With special reference to nature metaphors in the works of
William Blake, Dylan Thomas, Graham Sutherland and the pupils of Halesworth Middle School.
1 Blake’s ecological legacy
‘I am in the path of Blake’, wrote the 19 year old Dylan Thomas to Pamela Hansford Johnson on 15 October 1933, ‘but so far behind him that only the wings on his heels are in sight’. On Christmas Day of the same year, Thomas wrote again to Johnson, telling her that he was reading Blake’s letters for the first time and also listing his Christmas gifts, among which was `the complete Blake’. The image of a poetic master who was not standing authoritatively in front of a rapidly developing young poet but flying ahead of him defines Blake as a living presence which Thomas was eager to pursue.
Born in 1757, Blake lived in relative poverty, was considered an eccentric by his generation, and died with little acclaim. Yet his influence has grown through the decades. The Pre-Raphaelites admired his poetry and artwork, as did W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, the French surrealists, and the American beats. To be a follower of William Blake means taking on a prodigious output of verse and accept that from his youth much of it was based on spiritual visions. When he was nine years old he told his mother that he had seen “a tree filled with angels,” and not long after, in a field of workers gathering hay, a vision of “angelic figures walking.” Following Blake also meant following a trail of “illuminated books” written in a range of forms:prophecies, emblems, pastoral verses, biblical satire, and children’s books and addressed various timely subjects such as poverty, child exploitation, racial inequality, tyranny, religious hypocrisy. Not surprisingly, these works rank among Blake’s most celebrated achievements. They represent the interplay between youthful innocence and hard adult experience and for Dylan Thomas Blake’s swinging moods chime with Thomas’ oscillations between memories of childhood happiness and the harshness of adult relationships to which he was in thrall.
The role of poets in an ecological sense is to establish metaphorical bonds between people and the variant things of the environment. This is part of the cognitive blueprint whereby we ‘naked apes’ establish a mental ecological niche. The philosopher and ecologist David Abram points out that all poets engage in a process of incorporating elements of their surroundings into a cultural context. In particular, they use their imagination to animate the inanimate, because “the fundamental unit of poetry, metaphor, is a kind of active participation with the interplay of variant things. Metaphor is a kind of perceiving, and this perception requires an isomorphic exchange.” We assemble a home by replacing things around us with others that have the same appearance but express a different ancestry.
As a primordial and embedded cultural mode of perception, poetry also “admits to no clear distinctions between that which is animate and that which is inanimate”; what is natural and what is supernatural. This casts the modern terminal ecological assaults we make on planet Earth, like clear-felling, overfishing, oil spills, and carbon emissions, in a very awkward spotlight. The damage we incur on nature becomes nothing less than a reflection of a very sick society with a self-harming complex. If we are unable to self-identify poetically with our physical and social surroundings, then we experience an amputation from our cosmic origins. We embrace nature as ‘Us’ and ‘ It’. Our affinity with environment is non adaptive, moving automatically towards polarization, rather than towards the spectrum offered by a perspective of humanity rooted in ecological evolution.
This modern view was encapsulated by William Blake two centuries ago.
“I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun, & a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing which stands in the way. Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity, & by these I shall not regulate my proportions; & Some Scarce see Nature at all. But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers. You certainly Mistake, when you say that the Visions of Fancy are not to be found in This World. To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination”.
Blake’s vision is simple and universal; we are part of nature in all we do and there are surely few of us who have not at some time seen the simplest things imagined “apparel’d in celestial light”—a phrase of the 17th century English poet, Thomas Traherne. For him the simplest pebbles on the path were radiant with that light. In the modern era, it is not the pebbles or the trees that have changed: it is we who no longer participate in that light of poetic vision. Brian Keeble believes that there are poets, such as Larkin, who at best regret its absence. There are few indeed who attempt to re-kindle that vision at the source, though there have been some such as Eliot, Yeats and Rilke. Then there is Dylan Thomas, who, chasing after Blake, used that unfashionable word “holy” and wrote many poems about the sacralization of his homeland of West Wales. He took an inspirational path which, is also traceable from Blake to the painter Graham Sutherland, whose creative life in West Wales overlapped that of Thomas.
