E R Hughes: Painting Poetry

Night with her Train of Stars

Night with her Train of Stars

I mentioned in my previous post on the ‘Enchanted Dreams’ exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery that Edward Hughes was inspired by a number of poems. I’m really interested in the interactions between art and literature, and how poetry and painting are often entwined. For the Pre-Raphaelites, many of whom were known to Hughes, poetry and painting were ‘sister arts’, mutually inspirational, and their painting is often very literary – sometimes narrative, usually symbolic, often very detailed so that it can be ‘read’. Many of their paintings were directly inspired by poetry, and of course several Pre-Raphaelites wrote poetry too, most notably Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose poems and paintings go hand in hand.

It’s no surprise, then, that Hughes was inspired by contemporary poets in his work. He tends, however, to take a much less narrative approach than many of the Pre-Raphaelite-affiliated painters, and instead produces something which captures a feeling or a mood, inspired by an image from the painting, perhaps. He is, however, still interested in symbolism, in drawing on a wider web of intertextual references, whilst offering an image that is also very concerned with aesthetics. I find this fascinating: when we read, we ‘see’ in our mind’s eye. When a painting is inspired by a poem, are we seeing the artist’s mind’s eye? How does this affect our reading of the literary work – do we then ‘see’ it differently?

Oh what's that in the Hollow...?

Oh what’s that in the Hollow…?

Although I’m very familiar with Christina Rossetti’s work, the ways in which I ‘see’ her poem ‘Amor Mundi’ is very influenced by Hughes’s Oh What’s that in the Hollow…? ‘Amor Mundi’ is inspired by the traditional Rossettian theme that life is a struggle but we should embrace that struggle or risk damnation. The poem is written in a rapidly moving irregular metre, describing a couple following a downhill path which, metaphorically, leads to Hell. Signs appear along the way to warn them – ‘a meteor … dumb, portentous’, ‘a scaled and hooded worm’, and, finally, ‘in the hollow’, ‘a thin dead body which waits the eternal term.’ It is this last omen which Hughes paints; the painting was unpopular when first exhibited, considered macabre and lacking in explanation, but read in conjunction with Rossetti’s poem it is literally a symbol of the fate which awaits us – a memento mori. The couple see the signs, but determinedly ignore them to the last, even when one of them realises the destination of the path. Hughes’s depiction of the body, pale and emaciated, the eyes half closed in death, surrounded by thorny briar roses which ironically echo Burne-Jones’s Sleeping Beauty, is an imaginative recreation of Rossetti’s image, adding a vicious-looking raven to add to the discomfiting picture. Yet the image also suggests that the body is reclaimed by nature, seeming almost to sink into the earth as the leaves grow over it. The painting is very much in keeping with the poem, which is rich in visual description despite its metaphorical nature.

One of Hughes’s most famous paintings, Night with her Train of Stars, above right, is influenced by a much less famous poem, William Ernest Henley’s ‘Margaritae Sorori‘ (To my Sister Margaret). Henley is now mostly remembered as the poet of ‘Invictus’, but was a prolific and influential writer, critic and editor in his time. Once again this is a visually rich poem, glowing with colours ‘luminous and serene’. It is descriptive of a time and place, opening with birdsong watching the sun fade: the poem begins by drawing on the senses to appreciate the scene, but it becomes clear by the end of the poem that the senses are  fading: this is a poem about death, and the narrator’s desire for a peaceful end which is reminiscent of Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’. The painting, so often reproduced that it can be seen as sentimental or chocolate-box (unfairly, in my view), depicts ‘Night with her train of stars/And her great gift of sleep’ – this is, in essence, the Angel of Death, gently folding an infant in her arms, her finger to her lips as she hushes the cherubim who throng round her. The colours of the painting are as beautiful as those of the poem, indicating a monochromatic scale of blues with the pinpoints of light which Hughes painted so beautifully, and capturing the essence of a peaceful night. Night scatters poppies, symbolising sleep, and it is eternal sleep which she brings.

