Monday, 16 March 2009

Newcastle Lecture 1

Didn't rain. Hasn't rained. I look right over the illuminated and beautiful Millennium Bridge. It's like being the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Or is that the other side?

Coffee with lovely Newcastle hosts, then into lecture. All well so far. An excerpt:

(The first two or three pages are concerned with a discussion of Elizabeth Bishop's At the Fishhouses, then we move on to Matthew Arnold, then to Márai, Magris and Brodsky before ending with Bishop again.)

In all great poems there is, I think, an image of the poetic act. They are about both their subject and themselves, about both the world of knowledge and history and our act of making song out of language, singing our versions of A mighty fortress is our God in full awareness – in the best poems – of the cold dark deep and absolutely clear sea.

Listening to the to and fro motion of the sea, Matthew Arnold thought of another listener, of Sophocles, long ago on the Aegean, and of how "it brought / Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery". Arnold was writing about the loss of faith, picturing faith as a sea that was once full and, famously, lying like the folds of "a bright girdle furl’d"; girdle and furl’d rhyming themselves into a form of assurance with the waiting world, at the end of the stanza,

But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world…

So Dover Beach became for him a "darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight." Can we imagine, faintly comically, Matthew Arnold singing A mighty fortress is our God, to a passing school of Dover sole? I doubt it. But Arnold’s sea is historical too. Bishop’s sea connects her with the old man and her grandfather, Arnold’s to Sophocles and medieval Christendom. Both have a peculiarly intense apprehension about the sea.


Gwil W said...

Lovely to read these flatcap-and- whippet posts from 'Geordieland
George'. I can almost taste the Newcastle Broon Ale.

Epitaph for my Ancestor

the turbid ebb and flow
of human misery

flowed over grandad's head
when the boy was put to work
under the north sea's dark deep bed

Mark Granier said...

Fabulous poem, At The Fishhouses. Heaney wrote brilliantly about it in the title essay in his The Government of The Tongue. He writes of those last lines('Cold, dark, deep...'): '...since these concluding lines are poetry, not geography, they have a dream truth as well as a daylight truth about them, they as as hallucinatory as they are accurate.'