William Blake is a romantic poet. The sparks of romanticism are vividly marked on his poetry. His poems and pictures deal with ecological dynamics and are characterized by reliance on the imagination and subjectivity of approach, freedom of thought and expression, and an idealization of nature. Similarly, Dylan Thomas may be regarded as a romantic poet, along with his Welsh contemporaries, Vernon Watkins and Leslie Norris. The output of all three, together with the works of another contemporary, Graham Sutherland, deal firmly with the sacralization of nature.
Nowadays the sacralization of nature is defined as expressing eco-wisdom which is one of the literary criticisms created by American scholar William Rueckert in 1978. He advocated applying the concept of ecology into literary research. Although many people struggle to define ecocriticism, at its simplest level it encompasses an interest in place-making; how we position ourselves cognitively in the world and the biological, social, and political ways in which we define where we are.
2 The human cognitive niche
The term “niche”, coined by the zoologist Charles Elton in the late 1920s, refers to “the place a species occupies in the biotic community” or the environmental structure and condition which can maintain its life. The ecological niche of human beings is much more complicated than that of any other creature. Like other species, humans need an ‘ecological niche’ or ‘habitat that provides food and shelter. But over and above that, humans require an imaginative ‘sense of place’ for their flourishing. To put it another way, situating humans within a suitable physical niche is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for their well being. Humans may survive within such an environment, but without a mental picture of where they live, which includes its past, present and future, they will not take root. Part of this distinction between ‘survival’ and ‘flourishing’ applies to all living things but the human ecological niche relates people to their local natural environment in cognitive or symbolic-cultural ways.
At the same time, from the perspective of the late twentieth century, the environments faced by human societies have been transformed by past and current human behaviour. There is a real, material basis to the claim that the global environment is now ‘socially constructed’. It is not just that our understanding of the environment is mediated by human social relations and culturally symbolic meanings, but the environment faced by human culture is often partly the ‘product’ of previous social modification which resulted in new norms for making human relationships It is therefore difficult to maintain a strict division between a ‘natural’ environment and one which is the outcome of human purposive action in conjunction with that of a prehuman era.
The ecological niche for humans is as much a ‘humanised’ one as a ‘natural’ one. A naturalistic social theory views this transformative activity as central to understanding human nature and human culture. The significance of this cultural dimension is that the human ‘ecological niche’ is both culturally and biologically-ecologically determined.
Regardless of how habituated or conditioned the organism may be, individuals are engaged in the transformation of the environment through desire and the impact of their actions. The unique character of humankind is an ability to use language and culture to redirect and channel individual and collective desires and actions to accommodate their impact on the environment. This capacity for conscious and intentional creativity or change makes all the difference. For humans, such cognitive appropriations of nature provide the mental resources to stabilise the ecological niche and include the scientific and aesthetic appreciation and experience of the natural world, and other cultural modes of apprehension, valuing and experiencing the natural environment.
Because we are social animals with an imagination, an important aspect of place-making is the process of bonding with others with which we share the same physical environment. The writer Paul Shepard once suggested that human beings underwent an epigenetic process of maturation which occurred in stages, each stage representing an activity of bonding. The first of these stages is social bonding with family and neighbours. The next most significant bonding involved becoming one with Nature, a period of sensate curiosity and exploration in which the concept of a self-identity became acquainted and synonymous with the natural world. It is at this stage that poetry can be an expression of ecological wisdom. An individual who had fully experienced this stage can not only acquire a kind of recognition of his or her surroundings, but could identify with it in such a way that damaging it would equate to self-mutilation. Modern living and urbanity does not allow for this experience of bonding through affinity, and the handful who are given the opportunity are often only able to experience it superficially. It will occur from time to time with those people whose vocations take them into the deep places of the world – loggers, environmentalists, treeplanters, wilderness guides, and the like. What about the rest of us?
Ecological wisdom can come soon, as in the following poem by 10 year old Robert Filby of Halesworth Middle School.
‘A shrew’ (1993)
A versatile sort of chap
with a long pointed nose,
like a pen nib with a black pimple on the end,
which sniffs its way through pebbles, stones or wire netting-
or gives each obstacle a nudge in a temper.
Its long brows hang over its eyes with a sharp look.