Fra Lippo Lippi

Fra Lippo Lippi

A very different literary engagement can be found in Hughes’s remarkable portrait, ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’, inspired by Browning’s poem of the same name. Hughes’s red chalk portrait is minutely detailed, appearing photographic at first sight, which offers a pleasing parallel with the nuanced and equally descriptive poem. ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ is one of Browning’s wonderful dramatic monologues, in which we learn a great deal about the speaker, through his garrulous explanation of himself and his actions. Brother Lippo is a reluctant monk, who took his vows through necessity rather than conviction, and remains there for a place to live. His character shines through in the poem as he describes his exploits to attempt to excuse himself after being stopped by the police outside a brothel – his amorous adventures and also his painting are explained; and his character is equally present in Hughes’s work. The combination of poem and painting here provides a great back-and-forth of ideas in art and literature. Browning’s monk says that he ‘made a string of pictures of the world/Betwixt the ins and outs of verb and noun,’ when describing his painting, indicating these twin arts of word and paint, art and poetry. He says that he must ‘Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!’ And it is the soul, perhaps, of a vivacious, energetic monk trying to escape the bondage of the monastery, that Hughes has painted: his Fra Lippo doesn’t look at the viewer, but just past us, as though already moving on to the next thing. Though the young man in the drawing looks in repose, there is a life to his face that suggest he may at any moment begin to regale passers-by.In the poem, he argues his case for realism, for attempting to paint people as they are, for looking closely in order to paint the very essence of life (which reflects the fast-paced realism of Browning’s verse, too), and this is just what Hughes has done, too; he has produced a portrait that the fictional Fra Lippo would have been proud of.


The Poetry of Form, inspired by Barbara Hepworth

Visiting the Hepworth exhibition at the Tate, I began to think about form. Hepworth’s fascination with form and structure is obvious in her sculptures: she looked, we assume, at a lump of marble or a piece of wood and began to perceive, however dimly, the form it might take in her hands. Sometimes the eventual form it takes is smooth, closed, irreproachable (and perhaps a little unapproachable, too). Sometimes it is open, inviting, offering unexpected glimpses and perspectives. In either case, the form invites us to consider it, ‘read’ it, re-evaluate it and our relationship with the world. Hepworth, as both a sculptor rooted in the English landscape and also a part of an international Modernist movement, was aware of the way in which form affects people, how sculpture interacts with us, with landscape, with the world, and the effect that a deceptively simple form might have upon the viewer.
How, I have been wondering, might I bring this concretised idea of ‘abstract’ form to bear upon poetic form? Bear with me; these are metaphors which might seem fanciful, but equally, I hope they may illuminate. Perhaps the poetic process might be equated in some way to the artistic one; a poet sees the kernel of an idea forming and develops it until it takes a form. This is isn’t a woolly idea; I’m talking about prosody, the very shape of a poem and the way in which it is held together, structured, devised from building blocks which include not only language but also poetic devices such as metre and rhythm, alliteration, rhyme, imagery, metaphors and so on. (For more on prosody see here, a piece I wrote a while ago for The Virtual Theorist).

If the poet carves out a poem well from the raw material (which is the words, the ideas, which are developed using the poet’s tools of poetic devices) then it may appear deceptively simple, though when viewed from other angles we can catch sight of unexpected complexities. Using a poetic structure (say, sonnet form or the villanelle) is not about pouring the words into a mould any more than Hepworth’s sculptures were created this way (even works that were moulded were always finished by hand, indicating her anxiety with artistic integrity); rather, it’s about the poet carving out ideas into a form that is meaningful, chipping away – a word here, a comma there. Like a sculpture, its imperfections reveal its humanity, giving it tactile appeal which makes us pause.

I’m not really talking about ‘concrete’ poems here, which take a particular shape on the page (such as George Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’), but about poetry more generally. After all, poetry is primarily defined by form: we can look at a page and see the difference between poetry and prose, but the rhythm which holds it together and the structure it employs makes it a more complex matter than just the length of the lines.


Enough of abstraction; I’d like to try to apply this idea. Look at Hepworth’s ‘Oval Sculpture’ (1943). It has a clear, distinct shape, the oval defined by its colour, as though it was once a smooth, closed form. The carving has opened it up, so that now we get a fresh view of the material and also of the world around us: look through it at different angles and you see things differently. It’s a complex form, difficult to see exactly how it works, yet it’s also tactile, pleasing to the eye and tempting to the touch. Moreover, you can read into it the metaphors of the enfolding landscape of Cornwall which Hepworth abstractly depicts; the idea that something does not need to be figurative to make us think of something. Its curves and waves echo the sea and the hills; moreover, in its smoothness and seeming randomness it also recalls the shapes of stones washed smooth by the sea.

A poem can be an object, a thing, in a similar way. The Modernist poet H.D. wrote poems which are artefacts, too. This is ‘Oread’, one of her more famous works:

Whirl up, sea—

whirl your pointed pines,

splash your great pines

on our rocks,

hurl your green over us,

cover us with your pools of fir.

