Friday 18 June 2010

Time Glides Away

I am currently immersed in work for my dissertation, a collection of poems in response to Ovid's Metamorphoses. The work, six hundred lines of verse, plus a five thousand word critical introduction, is due in at the beginning of September, which really should give me plenty of time to edit the five hundred reasonable lines I have already and to create another couple of hundred; so that I have enough strong material to select and submit. However, time is galloping.

Today I had my last class at Sussex. The M.A is almost over. Everyone in the class took it in turn to read from and talk about our dissertations and while I was listening to the others, I doodled the frog above, upisde-down on an early draft of my dissertation proposal.

Monday is the summer solstice. I'll be getting up before the sun rises at 4.45 am, meeting Rebecca at her parents' house and walking with her, up the hill of our village and down again on the other side to Johnny's cottage, for a day of Four Quarters merriment. It only seems a few days ago that we were prowling Parsons Wood in the snow on the winter solstice.

Next month, I am presenting a paper on my Ovid work at the University of Aberystwyth's Recycling Myths, Inventing Nations conference. I am all nerves and excitement about it, as I'll be exploring somewhere entirely new (and travelling there by train, of all wonders), but I have only three weeks left to write my paper.

While I was reading George Sandys's gorgeous 1632 translation of Metamorphoses (pictured below) one morning earlier this week, I came upon the following couplet in the story of Venus and Adonis:

Time glides away with undiscovered hast;
And mocks our hopes: no wings can fly so fast.

That same morning I went into my garden and wrote in my notebook that the buttercups were now blooming in my lawn because the grass needed cutting again; that the comfrey was already past its best, but was still humming with bees; and that my favourite orange oriental poppies were in full bloom. Since I wrote that, I've cut the grass, the comfrey's finished flowering and the poppies' petals have fallen. I love this time of year, but it saddens me too. I want to hold on to it, to stop it moving, just for another few weeks.

I found a poem, on the brilliant Poetry in Translation website, by Anna de Noailles:

The Trace I Wish to Leave

I aim to thrust myself against this life so hard,
And clasp it to me fiercely, leaving such a trace,
That when the sweetness of these days I must discard
The world will keep awhile the warmth of my embrace.

The sea, spread out across the globe so lavishly,
On stormy days my fitful memory will sustain,
And in its myriad, random motions ceaselessly
Preserve the acrid, salty, savour of my pain.

What will be left of me in heath and windswept coomb?
My blazing eyes will set the yellow gorse on fire,
And the cicada perched upon a sprig of broom
Will sound the depth and poignancy of my desire.

My joy and restless passion will not die with me,
Nature will breathe me in, making of me a part
Of all that lives, while sorrowing humanity
Will hold the individual profile of my heart.

It chimed with me. I adore de Noailles's love of life, of nature and her desire to 'clasp it... fiercely'. She seems so determined to fuse with the world, so that it becomes a little bit her, even after her death. My own feelings towards time and the changing seasons feel more tense, more anxious, less Nietzschean. I want to hold the ground to stop it changing. I want to fix the petals back on to the poppies. I don't want the solstice to come because afterwards, the nights will draw in again and winter will soon come icily fast.

I don't want to leave Sussex either. The two years of my MA have gone so fast. I like being a student: I like using the library and strolling around campus. I feel at home there.

I don't know what I will do next. For the moment, September still seems far enough away that I don't really feel the need to think about it. In the meantime, there are a thousand things to do, many poems to write, much to reflect upon and many (I hope not quite so breathy) posts to publish here.

Saturday 12 June 2010

Culhwch & Olwen

from The Mabinogion, translated by Jeffrey Gantz.

Arthur then said, 'Chieftain, I have heard nothing of this girl, nor of her parents, but I will gladly send messengers to learn of her.' That night messengers set out, and when at the end of a year they had found nothing Culhwch said, 'Everyone else has obtained his request but I am still waiting. I will leave, and bear your shame with me.' 'Chieftain, you are not fair to Arthur,' said Kei. Come with us - until you say that the girl does not exist or until we find her we will not leave you.' Kei rose then. He had this talent: nine days and nine nights his breath would last under water, and nine days and nine nights he could go without sleep. No doctor could cure the wound from Kei's sword. He could be as tall as the tallest tree in the forest when he pleased, while when the rain was heaviest a hand's span about what was in his hand would be dry by reason of the heat he generated, and when his companions were coldest that would be kindling for the lighting of a fire.

