Sunday, 14 April 2013

Poetry on the Slopes of Mount Everest

Everest photo by shrimpo1967. Used under Creative Commons license

Thus far, in a break with the tradition established by T S Eliot, March was the cruellest month this year and seems to have left me pointlessly exhausted for April - hence a slight lack of posting enthusiasm lately, though I have a long list of entries that I absolutely have to write sooner or later...

Today I was watching a documentary on BBC iPlayer about the Eiger, one of the great mountains that is always alive in my subconscious mind. I saw the Eiger a few years ago, and passed through it on the railway up the Jungfrau, and that was one of my travel dreams fulfilled. Watching the documentary, about the tragic and dynamic history of its climbs, played out on the brutally visible "theatre" of its North Face, I realised that I know the names and the stories quite well: the White Spider, the Traverse of the Gods, Toni Kurz, Heinrich Harrer, Chris Bonington, John Harlin, so many others... Some survived and some didn't; it has claimed more than sixty lives. I found it impossible to look at the mountain without a lot of emotion, and the view from the window halfway up the North Face was overwhelming.

I recently finished reading Into the Silence by Wade Davis, an account of the early British expeditions to Everest with Mallory and others, which culminated in the death of Mallory and Irvine in 1924. The book sets the expeditions firmly in the context of the horrors of World War I (which I have never found so vividly, accurately and graphically described) and how this affected the national consciousness.

For the purposes of this blog, a detail which fascinated me was the fact that Mallory brought a poetry anthology with him on the expeditions, and that he spent a lot of time reading it. Published during the war, the anthology was called The Spirit of Man and was intended to rally the spirits of the British public. It was edited by Robert Bridges, who was then the poet laureate.

Mallory wrote to his wife about a month before his death on Everest in 1924, one afternoon huddled in a tent during a storm, of reading from this anthology with his companions: "We all agreed that [Coleridge's] 'Kubla Khan' was a good sort of poem. Irvine was rather poetry shy but seemed impressed by the Epitaph to [Thomas] Gray's 'Elegy'. Odell was much inclined to be interested and like the last lines of [Shelley's] 'Prometheus Unbound'. Somervell, who knows quite a lot of English literature, had never read a poem of Emily Brontë's and was happily introduced."

The actual poetry of World War I would, of course, take poetry into new and frightening areas with the emergence of figures such as Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, who saw clearly how the world and its certainties were being brutally shattered, and thousands of lives with them. Mallory and his companions were perhaps among the last representatives of an age where men fought, or climbed, for high ideals of conquest and nationalism which turned out to be desperately flawed. But I still love the idea of these brave men reading poetry on the slopes of Everest, and I'm glad that it brought them some peaceful moments.

Here is a link to Gray's 'Elegy', which Irvine had liked - its Epitaph does seem especially poignant in light of the fact that Mallory and Irvine were to die so soon afterwards.



  1. Famous as it is, I don't think I'd ever read Gray's elegy, or at least not all of it. Had you not posted the link to it as part of this interesting post, I might never have read it. I find it deeply moving. And the various things you touch on here--poetry, death, change, biography, etc.--really interest me. The elegy interests me for very personal reasons for which the lovely line from Paul Celan at the top of this page ('Poetry is a sort of homecoming') might serve as a fine summing up.

    1. Gray's Elegy is a wonderful poem and I always found the thoughts about talent and opportunity, or the lack of it, very interesting.

      The fact that Irvine, who was a young active man and evidently not the "poetry type", was still touched by the final Epitaph lines of the poem, does seem both sad and meaningful. I don't believe that people are "destined" or "fated" to certain ends in the way that it is sometimes suggested, but it is hard to now see that final Everest expedition without feeling a kind of forward narrative rush to the end, where the death of the two men seems inevitable.

      I was reading Into the Silence for some time - I got a bit bogged down in the middle and sidetracked into some other books - and then when I finally reached the last stages, I didn't want to finish it. I knew very well what was going to happen but it seemed as though I could put it off a little more if I didn't read it. It was a strange experience I don't often undergo with non-fiction. I was in tears by the end.