White Egrets by Derek Walcott

By Rob Packer

It doesn’t happen too often that I pull out a book of poetry in Waterloo Station to read a few lines to a friend. She and I were each heading back home from a rather literary lunch; I opened the book (almost) at random and read:

If all these words were different-coloured pebbles,
with little pools that the blue heron might drink from,
a mosaic sheeted and glazed by the vanishing bubbles
of the shallows, and bannered waves marching to the sea’s drum,
if they were more than black marks on white paper,
and sounds that our eyes make upon their meeting,
they would all be yours …

We then had to break off and run for our trains, but these lines remain some of my favourite of White Egrets, the 2010 collection by St Lucian poet, Derek Walcott (1930–). They’re also characteristic of a collection that creates potent image after potent image in the reader’s mind and weaves together motifs that echo, develop and interact through the collection: it feels as much a poetic sequence as a collection.

The “bannered waves” of the sea are a constant presence throughout White Egrets. The sea creates comparisons of “huge trees tossing at the edge of the lawn like a heaving sea without crests” and is described in countless ways, whether “a bosoming wave unbuttons her white bodice” or the reader being invited to:

Watch how spray will burst
like a cat scrambling up the side of a wall,
gripping, sliding, surrendering; how, at first,
its claws hook then slip with a quickening fall
to the lace-rocked foam.

A white egret (Source: JJ Harrison, Wikimedia Commons)

The sea also recalls the Caribbean’s history: it stretches off to Africa and Europe (Sicily and Andalucía feature particularly strongly). It clearly references the triangular slave trade, which resulted in the syncretic Caribbean culture and I found Walcott’s linking of Syracuse in Sicily with St Lucia fascinating. As well as both being islands, where “the sea was the same except for its history”, they share the same patron saint.

The “blue heron” of the extract I read in Waterloo also makes a visual allusion to the book’s most fluid motif: the white egrets of the title (egrets are a type of heron and look very similar). They are both beauty and terror; they are immortality, death, anonymity, human transience and nature’s permanence; they are rhymed visually with sails, with regrets, with poems, letters, clouds and sea waves breaking.

Every time the white egret reappears, it adds a new and contradictory shade of meaning. Right now, I imagine them as metaphors for the creative process: the muse’s fleeting ideas that arrive—and disappear—without warning. In an hour, I might imagine them as Walcott’s drive “to paint and write well in what could be my last year”. Tomorrow, I may think that they defy interpretation completely. But it’s these connections and contradictions between the book’s imagery and motifs that are really what add so much to its richness and make it such a joy to read and re-read.

Derek Walcott, White Egrets, Faber & Faber 2010

Pink

By Rob Packer

Hmm, does anyone else wonder if this neighbour really likes pink?

Empiricists and Emperors: York Minster

By Rob Packer

They were perfectly practical and ingenious men; they worked experimentally; if their buildings were strong enough, there they stood; if they were too strong, they also stood; but if they were too weak, they gave way, and they put props and built the next stronger. That was their science and very good practical science it was too.

Professor Willis, quoted in
H. Batsford and C. Fry, The Cathedrals of England, 1934

Cricking my neck back to stare up through the empty void of the tower at the central crossings of York Minster (60m) and Lincoln Cathedral (83m), a question started to nag at me, recurring and reconstructing itself. How did they create these enormous naves more than half a millennium ago and raise these shafts of whiteness that ascend vertically to be seen from villages miles away?

York Minster, as seen from the city walls.

The tower above York's nave crossing.

I imagined mediaeval builders with vertigo as they fixed carved angels to its outside wall of York Minster’s tower or golden bosses to its ceiling; or ones at Lincoln as they dared to create the tallest building in the world. I had expected the answer to be combination of pride and religious belief, similar to Gaudí’s comment on his impossibly intricate details at the tips of the Sagrada Família: “The angels will see it”. What I hadn’t expected was Professor Willis’ interpretation of construction as an empirical process: the implications—that that limestone could come tumbling earthwards as happened at York in 1407—are terrifying. Read more of this post

April Blues

By Rob Packer

The rain of the last few days let off to end in a clear spring evening and this revealed patches of bluebells and forget-me-nots, yet more signs of the modulations of colour that mark the changing seasons in Britain—although nothing on the magic of bluebell woods at this time of year.