The Oread is a sea nymph, the speaker of the poem who seems to be conjuring up the powers of the sea. The poem is short and deceptively simple; it doesn’t take much thought to penetrate its central metaphor of the sea as a forest. The poem is a good example of Modernist poetry which aims to reduce language and ideas to a minimum, to focus on the image not the words, and the beautiful simplicity of this poem is one of the reasons for its popularity. But it still retains a structure: the first line is simple, one-syllable words calling on the sea like an ancient poet summoning his Muse. The dash causes us to pause (try reading it aloud) before the spiky consonants of the ‘pointed pines’ cause the sibilance of ‘splash’ to break over the rocks of the reader. ‘Pines’ is repeated, linking the two, and the language intertwined sea and land, as though the sea is surging inland and taking over. The glimpse of the sea breaking over the rocks, just as the words are rushing over the reader, provides us with a surprising view, of a world covered with the deep green of the water, ‘pools of fir’, a very unexpected image. It’s as though the nymph is invoking the end of the world, the destruction of the land as the water embraces it.

This is a fairly quick reading of the poem, and of course I have chosen a sculpture and poem which have some similarities to focus on, but the idea of seeing form as a concrete thing which can be given literal shape in sculpture and read in a similar way in poetry is one I rather like. I’d be interested to know what others think.

Discussing these ideas with a friend, the poet Sarah Doyle was enlightening, hearing the views of a poet on her writing. She said:

I take a fairly architectural approach to the writing of formal poetry. For example, I will compose the first and last two lines of a sonnet, and then generally write (build) inwards, or at least ‘jump around’ until the poem is ‘filled in’. I almost never write a poem ‘in order’.

I consider that I create/form, as much as write, poems. And the crafting/drafting/editing stage is perhaps not dissimilar to a sculptor removing excess material. But I take a very pragmatic view of writing, which I am not sure others share. I am fascinated by form and prosody generally, and frequently perceive poems as physical things, with all the hallmarks that implies. Curves, contours, textures…

This sculptural or even architectural way of writing is one which enables the poet to scaffold ideas around a structure, and to play with that structure and shape it as required. I find this a helpful way of thinking about poetry.

Books, music and art at Port Eliot Festival

IMG_1976The Port Eliot festival is one of my favourite events of the year. Held in a beautiful country estate in Cornwall, it’s a weekend filled with books, music, food, gin and general jollity. It’s impossible not to find something to inspire you, and although it’s exhausting having so much fun it’s also inspiring (and I came home with a large pile of books to read). I even heard some comedy I found funny – Shappi Khorsandi (I don’t usually enjoy comedy). There are always small tragedies of the writers you don’t get to hear because they clash with something else you simply must do – but I’ll try not to dwell on that! I won’t test your patience with a rendition of my notebook, but instead will just go through a few highlights. First, music. I went to a singing workshop run by the Chaps Choir, where we sang gospel songs, a Finnish reindeer call, and a great arrangement of The Magnetic Fields’ ‘The Book of Love‘. I love to sing, and this has really inspired me to go and find another choir; I haven’t stopped singing since (especially as we got to perform the song in St Germans Church on Sunday). The singing was also inspired by hearing Fishermans Friends, the Port Isaac group who sing sea shanties (and drink beer and laugh whilst singing). I love the shanties, and sing them with my son, who would have loved their show, which had everyone singing along. We also heard Stealing IMG_1985Sheep, and the Unthanks, who were great in concert (‘The Testimony of Patience Kershaw‘, with its socio-historical roots, especially appealed to me).

The writers I heard included Rachel Holmes talking to Shami Chakrabarti about her forthcoming book on Sylvia Pankhurst. I’ve bought her previous book, on Eleanor Marx, and even had a quick chat to her about the nature of feminist biography, and the Pankhurst book should be a good addition to the canon of works on the Suffragettes. Next, I listened to Laura Barton talking about music and sadness – how we bring our own sadness to music we listen to, but how music can also be a way out of sadness, a concept echoed by Matt Haig the following day, talking about reading and writing as a way out of depression, perhaps because it forces us to IMG_1990externalise our emotions and make connections.

In the pouring rain we listened to Owen Sheers (whose book Resistance I have bought but have yet to read) talking about his new book, I Saw A Man, which I bought for my husband, as well as his diverse other projects including a film-poem commemorating the disaster at Aberfan. His comments on Welshness and poetry – that poetry is well-supported in Wales, perhaps better so than in England – interested me. As a complete contrast, we also heard Luke Wright performing his poetry; he’s a great performer, with poems about parenthood, suburbia, politics and failed dreams.

