We spied down from our eyrie yesterday upon the small stage at the Comedy Theatre to see a starry cast exchange high calibre performances, albeit with a sense of cramp derived only in part from the frock-coat of Molière. The play was a modern re-creation by Martin Crimp of The Misanthrope, clever rather than moving, replete with 1990s references to Tom Stoppard being passé.

Moliere

The dynamic of the original, in which Molière himself played Alceste, amid rumours of his emotional ricochets among his three actresses, lies not in the relationship ─ which seems to open (“You’re the only one here who understands me,” says Jennifer after briefly stunning everybody by her journalistic treachery) and close (“Let’s escape from all this hypocrisy, go away to the country and make babies,” responds Alceste). Rather, it hovers around Alceste as the sole figure of integrity in a brittle world of log-rolling, mutual back-scratching mediocrity which is universal and undoubtedly contemporary.

Because Molière was fighting entrenched, predatory interests ─ government, Catholic Church ─ with only the veiled and intermittent support of the Sun King, he had to have an escape route. This is achieved by not taking the part of the defiant Alceste but, instead, of the catty mob. It is thus expedient to paint Alceste as a pepperpot, a ‘misanthrope,’ rather than the clear-sighted satirist he, like Molière, actually is.

Damian Lewis and Keira Knightley rehearsing The Misanthrope

This production adheres closely to this disappointing failure of nerve, if to little else.  Damian Lewis flings himself about sinuously but doesn’t abrogate the pepperpot rôle with any conviction.  Tara Fitzgerald, released from her bespectacled, white-coated, focused, forensic boffin  scenario in the entrails of Waking The Dead, several times electrified the whole theatre from her limited part.  Keira Knightley, burdened throughout with the accent of an American movie star, carried off her more dramatically mobile rôle with angular, elegant panache.  The stage managed to refresh itself ─ with music, with candlelight, with costume ─ from time to time, the actors emitted aplomb and the fireworks fizzed, but the latter were more verbal than dramatic.

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It is sad to see Alexander Solzhenitsyn depart and worth casting an eye once more over this 20th-century writer of incomparably heroic stature.

Solzhenitsyn was both a great Russian novelist ― though no Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Pasternak ― and more than this. Like Avvakum trekking the shores of Lake Baikal, he retained the mission of the prophet-purist and perhaps saw himself as a religious leader. Art and prophecy jostle in Russian literature. In the course of his fully-televised global re-emigration into the ferment of post-communist Russia (from Vermont via Vladivostok), he may have been disappointed to find Boris Yeltsin bobbing like a ping-pong ball on the fountain; but from my brief and indirect contacts with the distraught Mrs Yeltsin, I can only feel thankful that Solzhenitsyn was spared such undignified upheaval and consternation.

Solzhenitsyn, 1976 (NYT)

Given the ability of the KGB to reach out and murder Bulgarian dissidents (Markov) and Russian former agents (Litvinenko) on the streets of London, and contrive the murder even of a pope on the streets of Rome (John Paul II), it had been no fantasy that inspired Solzhenitsyn to create a fortress in Vermont from which he rarely emerged.

So what more was he? A historian and documentarist. A writer with the impudence to think that, as a calf tethered to a stout oak tree, he should at least keep butting away. How could he have known he would one day ultimately succeed, an individual who, more than any other, brought about the collapse (“through its own inner contradictions”) of an evil empire.[1]

It is remarkable to think that in 1951, in his luminously original and prescient The Captive Mind, Čzesław Miłosz should still have seemed to think that Marxist ideologists were immensely cunning, resourceful and intellectually triumphant, perhaps like Vatican theologians (though he does not say this). Yet in fact Marxist ideology was never like this. It was a self-justifying smokescreen behind which thieves and gangsters could go about their accustomed business robbing and killing the innocent.

