Rowan Williams on poetry
Tuesday 20th January 2009At the Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital NHS Trust Annual Arts Event, Rowan Williams commentated on his favourite poems, as well as a couple of his own, read aloud by an actor in front of an audience.
Upon Westminster Bridge by William Wordsworth
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
I was tempted to give this evening's lecture the title "Tales from the Riverbank" in honour of the much-loved and truly awful children's television programme. But it's really poets of the riverbank. Not just a random anthology of English poets who happened to have been associated with the South Bank of the Thames but something of a journey as well into understanding a bit about poetry and poetry's relationship with human stress and human healing.
But I couldn't resist beginning with the great scene setter, Wordsworth, writing from Westminster Bridge. It's a poem about stillness, as you will see. And all poetry begins from that moment of stillness, when something in your environment, something in your language, something in your own experience brings you up short and you don't quite know what to say but you have to work very hard to say it, all the same. That moment of stillness, that moment of what I might call a "rest", is where the energy of poetry comes from. It's a paradox but a real one. Poetry comes from the experience of being shut up, being silenced. For Wordsworth it was looking out over a still morning scene. Nothing happening and yet that very nothing demanding that we find a response to it.
But of course, poetry is generated by other kinds of borderland experience, other kinds of frontier experience. It's generated by facing love at a certain depth; by facing death and suffering at a certain depth. And in the poems that we're going to hear this evening, those different moments of being stilled or caught up suddenly, not knowing what to say, those are the moments at the heart of the imaginative experience.
And we're going to begin, predictably, with one of the great South Bank poets, a man by the name of William Shakespeare, whose work may be known to some of you. And in the Sonnets, he explores a whole variety of ways in which love and death alike bring us up short and squeeze out of us things to say we didn't know we had to say.
Shakespeare, they say, knew quite a bit about the theatre and the first of the Sonnets that we're going to hear begins with a very poignant and immediate theatrical image that Shakespeare begins to find in this extraordinary, protracted exploration that is the Sonnets, begins to find his way into speaking out of that silence and stammering that generates poetry.
Sonnet 23 by William Shakespeare
As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength's abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love's rite,
And in mine own love's strength seem to decay,
O'ercharg'd with burthen of mine own love's might.
O! let my looks be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express'd.
O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit.
"To hear with eyes" - perhaps Wordsworth looking out over the Thames might have understood what that image was all about, and in his Sonnet he is writing down what he has heard with his eyes and the silence before him. But here Shakespeare is talking about one of those emotional frontier moments: stumbling, stammering in the context of human love that overwhelms, not knowing what to say. And in his Sonnets he explores again and again the way in which love and death interweave.
Love is one of those things which, if you find the words and imagination for it, somehow carries you round or through or over a fear of death. Poetry is one of those things that you invoke to silence some of the terrors that human experience gives you. And so poetry is a kind of immortality, and odd sort of immortality and yet, because it's not confined, not penned in by the losses that time brings, surely it must have something to say that's relevant to a wider perspective where death doesn't just draw all mummeries.
Sonnet 60 by William Shakespeare
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crowned,
Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope, my verse shall stand
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
One of the great things about the Sonnets is that Shakespeare has a thoroughly immodest view of what his poetry means and is about. It's an odd thing about poets that they are at one level deeply humbled by the patterns in what they say – they don't know quite where it comes from or where it's going to, and they don't quite know whether they can manage what's coming through. At the same time, they have the confidence that they say what needs saying, and that's all you can say. That's the proper immodesty of poetry – this is how it is. "I don't know if this is poetry or not", said one substantial 20th Century poet, "but that's how it comes to me".
Shakespeare's immodesty in that sense is bearable I suppose, as we read the Sonnets, it doesn't sound like arrogance, simply because the poetry again and again would turn to the sense of brokenness that lies at the heart of it. The brokenness of feelings of betrayal which run right through the Sonnets as they run through so much of his greatest drama. And towards the end of the Sonnets you find that bitter sense of brokenness coming through perhaps more harshly, more sharply, than anywhere else in the sequence when he speaks about how what he loves seems to be dark, ambiguous, empty or hostile. And yet something still needs to be said about it.
