Saturday, December 30, 2017

Meg Bateman / Allegory


by Meg Bateman

On the single track roads in the Highlands
we seek each other’s eyes,
giving way to some,
beckoned through by others,
in a slow, supple dance.
But down goes my foot where the double track starts
as I swing away at twice – three times – the speed,
aware of nothing  but my own thoughts,
driving free, without hindrance.
Rarely need I pull in
for another to pass,
rarely does another wave back.
from Transparencies (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2013)
Meg Bateman’s first collection , Aotromachd /Lightness, made a stir when it was published in 1997. Here was a writer in Gaelic, not a native speaker (she  studied Gaelic at Aberdeen University and began to write her own poetry in that language), speaking of intimate subjects in a voice that was full of insecurity and yet boldly challenged the received view of Gaelic poetry – certainly as it was received by an English-speaking audience.
Anyone who has driven in the Highlands knows what Bateman, who lives on Skye, is describing in this poem, the decisions and the courtesies of negotiating a single-track road. But close communities, whether linguistic or physical,  are also confining: we can read the poem as an allegory of island life, even of Scottish life; of  choosing to write in Gaelic (for a community of less than 60,000 readers) or English.
Mostly self-translated, Bateman’s poetry  evokes both the timeless and the contemporary: love and disposable diapers. Carol Rumens has remarked: ‘The poems have the strength and simplicity of art made for a community rather than an elite, though they are far from artless.’

Robyn Marsack

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Julia Gregson / My war ace father’s secret life as a poet

Barry Sutton, who fought in the Battle of Britain, was shot down three times

My war ace father’s secret life as a poet

Julia Gregson’s father was a pilot whose war experiences his family never quite grasped. Then he arrived one Christmas with a plastic bucket containing a 5,000-word poem, saying he was taking it to the BBC

Julia Gregson
Saturday 16 July 2016 06.29 BST

t was shortly before Christmas, and London was covered in snow. My father had arrived at our house for a party an hour too early. My first uncharitable thought was, “Oh no! Not the blue New Zealand suit.” The suit in question was a cheap, periwinkle blue, Bri-nylon fashion disaster, the bargain and love of his life, found on sale in a men’s outfitters in New Zealand about a decade earlier. It stuck to him like an ill-fitting shroud and exposed inches of thin, white ankle. He wore it despite howls of derision from the women in his family – and there were only females in his family: my sister, my mother and me. His monstrous regiment of women.

