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Poem of the Week #9: Ozymandias (Shelley)

Since I am currently sofa surfing, I am shorn of all my poetry books. So rather than tracking down something more obscure, I’m going to plump for possibly my favourite poem of all time – Ozymandias by Percy Shelly. Plus, I watched Watchmen on Monday, which makes this poem somewhat more timely…

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

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Poem of the Week #8: London (William Blake)

I’m going to be leaving London soon for almost a year – maybe even longer depending on how things go. I think that I’ll come back. There are plenty of things to love about London; the people, the places, the arts, the opportunities. But it can be an alienating and lonely city, especially if you are uncertain of your place in the world – no one put this better than William Blake, in ‘London’…

London (William Blake)

I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.

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Things I Like #3: Lofty Peaks

matterhorn

Mountains call to us. They whisper promises of grandeur to the egotist, visions and inspiration to the artist, scenes of great beauty to the naturalist, geological wonders to the scientist. They don’t speak to everyone, but I think it is a rare person who can stand at the foot of a mountain and not have some kind of desire to be at the top of it, touching the clouds and surveying the landscape that rolls, infinite, before you.

It wasn’t always so – until the Romantics and natural philosophers began waxing lyrical about the wonders of mountains in the 17th century, Europeans regarded them as abhorrent, ugly things, rocky warts on the natural landscape that it would be foolish to climb. The Sherpa and Bhutanese, who have lived in and around the Himalaya for centuries, believe that gods live atop the high peaks and see no reason why any right thinking person should want to go up them. They view the desire to reach a summit as a mixture of insanity and blasphemy.

A love of mountains (and a desire to be on top of them) is something that we have learnt, not something we are born with.  In some way that it is impossible to understand, the love and lust for mountains is a reflection of our modern Western society. We have evolved into a society of summit hunters.

It is insane in many ways – hundreds of people lose their lives climbing mountains each year, and for what? And yet when I see a great mountainside like the North Face of the Eiger, I want to climb it.

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It has killed so many, and there is no logical reason why I should want to get to the top, yet as I look at that forbidding wall of rock I am already trying to map a path up to the top. Something in it calls to me.

Perhaps this desire comes from simple territorialism – the desire to be king of the castle, the master of all we survey. Perhaps we have become a bored, soft race of people who have to create our own dangers artificially, by hurling ourselves at inaccessible peaks. Perhaps it is pure ego, the longing to achieve where others have failed or are too scared to attempt. Perhaps it is an expression of the self-destructive urge, the death drive that compels people to risk their lives for no good reason.

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This love of the mountains may well be part founded on these less pleasant emotions, but there is something else to it as well – the truth lies beyond mere egotism or a desire for self-destruction. There’s something hidden up there in the mountains, up there where the air is thin. Not on the mountains themselves, but in the human mind.

Strange things happen to people at altitude. Sometimes terrible things – retinas torn loose, brain cells asphixiating for want of oxygen, lungs filled with blood, hands frozen black. But beautiful things as well; clarity, humility, peace, joy, an absence of the self, a connection with the natural world and the present moment.

The fascination of mountaineering is that it is a journey in the world of the spirit translated to the physical. Spiritual hardship is substituted for physical danger, moral hazard for the cracking ice, loose rocks and sudden storms that are the common threats on the mountains.

To climb a mountain, no matter whether it is Welsh peak in Snowdonia or a eight-thousander in the Himalaya, is in some way to wager one’s life on a pilgrimage of sorts, to accept discomfort, pain, and the chance of death in return for the psychological reward at the top. The spiritual journey of a philosophical discourse or crisis of religion made into tangible sensation. Mountains are not places human beings are supposed to be – alien, high and dangerous. To make a summit and come down again is to journey to some forbidden corner of the soul and come back alive.

No matter how hard I try, I doubt if I could express these these thoughts with the same clarity (and brevity!) as the famous Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev, so I’ll leave you with his wonderfully poetic justification for the madness of mountaineering.

“Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion…I go to them as humans go to worship. From their lofty summits I view my past, dream of the future and, with an unusual acuity, am allowed to experience the present moment…my vision cleared, my strength renewed. In the mountains I celebrate creation. On each journey I am reborn.”

annapurna-1

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Review: King Lear at the Young Vic

Having received a critical drubbing at its opening in Liverpool (with even lead actor Pete Postlethwaite admitting it was a troubled production), the Headlong company’s King Lear comes to the Young Vic with something to prove. Has director Rupert Goold, previously feted for his stunning Macbeth, finally met his match with one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays?

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Thankfully not. They’ve gone back to the rehearsal room and responded to the critics, bringing an altered and improved piece to the London stage. It is still a flawed production in many ways – the scars of previous mistakes are still visible, and some of the weaknesses have proved uncorrectable or have passed unnoticed – but despite its occasional shaky moments it is carried through by the strength of the cast and the inventiveness of the staging.

Goold is a director with an effortless creativity. Although the design and setting is nothing so special (a dessicated 1980’s Britain), each scene is crafted to precision, from the witty (the athletic track where Edmund and Edgar compete for their father’s affection) to the bold (the final duel, boyish and brutal, between the two brothers), the simple (Lear and the Fool alone in the moonlight) to the macabre (a truly horrific, eyeball biting blinding scene). It is hard to fault the individual scenes; even where they fall a trifle flat (the risible storm dance being the most notable culprit here) the freshness and invention are notable.

But the production never quite achieves any kind of unified vision; themes are touched upon but left unexplored, and the staging veers from one style to another without warning. By all accounts, the play was far more chaotic when it opened in Liverpool, and it is a problem that has not quite been solved. It is all the more surprising from a director who provided such bold (and complete) visions for his previous Shakespearean productions – the arctic tundra of The Tempest, the Stalinist horror of Macbeth. Perhaps it is natural that a play with chaos at its very core should resist cohesive settings, but the production cries out for a stronger vision to draw it together – even chaos can be artfully and consistently composed on the stage.

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Wherever Goold’s invention dries up or is misapplied, however, the cast are there in force to carry the production through. King Lear, perhaps more than many other Shakespeare plays, requires exceptional performances from the entire cast. Almost a dozen different characters are asked to carry the play in turn for their small portion, and a production can be sunk by a dull Edgar, a hammy Edmund, a bland Goneril.

Fortunately, Goold is blessed with an ensemble that has strength in depth; among the best are Forbes Masson’s sinister Scottish Fool, John Shrapnel’s noble Gloucester, and a splendidly villainous turn from Jonjo O’Neil as Edmund. An unimposing Cordelia is perhaps the only weak link.

Attention will inevitably fall on Pete Postlethwaite, wrestling with one of Shakespeare’s most brilliant and challenging parts. He does not give an especially original interpretation of Lear, but he delivers most of the key scenes in standout form – the monologue to his daughters preceding his flight into the storm, his mournful conversation with Gloucester on the cliffs of Dover, the reconciliation with Cordelia and his speech as they are led away to imprisonment are by far the most moving scenes in the production, simply and beautifully played.

This production is not a perfect Lear. Perhaps it is not even a great one, but while it may still be flawed it is always bold, and often quite brilliant.


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Books I’ve Read: The House of Meetings (Martin Amis)

Two Russian brothers (pacifistic poet Lev and the more pragmatic and violent unnamed narrator), sent to the same Siberian gulag in the aftermath of World War II, battle for survival in the brutal conditions and for the love of Zoya, the beguiling Jewess with whom they are both in love (and to whom Lev is married). After a night with Zoya in the House of Meetings, the gulag’s special building for conjugal visits, Lev emerges a broken man. After the two brothers emerge from the gulag into an equally oppressive communist Russia, they struggle with the suffering of their past and the increasingly heated rivalry for Zoya.

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This (as the back cover of the book will tell you) is the basic plot of The House of Meetings, an apparently straightforward story of a love triangle in difficult times. But despite the novel’s slender size, Martin Amis is hunting bigger game. The Great Russian Soul and how it has been lost, the competitive, combative and indestructible bond of brotherly love, and the thin line between erotic desire and violent rape in the male psyche are just a few of the weighty themes that Amis is chasing after in less than two hundred pages.

At first, it seems that he has overstretched himself badly. In an attempt to make an assay into the state of Russian society, the narrator is apt to make sweeping generalisations about Russia in only the way that a foreign writer would have his character speak. Didactic statements about the character and sins of a nation tends to make for empty and self indulgent prose in fiction, doubly so when it is about a country that is not the author’s own.

The writing itself is an occasional problem. There are some marvels of description, from the apocalyptic horrors of the camp to the more subtle horrors of domestic life in communist Russia in a society that is gradually disintegrating. But often Amis’s prose reminds one of a fussy, fidgety, brilliant child – one longs to give it a clip around the ear (normally I am against the striking of children, but prose is no place for liberal parenting), tell it to sit still and to stop showing off for the sake of it. The story is an equally fidgety thing. Trickily framed as a long letter to the narrator’s daughter and compressing an impressive span of time into relatively few pages, until the very end it seems that the fragile book is trying too hard, trying too much, and will come to pieces.

