Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

Serraillier: The Ballad of St Simeon

February 23, 2017

The Ballad of St Simeonserraillier-st-simeon
Ian Serraillier
Illustrated by Simon Stern
(F. Watts, 1970)
28 p.

The subject of this poem is St Simeon Stylites, who, because “his ways were lonely and he loved God”, leaves ordinary life behind and, of all things, lives atop a pole for most of his life. He suffers exposure to the elements, and the jeers of those below, but he offers counsel to humble souls as well, and when a fearsome dragon threatens the city it is St Simeon whose prayers save the day.

In this large-format edition the poem is illustrated by Simon Stern. The drawings are charming and a bit amateurish, and clearly pitched at young children. Not so the poem itself, I dare say, which seems to me addressed to fairly accomplished readers:

Years Simeon stood, sat, slept
on his pole, communed with God and wept
for the sin-smudged city. Some, not many,
brought him their troubles and he offered
prayers for them but could do no miracle.
How he suffered!
The seasons steam-rollered him. In summer
the flaming sun made him boil
and the pole pain bubble and pop, and
when winter was a turmoil
of flying icicles, in spite of his mother-knitted clothes,
his goose skin hugged his skeleton. So cold was it
that chilblains marbled and the people’s oaths
froze on the air (thawing out in Spring
with a bang).

There are rhymes here, both at line ends and internally, but the rhythm is irregular and a bit tricky, and the poem doesn’t condescend. Somewhat to my surprise, therefore, my 5 year-old son loves it, and has had me read it to him numerous times over the past few weeks. Does that mean I’ve succeeded in finding its music?

As far as the subject matter goes, it’s a good story, and it is well told. Sometimes modern authors treating saints’ lives are tempted to skirt the religious elements, especially when there’s something as distracting as a dragon in the tale, but Serraillier doesn’t do this, and in fact the poem contains Biblical allusions that will render it partly unintelligible to readers without a decent religious formation. A similarly demanding poem, and a poem demanding in a similar way, would probably not be published today in this format. Let us raise a glass, once again, to oldish books.

Scorn not the least

February 21, 2017

Today is the anniversary of the death of St Robert Southwell, poet, priest, and martyr.


WHERE wards are weak and foes encount’ring strong,
Where mightier do assault than do defend,
The feebler part puts up enforcèd wrong,
And silent sees that speech could not amend.
Yet higher powers must think, though they repine,
When sun is set, the little stars will shine.

While pike doth range the seely tench doth fly,
And crouch in privy creeks with smaller fish ;
Yet pikes are caught when little fish go by,
These fleet afloat while those do fill the dish.
There is a time even for the worm to creep,
And suck the dew while all her foes do sleep.

The merlin cannot ever soar on high,
Nor greedy greyhound still pursue the chase ;
The tender lark will find a time to fly,
And fearful hare to run a quiet race :
He that high growth on cedars did bestow,
Gave also lowly mushrumps leave to grow.

In Aman’s pomp poor Mardocheus wept,
Yet God did turn his fate upon his foe ;
The lazar pined while Dives’ feast was kept,
Yet he to heaven, to Hell did Dives go.
We trample grass, and prize the flowers of May,
Yet grass is green when flowers do fade away.

This poem introduced me to the word “mushrump”, for which I am grateful. Southwell was a contemporary of Shakespeare and Donne, and, by my reckoning, is the second greatest Jesuit poet. He was executed under Elizabeth I on 21 February 1595, for the crime of treason (viz. for being a priest on English soil). Read more about him here.

St Robert Southwell, pray for us.

Byron: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

January 26, 2017

childeChilde Harold’s Pilgrimage
George Gordon Lord Byron
(Oxford, 2008) [1812-18]
188 p.

She walks in beauty, like the night, and my ignorance of the life and poetry of Lord Byron is rather like the night too: dark and comprehensive. Nonetheless I took up this long poem with considerable interest. I’d come across excerpts from it here and there in my readings about Rome, and I thought I’d take a closer look to see what else, if anything, the poem has to say about the Eternal City.

