Old Meg, Old Moira and the Prophetic Power of Poetry

I loved this post by Moira Lake, about her early relationship with the Keats poem ‘Meg Merillees’ (which was written by Keats on his walking tour of 1818, in a letter to his young sister).

Moira asks us what our own favourite childhood poem was, and I can honestly say that the first poem I remember as having a real impact on me was, at the age of 12, Keats’s ‘When I have fears…’ and yes Moira, it does I think give a hint of who I have become!

Do take a look at Moira’s post on her blog, which is full of wise words, and let us know which poem made an impact on you as a child, and why – we would love to know your favourites.

Moira Lake

megm1Greetings. I hope you like this photo of me striding across Dartmoor. It’s a selfie I took the other day while I was wandering about up there. In my fierce distracted way I was thinking that the poems and stories we love in early childhood seem sometimes to contain some essence of who we will become. Years ago when I used to teach astrology, I used to get students to remember their favourite fairy stories, then we looked at their birth charts and the correlations were wonderfully close. You could say the chart told the story, or the story found expression in the chart. Certainly each reflected the other.

Lately I’ve been thinking about my relationship with the early John Keats poem, Meg Merrilies. It was the first poem I ever knew, and I would have been hearing it since I was a baby, as my mother had learned it…

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It isn’t all roses & chocolates: the love of ‘La Belle Dame…’

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John William Waterhouse – La Belle Dame sans Merci 1893

I have written a number of posts highlighting some of the world’s most beautiful love poetry.  Many are under the banner of ‘Love Songs you wish you had written…’, a meme I took from the wonderful Dad Poet, David J Beauman. Some of the poems I have chosen in the past are full of longing, or are wistful. Some are simply dedicated to a chosen one, or highlight the very simplicity and ordinariness of life in a comfortable, loving relationship. I am in one such, so it has been, I suppose, more natural to choose poems that praise something most of us search for, more or less successfully, throughout our lives. A few have been more cynical, or tempered with the sense of an ending, but I don’t think any have focused on the unhappy or even destructive consequences of a disastrous affair and I thought it might be time to redress the balance a little. After all, St Valentine’s Day is not for everyone. The poem I have chosen today might convert many to the joys of singledom, for example……

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats  (published version, 1820)

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
Alone and palely loitering;
The sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever dew;
And on thy cheek a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads
Full beautiful, a faery’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long;
For sideways would she lean, and sing
A faery’s song.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look’d at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew;
And sure in language strange she said,
I love thee true.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gaz’d and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes–
So kiss’d to sleep.

And there we slumber’d on the moss,
And there I dream’d, ah woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cry’d–“La belle Dame sans merci
Hath thee in thrall!”

I saw their starv’d lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

This is one of John Keats’s most famous poems, subject to a myriad interpretations, linked to his love for Fanny Brawne, his fears about the destructive nature of passion (particularly on his poetic ambitions) and his incipient decline into the latter stages of the tuberculosis that was to kill him in 1821. It can be read as full of ‘double entendres’ – sitting a woman on his ‘pacing steed’, garlanding a ‘fragrant zone’ and enjoying much sighing and moaning, suggestive of a night of passion. Or you can read it as a gothic tale of a cruel “beautiful lady without mercy” as the French translation of the title suggests. In any event, it is, in my opinion, a brilliant, tightly structured ballad that creates intense atmosphere and offers a clear warning to those beguiled by passion and romance –  if only our nameless knight had seen the kings and princes already abandoned by their cruel lover- ‘I saw their starved lips in the gloam,/With horrid warning gapèd wide,’.

I have written about how Keats has influenced artists through the ages – from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood , through to graphic novelists, comic-book  writers and contemporary film-makers, but to day it may be seen as one for those who are rather sick of the hearts, flowers and sickly sentimental commercialism that often seems to accompany St Valentine’s Day. Have a good day anyway……

 

 

 

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Millais – A compassionate portrait of Opheilia – a guest post by Pamela Davenport

Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Ophelia 1851-2 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Today on No Wriggling I am thrilled to host a guest piece by Pamela Davenport, a fellow lover of all things art and literature and, like me, an author on The Wordsworth Trust blog. Find out more about her at the end of the post, and let us know how you feel about this painting and the work of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. We would love to hear from you.

