Even big boys sometimes cry

Not being made PM is a cruel blow, especially when you’ve gone up to London on purpose.

Lord Curzon in his robes as Viceroy of India, 1899-1905
Lord Curzon in his pomp as Viceroy of India (and dry-eyed)
Will Gordon, David or Nick weep on failing to become Prime Minister? I suspect they’d consult their image consultants first. Yet one noble Lord did, it seems, cry when his summons didn’t, after all, mean being asked to form a government – as I learnt during a visit last week to Montacute House. In addition to the portraits of Elizabethan and Jacobean worthies, the house has Curzon Room, named after the former Viceroy of India who rented the house with his mistress, the romantic novelist Elinor Glyn, ‘enduring,’ the National Trust poetically puts it, ‘Arctic temperatures to stay by her man’s side.’ Thus inspired, the NT’s writer continues: ‘But she couldn’t stop Curzon’s feelings cooling along with the weather, and knew the frost had well and truly set in when she read of his engagement to Mrs Alfred Duggan in the Times.’ This cruel treatment rather undermines the same writer’s claim that ‘We all suffer our disappointments in life, but perhaps not so acute as George Nathaniel Curzon.’ Really? Did they ask Ms Glyn about his sin or only care about hers?

I guess not becoming Prime Minister is a blow, especially when you’ve gone up to London on purpose. For although there was no telephone at Montacute in 1923, when a telegram arrived, ‘the supremely confident Curzon’ travelled up to London with great expectations that he would become the next Prime Minister, only to find that Stanley Baldwin had got the job. It seems the most prominent reasons were that Curzon’s character was objectionable (they must have heard about his treatment of Ms Glyn – or taken against him in person), and that it was inappropriate for the Prime Minister to be a member of the House of Lords. The noble Lord was said to have burst into tears on hearing the news. Or, to express it in doggerel:

Curzon cried when not selected
Trouble was he weren’t elected
Even Kings must succumb
To the voter’s rule of thumb

And so it will be on May 6th – unless, of course, we have a hung Parliament, a prospect that is causing the chattering classes great excitement.

Writing this, I came across this Balliol rhyme about Curzon, ‘a piece of doggerel which stuck with him in later life’:

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim twice a week.

And so it that I seem to have stumbled into an imitation of the form. Well, it’s bad enough….

Photograph, from US Library of Congress, taken from Wikimedia Commons

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.

Japanese whispers: in Basho mood

Japanese temple garden
Zen stone garden at the Komyozenji temple in Dazaifu by Chris 73: see below.
Poetic inspiration takes unpredictable, amazing shapes. In response to a recent post about poetry and sport, there was a question about how many feet would be required for poems about three-legged racers. Chris Warren, already on a trip to Japan, needed no incentive to write haiku but took this as a prompt to share some three-liners with me. Here are some tasters – though none are about sport. This was written ‘after a visit to a specially beautiful Zen temple stone garden’:

Raked gravel ripples
Spread out from the grey stone:
Wave-forms of silence

And these show Chris, as he says, ‘in full Basho mood’:

New-leaf-green maple
Backlit by sunlight … and one
tiny bird on the branch

A black crow cries ‘Wha?’
Outside my window. Without
Heeding my reply.

The last one was written ‘after an exotic trip with some Japanese Buddhist friends to a temple in the mountains’

Mountain temple bell
Hollow sound through green pine woods
The whisper of streams

Look out for more, either here or on our English and ICT site!

All poems here by and © Chris Warren. The photograph is a Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image from Chris 73 (not Chris Warren!) and is freely available here under the Creative Commons cc-by-sa 2.5 licence.

Anthem for rugby’s doomed youth

Keating on the death of poet Mick Imlah and the rugby internationals from the British Isles who were among the millions slaughtered during the Great War

Today’s cricket post reminded me of the only other time in recent memory that I’d been enticed to read the Guardian’s sports pages. I’d parked the item in my draft posts over a year ago and then forgotten about it. Again, it was Frank Keating’s literary allusions that drew my eye to the page, along with the First World War reference. His Anthem for rugby’s doomed youth mourns both the death last year of the poet Mick Imlah and the rugby internationals from the British Isles who were among the millions slaughtered during the war. He quotes Imlah’s ’15-line sonnet London Scottish 1914, a panegyric to the three-score brothers in arms who volunteered to swap their Richmond turf for Belgian ditches – for three-quarters of them to die’:

Of that ill-balanced and fatigued fifteen
The ass selectors favoured to survive,
Just one, Brodie the prop, resumed his post.
The others sometimes drank to ‘The Forty-Five’:
Neither a humorous nor an idle toast.

