Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Low violets

As Nige informs us, Monday was RS Thomas's birthday. But as he implies, celebration doesn't seem quite the right word when the subject sometimes left the impression that he'd rather not have been born. Another aspect of Thomas's misanthropy, which was by no means restricted to others.

This capricious, whimsical, peevish, moody and bad-tempered Welsh clergyman-poet was preceded by at least one other who also lived in the Welsh Marches (as Thomas did early in his clerical career) as I learnt in Peter Conradi's 'At The Bright Hem of God'.

According to Conradi, seventeenth-century Breconshire poet and priest, Henry Vaughan, was reckoned by a relation to be '"proud and humourous" where humourous takes its ancient meanings of capricious, whimsical, peevish, moody, or bad-tempered.' The upshot was that...
...his long life ended in a pitiful and alarming mess of law-suits and family recrimination.
First there was a violent dispute with his eldest son, Thomas, who took possession of the family house in 1689, agreeing in return to provided both a lifelong annuity of £30 to his father, who had decamped to a convenient cottage, and payments of £100 to be divided between his half-brothers and sisters. Thomas, compaining that he been duped by his step-mother into an arrangement that exploited him, refused to pay, was taken to court, then started proceedings against his own father, whom he accused, inter alia, of breaking, entering and stealing documents.
Then the court required Vaughan to pay his daughter Catherine, who had one lame hand burnt in infancy and also a disabled foot, half-a-crown per week through a third party. He referred to humble her by direct payments himself, as also by occasional  non-payments. She understandably filed a suit for maintenance. None of this reads prettily. The "absolute mercy of the poetry", as one of his biographers beautifully puts this, contrasts with the vicious retalitoriness of Vaughan's actions; or, as WH Auden put the matter, the works of poets are often in 'better taste than their lives'.

Truly, as I remarked of Thomas's, a poet's biography can provide 'a regular reminder that art is mysteriously capable of utterly transcending personality'. So having given you a sour taste of Vaughan's life here's a sweet demonstration of this truth, in the form of a couple of verses by Vaughan that I read at my maternal grandfather's funeral a few years ago ('The Timber'):
Sure thou didst flourish once! and many springs,
Many bright mornings, much dew, many showers,
Pass'd o'er thy head; many light hearts and wings,
Which now are dead, lodg'd in thy living bowers.

And still a new succession sings and flies;
Fresh groves grow up, and their green branches shoot
Towards the old and still enduring skies,
While the low violet thrives at their root.

Originally, I took these stanzas to be a complete poem, having found them presented as such in an anthology. However, I later discovered they were followed by a further three stanzas. What I initially took for a very short poem with a straightforward theme of nature's ability to renew itself, turned out to be something darker and more mysterious. Here are the additional verses:
But thou beneath the sad and heavy line
Of death, doth waste all senseless, cold, and dark;
Where not so much as dreams of light may shine,
Nor any thought of greenness, leaf, or bark.

And yet—as if some deep hate and dissent,
Bred in thy growth betwixt high winds and thee,
Were still alive—thou dost great storms resent
Before they come, and know'st how near they be.

Else all at rest thou liest, and the fierce breath
Of tempests can no more disturb thy ease;
But this thy strange resentment after death
Means only those who broke—in life—thy peace.

But then having looked into the poem a bit more in the wake of reading Conradi's book, I discovered a longer version again, with another nine stanzas! As well as very substantially lengthening the poem, this extra material complicates its already rather mystical and oblique meaning to such an extent I'm still in the process of trying to come to a vague understanding of it (here's a link to the whole thing).

This rather enjoyable experience of easy appreciation followed by a more thought-provoking process of discovery has made me wonder whether some longer poems might benefit from being anthologised in the form of edited highlights and presented afresh to the contemporary reader. I certainly wouldn't have used Vaughan's two verses as a reading in the way that I did if I'd come across them initially as part of a much, much longer poem. I'm not sure I would have persevered to the end and pondered sufficiently on its meaning (I was busy at the time) and I don't think I would have had the idea (or confidence) to abridge it myself.

I believe that longer poems aren't read much any more. We can bemoan this fact. But would it not be better to convert some unfashionably epic works - ones by Coleridge, Tennyson and Milton come to mind - into bite-size, digestible morsels, which might lead the reader onto an appreciation of the whole, if the alternative is to leave them largely unread?

8 comments:

worm said...

But long poems are all elitist, innit, like that classical music and all that art.

dearieme said...

Tam o'Shanter is read, or recited, in full by perhaps many tens of thousands every year. Special case, of course.

zmkc said...

An example of a poem only partly known by most is the Australian national anthem:
Lyrics
Note: verses two, four and five are rarely sung (I think never might be closer to the mark).

Australians all let us rejoice,
For we are young and free;
We've golden soil and wealth for toil,
Our home is girt by sea;
Our land abounds in Nature's gifts
Of beauty rich and rare;
In history's page, let every stage
Advance Australia fair!
In joyful strains then let us sing,
"Advance Australia fair!"

When gallant Cook from Albion sail'd,
To trace wide oceans o'er,
True British courage bore him on,
Till he landed on our shore.
Then here he raised Old England's flag,
The standard of the brave;
With all her faults we love her still,
"Brittannia rules the wave!"
In joyful strains then let us sing
"Advance Australia fair!"

Beneath our radiant southern Cross,
We'll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands;
For those who've come across the seas
We've boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To advance Australia fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing
"Advance Australia fair!"

While other nations of the globe
Behold us from afar,
We'll rise to high renown and shine
Like our glorious southern star;
From England, Scotia, Erin's Isle,
Who come our lot to share,
Let all combine with heart and hand
To advance Australia fair!
In joyful strains then let us sing
"Advance Australia fair!"

Shou'd foreign foe e'er sight our coast,
Or dare a foot to land,
We'll rouse to arms like sires of yore
To guard our native strand;
Brittannia then shall surely know,
Beyond wide ocean's roll,
Her sons in fair Australia's land
Still keep a British soul.
In joyful strains the let us sing
"Advance Australia fair!"

Gadjo Dilo said...

Wasn't there once a bloke called Bowlder who used to do the sort of thing you suggest? I wonder which verses he'd have left out of the Australian national anthem ;-)

Brit said...

Not a bad idea. Bowdlerising for the Twitter Generation. Like Thomas Bowdler, only you leave just the rude bits in. Reduce Byron to 140-character chunks.

worm said...

not a bad idea at all, you could get quite famous doing that sort of thing on twitter! You would probably have to have quite a lot of spare time on your hands though

Nige said...

How wonderful to come across this at the end of a(nother) heavy work day... Vaughan also wrote that beautiful poem that begins 'They are all gone into the world of light [surely one of the all-time great opening lines], And I alone sit ling'ring here...' (and later, 'I see them walking in an air of glory'...) I must look out that Conradi book.

Gaw said...

Worm: As much as I love some poetry and art I really struggle to sit down and read a really long poem. Omeros was the last one, I think.

Dearieme: I haven't come across that one. Is it very Scottish?

z: If I had the mental capacity I would memorise the second verse to sing at Australians on the odd occasion. Quite a shocker really!

Gadjo: Didn't he take out rude bits? In some instances that's all I'd leave in.

Worm: You're right! At last I can see a point for Twitter.

Nige: Truly some wonderful lines in Vaughan. Best not try to hard to get to the bottom of some of his verse (I guess it may not have one) and just enjoy the lyricism. I must say those first two verses of The Timber really blow me away.