Sending Out a Dove

Journey from Winter: Selected Poems, Valentine Ackland (226pp, 18.95, Fyfield)
Old English Poems and Riddles,
translated by Chris McCully (96pp, 9.95, Fyfield)
I, the Poet Egil: Versions of the Poems of Egil's Saga
, John Lucas (48pp, 8.00, Redbeck)

I recently welcomed the New Collected Poems of Sylvia Townsend Warner in these pages hoping that an unjustly neglected poet might, thirty years after her death, be given her proper due. That volume included among its pages an incomplete version of Whether a Dove or a Seagull, a controversial collection at the time of its publication in 1934 which contained, without attribution, poems by Warner and by her lover Valentine Ackland. Claire Harman, Warner's editor and biographer, usefully informed readers that 'the whole text is being included in Valentine Ackland's Journey from Winter which Carcanet is also publishing this year.' Of Whether a Dove or a Seagull she tells us that 'As an attempt to interest her publisher in Ackland's verse, Warner came up with the idea of a co-authored collection in which, in the first instance, the names of the poets were withheld.' The collection turned out, for a variety of reasons, to be an embarrassing experiment and eventually the poems were given their proper attributions. Whatever the relative merits of the poems in Whether a Dove or a Seagull, here, thanks to Carcanet, we now have available a historically interesting if not important text, about which scholars, students and the general reader can make up their own minds. Carcanet has, in bringing out the work of both poets at the same time, clearly recognised an equation is there to be completed and that the work of the two poets is part of a symbiotic relationship.

But there is much more to Journey from Winter
than just this. Here we have a goodly selection from the thousands of poems Ackland wrote up until her death in 1969 in which we can chart her maturing as a poet. In this we are aided by her editor, Frances Bingham's contextualising the poems, introducing sections of the book with valuable background material and reminding those who know their Sylvia Townsend Warner of the key moments in the lives of the two lovers that shaped the poetry.

Inevitably many of the poems in Journey from Winter
concern themselves with what Bingham calls 'the weathers of love' but there are also strong poems of political commitment and of concern for social justice, as well as a later-in-life quest for a spiritual identity. Both women became members of the Communist party, worked for the Red Cross in the Spanish Civil War; Valentine was painfully unfaithful to Sylvia, twelve years her senior; and to Sylvia's chagrin became a Roman Catholic. It is clear these events not only provided the material for the poetry but also helped to change a poetry that starts out being somewhat mannered pastoralising based on an assumption that poetry is a special form of utterance (Sir Philip Sydney's belief that the 'poet delivers a golden') to being a more astringent plain-speaking, from a poetry with a kinship to Elizabethan lyrics to straightforward truth-telling,

from (the third poem in this collection):

     The cuckoo in the air,
     The sultry air
     In level fields of grey,
     The grey bird's wandering there.

     On those plains warm and still
     Careful to spill
     Over a chosen field
     Music from his bill

     The seeds he down-sprays
     Rich crops raise,
     Clover-sweet to ear
     Summered here to graze

to (the last one):

     The crow that for several days has lain dead on the green haystack-cover
     Knew strange resurrection today as the June storms began to gather:
     The southerly wind sang in the telephone wires and his shabby black
                                                                         plumage began to quiver,
     And as I passed by I saw the bird's wing feathers
     Rise for an instant, as if he had learned how to rise, and to live forever.

Over the years Ackland became a poet of considerable achievement, justifying the faith Sylvia had in her. That said, the performance isn't always of the highest quality but when it so often is she produces poems that can go straight to the heart, as perhaps here in another untitled piece that has a feeling of John Donne to it:

     When you look at me, after I have died,
     And note the tidy hair, the sleeping head,
     Closed eyes and quiet hands - Do not decide
     Too readily that I was so. Instead,
     Look at your own heart while you may, and see
     How wild and strange a live man is, and so remember me.

Journey from Winter
is not just a valuable companion volume to the Warner Collected: it has its own distinctive qualities. The two books together are works of great literary-historical interest to those who want to consider the kinds of poetry written over several decades beginning in the 20's - poetry with its roots in tradition that persisted without being overly influenced by Modernism. They also tell a great love story. The books will be of value to Women's Studies and Studies of Lesbian Literature. That said, there is much in both of them to attract the general reader.

Another recent Fyfield book is Chris McCully's versions of Old English poetry. McCully has combined the acuity of the scholar and the talents of a poet to produce a muscular set of translations which get as close to the sheer physicality of Old English poetry and the life portrayed there as may be possible. His Introduction is compelling: it is scholarly without being inaccessible, in tone lively and personal. He declares 'In the end I have merely tried to make the poems as attractive to readers as they are to me.' In this he surely succeeds.

What I found discomforting at first sight was the actual visual disposition of the lines on the page, taking up what look like two columns per page and suggesting what might be a tedious read. This was a Pavlovian response on my part, soon replaced by the very obvious realisation of something I knew all along: that Old English is written in split lines and one reads across and not down. They are metrical translations that contain an alliterative pulse. Here is a sample from The Battle of Maldon

     The battle rush? Bitter.     In both armies
     fighters fell dead,             the furious lay still.
     Wulfmaer, wounded,        in warfare chose
     death.  Byrhtnoth's kin     with bill-hook was slain -
     his sister's son,                  severed, cut apart.  

And another from the opening of The Seafarer

     Truth? I can seal it             in song's reckoning,
     tell its stories:                    times of hardship
     I owned often,                  unease and toil;
     known sorrow's surges     in the surging keel,
     wave-roiling terror -         they wore me, saw
     the narrow night-watch    nailed to the boat-prow
     as the cliffs unsteadied.

If, as has been said, poetry on the page is a script in search of its ideal voice, a voice that would convey all its nuances perfectly, then the poems in this book need to be read aloud, heard spoken. It is a pity Carcanet didn't think of issuing an accompanying CD. McCully refers to the poetry's 'aural architecture' in his Introduction
. Read these poems out loud and you become aware of a world that is intensely physical, a world of warriors and their violent encounters, as in poems like The Battle of Maldon or the selections from Beowulf, of physical and emotional suffering, as in The Wife's Lament or The Seafarer, of steadfast Christian faith as in Caedmon's Hymn or the stunning Dream of the Rood.


By the same token John Lucas's translations of Egil's Saga would make perfect radio. This is suggested by the fact that the poems are embedded in 'the minimum of linking prose narrative by way of explaining the context for each poem.'

Lucas is faithful to the metrical forms of the original: the poems are written as eight-liners with three stresses to the line and the translations also give a good indication of the alliterative and assonantal patterns of the original:

     The axe-edge is soft, soon
     snuggle-toothed; and who'd want
     to own a weapon which
     weathered no kind of test?
     Let it go back, this bent
     blade and its smoke-charred shaft.
     I have no need of it.
     No. And it a king's gift.

First published by Dent/Everyman in 1975 and twice re-issued as an Everyman Classic, these translations have already earned their place. It is good to see them again in this nicely-presented Redbeck publication; they bring to our attention what Lucas calls in his Introduction
'one of the greatest of the early medieval Icelandic sagas, if not the greatest of them all.' Though written down in the thirteenth century, the poems belong to the tenth century; their form and sonic patterns carrying forward an oral tradition into a literary one. They are the poems of a warrior poet concerned with securing and defending territory, a mixture, as Lucas tells us, of fact and legend and 'undoubtedly derived from a specific moment in Scandinavian history.' They contain, as do some of the Old English poems cited above, inevitable brutality, but there is also celebration of loyalty and friendship. But it is the poetry that Lucas so ably gives us.

           Matt Simpson 2008