Posts Tagged ‘Romantic poetry’

Adam Mickiewicz: Pan Tadeusz

December 4, 2020

     Today marks a real achievement for me, and one that’s taken years to make myself accomplish: I’ve finally read the Polish national epic poem, Pan Tadeusz. This may not sound a big deal to many of you, but imagine if an educated Englishman (like myself!) confessed that it was only at age 65 he had first read any Shakespeare…

I still have my dad’s small, leatherbound copy, in Polish of course, so I couldn’t read it, given to him on our first visit there half a century ago. I recently came across a reference to the translation pictured above, which was highly praised, and bought it. After I’d begun reading it, I found an old, second-hand copy of a much poorer translation on an out-of-the-way bookshelf; I’d obviously been feeling guilty over 30 years ago when I’d bought it!

I had been dreading (mildly) reading the poem, regarding it as a duty more than anything. Not that I don’t like poetry, obviously, but lengthy poems can be a slog. (Still only a third of the way through Dante, begun over ten years ago). And poetry from the Romantic era I’ve always had a problem with. But this was a delight… not what I’d anticipated at all. Partly, this feeling is a tribute to the hard work and sensitivity of the translator Bill Johnston, who is totally in sympathy with the work and the country, and thought carefully about metre, rhythm and the differences between the languages. So the translation feels contemporary, the verse is carefully but not obsessively rhymed, and Johnston has used the iambic pentameter throughout, except in the epilogue, which works well in English and is not tiring to read. I was more than a little surprised when, quite early on, I found myself reminded, both in terms of the rhythm and subject-matter, of Wordsworth’s Prelude.

The poem was written in exile in 1830; it’s in twelve books, and is set some twenty years earlier, at the time of the beginning of Napoleon’s invasion of tsarist Russia, which brought hopes of freedom and independence to Poland, which had been erased from the map in 1795. It’s set in the remote forests of the borderlands between Poland and Lithuania, which had formed a single Commonwealth for several centuries, and is the region of my Polish ancestors. The focus is largely on the gentry and its traditions, the setting is rural, and the plot focuses on rivalries and disagreements over land and property, a mysterious killing some twenty years previously, and various marriage plots.

What works most effectively is the marvellous creation of place and atmosphere of a lost past, one that is sliding into history as the story unfolds. I understood rather more about the nature of the old Polish nobility and its relation to other social groups, place and country, and am clearer about how our family comes to be in the book of the nobility despite being impoverished peasants…

The story works its way through various local rivalries up to a serious skirmish between Poles and Lithuanians united against local Russian troops, in which the former carry the day (obviously); the battle descriptions are marvellously done and you really feel in the middle of things. Then comes the reckoning, the revelations, the weddings and the feasting. And none of it is too deadly serious, if you see what I mean. There is a real sense of the Polish nation united, a happiness or contentedness with the old – and vanishing – ways beneath the surface, a gentle nostalgia…

Now that I finally have a handle on the entire story, I shall go back to it soon and read more closely and deeply, and enjoy more fully.

Horace Smith: Ozymandias

September 28, 2020

Dedicated to all my former sixth form students of English Literature.

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Naught but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

I was astonished recently when something sent me to the wikipedia article on Ozymandias, and I learned that there was another version of the poem, for Shelley and Horace Smith had had a friendly competition to write a poem on the subject. Shelley’s survives and is well-known; this student and teacher of English Lit for half a century had not heard of Smith’s poem. I refer you to the excellent article for texts of both poems side-by-side and decent contextual background, too. I’m not going to write a detailed crit of Smith’s effort: you can do that for yourself. I just wanted to share the discovery.

The ‘leg’ somehow wrecks the poem for me – twice. It’s the sound of the word, its shortness coupled with the short, open vowel that just screams incongruity with the subject-matter.