That’s a narrow keyhole through which to approach a fairly wide-ranging poem, which recounts the travels of one Harold, a young and dissolute Englishman, as he rambles across the European continent. He lands first in Spain, makes his way east, stopping in Albania, and Greece, and eventually comes to Italy, where he visits, among other cities, Venice, Florence, and, yes, Rome.

The poem is allegedly based on Byron’s own European travels, which he undertook in the years 1809-11.

Harold is melancholy, undisciplined, and a rake:

Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines and carnal companie,
And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.
(1, II)

In other words, we have here a Byronic hero, such as he is, and the poem, which was the first to bring Byron wide fame, is a notable example of English Romanticism in full flower. (Note that it was published just a few decades after the famous volume by which Wordsworth and Coleridge are said to have inaugurated Romanticism in England.) We find, for instance, the characteristic Romantic sense of the sublimity of Nature:

All heaven and earth are still—though not in sleep,
But breathless, as we grow when feeling most;
And silent, as we stand in thoughts too deep: —
All heaven and earth are still: from the high host
Of stars, to the lulled lake and mountain-coast,
All is concentered in a life intense,
Where not a beam, nor air, nor leaf is lost,
But hath a part of being, and a sense
Of that which is of all Creator and defence.

I was surprised to find that the anti-hero of the poem, whose brooding self-consciousness and jaundiced eye are supposed to seduce and repel us at once, was not so brooding, and especially not so jaundiced, as I had expected. When he comes to Greece, for instance, he is overwhelmed by the solemnity and glory of what once was, and says:

Where’er we tread, ’tis haunted, holy ground;
No earth of thine is lost in vulgar mould,
But one vast realm of wonder spreads around,
And all the Muse’s tales seem truly told,
Till the sense aches with gazing to behold
The scenes our earliest dreams have dwelt upon:
Each hill and dale, each deepening glen and wold,
Defies the power which crushed thy temples gone:
Age shakes Athena’s tower, but spares gray Marathon.

and then cries out with sincere admiration:

Yet to the remnants of thy splendour past
Shall pilgrims, pensive, but unwearied, throng:
Long shall the voyager, with th’ Ionian blast,
Hail the bright clime of battle and of song;
Long shall thine annals and immortal tongue
Fill with thy fame the youth of many a shore:
Boast of the aged! lesson of the young!
Which sages venerate and bards adore,
As Pallas and the Muse unveil their awful lore.
(2, XCI)

One has the distinct impression that Harold counts himself among the youth filled with Greece’s fame, himself a pensive pilgrim honouring the remnants of its splendid past.

In fact throughout the poem Harold shows a real desire to admire the great monuments, and to commune with the great tradition on which he has been nurtured. He is no mere tourist, no cynic in such matters. In comparison to twenty-somethings whom I have known, he comes across as positively effusive in his earnest praise:

Italia! too, Italia! looking on thee
Full flashes on the soul the light of ages,
Since the fierce Carthaginian almost won thee,
To the last halo of the chiefs and sages
Who glorify thy consecrated pages;
Thou wert the throne and grave of empires; still,
The fount at which the panting mind assuages
Her thirst of knowledge, quaffing there her fill,
Flows from the eternal source of Rome’s imperial hill.
(3, CX)

I hear in such verse more humility and sincerity than ironic sophistication. I may even say that I found in Harold, at least at such moments, an echo of my own feelings towards the European past, which is my cultural inheritance, and which I have laboured, here and elsewhere, to appropriate. This has been rather gratifying, not only inasmuch as Harold provides me with an eloquent — an, if anything, too eloquent — expression of my own feelings, but also inasmuch as it allows me to imagine myself a Byronic hero, a wholly unlooked-for denouement!


