Friday, July 03, 2015

As we descended to this valley

Samuel Palmer, The Harvest Moon: Drawing for ‘A Pastoral Scene’, c.1831–2 
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As we descended to this valley,
where Samuel Palmer had used to walk - bareheaded
under the moon -
the passing clouds above
"did marvellously supple the ground."

- Ronald Johnson, The Book of the Green Man (1967)
Samuel Palmer is the inspiration for the fourth part of Ronald Johnson's marvellous book-length poem, an 'attempt, as a brash American, to make new the traditional British long seasonal poem', recently re-published by Uniformbooks.  Johnson had come over to England in 1963 and he descended into Palmer's 'Valley of Vision' with Jonathan Williams, who would write his own 'Two Pastorals for Samuel Palmer at Shoreham, Kent'.  These can be read at the Poetry Foundation, although they omit a footnote in which Williams refers readers to Geoffrey Grigson's Samuel Palmer: Valley of Vision and Samuel Palmer: The Visionary Years.  Johnson was also influenced by Grigson's anthologies and writings on Romanticism: 'one should read all of Grigson' he wrote, 'his books are seminal and essential.'  The Book of the Green Man concludes with a yellow moon rising over Palmer's hills and newly-cut wheat: 'beneath a husk / of twilight / were as many suns as kernels, / & fields were far / as the eye / could reach.'

Jonathan Williams quoted this 'ecstatic reverie' in the appreciation he wrote when Johnson died in 1999.  He also recalled their early walks together in America, 'perfect training for poets: learning to attend the names of birds and plants and stars and trees and stones.'  Their discovery of Palmer's Shoreham was just one part of an extraordinary British 'Grand Tour' which formed the basis for The Book of the Green Man (links are to earlier posts on this blog):
We went up to Ardgay in Easter Ross in the north of Scotland to meet Ian Hamilton Finlay. We saw Hugh MacDiarmid in both Langholm and Biggar. We saw Basil Bunting up the Tyne above Newcastle at Wylam. And Herbert Read at Stonegrave House in the hills north of York. We went to Broad Town under the Wiltshire Downs to see Geoffrey and Jane Grigson. Geoffrey took us to Faringdon for Lord Berners' folly tower, to Buscot Park for Burne-Jones's Briar-Rose paintings, and to Lydiard Tregoze for the splendid interior of the Church of St Mary. Jane fixed Welsh girdle cakes for breakfast, the first we had ever tasted. We visited the graves of Blake and Palmer, Stanley Spencer and Walter Sickert, Delius and William Morris. In the spring of 1963 we walked from the mouth of the River Wye at Chepstow, up its long, winding valley, to its source high on the flanks of Great Plynlimmon. We hitched a few rides to allow us to add Kilpeck Church to Francis Kilvert's at Bredwardine along the route. And Strata Florida and the site of Hafod House further into Wales. And more pilgrimages that summer. To Nottinghamshire to Southwell Minster and the amazing foliate heads and plant carvings in the Chapter House. To Gilbert White's Selborne in Hampshire. To Samuel Palmer's Shoreham in Kent. To the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset. To Compton in Surrey for the Watts Mortuary Chapel. To Brighton for John Nash's Royal Pavilion. We were looking for all things, as RJ said, 'most rich, most glittering, most strange'.


Mike C. said...

Plinius, your ease with this material never ceases to impress -- yet another book I realise I need to buy...

Jonathan Williams intrigues me -- I came across the Coracle Press book of his photographic portraits of artists and writers many years ago and was intrigued by his connections to artists I admired (Frederick Sommer and Basil Bunting, for example). It almost seemed that he was the glue holding a particular vision/version of artistic endeavour together. Reading his own poetry, however, turned out to be a disappointment...


Plinius said...

'The Book of the Green Man' is an essential purchase...
I do know what you mean about JW's poems which can sometimes seem rather jokey and slight outside their original context. But yes he was a very interesting cultural figure.

[By the way, I see the spambot detector is more sophisticated now on Blogger and I'm sorry you have to take a picture quiz before being able to post a comment. I have just had to identify three photographs of steaks in order to post this reply. It would be good if I could do my own picture quiz on landscape art... Oh no that steak-themed verifaction has just expired so I'll have to do another quiz now before I can get this reply posted].