Bear in mind, indeed, that the finest philosophical minds in Europe had identified the intellectual flaws in both Marxism and Freudianism by, roughly, the end of the First World War.[2] This, though (I digress for a moment), is an example of the wide and ever-widening gap between the elite and the mass of those left behind, many of whom will never catch up. (One has to remember that in the West half, and in the rest of the world perhaps three quarters, of the population has an IQ of 100 or below.) This is the problem I call the Tail of the Comet, symbolised today by the intellectual distance between the Large Hadron Collider and the increasingly headscarfed and monolithic streets of Cairo, Istanbul and Alexandria, formerly culturally diverse cities like Beirut. Perhaps the tragedy of September 11th 2001 best captures this gulf of centuries. It is a hallmark of the uneducated mind that it takes symbols literally.

Lenin, who invented the Gulag, understood perfectly the dis-equation between strength and weakness, a feature of Russian backwardness in Tsarist and Leninist times alike, then as now. Russia is a vast world with nonexistent or crumbling borders across which its forces flutter like chickens. The only border it understands is the Ice Sea.

Intriguingly, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich was not even original when it finally saw the light of day in 1962, in the shortlived Krushchev thaw after the death of Stalin.[3] Even before Solzhenitsyn had been arrested for a commonsensical remark in a letter to a friend seen by censors, Russians who had been unable to pronounce the name of a Pole captured in 1940, Gustav Herling, thought he must be a nephew of Hermann Göering and processed him into the Gulag. He survived two years by a chain of miracles to produce A World Apart in 1951. This remarkable documentary account retains, if possible, still more of the immediate vividness and knife-like moral edge of daily camp life. Ivan Denisovich, after all, has a good day. There is less optimism in Herling and he never returned to this theme.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

There is little fine writing in Solzhenitsyn, though his analytic aim ― for instance in August 1914 and Lenin in Zurich was acute: a historian’s instinct. Most impressive are his networking efforts in relation to fellow zeks (convicts) whose testimony seemed to him to teeter on the verge of extinction. Compensatingly he therefore spared no effort to gather, through meetings and correspondence, every scrap of first-hand witness account he could lay his hands on and incorporate it all in the three mighty volumes of The Gulag Archipelago (I still haven’t read the third). No longer could a trivialising Sartre argue against the eyewitness testimony of the trickle of survivors arriving in post-war Paris, thus seriously compromising his relationship with Camus.[4]

Nothing could have done more to shake the oak tree and root world opinion in a more realistic view of the workers’ socialist paradise. Reagan, Thatcher and Gorbachev swayed in the upper reaches of the oak tree in thermals long before activated by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Martin Turner

18-Sep-2008


[1] If this epithet should be questioned, consider the following: “After reading Rayfield’s book, no one will doubt that the Chekist-dominated USSR was one vast, sadistic frenzy of criminality.” Simon Sebag Montefiore, in review of Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and His Hangmen. Telegraph Online 14-Mar-2004.

[2] For a readable account, see: Popper, K.R. Unended Quest: an intellectual autobiography. Glasgow: Collins (Flamingo), 1986. Nothing however was available to prevent Karl Marx from building on the foundations of the crab-like Hegelian dialectic ― Hegel’s deterministic philosophy of history ― after they had already been decisively exploded by Kierkegaard. And Marxist-Leninist and Freudian ideas have progressed blissfully ever since in western academic departments of literature and history.

[3] The subsequent film, starring Tom Courtenay, was banned from public viewing in Finland in 1970.

[4] Sartre actually became a perfectly orthodox Marxist at the end of his life.

The modern idea of modernism is already quite old, and traceable back at least to the middle of the 19th century. It has different meanings at different junctures. One period that interests me is the interlude between the two world wars. The atmosphere that followed the carnage of the First World War ─ and for a long time nobody knew that a Second was coming ─ was quite manic, perceived as festive at the time and as hysterical today. The gulch of modernism seemed to run like raving water, as DH Lawrence would say, between the steep and rocky walls of two world wars.

This is the context into which Lawrence’s The Captain’s Doll fits and it is a representative work of its time ─ it was first published in 1923 ─ as much so as the portraiture, literature and to some extent music of the day, of all of which it contains faithful echoes. But like all of the works of Lawrence it quickly establishes itself as timeless, concerning itself, as it does, with the relationship between a man and a woman over several years. In only 64 pages (in my edition[1]) it burrows with Lawrentian acuity to the heart of this relationship and worries away at it like a terrier.

DH Lawrence

Lawrence has the confidence of a man who has trained his reader. Each sentence is a live and sinewy creature, engaging on the one hand with the corpuscles and morsels of words themselves, and on the other introducing the very characteristic tattoo of Lawrentian repetition, a device which enables Lawrence to distribute emphases, and thus keep the reader’s attention, as he goes along. It is a unique instrument and contributes mightily to the impression that this man can compare favourably, if one were so childish as to want to do so, not only with the Bennetts, Hemingways, Fitzgeralds and Waughs of the period, but with the best writers of any and every age.

An example, not quite at random, will suffice here:

So, after a while of this valley of the shadow of death, lurching in steep loops upwards, the motor-car scrambling wonderfully, struggling past trees and rock upwards, at last they came to the end.[2]

A thousand other sentences would have demonstrated the same thing. We have the music of steep loops upwards, the repetition and emphasis of upwards and the poise and musical delivery of the sentence as a whole in its acoustic envelope.

This describes a level of poetic control unusual in most novelists, but what really wakes up a reader within a few initial paragraphs of any DH Lawrence fiction is the expansion of intuitive intensity with which characters perceive each other and are described. As in an encounter group, we are led directly into the realm of what people truly think and feel about each other. This zone of truth is commonly approached much more gradually, if at all, in the work of more circumspect novelists, but Lawrence seldom seems to bother doing anything else. Like Jane Austen, he scarcely indulges in incidental description, preferring to let the reader know quickly what the essential territory is that interests him. There is little distinction between public and private.

In the poverty and reduced freedom of British-occupied post-First World War Germany, a doll-making Countess and her Baroness friend interact with a British Army captain, his wife come to check up on him from England and, briefly, a local German politician, beautifully drawn, who appears as a possible candidate husband for our Countess. I suppose we know from the comic melancholy of the latter that the serious business will always be between the Countess Hannele and Captain Alexander Hepburn, but Lawrence manages to obscure the highly ambiguous outcome up to and including the very final sentences of the story. Will they marry or won’t they? (The Captain’s wife has fallen from an upper window and died, a huge sacrificial benefit to the narrative.)

Most of the drama, when the Captain seeks out Hannele in Austria after an interval of years, follows the escalating upward ascent of mountains towards a solid glacier that sits in a little valley at the summit. Thus the twists and turns of the journey and the excitement of the scenery do duty for Lawrence’s unfolding of the remarkable dénouement, in which a marriage is apparently agreed.

But the essential question for a critic is, what exactly is Lawrence up to in this novella ─ what is the purpose that has brought the story about, what is the itch that drives the writer’s creative agitation? This, it seems to me, has to do with a desire to satirise the faint, bleating amours of the English upper classes. The common and characteristic verbal gambit of Alec is to respond, “Quite,” to the conversations of his wife or his lover. Lawrence has a very good ear for this sort of thing: he has not hung around the drawing-rooms of Bloomsbury and Garsington in vain for all that time, boiling inwardly no doubt, but catching perfectly the self-detaching accents that we hear today in the talk of Mrs Hepburn:

But then, what can you expect, when there aren’t enough men to go round! Why, I had a friend in Ireland. She and her husband had been an ideal couple, an ideal couple. Real playmates. And you can’t say more than that, can you?[3]

The countess is not presented as a complex character. Her moment comes, climbing the mountain, when she arrives at the aperçu that the stony and isolated Alexander wants her to love him. Indeed, the reader is unable, when all is over, to disagree much with this. But throughout the story Hannele’s astonished fascination with this man is emphasised. She doesn’t understand him, cannot read his emotions and finds the experience intriguing.  To this extent, Hannele is the reflecting surface for the drastically limited, and possibly inhuman, emotional life of this crippled man who has never loved anybody, who now proposes a loveless marriage and who is incapable of rising to the existential occasion with any tone beyond that of take it or leave it:

“Very well, then ─ there it is,” he said, rising.

