- How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
- The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
- Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
- Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
This is the story of two poets, both great, both English, both of unusual appearance, born two centuries apart and connected mostly by a tower in Oxfordshire.
I found the poem Sour Land in an anthology called Poetry of the Forties. As usual I can remember what town I bought it in, and what bookshop, and even, or so I fancy, the position of the book on the shelf – but not the year.
And this poem, dated November 1940, reached out a long, bony arm and caught me by the throat. This is a seriously scary poem if you let it get to you. It ought to be depressing too, but somehow it isn’t. It’s so powerful and so beautiful, at least in parts, that it propels you over the gloom, like a surfer on one of those big waves. And then when you learn that the poet was likely to have been in his first year at university when he wrote it. I mean, how? Sidney Keyes was a precocious genius, who started producing poetry of the magnitude of Sour Land at the age of sixteen. Four years later he would be dead.
The poem is in three parts, the first of which creates a landscape. It may indeed be a real landscape – possibly the view from the top of the Oxfordshire tower – but it is also and more importantly a bleak, nightmarish landscape of the mind.
- The houses are white stone in this country,
- Windowless and blind as leprosy;
- No peace for the wanderer waiting only death.
- Plovers crouch in the rain between the furrows
- Or wheel club-winged and tumble across the wind;
- A land so dead ghosts lodge not
- Along its borders to torment the mind.
- No ghosts, but another terror; every naked road
- Of this sour land harbours a running demon
- Who jogs along the fallow all night long
- Black under moonlit cloud though shadowless;
- Even by day the acrid-tasting air
- Reveals his presence to the introspective.
- The ponds are cloudy, filled with eyeshot corpses
- Of servant girls who drowned themselves for spite.
- This landscape of bulbous elm and stubble
- Sharpens the mind into revolt at last.
Keyes is writing about the poet Alexander Pope, as he makes clear in the epigraph that precedes the poem:
At Stanton Harcourt in Oxfordshire there is an ancient tower in which Pope completed the fifth book of his Iliad, when illness and disillusionment were beginning to oppress him.
Pope was another precocious genius. He wrote his first poem – the first we have, at least – at the age of twelve and claimed to have written one of his most famous poems, Pastorals, at sixteen.
I cannot tell you how this poem manages to be at once so ugly and so beautiful – the windowless houses blind as leprosy – the plovers crouching in the rain between the furrows – a land so dead it has demons rather than ghosts. And this awful image – of moonlit clouds, a black shape, but no shadow. And the servant girls who drowned themselves for spite. It’s like one of those pastoral paintings – John Constable, perhaps – but everything’s deformed and diseased. And those cloudy ponds, reflecting the cloudy night sky, now revealed to be full of corpses. There seems to be no escape. Everything mirrors everything else.
Everything diseased and distorted – and then we remember that Alexander Pope, his subject, had been dwarfed and hunchbacked from the age of twelve by what was probably Potts Disease, a form of tuberculosis that affects the spine. He was also asthmatic and prone to violent headaches. His enemies would later cruelly refer to him as a ‘hump-backed toad’. He also had the misfortune to be a Catholic in a Protestant age and was therefore doubly an outsider. His Catholicism also barred him from a university education and he was largely self-educated.
Pope’s family lived close to Stanton Harcourt and he knew the owners. He spent part of two summers there in what is now known as Pope’s Study – a room at the very top of one of the two towers, above the family chapel and another room. There he could write in peace – or not – having gone there ‘for retirement’. And when he was not writing he could gaze out over what may have seemed a slightly creepy Oxfordshire countryside, especially in a century when the English countryside would have been a lot quieter and ’emptier’ than it is now. You get the impression that Keyes visited the tower, which is not unlikely as he was attending Queens College, Oxford. Presumably on this visit he not only felt inspired to write the poem but ‘collected’ those cloudy ponds, those field furrows lashed by rain, the bulbous elms and stubble. He sees Alexander Pope, and he sees himself.
Keyes was a strange character. Prone to morbid thoughts and with a fascination for death in all its physical detail, he was later to express an interest in the types of beetles infesting the body of a dead dog lying near to his platoon position. Fascinated by death but not a war poet. Even as a serving officer, he writes very little of the mechanics of war. He is interested in bugs, and also in his unrequited love for Milain Cosmann, a German art student. Possibly he was not a very attractive proposition for her. Anaemia had given him a sallow complexion, a thin face and a prominent nose and cheekbones. This very young man, who was to die at the age of twenty in the Tunisia Campaign of World War II, remarkably, makes us feel what it was like for Pope, the ‘ageing poet’, struggling up the stairs to his tower and dreading the climb down again, his body and his mind both full of pain.
- So to his perch appropriate with owls
- The old lame poet would repair,
- When sorrow like a tapeworm in his bowels
- Drove him to Troy and other men’s despair.
- His lame leg twisted on the spiral stair,
- He cursed the harsher canker in his heart;
- Then in the turret he would scrawl and glare
- And long to pull his enemies apart.
- When night came knocking at the panes
- And bats’ thin screeching pierced his head,
- He thought of copulation in the lanes
- And bit his nails and praised the glorious dead.
- At dawn the lapwings cried and he awoke
- From dreams of Paris drowned in Helen’s hair;
- He drew his pride about him like a cloak
- To face again the agony of the stair.
So Pope immersed himself in his translation of Homer’s Iliad, which was to run to six volumes. By publishing these and other translations on a subscription basis he would eventually be able to support himself from the proceeds of his poetry. At night – in Keyes’ imagination at least, he dreams of Homer’s glorious heroes and heroines. He also dreams of copulation in the lanes – those servant girls again. A dark, sinister version of pastoral England blends with a bright, shiny version of Classical Greece.
When he had completed Volume Five of his translation Pope scratched this inscription on a pane of stained glass in his Study:
- In the year 1718
- ALEXANDER POPE
- Finished the Fifth Book of Homer