On death, dying and being afraid of life…

fear_slideshowMy blog has been sorely neglected over the past 4 months. A couple of posts have made it here, the last in July, but for much of the time, there have been no words.

Bear with me for a little while…In the past four months I have lost my lovely old mum, and two months later, just as the greatest pain of that traumatic time had seemingly passed, we had to have our wonderful dog, Barnaby, put to sleep, quite without preparation. It seemed that I would never stop crying, huge tears, like those of childhood – unrestrained. Press FF >> and another two months have passed. Now my husband’s father has died. His children weren’t close to him, he was a difficult man and he never liked me much, but nonetheless, it is a final link lost with that generation above. Peter and I are now top of the tree.

I feel besieged by death, lost in melancholy thoughts of my own demise, or that of my husband. My own brush with mortality 11 years ago haunts me still and resurfaces in health anxiety to remind me that one day, it will be my turn. Death is always there, yet we fail to acknowledge or accept it, except perhaps when dealing with the death of others.

And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress

Philip Larkin, for the full poem, see Ambulances

Why are we, in Western culture anyway, so afraid of the inevitable? My lifelong battle with debilitating anxiety and bouts of depression leads me to think it is perhaps life I am afraid of, not death. I am afraid of enjoying it too much, in case it brings on disaster. I am afraid of the terminal diagnosis, (though in truth we have all had one, from birth) the potential suffering leading up to my final breath, and the leaving behind of those I love. There is also a little bit of me, I must admit, that resents the fact that the machinations of the world will all go on without me. I am curious to know what happens when I am gone, and cannot bear to think I can no longer intervene in events.

Why do we seemingly wish to live forever? Is it because we are so materialistic and self-obsessed we can’t bear to think it is impossible to continue to enjoy our possessions? Can that really override the realities of old age and the society those in their later years have to inhabit?

Joyous headlines suggesting it is possible for the babies born today to have a life expectancy of 100 years or more belie the distressing scenes I witnessed as mum and her contemporaries struggled with failing bodies and the loss of mental faculties. There were the endless little indignities and that depressingly regular occurrence – the loss of a friend or relation. That constant thought – ‘me next?’.

download (11)In a wonderful article on this subject for The Guardian last year, Margaret Drabble quoted the description of Jonathan Swift’s ‘struldbrugs’ on the island of Luggnagg, in Gulliver’s Travels.  Struldbrugs are immortal, but they live to extreme old age with ever-diminishing capacity…

“[Struldbrugs] had not only the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying. They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grand-children. Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions … they forget the common appellation of things, and the names of persons, even of those who are their nearest friends and relations. For the same reason, they never can amuse themselves with reading, because their memory will not serve to carry them from the beginning of a sentence to the end …”

Drabble goes on to echo my own thoughts as she later describes the horrors perpetrated on the elderly person without a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ label on their notes. One sees CPR used for upwards of an hour on a body essentially at the end of its natural lifespan. Broken ribs, a faint pulse, and any remaining time left to them stuck in a bed totally dependent on medical services for what is still termed ‘life’. It is hard to imagine anything more fear-inducing. Yet people with more money than they know what to do with are having their bodies frozen in the hope of a cure for old age and infirmity, without any real thought to the quality of life they can hope for should they be defrosted.

Let me die a youngman’s death
not a clean and inbetween
the sheets holywater death
not a famous-last-words
peaceful out of breath death…

Roger McGough – for the whole marvellous, humorous, insightful poem, Let me die a young man’s death see HERE 

My father in law was buried on Saturday, with a full Catholic mass, which to me was clearly the work of authors other than a benign spirit. I have never been to a burial, only cremations, and in my imagination, it took on all the trappings of a gothic horror story. That built it up into more than it actually was – a group of people, remembering two entirely different versions of the same man, crowded around a rather cramped little corner of a cemetery. Graves are dug not by a wizened old man with a large shovel, but by a mini-digger, which sat with gaping mouth just close by, ready to drop bucketloads of soil on the coffin. Floral tributes have partly given way to Chelsea flags, teddies and other items that clearly meant something to the deceased, but which assault the senses of the mourning. It seemed less like a place for all God’s children – despite the holy water sprinkled on the coffin – than the last remnants of a car boot sale.

