In his 1936 anthology The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, W.B.Yeats represented Oscar Wilde by this long poem but he cut 71 out of the 109 stanzas, in order to display, as he put it, the poem's underlying "stark realism akin to that of Thomas Hardy."
Yeats's ruthless truncation cuts out Wilde's personifications of the tortured consciences of his fellow inmates, as well as the Christian bedrock, which is the cohering element of the poem.
Seamus Heaney makes much of Yeats's version in his book The Redress of Poetry (Faber, 1995). He doesn't like the tortured consciences either, preferring "the erotic intimacy which pervades the writing every time the condemned man appears." He also denies any Christian resolution, arguing that the invocations to Christ "bestow no final liberation upon either the speaker or the condemned man ... The ties that bind them, erotic and conspiratorial, survive the execution and will not admit of being loosened."
If Yeats is brutal and Heaney subtle in approach, both rewrite the poem to suit their ideas of literary correctness. The true tone of the poem, I believe, is the shock-horror of realising what it is like to be hanged for killing the person you loved.
Convict C.3.3 (Oscar Wilde) and the other prisoners "watched with gaze of dull amaze/The man who had to swing." This is not the tone of the erotic and the conspiratorial, is it?
The tone is matter-of-factual, in the best ballad tradition, but it doesn't end up as "stark realism". The psychological portrayal ushers in, instead, the world of conscience. Like Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', James Thomson's 'The City of Dreadful Night', and Francis Thompson's 'The Hound of Heaven', this includes the spirit world.
The poem shows the full range of Wilde's mind at work in earnest, giving us a profound Christian meditation on redemption from murder. It expresses that most Pauline of Christian values, the strength which comes through weakness, as in Christ's shamanic remark to Paul: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9). This, surely, is the message of the poem.
[Taken from the editor's interview with Sean Street in a BBC Radio 3 studio 17th November 2000.]
Doctor Robert Fraser, Senior Research Fellow in the Literature Department of the Open University, brings us a welcome, broadbrush look at the Matter of Europe, from the point of view of any practitioner wishing to confront its kaleidoscopic and contradictory content. Neil Curry's 'Fourteen Steps Along The Edge' is all the more remarkable for showing us how a religious poem may be written by someone who does not share that religion. The inscrutable Bob Cobbing invites us to make an entrance into his mysterious world, which can be no more challenging, to those seriously interested in the long poem, than the difficulty of imagining the source of Blake's prophetic book 'Jerusalem', or of understanding Coleridge's idea about a poem whose object is truth rather than pleasure. Coleridge's point may be best inferred from the prophetic books Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel, which are either written as poetry or as long poems or may be taken as them.
Because of his appointment as Poet-in-Residence for Torbay, sponsored by South West Arts, The English Riviera Tourist Board and the Millennium Year of the Artist scheme, William Oxley handed over this particular issue to his fellow editor Sebastian Barker.
There have been various hints in these columns that poems and especially long poems belong not so much to literature as to the performing arts, music, dance, etc. Poetry preceded literature. The invention of writing and, later, of printing led to poetry's becoming one-dimensional, for the page and not for the rounded richer world of performance.
For the American Indians, for example, the poem incorporated words and non-word vocal sounds, drums and dancing, and stemmed from graphic notation on a birch-bark 'score'.
There has always been such poetry. But, since printing was invented we have been deprived. Poetry has dwindled to the page alone. However, be joyful, it's all begun to happen again. Maybe it was an Englishman who started it. Lewis Carroll with his emphasis on sound and word-invention in 'Jabberwocky', and on visual appearance in 'The Mouse's Tale'. Then there was Apollinaire whose 'Il Pleut' makes raindrops on the page, and Jack Kerouac who in 'Old Angel Midnight' writes BeBop in words.
Concrete poetry was concerned with cutting away the flabbiness of much linear poetry. It has led to a visual poetry which is all embracing. It involves words and non-words, graphic notation (akin to abstract art), not ranged in lines but dancing animatedly throughout the page. And, in performance, poetry is once again, as Schklovsky has said, 'a ballet of the speech organs', near to music but using articulated speech in all its intensities, pitches and textures, and maybe utilising musical instruments, often played unconventionally, and expressive dance.