She rose too, and they went on towards where the boat was tied.

As they were rowing in silence over the lake, he said:

“I shall leave tomorrow.”

She made no answer.  She sat and watched the lights of the villa draw near.  And then she said:

“I’ll come to Africa with you.  But I won’t promise to honour and obey you.”

“I don’t want you otherwise,” he said, very quietly.

Lawrence maintains to the end the drama and uncertainty of this exchange.  It is only afterwards that the pieces settle into any kind of order.  Earlier on, one is exposed to the thoughts and feelings of Alexander by the author himself, hovering and fluttering around his character; but in the later passages the Captain is described wholly from the outside ─ through his actions. This, then, may be the point: that not only are the British upper classes incomprehensible to foreigners, especially defeated Germans, but that any particular male member of them is, in precise and elaborated detail, so unalive, so defeated by life, as to be limited and stunted, and even beyond this radically incapable of normal relationships. It may be that all this is caricature, Lawrence’s alienated class consciousness seizing on the movements of the elite like an entomologist as others have done before and since, but it also seems pretty faithful to the clipped and etiolated moeurs of the period as one comes across them, for instance in the Diaries of Evelyn Waugh.

Fortunately, we English love to laugh at ourselves, though England is not what it was. Today we can welcome Lawrence’s astounding, riveting, versatile and fecund critique as a tour de force in the particular genre that he seems altogether to have invented.


[1] Lawrence, DH. Women in Love etc. Heinemann Octopus, 1980.

[2] Op. cit., p. 498.

[3] Op. cit., p. 473.

Winston Churchill was always held out, I suppose, as something of a rôle model to me in childhood. His greatness ─ as orator, leader, realist, humorist ─ could only be questioned by a fool. He was essentially right, and decades ahead of his time, in appreciating the slaughterous tendencies of Stalin (Katyn Wood) and the half-century division of Europe into hostile ideological blocs.

When I visited Chartwell, Churchill’s country home in Kent, I stood at his desk, looked at the little bust of Napoleon and realised what a conventional, non-intellectual, middle-class chap he was. This put me in mind of another occasion:

Meeting Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, at Walmer Castle, near Deal in Kent, as guests of the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, and his daughters, Violet and Elizabeth, in January 1915, had “brought home to me very forcibly – very vividly – the limitations by which men of genius obtain their ascendancy over mankind. “[1]

Young Winston Churchill

But more recently, encountering Churchill in the histories of Andrew Roberts, I have wished to discover what Churchill himself had to say in his voluminous historical works. I thought I would begin with the early and readable My Early Life.[2]

Literature it is not. I had recently read Black Mischief, published only two years after My Early Life. Waugh’s tongue-in-cheek satire contains abundant close observation of East Africa and is marred only by a storyline that depends on cannibalism. Although there isn’t really a hero or much of a plot, the book reflects contemporary manners and trends with indirect verisimilitude. Churchill lurches from trope to ponderous rhetorical trope in a language that was anachronistic even when it was written. He cannot express a thought without uttering it in triplicate. With its orotund frills, flourishes and furbelows, this was already, in 1930, a museum of 18th and 19th century styles (Macaulay, Gibbon).

Nevertheless, the prose is but a vehicle for the man and Churchill is already enough of an orator to deploy massive charms of self-irony, good humour and, I think, genuine modesty. He’s not telling us the half of it. We know that Churchill suffered throughout his life from crippling depressions, but he makes sure that the undertow of this autobiography is one of smiling bonhomie.

Churchill was massively disadvantaged by his education. He seems not to have had any penchant for academic study and to have set his face against it, possibly because he was flogged so brutally at his preparatory school. He writes poignantly about his young boy’s longing for a relationship with his father, but this was never to be gratified. He was, and felt himself to be, a disappointment to Lord Randolph who, we know, was declining into syphilitic disintegration[3] at this stage and could not reciprocate his overtures.

