Monday, 21 May 2012

'Hurt Hawks': Robinson Jeffers By Way of Watership Down

Hawk eye photo by Jurvetson (flickr)

Over the years, and especially from about ages 7 to 20, there have been certain authors, works and characters which have been especially formative in my life. One of these was Watership Down, which I have already mentioned here and there in this blog. I think I was ten or eleven when I first read it, though I remember an abortive attempt a few years earlier, when I was really a bit too young and I think my mother had brought it home from the library for my older brother to read.

Watership Down was significant for me in a good many ways. It reinforced my love for nature, animals and talking animal books (a genre which seems to have gone significantly out of fashion - but for some years it was almost the only kind of book I wanted to read). It is one of the most English of books - if I remember correctly, Richard Adams based the characters partly on his friends during his time in the military - and it increased my fascination with all things English. It was also just an exciting, moving, funny, passionately written book which inevitably appealed to a sensitive child with a vivid imagination.

The book also features an epigraph at the start of every chapter, taken from world literature, and giving just a hint of what is to come in that chapter. These vary widely - from Shakespeare, the Bible, Jane Austen, Greek and Roman classics, Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces, The Wind In the Willows, and so on. It is in no way an exaggeration to say that I discovered a few writers that I really admire from these epigraphs. Sidney Keyes, one of the great World War II poets, is quoted at the start of one chapter, from his 'Four Postures of Death', and in recent years he has become a very significant poet for me. These phrases, like passages from the novel itself, have become a part of me and echo through me at many and various times in my life.

One of the epigraphs featured a quotation from 'Hurt Hawks' by American poet Robinson Jeffers:

HURT HAWKS (Robinson Jeffers)

It was in the chapter where Kehaar, the crazy gull, is found wounded and adopted by the Watership Down rabbits. (I'm honestly not sure if his accent was supposed to be Jamaican, or Polish, or what, but it wasn't all that politically correct.) The few lines of the poem made a deep impression on me. I don't even like birds that much, but I could just see everything in this poem. I could see the fearsome, pained glare of the wounded bird, the sense that death is encroaching.

He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.

I've now also read some of Robinson Jeffers' other poems. I think he is a bit out of fashion these days and in all honesty I do not see him becoming one of my favourite poets. He became most notorious for writing a long poem about incest, 'Tamar', and for a mode of thought called inhumanism. As far as I can tell, this posited that human beings are too indifferent to the beauty of the natural world and that their disappearance wouldn't be a great loss. (I admit that I may not have this quite right, but that's more or less how I understood it.) The great Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who was a believer, wrote a very interesting poem, 'To Robinson Jeffers', in which he rejected Jeffers' inhumanism and deplored the "nakedness of elements" in a godless world, or at least a world in which God and humans could not have anything to do with each other.

Thin-lipped, blue-eyed, without grace or hope,
before God the Terrible, body of the world.
Prayers are not heard. Basalt and granite.
Above them, a bird of prey. The only beauty.

I'm not sure about Jeffers' beliefs - I have seen it suggested that he was a pantheist, but in any case, it seems pretty certain that he did not believe in a personal God. His vision of nature is indifferent to humanity, beautiful, stark and annihilating. In 'Hurt Hawks', the man does give release to the wounded hawk by killing him, but the bird's incandescent life force is still greater even as he dies:

[...] I gave him the lead gift in the twilight. What fell was relaxed,
Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.

Friday, 18 May 2012

In Which Louis MacNeice and I Run Off To Bulgaria

A few days ago I returned from a week-long visit to Bulgaria, a country I never really thought I would go to. My friend who I visited there and who introduced me to the friends and sights of a country she has adopted for several years now probably never really thought I would come either - I had been vaguely promising to visit for quite a long time.

Anyway, I made it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I intend to write another post with more about my trip and about some interesting and unexpected poetic encounters. But for now, I thought I would post a poem which I wrote over the last couple of days. I can't quite explain its genesis. Travel to different countries often inspires me to poetry, but after my return, I wasn't sure if there were signs that this was going to happen with Bulgaria. I started to reflect on how Louis MacNeice, one of my favourites (and a man who features prominently on my Dead Poet Crush list) would have found meaning and metaphor in the concrete, sensual details of what he saw around him. Then I imagined that he was in Bulgaria with me. It's poetry; we're allowed to do this sort of thing.


Louis, you would have found l’air du temps
in the dark clouds banked over that huge echo
of a post office, where I wandered like an extra
in a film. I couldn’t read the people in Plovdiv
or Sofia for that matter, but reflected in their eyes
I glimpsed the wolves craning their necks to howl.
You would have laughed as I ducked at lightning,
not letting me forget my sunglasses
at the internet café. Internet? Not a problem;
you’d seen the river, the snake of modernity
biting its own tail. The tide of metaphor
in the chocolate flood of meltwater
on the mountain roads to Smolyan,
the startled gaze on the mirrored faces.
Louis, I tell myself you would have been practical
and strong, and time would have left us
to watch Roman stones and their invisible shift,
to hear the violin’s slim notes slip the window,
to put out a finger and stroke the curving flask
of green glass, to buy a drink for experience.

