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Posts from the ‘Poetry’ Category

Dante’s Two Suns

“Soleva Roma, che ‘l buon mondo feo, 


due soli aver, che l’una e l’altra strada 


facean vedere, e del mondo e di Deo”

 

“Rome, which formed the world for good,

once held two suns that lit the one road

and the other, the world’s and that to God.”

 Purgatorio XVI

 

Dante Alighieri is well known for being the author of the Divine Comedy, probably one of the most important works written in the West in medieval times, given its continuing influence over the creative arts up to the present day. And yet not everyone knows his other works in quite the same way, particularly the Convivio and De Monarchia, which reveal his many interests and proficiencies as well as the staggering wealth and depth of his knowledge. As he shows off this encyclopaedic knowledge, certain themes crop up more than others, revealing the author’s particular interests. Perhaps the most prominent of these is politics. For Dante, to meditate on this theme meant to take stock of his own condition, so tragically determined by his political choices. Immersed in the Classical authors, Dante had assimilated the political thought of Aristotle and Cicero. As a result, he conceived policy as the way to create a pacific coexistence for citizens through laws and justice. In line with Classical ideals, Dante considered it a moral duty for everyone to be involved in political life if they had the capacity to do so. 

Being a politician in the Middle Ages was not exactly an easy ride. A centuries-old and at times ferocious struggle for supremacy was ongoing between the Church and the Holy Roman Empire. On the one hand, the pope wanted to exercise his power over the emperor as the head of a Christian nation. On the other, the German emperor was determined not only to obtain complete autonomy from the pontiff, but also to influence certain important decisions within the Roman Church, such as the designations of bishops and even the election of the pope. 

In the peripheries of the Empire, the tensions between these authorities reached a violent climax in Italy, at the time one of the richest parts of Europe, both culturally and economically. These violent conflicts, probably owing to the area’s proximity to Rome, were not only well documented in city records, but also in Dante’s own private reflections. There were two factions: the Guelphs, who traditionally supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines, allies of the emperor in opposition to the pontiff. The period was characterised by wars between neighbouring cities as well as within cities. This generated the climate of terror and bloodshed to which the Divine Comedy bears witness. The poet himself was banished from Florence and later sentenced to death for his political activism. It is worth noting the traditional reluctance of political theorists to deal with practical administration, from Aristotle to the early 16th Century. Indeed, only a generation after Dante, Petrarch, although he did write about the troubling Italian situation, carefully abstained from involving himself in it. In this regard also, the Florentine showed himself to be the brightest star in the Medieval cultural environment. 

Dante’s fascinating progression from Guelph to Ghibelline is not our main concern, however, as I would like to focus the discussion on his philosophical speculations, which were aimed at resolving the moral paradoxes of Christians who were involved in policy. To obey the rules of the Church or to obey the laws of the state? The debate was an age-old one, dating back as far as the 5th Century BC in Athens, when Antigone made her touching decision in Sophocles’ well-known tragedy. For the first time in the history of western literature, freedom of conscience had been recognised by the Theban heroine’s choice to prioritise the law of the gods over earthly laws. However the dichotomy which led her to sacrifice her young life remained intact and irreconcilable.

Dante recalled St Augustin’s idea from De Civitate Dei and developed it, enabling him to heal this rift by illustrating the autonomy and necessity of both institutions as they descended directly and naturally from God. His explanation was a philosophical one: given that man is made of body and soul, his nature is both corruptible and incorruptible. And as any nature must have a purpose, Dante found that living in peace was the purpose of the body, and eternal happiness the purpose of the soul. Moreover, he identified two guides appointed by God to lead the people towards those aims: the emperor was the leader of earthly life and the pope was the leader of eternal life. 

As such, he argued that the emperor must have unrestricted power, since only a person who has everything does not desire anything else, and is consequently in a position to treat people equally. (Some of you may remember an Italian Prime Minister who used the same argument to win votes, but the final result did not quite match up to the idea!). The pope, as the Vicar of Christ, was only supposed to be concerned with giving moral instruction to humanity in order to secure their salvation, while supposedly being immune to all power and riches.

Thus Dante, as a Christian and politician of the early 14th Century, was able to corroborate the “Two Suns Theory”, an early version of secularism according to which the Church and the empire were two separate entities that were both necessary for humankind. Although his philosophical thought is rigorously scholastic, the poet approaches problems from an ethical stance, rather than treating them purely speculatively. His reasoning is never merely an end in itself but a tool with which to discover the solution to existing problems and situations.

