Centenary

Dartford 11nov18

Silence falls on the sunlit square of turf
outside Dartford’s library. A soldier
with a rifle, all plinth and age-stained bronze,
looks down. Poppy people stand with closed-eye stares.
November colours shuffle in the trees.

The silence is the thing: the unfilled gap
between. I think of dugout silence,
the fire step, the Woodbines whiled away;
the rat-lice trench-foot days that screwed the minds
with silent screaming shells of wasted fear.

I think of letters written to and from;
the scareful hope of waiting for the post;
the silence in the reading of the words.

I think of silence in the unlived years;
the stories that cannot be forgotten
because they did not happen. I feel cold.

I walk back up the hill to where young George
is playing Sunday morning football. There is
no silence here. Teams of boyish men
criss-cross open fields, fighting foot-to-foot,
attacking and defending, launching volleys,
and firing shots on goal. Then, as a cloud
bursts, an arch of rain-refracted light
crowns the shouts of peace and freedom.

péage

No prayers nor bells: we shoot in scuttling shells
up and down the line. We go and return,
passing Arras, Béthune and Neuve Chapelle,
the Bois de Noulette, Messines and the Marne.

From Calais, past Flesquieres and Verdun,
with only the Alps in mind, we hurtle
through demented days, dusks gilded by sun
and black rain, in skirmishing battles
of the road. Through grey-day pallor we see
the brown, wide-open acres where they fought;
and sense the eerie emptiness reploughed.

At night, headlamps flare and brake lights bleed
sudden fear of hasty death into my heart,
spearing the tensioned tedium like a dart
whose aim is true, then redirected, then gone.

All around here they died for us;
now they lie under stones etched and erected
to the left and right, at Mametz and Loos;
at Langemarck, Vendhuile, Cambrai and Lens;
on either side of this paid-for auto-route,
dotting countryside, cresting horizons.

Between Le Touret and Richebourg L’Avoue,
on land once used by field ambulances,
thirteen thousand men of no known resting
place are remembered. It’s ground holding
my great uncle Jack, too. There, inside a fence,
under mown lawns, lies John Wesley Davies,
31, of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

Further on, teams of gleaming windmills now stand
where once cold trenches were dug. In place of mud
and bloody hell, turbines mourn in silence:
generating clean warmth, dry light, hot food.
These are monuments also: testaments
to doomed youth on euro no man’s land.

In volleys to and fro, we, the fragments
of dead men’s shattered futures, pass fast and
glide, stuttering only at péage
queues. In our comfortable distress, our health
and holidays, our years, we have the breath
they did not have. In our petty rages
we drown the fading echoes of their cries,
their tender patience, their lingering goodbyes.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

20070825_rozwed2_1138

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold—
that is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.
And as imagination bodies forth
the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
a local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
that if it would but apprehend some joy,
it comprehends some bringer of that joy.

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Act Five Scene One. 

Peak Green

peak green

Peak Green

I see Young George in the kitchen window.
He’s playing keepie-uppie on the grass:
kicking and flicking and watching in stoccatoes
of concentration. He’s changed since last
time I saw him. Before, he was scoring
self-commentated goals and finessing
his celebration routine. Now, he’s grown
across the shoulders, in calf, chest and crown.

In June, the youthful year, warmed by soft rain
and dowsed in sunlight, comes of summer age.
The earth has nursed pale primroses, impish
bluebells and bright bloodwort; now come
dog rose pinks and bold shades of fern and sage:
confident adult greens that banish
winter browns and show no fear of autumn.

for Sarah C and John K, with many happy returns of the day

Lifejoy

Lifejoy

Surprisingly, I hear wind in the eaves,
smell freshly cut grass, and feel morning rain
dropping on the paving slabs. Quietly,
I take small pleasures: sparkling puddle nights;
friendliness; remembered anniversaries;
and white flowers sprayed on late May hedges.

Normally, I’m full of anxieties –
or if not full, full enough. Routinely,
now, the London days are easy and free,
non-threatening, reassuring and calm;
and the trains, the petrol, the rope and heights
are covered by a rising tide of balm.
The waters will, of course, fall back again.
For now? I’ll savour lifejoy’s summonses.

Dungeness, May 2018

Shrunk

Flyer4

Edwina is my rinkydink. She and I
walk a fine line: hours at a time.
She talks, listens, and watches me cry
hours at a time. Hours at a time.

We’ve discussed my ingrowing multi-layered
sadnesses, the malfunctioning neurones,
the crosses and noughts, the things I fear,
the petrol, the rope, the heights, and the trains.

