I blame the Romantics—those big-shirted, river-floating bastards with their sobbing over daffodils. As a young man in Australia—beer-swilling, boat-rowing—a love of poetry wasn’t something to advertise. Except to girls. But even the girls thought you a bit soft. And it was all because of the Romantics. I have to confess to sometimes hefting the book across the room when I read Wordsworth on daffodils or Shelley on anything. It’s all so saccharine and twee. And it gives poetry its reputation as something for wispy dilettantes who look searchingly at the horizon, look back to make sure their companion is watching them, then keep brooding, hoping for the tear to squeeze out. Ultimately, they dab the eye with a tab of hot-sauce or Vicks, and then everyone has to go to the emergency room. See what I mean?
I appreciate poetry of a different sort, the poetry of fist-pounders and shouters of songs, grabbers of life. It’s a poetry with a similar focus on the natural world to the Romantics—reveling in pollen-dusted rivers, eyes underneath the hedgerows, furry backs that fix you with a black-eyed stare before loping off—but it’s gutsier. I’m going to write today about three poets—Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, and Robin Robertson, respectively Irish, English, and Scottish—who exemplify what I most enjoy: first, a sense of immediacy, of being there, now, in the poem, smelling the soil and blood and blossom; second, a celebration of nature in all its beauty and cruelty; third, the use of Anglo-Saxon poetic techniques—such as compound words and a rhythm born of alliteration and assonance, not pretty-ended rhymes.
I start with Seamus Heaney because he takes us directly to the Anglo-Saxons in his stunning translation of Beowulf. Beowulf is a narrative epic in Old English about the haunting of King Hrothgar and his Danes by Grendel, a ‘prowler through the dark’. In the extract below, Hrothgar discusses the monsters’ lair with the Geat hero Beowulf, who’s going to try and slaughter the ‘hell-dam’, Grendel’s mother. ‘A few miles from here,’ King Hrothgar says,
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere-bottom
has never been sounded by the sons of men.
On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:
the hart in flight from pursuing hounds
will turn to face them with firm-set horns
and die in the wood rather than dive
beneath its surface.
For me, I’m there. The mere (lake), still and freezing, the deer (heather-stepper / hart) stopping, terrified, when it realizes where it’s strayed, then plunging into the dogs instead of the water. You’ll have to read the poem to see whether Beowulf jumps in… But while we’re at this point, note that none of the line-ends rhyme. It flows, though, doesn’t it? That’s because of the alliteration (use of the same starting letters of words) and assonance (use of similar internal sounds of words): the ‘wood waits and keeps watch’; it hasn’t been ‘sounded by the sons of men’. And the compound words let us gulp the world in shot-glasses: the light-footed deer, ‘heather-stepper’ pausing, smoky-breathed; the ‘frost-stiffened woods’, waiting and watching the silence, the mist rising from the freezing lake.
Heaney’s good at waterways. In his later poem ‘Moyulla’, he writes of the Moyola river:
In those days she flowed
black-lick and quick
under the sallies,
the coldness of her
like the coldness off you –
your cheek and your clothes
and your moves – when you come in
She was in the swim
of herself, the gravel shallows
swarmed, pollen sowings
tarnished her pools.
Again, there are no traditional rhymes, but the compound word ‘black-lick’ and its assonantal pair, ‘quick’, contrast nicely with ‘flow’: she ‘flowed / black-lick and quick’ gives us a sense of the river’s physical movement—eddies at the banks, splashes over rocks, but deep and slow in the middle. When we add in ‘sallies’, there’s a nice restoration back to the longer, juicier sound of ‘flow’—‘flowed / black-lick and quick / under the sallies’. Heaney’s river is feminine—its temperature contrasted with the cold cheek of (perhaps) his lover coming in from the garden. She also revels in her beauty—‘She was in the swim / of herself’—a sensuousness that carries the luxurious fertility of water, the life-giving of a river to its human bank-dwellers.