It doesn’t matter if much of our later reading gives Dante the role of a tireless and blind loyalist, belonging to an antiquated world. It doesn’t matter if he did not adequately consider the Italian bourgeoisie’s reinforcement as a pressing request of freedom and autonomy hardly compatible with the absolute power of the Emperor. It doesn’t matter if national kingdoms were appearing on stage as competing powers for the Holy Roman Empire, and therefore representing a serious threat for the political unity of Christianity. It doesn’t matter if Dante’s ideological structure, which he meticulously constructs in his works, was going to collapse like a house of cards.

The great Florentine writer and philosopher should not be considered as a laudator temporis acti; that is, an inactive, slow and pessimistic reader of contemporary society. Rather he should be considered as a man who courageously made his critical skills available for the advancement of society, which, according to him, was the only possible means to achieve the advancement of mankind, and therefore the only way to reflect the divine order on Earth.

Gianfranco Serioli is a teacher of Italian literature, and director of the Divine Comedy summer course in Sale Marasino, Italy – info: http://www.iseolakess.it

Spoken Word 2: Seamus Heaney

There was an evening to commemorate Seamus Heaney on the 20th of November at the Southbank Centre. It is now February. There is no excuse, besides me starting a new job at that time and being really very sorry. The notes I took three months ago on the evening in question now make very little sense*. Partly because I can barely write, but mostly because I got fairly swept away by the band on stage. The Chieftains played music that makes you want to quit the city and roam for a living, howling on occasion. So the audience, already fairly whipped up at the prospect of remembering a poet they all revered, fairly surged at “The March of the King of Laois” as it gathered in speed and complexity, hurtling into an evening of sound ideal for the man and those who wished to think on him in one place.

Andrew O’Hagan as the anchor of the evening (reviews all praised the steadiness of his hand at the tiller, etc.) was carefully deliberate in his reference to Heaney as the anchor for him, and many other writers besides. The photograph of the smiling boy to accompany the audio recording of Heaney reading ‘Digging’ impressed upon me how it became possible to enjoy poetry because of Heaney’s presence in the curriculum, how this poem alone made sense for a long time, and Heaney’s central holding clarity illuminated poetry for so many. In ‘At the WellHead’, Heaney describes his blind neighbour responding to a poem by stating “I can see the sky at the bottom of it now”, much like the first time the sound and words click together.

We were told of Heaney’s humour: apparently he referred to Wallace Stevens as the ‘tycoon of poetry’, and T S Eliot as ‘head office’. The flashes of glee and belt of domesticity provided a reassuring spine of solidity throughout; in ‘Clearances 3’ he delights in peeling potatoes ‘Gleaming in a bucket of clean water’.  He describes his neighbour in ‘The Other Side’:

‘His brain was a whitewashed kitchen
hung with texts, swept tidy
as the body o the kirk.’

This suggests a vacancy, but is reminiscent of the man himself in that the kitchen is the centre of everything, and it would only be right to have his decked out in words. Ordered perhaps, but tidy ignores the inevitable mess that ensues with the passage of time, and rites of passage. Heaney wrote a poem on the death of his brother Hugh “My dear brother, you have good stamina” that made sense of the tragic circumstances by praising his brother for his energy and laughter.

There was talk of listening with one’s inner ear, and of lost time, before we heard Paul Muldoon read ‘Death of a Naturalist’, and the phrase “bluebottles / Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell” triggered both of these things acutely. The menace of frogspawn was so perfectly captured that the feeling “That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it” becomes your own, even if this was not your childhood. Every tingling sense was now elevated to a jangling with ‘Personal Helicon’ when “a rat slapped across my reflection”, but mollified once again when he explains:

“I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”

And the darkness is a force that has to be constantly kept at bay, after all. In ‘Forge’ the opening line “All I know is a door into the dark” combines a way forward with the surrounding gloom of a black room, the past, of a world without words.  The ‘dark pit’ of history remains, connected back to nature, and it is through that cord that balance can  be regained. ‘The Guttural Muse’ contains some skin crawlingly evocative images, that of a ‘slimy tench’ and ‘some old pike’, and the only way to recover from these looming horrors was Simon Armitage reading from Beowulf.  Recovery was complete by the time Edna O’Brien read ‘Punishment’, where a female corpse – ‘a beautiful scapegoat’ is described in nautical terms with the “frail rigging /of her ribs”.

