Tag Archives: Poetry

The Rolands’ quests

 

 

 

Elidor was Alan Garner’s third novel, first published in 1965, and the point where, half a lifetime ago, I became engrossed in the work of this great British writer.

At the start of the novel he quotes a phrase from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came – ”, spoken by Edgar as he pretends to be mad in order to protect himself from his malign brother Edmund. It is only recently that I have appreciated that this reference is one part of a literary chain spread over centuries.

In Elidor, Garner’s Roland, Roland Watson, is one of four siblings who become embroiled in an adventure to save the magical world of Elidor. Although the youngest, he is identified as the strongest by Malebron, the nobleman who seeks their help, and at many points of the story he is the leader. In Elidor at the start, he is able to rescue his siblings from the dungeon of the Mound of Vandwy. Later back home in Manchester, it is he who undertakes the task of recovering the four priceless treasures which they have hidden for protection. He retains a faith in the whole Elidor story when the older ones are becoming sceptical, and continues to take seriously their duty to bring it to a successful resolution.

That original quote from King Lear comes supposedly from a medieval ballad called “Childe Rowland” and when you discover the narrative of this (as, for example, through the collection of Joseph Jacobs) you see how liberally Garner drew from this source for the opening of his own novel. The ballad has Rowland playing with a ball with his brothers near a church and him kicking it away and it getting lost; his sister Ellen tries to find it but she has been captured by supernatural beings in the Dark Tower which appears to be within a small hill. In Elidor Roland kicks a football through the window of a derelict Victorian church which is the gateway to the fantasy world and then rescues his sister Helen and his two brothers from the Mound of Vandwy . The ballad’s hall encrusted with diamonds and rubies and emeralds is similar to a branch of “apple blossom…silver…crystal (and) spun mercury” inside Garner’s location.

 

  

 

The Shakespeare phrase influenced in turn Robert Browning’s 19th century poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”. Browning’s autobiographical narrative starts with Roland meeting a “hoary cripple…with his staff”, who is reminiscent of the tramp with the violin who leads the children into Elidor. The landscape this Roland walks through, “starv’d, ignoble nature…(full of ) penury, inertness and grimace” , is comparable to Garner’s desolate inner city landcape which he later specifically dubs “The Wasteland”.

In my youth, as regularly rescanned as my copy of Elidor was Poetry 1900 to 1965, edited by George Macbeth. In his notes on Louis MacNeice, Macbeth said that MacNeice’s 1946 “parable play” The Dark Tower was “the best piece of writing ever done for radio”. I heard it recently for the first time.  It imagines yet another young Roland, training to embark on a quest to visit the Dark Tower and fight an indestructible dragon.

Amanda Wrigley says that MacNeice did not wish his parable to be interpreted too literally and she herself describes it as “morally complicated”, but it seems clear to me that its theme is duty and sacrifice, risking your life for an important cause, even if you didn’t want to regard the dragon which Roland may face as a symbol of fascism.

Benjamin Britten’s music is a significant part of the reputation of The Dark Tower, and a significant part of its impact, notably the strings and percussion section at the end as Roland strides towards to his destination. But I found the text and production impressive too. The fantastical mixed into an atmosphere of political anxiety and idealism recalled Yeats’ play The Dreaming of the Bones, Brecht and Auden, Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Orwell’s 1984. To my ear its form has been copied by a lot of radio drama in the subsequent decades.

MacNeice’s Roland is, like Garner’s, the youngest of his family, regarded by his mother as “flippant” and someone who “lacks concentration”, described even by himself as “the black sheep”. However, he is trained to follow in the family tradition of travelling across the ocean to challenge the dragon of the Dark Tower. During the play, he faces various voices of persuasion and dissuasion, from his mother, his tutor, girlfriend Sylvie, old Blind Peter, a tavern drunk and the steward on the ship which is taking him towards his destiny.