© Clarissa Aykroyd, 2012. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

"Where I Will Heal Me Of My Grievous Wound": Arthuriana In My Life

from THE PASSING OF ARTHUR (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

 And slowly answered Arthur from the barge:
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within himself make pure! but thou,
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.
But now farewell. I am going a long way
With these thou seëst--if indeed I go
(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)--
To the island-valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadowed, happy, fair with orchard lawns
And bowery hollows crowned with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound."

Everything in my life has always seemed to lead on to something else. I suppose that's probably so normal as to seem trite (or not), but to me even random events tend to seem teleological, or at least part of a pattern.

I was always fascinated by medievalism as a child. My brother and I preferred the Legos which built knights and castles to the "town" and "space" versions (those were simpler times); we played at knights and read Tolkien, Ivanhoe and Knight Crusader. My brother did his MA thesis on Robin Hood. I've since moved on to Gladiator, but it's much the same thing. Somewhere in there, King Arthur was bound to emerge as a major obsession, which happened in my late teens.

17-22 was quite a critical age for me, and I developed such a passion for Arthuriana that I seriously considered doing an English MA with an Arthurian focus. I didn't, but it would have been an interesting path. I did a mini-thesis for my BA on Merlin, and had a short story on Bedivere and the Questing Beast published. Also, judging by my bookshelves in my parents' house, I seem to have collected pretty much every modern Arthurian retelling going - those that aren't on the shelves I borrowed from the library. While I also collected and read a lot of the original medieval tales, I tended to find them harder going. Unfortunately, quite a lot of the modern works were a bit too much in the bodice-ripping romance vein or were influenced by neo-paganism, neither of which are remotely my cup of tea. It was actually quite hard to find really good, well-written Arthurian novels. Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment) was very significant for me, and I also loved Rosemary Sutcliff's books - her more traditional retellings (The Sword and the Circle, The Light Beyond the Forest, The Road to Camlann) when I was younger, and her adult novel Sword at Sunset when I was older. Gillian Bradshaw's novels were great too. As much as I like the idea of retelling old stories, though, a lot of the novels were rather forgettable.

I did like Tennyson very much, but I read relatively little Arthurian poetry that made a really big impression. Edwin Muir's poem 'Merlin', quoted at the start of one of Mary Stewart's novels, was beautiful and moving:

O Merlin in your crystal cave
Deep in the diamond of the day
Will there ever be a singer
Whose music will smooth away
The furrow drawn by Adam's finger
Across the memory and the wave?

I also read Edwin Arlington Robinson's excellent long poems, and some of Charles Williams's strange Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of Summer Stars, and other short poems here and there. But there might just be a world of Arthurian poetry out there for me to discover, still.

I have often told people that Sherlock Holmes was a major reason why I ended up moving to London, or that he at least helped me to develop an obsession with all things English. To a certain extent, I could say the same about Arthuriana, though it was a later passion in my life than Holmes. In 2002 I went to the International Arthurian Society conference in Bangor, Wales, and although I really did want to go, it was partly a pretext to get my European (er, British Isles) adventure started. It had also led me broadly to an interest in English and Welsh mythology.

By the time I moved to London seven years ago, Arthuriana had really receded in my life. Sherlock Holmes seems to have stuck around more intensively, especially of late, with the new BBC series to enthrall me. Holmes is more alive to me in London. I've only really walked in the steps of Arthur in Wales, and that as though in a dream. There are so many Arthurs and Merlins and so many places where they could have lived or not lived. Still, Arthur never went away. I went up to Liverpool a few years ago specifically to see Burne-Jones's The Beguiling of Merlin in Port Sunlight, and I was not disappointed. I've chosen it as the logo of sorts for this blog. Then, in 2009 or 2010 (not sure which) I had a wonderful experience with the painting above, Burne-Jones's The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon.

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon has been the Ponce Museum of Art in Puerto Rico for a long time, and I thought it was unlikely that I would ever see it. I'd like to visit Puerto Rico, but it is not high on my list. I was therefore totally astounded and delighted when I learned one day that the painting was in London, though only for a year. It was on loan from its home gallery while the gallery underwent renovation. At the time, I was working in Pimlico, and the painting was only around the corner at Tate Britain. Already feeling stunned about the whole thing, I went round to see it one day.

I remember walking through the familiar rooms of Tate Britain with a sense of purpose and slipping into the room where The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon was displayed. I sat down and just stared at it. I was overcome with the kind of shock and delight that sometimes takes me in artistic experiences - especially those which aren't just artistic experiences, but are tied up with so much else in my life. The painting is enormous (the picture above is only a detail from it) and extremely beautiful; classically Burne-Jones, with luminous colours and figures looking like angels. I got up and walked around to look more closely at the details - the flowers, the folds in the robes - and then sat down and stared again.

I went back to see it two or three more times before it went back to Puerto Rico, though I now wish I'd seen it even more. The experience still amazes me to think of, as I just never thought this was a painting I would lay eyes on and certainly not in London (for one thing, it seemed much to big to travel!). Seeing this painting confirmed to me, as well, that nothing and no-one ever leaves the pattern - old obsessions, artistic passions, people and places - even if they seem to be a part of my past.