The evening concluded with Auden’s tribute to W B Yeats, which is a dark and weighty tribute, but the phrase “The words of a dead man /Are modified in the guts of the living” is a stark way to remind us the poetry does indeed ‘firm the interior life’. After a dose you carry it with you, it warms your belly and makes your ears sharper, I think. A truly great poem, like ‘Postscript’, has the power to “catch the heart off guard and blow it open”. The blood sang in my ears for days after ‘the ones that have known him all along’** carried him in.

The Editors

*For example, what does ‘doused in local weather that was also universal’ refer to? Could have been good.

**Miracle http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/newsreview/theweek/poetscorner/article625709.ece

Royal Festival Hall, T.S.Eliot prize readings, Sunday 12th January 2014

Ian Duhig opened the evening, and felt that the audience had had enough of a cold coming to warrant reading ‘Journey of the Magi’ to start. He was quite right in saying that nothing is the same for you after you read it for the first time, with the spine of the verse like “a water mill beating the darkness”.  I found this to be even more the case upon listening to a recording of Eliot deliver the words:

“It was (you may say) satisfactory”

He had such immaculate enunciation and timing that there they will stay in my eardrum, bookended with the weighted final line “I should be glad of another death”.

Ian Macmillan then guided the audience through the 10 poets reading for eight minutes each, urging us to “murmur then whoop”. These were then judged by a panel of three for a prize of £15,000 (the equivalent of £8million according to Macmillan).

Daljit Nagra’s Ramayana went first, with his retelling of a South East Asian legend, an often told story of gods and goddesses, of buffalo and monkey, and punctuated by a lot of MWAH noises, and “YOOOUUUR” bellowed at top volume and words like ‘hornswaggler’. It could have been down to the awkward delivery given by the group of five on stage, a few of them earnest young poets, but for every rambunctious line such as “I am used to cracking off mountain tops and casting them off like nits”, there were examples of bravado that rang overly hollow, and slightly fell short: “I’m going to butcher the whole male gang so I can be the lone Bull”.

Moving swiftly on to Moniza Alvi, whose story of her widowed grandmother’s flight to Pakistan during the partition of India was further complicated by the loss of Utta, her son, who was behind her on the second bus. The arbitrary line drawn by Sir Cyril Radcliffe across the continent becomes the line between life and non-being, “a line so delicate a sparrow might have picked it up in its beak”, with memory and image ‘hopping towards her like a lone bird’.

Macmillan described reading Maurice Riordan’s poems like going to pictures in the afternoon, coming out at the end and for the first half an hour afterwards you feel like you are still in the film. His latest collection is entitled ‘The Water Stealer’ a literal translation of the Greek word for clock. Riordan’s line “I heard my soul roll away in the dark” from ‘Cranium after Neruda’ started to crack the most cynical of shells, and his poem ‘Gone with the Wind’ about being bothered by not being able to recall either Scarlett O’Hara or Jodie Foster’s names clinched it (“Why does one good woman always hide behind another”). Out on a run, he could remember 48 of the 50 American states, bar Wisconsin and Kentucky. The satisfaction of recollection is described more like relief, like dislodging “salami from one’s teeth”.

Ruth Padel read for Anne Carson in absentia, just as we were starting to really warm up. Carson’s line breaks make you reconsider narrative, creating a state of “a low, purple listening”, and reconsidering misleading terms like “musk oxen”:

“much is misnomer in our present way of grasping the world”

Michael Simmons Roberts created 150 15 line poems full of lancing images and searing lines: “The sun through glass dries my heart like a peach stone”. His honesty is not a blunt instrument; the clarity almost hurts your ears:  “I sing for fear I’ll hear the still small voice and not like what it says.” The poem shown below has yet to fade, and hovered through the interval:

HITCHCOCKEAN

The birds are taking over. Not in rows on high wires,
chittering on rooves at passers-by, fixing a lone child
with their red-ringed, sink-hole eyes, not by massing

on our window-sills at dawn and tap-tap-tapping
with the urgency, hunger, blunt-sense of the wild,
not with a skirl and swoop like smoke cut loose from fire,

but with a single egg inside each one of us,
lodged in the fold between lungs, not felt until the break,
la petite mort when shell cracks and a song begins,

an airless, blood-borne trill, a pulse, a stretch of wing,
which may be dun wren, bird of paradise, dull rook,
and none of us can know what kind is ours,

nor even know for sure it’s there, this skitter,
this arrhythmia, this restlessness, this ache that makes
you walk out, mid-meal, steal a car and disappear.