The fear of death is a suffocating one that can override all others, and prevent us from enjoying our lives before ‘ashes to ashes’ and the final sods of earth are cast over our sightless eyes and breathless lips. The death of others brings this home to us like nothing else.

This blog post is my way of trying to work through some of these thoughts and as you can tell, and I appreciate, it is in no way a cohesive philosophy. I don’t want to die. I have too many books to read; too much research to do and articles to write. I have a lovely husband and two fine children I want to see into middle age.

So perhaps my philosophy should mirror that of Woody Allen:

I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens…

I’d love to know your thoughts…

 

 

 

Testament of Youth, Testament to our times? Vera Brittain and a classic of the Great War.

tofyFor my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, I read Testament of Youth, and Because You Died: Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After, both of which I found deeply affecting. As we approach the commemoration of Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, I thought I would share with you my own thoughts on a classic work of the Great War, and those of Pamela Davenport, who reviews Testament and expresses the value of it as a work supporting her research into the changing role of women during and after the war.

First of all, I must say that if you want to find out more about the background to Brittain’s work, you cannot do better than read the work of Mark Bostridge, who has written widely and well on the subject and who has provided commentary on her relationships, letters and life that, read alongside Testament of Youth, offer the context within which it makes sense.

Vera Brittain
Cheryl Campbell as Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain intrigued me long before I read the book as research. As a teenager, I watched the 1970s television adaptation, starring Cheryl Campbell as Vera, along with my parents. Both were born in the 1920s, to working class families who had endured that four years of war and suffered as a consequence. My grandfather was gassed, seriously physically injured and suffered from undiagnosed ‘shell shock’ that remained with him for the rest of his life, triggering nightmares and terror at the approach of thunderstorms. His story was one of those that inspired my own book, but it was a world away from the sheltered life Vera experienced as a child of a middle-class family, blessed with opportunities for a university education denied most women of her time. However, Cheryl Campbell’s exquisite performance drew us all in, and despite the more recent film, it is Ms Campbell rather than Alicia Vikander who is Vera for me.

Pamela goes into more detail about the story itself, below, but I wanted to mention Testament of Youth more as an evocation of a time, than as a reading experience. The descriptions of a world lost forever in the mud of the trenches are terrific, and Vera makes a statement that is one of the foundations stones of Shell Shocked Britain – that the civilian population were traumatised too, and that the impact filtered down through the generations, affecting us even now:

‘I underestimated the effect upon the civilian population (and on parents) of year upon year of diminishing hope, diminishing food, diminishing heat, of waiting and waiting for news which was nearly always bad when it came.’

The waiting at home, though more comfortable in many senses, chimes in a melancholy way with the traumatising silences between the barrages of shells in the trenches that affected so many men. Those anxious waits, at home and abroad.

Unable to write the novel she planned, Vera turned to autobiography instead and gave us a classic work that ranks alongside the best prose of the war, because, I think, she was a poet too. I refer to her poem The Superfluous Woman in my book, not because I think it is searing in its brutality like Owen, for example, but because it spoke for many middle class women (and this was the group disproportionately affected) who expected to marry those thousands of junior officers who were, in relative terms, more likely to be killed, as her lover and brother were, than the non-commissioned men serving under them.

The Superfluous Woman

Ghosts crying down the vistas of the years,
Recalling words
Whose echoes long have died,
And kind moss grown
Over the sharp and blood-bespattered stones
Which cut our feet upon the ancient ways.

But who will look for my coming?

Long busy days where many meet and part;
Crowded aside
Remembered hours of hope;
And city streets
Grown dark and hot with eager multitudes
Hurrying homeward whither respite waits.

But who will seek me at nightfall?

Light fading where the chimneys cut the sky;
Footsteps that pass,
Nor tarry at my door.
And far away,
Behind the row of crosses, shadows black
Stretch out long arms before the smouldering sun.

But who will give me my children?

Vera Brittain expected to remain a spinster after her lover, Roland Leighton, was killed in action, by a sniper. But ten years later she did remarry, and her daughter, Baroness (Shirley) Williams, has always written movingly that although her father loved her mother deeply, he always, as Pamela quotes, saw himself in competition with the ghost of Leighton. The poem above, seems to indicate that he was not wrong.