Ted Hughes—to whose memory Heaney dedicated his Beowulf—is renowned for the way he portrays nature as both beautiful and wild, neither good nor evil. It’s difficult to take excerpts from Hughes because his poetry is so good that you get consumed and distracted and taken away into this poem and that. But I’ve been stern with myself and chosen some pieces largely from his 1976 collection Season Songs. Hughes, I think, is the master of immediacy, and that’s the aspect of his writing I focus on. His style is similar to Heaney’s in its use of Anglo-Saxon poetic techniques and in the way he draws beauty from the simplest things. Take, for example, the last stanza of ‘Sunday Evening’, where the speaker stands in a world on the cusp of spring:
I stand among puddles
Beneath these trees filling and brimming the air,
These staggering bouquets nobody knows how to accept.
There’s a sense here of man overwhelmed by the world around him, by a beauty at once simple and irreducibly complex, too wonderful to process; there’s a message, too, about the need for us to share in his humility.
In ‘March Morning Unlike Others’, spring is in full-swing and Hughes’s poetics owe something to the Impressionists: he dabs with words, and those suggestions, those brushstrokes, give more detail than a chapter in a book:
Blue haze. Bees hanging in air at the hive-mouth.
Crawling in prone stupor of sun
On the hive-lip. Snowdrops. Two buzzards,
Magnetised to the other,
I don’t know about you, but I’m there, on that March morning, looking out at the blue and those birds in the air.
‘March Morning’ gives a lyrical picture of spring, gentle and glowing. ‘Spring Nature Notes’ begins that way, with ‘the whole air struggling in soft excitements / Like a woman hurrying into her silks. Birds everywhere zipping and unzipping’, but later we see Hughes bring out the raw fecundity of nature:
Spring bulges the hills.
The bare trees creak and shift.
Some buds have burst in tatters –
Like firework stubs.
The use of bursting, tatters, fireworks, gives us the bright, glorious, blooming of the season. The violence of a firework—explosive, hot and soaring—carries the power of the buds, busting through the soil and into bloom. And the firework simile encapsulates the fate of these bright flowers—soaring into the sky, a flash of brilliant colour, and then nothing but a trail of smoke against the night, or a stalk left blowing in the wind.
Hughes’s talent for metaphor is particularly well-demonstrated in ‘Deceptions’, another spring poem. Here, like ‘March Morning’, Hughes anthropomorphizes—or makes human—the season:
With the cherry bloom for her fancy dress
Spring is giving a party –
And we have been invited.
We’ve just arrived, all excited,
When she rushes out past us weeping, tattered and dirty –
Wind and rain are wrecking the place
And we can only go home.
Whereas in ‘Spring Nature Notes’ the season is like a lady, ‘hurrying into her silks’ before some distinguished gala, in ‘March Morning’ spring is a teenage girl in a new dress, excited for her party but then disappearing in a flood of tears. The woman of ‘Spring Nature Notes’ gives us the dusk before a wondrous night-time celebration; the teenager and her changing moods brings the capriciousness of English spring—blue-skies glowing and chilling with clouds on the sun. The metaphor carries, too, the sense of a season on the edge of summer via the teenager on the brink of adulthood.
Hughes handles summer with the same skill as spring, and has a facility for describing waterways that reminds me of Heaney’s:
The swallow of summer, cartwheeling through crimson,
Touches the honey-slow river and turning
Returns to the hand stretched from under the eaves –
A boomerang of rejoicing shadow.
You can nearly taste the Anglo-Saxon poetics in ‘Work and Play’—they fill the mouth: ‘swallow of summer, cartwheeling through crimson’, ‘Touches the honey-slow river and turning / Returns’.
Before I leave Hughes for my final poet, Robin Robertson, I want to quickly show you the next two seasons, autumn and winter, in excerpts from ‘Autumn Nature Notes’ and ‘Wind’. In the former, a bonfire shows the end of summer, the rising cool and preparation for the snows of winter:
Under ripe apples, a snapshot album is smouldering.
With a bare twig,
Glow-dazed, I coax its stubborn feathers.
A gold furred flame. A blue tremor of the air.
The apples are still ripe, but you can almost smell the fall smoke and cold. Again, human life reflects and augments the progress of the natural world: the poem’s speaker has reached a point in his life similar to the season—the end, perhaps of a love—and burns the album like the gardener burns fallen branches.