It’s like the water trickling over pebbles in a stream
as it scurried about.
with a short covering of fur and a long pink tail.
The trap goes.
The shrew was fierce.
The Chinese academic, Jingcheng Xu who has studied the mature poetry of the American writer, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, goes so far as to declare the view that Longfellow, expresses ecological wisdom to remind us of respecting, protecting and caring for nature. He is convinced that through his writings we can reconsider the relationships between nature and human beings, between nature and society, and between nature and human spirit. Thereby, Jingcheng Xu believes that Longfellow’s ecological wisdom will provide a spiritual blueprint for human beings to create a low carbon economy of sustainable development, and help us dwell poetically on Earth.
The poetical creativity of Filby and Longfellow demonstrates that there is no doubt that our conceptions of nature are reflected in our language and that nature-friendly language has the power to create a sense of kinship with the natural world. Conversely, the opposite kind of metaphor is capable of separating us from nature and keeping us from peaceful coexistence.
Unfortunately, many of the metaphors we unconsciously use are violent and anti-nature, militaristic, or mechanistic and devoid of any talk of ecological unity. Several authors have lamented the evolution in our language away from nature-connected terminology, such as “mystery” and “wonder”, love for the Earth, and references to the Earth Mother. We in the West have, by and large, rejected the language and experience of the sacred, the divine, and the animation of nature and we distrust the language of reverence, spirit, and mystical connection. Our worldview shapes the language and root metaphors we use, and language holds them in our worldview and its ideologies. In Euro-American cultures, our largely unquestioned root metaphors are based on the view of science as the most powerful and legitimate source of knowledge about place. A culture incapable, or unwilling, to utilize a loving metaphor as a daily instrument for grounding itself in a place will instinctively distance itself from that place because the bonding capacity of those metaphors is absent.
3 Living in a poetic ecological equilibrium
When we normally speak of poetry we think of written “works”, poems which have been written by poets. Poets receive their title by virtue of the fact that they have produced such works. Kenneth Stickkers uses the example of the life of the great American naturalist Henry David Thoreau, to make the point that the poetic does not lie within any works. Instead, it resides within Nature. Poetry, for Thoreau was the song of Nature. Thus, says Stikkers, the poet is not one who necessarily created works, but rather one who listened to the poetry of Nature by living a life in harmony with her song. The word-crafting of what was heard was not of primary importance. Thus, the communication problem Thoreau faced, as a poetry mute, was not one of writing poems, but rather a question of how to live his life poetically and wholly ‘according to nature’. Here, the principle is that an individual’s, works are judged “poetic” by the way in which they reflect the poetic life of their creator; they are outcomes flowing from the poetic life rather than conscious achievements of the individual. Thoreau at his small-holding by Walden Pond sought for himself a poetic life.
If one were asked to name the cardinal virtue of Thoreau’s environmental philosophy, it would be hard to identify a better state of mind than ‘awareness’. He attests to the importance of “being forever on the alert,” and of “the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen”. This exercise may enable one to create remarkably minute descriptions of a sunset, a battle between red and black ants, or the shapes taken by thawing clay on a sand bank: but its primary value lies in the way that awareness affects the quality of our experience. “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look” .
Awareness cannot be classified as exclusively a moral or an intellectual virtue, either, since knowing is an inescapably practical and evaluative activity—not to mention, an embodied practice. Thoreau portrays himself not from a presumably neutral or impersonal vantage point, but from an embodied point of view in which his somatic sensory experience puts him knowingly in touch with his surroundings. For such reasons as these, he has sometimes been interpreted as a philosopher of the senses, who offers an original response to the central problem of modern living sustainably as a consequence of recognizing that knowledge is dependent on the individual’s ability to see, and that “the world as known is thus radically dependent on the character of the individual”.
Nevertheless, we have to ask where the impulse to write a poem comes from. In particular, is the poetic muse latent in us all and if so can it be permanently released through education?. Here, the model is a UK teacher of English by the name of Jill Pirrie.