Sonnet 147 by William Shakespeare
My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve,
Desire his death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are,
At random from the truth vainly express'd;
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
Borderland experiences, love and hate, passion and disgust mingling together interwoven so painfully in that Sonnet, as in many others. It's not surprising that Shakespeare looking at himself wonders what it is that, in the human constitution, keeps life alive and trust alive, and something in that sense of self, something which, in Shakespeare's own case has a kind of religious aura around it and yet isn't conventionally a religious, that comes through. Not only in the sense that what he said overcomes goes beyond death that there's something in humanity itself, in the human self, that is not wrapped up and stifled and tidied away by death.
Sonnet 146 by William Shakespeare
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
These rebel powers that thee array;
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body's end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant's loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there's no more dying then.
"So shalt thou feed on Death that feeds on men
And Death once dead, there's no more dying then."
Facing the mortality, the limits, the contradictions. Making something of them in hope, stumbling, feeling your way, making yourself familiar with death with your own limits. Somewhere in all of that lies the life of the soul; lies that which death doesn't stifle. "Death once dead." - Death consumed by the imagination there's no more dying to be afraid of.
Moving along the riverbank a little way, we come across to one of the more celebrated medical students of the South Bank, a man named John Keats. And Keats was as preoccupied as Shakespeare, in a very different way, with death. The death, the suffering he encountered in his medical studies but also the mortality which was vivid and physical for him, day after day, as someone who knew he was doomed to an early death.
But before we move into Keats, reflecting on some of this, it's perhaps appropriate to remind ourselves that tonight is St. Agnes' Eve. Tomorrow's the feast of St. Agnes and Keats wrote about the celebrated poem about St. Agnes Eve. Reading all of it would take us all night but I thought we ought to have a bit of it here.
The Eve of St Agnes by John Keats
St Agnes' Eve---Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp'd trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman's fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem'd taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin's picture, while his prayer he saith.
His prayer he saith, this patient, holy man;
Then takes his lamp, and riseth from his knees,
And back returneth, meagre, barefoot, wan,
Along the chapel aisle by slow degrees:
The sculptur'd dead, on each side, seem to freeze,
Emprison'd in black, purgatorial rails:
Knights, ladies, praying in dumb orat'ries,
He passeth by; and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.
One of the great evocations of winter in the whole of English literature, I think. But also an evocation of a number of thoughts about night, cold, death, once again. And the whole of that extraordinary poem is also about nights and dreams. It's about a reality that we encounter, again, in the imagination, and, famously, as we come to the climax of St. Agnes' Eve we don't really know what's going on and we're not supposed to. Is this a dream or is it reality? Is it a dream of the lover coming to the girl's bed or is it a lover coming to the girl's bed? Well, it's both because it's a poem, isn't it? It's not a film. It's not a photograph. It's about night and imagination and the strange ways in which cold, death and night themselves generate the image which changes things. Like most poems, it's a poem about poetry, as well as other things. But there are other poems, of course, where Keats addresses much more directly this question of mortality.
When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be by John Keats
When I have fears that I may cease to be,
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before my high-piled books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love; -- then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
You already have noticed that the imagery of standing on the shore is around a good deal in some of these poems. A riverbank isn't, necessarily, a safe or cosy place to be. And, of course, in much literature, crossing rivers is one of those central symbols for death. You stand on the shore, you look across and you're not quite sure what there is on the other side. Even if standing on the South Bank of the Thames, it all looks very, very solid on the other side there; some kind of political institution, I think, you may nonetheless feel that there are intimations of mortality around in all this. You may even remember that haunting line from Virgil about "the ghosts on the other side of the river stretching forth their hands in longing for the bank opposite." So Keats standing on that shore, waiting for things to dissolve, is at one and the same time staking his position on the shore. It matters to be here and to say this. And yet knowing that on the far side of that very deep and dark water you don't know what lies there.
