Detail from The Battle of Alexander at Issus, Albrecht Altdorfer, 1529. (Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany)
In December 1933, a young man named Patrick Leigh Fermor left England to travel on foot across Europe. Alternately sleeping in barns and in stately homes, he travelled from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (he always calls it Constantinople, although it was Istanbul by then.) He wandered in a leisurely manner through what now seem to be the dreamscapes of Mitteleuropa before World War II. Decades later he wrote about his travels in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Leigh Fermor died at an advanced age in 2011, but the final book, The Broken Road, is being edited posthumously and will appear later this year.
A great deal has been written and said about Leigh Fermor. He had an incredibly adventurous life which included the capture of a leading German commander in Crete during World War II. With a remarkable personal charm and magnetism, Leigh Fermor seems to have been a sort of cross between Casanova and James Bond.
I have just been re-reading A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. It is not so surprising that Leigh Fermor spent decades crafting these books - there really isn't a word out of place. The prose is like crystalline mosaics or frescos, hovering on the edge of the unbelievable and fairytale-like, but still believable. It's entirely possible that Leigh Fermor embroidered after the fact, but his tales of mountainscapes, of dream cities and kind eccentrics are so beautiful that I don't really mind either way. The books certainly conjure up a world that disappeared - Leigh Fermor repeatedly comments on how, particularly with the rich and titled families who gave him hospitality, the people he met disappeared into darkness during the war and only sometimes emerged. It is true that this is also a world which is rather class-ridden and occasionally interspersed with casual racism, not to speak of the terrible looming shadow of Nazism in Germany. But so much of the books' poignancy comes from the awareness of the awful storm that was to sweep over Europe, leaving so many scars and in many cases total destruction.
I wanted to write a little about the presence of poetry in these books. In some ways this, too, evokes a world that has disappeared or at least altered beyond recognition. A Time of Gifts is named after a line from a poem by Louis MacNeice, 'Twelfth Night':
For now that the time of gifts is gone -
O boys that grow, O snows that melt,
O bathos that the years must fill -
Here is dull earth to build upon
In A Time of Gifts, Leigh Fermor writes at some length (several pages) about his "private anthology" of poetry that he had memorized and would recite to himself while alone and walking. "The range is fairly predictable," he says, "and all too revealing of the scope, the enthusiasms and the limitations, examined at the eighteenth milestone, of a particular kind of growing up." The "private anthology" included Shakespeare as well as bits and pieces of Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Kipling, Wyatt, Marvell, Carroll and Lear, among others. "No Yeats later than the Ronsard paraphrase and Innisfree and Down by the Salley Gardens; but this belonged more to singing than reciting." He then mentions that he wasn't interested in Pound or Eliot but enjoyed Edith Sitwell. From other languages and cultures, he mentions a little Baudelaire and Verlaine, and Romans such as Virgil, Catullus and Horace.
Particularly in Between the Woods and the Water, in Hungary and Romania, poetry and poets dog his footsteps. In Hungary he mentions "the southern parts of the Cuman region celebrated by [Sandor] Petőfi - it is strange how the names of Hungarian poets cropped up the whole time in conversation and books!" He later mentions Ferenc Békássy, who studied at Cambridge and was "a friend of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey and especially Maynard Keynes" - this young poet died in battle in Bukovina in 1915. Later, in Romania, he comes across the oldest poem in Romanian, the traditional epic Mioritza. At the Baths of Hercules, an "ornate and incongruous watering-place" in a wild Romanian valley, he meets a young woman who quotes Kipling's 'If'.
All of this struck me, not just because my ears are pricked for poetry, but because it all seemed so much of another time. What young man (or woman) would now set out to travel across Europe with a memorised library of poetry to call upon, let alone all the multitude of cultural references that Leigh Fermor seemed to have at his fingertips even as a teenager? It just wouldn't happen - even a poetry lover probably wouldn't have more with them than a poetry app on their smartphone. Then, too, there were so many young poets who were also soldiers and who were destroyed in the wars. It seems to me that what started to be broken in World War I was irretrievably broken (in so many ways) in World War II, and this might include the idea of poetry as a sort of force for salvation.
On a more personal note, re-reading these books made me want to go back to Vienna, no small feat because it's not one of my favourite cities. They also set up in me a longing to go back to Germany, to Prague, and to travel more extensively in Hungary and Romania particularly. I also had a strange experience while reading A Time of Gifts. Leigh Fermor praises the beauty of the German city of Regensburg, and writes about one of its sons, Albrecht Altdorfer. When he wrote about Altdorfer's famous painting The Battle of Alexander at Issus, something swept over me - I had almost forgotten that I owned a small copy of it, from the gallery in Munich where it hangs. It is a remarkable painting and I think the feeling I had (and still have) for it ties into my fascination with certain types of fantasy landscapes - the first edition I owned of The Lord of the Rings featured cover art which now looks very Altdorfer-esque to me. Writing about the landscape depicted, Leigh Fermor said:
It was the valley of the Danube in the throes of one of its hundreds of battles. It must have been. But, on this first visit, how could I have realized it? The battle in the painted canyon is fought out under a lurid October sunset and the rival armies, like windswept cornfields bristling with lances and poppied with banners, collide in an autumnal light. Whereas the battlefield on my first encounter was dulled with snow, with all contours muffled and fanfares hushed. (from A Time of Gifts)
Here is Yeats's The Lake Isle of Innisfree, cited as part of the "personal anthology", and perhaps also appropriate for its final lines.
THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE (William Butler Yeats)
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.