In the 1980s the London bookseller WH Smith sponsored an annual poetry competition for schools with a set of judges chaired by the UK poet laureate Ted Hughes. In 1987 the judges were astonished to find amidst the many thousands of poems received from schools all over the British Isles 60 poems came from a single school. They were written by pupils of the English teacher, Jill Pirrie. They represent the work of this extraordinary teacher and the young poets she called into existence. These were children who had in common only the fact that they were pupils of Halesworth Middle School in Suffolk. Their poems were of great quality, true poems, exciting in their phrasing, startling as a good poem must be, but never startling for the sake of it, all strongly individual, all clearly from the same stable. This in itself was an unusually massive block entry.
That year the total intake, from schools all over the country, was just under 40,000, with the main bulk of this number falling within the two upper age categories. In these two categories, the competition offered 40 prizes. And of these 40 prizes, Halesworth Middle School took ten. In other words, Jill Pirrie’s pupils carried off 25% of the prizes for the entire country. This is by no means the whole story. Of the remaining Halesworth entries, 50 received Commendation Awards. This division of ten prizes and 50 Commendation Awards, out of Halesworth’s 60 or so entries, conceals something even more remarkable, which confronted the judges as a problem. This problem was an immediate, practical one, how to fit the volume of Halesworth’s achievement into a competition that had never encountered anything like it before; but it anticipates the much bigger question which Jill Pirrie’s example poses to English teaching in particular and perhaps to education in general.
Eventually the entries were published as an anthology, entitled ‘Apple Fire’, by Bloodaxe in 1993. Edward. Blishen, children’s author and broadcaster, in his introduction said:
“Unless there is something in the air of this corner of Suffolk that under encouragement makes
ready poets of its natives — and that plainly is nonsense ~ then what is proved is that most children, certainly between the ages of ten and thirteen, are able (and, as it turns out, most seriously and unfussily eager) to make the response to experience that we recognise as poetry. But a feat of teacherly magic is required, of an obviously rare order”.
Jill Pirrie has given her own account of the achievement But the judges felt that she had invented for herself, out of a passion for originality that becomes the children’s passion
for it, the form that work in the classroom will take. This is a combination of the character of her own presence in the classroom, her relationship with the children and theirs with her: the pace at which they work, and the way in which their eagerness is tapped.
She knows how to cause children to be eager. And that, like everything else she does, lies
in the work. They are eager because from the moment they enter the classroom they are at work, and because an atmosphere is created in which it is obvious to everyone present that the work is deep and worth doing, and leads to an extraordinary sense of well-being (Fig 1).
Fig 1 Imaginative Interplay in the classroom between poetry and art
Edward Blishen after visiting the school went on to say:
“Jill Pirrie talks of peer expectation being as important as teacher expectation. The fact is that here is a room in which you cannot imagine the teacher ever saying, in whatever refined form, what some perfectly decent teachers commonly say: You have let me down, or You have done well by my teaching. In Jill Pirrie’s class-room that is never the point. After sitting there for a memorable day during which the presence of an intruder was absorbed into the busyness, I could not explain how she made herself the plain mistress of the occasion without ever causing her power io dwarf or lessen the power of the children. But I guess it is a political matter, partly: her whole conduct, out of which theirs springs, makes it seem desirable to the children that they should have high expectations of each other, and that each should attempt to justify those expectations. Add to this a curious and very robust delicacy in her. She does not thrust an observation at her children. As I felt it, what she did was to enfold them in it: it was hers, but it was instantly theirs. A great courtesy — but, as I say, robust. She simply and convincingly takes it that they are with her.
I’ve never seen a teacher so close to those she’s teaching, without reducing herself in any way. Her language is at times quite grand. It’s one of the reasons for the success of her teaching, I think: that the children know she’s giving herself as she is, not some teacherly simplification of herself. I was reminded of those marvellous lines of Lawrence’s, in the poem he called ‘The Best of School’:
I feel them cling and cleave to me
As vines going eagerly up; they twine
My life with other leaves, my time
Is hidden in theirs, their thrills are mine.
Except that in Jill Pirrie’s classroom you feel that it works both ways: the teacher’s thrills are also theirs. It is an order of reciprocity I haven’t encountered elsewhere. And a swiftness and attentiveness of it: nothing is spilled, because there’s a constant readiness to receive. Nothing priggish about it. They’re too honestly busy for that. Their being country children, many from working backgrounds in which it would be daft not to be down-to-earth, may help in providing that ‘robust commonsense’ that Jill Pirrie points to as an essential ingredient of their work: but I would guess that this is a teacher who could just as well tap the commonsense in urban children.
Another point about what I saw: she roots what she and the children do together in the plain — or fancy — facts of their experience. That’s where the commonsense comes from. They may send their imaginations far beyond the daily scene, think of ghosts, or of looking down on the earth from space: but it’s the need to note what’s really felt, what might really be seen — the practicality of it — that is clung to even when, perhaps specially when, the aim has some touch of exaltation about it. They form a guild whose business is the making of poetry, and the exchanges between them, provided by Jill Pirrie with a quite tense timetable, are craftsmen’s exchanges. They struggle privately with a subject: switch urgently to swapping news of work in progress: return to privacy. It’s all urgent, but easily urgent: all tense, yet relaxed. They’ll switch again, to reading aloud completed or half-completed work, and discussing it. There’s a floating of ideas and principles and perceptions and guesses and suggestions sometimes instantly withdrawn and replaced…about handling an image, finding the useable items in an experience, borrowing from one experience to enrich another. It’s poet’s talk, not a doubt about it. Theirs is a poetry of images, resemblances, connections. Audacities are admired. I said they didn’t startle for the sake of it: what Jill Pirrie constantly says in the classroom, in one way or another, is that the seizing of attention is everything, and that attention can’t be seized unless you discover what is fresh in your response, or locate the oddness there is in everything. Their alertness to this notion provides some of the tension there is in what they do.
A feature of a lesson, if that’s what it is, is the exorcising of cliché: a running labour, but sometimes attempted by giving attention, for a packed ten minutes or so, to a poem or story that demonstrably has no laziness or staleness in it. Because what they create together is so unusual and stirring, and one wants to celebrate and insist on that, as well as to think about the extraordinary implications (for instance, how much of this can be copied, and what there is to copy), it’s easy to make Jill Pirrie and her pupils sound like prodigies and paragons, which is exactly what they are not. I remember that classroom in terms of the ‘state of concentration, dreamlike in its intensity’ that Jill Pirrie says is her aim. I remember it rapt and unlazy as no other classroom I’ve ever been in. I remember realising that they’d all been infected, with complete success, with the habit of looking hard at what they saw, registering keenly what they felt, and finding words and images for sight and feeling (and clearly doing it all the time, and not just in the classroom), and that they’d very simply become intolerant of idleness of language. But the classroom was full of the usual human stuff. They rallied each other amusingly (though never with irrelevance to the matter in hand. The irrelevant had ruled itself out).
The secret of it is not to be sought in the phenomenal. It is an astonishing achievement: but one thing certain about it is that it springs out of a very great diligence in the matter of being ordinary, everyday, plain observers of the world, plain recorders of what is observed. The ultimate excitement of it is that, working with children who are like other children, and making poetry her medium (and no one should under-estimate the professional strength and courage required in doing that), Jill Pirrie has demonstrated that plain literacy is an infinitely larger affair than most of us ever allow it to be. You can aim to promote it through cautious banalities, anaemic exercises, dullnesses and smallnesses of every kind, believing that if you know one thing about those you teach it is that grandness is not for them: they are incapable of it and do not seek it. Jill Pirrie works on the perfectly opposite principle: and gives her children, by way of literacy, a fantastic measure of what makes a poet: and habits of language and outlook that must, for a lifetime, be grander than they would ever otherwise have been. This happens to be a moment in the history of education in Britain when it is a particular joy to celebrate the achievement of a defiantly original teacher of English”.
From the example of Jill Pirrie we know the classroom recipe for releasing a latent poetic ability that is present in everyone. The sad thing is that we do not know how the experience of being with Jill Pirrie, stayed with her pupils nudging, their behaviour towards living poetically as adults. Particularly with respect to their growing up in a society that worships possessions and acquisitiveness we would like to think that poetry insinuated its way into their lives staying on to make them think again about how we live and what we are capable of changing for the better.