Alliteration (sandy silence – the sibilants suggesting sand shifting in the desert wind, just as in the closing lines of Shelley’s poem) and assonance (the long vowel sounds at the end of the first three lines, the mournful ‘o’) create atmosphere and romantic sensation in Smith’s poem, just as Shelley does. But, I don’t think it’s just the familiarity of Shelley’s poem that makes it so much better: I do think he does so much more with all the poetic devices he brings in to play.

The sestet redeems Smith’s poem, though, by bringing in a perspective that Shelley doesn’t: the fact that this oblivion may affect the world and time to which we belong. The image of a huge, forgotten fragment of London creates a shock for the contemporary reader, striking a chord like that much later moment towards the end of Planet of the Apes. The alliteration of the ‘w’ sounds, repetition of ‘wonder’, use of the antiquated and biblical ‘wilderness’ create an atmosphere of desolation; London in the past tense ‘stood’, and the sense of abandonment conjured up by the ‘wolf’ are rather effective, I find. Smith has a ‘Hunter’ rather than Shelley’s ‘traveller’ but this character is equally effective, perhaps more so in the sense of a more primitive being, not understanding what he finds. And ‘annihilated’ works well in that final line, too.

Here’s a piece I wrote earlier.

Keats: On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

June 19, 2019
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.


This is another of my all-time favourites. It’s about an epiphany, a sudden moment of revelation, awareness of something not known or understood before, and it works through a comparison that develops throughout the poem. Chapman was the first translator of Homer into English, in the early seventeenth century (1611); before that it was assumed you were educated enough to read the original in classical Greek. And if you couldn’t, like the young Keats, tough, until translations came along; as a young poet he would surely have wanted to read the ur-poet’s work but couldn’t access it until he got hold of Chapman’s version. You can find it online.

Keats likens his exploration of the world of poetry to the travels of the Spanish conquistadors to the New World in the sixteenth century in this Petrarchan sonnet, the octave describing his travels through the world of poetry, and the sestet the effect the discovery of Homer in translation has on him, the wow-moment. The rhyme scheme is regular: count it out, mark it up and see.

The opening quatrain outlines the extent of his familiarity with the poetry, perhaps mainly of western countries. The poets are imagined as countries and islands, and the richness of the poetry is referenced in the gold and the kingdoms, the heritage going back centuries perhaps also alluded to through obsolescent words like bards and fealty. Poets are loyal to Apollo, god of the muses of inspiration… He’s heard about Homerdeep brow’d the adjective traditionally applied to him in history, in the way that all the epic heroes also had their own epithet, which helped summon up the character in the imagination of the listener – but never been able to actually read any. He knows of the poet’s demesne – another archaic word – and finally encounters it with the aid of Chapman.

Keats then wants to make us aware of the powerful effect on him of reading Homer. The two lines which compare it to an astronomer discovering a new planet are superb, close as the poet was in time to the recent discovery (1780) of Uranus by William Herschel. No new planet had been discovered since ancient times; even Homer knew about Saturn. The new planet swimming into his ken is lovely: the planet reveals itself to the astronomer, rather than he finding it, we have both discovery and revelation here.

But the Cortez image is even more powerful. You need to look for the isthmus of Darien on a map of Central America, and think about what actually happened: nobody knew the Pacific Ocean was there! It’s vast, and has never been seen before by a westerner. Cortez and his men climb a mountain and – WTF? There it is, as far as the eye can see in every direction. Look at star’d: why is that good? Why is it better than gazed, for example? It’s often helpful, I’ve found, when you are considering a poet’s choice of a word, to look at what s/he might have used instead, and reflect on why they went with what they chose.

Consider the picture of Cortez’ men looking at each other, and the expressions on their faces as they realise. The power of the single word silent, at the start of a line, the last line, with a pause following it, needs to be taken on board properly; the rest of the final line merely locates them, it’s a let-down after the shock: you are meant to feel as stunned as they are.

There’s a good deal more to find in the language and sounds of this poem if you take the time; again I think it’s a brilliant example of just how much can be packed into such a small space. What Keats wants you to understand and to experience is that sudden flash of realisation, and if there has been one for you about anything in your life, then that will help you get what he means.

%d bloggers like this: