Heroes and Homilies (4)

(This concluding section wants to go in a number of directions which I resist here, but will try to pick up in subsequent posts. One is the idea that revisiting stories helps us to think about what story-telling is and what it is for, and whether it is always the best means by which to understand what happens to us – an argument I’ve raised before via Strawsen’s opposition between the narrative tendency and the episodic viewpoint.

The other is the question of how this might apply to one’s own writing – for me, there are a couple of longer term projects that this talk was, perhaps, a way of positioning my imagination in relation to, but which it was not appropriate to do more than allude to here – an addendum will therefore follow, expanding slightly on that aspect.)

I’d like to conclude by suggesting that each mode and each impulse, whether it is to seek continuity or to re-read forcibly or to re-position the poem itself, has its place. Given that we live in a society which sometimes seems to believe that the facts of a matter are all that need concern us, a multiplicity of challenges to the way we tell ourselves stories seems vital.

Perhaps the most dangerous fiction we have is the idea that realism and reality are simply two sides of the same coin, that we can apply the tropes of storytelling to the world around us, that its models of character, motivation and plot will simply map onto actual events and describe them accurately.

The purpose of the quest, after all, is to enlarge our concept of ourselves, to see beyond our theories about the world into the hearts of those stories, those symbols, which enabled us to construct such theories in the first place. We do not just, however benignly, bring the stories into the present, we use them to develop, both as practitioners and as social beings: we allow them to change us.

To that end, we must admit that all shades of ‘Transfusion’ – versions, adaptations, recontextualisations, rewritings, re-presentings and reconsiderings – are a vital, necessary part of that task, not something we can shirk as in some way innate, and need hardly embark on, but a mission we should embrace as variously as possible.

There are various ways this impacts on my own work, including ongoing projects on 16th century texts from pre-Reformation Scotland and the pre-Ottoman world of Renaissance Crete. But history would have us hurry on. So I’d like to finish with a poem, a commission to write about Lindisfarne as part of a project called Colm Cille’s Spiral, a re-imagination of the legacy of the sixth-century Irish monk Colm Cille, or St Columba, through a series of contemporary art and literature commissions and dialogues that unfolded last year across Ireland and the UK. In the North-East, twelve poets including myself, Sean O’Brien, Colette Bryce and Gillian Allnutt, wrote poems about or set on Lindisfarne, which in their different ways reflected the issues I’ve been discussing today.

The role of Lindisfarne, of Jarrow and Monkwearmouth, in establishing the cultural basis from which many of the texts I’ve been discussing eventually emerged cannot be overstated: to have an English literature you must first have the concept of an England and of an English language. Of course many of the writers I’ve mentioned, myself included, would identify themselves in contrast or in opposition to that simple unity, arguing instead for many nations, many literatures, many Englishes. But that too is an act of retelling, of adaptation, and translation.

This poem has its roots in Bede’s work in history and hagiography, particularly the stories of the animals who miraculously intercede in the lives of the Lindisfarne monks, and of the carrying of Cuthbert’s body around the county after the Viking destruction of the abbey, before its settling in Durham. It seems to me there is something as heroic as it is homiletic in those tales, and, in their favouring of the fable over the fact, something fundamentally poetic that needs revisiting and retelling in every generation.

North of the Book


Cuthbert’s cloud crypt is barely blue-flecked.

Beneath it, rapt, his bestial elect

witness the bay as a sunken boat

in which the sea-fowl gospels float.


Prior Puffin / arranges fish

upon his profane / palate’s dish.

Sister Otter / won’t insist

but the bliss of water / is like a kiss.

Brother Crow / can’t allow

that a bird might know / how to bow.

Father Gull / holds Bible School

for a fresh lamb’s skull / and a crab in a pool.

Mother Whale / dives to foil

the foolish sail / and saves her oil.

Deacon Dolphin / sings descant

to the shoal’s cold hymn / in greed’s ascent.

Sacristan Seal – / wrack his stained glass –

ecstatic, reels / in the tidal mass.

Hermit Crab / with trembling claws

grabs scuttled garb / and, ragged, withdraws.

Abbess Cod / knows the abyss

is as close to God / as the white cloud is.

Abbot Herring / in a habit of silver

and a crowd of uncaring / is a harp that shivers.

Venerable Bee / levitates

while her harebell history / reverberates.


Saint Snail / can’t explain

but his pilgrim trail / is a glittering stain.


Northumberland’s casket of hills

encloses the holy corruptibles.

North of the book the page is born

from vellum sand and tide’s return.

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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