Again an again, with Keats of course you have that interweaving of the rich, positive sense of the imagination and the inescapable echoes of loneliness and loss and death that come back. And the sense of celebrating what's strange, looking out in amazement at what is strange and unmanageable, is also a kind of death for the self, trying to imagine it. I don't know how to get on top of this experience of what I see. And at one and the same moment, there's an overwhelming extravagance of expression and the inner sense of loss and disorientation.
And to end our little time with Keats, a little bit from the Ode to a Nightingale followed by one of the best-known Sonnets. Both in a different way about strange landscapes.
Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves;
And mid-May's eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain -
To thy high requiem become a sod.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: - Do I wake or sleep?
On first looking into Chapman's Homer by John Keats
Much have I traveled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne,
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Til I eard Chapman speak out loud and bold.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific -- and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise --
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Strange landscape, exhilarating, frightening, forlorn. All of those things and all of them bringing to silence, like stout Cortez's colleagues, all of them urging to the speech that comes on what one modern Polish poet called the "other side of silence". But if those are exotic landscapes, it's important not to forget the way in which the familiar, the appallingly familiar landscapes, generate poetry and silence and passion and the fear of engaging with death as well.
Coming to one of the most local poets of all, still further along the river, we start listening to William Blake. And Blake is, among many other things, the poet of the London back streets, the London gutters. Blake is the poet of the horrific, eviscerating experience of witnessing a poverty which in his own age is barely noticed. He writes about London but he writes about that in the context of a much broader vision of what imagination is. He writes about the sufferings of children working in London; two poems about young chimney sweeps. And we're about to hear the poem London from Songs of Experience, followed by one of those much more ambitious and difficult bits from The Four Zoas about imagination and poverty and suffering. And then the two poems, one from Songs of Innocence, one from Songs of Experience about the child chimney sweep.
London by William Blake
I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:
How the chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.
But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.
The Four Zoas by William Blake
What is the price of Experience? Do men buy it for a song,
Or Wisdom for a dance in the street? No! it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath -- his house, his wife, his children.
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy,
And in the wither'd field where the farmer ploughs for bread in vain.
It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer's sun,
And in the vintage, and to sing on the waggon loaded with corn:
It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted,
To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer,
To listen to the hungry raven's cry in wintry season,
When the red blood is fill'd with wine and with the marrow of lambs:
It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements;
To hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughter-house moan;
To see a God on every wind and a blessing on every blast;
To hear sounds of Love in the thunderstorm that destroys our enemy's house;
To rejoice in the blight that covers his field, and the sickness that cuts off his children,
While our olive and vine sing and laugh round our door, and our children bring fruits and flowers.
Then the groan and the dolour are quite forgotten, and the slave grinding at the mill,
And the captive in chains, and the poor in the prison, and the soldier in the field
When the shatter'd bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead:
It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity --
Thus would I sing and thus rejoice; but it is not so with me.
Poetry is not simply celebration. Celebration alone, for Blake, belongs with those who have an easy place in which to live. And what comes from simply living in an easy place is not poetry as far as he is concerned. Poetry emerges here from anger, from the awareness of hurt, from being diminished by the pain of someone else and finding in poetry words for your own diminution that will somehow serve to focus on the loss and the pain of another. But of course, that means that the human heart itself is a very complicated thing. Out of it comes this impulse to poetry. A poetry of profound compassion. A poetry that looks towards transforming imagination. But at the same time where else are the roots of evil except in the same human heart? And some of Blake's most powerful, epigrammatic poetry is about that dual character of the human heart, something which poetry alone can't resolve. He writes about the growth in the human heart of destructiveness and rivalry. Like some vast tree growing from the smallest seeds of resentment or rivalry. We're going to hear two of his most impassioned imaginings of that growth of evil in the heart.
