christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: literature

Blue is the colour. On a lesser known sonnet by John Keats.

We all know the blockbusters – Bright Star and On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. These are Keats’ Yesterday and Let It Be. But what of his other sonnets? Outside academia they are little known. Yet some are exquisite – and worth committing to memory to pull out on a rainy day. That’s the joy of sonnets. They fit easily into the pocket of the mind. This one is a case in point; on the face of it, an ode to a sunny day, that becomes something more.

Blue! ‘Tis the life of heaven,–the domain
Of Cynthia,–the wide palace of the sun,–
The tent of Hesperus and all his train,–
The bosomer of clouds, gold, grey and dun.
Blue! ‘Tis the life of waters–ocean
And all its vassal streams: pools numberless
May rage, and foam, and fret, but never can
Subside if not to dark-blue nativeness.
Blue! gentle cousin of the forest green,
Married to green in all the sweetest flowers,
Forget-me-not,–the blue-bell,–and, that queen
Of secrecy, the violet: what strange powers
Hast thou, as a mere shadow! But how great,
When in an Eye thou art alive with fate!

It’s a magnificent riff on the theme of blue. Yet unlike Picasso’s melancholy series, this is an ecstatic dance; a burst of joy; a glorious daubing of the colour. You can easily imagine Keats strolling out on the heath, peering up from beneath the brim of his top hat, beneath a basin of pure blue sky. Remarkably, we know the date he wrote it: Sunday, 8 February 1818 – and it was a good omen – because it preceded what was to be London’s longest and warmest summer in years.

The poem’s conceit is simple. It’s a defence of blue – a riposte to lines written by fellow poet J.H. Reynolds, who argued:

    dark eyes are dearer far
Than orbs that mock the hyacinthine-bell.

Reynold’s poem is sadly not worth repeating in full. It’s a lightweight thing, too clever by half, and caught up in its own contrariness, making the case for brunette over the blonde (the ‘tresses dusk’ rather than ‘the golden clusters’) and dark eyes over blue.

Keats’ poem transcends its casual origins and becomes a luminous, freshly minted thing in its own right. Perhaps it owes its spontaneity to the speed and circumstances in which it was conjured. In the joy of the game, the spirited sparring between the poets, it has a zest it might not otherwise have had, had he laboured over it in the dark. Perhaps a first draft was dashed off in a moment of good humoured indignation.

The poem is exceptionally vivid, and intensely visual: the brightness of the star is offset by the duller colours of the clouds, which are ‘gold, grey and dun.’ The sonnet has a painterly quality to it, yet unlike a painter, restrained by a single canvas, a poet can transport us from one scene to another. With its jump cuts from sky to sea to forest, it’s more like a short film.          

‘The wide palace of the sun’

It’s a poem in three parts: first the sky, or, as seen through his extravagant metaphor: ‘the wide palace of the sun.’ The long and open vowel sounds of ‘domain’ ‘and all his train’ give a sense of its epic scale. It’s not so much a sky as a sweeping theatre. The fact that he metaphor-hops from ‘palace’ to a ‘tent’ to a voluptuous woman (‘The bosomer of clouds’) gives you a feel for Keats’ mood – drunken on its endless bounty, struggling to contain it in a single idea.  There are a couple of classical allusions – Cynthia is a name for the Greek goddess of the moon, nature and hunters. She was born on the eponymous Mount Cynthus on the sacred island of Delos under those dazzlingly blue skies. Hesperus is the bright evening star.

But then he abandons the idea of the sky altogether. It’s not enough. Next comes the water; oceans and ‘pools numberless.’ Like these, the sonnet overflows, the line endings spilling over. The alliteration of ‘rage and foam and fret’ creates an unstoppable tumult. ‘Ocean and all its vassal streams’ is masterful; the lines themselves coarsing like clear streams through the poem.  

Then we’re back on dry land; in the woods, where blue is ‘the gentle cousin of the forest green.’ Its ‘strange power’ here is how it accents the other colours; and where as a shadow of green, has transformative properties. It’s a clever trick. Keats is not trying to out punch his own bombastic phrasemaking with the sea and sky, but instead focuses on the colour’s quieter alchemy. The coy ‘forget me not and ‘the queen of secrecy, the violet’ are small miracles in themselves, which in their miniature perfection are every bit as breath-taking as the sea or sky.

Is the sonnet overblown? Possibly. But Keats is too much an artist to allow his tsumani of metaphors and images to dominate the poem. The focus-pull from the wide shots to the delicacy of those forest flowers shows he’s totally in control of his material.  

And then comes the coup de grace. Forget how blue floods nature, and electrifies the world. ‘When in an eye’ it truly comes into its own, bringing humanity to life. It’s a stunning closer; no matter what miracles we find in the natural world, nothing comes close to the miracle of our own existence – brought to life here by the blue of an eye ‘alive with fate.’ There’s a note of vulnerability and transcience here too, that gives it an added poignancy.  Our mortality makes the perfect imperfect.