And then it is winter, brought to us via the metaphor of the house as a ship at sea in ‘Wind’:
This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet.
We’ll leave Ted there, storm-wet and probably having to fix a few tiles, to discuss the Scottish poet, Robin Robertson. I’m running out of space for Robin, but I don’t suppose he’d mind my giving most of the article to Heaney and Hughes, his literary progenitors. Robertson’s work has a similar Anglo-Saxon influence and quality of immediacy, and it shares Heaney’s and Hughes’s concerns with the darkness underlying natural beauty. I’m going to take three short bits of his poems to demonstrate this. In ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’, Robertson begins:
A bright clearing. Sun among the leaves,
sifting down to dapple the soft ground, and rest
a gilded bar against the muted flanks of trees.
In the flittering green light the glade
listens in and breathes.
A wooden pail; some pegs, a coil of wire;
a bundle of steel flensing knives.
This poem recounts the Greek myth (best known from book six of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and, later, Titian’s painting) about the punishment of the satyr Marsyas for challenging Apollo to a flute-playing contest. Not best pleased, Apollo has the upstart flayed alive. Robertson establishes this violence wonderfully via his portrayal of the wood. ‘A bright clearing. Sun among the leaves’ has the immediate ‘we’re here!’ effect of (very good) film-script big-print. So we’re standing in the ‘flittering green light’, but there’s a hint of something wrong in the air—‘the glade / listens in and breathes’. And then we see why—there’s a bucket of surgical tools ready to put ‘Blade along the bone, find the tendon, nick it and peel, nice and slow’. Having been placed directly in the scene, we watch ‘Marsyas écorché, / splayed, shucked of his skin / in a tug and rift of tissue.’ The immediacy used to set up the wood makes the torture more awful, both through the disjuncture between beauty and blood, but also in the way Robertson has beckoned us in to this ‘gilded’ glade and made us stumble on a murder, to watch as bystanders. The wood’s presence in that evil—the agency it has in ‘listen[ing] in and breath[ing]’—shows the darkness beneath that ‘bright clearing’.
This would be a grim place to end, so I’m going to give you two further pieces of Robertson’s poetry—sans mythological characters being butchered. The first speaks to me of that moment when spring becomes summer—‘Affair of Kites’ is full of the heart’s gladness as the season turns:
I sit, astonished by the pink kite:
its scoop and plunge, the briefness of it;
an escaped blouse, a pocket of silk
thumping like a heart
tight above the shimmering hill.
The sheer snap and plummet
Sculpting the air’s curve, the sky’s chambers.
I don’t know about you, but I’m there, watching it swoop and dive. The last poem, ‘Making the Green One Red’, is about autumn. It starts:
The Virginia creeper has built its church here
in the apple tree: vermilion
lacework, pennons, tendrils
of scarlet and amber,
hung through the host like veins.
Spangled and jaspered, shot with red,
the tree filled with sun is stained glass:
a cathedral of blood and gold.
At the end of the poem, we discover that ‘the apple tree is dead’, killed by the vine. Robertson’s religious imagery leaves us uncertain as to how we should feel about this triumph over the apple tree—the abnegation of temptation from the fruit? The corruption of the Church a distraction from Jesus’s teachings? The poem becomes more complex still when Robertson compares the roots of the creeper (and not the tree, as one might expect) with Christ. The poem’s ambiguity, together with the contrast of human (religious) themes to botanic ones, leads us to think about the nature of nature, the difficulty of assigning it goodness or evil, of untangling its glory from its cruelty. Is this the conquering of a boring apple tree by something more beautiful? Or the sullying of knotted wood and green fruit by the ‘blood and gold’ of a brightly-coloured parasite?
To finish properly, I’ll leave you with one of the Romantics who, in a sweeping generalization, I told you were rubbish at the start. Obviously, lots of foamy-mouthed critics would take umbrage with me, and I know you can’t really dismiss a literary period in a sentence or two. But this is an article about what I like, not what’s objectively good in the eyes of the literati. So, here’s Wordsworth wandering ‘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.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way…
See what I mean?