While at University in the mid-1980s, I made regular visits to Manchester City Art Gallery and became fascinated with the ‘boy band’, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. So many questions came to mind, amongst them – where did they get their vision, creativity, insight and most of all inspiration? I soon discovered that literature was an important aspect of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, taking their inspiration from the Romantic Poets, including Keats as well as Ovid and Shakespeare. The three original members of the group, the charismatic Rossetti, the serious theorist Hunt and Millais with his prodigious talent, become known as The Young Ones who wanted to modernise art.  Led by Rossetti this unique band became known for their pranks, midnight jaunts around London’s streets and pleasure gardens and late night drinking sessions.

MilliasThis Band of Brothers, with their “military” action against the art establishment, was brought together with the intention of painting serious subjects taking inspiration from the artists of the middle ages and the great works of literature. This revolutionary artistic group was to be faithful to nature and paint outdoors, and in this Shakespeare’s plays offered ideal subject matter. Not only does Shakespeare describe beautiful natural scenes, but he writes scenes of emotional and moral complexity. This juxtaposition of art and literature totally captivated me.

It was his fascination with the females in Shakespeare’s plays that is obvious in Millais’ work. From the beautiful, rich and intelligent Portia, in the Merchant of Venice to the witty, fun, loyal, ingenious and decisive Rosalind, in As You Like It, Millais clearly adds depth and character to his compositions. But it was the image and the story of Ophelia which took my breath away when I first saw the painting in the Tate.

Initially I was drawn to Arthur Hughes’ interpretation of Ophelia’s contemplating death. This delicate pale young girl, with long fair hair, with a crown of reeds and flowers on her head and dressed in white drapery intrigued me. With her deep sorrowful expression Ophelia is seated in the centre of the painting in a dark, swampy woodland setting. But nothing could compare to Millais representation of this Shakespearean heroine. It was like stepping out into sunlight, with the clarity of colour and heartfelt emotion that made my heart skip a beat.

I have seen various productions of Hamlet and what has always struck me is that  through his poetry and prose, Shakespeare with his universality, and his realism, can  create drama from human emotion. This is particularly apparent in Hamlet. Ophelia’s portrayal is a passive, sexually vulnerable posture, linking to Hamlet’s association of “woman” with “fragility” and Laertes calling Ophelia a “document in madness”.

In his book, Madness and Civilisation, Foucault considers the links between water and madness. He discusses how drowning was associated with the feminine, female fluidity rather than male aridity.  If the drowning of Ophelia is considered, it represents the truly feminine death which is represented in many dramas of literature, art and life. Thus water becomes symbolic of the liquid woman whose eyes are drowned in tears as her body is slowly deprived of life.

It is Shakespeare’s representation of his female characters that is both interesting and thought provoking, especially in the way in which he represents Ophelia. As the character evolves it appears that she is defined by and wholly at the mercy of the male figures in her life. Although Hamlet is not totally to blame for the tragedy of the play, his innocence must be questioned if we consider the death of Ophelia. Hamlet’s attitude towards Ophelia swings from undying love and cruelty, as in Act 3 scene 1 “You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old shock but we shall relish of it: I loved you not”. This suggests that Hamlet used Ophelia as part of his revenge plan. In Act IV Scene v it becomes apparent that Ophelia can no longer cope with the dilemma and conflict she has had to endure. “Look at my flowers, there’s rosemary, that’s for remembering….pansies…. they’re for thoughts…..”, as melancholy descends.

Although we never get to see Ophelia in the stream we do have Gertrude’s description to Laertes of the drowned Ophelia in Act IV Scene VII in the brook, “There with fantastic garlands did she come, Of crow-flowers, nettles, daises and long purples……When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook, her clothes spread wide….”