But Amis is a master, capable of turning the most debased novelistic lead into high carat gold. An unopened letter from Lev to his brother, detailing just what happened on the fateful night in the House of Meetings, seems for much of the novel to be a lazy way of building tension and propelling narrative – a lesser novelist’s trick. But in the final pages, this letter converts from narrative prop into a furious, desperately sad meditation on what brutalisation can do to a man, what vital parts of the soul shrivel and die in the Siberian cold and never grow back again, the fragile solace offered by both brotherly and erotic love and how easily they can be taken away. This letter is followed by a second (just how can Amis get away with two revelatory letters as a conclusion? Only the gods that govern novels can know for sure), the final address of the narrator to his daughter that builds and builds into an apocalyptic vision of a doomed Russian society. Despite its occasional arrogance and self indulgence, at the death this little novel has developed an irresistible momentum, becoming a powerful and moving study of the terrible wounds that a man, a society, a country, and a world can inflict upon itself and survive, only to die slowly in the decades that follow.

Book-in-laws: A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn), The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevski)

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Things I Like #2: St Crispin’s Day Speeches

The eve of the battle of Agincourt. The English army, exhausted, disease ridden and demoralised faces a vastly superior French force. All looks lost, until Henry V delivers a speech and inspires his troops to a famous victory. In the original St Crispin’s Day speech, Henry inspires his troops with a careful mixture of patriotism, brotherhood, courage, and the promise of future glory. At least, that’s what he says in Shakespeare’s Henry V. In real life, he apparently took the somewhat more prosaic and honest line of telling his men that as commoners they were unlikely to ransomed,  so they had better fight to the death or win.

Take a look at Kenneth Branagh making a decent fist of Shakespeare’s version…

The stirring eve of a battle speech is now a cliche repeated across hundreds of books and films, from Braveheart to Lord of the Rings. St Crispin’s Day speeches even crops up in the real world from time to time – here’s Branagh again, this time recreating the famous speech made by Colonel Tim Collins on the eve of the second Gulf War…

When they are bad, they are an embarrassing limp mess of cliche. When they are good, they are very, very good. It is hard not to watch Branagh in the two speeches above and not feel that here is a man and a cause worth fighting and dying for. Even though the original St Crispin’s Day speech offers little more motivation than glory and bragging rights for the few who will survive, it is still stirring stuff. The speech by Tim Collins seems to lay out the template for a just war and the way to prosecute it – the ultimate moral bankruptcy of the Iraq escapade just serves to give the it an additional degree of poignant potency.

At the same time, there is a deeply manipulative, unpleasant quality to St Crispin’s Day speeches. Those that make the speeches and give the orders are rarely the ones that have to do the dying (or indeed the killing). That task falls to those deemed disposable, the ones who can’t make pretty speeches but can die well enough to serve a purpose.

In The History of the Peloponnesian Wars and The Travels of Marco Polo, before major battles generals on both sides are often described as giving speeches to their men. Irrespective of the rightness or wrongness of their cause, whether they have started a war to defend the liberty of the people or to enlarge their personal empires, these speeches usually make for stirring reading. As the poem I Have a Rendezvous with Death shows, the death drive in many men is significant (I generalise hugely by saying men, but I think the love of a violent death is more of a masculine trait). All it takes is a little push, a little speech, and many will be willing to die for the cause you have put to them.

And yet, and yet…manipulative as they may be, they offer up a wondrous vision, allow a soldier to step out of a world of pain and glimpse something greater than themselves, something that is worth the risk, pain and struggle. Those of us who live in less heightened circumstances, who face no great physical dangers, can’t help but feel a longing for the clarity of purpose offered by a St Crispin’s Day speech. Listening to one of these speeches, the sense of self fades away. All the worries and concerns and selfishness that dominate day to day life become irrelevant. Self-sacrifice can be one of the most admirable qualities –  it seems to go against all natural interests of self-preservation. This is the true beauty of a great St Crispin’s day speech; not that it inspires people to fight and kill, but that it takes them beyond their own selfish cares, not for the stirring rhetoric, but for its awakening of this spirit of willing self sacrifice, one of the most beautiful facets of the human personality.

P.S. Apologies for the somewhat martial tone of the blog so far this week. I’ve been wrestling with my Tax Return for the past few days, and am thus in the mood for killing (or dying). Finally got it off yesterday, so perhaps will be able to write about something more cuddly in the near future.

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Poem of the Week #2: I Have a Rendezvous With Death (Alan Seeger)

Like plenty of other young men, I have an occasional fascination with death. There’s something in the psychological makeup of young men that gives them a craving to die for a cause. This useful lemming instinct that has found service throughout history for generals, politicians and revolutionaries in need of a fanatical army willing to throw their lives away for something bigger than themselves. This poem by Alan Seeger isn’t a brilliant poem by most standards of judgment, but it does, I think, capture this craving to die for something.

I Have A Rendezvous With Death

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Incidentally, Seeger met his own rendezvous on the battlefields of World War I in 1916. An American, he joined the French Foreign Legion in order to fight, and apparently cheered on and encouraged his men as he died of his wounds in No Man’s Land. A reasonably heroic death in a useless war.

Naturally, it seems prudent to end with this quote by Wilhelm Stekel:

“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one”

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