It has led to many long poems. John Furnival's 'Tours de Babel Changées en Ponts' consists of painted words on boards up to seven feet high, the first epic concrete poem, according to dom silvester hourédard. Steve McCaffery's Carnival, 'typewriter functioning as an instrument of composition', is a book of perforated paper which must be torn out and assembled in sequence to form the full typographic environment; or my own ABC in Sound, broadcast by the BBC with electronic treatment of the voice.
How long is a poem? As long as it takes to perform it. This may vary tremendously. The printed version of my Hymn to the Sacred Mushroom, a permutation of words for the mushroom in various languages, ends with the word 'etc.', meaning the performance can continue as long as those taking part wish to, five minutes, one hour, more. At some point there ceases to be an audience, all become performers.
A recent collaboration between myself and Lawrence Upton has extended to 300 pamphlets, each consisting of a theme by one poet and six variations by the other, one of these variations becoming a theme for subsequent varying.
This long poem, Domestic Ambient Noise (though mostly each pamphlet has a separate title) incorporates words, non-words, letters, invented letters, graphic marks, recognisable images, distorted images, cartoons, computer art, as well as occasional semantic texts, with their own variations, obliteration and over-printings.
Essentially, this whole sequence is a performance piece. Indeed, parts of all 300 pamphlets have been performed and various sections broadcast. Performers are the Domestic Ambient Buoys, the two authors on voice and percussion, often joined by dancer, Jennifer Pike. A full performance is planned, seven sessions lasting 27 hours.
'Poets are supposed to liberate words - not to chain them in phrases,' writes Brion Gysin. 'Who told poets they were supposed to think? Poets are meant to sing and to make words sing?'
Or, as my 60's and 70's manifestos have it. Poetry has gone beyond the word, beyond the letter. Visual poetry can be heard, smelt, has colours, vibrations. Sound poetry dances, tastes, has shape.
Gone is the word as word, though the word may still be used as sound or shape. Poetry now resides in other elements.
You do it with the whole of you, muscular movement, voice, lungs, limbs. Poetry is a physical thing. The body is liberated. Bodies join in song and movement. A ritual ensues.
'Not that fair field Of Enna, where Proserpin gath'ring flow'rs Herself a fairer Flow'r by gloomy Dis Was gather'd, which cost Ceres all that pain To seek her through the world; nor that sweet Grove Of Daphne by Orontes, and th'inspir'd Castalian Spring might with this Paradise Of Eden strive...'
In the twentieth century, these lines featured in a famous altercation between the poet T.S.Eliot and the critic F.R.Leavis over the merits of Milton, whose supposed prettiness had been much blamed for the stilted quality of much English verse in the century after him. The stylistic debate obscured the subject matter, which concerns loss, displacement and longing. A set of comparisons is established between one system of reference and another: what academics call a "typology". The analagous systems are biblical and classical: Eve is the equivalent of Proserpine or Persephone, and Satan of Dis or Pluto. Who then stands for the heart-broken Ceres or Demeter? I shall come to this point. Meanwhile I offer a conjecture concerning Milton's mind, and the culture it inhabited. The object of regret in this passage is, I believe, neither Eve nor Preoserpine, Satan or Dis, human beings or gods. It is the field of comparison itself.
In the Middle Ages classical analogy was a way by which the Catholic Church rooted itself in the Graeco-Roman world. The habit of mind went back to the fourth century A.D. after the re-imposition of Christianity following the apostate regime of the Emperor Julian. It represented a kind of Counter-Paganism, a means of heading off the surviving ancient cults by integrating them into the renovated faith. After the collapse of the empire in the West, the policy gained ground as a way of bolstering the papacy as a substitute imperium. The Pope bacame an updated, christianised Flamen Dialis. The Virgin Mary, Mother of God, was enshrined as a new Isis. Christ was a second Adonis, slain and resurrected for the world's salvation. Later, the colonnade of reference supported the political and cultural vaulting of Christendom, while its allusions enriched its poetry. The permeation was anathema to the Protestant reformers, who with limited exceptions made to expunge it. As a young scholar-poet, a pious Puritan deeply versed in the classics, Milton had attempted to cleanse the Doctrine of the Incarnation from any such contagion. In his "Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity", composed in 1629, he banishes the Roman Gods, a rejection resembling that in his epic masterpiece, written three decades later as retired Latin Secretary: 'In consecrated Earth,/ And on the holy Hearth,/ The Lars, and Lemures with midnight plaint;/ In Urns and Altars round,/ A drear and dying sound/ Affrights the Flamens at their service quaint;/ And the chill Marble seems to sweat,/ While each peculiar power forgoes his wonted seat.'
The tone of this Hymn seems torn between celebration and regret. The expulsion of the classical tutelary spirits of Catholic Christendom is a necessary cleansing, but its consequences for a poetic mind nourished by these very sources is "drear". What we seem to observe at such moments is a classically learned poet - one immersed in the traditional literary culture of Europe - tearing at the roots of his own inspiration. In the lines that I quoted earlier from Paradise Lost, it is Milton as much as Ceres who is mourning.
The division in the sensibility of Protestantism manifest here has been a recurrent - even a chronic - aspect of English life. A fresh bout occurred in a mid-Victorian Britain that was experiencing both a revival of classical - especially Greek - learning and the effects of the Oxford Movement. It was in 1851, one year after the reestablishment of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England, that John Ruskin began publishing his extended study The Stones of Venice. The book is a portrait of a city, and at the same time a diatribe against cultural decline. Ruskin's twin bêtes noirs were the Counter-Reformation, and its painterly and architectural concomitant, the Baroque. Strictly, the work is not so much anti-Catholic as anti-Tridentine and - in a literal sense - Pre-Raphaelite. It is the art of the High Renaissance that Ruskin believes to have been the ruin of Italian painting; it had also, he believed, destroyed the integrity of the Venetian Republic. The besetting characteristic of Counter-Reformation culture is idolatry, a communal prostration before false gods that, Ruskin believed, had been the political and artistic undoing of Venice.
Ruskin regarded this phase of European culture with disapprobation laced with horror. The response had personal origins in a Nonconformism imbibed at his mother's knee. As an adolescent he had spent whole summers travelling with his parents around southern Europe. After a day visiting galleries and Catholic churches, they would return to an atmosphere of Bible reading and energetic prayer. In the eyes of Mrs Ruskin, the Roman church was the Whore of Babylon. Yet, thanks to the education she and her thrifty sherry-importing husband gave their son, Italy bacame his mental home, and Fra Angelico and Giotto his patterns among painters.
In the first volume of Modern Painters, written in his early twenties, Ruskin attempted to resolve this tension by presenting truth, naturalness and simplicity as the handmaids of art. By praising "the truth of colour","the truth of chiaroscuro" and "the truth of clouds", he could yoke aesthetic appreciation to a universal mimesis, hence presenting early Italian art as a Proto-Protestant form of natural reverence. In the later volumes, this balancing act comes unstuck. Here he is in Volume III inveighing against the "false ideal" of "the profane":
'As long as men sought for truth first and beauty secondarily, they cared chiefly, of course for the first truth, and all art was instinctively religious. But as soon as they sought for beauty first, and truth secondarily, they were punished by losing sight of spiritual truth altogether, and the profane (properly so called) schools of art were developed. Little thinking this, they gave themselves fearlessly to the chase of the new delight, and exhausted themselves in the pursuit of an ideal now doubly false. Formerly, though they attempted to reach an unnatural beauty, it was yet in representing historical facts and real persons; now they sought for the same unnatural beauty in representing tales they knew to be fictitious, and personages who, they knew, had never existed. Such a state of things had never before been found in any nation.'
The last sentence is a violation of history, and the entire passage an implied attack on the foundations of art and fiction. By such methods did Ruskin, the Puritan aesthete, reconcile his Protestant revulsion against artifice with his private longing for a visual ideal. Turning his back on the "profane" - on Athens and Rome as much as on Bellini and Tintoretto - he entered with suspect rejoicing into the camp of the Philistines.