As to Harold’s sojourn in Rome, it was indeed the highlight of the poem for me (“O Rome! my country! city of the soul!”), and I cannot resist quoting some of my favourite stanzas. There may be no better image of the spirit of Romanticism than that of Byron — sorry, I meant Harold — standing in the moonlight gazing at the ruins of the Colosseum:

But when the rising moon begins to climb
Its topmost arch, and gently pauses there;
When the stars twinkle through the loops of time,
And the low night-breeze waves along the air,
The garland-forest, which the grey walls wear,
Like laurels on the bald first Caesar’s head;
When the light shines serene, but doth not glare,
Then in this magic circle raise the dead:
Heroes have trod this spot—’tis on their dust ye tread.
(4, CXLIV)

Here he wanders a bit north, into the warren of cobble-stoned streets of Old Rome, emerging into the piazza before the Pantheon:

Simple, erect, severe, austere, sublime—
Shrine of all saints and temple of all gods,
From Jove to Jesus—spared and blest by time;
Looking tranquillity, while falls or nods
Arch, empire, each thing round thee, and man plods
His way through thorns to ashes—glorious dome!
Shalt thou not last?—Time’s scythe and tyrants’ rods
Shiver upon thee—sanctuary and home
Of art and piety—Pantheon!—pride of Rome!

Relic of nobler days, and noblest arts!
Despoiled yet perfect, with thy circle spreads
A holiness appealing to all hearts—
To art a model; and to him who treads
Rome for the sake of ages, Glory sheds
Her light through thy sole aperture; to those
Who worship, here are altars for their beads;
And they who feel for genius may repose
Their eyes on honoured forms, whose busts around them close.

Does your heart beat high? Do you feel nobler, even taller? Later he goes across the Tiber to St. Peter’s. Earlier in the poem he had let drop the casual anti-Catholic sentiments of an ordinary Englishman:

But here the Babylonian whore had built
A dome, where flaunts she in such glorious sheen,
That men forget the blood which she hath spilt,
And bow the knee to Pomp that loves to garnish guilt.
(1, XXIX)

but confronted with the glory of San Pietro he seems to forget himself:

But thou, of temples old, or altars new,
Standest alone—with nothing like to thee—
Worthiest of God, the holy and the true,
Since Zion’s desolation, when that he
Forsook his former city, what could be,
Of earthly structures, in his honour piled,
Of a sublimer aspect? Majesty,
Power, Glory, Strength, and Beauty, all are aisled
In this eternal ark of worship undefiled.
(4, CLIV)

As he ponders it, walking beneath its sublime canopy, he senses the challenge it poses to his own soul, and he struggles to rise to it:

Not by its fault—but thine: Our outward sense
Is but of gradual grasp—and as it is
That what we have of feeling most intense
Outstrips our faint expression; e’en so this
Outshining and o’erwhelming edifice
Fools our fond gaze, and greatest of the great
Defies at first our nature’s littleness,
Till, growing with its growth, we thus dilate
Our spirits to the size of that they contemplate.

Who among us, confronted by a great work of art, has not experienced, or at least wanted to experience, such a thing? Even granting that an aesthetic experience is not the highest experience one might hope to have in a holy site, it’s nothing to sneer at.

I suppose I risk giving a lopsided view of the poem. It’s not all Rome, not all Italy. He doesn’t like Spain so much. And much of the poem is brooding, especially on the personal wreckage he left behind in England. But I came to the poem with something particular in mind, and I departed well-satisfied.


A word about the technical aspects of the poem. As is evident from the sections I’ve quoted, it is composed in Spenserian stanzas: ababbcbcc in iambic metre. It is a long poem, with nearly 500 such stanzas, split into four cantos of uneven length, and a few interpolations of verse in other metres and rhyme schemes. The poetry is astoundingly accomplished, technically. I haven’t actually tried it, but I imagine I’d have a horrendous time trying to produce even one such stanza of non-doggeral verse. To have the facility to write stanza after stanza, expressing and developing thought along the way, is a remarkable gift.


For my own benefit, I here append some other of the stanzas I appreciated most:

[Lament over Greece]
When riseth Lacedaemon’s hardihood,
When Thebes Epaminondas rears again,
When Athens’ children are with hearts endued,
When Grecian mothers shall give birth to men,
Then mayst thou be restored; but not till then.
A thousand years scarce serve to form a state;
An hour may lay it in the dust: and when
Can man its shattered splendour renovate,
Recall its virtues back, and vanquish Time and Fate?

[The natural beauty of Greece]
Yet are thy skies as blue, thy crags as wild:
Sweet are thy groves, and verdant are thy fields,
Thine olives ripe as when Minerva smiled,
And still his honeyed wealth Hymettus yields;
There the blithe bee his fragrant fortress builds,
The freeborn wanderer of thy mountain air;
Apollo still thy long, long summer gilds,
Still in his beam Mendeli’s marbles glare;
Art, Glory, Freedom fail, but Nature still is fair.

[Rome and Italy]
The commonwealth of kings, the men of Rome!
And even since, and now, fair Italy!
Thou art the garden of the world, the home
Of all Art yields, and Nature can decree;
Even in thy desert, what is like to thee?
Thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste
More rich than other climes’ fertility;
Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced
With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.
(4, XXVI)

[Praise of Tasso]
Peace to Torquato’s injured shade! ’twas his
In life and death to be the mark where Wrong
Aimed with their poisoned arrows—but to miss.
Oh, victor unsurpassed in modern song!
Each year brings forth its millions; but how long
The tide of generations shall roll on,
And not the whole combined and countless throng
Compose a mind like thine? Though all in one
Condensed their scattered rays, they would not form a sun.
(4, XXXIX)

Or, turning to the Vatican, go see
Laocoon’s torture dignifying pain—
A father’s love and mortal’s agony
With an immortal’s patience blending:—Vain
The struggle; vain, against the coiling strain
And gripe, and deepening of the dragon’s grasp,
The old man’s clench; the long envenomed chain
Rivets the living links,—the enormous asp
Enforces pang on pang, and stifles gasp on gasp.
(4, CLX)

Das Nibelungenlied

September 13, 2016

Das Nibelungenlied
Translated from the Middle High German by Burton Raffel
(Yale, 2006) [c.1200]
375 p.

The Germanic tradition of stories about the Nibelungs was familiar to me only through Wagner, but for some time I had wished to acquaint myself with the medieval roots of the legendarium, and at long last I arrived at this Song of the Nibelungs, which is one of the chief glories of that tradition. It was written by we know not whom, and we know not when (but probably around the year 1200).

I first noticed that although the story shares a number of characters with Wagner’s version — Sifried, Brunhild, Hagen, and Gunter, principally — the story as a whole bears no resemblance to Wagner’s, not even in the sections about those shared characters. But in adapting the story for his own purposes Wagner seems to have been in good company, for there is a rich and complex manuscript tradition testifying to the malleability and creativity with which medieval culture treated these tales. The translator, Burton Raffel, does not explain why it was this version of the story which he chose to translate, and I rather wish he had.

The basic arc of the story concerns two royal marriages which, poisoned by jealous pride and suspicion, erupt into violence that eventually leads to the downfall of all. Surprisingly (for those coming to the story from Wagner) there are no gods in the cast, and, although there are cursory references to Christianity here and there — the characters hear Mass in the morning, for instance — the poem as a whole shows little interest in religion, and is far from pious in spirit. There are a few magical elements around the edges, as when one character hears a prophecy from fountain sprites, but otherwise the tale is grounded in the political and interpersonal world of its characters.

I almost wrote that it is grounded in “realism”, but that would not be quite right. The knights at the center of this story — Sifried, Volker, Gunter, Hagen, Rudigor, and a few others — are heroes of legend, which means they fight with superhuman strength, slaying dozens or hundreds of adversaries with ease. The women are surpassingly beautiful. Everyone is impossibly polite: indeed, a significant part of the poem is devoted to the niceties of courtly etiquette, with page after page devoted to the elaborate ceremonies of court: gift-giving, welcomes, and feasts. The author seems to relish the intricacy and formality of these encounters, and the reader — the happy reader, at any rate — will relish them too.

The poem is not all please and thank-you, however. When things go wrong, they go very wrong, and death stalks through these stanzas. The poet’s dramatic strategy is to tell us in advance that things are going to turn out badly, and this is effective, for we as readers are then alert to missteps in courtly protocols and intimations of interpersonal friction:

The king’s attendants hurried \, about, making the royal /
palace fit for a visit \, from eagerly awaited, /
deeply beloved guests. \, Everyone was joyful, /
ready to welcome those \, their king had invited, who would try to destroy him.

(I note with some dismay that when formatted in WordPress the lines are too long for the available space. Slashes inserted to indicate the ends of lines.)

At its most violent, the poem can be quite gruesome. Here the Burgundian prince Giselher speaks following an extended battle against the Huns:

“We can’t afford bodies \, lying under foot. /
Before the Huns can claim \, victory in battle, /
we’ll get to chop them up \, again, which makes me happy. /
And I intend,” said he, \, “to have as good a time as I can.”

“Now that’s the kind of ruler \, I like having,” Hagen /
said. “Only a real \, warrior talks that way, /
gives you the kind of advice \, my prince has given today. /
All you Burgundy men \, should rejoice. That’s all I have to say!”

They did as the prince advised, \, and carried seven thousand /
bodies out the door \, of the hall. Then they dropped /
the corpses down the stairs, \, and left them where they stopped /
rolling. The dead men’s families \, wept and cried, and wrung their hands.

Some of the wounded men \, were still alive, at the start, /
and could have been completely \, healed, if cared for. The jarring /
fall had killed them, every \, single one. Their friends /
and families wailed in sorrow \, for such a bitter, painful end.”

It is worth noting that Giselher and Hagen are not the villains of the piece, but instead something like its heroes. In fact it’s not so easy to say just who the heroes are: everyone has faults, and everyone pays for those faults in the end. To my mind Sifried comes closest to being an unequivocal hero, but (***spoiler alert***) he is killed off in the early going, the victim of jealousy born of misunderstanding. His wife Krimhild is the wronged party who seeks revenge, which might, on a warrior’s code, be the honourable course, but she too is vindictive beyond measure. The poem is morally complex.


The original poem is written in quatrains consisting of rhyming couplets: AABB. Each line is divided into two halves, with each half-line having three (or, in the case of the last half-line of each quatrain, three or four) stresses. Raffel has tried to preserve this structure in his translation, but inevitably compromises were necessary. He has strictly preserved the metrical scheme, as is evident from the passages cited above. He claims to have usually preserved rhyme as well, but to my ear the rhymes are often only approximate, and as I read I was almost never aware of them.

Even with those efforts to preserve the poetry of the original, I confess I often found the translation very “prosy”. Here’s a sample stanza, plucked more or less at random:

Whatever other warriors \, did and were able to do, /
Dancwart and Hagen and many \, courageous, accomplished knights, /
however heroic they were, \, princess, it still remains true /
their deeds were nothing at all \, compared to noble Sifried’s might.

Take out the tabs and carriage returns and — again, judged by my ear — this turns into rather plain prose. It does rhyme, I grant, but it doesn’t sing to me, and I wish it did. Perhaps this can help me explain:

Take out the tabs and carriage \, returns and — again, judged /
by my ear — this \, turns into rather plain /
prose. It does rhyme, \, I grant, but it doesn’t sing /
to me, and I wish it did. \, Perhaps this can help me explain.

That rhymes at least we well as one of Raffel’s typical stanzas, and it has the right stress pattern, but I’d not call it poetry.

Having said that, the stress patterns did sometimes serve as a helpful guide to emphases in the lines. Take this example, for instance:

Then Krimhild’s father-in-law \, approached her, and said to the queen: /
“We ought to be at home. \, Neither of us can feel /
like welcome guests, here \, in Wurms along the Rhine. /
My dear Krimhild, now \, we need to return to my land. It’s time.

In the third line “here” gets a stress, emphasizing that where they are is the problem, and in the fourth line “now” gets a stress, emphasizing the need for immediate action. Were that stanza smeared out into prose, I’m not sure I’d read it in quite the same way.

Despite the difficulties I had with the translation, we English speakers do not have many means by which to get to know this poem, and I am grateful for Raffel’s labours.


Das Nibelungenlied is a great poem, one especially bracing for readers from our culture, for in it we encounter a world quite other than our own, where honour and strength are the leading virtues, and in which courtesy and violence are engaged in a high-stakes contest of wits. It has a cast of characters that is memorable in action and manageable in size, and strong dramatic instincts. In the sweepstakes of medieval Germanic poetry it doesn’t displace Beowulf in my affections, but I did certainly enjoy reading it.