Heroes and Homilies (1)

(This talk was delivered in the summer of 2014 at Bede’s World as part of their lecture series, and to accompany an exhibition curated by Roger Wollen, ‘Myths, Memories and Mysteries,’ which focussed on a number of contemporary artists influenced by the Byzantine models which had also influenced the monks of Jarrow and Lindisfarne themselves.

I thought a look at the way poets similarly revisit the ‘deep time’ of classical, dark age, and medieval poetry might amount to some sort of parallel endeavour. So this was given the subtitle ‘why poets need to revisit the poetry of the past’.

It constitutes a sort of companion piece, then, to the ‘Love and the Romans’ post – and indeed relates obliquely to a third talk I’ve not yet posted, trying to flesh out (and thereby critique) the notion of poetry as shamanic.

I’ll post it in four sections again: intro; a bit on Heaney; some thoughts on Simon Armitage, J.O. Morgan and Alice Oswald; and a conclusion that nearly veers off course entirely into a set of my own unfinished projects – but I pull it back, people: I pull it back from the brink!)


When my April showers me with kisses
I could make her my missus or my mistress
but I’m happily hitched – sorry home girls –
said my vows to the sound of the Bow Bells
yet her breath is as fresh as the west wind,
when I breathe her, I know we’re predestined
to make music; my muse, she inspires me
though my mind’s overtaxed, April fires me,
how she pierces my heart to the fond root…

Prologue (Grime Mix) by Patience Agbabi

Roger Wollen begins his introduction to the catalogue for ‘Myths, Memories and Mysteries’ with a resonant, difficult truth: ‘All artists are in thrall to the past. They cannot escape history.’ As with art, so with writing. Retelling is just another way of telling. But what it tells is not just the same story, at some level it also incorporates the story of the story, and so it reveals something more, something new: our attitude toward the story. Thoughout literary history, poets, dramatists and storytellers have retold tales precisely so that they could put their own focus, their own spin, their own take, on something more or less familiar to their own audience.

From Virgil seizing upon the aftermath of the Iliad and the escape of Aeneas from the destruction of Troy to tell the founding tale of Rome, to Shakespeare zooming in on Troilus and Cressida from the same epic source to reposition a story already told by Chaucer and Boccaccio, artists are drawn to the nearly-familiar and the just-distant-enough to adapt, translate, and reposition, not just the stories, but themselves as storytellers, dramatists or poets.

Sometimes that is about placing themselves within or indeed creating a specific tradition, as the medieval Scots makar Robert Henryson did in relation to Chaucer with his Testament of Cresseid. Sometimes the impulse is more overtly to do with translation, as in the updating of Chaucer by John Dryden, or John Donne by Alexander Pope, where the language or the metrics have been deemed too old-fashioned to serve, but the content or the sensibility appeals, or is itself the element they wish to adapt.

Sometimes the gesture is a type of criticism of society, as in Tennyson’s Victorian Gothic revisiting of The Idylls of the King in the face of industrialization and the advance of the secular. Sometimes it expresses a profound shift in sensibility, as in the Modernist retreatment of The Odyssey we find in Joyce, and in Ezra Pound’s Cantos.

Our period is no exception, indeed, we might be said to be passing through an especially fecund period for adaptations of the sort I’ll be discussing here – from re-readings of sometimes neglected classics, to what we might term diachronic translation, where the literature of an earlier period is translated into a more modern idiom within that same literature. Thus we have, among others, Christopher Logue’s and Alice Oswald’s rethinkings of Homer; Patience Agbabi’s and Lavinia Greenlaw’s recasting of Chaucer; J.O. Morgan’s meditation on the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon; and Simon Armitage’s translations of Gawain and the Green Knight and the Arthurian legends.

Of course the key element which links these texts is not just their historic remoteness or their cultural status. It is their moral or heroic dimension. These are poems which ask their readers what it is to be good, what it is to be brave. Such questions, you might think, would be answered in very different ways in different historical periods, and the relevance of the ancient or the medieval viewpoint to our own might seem slight.

Seamus Heaney points to this when he argues in his introduction to Beowulf: ‘as a work of art it lives in its own continuous present, equal to our knowledge of reality in the present time.’ It is perhaps because we are so reluctant to concede the primacy of our present moment, whether to the other realities of the past or to the different reality of the work of art, that we should attempt such adaptations and translations. As Lavinia Greenlaw says of Troilus and Cressida, ‘For this story to have passed…across the centuries while losing nothing of its force is a reflection of the way in which stories outgrow and survive us by being about us at a far deeper level than any stories of our own.’

There is in such ideas, such sentiments, something of the drivenness and humility of the heroes these poems are about. In other words there is a certain amount of self-valorising in the best sense of the term in these adapters’ roles: in a way they themselves become the heroes of their own quests to transcend their era and their egos’ limitations, and recover the grail of the perfect text, at once original and revision, their own and their masters’ work.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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