- In the year 1718
- ALEXANDER POPE
- Finished the Fifth Book of Homer
Almost like a prisoner marking off the days of his captivity on the walls of his cell – although it has to be said that the real Pope did not remain entirely unvisited in this shabby remnant of a country house (most of the rooms, apart from the towers, had crumbled) and whatever gloom or pain he was suffering, it did not prevent him from writing witty letters to friends describing his surroundings. The second tower – the one Pope didn’t occupy – was entirely used as a kitchen. Cooking smoke rose up this vast, 70 foot ‘chimney’ and escaped through adjustable ‘wind holes’ in the top. The only light came in through these ‘wind holes’. The walls were blackened with the grease and soot of ages. There were two huge fireplaces, above which hung ‘tenterhooks’ (the origin of the expression) for hanging and smoking wild boar and bacon. In a letter to the Duke of Buckingham, Pope fills it with witches and installs Satan as Head Cook, stirring infernal cauldrons.
O friend, if you should venture to that country,
Pass guardedly, be unseduced
By its too subtle promises of peace;
Its quiet is of a kind you should not seek.
Look not about you overmuch
Nor listen by the churchyard wall
Lest you should hear the words as soft as nightfall
Of death in promises kind but lecherous indeed.
Heed not the spirit of the twisted ash
Who counsels how to tie the noose;
Neither the spirit calling under the bridge
Where the long eel-grass twists to strangulation.
The sullen girl who smiles and shows her teeth
Is rather more than the common kind of slut:
The old man ploughing against the wind
Turns over more than soil; or in the pasture
Two men are digging not a trench –
A grave for all you know and all you hope.
Remember the weasel questing down the hedge,
The dead crow hanging from the oak.
This is a very ancient land indeed;
Aiaia formerly or Cythera
Or Celidon the hollow forest called;
This is the country Ulysses and Hermod
Entered afraid; by ageing poets sought
Where lives no love nor any kind of flower
Only the running demon, thought.
It’s a strange mixture, this poem. You have one landscape overlaying another. In Part III Keyes is fusing the ancient, mythological landscape of Britain – the one we all know about but would be hard put to define, beloved of High Fantasy writers. This is what happens to Middle Earth after Tolkien takes a wrong turn with the plot and it all goes wrong. This is fairyland, but of the Belle Dame Sans Merci variety. This is England, but overshadowed and tainted by war. In this sense only, Keyes might be called a war poet.
He is saying that the region of collective consciousness in which this version of England is to be found is essentially the same place as the one Ulysses passed through on his dangerous journey. He is merging Homer and Pope, mythological Greece and mythological England.
But Keyes was also a young man in the grips of unrequited love, and with an eccentric and rather overwrought attitude to women. At Oxford, whilst writing the poem, he was in the process of deciding to foreswear lovers altogether. He had high expectations of women but when they did not live up to his idealised version he tried to force them to change to conform to it. Understandably, they resisted this. He responded by despairing, and withdrawing from their company, to protect himself. If he had lived beyond twenty, this might have changed.
He may have distanced himself from physical relationships, yet there is an air of sex and seduction lurking in the background of Sour Land. Those spiteful serving girls; Helen, her face so beautiful it was said to have sunk a thousand ships; the girl who smiles and shows her teeth, right next to the spirit calling from under the bridge.
The poem is full of counterparts – the natural landscape with the psychological. The weasel questing down the hedge mirrors the running demon that jogs along the fallow. The long, eel grass, waving in the water, twisting to strangulation, mirrors Helen’s hair, in which Paris is drowning. Each part has its own bird or birds. Part I has the plover, club-winged and tumbling across the wind. The emphasis here is on lameness, deformity. Club-winged as in club-footed, tumbling as in uncertain movement. Part II has owls and lapwings – the emphasis here is on wisdom, and sharp pain. Part II has its dead crow. Farmers used to hang rows of dead birds as a kind of scarecrow, since crows and certain other birds are said to be able to recognize a dead bird as a sign of danger.
There is no escape in this place – the skies are dark and cloudy, the ponds are polluted with corpses, moonlight reveals shadowless demons, there is something nasty under the earth (The old man ploughing against the wind/Turns over more than soil); there is something lurking beneath the bridge; there is something waiting to strangle you in the water, the trees have spirits in them. This is a land of pure thought – the land, coincidentally, that Sidney Keyes was thinking of entering by renouncing the temptations of womankind. And the danger is in where it stops. He can renounce the physical side of life, but then will it stop there? Does reality itself begin to slip away, if not anchored by the physical side of life? He fears sliding into a realm of dreams and nightmares, from which there can be no return. This is the scenario he is exploring through his vision of Pope locked up in his tower.
Keyes died on the battlefield, in mysterious circumstances. No one saw him die, but months later a cross was found in the desert bearing his name. They could not positively identify him because no personal effects were found with the body.
Pope inherited an estate in Twickenham from his father, and was to live there for the rest of his life. He had always been in poor health and after 1738 it began to fail, so that he wrote little more. He died at Twickenham, surrounded by his friends, in 1744.
TO A POET A THOUSAND YEARS HENCE
James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915)
I WHO am dead a thousand years, And wrote this sweet archaic song, Send you my words for messengers The way I shall not pass along. I care not if you bridge the seas, Or ride secure the cruel sky, Or build consummate palaces Of metal or of masonry. But have you wine and music still, And statues and a bright-eyed love, And foolish thoughts of good and ill, And prayers to them who sit above? How shall we conquer? Like a wind That falls at eve our fancies blow, And old Mæonides the blind Said it three thousand years ago. O friend unseen, unborn, unknown, Student of our sweet English tongue, Read out my words at night, alone: I was a poet, I was young. Since I can never see your face, And never shake you by the hand, I send my soul through time and space To greet you. You will understand.