The biggest draws of Saturday were Sarah Waters and Simon Armitage, speaking to packed marquees (the strange angle of the photographs indicates that I was on the floor directly in front of the stage!) I enjoyed Waters’ talk, as I enjoy her novels (though her latest, The Paying Guests, is probably my least favourite). She talked about her research, the periods in history she is interested in (she plans her next novel to be set IMG_1982in the 1950s), and her apparent obsessions with houses, mothers and daughters, gender and class. In The Paying Guests she wrote about the Twenties because it was a period she knew little about, and intentionally undermined the stereotype of the Roaring Twenties, instead focusing on the class conflict and quieter lives of those bereaved after the war. Her interests are often in ordinary lives disrupted by extraordinary events, rather than extraordinary characters. I’m interested to hear that The Little Stranger is to be made into a film and The Paying Guests a TV series.

Simon Armitage, recently elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, has a refreshingly down-to-earth approach for one of the most famous (living) British poets, He talked about his books Walking Home and Walking Away, in which he walked first the Pennine Way and then the South coast, ‘testing poetry’, as he put it – giving readings along the way to support himself, and asking what payment people felt he deserved; though he is an optimist about poetry, he felt that he should take poetry to people to see their response, and on the whole he seems positive about this (again, I have both books but haven’t yet read either!) The extracts IMG_1983he read are not only poetic but humorous too, and suggest that both in the people he met and in the landscape itself he found, unexpectedly, a strong and positive sense of Britishness.

I managed to catch some of a conversation between the sculptor Alice Channer, Nicholas Serota of the Tate, and Chris Stephens, focusing on Barbara Hepworth, the subject of an exhibition at the Tate currently. I was particularly interested in Channer’s comments about how Hepworth makes a solid, hard material look somehow elastic, as though she has changed its very nature in the process of her work. The relationship of people and places to sculpture is something the exhibition has encouraged me to think about too, and the three of them in conversation on Hepworth were inspiring.images

Finally, I was especially inspired by a discussion between Philip Marsden and Tim Dee. Both nature writers (or travel writers), they discussed, among other things, how we use language to construct nature, poetically, socially, historically, and these days politically and ecologically. This is, of course, to nature’s complete ignorance of it: a blackbird has no idea it is a blackbird, or that we have all kinds of cultural connotations of blackbirds; it just is. Obvious but needing stating, I think. And the naming of nature is itself a colonial project, they suggested, implying our dominion over it in a way which is uncomfortable. I’ve only recently become interested in ‘nature writing’, so was fascinated by their discussion about ‘the new nature writing’ – particularly around the resurgence of interest rising-groundin it which is, perhaps, stemming from our disconnection with nature in the modern world, as well as a desire to capture what seems to be a vanishing world (though both of these have been the impetus for much nature writing for centuries). It’s also politically motivated, very often, though, raising awareness of the changes in ecosystems, threatened species, etc; we are looking into the abyss. I’ve bought Marsden’s book Rising Ground, on the ‘spirit of place’ in Cornwall as a way of thinking about how we connect to the landscape more broadly, and how this gives both individuals and cultures meaning. It’s yet another book I can’t wait to read!

Poetry and Politics

In yesterday’s Sunday Times, Andrew Motion, in his role as head of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, writes about party leaders’ reluctance to commit to protecting greenbelt land. He also asks them for their favourite poems about the countryside. (You can read more about Motion’s interviews with the party leaders here). Their responses were:

David Cameron: Gray’s ‘Elegy

Nigel Farage: George Meredith, ‘The Lark Ascending

Natalie Bennett: Aemilia Lanyer, ‘Ode to Cooke-ham

Ed Miliband: Blake’s ‘Jerusalem

Nick Clegg: Blake, ‘Eternity

20130722-095212-PM.jpgCameron’s choice of Gray’s poem is not remarkable; he commented that it is a ‘magical’ poem which was a leaving present from his school – not surprisingly, since both were Eton men. The poem was once voted the UK’s most popular poem, and was also Gordon Brown’s favourite poem, though he more perceptively commented that the poem laments ‘talent wasted, potential unfulfilled and opportunities forgone’. It’s also a poem I love, but not one I’d describe as ‘magical’, exactly – it reminds us all to be humble, because ‘the paths of glory lead but to the grave’, and which reflects on the lives of those who are not ‘great’ in the world’s sense, but who have families to love and who love them, who appreciate home and hearth. While it is a beautiful (and very English) poem, Cameron’s choice of it seems a little glib; after all, though it’s set in a ‘country churchyard’, it is not so much about the countryside as it is about the fate of humanity and the choices in our lives. Here, the countryside is a setting rather than an intrinsic part of the narrative.