Dannie Abse kicked of the second half with a statement that may not strictly be poetry, but it is no less true for that: “I’ll put my glasses on, I’ll think better”. ‘Talking to Myself’ spoke of “plain Hardy and dandy Yeatsand Abse’s ninety years hovering:

“Now Time wastes me and there’s hardly time
to fuss for more vascular speech.

The aspen tree trembles as I do
and there are feathers in the wind.

Quick quick
speak, old parrot,
do I not feed you with my life?”

His poem ‘Scent’, about the flowering shrub that was planted by his dead wife “sober, alone and a little wretched” gained the most murmurs by far; none of us could resist his description of himself “Like Orpheus, pausing by the gate post”. His parting offering of a poem depicting the different mating approaches of cats in England and Greece brought the house down, as he explained that English cats are “private creatures, they fuck in private like people”.

A hard act to follow, but the collection “Scab” depicting Thatcher’s Britain in the North, peppered by landfills by Helen Mort was up to it. She cuts between personal recollections “my breath sickly with Malibu and coke” while considering “Cambridge offer amid the bills” and sucker punch social pictures that burn.

George Szirtes was next, with a wonderful ‘r’ sound to his speaking voice, a rolling style and an almost Chaucerian way of intoning poems like ‘Allotments’, with its “clutch of cabbages”. He gently panned words around in ‘Colours’, playing with sounds of shades, intermingled with characters and favourite sounds like  “Coleridge” “Arriviste, Siam. Glock… Grey. Flecked. Amaretto” before stating that “life being ordinary is the extraordinary thing”.

Macmillan explained that the Queen leaned forward halfway through during a reading of Sinead Morrissey’s work, and Prince Phillip said something that elicited a nod. Macmillan concluded that this was the effect of her poetry. She commenced with ‘Moscow Puzzles’, which contained a riddle within the poem. I barely grasped a problem was being set up, my neighbour said 240 quick as a flash, sadly the actual answer is 136. The main event contained the poet’s recollections of being in labour “tottering” “like a wind up fat man toy”, punctuated by her watching Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death on television at the time. She combines this with her grandmother’s war in the Raleigh bike factory in Nottingham, of typing up invoices ( interrupted by 40 hour delivery of poet’s mother). She imagines her signing David Niven into heaven with clicking heels and “sticky lipstick”, all set against the “checks and balances” of birth and death.

Robin Robertson closed the evening with his deep sonorous voice of a Proper Poet. Macmillan’s claim of his poems creating their own microclimate is supported by ‘1964’, depicting Robertson’s childhood in Aberdeen during typhoid outbreak “under the gritted lid of winter”. Despite his allegation that ‘The Key’ is his “only cheerful poem and therefore very short”, 1964 contains the wonderful line “the day’s first Labrador, flogging the surf” with his tail that is positively upbeat. Admittedly, the idea of blood buds – sawdust that has absorbed all the blood from the butcher’s floor, wrapped in hankies and taken to the woods, where the boys “break them open for their jelly” – created a keen mental scar. There is determined brutality at points “one boy holds another’s hair so he can kick him in the face”, that smacks of being Tough and Scottish that is a bit wearisome. In ‘Party Time’ the perils of drink flash “streeling I was and streeling I went”. For all the darkness, his humour comes through in his childhood quest for the stork (he knew then how babies were made) “so that she might take me back”.

The winner was announced the night after the event to be Sinead Morrisey for Parallax.

The Editors

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney died a few days before my family went on holiday, so his collected poems came with us. While some members are more devoted to poetry then others, the assembled group are all fairly keen readers. The matriarch, on day three, requested that we all assemble to read one or more of Heaney’s poems aloud. While the turnout was solid, those who opted for a snooze instead were noted and pronounced feckless. The lines quoted below are in the order of the poems selected on that afternoon.

