The Whale’s Way

“Sea Fever” (1902)

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.


John Masefield (1878–1967)

The Power of Babel

“…par la suggestive lecture d’un ouvrage racontant de lointains voyages…” – J.K. Huysmans, À Rebours (1884).

The language you know best is also the language you know least: your mother tongue, the language you acquired by instinct and speak by intuition. Asking a native speaker to describe English, French or Quechua is rather like asking a fish to describe water. The native speaker, like the fish, knows the answer very intimately, yet in some ways doesn’t know as well as a non-native speaker. In other words, standing outside can help you better understand standing inside: there is good in the gap. What is it like to experience gravity? Like most humans, I’ve known all my life, but I’d know better if I were in orbit or en route to the moon, experiencing the absence of gravity.

And what is it like to be human? We all know and we’ve all read countless stories about other human beings. But in some ways they don’t answer that question as effectively as stories that push humanity to the margins, like Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972), which is about rabbits, or Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves (also 1972), which is about trisexual aliens in a parallel dimension. There is good in the gap, in stepping outside the familiar and looking back to see the familiar anew.


Continuing reading The Power of Babel

This Mortal Doyle

Challenger chopped and changed. That is to say, in one important respect, Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Professor Challenger lacked continuity. His philosophical views weren’t consistent. At one time he espoused materialism, at another he opposed it. He espoused it in “The Land of Mist” (1927):

“Don’t tell me, Daddy, that you with all your complex brain and wonderful self are a thing with no more life hereafter than a broken clock!”

“Four buckets of water and a bagful of salts,” said Challenger as he smilingly detached his daughter’s grip. “That’s your daddy, my lass, and you may as well reconcile your mind to it.”

But earlier, in “The Poison Belt” (1913), he had opposed it:

“No, Summerlee, I will have none of your materialism, for I, at least, am too great a thing to end in mere physical constituents, a packet of salts and three bucketfuls of water. Here ― here” ― and he beat his great head with his huge, hairy fist ― “there is something which uses matter, but is not of it ― something which might destroy death, but which death can never destroy.”

That story was published just over a century ago, but Challenger’s boast has not been vindicated in the meantime. So far as science can see, matter rules mind, not vice versa. Conan Doyle thought the same as the earlier Challenger, but Conan Doyle’s rich and teeming brain seems to have ended in “mere physical constituents”. To all appearances, when the organization of his brain broke down, so did his consciousness. And that concluded the cycle described by A.E. Housman in “Poem XXXII” of A Shropshire Lad (1896):

From far, from eve and morning
  And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
  Blew hither: here am I.

Now – for a breath I tarry
  Nor yet disperse apart –
Take my hand quick and tell me,
  What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
  How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
  I take my endless way. (ASL, XXXII)

Continue reading This Mortal Doyle

Words at War

Front cover of Poetry of the First World War edited by Tim KendallPoetry of the First World War: An Anthology, ed. Tim Kendall (Oxford University Press 2013)

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are famous names today, but both might have died young in the First World War. If so, they would now be long forgotten. Generally speaking, novelists, essayists and scholars take time to mature and need time to create. Poets are different: they can create something of permanent value in a few minutes. This helps explain why nearly half the men chosen for this book did not reach their thirties:

• Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)
• Julian Grenfell (1888-1915)
• Charles Sorley (1895-1915)
• Patrick Shaw Stewart (1888-1917)
• Arthur Graeme West (1891-1917)
• Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)
• Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

And none of them left substantial bodies of work. Indeed, “except for some schoolboy verse”, Patrick Shaw Stewart is known for only one poem, which “was found written on the back flyleaf of his copy of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad after his death” (pg. 116). It begins like this:

I saw a man this morning
  Who did not wish to die:
I ask and cannot answer,
  If otherwise wish I.

(From I saw a man this morning)

Housman is here too, with Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries, which Kipling, also here, is said to have called “the finest poem of the First World War” (pg. 14). I don’t agree and I would prefer less Kipling and no Thomas Hardy. That would have left space for something I wish had been included: translations from French and German. The First World War was fought by speakers of Europe’s three major languages and this book makes me realize that I know nothing about war poetry in French and German.