The Chimney Sweeper: When My Mother Died I Was Very Young by William Blake
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry " 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!"
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.
There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved, so I said,
"Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head's bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair."
And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father & never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
The Chimney Sweeper: A Little Black Thing Among The Snow by William Blake
A little black thing among the snow,
Crying " 'weep! 'weep!" in notes of woe!
"Where are thy father and mother? say?"
"They are both gone up to the church to pray.
Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil'd among the winter's snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery."
I must apologise I interrupted before those two poems The Chimney Sweeper but they follow very well from what I was saying in any case, I trust. Perhaps we can now have the Poison Tree and The Human Abstract:
Poison Tree by William Blake
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,
And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
The Human Abstract by William Blake
Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody Poor;
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.
And mutual fear brings peace,
Till the selfish loves increase:
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.
He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the grounds with tears;
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.
Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Catterpiller and Fly
Feed on the Mystery.
And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.
The Gods of the earth and sea
Sought thro' Nature to find this Tree;
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain.
If we want to understand the world we currently live in, I suspect that those two last poems of Blake tell us more than any number of political analyses. What the tree is that grows in the human brain, that feeds on rivalry; that creates suffering so that it may have an opportunity for compassion; that secretes poison for the sake of revenge. All of that seems to me a sadly accurate description of the world most of us have learned to inhabit. And listening to Blake is at least a reminder that that is not natural, however usual it may be, so long as the imagination continues to revolt against it. And that of course is why Blake is a revolutionary. Not because he had a systematic, political program but because he believed, extraordinarily, that imagination changes things if you allowed it to work long enough. And yet – it's a big "and yet" – the duality of the human heart remains. Blake wrote two poems about the human heart and the divine image in the human heart and the negative image of the divine in the human heart. And we'll finish our sojourn with Blake by listening to those two poems.
The Divine Image (from Songs of Innocence) by William Blake
To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.
A Divine Image (from Songs of Experience) by William Blake
Cruelty has a human heart,
And Jealousy a human face;
Terror the human form divine,
And Secrecy the human dress.
The human dress is forged iron,
The human form a fiery forge,
The human face a furnace sealed,
The human heart its hungry gorge.
How is one to fathom the human heart? Imagination remains an act of faith.Imagination tells you not what is and not even what might be, but somehow what needs to be.
There's an element for every poet of necessity in what he or she says. As I said earlier, the poet doesn't simply say, "you might say it this way" or "here's a thought". The poet says, "I can't not say this." And that, "I can't not say this" is where the pressure, the integrity of poetry comes from. Poetry loses its integrity when it's either trying to be clever or trying to get a message across with a capital "m". 'That doesn't mean that poetry is uninterested in morality. You've just been listening to Blake and there's no more moral poet in the English language than William Blake. But as soon as poetry becomes a rhyming version of good advice it loses its energy. It loses its sense of necessity.
Blake as you will have seen, as you know, had a fairly idiosyncratic approach to religion. And although he was for some of his life a neighbour to Lambeth Palace, I have a rather strong suspicion that he wasn't a very good neighbour to Lambeth Palace or rather that he thought, not without reason, that Lambeth Palace was not a very good neighbour to him or to any of those people about whom and for whom he most deeply wrote. And having in the last year spoken about Blake on a couple of occasions, I have a very strong twinge of conscience as to what on earth Blake would have thought of an Archbishop of Canterbury talking about him. Neighbourhood or no neighbourhood in Lambeth, I think he would have been a little bit sceptical. However, even Archbishops of Canterbury have an imagination somewhere and I want, in the last few minutes, to share with you just a few of the writings of one of Blake's neighbours. And picking up some of the themes I've been talking about, I want to share with you three or four poems about borderlands. A bit about death. A bit about life. A bit about standing on the shore, since that's one of those images that just come back again and again.
