The Poemworm

I have to confess that though overblown imagery and gothic, post-romantic medievalism are out of fashion at the moment (they are still, aren’t they? or have they snuck back in again?) I just love Alfred, Lord Tennyson and particularly cherish The Lady of Shalott. And this is despite the fact that he named her after a type of onion. I wonder why he did it. Perhaps in late Victorian times shallot didn’t mean a type of onion?

Well – I discover, belatedly checking it on the internet – that’s not strictly true. The Lady of Shalott has one L and two Ts, whereas the onion’s cousin has two Ls and one T.

According to my battered copy of The Everyman Book of Victorian Verse: The Post-Romantics, Tennyson’s story corresponds to the death of the Lady of Astolat of unrequited love for the oh-so-beautiful Sir Lancelot. Why didn’t he stick with Astolat, I wonder? It’s easy enough to rhyme.

The other linguistic peculiarity is one of which a sheltered late Victorian gentleman like Alfred, Lord Tennyson was probably unaware – that, to English women at any rate, The Curse is code for a very specific event. So when ‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried / The Lady of Shalott – it can tend to produce a wry smile of sympathy.

It just shows you, though, how brilliant the poem is, that I can read that particular verse again and again, and still enjoy it:

She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces thro’ the room,

She saw the water-lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

She look’d down on Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried

The Lady of Shalott.

 I have not yet found a way of forcing this particular off-the-peg WordPress website design to do single spacing when it comes to poems, so I won’t go on quoting. No doubt if I was a Techie Tinkerer with Code and Stuff I could do so. Life is too short for Techie Tinkering. It falls into the same category as Mushroom Stuffing, Filing Old Paperwork and Rearranging Living Room Furniture.

The Lady of Shalott will keep buzzing around in my head at the moment. Not so much an earworm as a poemworm, although music is tangentially to blame since I have also been binge-listening to Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt  on Spotify, and one of her songs is – guess what, set to music? Yes, The Lady of Shalott. I am haunted, by this lady imbowered on her island.

‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said

The Lady of Shalott…

And of course, if you love the poem you have to love the art too. I revel in those lurid colours, the weird twilights and, I’m afraid, all that wafting ginger (sorry, Titian) hair. It’s the luscious excess of it all. It’s because of cigarette cards, and Sunday evenings.

When I was a child I spent every Sunday with Nan and Grandad along the road. As I have written before, those Sundays were my childhood-proper, my respite time. Along the road was where I belonged, safe with N and G, by a roaring fire, in a fug of tobacco smoke, with Sally the fat, cream-coloured labrador asleep on my feet; waiting for my newly-washed hair to dry, and consuming crumpets passed to me from the tines of a brass toasting-fork, by Grandad.

Anyway, in those days cigarette packets were smaller and – as an incentive to buy them and ruin your health – contained small, rectangular, brightly coloured cards. Children collected these. There were famous footballers and famous Shakespearian characters –  and Grandad had a collection of these, in an album. It was there I first saw the picture I called – just inside my head, thankfully, not aloud – The Floating Green Lady (who is actually Ophelia, by John Everett Millais) and all unknowingly became hooked on the Pre-Raphelites for ever.

ophelia

And looking at her now, she’s not even green, is she?  Everything else is green but she’s kind of dampish silver-grey. But it was the green-ness that made an impression on me – and the chilly wetness, and the floating flowers, and the tragedy of it all; the way she was floating with the weed, the way her dead hands rose up out of the water, as they would in real life, or real death. I used to practise the Green Lady Floating Hands in the bath.

Do you have any Guilty Pleasures, art or poetry-wise? Any Poemworms? Any guilty bathtime memories?

Memento Mori

My sister sent me an email, advising me that she had moved Mum into her new Home. So far so predictable but at the foot of the email was one of those little grey paperclip things and hidden behind the little grey paperclip thing a disconcerting photo, of my mother peacefully asleep in her new bed, in her new room, and my sister with her hand resting on Mum’s forehead being photographed by – whom? Godmother and I agreed, there was something spooky, even gruesome about it.

It’s not that I do not know what my mother looks like now, in her 87th year and suffering from dementia; how her face has thinned and yellowed and her smile has gone. I saw her only last weekend after all. I fed her a belated Christmas Dinner and wrote a post about it. It’s worse than that. It’s two things:

Firstly (my sister couldn’t have known this, but if she had it wouldn’t have stopped her) it reminded me so much of the painting on the cover of one of my old paperbacks of metaphysical poetry. It’s a mourning painting. Sir Thomas’s fine white hand beneath a frill of stiff white lace, rests on a skull. People are ranged around in their best-black-and-lace, looking mournful but resigned. The deceasing lady is propped up on many pillows, only her head and shoulders visible. And unfortunately, my sister had managed to mirror that exact pose in her smartphone snap.

Secondly, it reminded me of all those wildlife programmes where a vulture inspects the corpse of some recently slaughtered elephant or wildebeest – avidly, thoughtfully – as if debating whether a sprinkling of salt and pepper, or maybe a handful or two of chives might be a good idea.

The fact that associations like this are made my mind is shocking, even to me. Why do I – why even can I think such things? Couldn’t I switch off this poeticising, or in this case anti-poeticising, facility when appropriate? The answer is no. This sort of brain doesn’t switch off; there’s no editing what goes into it, no stopping it from ‘seeing’. And what it has seen can never subsequently be forgotten. It’s what makes people like me able to write. It’s what forces us to write, to exorcise what we cannot but see and know. It’s what makes living difficult.

Whilst on the subject of death (might as well get it all over in one post!) I am reminded of those roadside floral tributes, and my parents’ attitude towards them; also to funerals.

My mother in particular despised those bunches of flowers people nowadays tend to sticky-tape to lamp-posts or thread through the links of chain-link fences at the exact spot where a close relative had died. She hated how the flowers were renewed, month after month, year after year, “littering up the place”. What she really hated, I think, was the naked expression of grief. To my parents a death meant a cremation, as soon as possible. It meant a funeral service in a modern chapel with no embarrassing tears or screams of anguish, as characterless and forgettable as possible. After that, that was that, done with. The person, done with. Rarely mentioned again.

I like the flowers. I sometimes walk along the seafront passing all those memorial benches people have donated, and stop to read how Gerry loved to play the guitar or how Sid the taxi-driver is now driving the angels around in heaven, in a shiny white taxi. I love the bunches of flowers and imagine the relatives coming here, with a fresh bunch and a fresh card, and having a little chat with Gerry or Sid.

I like graveyards; when I worked in an office I used to eat my lunchtime sandwiches in one. On a sunny, summer’s day there is less to be afraid of in a graveyard than in the whole of the rest of the world. The dead enjoy your company. They appreciate a little chat every now and again. And did you know that you can talk to any dead person in any graveyard? They will always make themselves available even if what remains of their bodies is on the other side of the country.

I always found this sanitised modern death difficult. I longed for great black Victorian hearses, pulled by black horses and festooned in black lace. Brought up in the lowest possible church, and that most conformist of social groups the upper working class, my instincts are entirely Catholic and Gothic. I need those swinging censers, the trails of incense, the solemn faces, the cascades of tears, the wailing and the beating of breasts. I need the man with the black hat walking in front of the coffin with his mace and his black-crêpe streamers.

And I need a place to go to be with that person. I do understand the allure of the exact spot where someone died. I know that the lost one may still in a sense be there, exactly there.  Magical thinking, of course, but I know that where they went up they may, in a sense also, if earnestly implored, and if they choose, come down. Their ghost is anchored there. This is their own place, their little ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’ as that poem puts it.

Let us not deprive people of their magic, if magic is what they need to process the horror and the loss. Let’s not sanitise it all and cut out the ritual, if ritual is what people crave. My parents would have said – but the dead person isn’t there any longer – what’s the point of going to all that expense and – more importantly from an upper working class perspective – making all that unnecessary and embarrassing fuss and show – showing off like that?

But rituals are not intended for the dead, they are for the healing of the living.

Featured Image: Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his First Wife: John Slouch