‘Digging’ at the start, as many know this one from the GCSE poetry anthology, and despite this, the ear still loves the sound of the ‘cool hardness of new potatoes’ – you can turn them over in your palm and rub the pad of your thumb over the clots of earth still clinging to the skin. The keen edge of his father’s spade ‘nicking and slicing’, making ‘curt cuts’ in the earth he wrote of so well and often.

Next was ‘Mid-term Break’, where the image of a blooming ‘poppy bruise’ summons the multi-hued knees every child gets more vividly than purple or yellow ever could. Heaney’s acute powers of observation were illustrated here by the exasperated rush of his mother’s ‘angry tearless sighs’.

He wrote ‘The Skunk’ while working as a writer in residence in California. It is about missing his wife Marie, and also about a skunk, ‘night after night I expected her like a visitor’, ‘tense as a voyeur’. The clenched waiting for the patter on his porch (and possibly a ghastly odour) as way of giving voice to his separation is excellent.

The gathering sense of dread in ‘Blackberry picnic’ as the children scramble to pick every last ‘glossy purple clot’ before he ‘Felt like Crying’ when the cache starts to ferment and rot is tangible. This is written, as was his right and style, in his own dialect, which is part of and yet a slightly different lexicon from the language of Ireland. The former is a peninsula to the latter, separated by the tide of shifting context.

The next poem was in fact ‘The Peninsula’, read aloud when we scattered my grandfather’s ashes in the Solent on the isle of Wight, where he sailed in a spectacularly unsuccessful fashion with my grandmother, and where the surroundings and the situation commanded the vision of ‘islands riding themselves out into the fog’. Poems like this allow the listener to uncode landscapes, by observing  ‘water and ground in their extremity’, there are flashes of insight before ‘you’re in the dark again’. No sugar coating here.

The poems ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (on gathering frogspawn) and ‘The Grauballe Man’ are too densely packed to be picked apart in rapid time, but these were the final offerings and demand your full attention, when you have half an hour and a quiet corner.

I was lucky enough to see Heaney in conversation with Karl Miller and Andrew O’Hagan at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2012. At the time I was conscious of the fact this was a privilege, especially when he paused over a section of ‘Digging’ when reciting it from memory only to receive a quiet nudge from his wife in the audience. Naturally that afternoon now retains an even weightier resonance in my memory. Although the Book Festival is one of the least insane parts of Edinburgh in August, it is not usually a relaxing place. For that afternoon, however, the main auditorium was full of old jokes, exhumed memory and gentle prompting as the three on stage created a pocket of calm. Heaney was clearly a wonderfully charming man as well as a dazzling man with words, and one of the great things about his language is that you can translate it endlessly, spinning out the effect of his words endlessly.

The Editors

You can hear Seamus Heaney reading from his poetry at the Poetry Archive.

Alice Oswald’s poetry of rivers

British Academy Literature Week in Senate House, University of London, 22nd May

Jo Shapcott has described Alice Oswald’s poetry as ‘unsettled and settling in every good way’; the true role of poetry is arguably to act as ‘the great unsettler’ by questioning ‘the settled order of the mind’, it ‘works at the roots of thinking, down to the faint, honest voice at the bottom of the skull’. I cannot allege that one of these exists in my head, but if anyone is capable of helping it to germinate, I suspect it would be Alice Oswald.

Reading or hearing Oswald’s work read aloud is ‘like walking through a garden at night’. It is meditative and rich, especially so when delivered in the poet’s clear, deep voice. She read without glancing down and with punctilious observation of pauses – probably because they are hers. She certainly understands the power of silence, judging by the lengths of the breaks between readings.

Weeds and Wild Flowers

Her work – one example is her collection Weeds and Wild Flowers – is rooted in English landscape and rivers (or ‘fish paths’) such as the Dart and the Severn. ‘The Dart’ contains the voices of people who live near the river and the voice of the river itself, ‘trying to summon itself through speaking’ ‘through the swamp spaces’. As you are reliably told that by the riverside ‘you can hear plovers whistling’, the land is described so vividly and busily that you can watch as ‘an old dandelion unpicks her shawl’ while sitting on a ‘patch of broken schist’. I had to look this up; it is a type of metamorphic rock, so now you know too if you didn’t already. The wildlife are illustrated in either a touching fashion: seals ‘all swaddled and tucked in fat’ in a cave that is ‘a room behind the sea’, and ‘ducks tucked up in self-pillow’, or sinister in their evocativeness – I can still see the eel ‘strong as bike chain’ twisting under the surface of the water.

