Monday, May 24, 2010

The Hollow Land

I rather like William Morris's poetry.  I've mentioned here before that I read part of 'Love is Enough' at our wedding, though I must say that I took some liberties and trimmed off some of the '-eth' suffixes and and changed 'ye' to 'you' a couple of times.  A dear friend once asked something along the lines of what was my desert island poem, the one I'd recite to myself alone at sunset on said island, and I had to admit that, although I have a headful of snippets and allusions, I don't have that many poems confidently held entire in the memory.  That was my mother's forte.  Indeed, I think I know three, (four with Keats' 'There was a naughty boy', but I don't really count that).  One is the archetypal desert island poem, in effect about sunset on a desert island,  'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', which I can remember my mother reciting, and really  for the first time being stopped in my tracks by the power of a poem.  When my sister was here last week she said something about going home to plant nine bean rows, but no hive for the honey bee, so I finished it off for her.  You can do that kind of self-indulgent show-off thing with those who love you, though I wasn't always that good about humouring my mum, I'm sorry to say. 

The other two are by William Morris.  One is the Bed at Kelmscott poem, which poor old May Morris embroidered around the valance of her parents four-poster at Kelmscott, impressing Bernard Shaw but not in the way May would have liked. It's presumably the only poem in English where the narrator is a piece of furniture.

The wind's on the wold
And the night is a-cold,
And Thames runs chill
'Twixt mead and hill.
But kind and dear
Is the old house here
And my heart is warm
'Midst winter's harm.
Rest then and rest,
And think of the best
'Twixt summer and spring,
When all birds sing
In the town of the tree,
And ye lie in me
And scarce dare move,

Lest earth and its love
Should fade away
Ere the full of the day.
I am old and have seen
Many things that have been;
Both grief and peace
And wane and increase
No tale I tell
Of ill or well,
But this I say:
Night treadeth on day,
And for worst or best
Right good is rest. 

I love that.  It's my insomnia poem, both to reassure and steady on the cold winter nights it describes, when the wind batters the trees and the rain rattles on slates and skylights, and for those precious early mornings we are having now, when the birds really do sing in 'the town of the tree', and awakening to the fleeting beauty of it all is indeed almost too much to bear.

The other is the song from  The Hollow Land, a prose romance which I haven't read.  (The only prose of Morris's that I've read is 'News from Nowhere', a copy of which was passed on to me from Az - my sister Alison -  and which I read when I was into Utopias, from Thomas More to Marge Piercy.  Utopia engaged me for a while, now I see the idea as at best blind and preposterous and at worst dangerous and pernicious.) This little song, however, which apparently intersperses the narrative one verse at a time,  haunts me.  It sounds like a prayer, with its opening of 'Christ keep...' which is odd, I think.  For although Morris loved and longed for his vision of the Middle Ages with intensity, it did not generally seem to include their Christian faith, which I suppose conflicted with his humanist socialism.  Also, it lacks the emblazoned Victorian mock-Mediaeval frills and furbelows of language that characterise much of his work and others of his time.  It is as limpid, remote and elusive as the waters it contains, mysterious and mystical in its simplicity.

Christ keep the Hollow Land
Through the sweet spring tide,
When the apple blossoms bless
The lowly bent hillside.

Christ keep the Hollow Land
All the summer tide,
Though we may not understand
Where the waters glide

Only dimly seeing them
Coldly slipping through
Many green-lipped cavern mouths
Where the hills are blue.

I don't want to read the book; it is apparently fussy, rather aimless in plot, and difficult for a modern reader, and in any case, I don't want to have the poem placed in any other context.

I found both poems in a 'Viking Portable Poets - Tennyson to Yeats', edited and with an intro by Auden, a treasure of an anthology which I love and have always kept with me.  I think my mother bought it somewhere, and I claimed it.  Books were like that, they drifted in and out, became the possessions of whoever fancied them, occasionally being misappropriated or regrettably lost.  At one of Az's particularly prolific periods of learning new things to make and do, when she and my brother-in-law lived in Bath and I was at university in Cardiff, she studied calligraphy.  Both of my sisters and one of my brothers always had very attractive italic handwriting, my elder sister's twin daughters too, almost indistinguishable  from their mother's.  My writing is a passable italic, but less fine, deteriorating into a mongrel scribble of round schoolgirl cursive if I'm not careful.  ( Interestingly, one of Morris's less preposterous notions in 'News from Nowhere' was that in that future children would learn to write using portable printing machines, since there was no point in teaching them to write by hand badly, and later calligraphy could be taught as an art.)

For calligraphy practice, I think at her request, I asked Az to write the two William Morris poems out for me.  The Bed at Kelmscott she wrote in Indian ink on cream paper, in a fair imitation of Morris's own pseudo-Mediaeval uncials.  The Song from the Hollow Land she looked at a while, then said she could see colours running through it, from the pink of the apple blossoms, through the gold of summer to the greens and blues of the waters disappearing into the caverns of the hills.  She wrote it in an elegantly wild version of her own italic hand, but must somehow have puddled or blended the ink so that it changed colour in a rainbow through the lines of the poem. 

I no longer have either of them.  The Bed  I know where I left and why, The Hollow Land song I kept for a long time, but lost at some point I don't remember.  There have been a few floods it could have gone down in, mostly I don't mind about such lightening of the load of clutter one goes through life accumulating, but I rather wish I still had that.

The night after I learned she had died, I dreaded sleeping.  I feared that waking in the night that comes innocent and then remembers.  Yet it wasn't like that.  I woke many times, but the knowledge was there already, deeply sad but not crushing, and flowing through my head, pretty much unbidden, I think, was the Song from the Hollow Land, and the colours she put it into.  It was a comfort, an admonition, a promise, though who or what was making it I don't know, and I have the feeling I'm not supposed to.

So, I thought I'd write it out again myself.  I don't have any dip pens, and I don't really know anything about calligraphy, or indeed have the necessary skills or precision to make much of a job of it. I used the Inktense pencils for their clear bright colours, but made numerous attempts which frustrated me as either crude or prissy.  In the end I settled for a spiky kind of primitive italic rather than trying to imitate the way I remember the original.  It's OK; it served its purpose.



Roderick Robinson said...

How prescient. Here I am, up early, having watched "Bright Star" the night before (The Keats/Brawn film which left me sorry for Mr Brown rather than Fanny) and here you are serving all sorts of tasters of this art form I came to so late in life. Unfitted to make a useful judgement on the insomnia poem I have looked instead at its vocabulary and guess it could sneak pretty close to the 1200 word barrier said to define literacy and/or vital signs. All useful, essential words, nothing "poetic". My personal criterion: the poet has suppressed a deep-seated desire to use rebarbative and jejune.

A mild shock to learn of you reciting Innisfree. With a little time, and a desert isle devoid of any other seductions, I might be able to match you. But it would be a hollow achievement. I learned Innisfree at school and it is forever tainted. The only meaningful verse I picked up at BGS starts "Lord dismiss us with thy blessing..." He did and I'm blest.

Fire Bird said...


Dick said...

So good to see some tub-thumping for William Morris, Lucy. With his design work all-too-frequently bracketed with all that was truly frightful about the decorative arts in the early 1970s and his socialism deep in the dumper with - well - any kind of socialism these days, may his words at least get a chance to breathe again! Delightful extracts and whilst of their time, vivid and substantive for us today. Thanks for this.

Unknown said...

Such simplicity from William Morris! Not easy to achieve. I've always admired him and do so all the more now for being reminded of these poems. Your remarkably assured script seems drawn out of a long and distinguished tradition. Sanserif, with a hint of the Gothic!

HKatz said...

I hadn't heard of Morris until this post, but I'd like to look up his poetry now. Especially loved these lines:
Coldly slipping through
Many green-lipped cavern mouths
Where the hills are blue.

Nimble said...

Thank you for sharing these. I like to read aloud but my sieve-like memory doesn't allow much poetry to stay.

I was struck by your sentence "I feared that waking in the night that comes innocent and then remembers." I'm glad that you weren't dismayed in that way. Your brain was taking good care of you.

Beth said...

This is beautiful and touched me, Lucy - the story, the poem, and what you did with it.

Rouchswalwe said...

colours flowing from winter to spring to summer ... sleeping and waking have never been the same for me either. Keeping memories through the writing of poetry has helped. Imitation is not possible. Your "spiky kind of primitive italic" sits easy on the eyes.

Bee said...

I'm going to put these poems into a little file I keep. I've discovered so much good poetry since I discovered blogging.

The Hollow Land really does lend itself to colour. I'm glad to see it in your printing.

The Bed at Kelmscott poem makes me think of how quickly it all goes, although the seasons (and all of their beauties) do cycle around again. Our wisteria is already fading, and so are the peonies. I look forward to them all year, and I always feel unaccountably sad when they go. Still, in May, we have the summer stretching out in front of us.

A sweet pang, again, for the loss of your sister.

Dale said...

Morris did have a genuine poetic gift, although he never took it very seriously: in fact partly because it came so easily to him. He never could believe that anyone compos mentis could find it difficult to write in meter & rhyme.

I used to love his prose romances -- especially the Wood at the World's End. I've been a little afraid to go back to them for fear I'd find them silly.

Not long ago someone came out with a edition of the Earthly Paradise, which I would dearly love to read. $400, alas!