But alas I was only a backward schoolboy

he writes (p. 39) of one occasion when his father showed more interest in his school friend companion than in himself. Lord Randolph died when Winston was 20.

From time to time thereafter, Churchill laments that he did not attend university. He felt himself to be a failure and a disappointment to others, although his mother seems to have been gloriously loyal and active in his behalf well into his adult life. In fact, from the moment he transferred from Harrow to Sandhurst, Churchill seems to have come into his own and to have flourished. But it is altogether commendable that he faces squarely and soberly these menaces to his early integrity.

Winston Churchill as a subaltern in the hussars, 1896

The other thing that comes across from these years of boyhood is how impulsive and accident-prone young Winston was. It seems impossible that anybody should slip and fall so often or incur so many dangerous injuries. Mostly this is glossed as an attractive adventurousness, but there can be little doubt that he actively courts death and destruction, especially in military situations. This, of course, is an aspect of depression.

Given these personal characteristics, it is perhaps a help to Winston that he is not given to taking any principles too seriously. He does not adhere to his own side politically, nor eschew the other. He knows he is attractive to both and is not inclined to ponder for long any issues of fundamental importance. His genius is, rather, for friendship and camaraderie. His affectionate nature glows forth like sunbeams in a dawn garden. Though his marriage lies in the future and is alluded to only in the last sentence of the book, one knows that his love for his wife will eventually prove both painfully committed and all-encompassing.

Something of this is redolent in my favourite story in the book, which concerns Churchill’s beloved friend, Louis Botha:

In 1906 when, as newly-elected first Prime Minister of the Transvaal, he came to London to attend the Imperial Conference, a great banquet was given to the Dominion Prime Ministers in Westminster Hall. I was Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, and as the Boer leader, so recently our enemy, passed up the hall to his place, he paused to say to my mother, who stood by my side, “He and I have been out in all weathers.” It was surely true.[4]

So, strange as it may seem in an era of identity politics, if I’ve never had the slightest difficulty about knowing myself to be English, this has to do in part with one generous, expansive and large-hearted Englishman, who was thirty-four when my father was born and who died when I was seventeen.


[1] Quoted in Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life. London: Collins, 1987, p. 699.

[2] Churchill, WS. My Early Life. London: Eland, 2000.

[3] A left-brain tumour is another possibility. Lady Churchill seems to have remained healthy, like their two sons. Richard Holmes, In The Footsteps Of Churchill. London: BBC Books, 2005, p. 38.

[4] p. 251.

I too acknowledge readily that Roy Campbell has a very low profile in terms of the English-language poets of the period 1924 to 1954. I cannot readily remember encountering him in the usual anthologies, though I must check. So when I recently came across Roger Scruton’s tender and fair-minded appreciation of him as neglected for ideological reasons,[1] I was disposed to think that there is much to be said in his favour (courage, independence of mind, etc).

Roy CampbellDesiring to re-read, or read, this poet I have obtained the first volume of his Collected Poems (there never seems to have been a second volume) and a copy of his (second) autobiography, Light On A Dark Horse. Campbell pops up in recollections of the period, notably those of Augustus John, and he and Jacob Epstein seem to have pursued two sisters, whom they married, with a certain amount of friction. On the web, there is a scrupulous and scholarly appreciation by Gwyn Neale, who is eager to chronicle the early, Welsh chapter in the poet’s creative life (‘Love in a Hut’, the Welsh dwelling in which he wrote The Flaming Terrapin, 1924).[2]

Yes, it is admirable in a way that Campbell fearlessly writes everything in textbook forms, typically rhyming hexameters in couplets or quatrains, but there is more to this than just being a stalwart traditionalist. To an English reader he is necessarily in Dryden and Pope territory and it is very difficult to wield a sufficient degree of complexity and subtlety even to escape notice in their company. This Campbell does not do. The wit of The Georgiad (q.v. The Dunciad) is not witty and conveys an impression of longeur, fatal to satire, and of really having nothing to say.