Oswald initially refused to write a poem about a river with a name as ugly as the Dunt, however, upon discovering a Roman water nymph close by, she changed her mind. The figurine repeatedly ‘made of bone tries to summon a river out of limestone’ and the intonation becomes her vigil. Her 2011 work Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad contains a poem on the Scamander, with Achilles attacking in the background before ‘his last breath silvered the surface’.

To close, she read a series of short poems about water, where she describes dew as lying in ‘transparent sheets’, before wishing that ‘if only I, as a passer-by, could pass as clear as water through a plume of glass’ so that she might know ‘how to balance the weight of hope against the light of patience’. If you are not yet a regular reader of poetry or prone to walking in the countryside, these poems are the remedy.

The Editors

The comfort of King Lear

King LearKing Lear – William Shakespeare

Shakespeare in Modern Culture – Marjorie Garber

The name King Lear echoes for me with the tinny sounds of GCSE and A-level criticism. The blindness of Lear, the blindness of Gloucester, the insights of the Fool, Cordelia as the Fool, Kent as the Fool, the reader as the Fool, and of course dare I suggest it, the Fool as the Fool. For me, the playing fields of Shakespeare are marked and marred indelibly by the muddy boots of education. I long to come to Lear afresh, to read with innocence and the insight that comes only with the solo exploration of the virgin text. I envy anyone who has not read Lear, or does not remember reading it, their opportunity to read it in ignorance.

When I re-read the play for this review, I was mostly standing up. To read a play is a literally theatrical experience and I found myself occasionaly jousting with the book, or with a spare hand, allowing my feet to beat out the rythms of Shakespeare’s poetry and prose as I paced the house speaking the parts in my head or outloud; now Gloucester, now Regan, now Edmund, now Lear; constantly taking on and throwing off disguises, taking on and throwing off personae, reaching into and out of banks of memory and experience, in some places adding to them, in some places drawing from them – filling my head with words, trying them on my tongue, testing, exchanging and delighting in examining them so that by the end, more clearly than any other, I had this phrase of Regan’s ringing in my ears: “‘Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.”

My first re-reading of the play was safely secured for a review. So I moved to read some criticism, and in doing so to expand the experiences I had gained by reading the play again. I turned to American critic, Marjorie Garber and her book of essays: Shakespeare in Modern Culture – chosen, mostly, for its proximity to my desk.

Lear, she contends, has been a century resurgent in fame against Shakespeare’s other great tragedy Hamlet. Lear’s star has risen on the back of a century of ‘ground zero’ events she says from the end of the Second World War to now: bookended (at her publication) by Hiroshima and 911. We are drawn to its ultimate bleakness, she writes, as opposed to the Victorian obsession with Lear’s redemptive ending. Paul Scofield’s extraordinary portrayal of the bleakest and brashest of Lears in Peter Brooke’s 1953 film adaptation captures this depressive critical zeitgeist at its lowest ebb. If you haven’t seen it, you really should.

Garber’s book is an inspired topic for literary criticism. It interprets the intrepretations of Shakespeare throughout the last century. Each new reader takes the code, the DNA, that is the bare text of the play and establishes their own hermeneutic, applying the bare text of the play to their own circumstances and inflecting it with the hopes, fears and colours of their times.

And once you have decided to, you can apply Lear to sociological phenomena quite easily in this way. Really the trick is taking the play and believing it is your own – exercising the reader’s proprietorial rights over it. For example:

Lear is a play about the financial and ecological crises that we are experiencing as extreme weather conditions and adverse fiscal conditions which have been operating to chip, smash and destroy our security, our happiness and our economic stability in the West for over a century. Edmund, the bastard, is regularly cast as the entrepreneurial rebel, shaking off the bounds of his illegitimacy to vault the vaunted, ‘legitimate’, position of his brother Edgar by the fabrication of a conspiratorial letter against their father, Gloucester. Edmund embodies the Thatcherite/Blairite rise of leveraged social mobility and prosperity, rising on a tide of engineered debt products, built on a century or more marked most strikingly by the meteoric rise of the limited liability company  – or in the words of Lear’s Fool:

Fool: Give me an egg and I’ll give thee two crowns.

