The niveous stole of winter

Poetic reflection on the early snow

Snow in the High Peak, 1 December 2010
'Frowning wood' and 'the spotless flood' in the High Peak, 1 December 2010
Wednesday’s seasonal weather Word of the Day is ‘niveous’. As James Hurdis wrote in The Favourite Village in 1800:

Wakes from its slumber the suspicious eye,
And bids it look abroad on hill, and dale,
Cottage, and steeple, in the niveous stole
Of Winter trimly dress’d. The silent show’r,
Precipitated still, no breeze disturbs,
While fine as dust it falls. Deep on the face
Of the wide landscape lies the spotless flood
Accumulating still, a vast expanse,
Save where the frowning wood without a leaf
Rears its dark branches on the distant hill.

I have today’s weather to thank for the inspiration and the Oxford English Dictionary for the reference to Hurdis, though strangely it spells the title of his poem Favorite Village – which would seem unlikely for a Sussex Clergyman and Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. He’s hardly a household name now, is he? (Does the same fate await today’s holder of this post? Was all that fuss over the election and voluntary de-selection of Ruth Padel a waste of time?)

I had to look up Hurdis in Oxford’s Dictionary of National Biography, as there’s precious little about him elsewhere online – thanks again to Derbyshire County Council Libraries – long may this cultural blessing last! I cannot resist (ah, near-fatal weakness mine!) including the DNB evaluation of the poet’s character:

The intensity of Hurdis’s feelings, and his inability to control them, resulted in repeated strife with all but his mother and sisters, by whom alone he seems not to have felt threatened. Indeed, his behaviour in his final years seems to have verged on the deranged.

No wonder he welcomed the silent, obscuring blanket of snow – as did the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. My thanks to my friend and colleague Trevor Millum for these lines from ‘London Snow’ which he sent me this morning:

When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.
All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled – marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.

Snow in the High Peak, December 2010
'No sound of wheel rumbling', nor even a monk's footfall: Monk's Road, Charlesworth, 1 December 2010

‘Here’s a boat that cannot float’

As promised yesterday, there’s more drama – and poetry – to be wrung from this week’s election results. The Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy reflects on democracy in action (and on the current inaction) in her new poem Democracy in The Guardian today. As she implies by her reference to ‘a moat’, the expenses scandal seems to have led voters cast their votes in numbers that don’t add up to anything other than uncertainty at present (even if hers rhyme sweetly). As David Hare puts it in an article elsewhere in today’s paper, the basic message is: ‘not so much “a plague on all your houses” as “a warning to all your houses”.’ Notice how Shakespeare creeps in here?

Floating voters or not, who, in Duffy’s words, will be the ‘sacrificial goat’? Will he burst into tears when his fate becomes clear, as a recent post mentioned, Lord Curzon did?

And please can we have more poetic comment?

In praise of haiku – and silence

Poetic responses to the silent skies – and an election aside.

Eyjafjallajokull volcano plume 18 April 2010
Cloud of unknowing: Eyjafjallajokull volcano plume on 18 April 2010 (Wikimedia Commons)
Chris Warren, currently stranded in Japan by the volcanic ash you can see here spewing from Eyjafjallajokull, has sent another contribution to his haiku collection:

Raked temple garden
Perfect but for a dead twig
Fallen across folds

Outwardly, then, all is calm, even if his situation, trapped far from home, is less than ideal. Haiku, it seems, are of the moment, for Herman van Rompuy, the new President of the European Council, has just published his own volume. The Guardian comments that ‘his passion is for a form of Japanese verse that is the bureaucratic equivalent of the limerick’. The poet himself prefers to describe the form as ‘fun and frolicsome’. As I hope the examples here show, haiku can achieve far more.

Chris inspired a response of my own, after a visit to the Long Gallery at Montacute House last week. It contains Tudor and Elizabethan portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, including figures such as Essex and Francis Bacon, posing in their finery and haughty demeanour, whilst the roads outside are peppered with election posters – including many for Annunziata Rees-Mogg, who must surely also be from a family of ancient entitlement. She is (her father edited the Times) and just to make the point, her brother Jacob (‘the headline-prone 37-year-old banker’, says the Independent) is standing in the next constituency. ‘Economies of scale ought to be possible when it comes to printing the ‘Vote Rees-Mogg’ posters,’ quipped the editor’s daughter. She was right – the landscape was peppered with blue signs, with only a solitary yellow ‘Vote Tessa’ poster stuck, incongruously, at the edge of the beach at Burnham-on-Sea.

Outside in Spring sun
Annunziata seeks my vote;
Here cool statesmen stare.

[Update, 24 April: lovely article by Ian Jack on the Rees-Mogg candidacies in The Guardian: ‘In pursuit of Somerset royalty in the hyper-marginal hinterland: It’s hard enough for the Tories to demonstrate social inclusivity with one highly privileged candidate. But two?’]

Today’s Guardian carries a haiku from Patrick Curry on the silent skies themselves (I hope, Chris, it’s some consolation):

Glorious, the spring
skies thrumming with silence – and
no one had to die

The Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, was also struck by the quiet. She apologises to those stranded (including, implicitly, our friends in Japan) then relishes the kinds of sounds ‘that Shakespeare heard and Edward Thomas and, briefly, us’ – for every cloud has a ‘Silver Lining’. Hear Carol Ann Duffy read it the poem on the BBC site or read the full text on the Guardian site. It’s not a haiku, though….

