Eternal Sunshine, Running Demons (1)

  • 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.

  • I
  • 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.

  • II
  •  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

Eternal Sunshine, Running Demons (2)

  • 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.

III

 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.