As you listen, you are struck by the similarities with the other “Roland texts” even though you know they will not be coincidental. Mountains move like the circus of ancient Rome and the Dark Tower grows from the ground, just as Browning described hills as being like living “giants” and Roland Watson felt the standing stones in Elidor were multiplying and moving. The tavern drunk, the Soak, has a dream that Roland’s mission will have an “unhappy” end which undermines his confidence while the Watson children meet the drunk Paddy whose warning about “horses with horns” directs them towards the scene of the climax of the Elidor quest.

 

   

 

 

Whereas in Browning’s poem and in MacNeice’s play a crucial role is played by Roland’s horn or trumpet, in Elidor other musical elements are significant. A violin tune, “thin and pitched high in…sadness”, starts the children’s journey from the abandoned urban landscape and a sinister melody hypnotises them briefly in the Mound of Vandwy. At the end the saving of Elidor is signalled by the dying cry of a unicorn, the song of Findhorn, in Manchester city centre on a frosty New Year’s Eve.

 

 

    

 

All of the Rolands’ quests share some degree of happy resolution. In the ballad, the King of Elfland, the wicked resident of the Dark Tower, is defeated in a duel and Ellen and the two brothers are rescued. In Garner, Elidor is saved by the Watson children despite the challenge of armed warriors and the death of the unicorn. In Browning, Roland, “dauntless”, reaches the tower where stronger people before him had failed. In the same way in MacNeice, Roland pushes himself towards the Dark Tower and sounds his horn as taught by his elders, including the specific command to “hold that note at the end”.

 

 

References:
Macbeth, George (1967) Poetry 1900 to 1965  London: Longman/Faber
Garner, Alan (1974)  Elidor  Glasgow: Collins Armada Lions

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Summer night flight

 

It’s always stimulating to uncover similarities in different pieces of art– as long as you can feel that something more than plagiarism is involved! One of my first ever experiences came, as mentioned in an early Leaf Collecting post, when I saw the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and realised he dealt with similar people and places as did two other artists from different periods, the poet Robert Frost and the songwriter David Ackles.

When I heard Katrina Porteous reading part of her poem “Dunstanburgh” on BBC Radio 4 recently, I immediately remembered D. H. Lawrence’s poem “Bat”.

Porteous describes larks and swallows flying in the midsummer twilight in the north-east of England. The mood is eerie and almost supernatural as the viewer watches the “messengers from another shore” which act like “needles, blue-black arrows, ravelling breath-taking streamers of flight”.

 

Lindisfarne Castle, just along the Northumberland coast from Dunstanburgh Castle, which features in Katrina Porteous’ poem.

 

Lawrence’s narrator is in southern Europe, sitting on a terrace in Florence about 100 years ago, but he also has an acute sense of the gently shifting period between night and day and of birds creating a new landscape. “The world is taken by surprise” as he watches the swallows “with spools of dark thread sewing the shadows together”.

 

The “tired flower of Florence” on the “obscure Arno” , as D.H. Lawrence describes it in “Bat”.

 

While the narrator in Lawrence’s poem moves from an admiration of swallows to a revulsion towards bats, Porteous’ poem retains a tone of pleasure and wonder. Her birds are the “minstrels” which, evoking “gold, firelight, dancing”, help to bring the medieval ruins of Dunstanburgh castle temporarily back to midsummer life.

 

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A love affair like the French Revolution

 

A really great poem from the first half of the 20th century which I discovered only in the recent past is the sonnet “Well, I have lost you…” written by the American Edna St. Vincent Millay.

As a fan (then and now) of BBC Radio 3’s  Late Junction,  I was readily drawn to something recommended by one of its presenters, Fiona Talkington,  as part of a poetry season the BBC  produced in 2009.

A sonnet is a long-established form, perhaps now old-fashioned, and certainly constraining, so it was striking to see the energy and intensity squashed into and bursting out of this one.

Regret, reflection, resignation, pride and self-confidence, the shrewd analysis of a finished relationship, and a statement of feminist independence which would have been unusual in the 1930s – all crammed into 14 rhyming and rhythmic lines.   

