Saturday, July 07, 2007

Sandy Flora

As you can see, I have borrowed a copy of The Poet's Eye (1944), Geoffrey Grigson's anthology which I mentioned a few weeks ago. Of course it is John Craxton's lithographs that strike the reader immediately, ranging from small black and white images of shells, stones and trees to full page landscapes in colour, like the illustration below. But the writings themselves are also fascinating, bringing together 'visionary' poems and prose and covering 'generalised vision, descriptive vision cut from its application, vision conceived simply for its own sake, and vision of the intense kind...’ It is full of surprising choices, from its opening version of Rabelais’ ‘Inscription Above the Entrance to the Abbey of Theleme’ by Sir Thomas Urquhart, to the short extract from Moby Dick which closes the book. In between there are many landscape poems and descriptions. The writers who feature most often are William Barnes, John Clare, George Crabbe, R.W. Dixon, John Dryden, Coventry Patmore and Walt Whitman. It is an eclectic and very individual selection, although clearly in sympathy with the period’s Neo-Romantic sensibilities: poems and prose by both William Blake and Samuel Palmer are included.

Of course it’s quite impossible to convey the pleasures of such an anthology with just one example, but I’ll try anyway. At one point there is a little cluster of George Crabbe ‘visions’, starting with part of his poem, ‘The Ancient Mansion’. Then, after an extract from William Barnes, Grigson moves to some more of Crabbe’s verse, a description of ‘Sandy Flora’ taken from ‘The Village’ (1783) which I’ve reproduced below. And then he moves immediately to a third piece, prose this time, headed ‘Seaside Fen’ and apparently a footnote to ‘The Lover’s Journey’ (from Crabbe’s Tales). There are various other Crabbe selections dotted through the book (I like, for example, ‘Moonlight and Jelly-Fish or Sea Nettles’, which describes them: ‘Soft brilliant, tender, through the Wave they glow, / And make the Moon-beam brighter where they flow...’) Grigson says in the introduction that ‘all the truest and deepest poets, if they do not always remain there, go, at least, through a stage of vision in the very straightforwardness of the word: they have good eyes.’ George Crabbe, it is safe to say, never lost his ‘good eyes’.

Lo! where the heath, with withering brake grown o'er,
Lends the light turf that warms the neighbouring poor;
From thence a length of burning sand appears,
Where the thin harvest waves its wither'd ears;
Rank weeds, that every art and care defy,
Reign o'er the land, and rob the blighted rye.
There thistles stretch their prickly arms afar,
And to the ragged infant threaten war;
There poppies nodding, mock the hope of toil,
There the blue bugloss paints the sterile soil;
Hardy and high, above the slender sheaf,
The slimy mallow waves her silky leaf;
O'er the young shoot the charlock throws a shade,
And clasping tares cling round the sickly blade.
With mingled tints the rocky coasts abound,
And a sad splendour vainly shines around.


aureliaray said...

Grigson’s love of Crabbe’s descriptive poetry was also experienced by Benjamin Britten. The Royal Opera House website provides this background to the writing of ‘Peter Grimes’:

“In June 1941 Britten was staying with friends in California and, looking round at the dry Western scenery, he got more and more homesick. Then suddenly he came across an English magazine article by E M Forster on the poetry of George Crabbe.

Crabbe was a very minor 18th century poet and it seems odd, at first, that his verses should have excited Britten as much as they did. However, like Britten, Crabbe had been born in Suffolk and Forster began his article by describing the scenery of Crabbe’s birthplace, Aldeburgh (just a few miles down the coast from Britten’s Lowestoft): "It is a bleak little place; not beautiful... and near the quay the scenery becomes melancholy and flat; with expanses of mud, saltish commons, and the marsh-birds crying.” (You may have to come from Suffolk to like this sort of thing!) As Britten read the article a wave of longing for England overwhelmed him. He knew he had to go home.

Britten and Pears booked a passage back as soon as they could, and the next year they got a place in a Swedish cargo vessel. They spent a month crawling up the North American coast and then across the Atlantic to Liverpool. It was a slow, boring, voyage and extremely dangerous (the German U Boat packs were out in force) but the only thing that really bothered them was the noise. The boat was small and overcrowded and the crew stamped about all day, whistling, while Britten sweated in his tiny cabin, trying to compose. He wrote the 'Ceremony of Carols' and (with Pears' help) the plot of a new opera, 'Peter Grimes'. They had found the story in Crabbe’s poem 'The Borough'.”

‘The Borough’ provides not only the narrative of Peter Grimes but also examples of Crabbe's ‘good eyes’:

“Thus by himself compelled to live each day,
To wait for certain hours the tide's delay;
At the same times the same dull views to see,
The bounding marshbank and the blighted tree;
The water only, when the tides were high,
When low, the mud half-covered and half-dry;
The sunburnt tar that blisters on the planks,
And bankside stakes in their uneven ranks;
Heaps of entangled weeds that slowly float,
As the tide rolls by th' impeded boat.

When tides were neap, and, in the sultry day,
Through the tall bounding mudbanks made their way,
Which on each side rose swelling, and below
The dark warm flood ran silently and slow;
There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,
There hang his head, and view the lazy tide
In its hot slimy channel slowly glide;
Where the small eels that left the deeper way
For the warm shore, within the shallows play;
Where gaping mussels, left upon the mud,
Slope their slow passage to the fallen flood;
Here dull and hopeless he'd lie down and trace
How sidelong crabs had scrawled their crooked race;
Or sadly listen to the tuneless cry
Of fishing gull or clanging goldeneye;
What time the sea birds to the marsh would come,
And the loud bittern, from the bulrush home,
Gave from the salt-ditch side the bellowing boom.”

Plinius said...

Thanks for this - very evocative. If they think Crabbe is a 'very minor' eighteenth century poet, I wonder who they think the major, not quite so major and merely 'minor' ones are...