I’m not sure whether these are English, Spanish or hybrid bluebells, though. Leave a comment if you know.

Simon Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur

By Rob Packer

The Death of King Arthur by Simon Armitage

The legend of King Arthur needs no introduction: the ‘Matter of Britain’ has echoed through European literary history for over a millennium and The Death of King Arthur by Simon Armitage is just the most recent addition to this vast corpus. The poem is a translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, an anonymous 4000-line Middle English poem written around 1400—and not to be confused with Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.

As the title suggests, the poem is written in alliterative verse and Armitage has preserved the poetic form in Modern English. This is important and is the heart and soul of the poem: loosely every line has four stressed syllables*, generally three of these alliterate and there is no rhyme. Unlike Armitage’s 2007 poetic translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, however, the results are mixed and work best when unobtrusive:

The forest flourished in the flush of many flowers,
with falcons and pheasants and their colours and fantails
and the flash of all fowls that fly on the wing,
and the cuckoo sang clearly from the copses and groves…

Unfortunately there are plenty of bad ones—I tried a few out on a family member and was given a grimace and told to stop:

Denmark he suppressed through the power of his person,
and from Sluys to Sweden with a swish of his sword.

Or the overload of V’s here:

So I shall swear an oath to our Saviour in heaven
and devoutly make a vow to the vernicle of the virtuous,
that vengeance shall visit this great villainy
when valiant knights vie with venomous men.

Unlike Armitage’s Sir Gawain, the alliteration here is wearing and makes for a difficult read, as I felt it jumped across registers and time in search of alliteration. At times there were Tolkien-like archaisms, such as “vaunted” or “newly dubbed knights”; at others it seemed more Mills and Boon with Mordred “the devious double-crosser” or Sir Idrus’ “lusty lashes” (in the sense of whip). The most jarring, though, was the oft-repeated “right royal” which, despite its use in Shakespeare, brings to mind tabloid headlines or pantomime.

The plot, meanwhile, is one of the lesser known Arthurian legends: Arthur receives an emissary demanding tribute to Lucius King of Rome, he is incensed and goes to war, campaigning through Lorraine, Lombardy and Tuscany before he returns from Rome to Britain to deal with that “devious double-crosser”. Deliberately or not, it is hard not to see this through a contemporary prism of Britain’s relationship with Europe**. Unluckily for me, my mind recast Arthur as a bizarre composite of David Cameron and Margaret Thatcher, riding off to Europe with a rowdy rabble of backbenchers, to handbag some European “tyrants” and commissioners with a cry of “I want my money back!”

The Death of King Arthur stands at odds with Armitage’s earlier Sir Gawain translation, which I thought very readable. This poem, on the other hand, is much more variable and really has to be taken line-by-line: it’s best during Arthur’s dreams and his return to Britain but feels frightfully forced in the fight sequences with lots of conveniently alliterative personal and place names. This creates an obvious puzzle: why is one good and the other rather mediocre? I myself started to wonder—unfairly, as I haven’t read the originals—if the Gawain poet was perhaps just a more accomplished poet, or maybe I just don’t like alliterative verse?

Simon Armitage, The Death of King Arthur, Faber & Faber 2012


* Strictly speaking, lines in Old English verse are made up of two half-lines (a hemistich) with two stresses each.

** There might also be an interesting context to the original’s composition around 1400 around the time of the Peasants’ Revolt and Hundred Years’ War—a mention of English archers conjures up images of Agincourt—but this is just my speculation with an anonymous author from the East Midlands (the only surviving manuscript is in Lincoln Cathedral library, see my previous post).