Testament of Youth is a wonderful autobiography, and a must read for researchers of the period. Desperately sad, it remains the bench mark for description of the death of the golden age that the Edwardian era so frequently represents in our imaginations. At a time, in the 21st century, when the world feels a dangerous place once more Brittain’s words should remind us that conflicts around the globe affect us all in a myriad different ways, never for the better. I think it should remind us that the legacy of Syria, for example, will continue long after the guns are silenced and that we need to support those directly affected with compassion. During discussions about refugees, and about Brexit, with my 87 year old mother I found that far from fitting the demographic profile suggesting a split between older voters (seeking a return to who knows what?) and young she pointed out the similarities between the migrant crisis and her experience of being evacuated. And for her there was only danger in leaving Europe. The financial position aside, she felt we had more in common with our European neighbours, and more to lose by damaging the Union.

————————————————————————

A fascinating book about coming of age during a time when the world is in turmoil, a book which resonates with emotions. – review by  Pamela Davenport

vbThe First World War can be seen as a watershed in society, marking the great division between the 20th century and the pre-war world of Victorian and Edwardian society. The traditional view of women as defined by their relationship to their men, wife, mother, daughter or sister, had difficulty withstanding the effects of war. Mobilisation left many women for the first time in an independent position and many took advantage of their “freedom” by joining the war effort.  There are many letters diaries and memories that provide some insight into life during 1914-1918 turbulent years, but for me it is one of the first accounts of the Great War written from a woman’s point of view, which has been the most influential. Vera Brittain got the idea to write Testament of Youth, in 1916. Writing to her brother Edward that, “if the War spares me, it will be my one aim to immortalise in a book, the story of us four…” the book clearly shows a young woman coming of age during a time when the world was in total turmoil.

Born in 1893 in Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire into a middle class family, Vera was expected to conform to society’s expectations of women’s role in society. This was during a time when middle class women were seen as a family’s possession, to prepare for marriage, to raise children and run a household. Not much had changed since medieval times! It was not considered suitable that a woman from Vera’s background would be in paid employment or god forbid, leave home to study at a University!  Home life was oppressive for Vera and her independent spirit was apparent, “The disadvantages of being a woman have eaten like iron into my soul”.  Vera was quickly realising that being a woman was a barrier to her being recognised as an individual and independent person with the right to have further education and a career. She was deeply envious of her younger brother Edward, who could leave home without getting married.

But times were changing and in 1913, after a series of lucky chances, Vera was accepted to study at Somerville College Oxford. Initially her father had rejected the idea, but so determined was Vera to study that he finally relented and gave her permission to leave home. By this time Vera had met and fallen in love with Roland Leighton, Edward’s school friend. All three of them were going to Oxford, and the future looked bright. But the dark clouds of war and destruction were gathering. On August 4th 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany. It was a decision that is seen as the start of World War One, and Vera would be on the move again.  At the end of her first year at Somerville, she decided that her duty lay in serving her country and like Edward and Roland , she left Oxford going bravely into battle. As she said later, she was “carried away by the wartime emotion and deceived by the shinning figure of patriotism”.  Vera became a nursing auxiliary and spent the remainder of the war years nursing in London, Malta and France.

Testament of Youth became a main resource when I was writing about Women’s roles changing due to WW1. Vera’s memoir highlights the cataclysmic effect of war, not only for Vera but for men and women from her generation. This testimony of a VAD serving with the British army overseas, is an eloquent and moving expression of the suffering and bereavement inflicted by war. But Vera still observed that life was different for women, “The war was a phase of life which women’s experience did differ vastly from men’s and I make a puerile claim to equality of suffering and service when I maintain that any picture of the war years is incomplete which omits those aspects that mainly concern women…The women is still silent who by presenting the war in its true perspective in her own life, will illuminate its meaning afresh for its own generation“.

On reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth the reader is gradually drawn into Vera’s world of destruction and suffering. The narrative plays on emotions, the disbelief as one by one, those closest to Vera are lost in battle, her fiancé Roland, her brother Edward and their friends Geoffrey and Victor. It is a book that portrays the world through Vera’s eyes as she stands at the heart of the upheaval of pre and post-WW 1. Vera was a writer of great descriptive powers, both of place and emotions, the cold and damp, the sickening horrors of Boulogne, the field hospital at Etaples. Her writing resonates with emotions and thoughts of the “shattered, dying boys”, she nurses, her inability to readjust to the brightly lit alien post war world.

In 1919 Vera returned to Somerville, where she felt other students didn’t appreciate the war effort, to study Modern History in an attempt to understand the origins of the conflict which had claimed the lives of Edward, Roland and two close friends. When she visits Edward’s grave on the Asiago Plateau there is a sense of overwhelming shared grief.  It was at Somerville that Vera suffered from a “nervous breakdown”, which is now recognised as post-traumatic stress syndrome.

By the time the book was published, 15 years after the end of the war, Vera had rejected anything that identified war with “grey crosses and supreme sacrifices and red poppies blowing against a serene blue sky”.  The book is Vera’s passionate plea for peace, she clearly throws light onto the agony of war to the individual and “its destructiveness to the human race”.  Testament of Youth conveys the very essence of Vera, a feminist, writer, pacifist, and the voice of the lost generation of World War 1.

Vera was a fascinating woman who achieved so much in her life, she published over 29 books and many articles. She worked tirelessly for the League of Nations and working for peace during the Second World War as a member of the Peace Pledge Union. Her work showed that she was a woman who acted on her principles as well as talking about them.

Vera Brittain
Vera Brittain as an older woman

Although there is hope at the end of the book she is able to escape the pain and devastation of the past as the reader is introduced to her husband to be George “G”, the “ghosts” never left Vera, as G commented, “The hardest rival you can have is a “ghost” because your inclination is to idealise someone who died long ago”.  Vera died on March 29th 1970 and was cremated, according to her wishes her ashes were scattered over her brother’s grave in Italy’s Asiago Plateau.

Testament of Youth is a beautifully written and thought provoking book, about the consequences of war, love, duty, responsibility and the power of the written word. It is a book that has stood the test of time. Tragically the message still resonates in the world today.

References:

http://www.ppu.org.uk/vera/
http://www.ox.ac.uk/world-war-1/people/vera-brittain
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/24/vera-brittain-testament-of-youth

You only have one mother…..

1597122_10152669845145031_1421512996_oMy mum isn’t well. She is unwell in that way we refer to those who are, officially, really old; ‘well she is 86 dear’; ‘things are just wearing out’; ‘well none of us go on forever’. Diagnosis? Why bother with one? It is ‘old age’ and if we are lucky, perhaps, it comes to us all. So let’s just watch her legs swell up, sense she can’t quite catch her breath, and listen whilst she tells us of something that worries her – over and over again so that very worry is reinforced, and dwelt upon until conspiracy theories take over from reality and there is the inexorable descent into an anxiety state that takes more of her breath, more of herself.

Perhaps she will rally, again. But she has started those sad little conversations that begin ‘don’t be upset when I go dear, I’ve had enough’, and at some point, in the natural order of things, we will lose her, my sister, brother and I.

But I have to admit I am struggling, desperately hoping she will once more be her ‘old self’, flashes of whom we still glimpse as we watch her wolf down dark chocolate, then complain of indigestion, or hear as she describes the behaviour of a friend who is ‘lovely, but…’

My mum dedicated her life to bringing up her family and caring for her husband, our dad, who was diagnosed with early onset Parkinsons before any of us,his children, had left primary school. She has been a widow almost as long as she was a wife and has had to deal with what she would describe as a ‘basin full’. She has a strength of character that can be both tender and downright scary, and of her three children I am the one whose ‘buttons’ have been pressed for maximum effect, with emotional consequences for us both. But recently, as her short term memory has deteriorated and her longer term recall become more selective, we have enjoyed some great laughs, and hours of simple fun playing games on the iPad, discussing who are our favourites on Strictly Come Dancing (‘I can’t bear that Katie Derham, with that smile…’) and talking about her family history. No competition, no manipulation, just love.

10862706_10153454611380031_6347351552373342626_oI know in my heart that I am hoping she stays with us not for her sake, but for mine. I am scared – of being ‘top of the tree’, of no longer being, physically,  someone’s daughter, of being cast adrift from that last link with all those memories, of feeling alone (despite having my own lovely family).