Farage’s choice – better known now for its musical version by Vaughan Williams (frequently voted the most popular piece in British classical music, so also hardly a radical choice) was perhaps chosen for dubious reasons, too: because the composer enjoyed a drink in “a country inn” – not unlike Farage himself, of course. The poem describes the beauty of the lark’s song, and is perhaps emblematic of an English summer evening, even indicating a symbol of the rural English way of life with which no doubt Farage would like to be equated.  The poem also suggests how the birdsong might touch the hearts of working men, worn down by the daily grind, ‘Because their love of Earth is deep’. It suggests that the bird can utter a divine song which is beyond humanity, which lifts our souls. I wonder how closely Farage engages with the words of the poem…?

Natalie Bennett’s choice is unsurprising, in its ‘green’ credentials (and also feminist, as this is one of the first poems published by a woman), but it is also the most surprising in that it suggests a level of genuine, personal engagement with the poem and the subject matter, nicely aligned with her politics, while the other politicians’ choices suggest a Cookehamdesire to be seen in a particular way. It’s a poem many won’t have heard of (do read it at the link above), and it’s also the longest; it eulogises a place where the writer ‘first obtained/Grace from that grace where perfect grace remained’, a country house where a community of women reside in perfect harmony. It is a learned poem, with references to other literary works, to classical myths, to Christianity, but most of all it is rooted in the beauty of a place, a sense of repose and confidence that all can be right with the world if we embrace nature and learn to live in peace with each other:

The trees with leaves, with fruits, with flowers clad,
Embraced each other, seeming to be glad,
Turning themselves to beauteous Canopies,
To shade the bright sun from your brighter eyes;
The crystal streams with silver spangles graced,
While by the glorious sun they were embraced;
The little birds in chirping notes did sing,
To entertain both you and that sweet spring.

I applaud Bennett’s choice and urge you to read the poem, and learn more about Lanyer and her work here.

Penseroso_&_L'Allegro_William_Blake2Ed Miliband’s choice, ‘Jerusalem’, is perhaps the most well-known of the poems selected. Set to Hubert Parry’s music it is a stirring piece of patriotism sung at the Last Night of the Proms, though Motion comments that Miliband ‘is drawn to Blake as a visionary figure’. Blake was indeed a mystic, a visionary, a kind of mad prophet who foresaw doom and beauty through the lens of his obsessions, and I admire the man (Blake) intensely but wonder to what extent it is wise for Miliband to align himself with this. Blake’s poem seeks to set Heaven in England, its ‘green and pleasant land’, though the England of Blake’s poem is both idealised and demonised, divided between the ‘dark satanic mills’ and the ‘pleasant pastures’. How much is this a poem of the countryside? Not at all, in my view: while the ‘green and pleasant land’ line is often quoted, it is not explored in the poem, which approaches England from Blake’s urban perspective as a Londoner  exercised by the poverty and repression of those he saw around him, Perhaps it is this aspect of the poem Miliband wishes to resonate with readers, but the poem when sung is all too often seen as misguided and idealistic. However, it is also a call to fight – and was set to music as a way of boosting recruitment in the First World War – so perhaps it is this fighting, revolutionary spirit which inspires the Labour leader (reflected in the singing of ‘Jersualem’ at the end of Labour Party conferences).

The shortest poem by far is Clegg’s:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

Blake’s ‘Eternity’ is as brief as the life which it commemorates (Motion acerbically comments that perhaps Clegg ‘is subconsciously steeling himself for disappointment’). In a short space it constructs a conundrum – that if we focus too much on our pleasures they will fly from us; we cannot hold onto beauty or happiness, but must embrace them while we can and then allow eternity to take over. The sun rise with which the poem concludes suggests another fleeting joy, but one which will return, inevitably, though we may not always be there to see it. It is a poem which – in the context of a broadly Christian world-view – attempts to balance the pain and pleasure of human life. Though a short poem, it’s a thoughtful one. There’s a great post on ‘Eternity’ here.

The party leaders are well-educated, and acquainted, one would hope, with a reasonable range of poetry. Why did they choose these poems? How much thought did they really give it? I think these things can be telling, though, and in fact my opinion of some of them has slightly shifted due to their poetic choices. I have no doubt that these are political, as well as poetical, choices, and I wonder how these potential future leaders will live up to their poems.