For me the most powerful images are, first, the end of a relationship compared to the way French royalty and aristocracy “went to their deaths…in a tumbrel” during the Revolution, and, second, the use of the phrase “played…slyly”, and the realisation that behaviour which might at first seem grown-up and sophisticated might be dishonest and ultimately self-defeating. 

 

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A welcome to new life

 

Here and below, four scenes of Orkney photographed in 1992.

 

I had never heard Peter Maxwell Davies’ song “Lullaby for Lucy” until six months ago, when I heard it performed by Genesis Sixteen at the Cumnock Tryst. Since then, I keep bumping into it, most recently as the finale of the BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week programmes dedicated to the late composer.

The text of the piece is a poem by George Mackay Brown , only eleven lines long but still resonant with trademark references to nature, food and drink and spirituality.

Maxwell Davies set it to music in 1981, bringing what to my ear are medieval influences into the undulating harmonies.

The back-story of “Lullaby for Lucy” is often repeated. Mackay Brown wrote it in acrostic form to mark the birth of Lucy Rendall, the first child born for 32 years in the parish of Rackwick on the Orkney island of Hoy. The circumstances of her parents’ meeting were suitably unusual.

What happened to Lucy after her birth was marked, exceptionally, by two world-famous creative artists? The internet does have one newspaper article about her forthcoming wedding in 2005.

Maxwell Davies was a prolific composer, working, like Benjamin Britten and James MacMillan, in many forms and for many types of musicians. His style moved from modernist and avant-garde in the 1960s to more conventionally classical later, influenced, it is usually agreed, by his move to Orkney in the 1970s.  

 

 

 

 

“Unite…celebration…new…a pledge and a promise…brightness and light”.  “Lullaby for Lucy” is a fittingly uplifting piece, in both words and music, for spring and for Eastertide. 

 

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The blessed tightrope-walker

 

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The Basilica of the Annunciation, built in Nazareth in 1969. According to Christian tradition, the church’s location is close to the place where an angel appeared to Mary, telling her she would give birth to the son of God.

 

Although Christian churches celebrate the feast of the Annunciation in March, the event is an essential component of the Nativity and therefore of Advent. “Gabriel’s Message” is just one popular carol whose words focus on it: “thy son shall be Emmanuel by seers foretold, most highly favoured lady.”

When I was younger, the Christian approach to teaching about the Annunciation was usually from a female perspective, such as on the ideals of motherhood, the sort of image which only a woman was expected to empathise with fully.

In later years the Virgin Mary’s acceptance of God’s instruction in spite of her fear has been presented as a timeless example of courage and faith which applies to both genders. I really responded, for example, to the argument and language in an article written by Sally Read in The Tablet in 2012. 

 “(Although) modern women can often mistake Mary’s submission for weakness… her life is (actually) a courageous quietly hair-raising navigation of God’s will… Mary knew too well the tremendous discomfort of difference, and its agonising finale. Her earthly walk through maternity has the breathtaking dare of a tightrope walker, never taking her eyes from God.”

Radio 3 excellent Words and Music series once had a programme about Mary which featured  several engaging and profound poems which I had never heard or read before. One was “Prayer for a New Mother” by Dorothy Parker which looks forward and back between Nativity and Crucifixion in the same way as does her “The Maidservant at the Inn” . Another was the narrative of “Mary and Gabriel” by Rupert Brooke, which, although more old-fashioned, contains many strong images.  

The Annunciation has been the subject of some wonderful visual art down the centuries. For example, the classic Fra Angelico Henry Ossawa Tanner’s highly modern and physical Mary and Arcabas’ more sinister visitor.

 

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According to the New Testament, Mary, after learning of her pregnancy, quickly travelled to her cousin Elizabeth who lived in “the hill country of Judea”. These statues of Mary and Elizabeth are in the forecourt of the Church of the Visitation, in the village of Ein Karim near Jerusalem.

 

 

 

 

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Our changing perspective of World War One

 

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Gravestones at a World War One battlefield, probably Verdun.

 

An earlier Leaf Collecting post recalled a speaker on a long-past edition of BBC’s Newsnight who suggested that a major reason why World War One was being still remembered after a century was the number of its soldier-poets who were still studied at school.

