Thursday, March 27, 2008

Strange Likeness

A short period of illness can be useful for a writer, forming a firebreak between stretches of intense mental activity; not so much scorched earth as a fertile space where new ideas can spring up, free from other influences.

So my brief spell in bed most of Easter and into this week has been useful for that reason, and also as physical downtime, good for recharging the batteries, or refilling the well, however you want to see it.

Filled with new energy, I took myself into Oxford today and renewed my Bodleian card in order to read this book, which I couldn't afford to buy and which is simply not available through the usual library channels.

It was a worthwhile trip. Not only did I manage some research into the impact of Old English on modern poetry - my pet project this spring - but a few phrases in Chris Jones' magnificent Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry struck hard, in particular when touching on Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns, and left me far more sure of my direction as I begin work on my own extended poem/poem sequence inspired by Warwick Castle:

The present book's title comes from the twenty-ninth of Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns, a sequence of poems that dissolves historical linearity to superimpose glimpsed shards of the reign of Offa ... with fragmentary images of the twentieth-century Midlands, a mosaic of the familiar and the unfamiliar which prompts the speaker in the hymn to comment: 'Not strangeness, but strange likeness.'

Now playing: Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark - Souvenir
via FoxyTunes


Sorlil said...

Glad to hear you're on the mend.

Jane Holland said...


Bo said...

this looks very interesting: someone's doctoral thesis? Mine is with OUP reviewers as we speak! Argh!

Jane Holland said...

Very possibly, yes. Good luck with your own!

Here's Chris Jones' resumé lifted from his home page at St Andrews:

Chris Jones is Senior Lecturer in English Poetry at the University of St Andrews. He received his BA from King's College London and an MA in Old English and Old Norse from the Queen's University of Belfast. After several years teaching English as a foreign language in Rome, Berlin and Oxford, Chris came to St Andrews to do his doctoral research on the role and influence of Old English in nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetry. His research and teaching interests are in poetry, especially that of the Anglo-Saxon period and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with particular interests in poetics and poetic technique, intertextuality, and the materiality of poems as textual objects. Chris is also interested in the phenomenon of Medievalism, the reception and adaptation of medieval literature in the post-medieval world. (He teaches an undergraduate Honours course in this subject, which ranges from Spenser to Tolkien). He has written on Old English poetry, John Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Morris, Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, Edwin Morgan, Seamus Heaney and Michael Ondaatje, and his monograph Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-century Poetry came out with Oxford University Press in 2006.

Anonymous said...

Coincidentally, Chris Jones was doing the introductory duties when I read at StAnza a couple of weeks ago ... very nice chap, I must say, and the perfect host. Wasn't aware of his interest in Hill.


Jane Holland said...

Obviously the man himself needs to clarify this, but I don't think Chris Jones has an interest in GH. That's probably why he didn't cover him with an individual chapter in Strange Likeness but merely alludes to his work, saying a fuller account of Hill's use of OE must be left to someone else. The book deals specifically with Old English influences in the work of Pound, Morgan, Auden and Heaney. I mentioned Hill because that's where my interest lies ...

Good to see you here again, Andy.

Anonymous said...

Gotcha. Only bad thing I can say about Chris is that he's far too young & handsome! Makes me feel quite antique ..


Ms Baroque said...

Andy, you antique? Jane, this looks like a fascinating book - I may have to try and get hold of it myself. Add it to the gargantuan and ever-growing list.

I think this is very fruitful territory for you - you should never doubt it. Very few people are working like this, I mean WELL, at the moment, and prob not all that many at all even badly. I was so obsessed with the Middle and Dark Ages when I was young that I can see a path where I would have been writing on just the lines you are - I used to read Middle English and even taught myself some Anglo Saxon at one stage.

Thanks v much for the train of thought!

We must try to meet up soon.

Jane Holland said...

Yes, I too went through the obligatory Celtic slash medieval slash Arthurian phase as a teenager ... read the Morte d'Arthur, the Mabinogion (in trans, of course!) and assorted modern versions of the same, including marvellous later stuff like Mary Stewart's 'Merlin' trilogy.

But to be honest, I've developed into such a nerdy type, the actual stories are now far less interesting to me than the development of the English language that's accompanied their retelling over the centuries.

My father's the same about French. When I was a teen, we went on several European road trips together, just me and him, in a nice old Daimler, crossing and recrossing the map of Europe.

Now my father loves opera, classical music, ragtime. And in the early eighties I loved nothing but rock and pop, naturally enough, being a teen.

Once, famously, on a cold but scenic drive up through the French Alps, I tried to play him some Blondie: 'Atomic!' etc.

After about the third song on the album, he made a furious noise like gears crunching and threw the tape out of the car window. That was the end of my 'Atomic' tape. Eaten by a French goat, probably.

Yet, with a complete lack of logic, he'd listen to French rock and pop, no problem. If they were singing in French, no matter how loud, it was respectable and worth listening to.

I'm sort of the same with dead languages. It could be the dreariest crap in the world, but if it involves some awkward or highly idiomatic constructions, I'll study it for hours!

Rachel Fox said...

Ah, nerdinesses...I spent a month in Madrid when I was about 17 and for most of the 4 weeks I sat in my friend's room reading her Spanish/English dictionary from a to z. Some people might have spent the time otherwise...and indeed when I went back for a year (aged 18) I'm afraid to say I was a lot less studious and a lot more...drunk and amorous. Yes, lots of amor...and the rest.

Ms Baroque said...

Yes... my nerdiness manifested in lots of archaeological tomes on the "historical Arthur" with photographs of remote burial mounds, accompanied by quotations from the Anglo-Saxon chronicle. When my mother gave me an edition of the Venerable Bede for Christmas it was regarded as a kind and thoughtful present!

I then went and did a voluntary research paper on Alfred the Great when I was 15, just because I wanted to learn about him. I still think his vision was incredible. He built schools! He wanted ordinary boys (sic) to know how to read! We are the beneficiaries of that.

[climbs down off high horse]

This is fun, like a Girl Nerds Club.

Rachel Fox said...

I think the Boy Nerds Club has been closed to new applications for a long time.

Bo said...

No it hasn't! I'm writing a fifth branch of the mabinogion at the moment as a present for my long-suffering doctoral supervisor. In yer actual middle Welsh, very slowly. Gwydion's just turned the trees into armed warriors. medieval languages: love 'em. Can't get enough.

Jane Holland said...

You're writing a fifth branch of the Mabinogion?! In middle Welsh?!

Bo, I'm becoming a trifle concerned that you're so clever my brain may actually explode if it comes into contact with yours too often in any given year.

Luckily, it's still a risk I'm happy to take! ;)

Ms Baroque said...

My God. Can we have a little bit of it? Just to see what it looks like?

Bo said...

Jane, you flatterer! Sure, Ms Baroque - here's a chunk.

This is the bit where Gwydion the enchanter is in a sticky spot in battle. Being stuck, he decides to turn the trees of the nearby forest into warriors, and to have them led into battle by the chiefs of his human army, each with a spring of the relevant tree on his shield.


A kyuodi a wnaethant, a chymryt y gwysg dan y coet a chymryt y brigeu o bop pren a dyuuei yno. (And they arose, and took their armour under the trees and took sprigs of every tree which was growing there.) Ac y doethant yn ol at y Gwydyon. Ac yna rannu y brigeu y ryngthunt a wnaeth, y’r sawl bennaethiait a gwyrda ac yssyd yn y niueroed yna, a rodi y brigau ar y taryaneu a wnaethant, mal y dywot y Gwydyon attunt. (And they returned to Gwydion. And then he divided the sprigs between them, as many as were chieftains and nobles who were in the battalions there, and they place the shoots on their shields, as Gwydion instructed them.) Ac ar hynny yd aeth Gwydion y orallt y bryn, lle nys allei neb y welet, ac yna y kymerth e hutlath, a wynebu y coed, a theirgueith y trewis y daear y rac e deudroet. (And thereupon Gwydion went to the summit of the hill, where no one might see him, and there he took his magic wand and faced the forest, and three time he struck the earth in front of his feet.) A llyma pop bren o’r coet yn mynet yn gynniuyeit ar hynny, deri a bedwenni a gwyrdgyll, ac wynteu yn galetwyneb; (and lo, every tree of the wood turning thereupon into armed warriors, oaks and birches and green hazels, and they were stern-faced;) a Gwydion ynteu a ysgrit y’e welet, a lleueu yr adar yn diengit trwy aruthred o pop parth y’r coed. (and Gwydion himself shivered to see it, and the cries of the birds escaping in fright from every part of the forest.)

Jane Holland said...

I tried to comment earlier and the stupid comment box ate my comment. Hopefully, this has worked now.

Bo, no flattery. I'm definitely impressed. And curious to learn more: 'coed' is 'forest or wood', I guess, and 'ac' must be 'and' ...

It's time I learnt some Gaelic really, since my tiny smattering of Manx hardly counts and the Celtic branch is the only one I don't 'have' out of all the branches of the Indo-European language group.

But this year is already completely taken up, study-wise. I'll tell you what with when I next see you, as it's not for public consumption just at the moment.

Maybe next year? Assuming I make it through this crazy Uranus opposition, that is. Right now, I feel like the Master in Doctor Who, pre-transformation, always hearing the maddening distant beat of drums.

The voices, the voices ...

Bo said...

Spot on Jane. MW is actually rather easy to get to a basic reading knowledge of, especially if you know other medieval languages as you do.

Oh! It all sounds very mytserious...I'm longing to know what's taking up your time study-wise!

I'd always be happy to give you the Welsh or Irish/Scottish Gaelic patented Bo starter-kit, if you're ever interested. (Do you know the poetry of Sorley MacLean, Cathal O Searchaigh or Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill? All wonderful, all available in bilingual edns.)

david lumsden said...

Belated thanks for this post: it spurred me into trying to get hold of a copy. It's finally arrived and I can't believe how neatly it fits in the hand given the startling price tag! I was expecting a huge tome, alhough I'm guessing the subject matter is weighty enough. Looking forward to working through it.