He was 6ft 4in tall, outstandingly good-looking, in spite of a few scars on his face, and had a finger burned off in his fighter pilot days. Properly dressed, he could, we sometimes cajoled, have had a lovely second career, modelling for knitting patterns or Saga cruises.
That was never going to happen.
On the surface, this was a man’s man who liked speed and action: a Battle of Britain ace, a pentathlete, a dasher into icy seas, a moonlight steeplechaser who loved motorbikes, and flying aeroplanes, gliders, gyroplanes anything. I remember once his utter confusion at listening in on a north London male encounter group talking on television about the traumas of marriage, work and children. He simply didn’t get it. After being shot down three times, being alive, being married, having children, were miraculous and unexpected gifts.
Abandoned, aged two, by his mother, he was shipped off to live with relatives in Canada. (An old photo, captioned “Barry’s first day”, shows him dressed in a boiler suit, a resolute little face, sucking a man’s pipe for a dummy.) He never complained about it or thought it worthy of analysis. Later, when he was in 56 Squadron, young pilots who talked about death, terror or remorse in the mess were fined and had their names entered in a book. God knows what a toll this took because, paradoxically, he was also a sensitive, dreamy kind of man who loved words and music. He’d longed to be a writer and was working as a trainee journalist on a Nottinghamshire paper before the war.
On the snowy night in question, he carried a plastic bucket that contained a few of these contradictions: a Marguerite Duras novel, a few bits of shaving tackle, whisky, some feathered flies left over from the last fishing trip and, at the bottom, a poem – not well typed and in a brown paper bag.
It was called The Summer of the Firebird. He’d been working on it for a year. It was 5,000 words long. Too long, probably, he mumbled shyly, but he was going to take it to the BBC, which was why he had arrived early.
I was frightened for him, imagining smart young men in interesting glasses, half-cut at their Christmas party, mocking him and rejecting him, an old man in his blue suit, with his poem in a bucket. It was all right for us to tease him, but not for other people.
“Are you sure the timing is spot on?” I asked him. “Wouldn’t it be better to post it?”
He said he’d rather go in person. “I’m too old to be humiliated,” he said, pulling one of the hammy faces that used to make us laugh when we were five.
He was right. At the BBC they handed him a drink, read the poem, and accepted it on the spot. A few months later Martin Jarvis read the poem on the BBC with Stravinsky’s Firebird playing at the beginning and end.
Listening to that poem was like ripping off a plaster and seeing a very deep and frightening wound. It describes in vivid detail a day when he was shot down, aged 22, in a Spitfire. His parachute had failed. He hung from a tree somewhere in Sussex and while a bird sang blithely in a tree nearby, he watched his fingers burn like candle wax, thinking of “the last slow kiss” of his adored young bride, Vicki, my mother; of the wretchedness of losing so many friends; the shame of finding in the wallet of a young German pilot he’d shot down two tickets to a theatre in Berlin.
Hours later and half dead, he was finally rescued. A year in hospital, drips, skin grafts, hands so burned he had to be fed for months, and then he was patched up and sent off to fly in Burma.
When I heard the poem, I cried tears of pride, mixed with tears of guilt and regret. Yes, of course, these were men who to some extent had been trained to ignore their emotions. And yes, it’s true that teasing, rather than “sharing”, was very much the lingua franca of our family, and jolly good fun it was sometimes. But why had I, a professional journalist at that time, never asked him properly about all this? Worse, I had not bothered to read the two books he’d had published during his year in hospital. That might have been a start.
Would a boy have taken more interest? Put on the leather flying jacket that hung in the back of the wardrobe for years before it went to the RAF museum; taken the medals out of their glass case and wanted to know their stories; pored over the logbooks? “To France with B flight. One HE 113 destroyed Thames estuary.” Would a boy have wanted to hear about the battles? Read the kind of books with him that might have connected with his passion for aeroplanes and made him feel more appreciated?
If loneliness is the absence of meaning, as well as the absence of people, had I left him high and dry?
My parents, with the cheerful disregard for child psychology common at that time, made no secret of the fact that I was supposed to be born a boy. They even had a name for me – Nicholas.

In retrospect, I’m grateful to have had this shadow boy in my life. He may have encouraged me to try to win my father’s respect by doing adventurous things.
One of my earliest memories is of sitting on the saddle in front of him as he galloped flat out down a field. (Terrifying and uncomfortable, I don’t recommend it.) He took my sister and me up in a Tiger Moth, trussed up like Biggles in leather helmets, shouting at him through the rubber pipe. But a boy would not have rolled his eyes when he tried to teach us the mechanics of the car engine. “You see, girls, it’s like two dinner plates going in opposite directions”, or begged us many times to go fishing with him. (My mother’s response was, “when you catch smoked salmon count me in”.) We refused point blank to learn to play chess.
Instead, we allowed him to reduce his war to a few funny anecdotes: chortling at the names of his Battle of Britain colleagues: Pricky Proud, Sheepy Lamb, Nobby Clarke, etc, or telling us about the time he took off in Rangoon and blew the turban off one of the ground staff.
And, of course, we teased him about being a typical man, “planned incompetence” was one of his phrases and, to be fair to us, he was – paradoxically for someone trained for disaster – hopelessly impractical. I’m thinking of the pea soup on the ceiling incident during a pressure cooker demonstration – or his fire-safety talk, during which smoke gently curled up the curtain behind him, ignited by the pipe in his right hand.
Oh, how the monstrous regiment of women roared at that. But even if we did let him down, how we loved him. In spite of all the suffering, and all the terror, he was such good fun – right up until the end. He would hate any handwringing now on his behalf.
On the day before he died, a district nurse came in, and said, “How are you feeling today, Group Captain Sutton?” and he made us smile when, skeletal and weak, he raised himself from the pillow and said with old school gallantry: “Never better, how are you?”
That night, in the tiny house my parents shared, close to the sea in Jersey, he asked my sister and me to sit with him on his bed. He wanted us to talk, to hear the sound of our voices. So we talked – about our jobs, our friends, our lives. At around 4am, running out of things to say, I asked what colour curtains my sister planned to hang in her room, at which a thin weary hand was raised. Fashion and home decoration were never going to grab him.
But the wounds, and the memories, remained. A few hours later, my sister, Caroline, recalled how he, “half asleep, and dreaming, looked towards the end of his bed as if he were seeing a wonderful and endless procession of people. He said simply and quietly: “Such fine men.”
And they were.
 Barry Sutton’s Fighter Boy is published by Amberley Press, £10.99. The Monsoon Summer by Julia Gregson is published by Orion

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney / Digest read

Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney

(Faber and Faber, £14.99), digested in the style of the original 

Fri 4 Feb ‘00 14.39 GMT
Hrothgar, son of Halfdene, was favoured in war,
and ordered men to build a great mead hall.
It was named Heorot, but a grim demon, Grendel was his name, a descendent of Cain,
a God-cursed brute, struck the hall again and again, grabbed men and butchered their corpses.
One day from across the sea, Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, came from the land of the Geats, owing allegiance to Lord Hygelac, to help fight this grim demon.
Unferth, son of Ecglaf, being contrary said:
"Are you the Beowulf who took on Breca
in a swimming match on the open sea,
risking the water just to prove you could win?"
Beowulf, Ecgtheow's son, replied, "Friend,
you're letting the beer do the talking.
The truth is this, I'm a strong swimmer,
and although it wore me out I landed safe.
I cannot recall any fight you entered, Unferth,
son of Ecglaf, that bears comparison,
not that I'm boasting."
God-cursed Grendel came, but Beowulf was granted the power of winning, and Grendel gave a God-cursed scream. No one regretted
his fatal departure. Grendel's mother,
monstrous hell-bride, came for revenge.
Alas, Aeschere, Yremenlaf's elder brother and Hrothgar's soul-mate, was killed.
Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, promised to
avenge the death. The hero went to the lairs
of water-monsters, observed that swamp-thing from hell, a lifeless corpse.
Beowulf cut the corpse's head off.
Hrothgar, elated, praised the Geat:
"Oh flower of warriors, do not give way to pride.
Choose eternal rewards." And so, the grey-haired Dane, the high-born king, kissed Beowulf,
gave him gifts, and Beowulf, glorious
in his gold regalia, journeyed home.
Fifty years passed, as time does. The wide
kingdom, reverted to Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow.
He ruled well, until the treasure of a dragon,
was disturbed. The dragon, was angry, was destructive. Beowulf spoke, boasted
for the last time: "I risked my life often
when I was young. Now I am old."
Time had not taught the son of Ecgtheow.
Beowulf fought and fate denied him
glory in battle. The glittering sword,
infallible before that day, failed him.
Wiglaf, son of Weohstan, went to his aid.
The king dealt the dragon a deadly blow,
but poison suppurated inside him, killed him.
In his final breath, he gave to Wiglaf,
the last of the Waegmundings, his helmet.
With no heir, the son of Ecgtheow, by the son
of Weohstan, was cremated, as ordered.
And if you really are pressed: The digested read, digested 
Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, helps Hrothgar, son of Halfdene, against Grendel, a God-cursed brute. Beowulf gets old, gets killed. Wiglaf, son of Weohstan, cremates him, as ordered.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Letters of TS Eliot / Volume 4 1928-1929 (ed. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden) / Digested read

The Letters of TS Eliot: Volume 4 1928-1929 (ed. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden) – digested read

John Crace reduces the latest sheaf of correspondence from the literary giant and stationery lover to a manageable 500 words

John Crace
Sun 6 Jan ‘13 18.30 GMT

TS Eliot by Matt Blease

Dear Mrs Woolf,
Thank you for sending me your new short story. I read it with great interest, but feel it is, perhaps, too frivolous for inclusion in The Monthly Criterion. Have you thought about sending it to Grazia? Yours, etc.
Dear Messrs Methuen,
I note with alarm that the paper for the new setting of The Sacred Wood is below the standard I expect. Please correct soonest. Yours, etc.
Dear Master,
I trust that nothing will interfere with my stay at New College on the 9th proxima and that I will be accorded the same suite of rooms as previously. Does five guineas sound reasonable for my expenses? Yours, etc.
My dearest Ottoline,
I'm so grateful that Valerie managed to find room for a few of my maddest letters. La – la – la. Otherwise no one would have any idea how much of a saint Tom was to put up with me for so long before having me committed to an asylum. Such a wonderful Christian man! Anyone else might have been tempted to have an affair by my madness. The cat stood on the mat. Much love, Vivienne.
My darling Emily,
(Regrettably, all the correspondence between TS Eliot and Emily Hale has been embargoed until 2020, so readers will just have to take the chaste nature of their relationship on trust – Eds. PS. I've always hated that bitch – Valerie)
Dear Cummings,
Thank you for sending me your new ditty. Unfortunately it is not quite suitable for The Monthly Criterion. Have you thought about taking remedial lessons in grammar and punctuation? Yours, etc.
Dear Leonard,
It was a rare honour to meet someone, such as yourself, with more money than sense. As you know, The Monthly Criterion is struggling financially and with your help we could re-establish the magazine on a quarterly footing. Thank you also for your offer to publish an edition of my poems in Latin. Once I have fulfilled my contractual obligations to Faber, of which I am now a director, I shall be happy to accept. In the meantime, I submit my invoice for 300 guineas. Yours, etc.
Dear Faber,
I note that 12 paper-clips are missing from the office inventory and that my papers had not been placed perpendicular to the inkwell on my desk. This state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue. Yours, etc.
Dear Aldington,
Thank you for sending me your latest verses. If they can be called that. I confess that I found them disappointing in the extreme – an opinion that I must make clear has nothing to do with your outspoken assertions that Vivienne is not really that mad. Have you tried The People's Friend? Yours, etc.
Dear Prince de Rohan,
Thank you for your appreciation of the German translation of my essay on Machiavelli. So often, one feels one is putting pearls before swine. Vivienne is doing as well as can be expected and I get enormous comfort from my faith. Yours, etc.
Dear Auden,
I am sorry I kept you waiting in the Faber ante-chamber for several hours. I had a very important meeting with my secretary. Do call the office to arrange another appointment some time next year. Yours, etc.
Dear Faber,
The paper-clips are still missing. Yours, etc.
Dear Spender,
Thank you for your invitation to speak at the Oxford Poetry Society. Regrettably, I must decline as I am exhausted. Having read a few lines of your latest work, dare I suggest that poetry is not your forte? I submit my invoice for 15 guineas for the expenses that would have accrued, had I accepted. Yours, etc.
Digested read, digested: A publisher's thank-you for being kept afloat by Cats.

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Poems of T.S. Eliot / The Annotated Text. Volumes 1 & 2, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, book review

The Poems of T.S. Eliot: The Annotated Text. Volumes 1 & 2, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, book review

A landmark edition of the poet’s verse includes his smut and juvenilia annotated alongside his greatest work

Sean O'Brien
Thursday 22 October 2015 15:43 BST

This is a magnificent piece of work, although when I found myself reading the richly detailed editorial commentary here not only on The Waste Land but also Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats with the close attention that might be required by Milton or Keats, I began to wonder if I’d gone mad. But then, why should Old Possum not receive the same scholarly attention as the rest of Eliot’s work?  Could anything that Eliot wrote be undeserving of the distinguished editorial services of Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue?
          Of course not, but among the good-humoured, faintly amusing additions there are poems that I would rather not have read. The racism and mirthless obscenity of the King Bolo pieces, like the utterly tedious Columbiad, are a form of punishment, like being locked in at the Ivy League equivalent of an interminable rugby club dinner. Hamlet says of his father, ‘He was a man. Take him for all in all’, and we must do the same for Eliot, while wondering how grateful he himself might be for such liberal consideration. (Interestingly, Ricks wrote a famous critical book called Keats and Embarrassment.) Eliot left as much a possible out: the 1963 Collected Poems, published two years before the poet’s death, contains only fifty-odd poems (though several of these have multiple parts). The process of expanding the Eliot canon has been in going on for some time, and this edition seems to be its fulfilment, though posterity may correct that view.

The adolescent and not so adolescent smut assembled in the current two volume annotated edition seems unlikely to hold the interest of most readers for long. They will understandably be more curious about the poems Eliot wrote for his second wife Valerie Eliot, with whom he spent what seems to have been a happy old age, and who as executor of his estate carefully defended Eliot’s privacy, for example forbidding Peter Ackroyd to quote Eliot’s poems in the first serious biography of the poet. In the well-known, ‘A Dedication to my Wife’, Eliot concludes: ‘this dedication is for others to read: / These are private words, addressed to you in public.’ Can this be true of ‘How the Tall Girl and I Play Together’, ‘Sleeping Together’ or ‘How the Tall Girl’s Breasts Are’? In the last of these, ‘When my beloved stands tall and naked / Proud and rejoicing, not in her own beauty / But in the knowledge of the power of her beauty / To quicken my desire (as I stand erect before her / And quiver with the swelling of my concupiscence) / Her breasts look ripe and full / In their summer of perfection.’

‘Her breasts look ripe and full’: Eliot with his wife Valerie, the inspiration for his love poems

Unsurprisingly, the editors have no comment to make on this. Though manifestly sincere, it sounds strangely administrative rather than intimate. If the biblical Song of Solomon seems audible in the background here, it only indicates the difficulty Eliot faces in achieving the right tone. In the closing section of ‘’Little Gidding’ (1942), the last of the Four Quartets and Eliot’s last major poem, the achievement of the apt tone is shown as both an aesthetic and a moral necessity – ‘The word neither diffident nor ostentatious, / An easy commerce of the old and the new, / The common word exact without vulgarity, / The formal word precise but not pedantic, / The complete consort dancing together’ – but that tone, that late-Eliot voice, prepared to risk sententiousness in pursuit of exactitude, does not simply transfer to the context of the love poem of old age. As a result the reader of the latter may feel more like a trespasser than a fellow creature on the common ground of human experience.
But the great poems – ‘Prufrock’, The Waste Land’, ‘Ash Wednesday’, ‘Sweeney Agonistes’ and Four Quartets – are all still there, their resonance extending through the twentieth century and into this one, with no loss of their compelling power to dramatize ‘the boredom, and the horror, and the glory’ of life. Ricks and McCue bring us as close as we seem likely to come to seeing the poems clearly. With The Waste Land, which is here shown in an editorial composite, showing elements Eliot considered and excluded, we can trace the process of composition.
If the poems comprise a secondary world within the one where we live, such intensity of scholarly scrutiny goes some way to creating a third: what Eliot tried and rejected and edited out, or allowed Ezra Pound to edit, is made present in a forensic map of the imagination. The effect recalls Freud’s description of the mind as resembling the city Rome with its successive ages are all simultaneously present. At times this feels almost heretical. At times it feels like a Borges story where an imagined world consumes the real one. Given his artistic commitment to the idea of impersonality, of the work being in a sense self-sufficient, free of its creator, one wonders what Eliot would have made of this. In our time the insistence that what writers write about is ultimately themselves grows ever louder, as though the imagination is being arraigned for being untruthful, as though the only truth is testimony or confession. But the poems are still there, and that extraordinary sober, thrilling music can be described but thankfully not possessed, as at the close of ‘Little Gidding’: ‘heard, half-heard, in the stillness / Between two waves of the sea. / Quick now, here, now, always - / A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything) / All shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / When the tongues of flame are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one.’ The ‘facts’ can do a lot of things for us, but they can’t do this.
Sean O'Brien's latest collection of poems, 'The Beautiful Librarians', (Picador) is shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize 2015

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Darkness in literature / Kathleen Jamie's Darkness and Light

Darkness in literature

Kathleen Jamie's Darkness and Light

This December, our seasonal reading series will concentrate on the theme of darkness in literature, beginning with a poet's search for 'starry dark' and solstice light

Sarah Crown
Tuesday 11 December 2012 08.02 GMT

During the long days of summer, it's easy to forget the dark. The slow, dissolving twilights and bright mornings have it on the run; by midsummer, you can go to bed at 10pm and wake at 6am and miss it completely. But at this time of year, when the northern hemisphere nights are pressing up against the window and we're filling our houses with lamps and fires and Christmas decorations to beat back the blackness, it's a different story. Daylight in December is pale and fleeting; by midwinter's day, we're spending two-thirds of our life in the dark. And as the nights draw in, the metaphors come flooding back, too: darkness as absence, darkness as challenge, darkness as threat. The metaphysical struggle between good and evil, dark and light – which Christianity codifies as the birth of Jesus, the light that "shineth in darkness" – is enacted daily.

In Darkness and Light, the thoughtful, beautiful opening essay to her 2005 collection FindingsKathleen Jamie considers both the metaphors that darkness furnishes, and darkness itself: "dark as natural phenomenon, rather than as a cover for all that's wicked". It's midwinter, and in the midst of all the usual seasonal pother, Jamie skips out and takes the ferry north from Aberdeen to Orkney. She's in search of two things: "real, natural, starry dark" and, in the neolithic burial mound of Maes Howe, a beam of solstice sunlight that, if conditions are right, will creep through the darkness and illuminate the tomb, as it has done every midwinter for 5,000 years.

In the event, she finds neither. Even at sea, where Jamie had been "secretly hoping for a moment where there was no human light … wholesome, unbanished darkness" there's always a light somewhere: coastal towns on the port side, oil rigs to starboard. And Maes Howe itself is a complex anticlimax. Not only does the sun neglect to perform, but the tomb is filled with surveyors, mapping the walls with lasers to check the progress of worrying cracks. When Jamie emerges from the entrance tunnel she finds that "inside was bright as a tube train, and the effect was brutal … At once a man's voice said, 'Sorry, I'll switch it off,' but the moment was lost." Darkness and light, Jamie shows us, aren't really locked in a dialectic at all, particularly not since the industrial revolution. Maes Howe, sunk in the dark for countless generations, is these days being held up to the light. Try as we might, we'll never experience darkness in the way its builders did.
But if Jamie admits to a throb of disappointment, there's no ersatz nostalgia here for a state that no one born in the 20th century has ever known. This isn't a lament for the oppositions that electricity's stolen from us; she's far too sensible and interested for that. "My ventures into light and dark had been ill-starred," she says. "I'd had no dramatic dark, neither at sea nor in the tomb, and no resurrecting beam of sunlight. But lasers are light, aren't they? Intensified, organised light. I'd come to Maes Howe at solstice, hoping for neolithic technology; what I'd found was the technology of the 21st century. Here were skilled people passing light over these same stones, still making measurements by light and time."
I first read this essay in high summer, when Findings was published, and was astonished at how effectively it conjured the atmosphere of midwinter. Physical dark, thick and limiting, with curtained windows and Christmas lights gleaming against it: this was what I came away with. But I've read it many times since, and with each rereading I take greater satisfaction in the way Jamie responds to the subtleties and gradations of a duality that appears at first glance to be black and white. "For five thousand years we have used darkness as the metaphor of our mortality," she says, towards the end. "We have not banished death, but we have banished the dark. We have light, we have oilfields and electricity and lasers. And by the light we have made, we can see that there are, metaphorically speaking, cracks … We look about the world, by the light we have made, and realise it's all vulnerable, and all worth saving, and no one can do it but us."
Five thousand years on from the construction of Maes Howe we still have darkness, we still have light, and the two of them still fit together, hand in glove. But in the hands of Kathleen Jamie, the metaphors they offer slip and slide and grow in complexity. If you're looking for a read to get you in the spirit of midwinter, this is it.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Unseen JRR Tolkien poems found in school magazine

The 1936 annual of Our Lady’s School in Abingdon, Oxfordshire.
Photograph by Our Lady’s School

Unseen JRR Tolkien poems found in school magazine

Two works by the Lord of the Rings author discovered in the 1936 annual of Our Lady’s School in Oxfordshire