In his representation of Ophelia Millais clearly conveys her ethereal beauty. Millais’ painting is almost frighteningly realistic, with vivid colours of nature, her billowing dress and chaotically floating hair and flowers. This is how I always visualised Ophelia’s tragic death, in my imagination this work of art perfectly complements Gertrude’s description. Ophelia is shown holding her arms out in the shape of a cross, with the ivy in the painting symbolising Ophelia’s melancholy and decay.

Millais places Ophelia in exotic surroundings which are enhanced by bright colours and thick brush strokes to paint trees. Apart from the inert passivity of Ophelia, a closer look at her posture and face conveys the moment of death as an almost orgasmic ecstasy. The painting shows a clever use of symbolism and colour clearly represents Ophelia’s descent into madness and the tragic loss of her life, as she lies “Mermaid-like awhile they bore her up…… As one incapable of her own distress,…Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, Pulled the poor wretch from her melodies lay to muddy death”.

I have returned to this painting many times and see something new each time. The way in which Millais interprets and captures Ophelia’s expression as she is retreating into her madness, lying motionless and emotionless obvious of her fate, is pure understated drama. The painting is regulated in a way to highlight the natural details of the scene. The grassy water plants and the bed of weeds in which she floats look almost like a piece of exquisite embroidery. Driven insane by the murder of her father by Hamlet, Ophelia is portrayed singing in her madness as she drowns. To me this truly captures Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death.

When I first introduced my daughter to this wonderful picture she was drawn to the flowers and the wild life. Most of the flowers are included because they are mentioned in the play or are symbolic. Millais began the background in July 1851 at Ewell, Surrey with the main aim of close observation of nature. Millais observed these flowers growing wild over a period of five months, hence there are flowers that bloom at different times of the year. Looking closely at the painting there is a robin in the branches of the willow tree, which refers back to the line, “For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy”, which Ophelia sings as she loses her mind in Act IV Scene V. Birds are symbolic of the spirit. It could be a reference to Ophelia floating down the river and her spirit flying away. A poignant and beautiful creative work, a timeless tribute to Ophelia.

Once the background was completed Millais moved into his studio, where his model Lizzie Siddall was required to pose in a bathtub, with the water begin kept warm by lamps underneath, over a 4 month period. My daughter was fascinated by the story, and this started her own  fascination with English Literature as well as a love for art.

0a9a86fPamela Davenport is an experienced Higher and Further Education teacher, who has substantial experience working with children and young people in social care, community and educational settings. Pamela has undertaken 8 European visits, to Germany, Belgium, Spain and Finland, as part of the British Council’s Erasmus/Socrates Teacher Mobility Project. Writer on Social Care Values in Practice, Human Development Across The Lifespan, Working in a Multi-cultural Society, The Invisible Child, The Rights of Children and co-author for Teacher’s Handbook for HUGS Charity. She is a passionate lover of art and literature, in particular Shakespeare, the Romantics, the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, The Impressionists and Picasso.
Join her on twitter @pameladav3 and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pameladav
Posted in Art, Guest posts, History, Keats, Literature, Poetry, Reading, Romanticism, Victorian History, Victorians, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘From the Womb to the Tomb’ – at last a title. Now to get writing…

 

Early 19th C Apothecary and apprentice

Early 19th C Apothecary and apprentice

Last year I wrote about my next commission – a book about early 19th century medicine, focusing on the medical life of a surgeon apothecary. I added a note to the piece, asking for ideas for a title, as I was at that point unsure that the working title – Death Disease & Dissection – properly described the subject matter. I love a bit of gruesome anatomy as much as the next person, but actually dissection was only a small part of the surgeon-apothecary’s training, and I could imagine the flood of complaints from those expecting pages dripping with blood, as tales of resurrectionists filled the chapters. There will be a bit of that, but the men (and they were all men) working in the field at the time were more like present day GPs. In fact that is what makes researching this history so interesting – like Shell Shocked Britain, this too offers comparisons across the centuries.