So what of his lyrical poetry? At first gush, this is dazzling, colourful and torrential. I sometimes think that if the word dark were removed from the works of DH Lawrence, the latter’s oeuvre would shrink by a substantial fraction. Ditto for the word red in Roy Campbell. Is this just a mannerism, a characteristic signal of a writer’s strengths, a beguiling idiosyncrasy? I fear not. There is no getting around the fact that Roy Campbell has a drastically restricted repertoire, with essentially one voice, one tone.

These are jacked-up, always full-on, slightly ham-fisted verses, braced for maximum effect; curiously Miltonic in conception, but without shading, chiaroscuro or any variation; always heightened, devoid of any natural relief and therefore limited, rigid and after a while unreadable. Because all his lyrical verse lacks mental and artistic suppleness, the curious suspicion arises that Campbell has nothing to say and says nothing. Matters are not so different in the ‘satirical’ (editorially segregated) poems. The short squibs are best, but the longer satirical poems seem to be heading nowhere. It is not clear who the objects of satire are nor what is being said against them.

Roy Campbell by Howard Coster, 1936

Sadly, one comes to feel the truth of Augustus John’s comment:

[…] interminable effusions, of which the unceasing grandiloquence soon exhausts the reader.

This brings us to the person — and to the autobiography, Light On A Dark Horse. Superficially this is “colourful” (inevitably) and attractive, with lots of Mark Twain-like episodes of a wild childhood spent stalking wild beasts and settling arguments with fists. At one point he claims

I inherited [from my father] his unselfconsciousness in dealing with my fellow men[3]

and this is meant to redound unequivocally to the author’s credit ─ he is so broadminded ─ but one is left wishing that he had achieved a little more in the direction of self-awareness. Because the fact is, Roy Campbell is the most terrible hick. This must have been apparent to all who met him and have generated the instant reputation that never really left him. It explains the furious counter-attack against “effete English intellectuals”. And it is true, the whole Bloomsbury interbellum was preposterously left-wing, homosexual, anti-British and so on. It is true that the intellectual leaders in the 30s scuttled off to America or concealed themselves in the civil service and the BBC, while fascist Campbell went off to the front line to fight Hitler and got himself wounded.

`Roy Campbell by Wyndham Lewis, 1936

He is still a hick. He seems to be utterly lacking in sensibility, variety and mental plasticity. He brags and boasts and tells self-serving anecdotes like a pub bore. One feels it would kill him to tell a joke against himself. One stops believing him quite early on. Was the real Campbell a shy, bisexual introvert such that he presented to the world only an exaggerated set of defences? Who knows? The real Campbell is nowhere to be seen. One can have more confidence in the nature of the real Ernest Hemingway, another casualty of an unfashionably masculine persona.

I should really say what I mean by hick. Campbell’s provincialism is a kind of mental blankness, an absence of sensibility, a lack of any centre of thought and reflection. There is little real cultural inscription in the person or the work, though the vivid physical life he experienced is perfectly satisfactory and interesting. But his ambitions do not allow him to set himself forth as a non-literary writer, a Lawrence, say, or a Hemingway. He is desperate to achieve literary credibility and reputation, without quite understanding what these things are. He thinks classical references (‘Bellerophon’) should be added to a poem like salt and pepper to a stew, without any apparent organic reason.

In a less than tactful, but still warm-hearted, introduction to Light, the poet Laurie Lee makes clear what some of the difficulties were for the friends and acquaintances of the poet:

It is a ragbag … of feats of daring and derring-do from which the writer invariably emerges triumphant …. his inveterate boasting could at times exasperate his friends.[4]

Roy Campbell by Jane Bown, 1951

This has to be the worst possible set of qualifications for a poet. If our friends Dryden and Pope were to appear to cast an eye over the satirical verses at least, they would soon become uncomfortable. (Milton, on the other hand, might exhibit a greater degree of patience with the epic scale, but not the poverty of content, of The Flaming Terrapin.) There is no hinterland of the rich irony of the unspoken, the complex attitude, the hybrid of lyrical and satirical, the tenderness that bites, the amorousness that recoils, the gentle mockery. In the prose, hatred can modulate into forgiveness, for instance in relation to his persecutory headmaster, exaggerated though the figure of the latter undoubtedly is. There is a great deal of humour, which surrounds and enriches Campbell’s understanding of the personalities in his world, many of them Zulu. But it is hard to recognize the origins out of which poetry may arise, or the lineaments of the poems that do so. It’s all drastically truncated, even black and white.

So perhaps we don’t have to reach for explanations of political intrigue (or a conspiracy of international freemasonry) to account for the neglect of Roy Campbell and his poetry. Explanations in terms of the finite public world are in any case unworthy of most literary endeavours. Even an amphibious figure such as Orwell successfully transcends the distinction between journalism and literature. Who cares whether Virginia Woolf was left-wing or right-wing? That is really beside the point. Campbell’s provinciality and shortcomings as a man transfer directly into his writings and tax the reader’s patience.


[1] Or see: http://spectator.org/archives/2009/10/12/a-dark-horse

[2] Or see: http://www.rhiw.com/pobol/campbell/love_in_a_hut.htm

[3] Campbell, R. Light on a Dark Horse, Penguin books, 1971 [1951], pp. 61-62.

[4] Ibid, p. 10.

Great

1.

That too was November ─ dark and difficult days

of false starts and clouded thoughts, days without inspiration.

And at his elbow no biographer to evolve the flutterings

of vocation, the engendering of something great.

He is the hero of this island, where he feeds his cat milk,

but where ardent seekers will forever tend with picnics and families.

Yes, he stood here on a day like today, silver hair parted in the middle,

straining to see extended across a thousand years of sky

a purpose plain as a condor. From that point a mission formed

like a diamond in the depths of misery and utter loneliness

he had discovered at fourteen. And the music of the spheres

he had heard then would never wholly fade or desert

his moments of triumph and eventual success.

Events sprang up like palisades to be commanded

but at last his forthrightness was freed like an awaited egg

and his gut shook forth words that would be heeded.

2.

Car le jeune homme est beau, mais le vieillard est grand.[1]

And an argument arose among them

as to which of them was the greatest,

these brawny young, or gratifyingly gnarled, men.

They had walked out and taken the shape of ghosts

when the power had surfaced along their forearms

and gently distorted the surrounding hills.

Above them the heavens had curdled,

scattering rare clouds, and seemed about to drop

thrones, moneybags, armies at their feet.

So what remained to unsettle blood, race and tribe,

beauty, bounty and booty, but the usual

disputes of dynastic succession?

And he took a little child. This one is greater

than you all by about twenty-five years,

he said. Even Jenghiz himself

would not escape the crumbling of towers,

the cracking of walls, the final dissolution

of marble and sandalwood, beeswax and gold,

as the canopy of heaven came down

to drape all with fire and the luxury

of memories glazed with ruin.

3.

I have seen my face, he said, a face with the skin

not so much stripped off as slapped on.

I have seen my face, a knob stranded in no-man’s-land

from where the tattered banners have long flown.

Beneath that face life erodes, not dawning, sinking,

briefly brave, like a rock tide-exposed.

This face, naked as strangled clay, with a certain last fire,

marches with the line of noyers to the bruised horizon.

4.

Be not afraid of greatness.[2] When the call comes

none will hear the bugle of Childe Roland

save the dawn waterfowl at the lapping lake.

Some are born great, leaping from their mothers’ wombs

to glorify God in excelsis and survey

nursery and anteroom with atrocious calm.

Some achieve greatness, their leaden hearts

feeding the mountainside with patient steps,

to watch the sun rise at their command.

And some have greatness thrust upon them,

accepting the purpose of the brutal crowds

roaring beneath them like many-headed seas.

But most barely stumble from scene to scene

of a life of intangible coherence,

mossing the footings of an incorruptible manor.

5.

I do not want to be remembered. I cannot think of any reason why I should be and it is enough that God knows me and will know me for all eternity. Memory doesn’t come into it.[3]

And if your name is writ in water, rejoice like Keats,

in the invention of sports photography that keeps

the marble boulders forever orbiting around it

and the hero forever thoughtfully pondering

in the annals of celluloid. Prepare to be honoured

fitfully, in the breach, in school libraries,

in the brief interval in adolescence in which the heart opens.

Prepare for your miserable coffee table,

that hardly bears a vase but bore six novels,

to be visited and photographed as if by anthropologists.

And marvel at the vestigial celebrations of poetry,

the fanfare of prizes and awards, the popping of corks

and media hyping, the ever-hopeful launching of reputations,

all of which disappear before long into the void

of the British Bermuda Triangle. Demand to be interviewed

by the last reader, as she closes the last book

and turns to witness the biggest and boldest

dream epic from the Hollywood wave machine.

Come, let us brandish our quills and welcome the arrival

of wars, famine and disaster to nourish the human soul!

6.         The Poet

When I descend to read my poems to you

I think somehow I am placing my hand

on your fair forehead, getting you to close your eyes,

telling you, this is how it can be,

this is how words can work to open the shutters

between you and the land of truth you long for,

where even now you strain after perfect love.

But with your brow damp, your eyelids damp,

we both recall there have been many previous lessons,

much repeating, pressing, much patient awaiting

of the precious lesson to descend.

But each time the veils do not lift for long,

or all at once, the struggle to learn, to see,

must be abandoned and the distance shortens

between the beginning and the end.

7.

There’s sunlight here and now among the trees;

but not so long ago or far away

you found that you had less and less to say

and came to be cut off from light and ease.

You clutched the sackcloth of the hospital

and thrust your fingers in the electric socket

after the visitors had gone, a racket

more soul-shaking than any rattle.

But all this suffering was a bright mesh

for sharp-emerging spiritual being

into the young sight of eyes and seeing

from the chrysalis of afflicted flesh.

Now twice a week you gather food and comb

and visit those with long and useless lives,

who have long since crushed all their relatives

and lie aghast in an old people’s home.

The clockface does not show its secret layer:

you rise inside a pocket of the night

and lift your hands before a glint of light,

when all is quiet, to fold yourself in prayer.

You press against the spaces of the dark;

and cancer patients in their far-off vigil

are held aloft in their sublime ordeal,

solaced from glimpsing a high water mark.

The sunlight shows the greatness of a day,

that none of this was done for outward show,

a grand surrender gradual and slow,

but not so long ago or far away.


[1] Victor Hugo, ‘Booz endormi’, May 1859.

[2] William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night Act II, Scene V, ll. 139-141.

[3] Sister Wendy Becket interviewed here. Telegraph Online 7-May-09

Sadness

They smell your mouth

in case you said, ‘I love you.’

They smell your heart

in case there is a flame hidden in it.

It’s a strange time, beloved.

And they whip Love at the roadside post.

One must hide love in the pantry.[1]

In this twisted wintry cul-de-sac

the fire

is kept burning

with the fuel of anthems and poetry.

Do not risk thinking.

It’s a strange time, beloved,

He who pounds on the door at night time

has come to kill the lantern.

One must hide light in the pantry.

Now the butchers are stationed at every crossroads

with bloodied block and cleaver.

It’s a strange time, beloved.

And they carve a smile on the lips

and a song on the mouth.

One must hide joy in the pantry

The canary becomes a kebab

on the fires of rose and jasmine

It’s a strange time, beloved.

The drunken victorious demon

is feasting at the table of our death.

God too must be hidden in the pantry.

Ahmad Shamlou (1925-2000) tr. Martin and Farah Turner


[1] Pastou … hidden inner room or sanctum for food storage.