A more recent piece on the BBC website by poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan wondered whether our common view of the World War One experience as one of horror and disgust is actually false, and whether it has been skewed by one single poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen.

Part of McMillan’s argument is that it was two poetry anthologies published independently in the 1960s, by Brian Gardner and Ian Parsons, which established and emphasised this bleak pessimistic view of the war. This was in line with the anti-war views shared at that time by many liberal writers, academics and broadcasters. This was an era of fear of nuclear war prompted by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the first wave of popularity of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and protests against the Vietnam War. The social and political climate also boosted the popularity of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

McMillan’s view is shared by Tim Kendall, who has edited a recent collection of World War One poetry. Kendall suggests that Brian Gardner actually provided false information about Owen, for example that the latter was prone to share “horror photographs” with contemporaries who had less combat experience. He adds that the Latin epithet which is part of Owen’s title was used 20 years earlier in a newspaper report by the rather more bellicose Winston Churchill and therefore its application here was not quite as “original” or “revolutionary” as Owen fans have suggested.

 My own collection of the poetry is a later one, The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, in a revised edition from 1996. As well as the familiar names, it includes female poets and combatants from Austria, Germany, France and Italy. 

Whose poetic experience is the more authentic? When I was young, my impressions were in line with McMillan’s: it was Owen who was the orthodoxy, the accepted spokesperson, with Isaac Rosenberg acquiring some status as the only significant poet who was not an officer. Recently it appears that David Jones and In Parenthesis have been pushed further towards the top of the pantheon.

The one weakness in an argument that earlier readers of Owen inherited the flawed critical perspectives of the 1960s, in my opinion, is that many more of those readers had direct experience of war. Men and women alike might have served in the forces or in reserved occupations at home during World War Two, and others had done National Service. School-age readers had fathers or older relatives who had served – although admittedly, if they were like my Dad or David Hepworth’s, they never spoke about it.

I was really struck when I saw Mike Leigh’s 1950s-set film Vera Drake by that pub scene where men discuss briefly their different war experiences:  such moments must have been a powerful and intimate bond between many of those more introvert individuals.

The status of particular works of art keeps changing, because the ways audiences respond keep changing. Except for that one crucial fact, that far fewer readers or viewers of war stories today have had personal experience of the hardship and danger and sacrifice which are being described and presented to them.  

 

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A notice-board somewhere on the Western Front commemorates the vast numbers who died.

 

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The lichts o’ Hallowe’en

 

I have always been sceptical of the authenticity and value of modern writing in the Scots language, but I must concede a powerful example is some of the poetry of Violet Jacobs. Mind you, she lived from 1863 to 1946 so might be regarded as being closer to the era of Robert Burns  than to anyone living today.

I first came across her poem “Hallowe’en” in the musical setting by Jim Reid, which gives it added power as well as makes its reflective structure seem strangely similar to John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas”. Jacobs’ narrator observes all the features of a local Hallowe’en – the children dressed up, the sharing of ghost stories – and finds them especially poignant because her loved one is in France, probably a casualty of World War One.

Burns himself also wrote a poem called “Hallowe’en”, which is a description of various folklores of the season, carried out by some named characters, with accompanying notes by the bard.

Biographer Maurice Lindsay felt it “one of Burns’ least successful poems…perhaps (because it was) a too-conscious attempt to preserve customs.” However, Lindsay did point readers in the direction of two livelier poems which probably influenced Burns’ “Hallowe’en”.

“Hallow-Fair” by Robert Fergusson, the contemporary whom Burns greatly admired  reports on a public celebration near Edinburgh, while “Hallowe’en” by the less well -known John Mayne provides tips for family celebrations at half the length of Burns and at twice the pace.

 

Reference :  Lindsay, Maurice (1994)   Robert Burns : The Man, His Work, The Legend   London : Robert Hale

 

 

 

 

 

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Fearties, procrastinators and forelock-tuggers

 

At the recent royal opening of the new session of the Scottish Parliament, members of the Scottish Youth Theatre gave a presentation of the great Edwin Morgan poem which was written for the Parliament’s opening in 2004. It is often tempting to compare the daily functioning of the Scottish Parliament with how Morgan imagined it.