Lear: What two crowns shall they be?

Fool: Why, after I have cut the egg i’ the middle and eat up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou clovest thy crown i’ the middle and gav’st away both parts, thou borest thine ass on thy back o’er the dirt: thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gavest the golden one away.

Lear is the pioneer, the early shareholder: leveraging, building, dividing his kingdom to maximise the pleasure of his retirement. Goneril and Regan are the ambitious, selfish, ill-bred offspring of a great tycoon brought low by his love of himself and his love of flattery and his blindness to the modesty of truth.

You see? It is relatively straight-forward. So Garber’s chief achievement was helping me let go of the academic King Lear. I can fabricate enough readings of it to satisfy my personal curiosity, to fill a great many quiet evenings – just by picking it up and reading it and thinking about it. It is a good parlour game, more informative than a Scrabble board or a Monopoly set, and with Lear all you have to do is read it for yourself, and to try to understand it in the broadest possible context and – as if by magic – it unlocks a world of pleasure and insight and entertainment.

What I learned by re-reading King Lear (and this play was written for me after all) is that if I were marooned on a desert island I could find an allegory for every hardship I would be likely to encounter contained within its pages. That, for me, is extraordinarily comforting.

The Editors

Stopping by woods

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening – Robert Frost

There are a few places left in the world which are more natural than I am comfortable with. Places where the usual protections of urban humanity do not exist – where the thickness of your clothing, the quality of your preparation – courage, strength and perseverance are all the measures by which humans live, die or avoid frost bite. It is sad to think that we, at least in London though I suspect I could say Britain or Europe, have become so dependent on our own inventions as to lose that self-sufficiency. I cannot remember the last time that I went somewhere without ‘assistance’. Assistance is anything and everything mapped out around us. It is roads for us to follow, footpaths for us to walk on. Nature discovery trails. iPhones. Phone signals on mountain tops. Air ambulances. Search and rescue. The coastguard. The fire brigade. The butcher. The baker. The supermarket. All of these things make life easier and more convenient, certainly. But they make us, and the world we inhabit, so much smaller as well. We have become highly specialised in tasks that are not required for survival. Writing blog posts, law, accountancy, maths for example. Sometimes I feel that the more we travel on this trend of interdependence the more we step towards pleasure loving, ill disciplined, androgynous, ineffectual easy prey.

Yet there are these few places in the world where it is possible to sense the acute proximity of death – fear, excitement, necessity. Places where we are exposed without concrete barriers, without tarmac roads, without the reassuring rush of traffic a short distance away. Here we can enjoy, we can be free, we can be tested as we are not tested in the city, on the Underground, in the gym. Here we can sense the wind in our faces, watch the sea rumble and dash itself on the rocks, hear silence, hear nothing.

I say these things because I have been thinking about one of my favourite poems – Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost. Frost has had a hard time critically because his pastoral message is not easily discerned, and in the opinion of some, not worth the effort of discerning it. I cannot disagree strongly enough. The echoing loneliness of this poem, the proximity to death, its temptation, its quizzical, life affirming call: “He gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake”; the anticipation of the sweeping scythe smoothed into beauty, peace, comfort: “The only other sound’s the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake”; are all masterful poetry, summoning the reader to the woods as witness to the poet’s loneliness. This is a poem about the choice of existence. The tension between the easy temptations of death, it’s call, particularly to the lonely, particularly to those stopped “without a farmhouse near / Between the woods and frozen lake / The darkest evening of the year”. The poem embodies that great human survivalist spirit and the comforting presence (and insight) of animals – press on – a reminder to us as readers that we are in fact alive and perhaps by choice: “For I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.”  Perhaps in poetry, if not in life, we can more safely approach death and reaffirm our choice to live and the reasons for it. In doing so we strengthen ourselves and in a world where we are barred from nature more and more, I, for one, am grateful for Frost’s company and more than that, his assistance.

The Editors

Roomful of Mirrors

The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto 26 – Dante Alighieri

Dante’s Inferno is a book about sin and punishment, set within a staggeringly complex Aristotelian framework.  It’s also a platform for the poet to pass judgment on his contemporaries, and he pulls no punches in choosing who to condemn – there is a special pit in the eighth circle for Popes.  The twenty-sixth canto of Dante’s Inferno – Ulysses’ canto – on the other hand, is really all about what the Italian poet sees of himself in the Greek hero, or at least in his conception of the Greek hero, which is based on the Roman interpretation of Homer’s character, that is to say deceitful rather than just cunning.  Ulysses is allegedly in the eight circle of hell because of a series of acts of deception committed whilst on earth, including the Trojan horse.  This is not, however, the focus of the canto, which moves on from the sin of deception and looks at the events surrounding Ulysses’ death.

