I am remembering my Uncle Iolo with a bitter-sweet chuckle. The letter dates from 1940, as does the photo, I’d guess. It begins: “Now that our British Winter has set in, campaigning is less than ever a picnic. Well keep your bowels open and keep as dry as possible. A good motto for the dark days . . .”
Like many others, I expect, I have long been confused why and how the ‘Jesusalem’ verses by William Blake have become stuff of English patriotism, even jingoism. Yeah, I know, Hubert Parry has a lot to answer for. But it becomes even more confusing when one notes that the repeated question marks written in orignial editions are omitted in many reprints. Not my OUP edition, mind, edited by Geoffrey Keynes. It has more question points than Blake’s engraving!
I am sure all of this must have been said before, so this just to get it off my chest. The question marks are essential to the reading. I think of them as rehetorical with the unwritten answer an overwhelming “no!”
Furthering my interpretationis this excerpt from Bible’s book of the Apocalypse, which I came across today. Blake was nothing if not apocalyptic and I suggest these lines from Chapter 21 (or ones similar) might have been an inspiration.
“Vision of the New Jerusalem
And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”
Rethought and redescribed for our heterodox age, we are a long way from Jerusalem.
Published January 23, 2018 by Heloise Wood
Poet Rebecca Watts has criticised the new wave of high-selling female poets such as Rupi Kaur, Hollie McNish and Kate Tempest in a literary magazine, saying “we must stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry”.
In a piece entitled ‘The Cult of the Noble Amateur’, currently the most popular article on the PNR’s website, Watts has compared the poets to US president Donald Trump by arguing “ability to draw a crowd, attract an audience or assemble a mob does not itself render a thing intrinsically good”. She also claims that social media has dumbed down poetry and that the “honesty” and “accessibility” of these writers compromise the “aspiration to do anything well”.
McNish has claimed the article is an “extremely one-sided piece” in a response on her blog.
The poets under attack have made around £2.4m from their work according to Nielsen BookScan. McNish has sold 20,715 copies of her poetry amassing £196,327 while Kaur has shifted 183,044 books making £1.6m. Tempest has sold 67,465 titles including her debut novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses (Bloomsbury) accruing £626,627.
“Why is the poetry world pretending that poetry is not an art form?,” Watts wrote in the January/ February issue of PNR. “I refer to the rise of a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ – buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterises their work.”
The Cambridge-based poet asks “what good is a flourishing poetry market, if what we read in poetry books renders us more confused, less appreciative of nuance, less able to engage with ideas, more indignant about the things that annoy us, and more resentful of others who appear to be different from us?”
Watts compared Kaur, McNish and Tempest to Trump and argued that “like the new president, the new poets are products of a cult of personality, which demands from its heroes only that they be ‘honest’ and ‘accessible’, where honesty is defined as the constant expression of what one feels”. She wrote that this “accessibility means the complete rejection of complexity, subtlety, eloquence and the aspiration to do anything well”.
The Carcanet Press-published writer laments how the popularity of social media has led to a “dumbing down” of poetry. “Of all the literary forms, we might have predicted that poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché,” she wrote. “Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.”
She is also concerned that “the middle-aged, middle-class reviewing sector is terrified of being seen to disparage the output of young, self-styled ‘working-class’ artists” but that “to foster the kind of intelligent critical culture required to combat the effects of populism in politics, we must stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry”.
McNish, whose collections are published by Picador, has responded with a blog post, tweeted to her 22,000 followers, in which she wrote “I normally don’t reply to these sorts of articles, because I am happy to have my writing critiqued in any way” but went on to say that the literary nature of the magazine and the assumptions made in the article had encouraged her to respond.
She said that “when something like this is printed in a very prestigious literary magazine which goes further than any writing critique to make assumptions about my (lack of) education, my love (or not) of language and my personality, as well as patronising and insulting a whole swarm of other writers who I love and admire and who I know love poetry as much as anyone, I feel it’s nice to be able to reply”.
She revealed how she felt “like this is an extremely one-sided piece and if it’s going to be used to prove how shite and attention-seeking I am, I’d like a space to stand up for myself”.
According to the Guardian, the PN Review article has “split the poetry establishment” with editor Michael Schmidt sharing various positive responses.
Poet Don Paterson, who publishes McNish and Tempest at Picador, told the Guardian: “If you’ve ever seen Hollie perform, the suggestion that she doesn’t know exactly what she’s doing is pretty funny. You don’t have to like what people do, but I think you measure it against its own ambitions. Otherwise it’s like saying TS Eliot was a terrible hip-hop artist. True, but so what.”
Watts, who was reportedly prompted to write the piece after being asked to review McNish’s Plum (Picador), told the newspaper that she only intended to use the book “as a case study in order to examine the intricacies of a wider cultural phenomenon”.
Writer and Host of “Poetry Unplugged” at Covent Garden’s Poetry Café, Niall O’Sullivan, tweeted that he did not believe Watts’ “hatchet job” was due to bitterness or jealousy but that the problem is “more about the values of the academic mainstream, how they are passed on through workshops, prizes and certain codes of conduct that must be observed in order to progress”.
He wrote: “When a group of young women go on to individually outsell entire shortlists, this suddenly renders the values of the workshop culture as inconsequential within the wider world.”
Spoken word artist Melanie Branton responded to the “somewhat inflammatory article” in a blog titled ‘Accessibility vs Elitism’. She said: “Don’t read it if you’re a spoken word artist – it will make you very cross, especially if you’re an admirer of Hollie McNish, whom Watts repeatedly misrepresents, in an oddly personal attack.”
Branton believes that Watts “does make some valid points” but that she “repeatedly makes prescriptive assertions of what poetry ‘is’ or ought to be, ignoring the fact that, even within the ‘establishment’ there are competing schools of poetics”.
Picador, which publishes McNish and Tempest, and Simon & Schuster UK, which publishes Kaur, has been contacted for a response.
Knuckles here and self are only @edfests briefly this year but our top picks are #onelifestand @middlechild @summerhall; #lukewright @freefringe @bar bados; and #thereluctantfundamentalist @NYT @summerhall.
*The Bliss of Solitude by Andrew Wright and William Wordsworth will be sung on 14 November 2017 at 7.30pm at St William of York parish church, Brockley Park SE23 1PS. Free.
William Wordsworth and Andrew Wright:
a reflection on the sublime, on solitude and sky
by Robert Cole.
William Wordsworth was born Cockermouth, Cumbria, on 7 April 1770 and died 80 years later on St George’s Day 23 April. It was the same day of the year as William Shakespeare and – according to Isaac Newton – Jesus Christ.
Wordsworth was educated at Hawkshead Grammar School and St John’s College Cambridge. Disliking academic discipline, he left for a Grand Tour of Europe. He became fascinated by the French Revolution and helped create the Romantic movement in English poetry with Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron and the rest.
The Wordsworth verses set to music here by Andrew Wright were written between 1798 and 1805 – when Wordsworth was aged 28 to 35. The title of Andrew’s six song choral piece is The Bliss of Solitude.
Andrew Wright, the composer and tonight’s conductor, has worked in church music for nearly forty years. He attended Oxford University and in 1979 became Assistant Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral under Stephen Cleobury. In 1982 Andrew was appointed Cathedral Director of Music in Brentwood and Director of Liturgical Music for the Diocese.
For what my pretty much uneducated view is worth, Andrew’s compositions are right up there with the best of John Rutter and John Tavener. Andrew’s Requiem of Peace has been performed all over the world from Los Angeles to here in Forest Hill. The Gloria is part of tonight’s programme. Click here – for Youtube clips.
The lyrics chosen for Bliss of Solitude are the first non-liturgical words upon which Andrew has exercised his prodigious composing talent. That’s apt not least because Wordsworth gets God in a way that is of course not always the case with poets of his age – and subsequent ages. Percy Shelley, for instance, advertised his atheism is some aggression – not that that harmed the quality of his poetry.
We credit Julia Bentham for introducing us to Andrew, for her own musicality and for the tirelessness with which she has made tonight happen. For the generosity of the choir, Fathers Tom and Gregory, and to our Parish family.
So, to business. For many, perhaps most, Wordsworth is the epitome of the Romantic period that did so much to change English Literature in the generation or two that lived around the turn of the 18/19th century.
The notion of the sublime is emblematic reference point for the Romantic poets. What is sublime? It is described in the excellent Oxford Companion to English Literature, edited by Margaret Drabble as an idea “associated with religious awe, vastness, natural magnificence and strong emotion.”
The sublime runs through Wordsworth, and the lines that you are about to hear. It rolls through To a Butterfly, Song, Daffodils, To A Skylark and both extracts you’ll hear from Wordsworth’s Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey . . . this is the first . . . titled in this sequence as Nature
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
It would be foolish to assume Wordsworth was beyond reproach: William Empson, in his book Seven Types of Ambiguity, takes aim at what he describes as the grammatical, contextual and thematic “muddle” in the passage I have just read. Empson, I fear, only damns the Lakeland poet with faint praise when he writes: “I must protest again that I enjoy the lines very much, and find, like everybody else, that I remember them.”
Whatever. In To a Butterfly we see “natural magnificence of the sublime” expressed in concentration and detail.
I’ve watched you now a full half-hour;
Self-poised upon that yellow flower
And, little Butterfly! Indeed
I know not if you sleep or feed.
In Song, we experience a “religious awe”. The Dove mentioned references one of the potent Christian symbols . . . but it seems Wordsworth also refers to the River Dove which rises in on Axe Edge Moor in the Peak District flows into the Trent at Newton Solney in the south of Derbyshire. Dove Cottage, meanwhile was something of a Romanticist HQ – it is where Wordsworth and his diarist sister Dorothy, and Samuel Coleridge, hung out.
The “Lucy” character, meanwhile, features in five of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads including this one. It is not known if the character was, or was based on, an actual person. Literary scholar Karl Kroeber (1926–2009) argues that Lucy “possesses a double existence; her actual, historical existence and her idealised existence in the poet’s mind.” Is it too far-fetched to see Lucy as a Christ figure? The Carpenter’s son is an historical and supernatural figure. . .While on the “religious awe” part of the Romantic sublime it is worth noting that the feast of St Lucy – 13 December – was the Winter Solstice before calendar changes. And Lucy – a name which means light – could be linked with the Light that Baby Jesus brought into the world. Maybe.
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
So to solitude. Wordsworth lost his mother aged 8 and his father aged 13. (Keats’ father died when he was 8 and he was only 14 went his mother fell victim to tuberculosis. Coleridge and Byron had similar misfortune.) This ‘orphanage’ aspect of Romanticism makes one wonder about the thematic appearance of solitude in works of Wordsworth. It is reflected in Andrew’s choice of title for the cycle you are about to hear too: “The Bliss of Solitude”. It is a Bliss of Solitude that, perhaps, we enjoy in prayer or meditation.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
And sky? It features in the lyric I have just read in the clouds wot lonely Wordsworth is wandering with. The last piece in tonight’s six-Song cycle will be sung by Art Wangcharoensab, is called To A Skylark.
Shelley wrote a probably more famous poem of the same name which makes it tempting to see the enigmatic song bird as another of emblem of Romanticism. I cannot find the source of the following quote but it sums the Romantic significance of Skylark rather nicely: “The Skylark symbolises high imagination, eternal happiness and harbinger of peace and progress. It is a spirit. Though it is unseen, yet it pours forth profuse sweetness. It stands for idealism and newly built society – free from corruption, exploitation and economic slavery.”
But hmmn. ‘Freedom from exploitation and economic slavery’? The Marxist literary critic Christopher Caudwell observes that it was the industrial revolution – a clear manifestation of exploitation and economic slavery – that gave Wordsworth the wherewithal to live as he did. Caudwell writes of Wordsworth that the industrial revolution: “made it possible for sufficient surplus produce to exist to maintain a poet in austere idleness in Cumberland.”
Might we accept that for all the beauty of Wordsworth’s nature notes, he was product of “corruption, exploitation and economic slavery”? Was Wordsworth “Singing, Singing” with his head in the clouds? In a detached fantasy of sublime solitude and sky?
In To A Sky-Lark –
Up with me! up with me into the clouds!
For thy song, Lark, is strong;
Up with me, up with me into the clouds!
With clouds and sky about thee ringing…
Maybe. It is more attractive, and more appropriate to tonight, to remember FR Leavis’s take on Wordsworth. The Eng Lit critic who did so much to elevate the reputations of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ezra Pound and TS Eliot described Wordsworth’s work as “emotion recollected in tranquillity”.
Courtesy of Andrew Wright, Julia Bentham and the choir of St William of York Catholic Church, we can focus, as Wordsworth himself wrote: on “The beauty coming and the beauty gone.” And the “emotion recollected in tranquillity.”
* The Bliss of Solitude will be rendered on 14 November at 7.30pm at St William of York parish church, Brockley Park SE23 1PS. Free entry.
“Three days after my childhood home was sold I am in Scotland, in a Mornigside flat, recalling a Swansea house as old as this brushed sandstone place is new. I cajole significance into the misty-eyed coincidence that just after the Merrow house was sold I find a Morningside welcome in the cool and confident Scottish Woodcroft allied (by me) to a Welsh Woodcroft of old.” – from ‘Two Woodcrofts’, in London Poems (WetZebra2016) by Robert Cole.
Maurice singing Garden Verses. quoteoftheday @edfringe @thespaceuk @drwho @manandboy2017 @robertcolepoet