Archive for the Literature Category

I Grant You Ample Leave

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on September 28, 2017 by telescoper

“I grant you ample leave
To use the hoary formula ‘I am’
Naming the emptiness where thought is not;
But fill the void with definition, ‘I’
Will be no more a datum than the words
You link false inference with, the ‘Since’ & ‘so’
That, true or not, make up the atom-whirl.
Resolve your ‘Ego’, it is all one web
With vibrant ether clotted into worlds:
Your subject, self, or self-assertive ‘I’
Turns nought but object, melts to molecules,
Is stripped from naked Being with the rest
Of those rag-garments named the Universe.
Or if, in strife to keep your ‘Ego’ strong
You make it weaver of the etherial light,
Space, motion, solids & the dream of Time–
Why, still ’tis Being looking from the dark,
The core, the centre of your consciousness,
That notes your bubble-world: sense, pleasure, pain,
What are they but a shifting otherness,
Phantasmal flux of moments?–“

by George Eliot (1819-1880)



Song of Creation

Posted in Poetry with tags , on September 20, 2017 by telescoper

Then there was neither Aught nor Nought, no air nor sky beyond.
What covered all? Where rested all? In watery gulf profound?
Nor death was then, nor deathlessness, nor change of night and day.
That One breathed calmly, self-sustained; nought else beyond it lay.

Gloom hid in gloom existed first – one sea, eluding view.
That One, a void in chaos wrapt, by inward fervour grew.
Within it first arose desire, the primal germ of mind,
Which nothing with existence links, as sages searching find.

The kindling ray that shot across the dark and drear abyss-
Was it beneath? or high aloft? What bard can answer this?
There fecundating powers were found, and mighty forces strove-
A self-supporting mass beneath, and energy above.

Who knows, who ever told, from whence this vast creation rose?
No gods had then been born – who then can e’er the truth disclose?
Whence sprang this world, and whether framed by hand divine or no-
Its lord in heaven alone can tell, if even he can show.

Translated by John Muir from the original (anonymous) Sanskrit text of a hymn.

Nothing, by Basil Bunting

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on September 4, 2017 by telescoper

I spent this weekend catching up with some old friends in London, and making the most of the opportunity to behave as a tourist. Most of my visits to the Capital are on business so it was nice to have the chance to wander around aimlessly. Anyway, when I got to Charing Cross I suddenly remembered I had a half-spent book token in my wallet, so popped into Foyles and bought this hefty tome, which had been on my list since I read about it when it was reviewed in TLS.

Basil Bunting was born in 1900 in the Scotswood area of Newcastle upon Tyne (i.e. not in the Midlands). His life story is fascinating. Imprisoned as a conscientious objector during World War 1, Bunting worked for the intelligence services in Persia during World War 2, after which he remained as the Times Correspondent in Iran. Eventually, after much travelling, he returned to England, winding up as a journalist working for the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. Largely through a very long poem called Briggflats Bunting established a reputation as a very important modernist poet who some felt was a worthy successor to T.S. Eliot, though Eliot did not rate his work particularly highly and Bunting’s main poetic influence was clearly Ezra Pound.

One thing I particularly like about the poems of Basil Bunting is that they sound so great when read out loud. `Compose aloud. Poetry is a sound.’ is a famous quotation of his. Unlike many poets he was utterly compelling when reading his own work ; see here for an excerpt of him reading Briggflats. He has a wonderful voice, and there’s music in the way he speaks.

Briggflats  is too long to reproduce here, so here’s a shorter one called Nothing:

substance utters or time
stills and restrains
joins design and

supple measure deftly
as thought’s intricate polyphonic
score dovetails with the tread
sensuous things
keep in our consciousness.

Celebrate man’s craft
and the word spoken in shapeless night, the
sharp tool paring away
waste and the forms
cut out of mystery!

When taut string’s note
passes ears’ reach or red rays or violet
fade, strong over unseen
forces the word
ranks and enumerates…

mimes clouds condensed
and hewn hills and bristling forests,
steadfast corn in its season
and the seasons
in their due array,

life of man’s own body
and death…
The sound thins into melody,
discourse narrowing, craft
failing, design
petering out.

Ears heavy to breeze of speech and
thud of the ictus.


by Basil Bunting (1900-85).

Misty, by Ruth Padel

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on August 21, 2017 by telescoper

How I love

The darkwave music
Of a sun’s eclipse
You can’t see for cloud

The saxophonist playing ‘Misty’
In the High Street outside Barclays

Accompanied by mating-calls
Sparked off
In a Jaguar alarm

The way you’re always there
Where I’m thinking

Or several beats ahead.

by Ruth Padel

Grave Thoughts Again

Posted in Biographical, History, Literature with tags , , , , on August 13, 2017 by telescoper

This is my last full day in Copenhagen before flying back tomorrow evening, so I decided to take care of some unfinished business by visiting the famous Assistens Kirkegård  in the Nørrebro district of the city. I went there five years ago (almost to the day) but on that occasion I didn’t find the memorial I was looking for, that of the great Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior.