4 Internet references
A trail of some nature metaphor makers
Metaphor is traditionally defined as a type of trope, a transmission of the properties of one object (or phenomenon or aspect of life) to another because of their similarity in any aspect or by contrast (in Greek, metaphora is a figurative meaning). For some authors metaphor is defined as a hidden comparison in which the words ‘like’ and ‘as if’ are omitted but implied. Metaphor is remarkable for its conciseness and reticence; thus, it activates the reader’s perception. Unlike comparison, in which both of the objects that are being compared remain independent, even though the degree of independence differs, metaphor creates a single image. In other words, it reduces the difference between objects or concepts..
Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish, a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. On the contrary, metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system that defines our ecological niche, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.
The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think about what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.
But our conceptual system is not something we are normally aware of. In most of the little things we do every day, we simply think and act more or less automatically along certain lines. Just what these lines are is by no means obvious. One way to find out is by looking at language. Since communication is based on the same conceptual system that we use in thinking and acting, language is an important source of evidence for what that system is like. Primarily on the basis of linguistic evidence, most of our ordinary conceptual system, from analysing human relationships to defining landscape, is metaphorical in nature. This truism is evident from the following examples.
Although he made his living through visual art and practised it all his life Blake is remembered today first and foremost for his poems.
The principal theme of Blake’s poem “A Poison Tree” is not anger itself but how the suppression of anger leads to the cultivation of anger. Burying anger rather than exposing it and acknowledging it, according to “A Poison Tree,” turns anger into a seed that will germinate and grow. Through the cultivation of that seed, which is nourished by the energy of the angry person, wrath grows into a mighty and destructive force.
‘A poison tree’ (1794)
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.
And into my garden stole,
When the night had veil’d the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
Nathan Cervo describes the metaphorical structure of another of Blake’s poems, ‘The Sick Rose’, as “one of the most baffling and enigmatic in the English language” The rose and worm have been considered by critics as “figures of humanity”. Blake believed that inhibitions within human relationships lie primarily within the mind, rather than in external factors. Society makes its fears, guilt and shame into rules and laws which are then enshrined in social institutions such as the authority of parents, the Church and the State or Monarchy. Here, repression and prohibition mean that love has to be associated with secrecy and with forces that are perceived as destructive. A second, related theme is the effect on human relationships of a divided selfhood which jealously defends its pleasures, denying them to others – the love is ‘dark’ and ‘secret’. One chief pleasure is exerting control over others, which can often masquerade as showing affection. This makes love devouring and destructive, as we find in this poem.
‘The sick rose’: (1789)
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
The imagery of Dylan Thomas’ poetry owes much to his walking the estuarine environment of the river Towy in West Wales. The temporal context of Dylan Thomas’ poem ‘I make this in a warring silence’ is a marital row and temporary break-up. The speaker registers the temporary collapse of his confidence in the couple’s splendid sexual world, and the qualities of the beloved are then recounted in terms of the opposites of fire and ice, innocence and guilt, pride and humility. This is succeeded by his histrionic reaction to her ‘absence’, involving his imaginary murder of her,
In the section starting ‘I make a weapon’, the narrator’s destructive impulses suggest murdering her with the ‘ jawbone of an ass’, an idea taken from The Bible:(Judges 15: 15) with which Samson slew a thousand Philistines, as the author presents himself as a blustering, asinine figure.
Extract from ‘I make this in a warring absence’, (1937)
… I make a weapon of an ass’s skeleton
And walk the warring sands by the dead town.
Cudgel great air, wreck east, and topple sundown,
Storm her sped heart, hang with beheaded veins
Its wringing shell, and let her eyelids fasten.
Destruction, picked by birds, brays through the jaw-bone,
And, for that murder’s sake, dark with contagion
Like an approaching wave I sprawl to ruin.
The poem ‘Over Sir John’s Hill’, came from the contemporary threat of global weapons of mass destruction It rests on the horrors of war and from his mourning not just the deaths of individual children or of his own childhood in the blitzed town of Swansea, but once the idea of childhood from the violation of that war is constituted, he develops a pastoral sense of the green planet, of the green world, of restoring a kind of Eden.
Extract from ‘Over Sir John’s Hill’ (1949)
Flash, and the plumes crack,
And a black cap of jack-
Daws Sir John’s just hill dons, and again the gulled birds hare
To the hawk on fire, the halter height, over Towy’s fins,
In a whack of wind.