We are a lucky human being if we get to our eighties as fit as a flea. Our society desperately denies death whilst worshipping youth, and the elderly are seen as a demographic time bomb, a problem to be solved, a drain on our national finances. Why are we so keen to stay alive, when at the same time we are casting age and experience aside?

Perhaps I am affected by national as well as personal events. The world seems a scary place at the moment. Am I alone in thinking someone has taken the brakes off and our lives and events are spinning out of our control? Mum has been ever present, a safety blanket, the tap root from which much of my life has taken strength. Too much? Possibly. Perhaps I am just afraid to acknowledge myself as an adult…

At some point I have to acknowledge myself as a root from which my own children have branched out and become the lovely folk they are.

I am no longer a child, but I will always be the child of my mother.

On St Valentine’s Day – Love poems you wish you had written 2015 #4 – UA Fanthorpe

love_poem_400x400So we come to the ‘big day’ itself. The 14th of February, St Valentine’s Day and apparently the most romantic day of the year. Of course, for many it is nothing like that, by circumstance or choice.  There is something rather uncomfortable (and occasionally nauseating) about seeing rows and rows of red cards of various design (and taste) in the shops as soon as Christmas cards are swept into the stock room once more.

However, the sentiment is a fine one and when I called for requests this year, asking my readers and friends on social media to suggest love poems for this short series, one stood out as distilling my feelings for my own Valentine – my lovely husband Peter. And it isn’t by John Keats (though I was sorely tempted of course!)

fanthorpe180U (Ursula) A Fanthorpe was a British poet who died in 2009 and I have to admit that I didn’t know much about her poetry at all, until prompted by Jessamy Carlson  (‏@rjc_archives ) on twitter. Her obituaries describe her as ‘a great role model for all of us who could do with a bit of ‘late flowering’ ‘ and I am determined to read more of her work in the future. I think this poem sums up that kind of love that, whilst ‘everyday’, is vital for the maintenance of another’s happiness and which inspires devotion, understanding and acceptance. I have a very ‘suspect edifice’ at times, and regularly require a metaphorical re-wiring and re-pointing. This is quite different from Donne, Auden or Yeats, but utterly believable and real.

Atlas

UA Fanthorpe, from Safe as Houses (Peterloo Poets, 1995)

There is a kind of love called maintenance
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;

Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget
The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;

Which answers letters; which knows the way
The money goes; which deals with dentists

And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains,
And postcards to the lonely; which upholds

The permanently rickety elaborate
Structures of living, which is Atlas.

And maintenance is the sensible side of love,
Which knows what time and weather are doing
To my brickwork; insulates my faulty wiring;
Laughs at my dryrotten jokes; remembers
My need for gloss and grouting; which keeps
My suspect edifice upright in air,
As Atlas did the sky.

What do you think? Do you still find it romantic, as I do, despite the imagery being more practical than poetic?

Sadly, I could not find a reading on YouTube and there is no recording of Fanthorpe reading Atlas on The Poetry Archive, although she reads three other poems, including ‘Earthed’.

So this week of love poetry has been fun for me, and asking for requests took the pressure off a little as I struggled to sift through the many, many poetry books that fill my shelves. There were other poems suggested, including Because I liked you, a sombre piece by A E Houseman, How do I love thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, La Vita Nuova by Dante and a number of poems by Carol Ann Duffy, two of which were included on a companion post by the lovely Dad Poet. My thanks to everyone who got in touch.

So on Valentine’s Day love and be loved, or take heart in the thought that somewhere out there is the person for whom, one day, you can find a just the right poem. I hope the past few days, and my previous posts on poetry (just search in the box above or find ‘poetry’ in the word count to the right) have given you a few ideas.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Everybody loves it so let’s go for the top 10….!

Last month Dandelions and Bad Hair Days; Untangling lives affected by depression and anxiety was published on Kindle. Available around the world to read on Kindle, PC or even iPads and smart phones, alongside the paperback version it is now available to millions of people. All the reviews so far have been 5*, with comments such as ‘moving’ ‘enlightening’ ‘uplifting’ ‘accessible’. The book has been featured at a Psychotherapy conference where a reading by Vivienne Tuffnell of her piece that gives the book its title was viewed by many therapists present as one of the highlights of the day.

Image

All good then. Since going to eBook DABHD has featured in two Kindle charts, reaching the top 50 of one of them and the royalties available from Amazon mean that selling at 2.99 we get nearly as much in royalties as we do for a paperback at twice the price.

But we really need a breakthrough to get it on to  ‘must read’ lists. Looking at the charts, the ‘self-help’ books that do well seem to be the ones with inspirational quotes and have a life coach angle to them. Nothing wrong with that at all. However, I do think there is a place for a book full of wonderful writing by inspirational people who talk about their own experiences in their own words, creatively and with passion. Reviewers have said that even if they have no direct experience of mental ill-health themselves, the book has helped them understand how it can affect anyone, in any walk of life and however resilient they think they are.

So how do we ‘go viral’? How do we bring Dandelions and Bad Hair Days to the attention of all those that would benefit from it, learn from it, come to a better understanding from it? All of those involved believe that to reduce stigma and raise awareness we need to get our stories out there. We have poked our heads about the proverbial parapets, which for many has been a courageous move.

So lets find a way to sell in the hundreds, the thousands. Remember ALL profits go to mental health charity SANE, with a contribution to OCD Action in memory of Sybil Macindoe whose mother, Lois Chaber, writes movingly in DABHD and whose own book The Thing Inside My Head has done so much to highlight how damaging Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be.

I have to say I am not very confident at marketing the work I do – it feels a little like selling raffle tickets – you know people are strapped for cash and it is hard to ask. However – this is not all my writing; it is poetry and prose by some twenty contributors. It has a beautiful and unique cover, using artwork by the talented artist Ingrid Smejkal and the paperback includes photographs by photographer Nettie Edwards.  Everyone wins with this book. Please do buy it, tell your friends, review it. I can’t thank you enough for the hard work so far, but there is so much more it could do.

Love poems you wish you had written #3 – Julia Copus

Julia Copus
Julia Copus

I have written before of the wonderful Reading Matters group I was, and still am, lucky enough to be part of (we call it ‘Reading Still Matters’ now that the Royal Literary Fund have moved on to other projects). The leader of our group was the wonderful poet and dramatist Julia Copus, a past winner of the Forward Prize and author of three collections; the most recent of which, ‘The World’s Two Smallest Humans’, was shortlisted for both the Costa and T.S. Eliot prizes. I went to the launch, and was lucky enough to hear Julia read her work and I treasure my signed copy. Through Reading Matters she has inspired me to read much more widely in the wonderful world of contemporary poetry.

Her love poem that I do so wish I had written was first published in The Spectator in 2008 – A Soft-edged reed of light. Her soft voice loads the words with additional meaning, so do listen to it here, on The Poetry Archive website. but it is no less wonderful to mouth the words, quietly, to oneself…..

A Soft-edged reed of light

That was the house where you asked me to remain
on the eve of my planned departure. Do you remember?
The house remembers it – the deal table
with the late September sun stretched on its back.
As long as you like, you said, and the chairs, the clock,
the diamond leaded lights in the pine-clad alcove
of that 1960s breakfast-room were our witnesses.
I had only meant to stay for a week
but you reached out a hand, the soft white cuff of your shirt
open at the wrist, and out in the yard,
the walls of the house considered themselves
in the murk of the lily-pond, and it was done.

Done. Whatever gods had bent to us then to whisper,
Here is your remedy – take it – here, your future,
either they lied or we misheard.
How changed we are now, how superior
after the end of it – the unborn children,
the mornings that came with a soft-edged reed of light
over and over, the empty rooms we woke to.
And yet if that same dark-haired boy
were to lean towards me now, with one shy hand
bathed in September sun, as if to say,
All things are possible – then why not this?
I’d take it still, praying it might be so.

Simple; story telling; sends shivers down my spine.

I have two more poems to post in this series as we approach St Valentine’s Day on Thursday. The posts haven’t had as many views as I thought they would. I am not sure why that is – are we less romantic as a species than I thought we were? Is the climate – economic and weather – so cold and gloomy that romance is ‘off the cards’? Seems a shame if that is so. David over at The Dad Poet is doing his best to help me spread the word about the poetry we both love so much, but I obviously need more help! If you love poetry, love this poem – give it a plug. I am not just out for a big ego trip and blog stats aren’t my favourite obsession but go on – poetry heals, it really does. And boy do we need love and healing right now.

Love poems you wish you had written #2 – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

This is such an enjoyable series to work on . It is made more poignant for me at the moment as I spend a week away from my husband, ostensibly writing ‘Shell-Shocked Britain’ for Pen and Sword Books. Perhaps, when it comes to the end of September and the manuscript is due to be delivered I will regret spending an hour with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but I don’t think so. I have already written more than 1000 words of my book and this is a gentle break of an hour or so.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born on March 6, 1806 in Durham, England. Her father made a fortune in Jamaican sugar plantations, buying a 500 acre estate in the Malvern Hills where Elizabeth led a privileged childhood, developing a precocious interest in literature. She was encouraged by Mr Barrett who called her the ‘poet laureate of Hope End’ and she became a devotee of Shakespeare and Milton and a passionate admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft and her ideas.  However, her father suffered financial losses requiring the sale of the house at Hope End and they moved, eventually, to Wimpole Street in London. Elizabeth suffered increasingly poor health after the move. She became reclusive and frail, seeing few people. Her reputation as a writer was, however, already bringing her to public attention and by 1844 she was feted by literary circles and increasingly by the wider public.

Her reputation today is enhanced by the romantic story behind her marriage to fellow poet Robert Browning, who was encouraged to write to her following the publication of her first volume of poetry and whom she first met in 1845. It is one of the most famous courtships in literature. At 39 she considered herself an invalid, and could not believe that Browning, six years her junior and a ‘man of the world’ loved her as much as he said he did.  Over the next two years she worked through her doubts in the series ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’. Browning, though, was genuine in his devotion, marrying her and taking her to Italy.

One of the most popular of the long series starts ‘How do I love thee? let me count the ways’, (Sonnet XLIII) but that is not the one I have chosen to include in this series. I most admire Sonnet XIV, where Elizabeth speaks to her love of her concerns that he adores her only for those reasons that can most easily fade – her smile, her way of speaking or for pity (as she says, being loved could make her so happy that ‘A creature might forget to weep, who bore/Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!’) It has a simple message  – love me for love’s own sake and then love will endure.

Sonnets from the Portuguese XIV

If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only.  Do not say
“I love her for her smile—her look—her way
Of speaking gently,—for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day”—
For these things in themselves, Belovëd, may
Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so.  Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry,—
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou may’st love on, through love’s eternity.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was frail, suffering from ill-health that has defied proper diagnosis but which was almost certainly exacerbated by the use of opiates to ease her discomfort. But the romantic story survives to the end of her life, in 1861, when she died in the arms of her husband,  ‘smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl’s. … Her last word was—… ‘Beautiful’

Love poems you wish you had written #1 – David Constantine

loveI do have to mention, as I begin this post, that I was inspired by the wonderful David J Bauman over at The Dad Poet. We both love poetry and he has a wonderful reading voice – I was lucky enough to have him read one of my own poems, Life Force, included in Dandelions and Bad Hair Days.

Anyway, as we approach St Valentine’s Day I thought I would, with his permission, pinch his idea and post some poems that I wish I had written.

There are many classic love poems, often read at weddings, which move us and which are truly beautiful. But I think it is very hard to get love poetry ‘right’ as we live ever further into the 21st Century and life seems to take us away from expressing our feelings eloquently to those we love. Text speak is not designed to involve deep thought, or send a pleasant shiver down the spine. An email just doesn’t compare to the joy of a handwritten note and Valentine’s Day cards are just as likely to refer to ‘willies’ and ‘boobs’ as to hearts and flowers.

So I am full of admiration for contemporary poets who can express universal feelings of love, disappointment, longing and lust in language with which we can all identify.

In the past I have posted on Carol Ann Duffy’s Words Wide Night, one of my favourite poems of longing and Thom Gunn’s The Hug, which is an embrace in words. These are two of the poems I would have included in this series; but this exercise has encouraged me to read more widely in my collections of poetry to discover more fabulous poems of the heart.

constantine_127_127So #1 is As our bloods separate by David Constantine, a poet born in Salford, Lancashire in 1944.

 

 

As our bloods separate the clock resumes,
I hear the wind again as our hearts quieten.
We were a ring: the clock ticked round us
For that time and the wind was deflected

The clock pecks everything to the bone.
The wind enters through the broken eyes.
Of houses and through their wide mouths
And scatters the ashes from the hearth.

Sleep. Do not let go my hand.

I love this for its physicality and its intense sensuality.  ‘I hear the wind again as our hearts quieten’ so neatly expresses how the abandonment of all consuming passion creates a world apart for the lovers, they have succeeded in suspending time; but this is then tempered by a sense of what seems to be intense fear and anxiety. The clock ticking is a greedy bird, eating away to the end of everything; the wind is something destructive and inescapable – reaching even to the hearth. The heart of the home. That anxiety needs continued contact. ‘Do not let go my hand’ is so definite, so filled with the need for comfort and protection from the truth of the world outside that room, that the love between these two people becomes something outside reality, a reality which is an eerie, hostile world. It is a world in which none of us can escape the passing of time.

Well that is how I see it anyway. For me it is an intense love poem and although dark, it is romantic in the way it expresses longing and a denial of the reality of the inevitable ‘scattering of ashes’.

What do you think? I am really interested in what others consider ‘love’ poems. Are the best romantic and full of lush imagery? Are they humorous or full of longing? I would really enjoy hearing your selections if you feel like commenting. February can be a cold month so I hope these posts can a warm the cockles of a few hearts.

To find out more about David Constantine see the British Council Literature Matters page.

To be ‘a friend of Keats’ – a very Romantic circle

Keats by Benjamin Robert Haydon, with inscription in praise of his friend the poet.

John Keats is now known as one of the greatest poets in the English language. Often included in the great ‘triad’ of younger Romantics with Shelley and Byron, his life and work has arguably retained a larger and more interested audience than either of those legendary figures, due in part to the wonderful body of writing in the letters he wrote, now often published alongside his poetry.

The letters, which include some of the most extraordinary analysis of the relationship of poet and poetry to the wider world, were written to family – his brothers George and Tom in particular – and friends who, recognising the genius they contained, copied and treasured them. His love letters to Fanny Brawne have received recent attention following the release of the film ‘Bright Star’ in 2009; the knowledge that she treasured them following his death, keeping them secret until after her own death more than 40 years later, adds to the intensity of their story.

In 1818 Keats wrote ‘I could not live without the love of my friends’, and for him they were the support he needed as contact with his family was withdrawn. His brother George married and emigrated to America in the summer of 1818; he nursed his other brother, Tom, through TB until Tom died in December of the same year and Fanny, his only sister and youngest sibling was kept a semi-prisoner by her guardian Richard Abbey in Walthamstow.

Continue reading “To be ‘a friend of Keats’ – a very Romantic circle”

One year on: a new life – Mark’s story

Editor’s note: The monthly mental health guest post on No wriggling for March has been written by Mark K. Social networks provide great support to those with mental health issues and it is via twitter that I ‘met’ Mark. Writing has long been a release for him during bouts of deep depression, but only recently, after changes to his diagnosis & treatment, he has started writing when not under the cloud of depression. He is using this new found freedom to write on mental health issues, to help raise awareness & to fight the stigma associated with mental illness. He blogs at http://nudirection.blogspot.com.au/ 

Just 12 months ago I was diagnosed as bipolar. I was told I suffered from social phobia, had anxiety issues, suffered from PTSD & was mildly obsessive-compulsive. Yet the year that has just passed is the best I’ve had in probably 15 years or more. How can it be that despite this alarming list of mental illnesses, I’m so much better today than I was?

The answer is quite simple. Before this diagnosis I was being treated based on an eleven year old diagnosis, a diagnosis I had believed was incorrect for most of that time. In early 2000 I was diagnosed with major depression – a label that I would live with for the next eleven years. I never realised it at the time, but once you’re labelled by a doctor as having a certain illness, it can be very, very hard to get it changed, even if you know it’s incorrect.

Continue reading “One year on: a new life – Mark’s story”