I was surprised to find at the time that his name was absent from the main index, and still doesn’t appear on the maps displayed at the cemetery. Its location is however now on a guide you can find online so I had little difficulty locating it this time round. In case anyone is interested it is in section F, near the western end of the park. Lauritz Melchior was cremated, and his remains interred in a small family plot:

The small slab to the left marks the burial of Lauritz Melchior:

In fact this memorial is not far from that of another famous Dane I missed last time, pioneering physicist Hans Christian Ørsted:

The Hans Christian Ørsted Institute, part of the University of Copenhagen, is a short walk from the main buildings of the Niels Bpohr Institute. It houses Chemistry and Mathematical Sciences and some physicists of the Niels Bohr Institute.

You might think that a cemetery was a rather morbid choice of place to go for a stroll in the sunshine, but actually it’s not that way at all. It’s actually a rather beautiful place, a very large green space criss-crossed by pleasant tree-lined paths. These are poplars:

We British have a much more reserved attitude to cemeteries than the Danes seem to have, at least judging by  their behaviour in this place; joggers and cyclists pass through Assistens Cemetery at regular intervals, and many people were having picnics or just sitting and reading between the gravestones.  I find this matter-of-fact attitude to the dead rather refreshing, actually.

Part of the attraction of Assistens Kirkegård – the name derives from the fact that it was originally an auxiliary burial place, outside the main city, designed to take some of the pressure off the smaller cemeteries in the inner areas – is the large number of famous people buried there, many of whose graves I found last time. I didn’t however notice the large area devoted to common graves nor did I realise that there was a memorial to French and Belgian soldiers of World War 1. Most of these died in 1919, which puzzled me. It turns out that they had been prisoners of war and many of them were ill or injured and had been sent to Copenhagen to recuperate only to be struck down by the Spanish ‘flu epidemic of 1919.

It’s noticeable that some of the smaller graves are extremely well-tended whereas many of the more opulent memorials are in a state of considerable disrepair. I think there’s a moral in there somewhere. My ambition is to be forgotten as quickly as possible after my death so the idea of anyone erecting some grandiose marble monument on my behalf fills me with horror, but I have to say I do find graveyards are strangely comforting places. Rich and poor, clever and stupid, ugly and beautiful; death comes to us all in the end. At least it’s very democratic.

August, a poem by Viggo Stuckenberg

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on August 1, 2017 by telescoper

Hr. Preben pusler i Skovens Bryn,
fæster Doner, binder Bær, Bær saa rosenrøde,
bryder et Blad og bøjer en Kvist,
at liflig de Bær kunne gløde.

‘Kramsfugl! Kramsfugl! nu er det Tid!
Falder Havren, synger Segl over alle Agre,
bliver ej større en eneste Blomst,
ej Lundene mere fagre!

Gunild! Gunild! nu gulnes goldt
alle Løfter, al Lokken, al Leg fra Skærsommer!
Viger den Haand, som ikke jeg greb,
og aldrig vi sammen kommer!

Thi længst er leden den lyse Vaar,
levnet Nætter i Mulm, levnet flygtende Fugle!
Den, som ved det, maa sidde kvær
og skogre som gammel Ugle!’

Hr. Preben pusler i Skovens Bryn,
fæster Doner, binder Bær, Bær saa lifligt røde:
‘Kramsfugl! Dig sender jeg hende kvalt
og ler stor Elskov til Døde!’

by Viggo Stuckenberg (1863-1905)


They called it Passchendaele

Posted in History, Poetry with tags , , , , on July 31, 2017 by telescoper


One hundred years ago today, on 31st July 1917, the Third Battle of Ypres began. The battle, often called the Battle of Passchendaele, staggered on until November with hundreds of thousands of troops killed. The Allied assault on Ypres was ultimately intended to break through the German lines and capture submarine bases on the Belgian coast. That objective was not reached, and territorial gains were limited to just a few miles at terrible cost in suffering and death.

David Lloyd George, Prime Minster at the time, wrote in his memoirs:

Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign …

Others have argued that the Battle of Passchendaele had the important strategic role of taking pressure of the French army further South, which was so close to breaking point that mutinies were breaking out. Although the casualties on both sides were unsustainable, the German High Command knew that American reinforcements would soon enter the fray, and that if they were to win the War it would have to be with a knockout blow the following year. The German offensive of 1918 made substantial inroads through the Allied lines, even threatening Paris, until it was eventually halted and turned into a full-scale retreat.

Whatever the military outcome of the Battle, there is no question about the scale of the suffering of the troops (many of whom, at this stage of the War, were conscripts). The area in which the action took place was mainly low-lying, with a water table just a couple of feet below the surface. The myriad of small streams ditches, and drainage channels that had been developed over centuries to turn it into farmland, were destroyed by heavy shelling so the soldiers had to contend with heavy mud, often strewn with body parts and deep enough to drown in, as described by Siegfried Sassoon in his poem Memorial Tablet:

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell—
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’ … that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west…
What greater glory could a man desire?

Whenever I read about the terrible events of past wars, the important thing (to me) is not strategy or objectives but the suffering  that had to be endured by ordinary soldiers. It’s important to remember things like Passchendaele to remind ourselves how lucky we are to be living in a time of relative peace. The way the world is heading, however, I worry that may soon be coming to an end. Lest we forget? Far too many people have already forgotten.

P.S. Among those killed in action on the first day of Passchendaele was Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, whom I wrote about here.

P.P.S. The troops shown in the picture above are in fact Australian gunners: the picture was taken in October 1917.