The full text of poem can be found here. The claim that this fifteen-line poem is a sonnet provoked a challenge from Chris Warren – are there any other examples of this special kind of ‘sonnet’?

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.

Snow had fallen, snow on snow…

The big freeze has its picturesque side

Snow-clad cement mixer, 5 January 2010Sometimes even a cement mixer can have a certain poetic charm, when it is blanketed under several inches of snow. And so it was this afternoon in our Derbyshire back garden.

As for Christina Rossetti’s carol, it’s true that

Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;

… but this ‘bleak mid-winter’ isn’t ‘long ago’ but with us for the rest of the week. It’s a good job the email can get through, as the Royal Mail didn’t!

The Publican’s ’Postrophe

Christma’s partie’s for all

The Publican's 'PostropheAt this time of year, I’ve been given a special Christmas present: what I think we should call the Publican’s ’Postrophe. Until today, all I had was hearsay – but now, as Othello says, we have ‘ocular proof’ from the window of the very hostelry in London’s Wood Green where these ‘Christma’s Partie’s’ are advertised. There is of course some clever word play here, despite the artless lettering. For surely these are no ordinary Christmas parties but festivities in honour of Mary, Christ’s Ma?

No doubt the publican is aware of the need to bring old customs up to date, just as the Guardian recently reported how Jeanette Winterson has, in an interesting phrase ‘taken up the crusade’ by bringing out her own, ‘unorthodox account of the nativity story told from the point of view of the donkey in the stable’. Not that it’s very unorthodox; U A Fanthorpe included a ‘Cat in the manger’ in Safe as Houses, with the lines:

Matthew, Mark and Luke and John
(Who got it wrong,
Who left out the cat)…

Thomas Hardy wrote about The Oxen, ending:

I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so

So Happy Christmas, everyone, publicans, sinners and, as Betjeman says,

Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

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‘.

Humour in Great War poetry?

An email from a school this week asked for ‘poetry which expresses the humour of the infantry during the Great War’.

Poetry of the First World War by Tom Rank - York Notes AdvancedAn email from a school this week asked for ‘poetry which expresses the humour of the infantry during the Great War’. I pointed out that though there are many books of war poetry, humour doesn’t get much coverage in the standard anthologies. There is of course the sardonic humour of someone like Sassoon in ‘The General‘. Kipling’s ‘Epitaphs of War’ are often sombre but also contain some sarcastic outbursts. (It would also be very illuminating for students to find out about Kipling’s personal involvement in the war effort and its aftermath.) You can read all his ‘Epitaphs’ online in the brief selection of poems I’ve put online here; they include background notes based on my volume in the York Notes Advanced series.

Poems of TodayThere is a good range of poetry in Martin Stephen’s anthology Never Such Innocence. He includes a lot of material that isn’t otherwise readily available in print, such as the anonymous ‘When this blasted war is over’ (to the tune of ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’). As for ‘fun’, try Rose Macaulay’s ‘Many Sisters to Many Brothers’ – she wasn’t a soldier but that’s the point. She writes: ‘Oh, it’s you that have the luck, out there in blood and muck…. But for me … a war is poor fun.’ It also features in Stephen’s collection, though I first came across this in a friend’s Second World War utility edition of Poems of Today, shown here, which indicates how popular this anthology for ‘boys and girls’ had remained since it was first published in 1915. You can find the text online at Project Gutenberg.

The Pity of WarThere’s plenty more online, of course. A good place to start is The Muse in Arms from 1917, ‘for the most part written in the field of action’, which is on the First World War.com site. A recent CD The Pity of War contains both music composed during the First World War by Elgar, Janacek and Debussy and a second disc of Wilfred Owen letters and poems read by Samuel West, interspersed with wartime songs – both sentimental and, at times, comic. (If the Amazon copies seem expensive, try the Orchid Classics site, where you can also find out how to download the album.) There are many more Great War links on the Literary Connections First World War pages.

Caesura: it’s not the end of the line

Is the afterlife just the second half of a line of verse?

I came across an interesting use of this word in a Media Guardian article about the death of Reinhard Mohn, the owner of Europe’s largest media group, Bertelsmann: ‘Mohn’s death has been described by German commentators as a “caesura”‘.

So is the afterlife just the second half of a line of verse? And if so, from which poem? Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained? ‘Futility’ or ‘Easter Wings’? Or is this some deeply existential statement about life imitating art?