Anyway, back to the title. People offered some great ideas, but the one that struck me as being sufficiently descriptive to please the publisher, and interesting enough to keep me writing, came from across the Atlantic. Wonderful poetic friend David J Beauman suggested ‘From the Womb to the Tomb, which felt like a Gothic homage to the NHS principle of ‘cradle to grave’ care (which service, apothecary surgeons of early 19th century communities were already offering – at a price). I pitched the title to Pen and Sword and, with the addition of the subtitle ‘The medical life of the 19th century surgeon apothecary‘ I have at last got the title agreed. Hooray! Now all I have to do is write the book.

I describe more about the subject in that previous post, and also admit to enjoying the excuse to write about the training poet John Keats received before he turned his back on medicine to pursue poetry. I am rather hoping people who love the poetry, letters and life of that great man will find much to delight them in my book. We know little about Keats’s time as an apprentice, or the days he spent on the wards of Guy’s Hospital, and I am finding research into the lives of his contemporaries fascinating. His life couldn’t have been so very different, outwardly at least, and there is little doubt that his experiences, and the horrors he witnessed in the operating theatre (one of his tasks was to hold down the unanesthetised patients) informed his poetry and letters.

So over the coming weeks you might find more posts about my research and, as the book takes shape, snippets of information that don’t make the cut, but which I find interesting for their own sake.

So with thanks to David J Beauman I now have no excuse to procrastinate. I must start writing up the research asap. It’s about time….

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8 Tricks to Get You Writing in 2016

I love the Writers Anon blog. It is full of useful writing tips to help you get going and get it right. Chella Ramanan has recently been on my Talking Books radio show and she is certainly someone who can inspire you to keep pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. This piece is no exception and many of the issues, such as procrastination and the usefulness of your own writing retreats (on a shoestring here), certainly ring true for me. As I head into the thick of my next book – more of which soon – I am certainly going to use some of the hints suggested here!

Writers Anon - Taunton's Writing Group

So, you want to write a novel or perhaps a screenplay, a book of poetry or a series of short stories. It’s January, you tell yourself, time for some writing resolutions, which means setting unattainable goals, which lead to despondency and disillusionment, come February.

I say, ditch the January resolutions and try these practical tips to get yourself writing in 2016.

  1. Break it down – Writing a novel is a big undertaking. You’ll think “can I really write 90,000 words?” Well, all stories begin with one word, followed by another and then  that’s a sentence. Twenty or so words more and you may have a paragraph. A few paragraphs make a scene, which then becomes pages and they turn into chapters. Break it down. Don’t think about the big picture, just get one word down after another.

2. Commit to writing – If you want to write, then you actually…

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‘Be excellent to each other….’ a belated Happy New Year from me…

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Me….

I appreciate I am a bit late with my new year greeting here on No wriggling out of writing. Having lost my blogging mojo a few months ago I have found new ideas for posts hard to come by, especially as I earn a crumb writing for  other blogs too ( most notably The Terrace counselling and complementary therapy clinic blog ‘let’s talk!‘) which, though interesting, can take up valuable blogging energy. However, I wanted to get 2016 off to a good start and felt it important to thank those who have stuck with me in more barren writing times, and those who have bought, read and otherwise supported my book Shell Shocked Britain:The First World war’s legacy for Britain’s mental health. It makes a lot of difference to know people still find something to enjoy when I do actually make the effort. I wish you the very best of times this year, and onwards.

It isn’t easy to believe, when news reports detail a myriad of horrors in the world, that there is any chance of some sort of global ‘spirit’ that binds humanity together. But to remain sane I know I have to inhabit a community that still cries out for peace, equality and goodwill towards our fellow beings, and this period over Christmas helps a great deal. Celebrating with family and friends in Somerset and Suffolk reminded me of what is, ultimately, important for the maintenance of my own (and surely many other people’s ) emotional well  being – spending time with people we love, remembering our shared pasts, looking to the future and enjoying the ‘moment’. It might sound a little twee to some, but I can’t think of a funky way to put it so bear with me.

