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!

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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.

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!

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!

Waterlog 7: Laugharne and Pendine Sands

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Rhossili from Pendine Sands

Skirting the edge of an MoD firing range, I emerged on the very tip of the Laugharne estuary. Laying my bike down in the long grass, I walked out on to Pendine sands. To my left the sea swept in to meet the river Taf as it flowed past St Clears and Dylan Thomas’ Laugharne. Ahead of me across the waters was the split pyramid of Rhossilli Down and the long, rearing line of Worm’s Head. To my right, the bare flat expanse of sands swept along the coast as far as the eye could see. The monastic bulk of Bardsey Island was an offshore silhouette. Any human figures nearby were nothing but coloured dots on the great expanse of flat, hard sand.

At least I won’t have to change into my swimming costume underneath one of those awkward towel kilts, I thought approvingly. Then, inevitably: If the beach is this deserted, do I really need a swimming costume?

It wasn’t even the most unusual thing I’d done that day.


IMG_0668
Laugharne Castle

2014 is Dylan Thomas’ centenary year, and the whole of South Wales has been putting on events to celebrate the life of her most famous poet. I’d spent a fun weekend previously exploring the sites of his Swansea childhood, but the lack of easy public transport to Laugharne had always put me off exploring the famous house of his great late poems. I had a friend in the Dylan Thomas Boathouse, however, who’d offered to show me round, I’d been meaning to get back into doing a few long, exploratory cycle routes, and one Sunday I found myself with nothing to do. So I set my alarm clock for the perverse hour of 5:30am, and made the 7:10 train to Carmarthen.

It was a hilarious train, full of bleary drunken wrecks from Neath and Port Talbot who’d obviously gone into Cardiff to party on Saturday night and never gone to bed. They were extremely noisy, then comatose, then shambling suddenly out when we pulled into their station.

I emerged at Carmarthen, and set off promptly westward, towards St Clears. Typically of the consideration that road planners show to cyclists, there was a bike route running along the north side of the A40 for roughly three-quarters of the way to St Clears, and the Celtic trail on the south side – but did they meet in the middle? No, that would have been too easy. Instead I had the choice of a long and mountainous detour or a mile of unpleasant cycling along the hard shoulder of a dual carriageway. The detour was marginally the worse option, but once I’d made it into St Clears, it was a shorter, quieter southward haul. One more nightmare hill and I was freewheeling from Cross Inn downhill into shoreside Laugharne.

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The Boys of Brown’s Hotel

You know how sometimes you go to places you’ve read about, seen on TV and visited many times in your imagination? And when you get there it’s grey and drizzly and full of litter and unhappy people? Laugharne was nothing like that. Clouds scudded across the sun now and again, but the windfall light of the day was exactly that which gleams in Dylan’s poems. Sir John’s Hill, on the headland, was exactly as I’d imagined it; the Boathouse itself was exactly the ‘house on stilts high among beaks and palavers of birds’, ‘by full tilt river and switchback sea’. I went for an afternoon drink in Brown’s Hotel, one of Dylan Thomas’ favourite watering holes, and shared a pint with a group of men who appeared to have escaped from the pages of Under Milk Wood circa 1950, and defied all efforts to corral them in again. And there were surprises, too: Laugharne Castle, which no poem or memoir had warned me of, was a wonderful rambling boys-own ruin to scramble across.

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Kieran and Dylan Thomas. See the resemblance?

I’m fortunate enough to have studied English Literature at University with Kieran, who works at the Boathouse. He bears such an uncanny resemblance to the Augustus John portrait of Thomas that one is tempted to enquire into the amours of his grandmothers. Thanks to him, I got to look around for free, a free espresso and a batch of welsh cakes wrapped in tinfoil. He subjected me to a Dylan Thomas quiz, which I failed miserably, and advised me to cycle further on to Pendine sands and take my swim there, rather than use the murkier waters of the estuary.

To the end of his life, Dylan Thomas was proud of his running prowess, having won the ‘Swansea Mile’ race when he was 14. It needs more research than I’m prepared to do for this blog to determine whether he was much of a swimmer, as well. One tends to imagine him with his limbs sprawling out of the bath, the typewriter plonked on his stomach and a cigarette lolling out of his mouth, not breasting the choppy Welsh sea with a strong front crawl. But his poems are full of the primal energy of the ‘tusked, ramshackling sea’ ‘that hides his secret selves deep in its black base bones,’ and in his short stories and memoirs you often find him beside Rhossilli, or Swansea Bay, exulting in the wildness of the waves or treasuring a sullen Byronic melancholy. The long horizons of Pendine Sands dwarfed and daunted me, too long and flat for my weak strain of poetry to take much purchase, but I felt sure Dylan would have struck an attitude fit for it.

Naked I plunged into the greyish, leek-and-potato sea, and did a few strokes out and back, secure in the opaque waves as a dog-walking jogger grew from a dot to a pin to a person and shrank back again to a dot. Once I was safe, I emerged and jogged speedily towards my clothes, foolishly left a good way out of the water’s reach, and part-buried in spindrift sand. After I’d shaken the sand from my cycling shorts, pulled on a t-shirt and munched a few welsh cakes, I set off back towards Carmarthen. As I left Laugharne behind me once again, I heard three shrill skyborne cries, and twisted my neck to see a hawk hovering above me. Like everything in Laugharne, it seemed to have leapt straight from Dylan Thomas’ imagination into the modern day.

Over Sir John’s Hill
The hawk on fire hangs still;
In a hoisted cloud, at drop of dusk, he pulls to his claws
And gallows, up the rays of his eyes the small birds of the bay
And the shrill child’s play
Wars
Of the sparrows and such who swan sing, dusk, in wrangling hedges.

Looking into Chapman’s Homer

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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…

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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.

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.

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.