There’s an interesting postscript. Eric Ormsby, in his review of Andrew Motion’s fine biography remarked on Keats’ own eyes:

‘whose exact color none of his friends could later remember but whose flashing vivacity none of them ever forgot.’

Commit this sonnet to memory and bring it out at the beach, or at a picnic that’s been rained off, as a gift from the pocket of your mind. This might be a Keats B-side, but like The Beatles, even his B-sides made mincemeat of the competition.

The Thirty-Nine Steps

It was only last year that I finally got around to reading John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. I’d watched the celebrated Hitchcock film, but the book has a particularly stylish and exhilarating quality all of its own. The voice of the irrepressible, resourceful Richard Hannay, an engineer and intelligence officer recently arrived in London from Africa  is what gives its character, both cynical and scornful of authority. The pace is astonishing, with several things happening almost at once – there are chases, explosions and gun fights, but the central motif is travel.

The 39 steps

Buchan clearly has fun with the possibilities offered by motor cars and aeroplanes and along with trains, and chases on foot across Scottish moors, Hannay is always on the move. The plot, which revolves around a plan to precipitate a European war, is almost ancillary to the odd characters (including a milkman, hung over road worker and prospective parliamentarian) Hannay meets on the way. While it owes something of a debt to Conan-Doyle, it has inspired a thousand of copy-cat blockbusters and Hollywood films, particularly those which feature the archetype of the stylish, clever, maverick outsider, wayward, but ultimately committed to King and country. Ian Fleming, you suspect had a copy on his bedside table.

Anyway, all of this inspired the inevitable song! 

Live reading: 19 October 2014

Jazz-Poetry. One or both of these words may strike fear into your heart, however, if you’re intrigued, read on . . . I’m performing at the Rhyme and Rhythm Jazz-Poetry Club on Sunday 19 Oct at 6pm. Dugdale Centre, 39 London Road, Enfield, EN2 6DS.

I rehearsed with the band last Sunday and they are not only the most musically accomplished, but the nicest gentleman you are ever likely to meet. Some great tunes, hopefully won’t be spoiled by me reading some poetry with the music.  See you there!

Rhythm&RhymeOCT

The Cloud Collector

He keeps cirrus in the cellar,
stratocumulus stuffed like insulation in the loft.
Spare rooms billow with altostratus.
Outside, the sky is a cloudless blue.
He roams the hills with a Hoover and scoops
clouds from summits in butterfly nets,
bagging them on the quiet; he stitches
them into the lining of his jackets
presses them into the boot of his car.
Each summer, he rents a beach hut,
plain white, with yellow bunting hanging
above the door like a row of crows’ beaks.
He watches waves curl like rolling papers
and waits for the clouds to blow in from the sea.

 cromer collage

Winkleman’s Broadwater

Winkleman’s Broadwater
is an ale of rare perfection:
It opens with toffee and walnut
notes, crushed gooseberries
and limes; the hops come through
with the bitterness of beeswax.
Appearance is a jar of honey,
left in sunlight; an amber pool.
At Winkleman’s we mash
in a tun like a king’s bathtub.
Fermentation is our holy art,
where we bless the wort
with yeast in six silver vessels.
It is bottled in thrice blown
brown glass and ferried each day
to our dealers in the back
of our patent yellow Land Rovers.
Each morning here at Winkleman’s,
we abandon the brewery, dress
in striped Victorian bathing costumes,
and head down a ladder to the sea.
Lunch is a feast of shrimp, dressed crab,
crusty bread and two pints
of Broadwater for every employee.
In the afternoons we drift off
to the sound of Debussy, Chopin
and the gentle brass of the brew kettles.
Every evening is a special evening
at Winkleman’s, when we gather
beneath the glass roof to write
the tasting notes: our eulogies
to the grains, our elegies to the vines.

Beer

The Mine

We descended in waistcoats
ties and spectacles, twisting
fountains pens nervously in the lift.
The light thinned to a single flame.
We edged down passageways
lined with sonnets and haikus,
dug out rhymes, fully intact,
laid them flat on conveyor belts.
We listened to the mine: the scratch
and murmurs of the ages;
the drip of ink from the roofs.
We broke into rooms of rock
supported only by fragile
pillars of words and saw the ghosts
of old poets sat at desks,
taking down what they heard.
The air was foul with damp.
Some poems we found glowing,
perfectly formed, there for the taking
glistening roundels chipped
straight out of the rock.
Others were in fragments,
cut off in a moment of brilliance.
There were occasional disasters.
Along the seam where we found
the epics, a roof fell in and six poets
were entombed in Ancient Greece.
Each day we emerged like newborns,
blinking in the light, clutching pages,
our faces blackened with print.

Colliery

The Levitating Farm

Running up the lane,
and I find a barn
suspended above the field:
no pillar or post,
just a lid of tin and moss,
an attic of timber
and hay; no mirrors,
no wire, no trick of the eye.
Then I see cows, peddling
the air, stirring it
with their hooves,
licking knats from the wind.
Across the yard, a tractor,
driverless, scoops
mist in its shovel,
shifts down the gears.
The farmhouse floats
like a balloon tethered
by invisible thread.
Inside the chairs
drift through the kitchen.
I catch my breath,
while the wind slowly juggles
six bales of hay.
A pitchfork and saw
edge towards me
like the cutlery of a giant.
Then I see the notice
of auction, and later
up by the church,
a single cauliflower
laid on a brown dirt grave.

Lamb

The Dickens Impersonator

All that year, I wore dead men’s clothes:
Victorian trousers with a button fly;
white shirts that billowed like spinnakers.
At night I heard ghosts clink in the kitchen,
rummaging for whisky and cufflinks.
On buses I was like a time traveller,
my pocket-watch ticking like a heart on a string.
I overheated in matinees, left top hats
on top decks and watched the world through
a clouded monocle and a pair of pince-nez.
My overcoat belonged to an undertaker,
a monstrous blanket of darkness with pockets
as deep as graves. So I left it all in an attic
where my suit now waltzes with a scarlet gown.

Charles Dickens

 

Christopher James’ latest collection of poems: England Underwater is available now.

Walking the Line

Only when we made it to Gabon,
did we discover the Equator was real:
something you could see:
a length of yellow piping, a wire fence,
then schoolchildren holding hands.

It was a belt around the world,
a ball of wool unraveled by a kitten;
cotton spilt from a reel.
We walked the line of nothing
to the heart of the Congo,

where we found Dr Livington’s
boot laces knotted together
with Stanley’s tie; in Kenya, there were
football scarves held end to end
by some die-hards from Kisumu.

Once I saw it hold only by a thread:
the single strand of a spider’s web.
Over the Atlantic, it was a telegraph wire
almost invisible, then a fibre optic cable,
pulsing like an eel on the ocean floor .

In Equador, we lost track of it,
then picked it up at Mitad del Mundo
In Brazil at the Marco Zero, we watched
women hanging washing on the line: the flick
of a number ten shirt out in the middle.

equator

Looking for Absalom

On little more than a family rumour, four of us pile into a jeep late afternoon and head off into the gold edged Norfolk countryside in search of a long lost relative.

A name on a scrap of paper, and a subsequent search of the records had revealed that my Great Great Grandfather Absalom (d. 1798) and Tabatha (some time after) – both good fire and brimstone Old Testament names – were agricultural workers in the small village of Wickmere, near Alysham, Norfolk.

Finding a village in East Anglia, without a map or phone is a little like collecting water without a container. For every helpful sign post, the next sign along has no mention of it whatsoever, as if it assumes you now have the general idea. You soon find yourself doubling back on yourself, driving into someone’s garden or heading towards Norwich, sometimes all three at the same time. We bump around the sharp, blind corners, churning up mud from the recent rains.

Norfolk

We know from a painting that we are looking a for a church with a round tower and so resort to navigating by sight. Eventually Roberta spots the church, some way away from the village itself. Like many other small, ancient villages in the area, presumably the people moved away from the church and its yard around the time of the plague. It transpires we are not the only ones who found the church difficult to locate, as reported on the Seven Church website:

‘To find Wickmere is something of a challenge. The nearer one gets, not only do the signposts become disconcertingly vague as to its whereabouts, but its splendidly named Regent Street nestles in a fold in the land.’

The road leads us to Wickmere church, described beautifully as one of the ‘high and lonely churches’ where we split up and search for our ancestral family name ‘Carr’ in the graveyard.

A shriek from my mother tells us she has found a Carr, in this case a Horace, perhaps a great uncle, and also an Elizabeth Carr, a Maria Carr, as well as a Henry and another Horace – the ubiquity of the name we suspect is due to the enduring popularity of local boy Horatio Nelson. The graves are covered in white and orange lichen, and are almost undecipherable, but we get the dates and a few words. These people’s lives feel frustratingly opaque and the record of their memory is fragile as the names fade from the stones. As the sinks lower on the horizon, we decide to continue our search for Absalom himself another day.

1798

I am Absalom
father of the fields,
friend of birds,
master of the soil
This is my world:
the clouds above me,
the sea around us.
At dusk, the sky
is like a lid of gold;
old windmills
are thimbles
on the horizon.
Churches are
ships at anchor.
I think of the past,
of Tabatha at the hearth
of the sun burning
through the pine trees.
Jewels of light
are scattered
across the land
I think of the future –
my son, still
scratching the earth,
spinning in space,
in seventeen
ninety eight.