It would be interesting to compare it with the poetry in English. Were traditional forms mingling with modernism in the same way? I assume so. Wilfred Owen looked back to Keats and the assonance of Anglo-Saxon verse:

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced winds that knive us…
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent…
Low, drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient…
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
  But nothing happens. (Exposure)

David Jones (1895-1974) looked forward:

   You can hear the silence of it:
You can hear the rat of no-man’s-land
rut-out intricacies,
weasel-out his patient workings,
scrut, scrut, sscrut,
harrow-out earthly, trowel his cunning paw;
redeem the time of our uncharity, to sap his own amphibi-
ous paradise.
   You can hear his carrying-parties rustle our corruptions
through the night-weeds – contest the choicest morsels in his
tiny conduits, bead-eyed feast on us; by a rule of his nature,
at night-feast on the broken of us. (In Parenthesis)

But is there Gerard Manley Hopkins in that? And in fact In Parenthesis was begun “in 1927 or 1928” and published in 1937. T.S. Eliot called it “a work of genius” (pg. 200). I’d prefer to disagree, but I can’t: you can feel the power in the extract given here. Isaac Rosenberg had a briefer life and left briefer work, but was someone else who could work magic with words:

A worm fed on the heart of Corinth,
Babylon and Rome.
Not Paris raped tall Helen,
But this incestuous worm
Who lured her vivid beauty
To his amorphous sleep.
England! famous as Helen
Is thy betrothal sung.
To him the shadowless,
More amorous than Solomon.

A beautiful poem about an ugly thing: death. A mysterious poem too. And a sardonic one. Rosenberg says much with little and I think he was a much better poet than the more famous Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. They survived the war and wrote more during it, which helps explain their greater fame. But the flawed poetry of Graves was sometimes appropriate to its ugly theme:

To-day I found in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for lust of blood:

Where, propped against a shattered trunk,
  In a great mess of things unclean,
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk
  With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.

A poem like that is a cure for romanticism, but that’s part of what makes Wilfred Owen a better and more interesting poet than Graves. Owen’s romanticism wasn’t cured: there’s conflict in his poems about conflict:

I saw his round mouth’s crimson deepen as it fell,
  Like a sun, in his last deep hour;
Watched the magnificent recession of farewell,
  Clouding, half gleam, half glower,
And a last splendour burn the heavens of his cheek.
  And in his eyes
The cold stars lighting, very old and bleak,
  In different skies.

But how good is Owen’s work? He was a Kurt Cobain of his day: good-looking, tormented and dying young. You can’t escape the knowledge of early death when you read the poetry of one or listen to the music of other. That interferes with objective appraisal. But the flaws in Owen’s poetry add to its power, increasing the sense of someone writing against time and struggling for greatness in a bad place. The First World War destroyed a lot of poets and perhaps helped destroy poetry too, raising questions about tradition that some answered with nihilism. As Owen asks in Futility:

Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sun-beams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

Some of the poets here were happy to go to war, but it wasn’t the Homeric adventure anticipated by Patrick Shaw Stewart. He learnt that high explosive is impersonal, bullets kill at great distance and machines don’t need rest. Poetry of the First World War is about a confrontation: between flesh and metal, brains and machinery. It’s an interesting anthology that deserves much more time than I have devoted to it. The notes aren’t intrusive, the biographies are brief but illuminating, and although Tim Kendall is a Professor of English Literature he has let his profession down by writing clear prose and eschewing jargon. He’s also included some “Music-Hall and Trench Songs” and they speak for the ordinary and sometimes illiterate soldier. The First World War may be the most important war in European history and this is a good introduction to some of the words it inspired.

Lute to Kill

A little-known Housman poem that should be better-known:


Breathe, my lute, beneath my fingers
    One regretful breath,
One lament for life that lingers
    Round the doors of death.
For the frost has killed the rose,
And our summer dies in snows,
    And our morning once for all
    Gathers to the evenfall.

Hush, my lute, return to sleeping,
    Sing no songs again.
For the reaper stays his reaping
    On the darkened plain;
And the day has drained its cup,
And the twilight cometh up;
    Song and sorrow all that are
    Slumber at the even-star.

A.E. Housman (1859-1936) — see also Breathe, my lute at Wikilivres.