Here, Dante makes good use of poetic licence to kill Ulysses off in an inventive and previously unheard of manner: Ulysses reaches the end of his epic journey back from the Trojan war, concluding twenty years of war and adventure, and yet, at the moment when he should be settling down to rest on his hard-earned laurels, he baulks at the prospect and urges his men to follow him on yet another quest, this time on a voyage of exploration beyond the edge of the ancient world, demarcated by the mythical Pillars of Hercules between Spain and Africa.  All of this so that he can become an “expert of the world”.  Unfortunately for Ulysses this mission is abruptly cut short when he gets to the other side of the world, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, only for he and his crew to be engulfed by a whirlpool, taking the Greek hero straight down to the eighth circle of hell.

To cut to the chase, and for those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading the Inferno, Dante himself is also on a voyage, actually two voyages: a poetic journey, on the one hand, and on the other a literal journey to hell and back.  Furthermore, both journeys are the culmination of a life of learning, as Dante had previously written in his main philosophical work: “all men desire to know.”  This means that Dante’s encounter with Ulysses is a deliberately self-conscious one – both men had a passionate desire to know as much as possible.  And yet, Ulysses languishes in hell whilst Dante is granted divine protection as he undertakes a quest in the name of spiritual enlightenment; a classic Dantean paradox, possibly even the Dantean paradox.  Dante recognises that there is an insurmountable tension between his own intellectual adventure and a distinctly Christian sense of obedience and stability – it is a tension that cuts all the way back to Genesis and the Tree of Knowledge.  Can it be resolved? Not really, other than to say that Dante is not quite Ulysses, he is on an epic journey, but not purely for reasons of personal illumination, he is travelling for the benefit of mankind generally, which is in itself almost a far worse transgression for the poet to make.  In any case, the fact that Dante’s is a recorded journey means that he is never the only person on it – it is a perpetual, shared journey, started every time someone picks up a copy of The Divine Comedy.  If Dante’s sin reflects Ulysses’, he is not the only one to be drawn in – we are all, as readers, complicit.

What relevance does this have to us in the modern world, devoid to a large extent of the burden of religious obligation?  For starters, that reading is like travelling.  Both are extremely personal, even selfish, experiences, often carried out for the purpose of learning, entertainment and self-reflection.  Both offer a detachment and escape from the mundane reality of our lives, but both carry a risk, albeit remote, of alienation and self-absorption.  It is a risk that can be tempered by self-awareness, and Inferno 26 is, if nothing else, one of the greatest exercises in literary self-awareness ever performed.

The Editors  

Sea songs and waking dreams

A regular complaint of friends about work is that they do not know what they are doing. How are we to know what we are doing, except by experience? It seems a waste that generation after generation goes on learning things anew when so many of the lessons have been learnt so many times before. Yet, these things can only be discovered by effort, perhaps through books – the aggregated experience of many – but effort and experience nonetheless. Orhan Pamuk: “Once upon a time there was a young prince who dedicated his whole life to discovering who he was and what he discovered was his whole life.”

This is the subject of TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. A poem that captures the pretentious uncertainty of modern man, lurching forward with certainty, holding back with self-restraining fear: “Oh do not ask what is it? / Let us go and make our visit.”

Through Prufrock, Eliot grapples with western man’s place in the world. Eliot’s frame is literary, granted, but his is a beautiful elucidation of the by turns grandeur and pretension, by turns humility and terror with which we orient ourselves in our jobs, our families, our countries: “No! I am not prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two, / advise the prince.” That progression of thought – that petty hauteur, born out of fear, out of strength, out of need – is balanced deftly in lines as these: “Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter, / I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter; / I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, / and I have seen the eternal Footman hold out my coat, and snicker, / and in short, I was afraid.”

Perhaps his message is a simple one, though his poem is certainly not: man’s path is a wandering and uncertain one to tread,  do not linger long in dream – press on: “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”

The Editors