The violence that Ruskin wrought on his own temperament led, first to arid dogmatism, finally into madness. In Milton's case, his renunciation of his imaginative birthright effected a dissociation of the sensibility combined with an incurable sense of loss. Both writers had been taught to regard the Graeco-Roman legacy of Christendom as a malign tumour growing within the Matter of Europe. Paradoxically, their attempt to perform a surgical operation led, in one instance to a supreme poem and, in the other, to some of the most alert art criticism ever written. Both men found it in themselves to compensate for their dismantling of the traditional grand design by the erection of large-scale, architectonic works in poetry or prose. Both were attracted to the myth of Eden, which each saw as a place too innocent for disputation, too wholesome for mere doctrine. At the close of Milton's epic, Adam and Eve stand at the gates of Paradise, looking back. With them pauses Milton, missing his kin, free - like Ceres - "to seek her through the world."
It was a reading that coincided with so many griefs of my own: four deaths - one of them rather unpleasant - of people close to me, added to which it was a very cold winter. I do not often write directly in the first person, but this time I wanted to and the way these Stations moved so inexorably towards death looked to be offering me the chance, together with something to hold onto.
I had been given a new notebook for Christmas and I began writing the fourteen Stations down the front page like an index, then on each following right-hand page the number again and the event it represented - curiously formal.
During the next weeks I would open it up and note down whatever these events called to mind. For instance, the story of St Veronica wiping Christ's face with her handkerchief reminded me of the tests being made on the Turin Shroud, but also of the look of consummate peace on the face of a friend's dead father.
I'd been reading about the torture and execution of Edmund Campion, newspaper reports of massacres in the Balkans and in Africa, of earthquakes and shipwrecks. It was a bad winter. Words flooded over the pages until there was hardly any more room and it was time to give them shape.
To some extent the poem was bound to fall into fourteen separate parts. I had thought at one time of a sonnet sequence, but the sonnet was too tidy for what had been happening. Atropos had kept on cutting someone's thread, so I deliberately cut the verse form short: units of twelve lines, but cut again into two sixes to give some feeling of balance, or correspondence between present and past. Until I looked at the poem again, I hadn't realised how wide an historical range it covers.
I also thought I'd begun at the beginning, but perhaps it was simply that I like to think I am systematic. The notebook shows I was anything but. I bagan, as I ended, with the funeral of the man who made the ship in the bottle which gave me the title of my first collection of poems.
I remember writing the twelve final lines. I was recalling his funeral: it was January and we'd huddled and shivered in a cold blustering rain. I wished we could have done something grandiose for him. I was working aloud, as I sometimes do, and listening to Monteverdi's Vespers at the same time. The room was full of noises.
I heard these lines from the Song of Solomon iam hiems transiit, imber abiit et recessit, flores apparuerunt in terra nostra. For see, winter is passed, the rains are over and gone; flowers appear on the earth.
Easter was in sight. It all came together and I had the final lines I needed.
Mindful of the ships in bottles he had made-
cold rain spattering into his grave-
I smashed one to pieces on a tombstone,
set fire to the bowsprit and the rigging,
and with himself lying in state on the quarterdeck
sent it sailing proudly away down the runnels...
Just once to have countered dust and ashes
with: And thus they buried Hector, tamer of horses;
or: Winter has passed, et flores
apparuerunt in terra nostra - by some such
attestation of worth at least
to make peace with the certitude of loss.
Tour de Babel Changées en Ponts, John Furnival (in Archive of
Concrete and Visual Poetry), Miami, 1965.
ABC in Sound, Bob Cobbing, Writers Forum, 1965.
Carnival, The First Panel, Steve McCaffery, Coach House Press, 1970.
Domestic Ambient Noise, Bob Cobbing and Lawrence Upton, Writers Forum, 1994-2000.
Blues for Bird, Martin Gray, Privately Published (Canada), 1999-2000.
Gascoigne's Egg, John Greening, Cargo Press, 2000.
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