versifying with storytelling, bringing the much slighted arts of narrative back into the rhythms and images of verse. For me, composing and revising a poem is synonymous with memorising it, so I also had a half-hour long performance piece, and I’ve taken my staff and sword to venues across Cardiff and the valleys to tell me tale of dreams and magic, giant spiders and metal crocodiles. It’s a story now lodged in my head until the day I die, which is the best tribute I can offer to Lord Dunsany, that grand pioneer of fantastic fiction.

A Sestina for the Huntington

Something I wrote for the AHRC about my time in Los Angeles studying at the Huntington Library, and the poem that came out of it.

Research beyond borders

In this latest Guest Blog, Thomas Tyrrell talks about his experience of the AHRC International Placement Scheme, and ultimately, his “Sestina for the Huntington”.

On my first day at the Huntington Library,Los Angeles, I was allocated a shelf for my books beneath a bust of Lord Byron. Madly jet-lagged but wide-eyed and vibrating on American coffee, I was here on the AHRC international placement scheme, which gives British PhD students the chance to travel abroad and access collections they couldn’t reach on their own budgets.

A bust of George Gordon, Lord Byron, from the Ahrmanson Reading Room in the Munger Research Centre - Photo Credit Thomas Tyrrell A bust of George Gordon, Lord Byron, from the Ahrmanson Reading Room in the Munger Research Centre – Photo Credit Thomas Tyrrell

After a previous fellowship at the Chawton House Library, Hampshire, I had thanked my hosts with a country house poem. Suitably inspired by Byron, I set myself the challenge of writing a poem for the Huntington

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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!

Elegy of the Anglo-Saxon Cyclist

Every cycle tour has a nightmare day. On my first tour it was Day 2, the short leg between Bristol and Bath midway through my journey from my university at Cardiff to my parent’s house in Winchester. The rain poured down unrelentingly as I slogged along the old railway track between the two cities, the first bike path of a national network that now threads through most of the country.

I had spent the last couple of weeks on my sofa revising Old English adjectives for an exam, testing how well I could understand and translate the language of Beowulf and King Alfred. One of the key texts had been ‘The Seafarer’s Elegy’ a long and mournful poem where a sailor laments that the weather is awful, the ship comfortless, his feet are ‘forste gebunden’ or fettered by frost, and everyone on land is having a much nicer time.

As the rain dripped off my nose and my shorts reached saturation point, I wondered what ‘The Cyclist’s Elegy’ would sound like.

I decided it would sound pretty much like this.

https://soundcloud.com/user998852738/elegy-of-the-anglo-saxon-cyclist

I will tell my story, such as it is,
A short and a soggy one. At cease of exams,
I undertook a taxing journey,
A cycle trip from Cardiff home.
I disregarded railway lines,
Trams, taxis and all transport links,
And through the force of thighs and calves
I made my way through Wales and England
To Hampshire and home. Hardly he guesses,
For whom the miles pass unremarked,
Cocooned in cars, comfortable dwellings
Away from the wet, how the weary cyclist,
Remains by the roadside. Rain never ended;
A daylong drizzle, drenching and cold,
Soaks into my shorts; sagging tyres,
Flat and deflated, force me to spend
Aggravating hours, alone in the rain,
Patching the puncture. Appalling weather,
The bane of the British, brings no relief.
My ankles ache with every motion,
Chainwheel and sprocket clank and groan,
And hunger harries the heart of the engine.
And yet, in the morning, I yearn to continue,
To take to the saddle, sore as I am,
Put foot to the pedals and push myself onwards.

While his bike is whole and sturdy
The cyclist is unstoppable,
An entire engine in himself.
And come the crash, when his bicycle hurls him
Headlong over the handlebars
To a painful impact, plastered in mud,
Face down in the dirt, his dignity gone,
His body bruised and bloody-kneed,
Still he will stride on, stronger than ever,
Firm in his frame, a fearless traveller,
Dreadless, undaunted. Durable men
Will live to outlast the little systems
Constructed to keep them. The cyclist knows
When after all this he arrives at his doorstep
Bloody, mud-splattered and spent with exertion,
His is a hero’s homecoming.

Thanks to everyone at the Cycle Touring Festival at Clitheroe, whose enthusiasm and kind remarks at the open mic night inspired me to put this post up.

And full credit to Ezra Pound, whose unique performance of his 1911 translation has been the inspiration for my own strange growlings.