His first lines are about the Parliament’s architecture, which certainly caused controversy well before it opened. A building of “curves and caverns” rather than of “Gothic grandeur” or of “imperial marble”, Enric Miralles’ design probably still incites comments among visitors, although I feel the two views you normally see on TV, the chamber and that internal staircase where TV addresses and interviews take place, always look bright and attractive.  I was however quite shocked to find on my single visit that the main public entrance is so much lower and darker than expected (partly because of the inevitable space for security precautions).

The debating chamber was built in a semi-circle to distinguish it from Westminster and to discourage the aggressive adversarial practices of the UK Parliament, which are so often criticised. The individual workstations do give the impression of a modern grown-up office space rather than merely an arena for rhetoric and heckling. Sitting space is more civilised and generous. Despite all this, and its smaller number of members, the Westminster habits of shouting and cheering and blaming and insults appear to have continued. Certainly it provides copy for the journalists, who are after all among its most regular visitors.

Elections to the Scottish Parliament are different from those to the UK Parliament, being by a form of proportional representation. However many other features are similar to Westminster.  The elected representatives are entitled MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) which is perhaps a bit close to MPs (Members of (the UK) Parliament). The group of senior government ministers had always been called the Cabinet, so it was perhaps no surprise when the SNP later exalted these ministers to the grander Westminster title of Secretary. The weekly First Minister’s Question Time is constructed in a similar adversarial way to Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons – “it is the most popular session of Parliament and demand for tickets is extremely high”, says the Parliament website presumably without irony.

In Morgan’s poem, some of his strongest phrases are directed towards political misbehaviour. He warned against “fearties…procrastinators….forelock-tuggers”, and, especially, those prone to explaining inaction and incompetence with “the droopy mantra of ‘it wizny me’”. He wanted elected members to be “open and adventurous”.

Whether Morgan’s wishes have been granted or not may depend on your political opinion. I tend to feel that on many occasions members of all political parties have been guilty of cowardice, inertia and making excuses. An individual’s statements can change dramatically depending on whether he or she is in power or in opposition. The political party which is most often in power in Scottish local government tends to blame its inertia on the party which is currently in power in the Scottish Parliament which in turn tends to blame either the party of local government or the different party which is in power in the UK Parliament. Such unsatisfactory behaviour probably applies in other countries’ governments, but not all have Morgan’s stirring words to inspire them.

I remember, in the earlier years of the Scottish Parliament, in answer to some public criticism about whether this new assembly was achieving anything at all useful, the then SNP leader Alex Salmond replied to the effect that there was a difference between a Scottish Parliament and a Scottish government. Certainly, after 17 years of a Scottish Parliament and the major devolution of government functions which have involved all political parties, there is, regrettably, plenty of evidence that poverty, homelessness and low educational achievement continue in many parts of Scotland.

Is it an inevitable result of growing old that you find your elected representatives less and less satisfactory? When young you may feel angry about injustice and poverty but still suspect that perhaps those in power really are more experienced and more knowledgeable and wiser and perhaps those social problems really are as hard to fix as they say. When you’re older than most of your elected representatives you know that that is unfortunately not true and that failure is caused by incompetence, lack of effort or inappropriate political choices.

Once long ago I was attracted to the example of Cincinnatus, the Roman who was willing to give up his power as a dictator once his designated task was complete and to retire to his farm. So different from modern political careerists who are so eloquent at self-justification!

Maybe the answer is to apply the ideals of Edwin Morgan’s poem to ourselves, each in our individual social and public lives?

 

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Over the border

 

 

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Dundrennan Abbey, near Kirkudbright, was built in the 12th century.

 

For centuries the border areas around Scotland and England were places of tension, rivalry, crime, and organised military conflict. They were also the scenes of dramatic romantic stories, poems and songs.  The first album I heard by Dick Gaughan, No More Forever, originally released in 1972, included powerful versions of two such songs.

“The Fair Flower of Northumberland” is a traditional song where the daughter of an English nobleman helps his Scottish prisoner to escape from captivity. Each verse repeats a line that the young woman’s love has been “easy won” and, indeed, the Scotsman turns treacherous after they safely cross the border. He is already married and he sends her back home to Northumberland with the ugly epithet that she is a “brazen-faced whore”. Her parents are surprisingly sympathetic: she has been “beguiled” by the romantic foreign prisoner and the correct solution is that they now provide a dowry to find her a more suitable husband.

 

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Threave Castle, near Castle Douglas, was built in the 14th century. It stands on an island in the River Dee.

 

In “Jock o’ Hazeldean”, written by Walter Scott although based on an earlier traditional ballad, the dowry and engagement have already been set. Three of the stanzas are spoken by the future father-in-law of the young English woman and Scott includes some great images of medieval wealth and status. The young woman has already been promised a “coat o’ gowd” and the ostentatious outdoor pleasures of “hound…hawk (and) palfrey”; for her wedding the (presumably pre-Reformation) church is “deckt at mornintide (and) the tapers glimmert fair”. We are given no information about whether this Scotsman is more deserving of devotion than the last; regardless, “she’s owre the border and awa’ wi’ Jock o’ Hazeldean”.

 

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Part of the ruins of Sweetheart Abbey, near Dumfries. It is so called because it was founded by Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway in the 13th century in memory of her late husband, John Balliol.

 

A later song of border romance from a different musical style is “Moonlighting” , co-written and recorded by Leo Sayer in 1975. Here both lovers are English, living perhaps somewhere in the north of England.

 

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Part of Hadrian’s Wall, the ancient Roman division between England and Scotland, photographed on a drizzly day in 2003.

 

In apparent homage to earlier border traditions, the song has a relatively spare instrumentation in which a xylophone or glockenspiel seems to play a part. The rhythm, gentle but still urgent, evokes  surreptitious plans and nervous excitement.

The narrative is set in happier times when young adults who were not university graduates might have stable secure employment. He works in a printers, she in “the water department” of the local council, presumably in a secretarial or clerical role; he owns a blue Morris van. We know her surname and that he has a friend called Eddie, but neither Christian name.

There does not appear to be any serious tensions between their two families; only desire and adventure fuel the elopement to the border to be married in Scotland. The place name identification in the final lines, “We’re only ten miles to Gretna, they’re three hundred behind” has always struck me as having as much poignancy as in many a more famous song.

 

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The old blacksmiths shop in Gretna Green, as photographed in 1990. The tradition of English couples rushing here to marry began when Scotland had lower ages of consent than England.

 

 

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New Year resolutions

 

Happy New 2016!

Two striking poems on the theme of the New Year, by two famous writers but of very different tones.

Alfred Tennyson’s “Ring Out Wild Bells” (I wonder if it was knowingly copied by George Harrison for his Christmas song “Ding Dong”?) calls for better behaviour, both public and private, during the next year. He envisages an end to “the feud of rich and poor”, “ancient forms of party strife”, “false pride in place and blood” and “civic slander”. At first it seems unusually political, until the last lines show that Tennyson believes such good conduct would merely be following the true Christian message of Christmas – “ring in the Christ that is to be”.

While, in Tennyson, it is the sound of bells which will signal this new movement to banish “coldness” and “darkness” and make social behaviour “nobler…sweeter…purer”, D.H.Lawrence’s “New Year’s Eve” focuses on the sight of light, fire, which dispels “great black night”.

Lawrence’s poem, like Tennyson’s, is an exhortation to change behaviour, but more private and personal, to share in love and physical pleasure. “There are only two things now”- the outside night and the inside fire – and “we (are) the two ripe pips” between those elemental forces,  so “take off your things…”

In 2016, should our resolution be collective or personal, deal with spiritual or physical needs, be a long-term plan or immediate action? Whose recommendations are more pertinent?

 

 

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