Alison Flood
Tuesday 16 February 2016 12.34 GMT

Two poems by JRR Tolkien, in which The Lord of the Rings author writes variously of “a man who dwelt alone/beneath the moon in shadow”, and of the “lord of snows”, have been discovered in a school magazine in Abingdon, Oxfordshire.
Believed to have been written while Tolkien was professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, the poems were found in the 1936 annual of Our Lady’s School in Oxfordshire. The discovery was made when the US Tolkien scholar Wayne Hammond contacted Our Lady’s headteacher, Stephen Oliver. Hammond had found a note from Tolkien in which The Hobbit author mentioned that he had published two poems in a magazine he named as the Abingdon Chronicle.
Hammond realised this was Our Lady’s school magazine, and got in touch with Oliver. Initially, the latter could not locate the correct edition of the magazine, and passed Hammond on to the archives of the Sisters of Mercy, who had founded the school in 1860.
“Then, while preparing for an event for former pupils of the school, we uncovered our own copy and I saw the two poems Mr Hammond had been looking for. My excitement when I saw them was overwhelming. I am a great Tolkien fan and was thrilled to discover the connection with the school,” said Oliver.
The first poem, The Shadow Man, is an early version of a poem that Tolkien went on to publish in his 1962 collection The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. It tells of “a man who dwelt alone/ beneath the moon in shadow”, who “sat as long as lasting stone,/and yet he had no shadow”. When “a lady clad in grey” arrives, he wakes, and “clasped her fast, both flesh and bone;/and they were clad in shadow”.
The second, Noel, is a Christmas poem, albeit one set in scenery that would not be out of place in Middle-earth. “The hall was dark without song or light,/The fires were fallen dead,” writes Tolkien, going on to portray “the lord of snows”, whose “mantle long and pale/Upon the bitter blast was spread/And hung o’er hill and dale”.
The school is now planning to show the poems at an exhibition about its history. “Both poems are very atmospheric and imbued with an air of mystery. I was very moved when I first read them,” said Oliver.
“Noel is a beautiful and unusual take on the Christmas story, set in a wintry landscape. The focus is on Mary, which may be why Tolkien wrote the poem for the school magazine, given that we are dedicated to Our Lady. The Shadow Man is also a very beautiful story, about two people finding each other and thereafter casting only one shadow – it feels like a poem about marriage. The Shadow Man is incomplete until a woman comes to him and relieves his loneliness.”
Oliver is confident the poems “will be enjoyed by lovers of Tolkien everywhere”. Fans of the novelist have been given a wealth of previously unpublished material to enjoy in recent years, from last year’s release of his retelling of the Finnish epic poem The Story of Kullervo, to the unfinished Middle-earth story The Children of Húrin. David Brawn, Tolkien’s publisher at HarperCollins, said that some unpublished poetry had been included in the revised edition of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil in 2014, and that “there is often scope to add rare material to future revised editions”.


Saturday, December 16, 2017

John Burnside / From the Chinese

From the Chinese 

by John Burnside

Turn of the year

and a white Christmas turning to slush
on my neighbours’ fields

crows on the high road,

the yard streaked with coal dust
and gritting,

geraniums turning to mush

in the tubs and baskets.
I walk to the end of the road

to ease my sciatica:
ditch water, gorse bones; how did I get so cold

so quickly?
Thaw in the hedge

and the old gods return to the land
as buzzard and pink-footed goose and that

daylong, perpetual scrape

of winter forage;
but this is the time of year

when nothing to see
gives way to the hare in flight, the enormous

beauty of it stark against the mud

and thawglass on the track, before
it darts away, across the open fields

and leaves me dumbstruck, ready to be persuaded.
from Black Cat Bone (London: Cape Poetry, 2011)

Burnside, JohnJohn Burnside is a prolific writer: over a dozen collections of poems, half a dozen works of fiction, several memoirs… and the way they pour out is also typical of a single Burnside poem, which poet-critic Fiona Sampson has suggested ’resemble ragas more than traditional Western forms. Their organic shapes seem generated by their material, and by the running line of phrase leading to phrase…’. The poems have strong details yet blurred outlines: the country Burnside inhabits – his native Fife, the frozen north Europe he frequently explores – is often rain-swept, seen through mist, under cloud, under water.
In such landscapes, what is insubstantial becomes haunting, and unfinished stories, elusive memories, are revisited. There is an unhoused soul in this poetry, testing all sorts of boundaries. There are also birds, feral animals, and plant life: Burnside’s deep awareness of the natural world and human despoilation is key to his writing. In this poem, from a collection that won both the T.S. Eliot and the Forward prizes, there is just a hint at the end that he might believe in the possibility of the beautiful changes that spring could bring.

by Robyn Marsack