I'll begin with a poem written in the middle '90's. It's a poem in memory of a friend of mine, Gillian Rose, a great philosopher who died on the ninth of December, 1995. I was travelling to visit her in hospital that day and arrived to find that she'd died just a little while earlier and that to the considerable surprise of myself and many of her friends, she'd been baptized on her deathbed. A very passionate and articulate Jew, she had finally made a journey that puzzled, bewildered, offended some, but found herself at last at home in a place she'd never expected to be. And the poem, Winterreise for Gillian Rose, ninth of December, 1995 falls into three sections: morning, afternoon and night. Shaped by a train journey on a very foggy winter morning up through Gloucester in the Midlands towards Coventry, and an extremely disruptive journey back, sitting around in Swindon for what felt like an eternity because, thanks to the events of the day, I'd missed all the connections I'd planned.
Winterreise: for Gillian Rose, 9 December 1995
The flat fields tramp towards the Severn.
I know there is no cliff to drop from
their edge, only the sand and the wet still sheets.
This morning, through, the thick and chest-constricting
light, the level, rose-grey clouds and the remains
of icy fog stand between fields and water.
And the horizon has to be a steep edge, has to be
the cliff where Gloucester fell that never-to-be measured
drop from his body to the ground.
And down, a long way down, below the frost,
must be soft embers sending up the light
from fires the night-fog has muffled but not killed.
Still, where you were concerned, we always
arrived too late; too late, myopic, short of sleep,
with fingers stumbling to decipher messages
you left for us, engrave in a hard surface.
It was a distant relative of yours who drove
his lawyer's reed into the black Sinai basalt
till the calligraphy of little streams broke out
to age the hopeless rock as if with history,
as if with words; another kinsman, distant or not too distant,
writing in falling sweat on stone, body to ground, something
his friends never quite managed to read. Tracing, unthinkingly,
a pattern of spilled wine on the dayroom table
never quite managing to meet each other's eyes, or not for long,
we test the feel of an unyielding difficulty, not yet sure
of handling this, of finding where the streams combine,
reading what the wet fingertips decode.
Dying by degrees, perhaps is a winter journey:
connections cancelled unexplained, the staff,
their patience ebbing, closing amenities, one by one, around you.
The temperature falls, and for an hour you sit
on a plastic bench, aching for sleep,
under the surly light that strips you
For some always-delayed inspection; so even,
so hard, that for so long you cannot see the dark:
the homely dark, with its fierce small fires.
And a bit more recently, this is a poem inspired by, not exactly based on, but inspired by an enormously long medieval Welsh poem on the great pilgrimage centre in Chester of the Middle Ages where a great wonder working crucifix was set up, the Rood of Chester. And the legend was that this huge crucifix had landed on the shore at Chester. It had been found one morning on the sand outside of Chester. And the legend developed that it was actually made out of fragments of the true cross or embodied fragments of the true cross, that it had drifted all the way to Chester from Jerusalem, geography not being one of the strong points in the Middle Ages. And this great wonder working crucifix, the centre of pilgrimage in North Wales and the northwest of England was, of course, cut down and destroyed in the Reformation, chopped up and for a while used in one of the local grammar schools as the whipping block.
But seashores evoke all kinds of things. They evoke the wooden horse of Troy on the shore outside the walls of the city. They evoke some of the legends about the true cross. The amazingly vivid imagery that this particular medieval poet uses about the gull's table, the sea as the gull's table, where the food is spread by God and an imagery drawn from Welsh mythology of the wounded eagle who figures in one of the great prose romances of the Middle Ages.
The Rood of Chester (after Gruffydd ap Meredudd)
Cut from the flowering tree,
the body sails by night
over a scouring sea,
stained by red white.
Monday at dawn, between the walls and the sand,
they saw the carpenter's masterpiece, delivered
out of the winter country on crowned waves.
The clouds' siege lifted and the rain sailed home.
Polished as bone, the oak comes through the storm
alive, fingered and pressed by winter after winter,
rolled on the gulls' table till it swims clear
between the walls and the sand at dawn.