Photograph by Boaworm from Wikimeida Commons, published under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported licence.

Love poetry – the hardest to write?

Love poetry is hardest to write, says poet laureate

Happy Easter! It’s Spring, so it’s about time the Literary Connections blog put out some new shoots. Thanks to the impressive technical expertise of my son, the blog has been rescued from the clutches of the hackers who attempted to redirect everyone to some boring search site.

I can now revive a comment I began last year but still seems seasonal. Carol Ann Duffy may no longer be ‘new’ as Poet Laureate, but her comments on love poetry being the hardest to write are still worth reading. They might be particularly interesting to anyone following the AQA A Level course on Love Through the Ages.

Carol Ann Duffy marks the passing of the First World War generation

Statue of Great War soldier on War Memorial at Horseguards Parade, LondonToday’s Service to Mark the Passing of the First World War Generation at 10:50 on Radio 4 (Long Wave only) will include a poem by the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. It’s called ‘Last Post’ and if you miss the programme you can find the text on the Times site. There’s more about today’s service on the BBC site.

Earlier this year, The Guardian printed some of the results of the new Laureate’s commission of war poetry for today under the title ‘Exit wounds’. At the time, she wrote: ‘Such lines are part of the English poetry reader’s DNA, injected during schooldays like a vaccine.’ In recognition of this, she opens her poem with words from Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘.

Should Laureates wear cloaks? And other reasons why poetry matters

Andrew Motion and the poet’s cloak

As a delightful footnote to yesterday’s post about Andrew Motion, I came across Nancy Banks-Smith’s review in the Guardian of Wednesday night’s Why Poetry Matters on BBC2. ‘Among the better bits was Andrew Motion’s abashed admission that he used to wear a cloak, feeling it was incumbent on a poet. His mother bought it for him.’ So although yesterday’s poem showed the influence of the Georgian Brooke, Motion (bless him) already saw himself as a latter-day Tennyson. Well, it did the trick: like his hero, Andrew eventually took the Laureate’s wreath as well as his cloak!

The Poetry Archive site has a recording of Tennyson reading ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ in a wonderfully atmospheric wax-cylinder recording.

Poet of yesterday still haunts poet today

The First World War is still providing material for poems for today

The First World War continues to haunt poets. The first contribution to BBC Radio 3’s Poems for Today in their Poetry Season 2009 was broadcast this morning on the Breakfast programme. It was, Sara Mohr-Pietsch told us, recorded by Andrew Motion just before he relinquished the post of Poet Laureate. It’s a personal and not a ceremonial work, in which Motion recalls when he was 17 and the poems of Rupert Brooke were ‘the only ones I had read in their entirety’. Brooke’s collected works had been presented to him at school and the leather-bound volume took pride of place in his parents’ ‘whirligig bookcase’ (this was the word Andrew Motion actually used, as I found out when I caught the poem a second time round over lunch, not ‘hurdy-gurdy’ as I put this morning: must pay more attention). With two friends he visited the island of Skyros to find Brooke’s grave – and the heat on the harsh hillside, he says, meant the ill-equipped English schoolboys almost joined their hero in early graves. Even in 1969 this devotion to Brooke (‘who died,’ the grave records, ‘for the deliverance of Constantinople from the Turks’) must have seemed quaint English nostalgia. Read more about Brooke’s death and see a picture of the grave on Wikipedia and Poet’s Graves.

You should be able to listen again to all forty Poems for Today readings on the BBC site for the next year, though at present there are no recordings available. So make do with Ian McMillan’s more cheerful collaborative poem ‘I pull the curtains wide and feel the morning on my face’, composed with the help of listeners this morning in a new form he’s calling the ‘Pietsch’ in honour of the Breakfast presenter.

Poems of Today, incidentally, was a very popular collection first published in 1915 and much reprinted; I have a leather-bound copy on my shelves dating from 1925 and a school edition from 1942. The preface tells us: ‘This book has been compiled in order that boys and girls, already perhaps familiar with the great classics of the English speech, may also know something of the newer poetry of their own day. Most of the writers are living, and the rest are still vivid memories among us, while one of the youngest, almost as these words are written, has gone singing to lay down his life for his country’s cause.’ That ‘singing’ young poet was, of course, Brooke. There’s more about the collection, and where to find it online, on Literary Connections.

More about the new Poet Laureate, including exclusive revelations, in a later post!

Happy Christmas!

More Christmas listening – poetry and music

Christmas CandleA happy and melodious Christmas to all our readers! As a follow up to last year’s entry on Christmas poetry (which you can read about in more detail on the Literary Connections Christmas page), I’ve just noticed that last December’s Woman’s Hour interview with Carol Ann Duffy about her Manchester Carols is still available on the BBC site. The Manchester Carols also feature in Aled Jones’s Radio 3 programme on Christmas Music for Choirs on 14 Dec 2008 at 19:00. Happy listening – and I hope you enjoy some singing of your own too!