Lincoln Cathedral

By Rob Packer

I’m currently in Yorkshire for a few days with my parents, but on our way up we took a detour to Lincoln, a historic town, whose name dates to at least Roman times: Lindum Colonia was a major Roman city on Ermine Street, the main road connecting London and York and that still follows its arrow-straight course north as the A15. Today the city is more isolated as the north-south routes have migrated westwards, but its past importance is more than visible in its enormous English Gothic cathedral.

The crossing, Lincoln Cathedral.

The cathedral in the distance.

The cathedral's façade.

Standing in the chapter house looking at stained glass depicting the history of the cathedral and city, I was surprised by just how important the place must once have been. Read more of this post

Alice Oswald’s Memorial

By Rob Packer

Homer is normally—and justifiably—seen as the starting point for Western literature and has been adapted and readapted since it was composed 2700 years ago. One of the latest is Alice Oswald’s Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad. The whole title is important: like an archaeologist sifting through soil and using a fine brush to reveal an arrowhead, Oswald has pared down the text to just Homeric similes and biographies of the war dead, removing its narrative and presenting “the whole poem as a kind of oral cemetery”.

This epithet-less, god-less and aheroic adaptation does feel strange: there is no rosy-fingered dawn or white-armed Hera, the heroes mostly have bit parts, and even the rage of Achilles at the Iliad’s centre is mostly absent until the end. But Oswald’s aim is very different: “to retrieve the poem’s enargeia”, which she defines as “bright unbearable reality”. The poem begins with eight pages of Greek and Trojan names in widely spaced capitals and reading them evokes a wall of names at a war memorial in Northern France, where familiar or repeating names, like PATROCLUS or HECTOR, leap out at you, while the sheer number of unrecognized names terrifies.

This emphasis on the dead makes the Trojan War feels more like a twentieth-century conflict. On the one hand, it feels unpartisan and democratized in that a shepherd boy is put on equal footing with the Homeric heroes and the distinction between victor and defeated is irrelevant—it would be impossible to tell in the text whether someone is Greek or Trojan. On the other, it becomes more senseless when “Twelve anonymous Thracians were killed in their sleep / Before their ghosts had time to keep hold of their names”. I think that a comparison with modern war looks particularly relevant at the odd reference to a motorbike or lift doors, or when one arrow shoots through seven soldiers:

And now the arrow flies through GORGYTHION
Somebody’s darling son

As if it was June
A poppy hammered by the rain
Sinks its head down
It’s exactly like that
When a man’s neck gives in
And the bronze calyx of his helmet
Sinks his head down

The poppy is the quintessential image of the First World War and its appearance here makes an inevitable mental link in the reader’s mind between the memorials of that war and this Memorial. Meanwhile, the anonymity of Gorgythion’s parents evokes unknown soldiers and I found this simile so powerful that it had me clutching for the Iliad (the Robert Fagles translation; sorry, guys, no Greek):

As a garden poppy, burst into red bloom, bends,
dropping its head to one side, weighed down
by its full seeds and a sudden spring shower,
so Gorgythion’s head fell limp over one shoulder,
weighed down by his helmet.

Both versions are excellent and I particularly like Oswald’s, which creates mutual metaphors within the simile between weapon-like hammers and the “bronze calyx” (part of a flower). More interesting is that Gorgythion isn’t just “somebody’s darling son” in the Iliad: Homer, he is in fact, “a well-bred son of Priam, a handsome prince”. But what is striking about this short section is that while the original describes Gorgythion’s mother’s beauty, Oswald aims at anonymity but manages to create pathos similar to the original.

From the start, Memorial feels like an interesting experiment in stripping away at one of the most important (and best) epics in history to leave its essence. It is ultimately successful because by removing the Iliad’s narrative, Oswald foregrounds the most poetic side: the similes with their nature, tranquillity and domesticity. By combining them with the entry and exit wounds of ordinary blokes on the battlefield, she also emphasizes another aspect of the poem: its humanity.

Alice Oswald, Memorial, Faber & Faber 2011

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