Over the Christmas holiday we watched ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure‘ – again. It was, and still is, a family favourite; our children loved it and can still quote it at length. It isn’t a great movie – made at the beginning of Keanu Reeves’s career when his slightly vacant acting style actually supported his role as a dipsy late teenage boy  heading backwards in a time machine to collect historical characters to pass a History report – but it is fun, and has bequeathed to us a message that I offer as my hope for 2016……

be-excellent-to-each-other-and-party-on-dudes-26

It isn’t profound, but it is true. Yes we can resolve to eat more healthily, take more exercise and write more and better in the coming months, but we can make those resolutions any time of year, if we are honest. But the sooner we can work to show each other affection and respect, the better and then we can truly let the good times roll…..

Happy New Year!!!

 

 

 

Posted in Book, Books, Christmas, Family, Film, First World War, New Year, Nostalgia, Random musings on family life, love the universe and everything, Shell Shocked Britain, Work, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

2015- A Christmas for thinking, thanking and loving

50928-40681Followers of my blog might know that this has been a strange old year for me. It has flown past in a whirl of various worries, some real, some imagined.  I have been promoting Shell Shocked Britain around the country and have been negotiating the next book with the publishers, whilst at the same time worrying about whether the writing bug has abandoned me to chew the heart out of some other poor soul.

But I love Christmas, and genuinely want to send everyone reading this best wishes for a fabulous festive season and a happy and healthy new year. It is not an easy time of year for many – especially those who are alone, or without enough of anything to make the end of the year (with all its consumer-driven hyped up happiness) seem a little more bearable.

Reports suggest we are largely a secular society now, but many of us still cling to cosy Anglicanism at Christmas time – the traditional  story of Mary and Joseph, the stable, the shepherds and the three wise men – and listen to carols when they nudge their way into our consciousness above the strains of Slade, Wizzard or Wham. Any faith or none, Christmas is always played out as a time of peace and goodwill to all; a moment for friends and family to get together and a short period in which to take stock and reflect on the year just passed, giving thanks for the good things, and express hope for better times to come. It is a time when each and every one of us (even those who say Bah! Humbug!) really wants to love and be loved.

As always I try to find a poem that expresses something of how I feel each Christmas. Having just spent a year promoting a book that highlights the lasting effects of war trauma on both soldiers and civilians, and when we are facing a refugee crisis and violence that few seem to know how to address, Thomas Hardy comes to mind.

A Christmas ghost-story by Thomas Hardy

South of the Line, inland from far Durban,
A mouldering soldier lies–your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his gray bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: “I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law
Of Peace, brought in by that Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?

And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking ‘Anno Domini’ to the years?
Near twenty-hundred livened thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died

In this poem, the ghost of a bemused soldier, twisted in pain, asks us who decided that peace should once again be broken? He cannot understand how we can worship Christ who died to bring us peace, whilst allowing soldiers (this one anonymous man standing for all soldiers) to go into battle once more. All that was supposed to be achieved by the crucified Jesus has been ‘set aside’. He stares at the starry sky, on far away shores, emphasising the distance between himself and those he has left, who mourn  him. Why have those in government made laws to send him to his death?

This poem is most definitely anti-war. It was written at the time of the second Boer War at the end of the 19th century but is relevant to all wars in all time. We are still asking the same questions. This year we feel even further away from peace on earth. The crisis in the Middle East has reverberated into the heart of Europe to the point where we cannot afford to ignore the thousands of refugees desperately seeking safety within our borders.  We are at war again, and once again troops of many nations are placing themselves in the way of danger. What is significant about Hardy’s poem is that this soldier is any soldier of any nationality. He is ‘your countryman’. Whoever you are.

Borders have been much in the news in 2015. As we end the year there are still thousands trying to cross them to safety and many employed to stop them doing just that. Here in the UK we have much to be thankful for, but as Hardy  asks, why do we put ‘AD ‘ after our years, when actions of governments are at odds with the message of the season? The message of peace.

The meaning of this ‘Christmas ghost-story’ still echoes through the decades…….

 

 

Posted in Books, Charities, Christmas, Family, History, Literature, Poetry, Reading, Religion, Shell Shocked Britain, Victorians, War, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment