Dan Sandman

Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

#16 The Last Summer

In Books, Fiction, Poetry on 14/04/2017 at 12:00 pm

#16 The Last SummerThis short Russian novel is Boris Pasternak’s only complete work of fiction other than Dr Zhivago. Largely autobiographical, it is set during the winter of 1916 and offers poetic reflection on the First World War. Private tutor Serezha is an intensely romantic character; creatively inspired by two different woman. The Last Summer is a remarkable book that delves into the heart of an artist. It has no plot as such, instead opting for a perfectly pitched naturalistic style: a musical intensity which transmogrifies the sounds of words into brilliant prose.


#9 John Keats

In Books, Fiction, Poetry on 24/02/2017 at 12:00 pm

#9 John Keats.jpgIn his introduction to this concise selection of Keats’ poetry, Andrew Motion argues against the Tory critics of the nineteenth century; who successfully created a long-standing image of Keats as a lower-class poet of little worth. Of course, anybody with a modicum of sense knows this is wrong. John Keats found it difficult to face the barbed criticism of the Tory press, and his poetry does look to delve inside the human psyche; but to say that his poems are less valuable than his peers’ poetry is sheer snobbery and nonsense. Firstly, he died at such a young age, of something which today would be cured by a quick fix of antibiotics, that it is hard to judge how his shyness would have panned out. Unlike Byron, for example, Keats did not seek the life of the doomed poet. Secondly, there is a way of talking about political events without actually referring to them, as Shelley does, directly in the poetry. As Motion points out, Keats wrote To Autumn “shortly after the Peterloo Massacre”.

49: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Simon Armitage

In Adventure, Books, Fiction, Poetry on 02/12/2016 at 12:00 pm

sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight-by-simon-armitageAt a Christmas banquet, King Arthur’s nephew Sir Gawain accepts a wager given by a green-coloured knight riding a green horse. Before the passing of one year, Gawain must seek the green knight and fulfill his promise to receive a blow in return for decapitating the green knight — who, incidentally, walks off holding his head in his hand. On his adventure, Gawain comes across a fine castle run by a noble lord who offers Gawain another deal. Each day, the lord will go out hunting and give Gawain whatever he gathers. In return, the noble knight promises to exchange anything that he wins whilst the lord is absent. An amusing love scene ensues before Gawain must travel to meet his fate, and rendezvous with the mysterious green knight at New Year.

In his introduction, the poet and broadcaster Simon Armitage makes it that Old English is probably closer to German than English. Thanks to Armitage’s translation, which can be seen as an original poem in its own right, the modern reader can once again enjoy this Arthurian legend anew. The metre of the poem has the regularity of music, an inert tempo which leads without rhyme from line to line, until the final lines close off each stanza with four shorter rhymed lines. This is best shown by example, as the following opening lines, which give the poem an appropriately epic context: –

Once the siege and assault of Troy had ceased
with the city a smoke-heap of cinders and ash,
the turncoat whose tongue had tricked his own men
was tried for his treason – the truest crime on earth.
Then noble Aeneas and his noble lords
went conquering abroad, laying claim to the crowns
of the wealthiest kingdoms in the western world.
Mighty Romulus quickly careered towards Rome
and conceived a city in magnificent style
which from then until now has been known by his name.
Ticius constructed townships in Tuscany
and Langobard did likewise, building homes in Lombardy.
And further afield, over the Sea of  France,
on Britain’s broad hill-tops, Felix Brutus made
his stand
And wonder, dread and war
have lingered in that land
where loss and love turn
have held the upper hand. (I. 1, 1-19)

48: Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C. S. Forester

In Adventure, Books, Fiction, Poetry on 25/11/2016 at 12:00 pm

mr-midshipman-hornblower-by-c-s-foresterThis week I have been reading my first Hornblower book as part of my research into the significance of the sea story in English Literature. Separate from this, I wrote a couple of poems in Camden Town on my day off.

46: The War Poems by Siegfried Sassoon

In Books, Poetry on 11/11/2016 at 12:00 pm

the-war-poems-by-siegfried-sassoonThe best known of the war poets are poets first and soldiers second. In the case of Siegfried Sassoon, his use of rhyme and metre is crafted with poetic expertise. It is Sassoon’s mastery of poetic technique which makes his poems aesthetically appealing, giving them an artistic quality which reaches out beyond the label Poets of the Great War. I expect literary history will recognize this in another hundred years, meanwhile such categorical lumping will suffice.

It is his turn to pacifism that is so often remembered about Sassoon; how his early war poems celebrate the glorious dead but his front-line poems are what he reservedly calls ‘outspoken’ (pp.10), or what might today be termed protest poems. When he is writing from the trenches in 1916, before being awarded the Military Cross for gallantry action in June of that year, his poems become increasingly full of the pacifism for which he is remembered. This period culminates in a poem addressed directly to Robert Graves, the Great War poet who is often criticized for his forthright imperialism. Writing in May, during a period of convalescence, Sassoon writes a beautifully crafted verse letter to Graves, ending the poem with the juxtaposition of two conflicting ideals: the brutal reality of warfare and the hope that good will conquer evil.


Robert, there’s a war in France;

Everywhere men bang and blunder,

Sweat and swear and worship chance,

Creep and blink through cannon thunder.

Rifles crack and bullets flick,

Sing and hum like hornet-swarms.

Yet, through stunning battle storms,

All the while I watch the spark

Lit to guide me; for I know

Dreams will triumph, through the dark

Scowls above we where I go.

You can hear me; you can mingle

Radiant folly with my jingle.

War’s a joke for me and you

While we know such dreams are true!

41: The War Poems by Wilfred Owen

In Books, Literature, Non-Fiction, Poetry on 07/10/2016 at 12:00 pm

war-poems-by-wilfred-owenIn late December 1912, following his matriculation, Wilfred Owen was offered a post as lay assistant to a clergyman, which he turned down. Owen had decided to move away from his evangelical roots, swapping his religious studies for deep readings of Keats manuscripts at the British Museum. Drawing on his knowledge of the biblical and classical genres, he begun to compose poetry with a heavy Keats influence; travelling to France where he held a position at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux. On the year of his twenty-first birthday, war was declared and Owen carried on teaching privately for a while. On November the 15th 1915, he joined the Artists’ Rifles and became a British Army officer.

The story of what happened to Owen during the war has been made familiar by Pat Barker’s excellent novel Regeneration, which deals with the conversations Owen had with Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart War Hospital. Both poets were treated for shell shock — having faced the dirt, stink and horror of the trenches — and soon became friends through their shared love of poetry. Sassoon was already a well connected writer, and introduced Owen to Robert Graves, H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett. With his friend’s help and encouragement, Owen received critical acclaim as a Georgian war poet. On June the 4th 1918, he was graded fit for general service. He was killed early in the morning on November the 4th. The armistice was signed on the 11th.

This book is the best way to enjoy and study the poetry of Wilfred Owen that I have come across. Jon Stallworthy has done a consummate job, selecting the very best of the poet’s work and providing an excellent introduction. Each poem is accompanied by scholarly notes for budding and experienced essayists alike; and Owen’s famous preface — ‘My subject is war, and the pity of war’ (pp.98) — is included as a coda.

Highly recommended.

38: Byron by Elizabeth Longford

In Biography, Books, Literature, Non-Fiction, Poetry on 16/09/2016 at 12:00 pm

byron-by-elizabeth-longfordIn his own lifetime, Lord Byron was almost as famous as Napoleon, after bursting into the literary limelight in 1812 with an epic poem about a self-outcast romantic hero. The poem in question Childe Harold would cement Byron’s reputation for creating dark, dangerous and devilishly exciting central characters — the original Byronic heroes of the literary world. Byron traveled the world in style, forged many promiscuous relationships with both sexes along the way, and fostered a controversial public image within the newspapers. Poet’s were the pop stars of their day, and Byron was to become one of the first international celebrities of the modern era. It would be right to compare his popularity to Micheal Jackson’s, another controversial figure living within a celebrity bubble. But the fact that Byron’s poetry is still appreciated by English Literature scholars has nothing to do with this fame. The poems themselves are brightly lit with clever rhyming and encompass an expansive range of subjects, precariously balancing between the biographically personal and the satirically political.

Published in 1976, this highly readable biography is well known amongst Byron scholars. Elizabeth Longford does a very good job of gathering together the various letters, corespondents and previous biographies surrounding the Byron myth. In chronological order, Longford occasionally dips into the poetry itself to add to her biography of the famous romantic poet — which will please English students. Over the years, however, Longford has been criticized for inaccuracies concerning the number of books Byron’s publishers actually sold during his lifetime; many unlicensed editions were created and circulated illegally, through pirated copies which breached the relatively recent laws concerning copyright. As this illegal copying highlights, the question of author ownership was being challenged long before the internet came along.

I like Byron’s poetry: it has grown on me over the years. Reading up on Byron for my essay is helping me to place Don Juan within the cultural milieu of late Georgian society. Yes, Byron is bitterly against almost all factions of the establishment, but at least he is consistent with his animosity. It is suggested by Longford that this might have had something to do with his clubbed foot, a disability which perhaps led to an overstatement of his masculinity; the need for sporting magnificence and his desire for many passionate but essentially unfulfilling sexual conquests. This is one argument which seeks to give meaning to the complex identity of this good looking and brilliantly witty poet: combined with an absent aristocratic father who died whilst Byron was still a boy, leaving the young future poet much land, a title, but not much money; an overbearing mother, with many uncomplimentary nicknames, who arguably allowed an incestuous relationship to develop between Byron and his sister; and any number of sexual adventures in foreign lands. The whole tale creates a saucy biographical picture which perhaps augments our reading of the poetry. Whether the more sensational stories surrounding Byron (of which I have not the space to cover) are strictly true or not is debatable, particularly seeing as the poet’s memoirs were burnt soon after he died.

Does it really matter? — if the poetry is good and worth reading.

28: Paradise Lost by John Milton

In Books, Fiction, Literature, Poetry on 08/07/2016 at 12:00 pm

Paradise Lost

The arch angel Lucifer leads a failed rebellion against God in Heaven.  He is heroically defeated by the good angels including Michael and Gabriel. After being exiled to Hell and renamed Satan (which translates to ‘the enemy’ in Hebrew) he plots revenge with the other fallen angels. It is agreed that Satan should travel alone to Earth where God has created the garden of Eden and given life to all living things. Satan successfully passes the gates of chaos and encircles earth in search of Adam & Eve. At first Satan is beaten back by the good angels that God has sent to protect Eden against the enemy. The good angel Raphael then warns Adam about Satan who is known to be very deceitful. Then Satan overhears Adam and Eve discussing the forbidden Tree of Knowledge which contains the knowledge of Sin and Death. After appearing to Eve in a dream, Satan proceeds to inhabit the body of the Serpent and slyly convinces Eve to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. Eve then goes on to convince Adam to eat from the tree, thus completing the fall of man. Sin and death enter the world but the Son of God remains as a symbol of hope for the future.

The Bible

All of the above plot is based upon parts of the The Bible, in particular the first book Genesis. Like Paradise LostThe Bible is divided into different books which are not necessarily in chronological sequence. Each of these books can be read in or out of sequence as the reader wishes. Before the invention of the codex, each book of The Bible would have been read on scrolls. Any bible that we read is an attempt to neatly frame many different narratives written by many different authors or prophets across an extremely long period of time. The Old Testament informed the Judaic religious context of the New Testament, a sequel which formed the basis for a new religion Christianity. Over the course of history, bibles have inevitably become partisan as different publishers have translated the bible and have sought to impress their own interpretations on the text.

Classical Mythology

John Milton was educated during the European Renaissance and was extremely well read in both Greek and Roman texts, which he was able to read in their original languages. His knowledge of the classics feeds into Paradise Lost, which Milton based upon the epic verse of Ovid, Virgil and to a lesser extent Homer. The ancient myths of the past dealt with great battles, larger than life heroes and many pagan Gods who were neither good nor evil. In the seventeenth century it was the norm for writers in English to base their work on these classical myths. With great skill and education, Milton managed to combine classical and biblical genres to form something which is both beautiful to read and has added to the debates surrounding religion. One way in which Milton differed from many of his contemporaries was in his choice of non-rhyming blank verse. This enabled him to free himself from what he called the ‘bondage’ of a rhyme scheme and align the poem closer to the classical texts of which he admired and respected.

I am currently studying for an MA in English.

Paradise Lost by John Milton

26: Blake by Peter Ackroyd

In Biography, Books, Literature, Non-Fiction, Poetry on 24/06/2016 at 12:00 pm

Blake by Peter AckroydEighteenth century London is the setting for this excellent biography. It traces the steps of the visionary poet and engraver William Blake. We see Blake walking across the pavements of Lambeth, sketching tombs in Westminster Abbey, and composing poetry in the notebook of his tragically departed brother. In the midst of great political change, with the French Revolution and the American Civil War looming behind him, Blake elevates his vision of London to mythological status; late in his career, giving us the lyrics for what has become a second British national anthem: And did those feet in ancient time.

But despite being famous today, Blake was relatively unknown during his own lifetime. This was partly due to his fiery temperament, which made him difficult to work with. He could also become lost in his own creative visions. As Peter Ackroyd points out, on one occasion he agreed to a September deadline for a piece of engraving work for a book front-cover, but did not hand it until April — the book having already been published by that date. He also self-published most of his poetical works by demand, making it difficult for him to sell them on any large scale; and as if to make matters worse, each beautifully drawn design, on each separate book, was separately and painstakingly created next to the printed words. Such complicated production methods were essentially bad for business.

Peter Ackroyd wrote this biography in 1995 and it has since been at the top of many reading lists (his name beginning with has helped). The writing is steeped in detail: retracing the footsteps of Blake and his circle with a secure knowledge of London history. We are given an insight into the dissenting religious beliefs of Georgian England; tutored on the precise techniques of copper engraving; and asked to rethink the poetry and artworks from a biographical perspective. This book will appeal to anyone with an interest in William Blake or the inner workings of the creative mind.


07: Paradise Lost by John Milton

In Autobiography, Books, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry on 12/02/2016 at 12:00 pm

Paradise Lost by John MiltonThis picture was taken in August last year. I had started reading Milton on my summer walks around Primrose Hill and Regents Park. In the previous summer of 2014, my father and I would sit on park benches discussing life. At there best, but not always, these conversations were philosophical father and son talks, about the meaning of the universe. I miss my father’s intelligence and wit.

One day, on a rainy afternoon in the park, we had a run in with the police. As usual, I had been pushing my father in his wheelchair.

‘The doctor says I must do my daily exercises.’ He would say.

After some experimentation, we had found the ideal walking spot. Our routine was to park the wheelchair near an old oak tree each day, making sure to put the brakes on so it wouldn’t run away by itself. We would then walk arm-in-arm to a discreet location for players of the French sport pétanque (similar to bowls); a secluded garden cut off by several hedgerows, where we would follow a pot-holed grey path to a rusty old black gate. This place was particularly peaceful, partly because nobody in England plays pétanque.

Now, the routine was to walk with my father and then return to the oak tree, as soon as he had sat down inside the secluded garden. I would then go back to manoeuvre the wheelchair so that it was parked by the black gate. Once our routine was completed, we would then be free to philosophise upon the park bench.

On that rainy afternoon, a police car happened to be patrolling the park, clearly looking for any suspicious behaviour. Winding down his window, an officer of the law poked his head out.

‘Is that yours?’ No excuse me please or do you mind if I ask you. ‘Where are you going with that wheelchair?’ He questioned, the power of law enforcement enhancing his investigative discourse.

‘Over there.’ I helpfully replied, pointing to where my father sat secluded by the hedgerows. ‘There’s an old man in there, it’s his wheelchair.’

The young officer took out his notepad and wrote something down, looking at me questioningly as he did so. As I pushed the chair through the rain, the driver slowly pursued me, making sure to get a visual so he could verify my claimed innocence. From the officers’ perspective, I really was a potential wheelchair thief.

My father and I, of course, found this all very funny.

‘My son the criminal!’ He joked.

‘Maybe there’s a murderer loose on Primrose Hill.’ I said sardonically.

Just at that very moment, the car cruelled by again. We both looked and laughed together.

‘We must tell your mother.’

‘We will.’

‘It’s raining. Let’s go home.’