The scrappy form paper I’m about to sign
records my treatment plan. It précises
cataract wisdoms shapelessly aligned
to the vapid news feed of my insane days.

It shrinks the agonisingly tangled
months of unrelenting mental pain
into three sloping lines of banal,
barely legible, longhand chlorophane.

“What is this for?” I asked. “It’s just paperwork”,
Edwina said blasé. “Yes, but what is it for?”
I raised my gaze. She gave me a blatant look.
“It’s for”, she said, “the Coroner.”

#mentalhealthawarenessweek
#endthestigma

 

Devotional

The morning fog lay heavy on the hill above my house;
the frost sat in the grasses, on the benches, and in the trees.

I noticed chestnut buds, firmly formed, shapely but not sticky;
crispy orange shopping bags caught in twisted bramble thorns;
and the muffling of ordinary noises of the day.

The sun was there, invisible, above the circle of stones:
I sniffed the cold, looked round again, and wandered off back home.

 

Devotional

For Jo and Peter Fraser
London, January 2018

Annabelle Emma

Annabelle Emma

FFCAB37E-FD49-4BF0-BDC2-50C89B75907A

Annabelle, may I have a word?
I am your mother’s godfather,
your Granny’s brother. Your sister
knows me as ‘GUR’. I have a thing
about writing and these embroidered
lines are for your Christening.

As you grow, you’ll observe the life
that is your home. Sounds will surround
you; as will subtle and profound
feelings, fragrances and flavours,
cooling waters and warm delights.
You will learn to be a walker

then a talker; you will begin
to assert yourself, to believe,
to dream, to think and to perceive
difference. In pictures, at first,
you’ll learn to read; your scribbling
will take letter shapes; you’ll be versed

in words, phrases and sentences;
sums, science and geography,
history, French and philosophy.
Each thing you learn will add to you:
giving you strength in common sense
and understanding of value.

Friends will come and go. Some will pass
like the night, others will endure
throughout your days. As you mature
you’ll find some bright, some saturnine.
The best you’ll do is find a path
of gentleness and fold your time

in easy company. You’ll make
mistakes, feel anger, fear and hate;
but don’t let bad stuff dominate.
Balance wrath with patience; cleave
pride with modesty; put brakes
on envy, greed, excess; and leave

your lazy head behind in bed.
Wear your hair pink, if you so wish,
but not beyond age twenty-six;
pierce your ears, perhaps twice,
but not your lip, nose or forehead.
Tattoos, meanwhile, are hard to like.

Annabelle, please enjoy yourself.
Please yourself and please those who share
your life. Give of yourself and wear
your mindful, soulful heart above
the nuts and bolts of health and wealth,
and what will survive of you? Love.

robertspcole@gmail.com
@robertspcole
07974 357 237

Note for the curious: search ‘London Poems’ and ‘Wet Zebra’ or go to amazon, or http://www.robertspcole.com

 *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.

 

roswed1_20070828_1917

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.

‘Song’

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!
Singing, singing,
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.

 

péage

peage

No prayers nor bells: we shoot in scuttling shells
up and down the line. We go and return,
passing Arras, Béthune and Neuve Chapelle,
the Bois de Noulette, Messines and the Marne.

From Calais, past Flesquieres and Verdun,
with only the Alps in mind, we hurtle
through demented days, dusks gilded by sun
and black rain, in skirmishing battles
of the road. Through grey-day pallor we see
the brown, wide-open acres where they fought;
and sense the eerie emptiness reploughed.

At night, headlamps flare and brake lights bleed
sudden fear of hasty death into my heart,
spearing the tensioned tedium like a dart
whose aim is true, then redirected, then gone.

All around here they died for us;
now they lie under stones etched and erected
to the left and right, at Mametz and Loos;
at Langemarck, Vendhuile, Cambrai and Lens;
on either side of this paid-for auto-route,
dotting countryside, cresting horizons.

Between Le Touret and Richebourg L’Avoue,
on land once used by field ambulances,
thirteen thousand men of no known resting
place are remembered. It’s ground holding
my great uncle Jack, too. There, inside a fence,
under mown lawns, lies John Wesley Davies,
31, of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

Further on, teams of gleaming windmills now stand
where once cold trenches were dug. In place of mud
and bloody hell, turbines mourn in silence:
generating clean warmth, dry light, hot food.
These are monuments also: testaments
to doomed youth on euro no man’s land.

In volleys to and fro, we, the fragments
of dead men’s shattered futures, pass fast and
glide, stuttering only at péage
queues. In our comfortable distress, our health
and holidays, our years, we have the breath
they did not have. In our petty rages
we drown the fading echoes of their cries,
their tender patience, their lingering goodbyes.

peage