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.

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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.

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

Chawton House Library

Chawton House panorama

It is always nice to turn up at a country house as something other than a paying visitor. The best part of collecting my Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, for example, was turning up at St James’ Palace with an invitation. Compared to that, the two minutes of bob and nod with the Earl of Wessex was something of a disappointment – we didn’t even get Prince Philip. Yesterday, I was not a daytripper but a visiting scholar, and at nine o’clock I was making the 45 minute drive in the pouring rain to Chawton, just outside of Alton – home not only to Jane Austen’s House, but to Chawton House Library, one of my new favourite places to study.

Owned by Jane’s brother Edward Austen in the Georgian era, Chawton House was bought by a charitable foundation in the eighties and, as well as being a fine country house in its own right, now functions as a Centre for Woman’s Literature 1600-1850. This means that, with a few days forward notice, even sciolists like myself can turn up and have access to the main library collections. As the public is only allowed in for brief tours at 2:30pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I effectively have a fine old country house to myself. The prospect never fails to raise my spirits.

Yesterday, for example, I came in from the rain to find a lovely smell of woodsmoke seeping back into the ancient boards, from the Edwardian Christmas event held a few days beforehand. The (insanely lucky) visiting fellows who dwell in cottages around the back of the house had all wound their projects down and gone home, and aside from me, the librarian and the receptionist, there was hardly anyone around. In the faint December light, it seemed the ideal place for Gothic fantasies, but I had an essay to write and was too busy to dream for long.

The library is on the first floor, blessed with good light and fine, weighty desks to study from, though to someone used to padded deskchairs the wooden frames take some getting used to. The only sound is the whirr as the air conditioner keeps the room cooled to British Library specifications. At my elbow five massive leatherbound quarto volumes of Catharine Macaulay’s History of England sat, second editions from 1766 that I would never get a chance to handle in a university library. I browsed through them, enjoying Macaulay’s republican rhetoric and the wonderful texture of the old book, with its long s’s and strange spellings, and Capitalisation of abstract Nouns. But this was no time to idle, for I had an essay to write, and was swiftly constructing my plan and pulling in quotations from a dozen different sources, scattered through the library – pausing only to divert myself briefly with some of the Juvenelia of Jane Austen.

The library closes for an hour at lunchtime, and I took the opportunity to wander through the old house, whose floorboards roll and buck beneath you like rough ground, looking up at the pictures of famous women they’d assembled, and blundering into rooms I’d never seen before. I finished curled up in a bay window behind a curtain, reading a publishers catalogue and trying to pretend I was Jane Eyre. Then, back to the library again, until by 4pm I had a one page plan and three pages of usable quotations, and saw myself out with some sadness. I would have liked to remain, and read through Austen’s juvenelia until my stomach began to rumble uncontrollably. I would like to have stayed the night in one of the bedrooms, or the cottages of the visiting fellows. But alas! I had to return to my parents modern house, with its televisions and kitchens and conveniences, and leave grand old Chawton House behind.

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.

The Thirty-Three Happy Moments

Of all the books on my shelves, one of the ones I’m fondest of is also one of the shabbiest. It’s a small, gunmetal grey volume about the size of an old tobacco tin, heavily creased up and down the spine. It’s called ‘The Knapsack’.

Even if it were not a proverbial sin to judge a book by its cover, the utilitarian appearance of my volume is easily excused by the fact it was designed as an anthology of prose and verse for the use of servicemen in World War Two. My secondhand copy advertises itself in the inside cover as belonging to an E. Riley of Hull; there’s no indication whether E. Riley ever served in the war, or carried it into action, but I like to think he did, and while away my time imagining the battles and foreign fields this shabby volume was borne through.

The anthology, as edited by Herbert Read, has an understandably martial and Christian theme to it in many of its sections, but it is very rarely less than entertaining. As the original vehicle for introducing me to the wild and Celtic wanderings of the Irish Saint Brandon, to the ancient ballad of Chevy Chase and the beautiful lyrics of Shelley, it has a place in my heart – but what really won me over are the half-dozen pages in the back reserved for ‘Notes and Additions’.

One of my favourite items is ‘The Thirty-Three Happy Moments‘ of Chin Sheng’tan. The story of its composition is a simple one. It was a rainy day in 17th century China, and the playwright Chin found himself shut indoors with a friend. To while away the monotony of their seclusion, Chin began to compose a list of the truly happy moments in his life. They are an entertainingly varied selection, ranging from the worthy and spiritual:

I am not a saint, and am therefore not without sin. In the night I did something wrong and I get up in the morning and feel extremely ill at ease about it. Suddenly I remember what is taught by Buddhism, that not to cover one’s sins is the same as repentance. So then I begin to tell my sin to the entire company around, whether they are strangers or my old friends. Ah, is this not happiness?

to the pleasures of the flesh:

To keep three or four spots of eczema in a private part of my body and now and then to scald or bathe it with hot water behind closed doors. Ah, is this not happiness?

And including both selfless actions:

I have nothing to do after a meal and try to go through the things in some old trunks. I see there are dozens or hundreds of IOUs from people who owe my family money. Some of them are dead and some still living, but in any case there is no hope of their returning the money. Behind people’s backs I put them together in a pile and make a bonfire of them, and I look up to the sky and see the last trace of smoke disappear. Ah, is this not happiness?

And the delights of schadenfreude:

To see someone’s kiteline broken. Ah, is this not happiness?

To say more would be to deluge my article in quotations, and spoil the pleasure of reading The Thirty-three Happy Moments through properly. Suffice to say, I found Chin Sheng’tan’s work both amusing and inspirational. I have always been guilty of finding happiness in the little things, in the sly moments of creeping contentment rather than in great acts and crowning achievements. Here was a work that celebrated precisely those moments of joy – often small and silly and insignificant, but not the less joyous for that. In my notebooks and facebook statuses, I began compiling my own small list:

To eat a piping hot bowl osoupf soup on a cold and drizzly day. Ah, is this not happiness?

A few nights ago, I got so drunk I cannot remember what took place after a certain point in the evening. I worry that I spoke or acted rashly, and may have given offence to someone. Days later, I meet someone who was there, who assures me that I offended no-one, and that I am always fun and pleasant when I’m drunk. Ah, is this not happiness?

Comfortably finishing a book in a single sitting. Ah, is this not happiness?

I am riding my bicycle on a chill winters night, a few days after the Christmas lights have been switched of. The headwind pushes against my chest like an ice cold current, but I am too caught up in my own speed to care. Ah, is this not happiness?

I have discovered a bee in my kitchen on a sunny day. While I am still hunting around for something in which to trap it, it flied casually out of the door into the garden of its own accord. Ah, is this not happiness?

To watch McLintock! with a really good whisky. Ah, is this not happiness?mclintock

Bathing in a stream on a hot summer’s day, I decide to risk my neck sliding down a series of waterfalls. I end up in a bruised but exhilerated heap at the bottom, and acquire a limp for the next several days – but this is a small price to pay for the experience and the anecdote. Ah, is this not happiness?

It is the first really hot day of the year. I have taken advantage of the informality of the occasion to wear shorts. As my friends sweat in their thick trousers, a cool breeze rustles around my knees. Ah, is this not happiness?

To walk across a playing field in the summertime, while the swifts flit in endless circles around you. Ah, is this not happiness?

To visit your favourite pub on a Friday night, and find it doesn’t close until two am. Ah, is this not happiness?

To go climbing in good company; to lose all the skin from your hands in the pursuit of a worthy sport; and to return home to liver and onions and mustard mashed potato. Ah, is this not happiness?