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Death and the Poets

Quadrant, September 2009

It was a day when every book repels, when each title brings a sense of ennui. Zapata and the Mexican Revolution? I don’t think so: out of Mexico always the same thing. The Second Plane? No Martin we’ll give that a miss. What remains to be discovered: mapping the secrets of the universe, the origins of life, and the future of the human race? Not just now Sir John.

Then I had a bright idea — why not poetry? So reaching up I took down from my shelves an old Penguin with the following title: The Centuries’ Poetry: an anthology compiled by Denys Kilham Roberts. Volume 4, Hood to Hardy.

Denys Kilham Roberts

As one may see from the portrait Penguin Books conveniently provide of Mr Roberts, who was born in Cornwall in 1903 and died in 1976, there’s something about him less than reassuring. He looks directly and solemnly into the camera (does the clenched hand on which he rests his chin cover an old scar, or is that how you looked thoughtful in the 1940s?).

His expression suggests a dark or even tragic view of life, with distinct intimations of mortality, and perhaps that should have been a warning. Yet nothing prepared me for the catalog of suffering, misfortune, woes miscellaneous and woes particular, graves, cemeteries, and dismally prefigured endings that readers have to cope with here. More than half Mr Roberts’ poets seem more than half in love with easeful death.

The very first page (it is page 13) has a poem by Thomas Hood about autumn. Remember Keats? Remember those mists and mellow fruitfulness and swollen gourds and nice plump hazel shells? Rather jolly, no? I think so. Brings to mind peasants merrily treading a measure on the winnowing floor. In Keats, autumn rounds out the best summer any living bee can remember, with honey oozing out of the comb.

But now listen to Thomas Hood:

I saw old Autumn in the misty morn
Stand shadowless like Silence, listening
To silence, for no lonely bird would sing
Into his hollow ear from woods forlorn…

Forlorn! The very word is like a knell. If there’s anything that defines the tone of this lugubrious literary regiment that’s it. In Autumn, Hood mourns the passing of summer, the vanished flowers, the fallen leaves, the swallows that have flown. All that remains is teary and sunless, shadowy, fearful, and bare. Forlorn indeed!

But here the autumn Melancholy dwells,
And sighs her tearful spells
Amongst the sunless shadows of the plain.
Alone, alone,
Upon a mossy stone…

There is enough of sorrowing, and quite
Enough of bitter fruits the earth doth bear,
Enough of chilly droppings for her bowl;
Enough of fear and shadowy despair,
To frame her cloudy prison for the soul!

Sorry Tom, and I don’t want to interrupt, but what’s all this about earth’s “bitter fruits” and bowls full of “chilly droppings”? I don’t know what Hood had for breakfast the day he wrote this, but chances are it was porridge. Made from oats. Good stuff for feeding horses and poets, and part of the harvest a bountiful earth provides.

Talk about gratitude.

But enough of fear and shadowy despair and enough of Hood. Moving along to page 24 we find “Is Love a Fancy?”, a sonnet by Hartley Coleridge. The eldest son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Hartley seems to have had problems with the bottle (he was once dismissed for ‘intemperance’) and more trouble with women.

“Is love a fancy or a feeling?” he brightly asks, but if you think this is going to be about lovers in the springtime, the only pretty ringtime, when birds do sing, hey ding a ding ding — forget it. Barely half way through we’ve got pensive gloom hovering o’er a tomb; suicide gets into the final couplet; and in his last line he describes Hope morosely as “a spectre in a ruin bare”. And with Hope in that condition, can Death be far behind?

Draping a funereal coverlet over Thomas Lovell Beddoes and “Death’s Jest-Book”, pages 27–29 — Bare as Death’s shoulder… For the King of the grave… Our nest is queen Cleopatra’s skull… — (Beddoes’ voice sounds like a crow cawing over a cadaver) we come on page 33 to the jollifications of Edgar Allan Poe:

Lo! Death has reared himself a throne (he tells us, describing some lost city in the sea)
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.

There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason, moral, political, or religious, that the city has fallen, with its time-eaten shrines and palaces and towers. But Poe likes the idea of fallen things, dying things, decomposition and desuetude: he sniffs the historical wind and it smells of decay; he imagines long-forgotten sculptured ivy and stone flowers and sees disintegration with a sickly joy — all of it under the vast inescapable doom wheeled in for his conclusion:

While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down.

Will it fall on us? Devour us? Kill us with its monstrous gaze? Or is it just another pointless example of Poe’s Gothic fantasizing? Of course few poets except Poe have only one song to sing. Poor sick Poe. But I suppose it must be said in the editor’s favour that when on page 36 Mr Roberts comes to John Clare, he does wait a little before trying to make one’s day worse (with a contribution by Clare from the Northampton County Asylum).

Before that ordeal, however, we are allowed a thrush singing hymns to sunrise, warping the moss to form a nest, laying eggs like heath-bells gilt with dew. Or there’s First Sight of Spring with its hazel blooms in threads of crimson and the yet-to-arrive whitethorn leaves. Or the squirrel sputtering up the powdered oak:

With tail cocked o’er his head, and ears erect,
Startled to hear the woodman’s understroke;
And with the courage which his fears collect,
He hisses fierce half malice and half glee,
Leaping from branch to branch about the tree,
In winter’s foliage, moss and lichens, deckt.

That reminds me — I must find out some time the right way to pronounce “lichens”. Like, or litch? Still a bit vague about that. Anyway, with Clare’s poem there’s none of that skull beneath the skin business where breastless creatures lean backward with lipless grins, or the rest of Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service about death by water or the sprouting of the corpse that was planted last year in the garden or dead men’s bones in the rat’s alley or white leopards that have fed to satiety on legs and liver and that which had been contained in the hollow round of my skull.

Poor sick poets. Plato knew a thing or two. Too self-regarding. Too many words and not enough Dinge an sich. Anyway I’ve done with reading. Done with poets. Today I was walking over a headland where swifts swoop and a small downy-breasted hawk hung in the wind’s updraft. Saw a whale steaming along too.

Posted in Arts and Letters, For the Record, Notes.

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