They climbed down from the walls to see
the winter's carpentry, the skills of a far-off land
where they speak only the gulls' tongue; they walked
the noisy strand, one eye still on the white waves.,
One eye on the wind's knives. What else has winter
to deliver? The oak is spread like wings ,
an eagle five times speared as it drops
out of winter between the walls and the sand.
From Adam's sandy grave
blossoms the magic rod,
stacked in the Temple's nave
to wait for the nails of God.
There is no gift like this for a city,
no wood but this for the roof, the bloodied wings,
the salted timber. They hauled it from the sand
and wrapped and hung it in the dense rafters, singing.
And like that other image from the shore,
at night its belly cracked and the men began
to scramble out, the men folded
into the eagle's wing, the men and women devoured.
By its five hungry wounds. It has gathered
all who have left their walls, who were lost in winter,
on whom the towns have closed their doors;
they will make the foursquare City of the Legions
A camp of little fires for the homeless
where they sing unfamiliar songs in the gulls' tongue -
until the legions douse the hearths and take the ground again
and carve the oak into a whipping block for bad boys.
When the children weep
at their corrected fault
the clipped bird stirs in sleep
tasting remembered salt.
And two poems to finish. One of my great discoveries a couple of years ago was a Russian poet called Inna Lisnianskaya. Still alive and in enormous old age, she is very much in the great tradition of Russian women poets like Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, both of whom she's written about. And some of her late poems are again about borderland experiences, about death and bereavement and what emerges from that.
I'm going to read first of all, one of her poems in my own translation which is partly about the death of her husband and its setting is fourth floor of a hotel in Jerusalem. But interestingly, and you may find this relevant for this evening, I first read it as looking out from the fourth floor of a hospital, as one sometimes does between visits or when you wander out from sitting by somebody's bed and just look out of a window of a high floor. I think it was partly because it evoked to me some of those experiences when my parents were dying, that it spoke. It's a poem about the memory of love, the presence of challenge and again, what is squeezed out of necessity by that.
So here is
Inna Lisnianskaya – From the Fourth Floor
My look-out is the mountain peak of the fourth floor;
the eyes are flooded with desert, a seascape
with Bedouin tents blowing full-sail across it,
a mackerel sky, layers of quivering sea-foam.
We came here once together.
The sun has set. A stark white outline tells us
yellow moonrise is on its way, because
the sun and moon don't get divided here;
but you and I do; here's my soul
making a detour of a thousand miles
Round through the Moscow blizzard, where your wheels stuck fast
for good. You left your stick for me, to use it for
a compass needle, and I followed your direction
straight away. Off for a month or so to Bible lands, and never
letting my gaze wander from the sands and their remembering.
Dates blaze in clusters on the palmtrees, eucalyptus
scratches its side against the thorny aloe, and a voice
has been, all day today, crying in the wilderness,
sounding just like that creaking lift in Moscow: just the two
of us, a kiss exchanged as we went up.
Climbing to this fourth floor peak is hard work. But
the desert keeps going up into the sky for ever, you can't tell
camels' humps from clouds up there. And like a car
slipping into its garage, the pine casket slips into this landscape.
The real view's your death; my life is the mirage.
I was so moved and engaged by Lisnianskaya that I wrote a little poem for her, which is again, as like lots of poems, about requited poetry, but it ends with I think one of her greatest images and couplets quoted in translation. A couplet which I think brings together quite a lot of what we've heard from Shakespeare and Keats and Blake. Quite a lot about that experience of being brought up short and being silenced that brings poetry to life, So here's a little poem to finish with:
For Inna Lisnianskaya:
Barefoot, down the long woodland corridors of frost,
over the needles, walks the forgotten
mistress of the king. She smells of grapes,
candles, black furs, of cooking smells
and smoke in a cramped flat. She will disturb
the clinical forest air with haze
and trembling. In the shining kingdom,
in the rich winter malls, she opens for business
with a stall of odds and ends, cheap and irregular,
and scented with a lost indoors. Don't beg,
she says, from the rich, only the poor;
get absolution from the sinner, not the saint.