Where the elegiac fisherbird stabs and paddles
In the pebbly dab-filled
Shallow and sedge, and ‘dilly dilly,’ calls the loft hawk,
‘Come and be killed,’
I open the leaves of the water at a passage
Of psalms and shadows among the pincered sandcrabs prancing
And read, in a shell
Death clear as a bouy’s bell:
All praise of the hawk on fire in hawk-eyed dusk be sung,
When his viperish fuse hangs looped with flames under the brand
Wing, and blest shall
Green chickens of the bay and bushes cluck, ‘dilly dilly,
Come let us die.’
Graham Sutherland (1903 – 1980) started his career as engraver and teacher at Chelsea Art School. As an artist, he showed great interest in landscapes, the open landscape of the extreme south west Wales in particular. At the beginning, he was inspired by English neo-romanticism, but from the 30s his painting could be described as disturbing and impregnated with visionary dramatic power, getting close to Surrealism. Sutherland was clearly inspired by Romanticism and William Blake’s sublime poetics, but he reinterpreted it in a negative, malevolent and bitter viewpoint. Blake’s Prophetic Books deal with the revolutionary spirit of the age, not historically or realistically, but metaphorically in the emergence of Orc who is the embodiment of energy. Blake’s bitter awareness of the evil of the world led him to a dualist belief, which introduced an original force of evil called URIZEN.. The name “Urizen” comes from the Greek oriezein, “to fix a limit” and is identified with the Jehovah of the Old Testament by Blake in opposition to Jesus of the New Testament, whom he identified with the force of good. This basic opposition he extended by adding to Urizen-Jehovah the attributes of reason, restraint, and law, as opposed to imagination, freedom, and love for one’s neighbour, which he associated with Christ.
Fig 1 Birth of Urizen’s Daughters, William Blake (1795)
Sutherland’s take on Blake is the warning that nature’s forms, which should satisfy our hunger for beauty, are only mental reconstructions which are imposed on us by our need for certainty; reality is destabilizing, hard, mechanical in its being: almost a romantic “pleasurable terror”, a real threat and not only a literary fear. Sutherland catches and depicts the metaphor, looking into organic life, in which the mystery of existence is held: he analyses forms and recognizes their ambiguity and disturbing cruel essence, contrasting with colour’s intensity and sometimes its mildness. He manages to take out nature’s poetry and drama, giving his work a surreal, and sometimes, gloomy atmosphere (Fig 2)..
Fig 2 ‘Welsh Landscape with Road’, (1936) Graham Sutherland
‘Welsh Landscape with Road’, by Graham Sutherland, depicts a lane through a valley in the hills near Porthclais on the outskirts of St David’s, Pembrokeshire. Sutherland wrote that paintings like this expressed the ‘intellectual and emotional essence’ of a place, a sense of the ancient past hinted at here by the inclusion of the animal skull and the standing stones in the distance. Sutherland painted icons of deep country, but, as Alexandra Harris writes in Romantic Moderns, ‘in a manner so abstract that all sense of a through road disappears, leaving concentric forms that both embrace and repulse’. Sutherland remarked: ‘Surely if English painting is to gain strength it will do so in the open … and not behind the sheltered wall’.
The use of nature metaphors is also illustrated by Sutherland’s ‘thorn tree’ paintings made in Pembrokeshire in the immediate post-war period. Sutherland experimented relentlessly with the motif of thorn trees, bushes and thorn heads of the ecosystems he discovered in roadside verges and common land (Fig 3):
“About my thorn pictures: I had been thinking of the Crucifixion (I was about to attempt this subject), and my mind was preoccupied by the idea of thorns, and wounds made by thorns. In the country I began to notice thorn bushes and the structure of thorns, which pierced the air in all directions, their points establishing limits of aerial space. I made some drawings and in doing so a strange change took place. While preserving their normal life in space, the thorns rearranged themselves and became something else – a sort of paraphrase of the Crucifixion and the Crucified Head – the cruelty”.
Fig 3 ‘Thorn Head’ (1949), Graham Sutherland,
(c) Dr Robert Karrer; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation