Sunday, October 28, 2007

Wyatt, Geoffrey Hill, and other acts of coitus with the English language

I struggled out of bed this morning for the last day of the Warwick University conference on Poetry & Philosopy, but it was well worth the struggle. Not only did I meet some very interesting people from different places on the globe, I also listened to three papers on poetry and philosophy, two on Geoffrey Hill (see yesterday's blog entry) and one on a personal favourite of mine amongst English poets, darling Thomas Wyatt (1503 -1542).

I thoroughly enjoyed all these papers, but the most fascinating thing about the first two was probably that the poet under scrutiny, Geoffrey Hill, was himself not only present during their presentation but actually spoke at the end - not in rebuttal of their views, I should add, but as a brisk summation of his poetic aims and philosophies.

For instance, Hill told us how, at the tender age of nine, he had won as a school prize a copy of Palgrave's Golden Treasury, and had promptly fallen in love with poetry and the English language. In roughly that context, he said of his own poetry: 'All my poems are love poems ... either about particular women or about language ... All my poems are acts of coitus with the English language.'

He went on to deny the common view that his work is obscure whilst simultaneously championing the right - or perhaps even duty - of poets not to give in to demands for facile or clichéd writing, claiming that 'It's tyrants who require simple language.' His closing image - that of Thatcher and Blair being made to parade the streets in nothing but pink bathing-suits, presumably as a punishment for the continuing debasement of the English language under their regimes - was pure burlesque.

Then came the paper on Thomas Wyatt, entitled 'Wyatt's Wagers: The Quyete of Mynde & the Failures of Technique', which was a discussion of how Wyatt tried to adopt Plutarch's technique for achieving 'a quiet mind' or equanimity in the face of 'ill chance' - especially in love, perhaps - but failed. At least, that's how I interpreted the paper's basic premise.

The paper was given by Eirik Steinhoff, from the University of Chicago, who built his case around various translations of Plutarch's work by Wyatt, and probably the best-known bitter-sweet Wyatt original, 'They flee from me', which I can't resist reproducing below (with contemporary spelling) for those who don't know it.

I managed to catch Eirik afterwards and ask a few questions of my own - such as why he hadn't featured some of the Petrarchan sonnets translated by Wyatt which seem to me to exemplify that failure to achieve 'quyete of mynde' - for instance the sharp political tension behind his famous sonnet (possibly written for Anne Boleyn) which begins 'Whoso list to hunt'.

Also whether the rather negative-sounding Platonic personification of Love in the Symposium had informed poems such as 'They flee from me', and maybe even provided a prototype for Elizabethan love poetry and its descendants, including the contemporary short lyric poem we all know and attempt not to write.

Enough about that, though. Here's darling Wyatt himself on the subject of love:

They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,
With naked foot stalking in my chamber:
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild, and do not remember,
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be Fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special
In thin array, after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small,
Therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, 'Dear heart, how like you this ?'

It was no dream, for I lay broad awaking:
But all is turned through my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking,
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use new fangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served:
I would fain know what she hath deserved?

Thomas Wyatt (1503 - 1542)


Andrew Shields said...

I met Eirik a few years ago in Chicago, at the American Literary Translators Association conference. He was the editor of the Chicago Review at the time, and he had published a number of my translations from the German. A fine man and a wonderful conversationalist. Great to hear his work being appreciated.

I must have messed up my comment on your previous post, which was simply an appreciation of your wonderful remarks about Hill. I also thought your comments about the two poets who did not move you were riveting. They at least moved you to such eloquent discussion.

Jane Holland said...

Thanks, Andrew.

I must admit that my husband rolled his eyes when I told him I'd 'blogged about that reading' since he knew exactly what I'd said on our way home afterwards. But when I read out my comments to him, he seemed relieved - said they were funny, at least, and not as caustic as he'd feared. So it's good to have someone else express a positive reaction!

Yes, I took an instant shine to Eirik. Kept thinking of him afterwards as Erik the Red but I don't imagine he'd take unkindly to that. He's a charismatic and engaging speaker too.

Bo said...

good to read that Wyatt again, Jane.
Would you be interested in writing for a new blog of mine,, on astrology?

Jane Holland said...

Ooo-er. I'd have to dust off my astro tomes for that. I do check my transits every few days - and glance at the odd chart - but I've been lax in my reading these past ten years, which means my knowledge of new astrological research/publications is horribly out of date.

What did you have in mind? Email me!