Arthur also summoned Bedwyr, who never avoided any errand on which Kei went. No one in the island was as handsome as Bedwyr, save only Arthur and Drych son of Kibddar, and though he was one-handed no three warriors on the same field could draw blood faster than he; moreover he would make one thrust with his spear and nine counter-thrusts. Arthur called upon Kynddilig the Guide, saying, 'Accompany the chieftain on this errand,' for Kynddilig was no worse guide in a country he had never seen than in his own; he summoned Gwrhyr Interpreter of Languages, who knew every tongue, and Gwalchmei son of Gwyar, since the latter never returned without fulfilling his errand, and was moreover the best walker and rider, and was Arthur's nephew, his sister's son and his first cousin as well. Finally Arthur summoned Menw son of Teirwaedd, for if they came to a pagan land Menw could cast a spell through which they could see everyone and no one could see them.

This party rode out until they reached a great level plain and saw a fortress, the strongest one ever. They journeyed throughout the day, and when they expected to reach the fortress they were no nearer than at first; yet as they travelled along the plain they could see a great flock of sheep with neither end nor limit to it, and a shepherd watching form the top of a mound, a cloak of skins on him, and a shaggy mastiff at his side, larger than a nine-year-old stallion. He had never lost a lamb, much less a sheep, nor did there pass him any company which he did not harm or wound mortally, for his breath had burned every dead tree and bush on the plain to the ground.

Kei said to Gwrhr Interpreter of Languages, 'Go and talk to that man over there.' 'Kei, I never promised to go any farther than you did, so let us go together,' said Gwrhyr, and Menw son of Teirwaedd said, 'Do not worry - I will put a spell on the dog so that it harms no one.' They approached the shepherd and said, 'You are well off, shepherd.' 'May you never be better off than I,' was the reply. 'By God, because you are the head man.' 'Apart from my wife, no wound annoys me.' 'Whose sheep are you tending, and whose is the fortress?' 'Everyone knows that this is the fortress of Chief Giant Ysbaddaden.' 'And who are you?' 'Custenhin son of Mynwyedig, and because of my wife Chief Giant Ysbaddaden has ruined me. And who are you?' 'Messengers of Arthur who have come for Olwen' 'God protect you, men - for all the world, do not say that, for no one who made that request has ever left here alive.'

Then the shepherd rose, and Culhwch gave him a gold ring; he tried to put it on but it did not fit, so he put it in the finger of his glove and went home and gave it to his wife. She took the ring out and asked, 'Where did this ring come from? It is not often you find treasure.' 'I went to the seas to find sea-food, and what did I see but a body washing in on the tide. I never saw so beautiful a body, and on its finger I found this ring.' 'The sea strips dead men of their jewels - show me the body.' 'Wife, you will see the owner of that body here soon.' 'Who is he?' she asked. 'Culhwch son of Kiydd son of the ruler Kelyddon, by Goleuddydd daughter of the ruler Amlawdd - he has come for Olwen.' The woman had divided feelings: she was happy that her nephew, her sister's son, was coming, buy she was sad because she had never seen anyone who came with that request depart with his life.

The visitors came on to the gate of the shepherd Custenhin's court, and when his wife heard the clamour of their arrival she ran out to give them a joyful welcome. Kei drew a log form the woodpile as she approached and sought to embrace them, and when he thrust the log between her two hands she squeezed it into a twisted coil. 'Woman, had it been I whom you squeezed so, no one else would ever need to love me,' said Kei. 'A bad sort of love yours!' They entered the house and their needs were seen to, and after a while, when everyone was busy, the woman opened a chest near the hearth and out jumped a lad with curly yellow hair. Gwhyr said, 'A shame to hide such a lad as this. I know it is not his own fault that he is so treated,' and the woman replied, 'He is the last one; Chief Giant Ysbaddaden has killed twenty-three of my sons, and there is no more hope for this one than there was for the others.' Kei said, 'Let him come along as my companion; he shall not be slain unless I am.'

Then they ate, and the woman asked, 'On what errand have you come?' 'We have come to ask for Olwen.' 'As no one from the fortress has yet see you, for God's sake, turn back!' 'God knows, we will not turn back until we have seen the girl - will she come to some place where she can be seen?' 'She comes here every Saturday to wash her hair; she leaves her rings in the washing bowl, and neither she nor her messenger ever comes after them.' 'Will she come if she is sent for?' 'God knows, I will not sell myself by betraying the one who trusts me, but if you swear to do her no harm I will send for her.' 'We swear.' Messengers were sent and Olwen came, dressed in a flame-red silk robe, with a torque of red gold round her neck, studded with precious pearls and rubies. Her hair was yellower than broom, her skin whiter than sea-foam, her palms and fingers were whiter than shoots of marsh trefoil against the sand of a welling spring. Neither the eye of a mewed hawk nor the eye of a thrice-mewed falcon was fairer than hers; her breasts were whiter than the breast of a white swan, her cheeks were redder than the reddest foxgloves, and anyone who saw her would fall deeply in love. Wherever she went four white trefoils appeared behind her, and for that reason she was called Olwen.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

On the Little People

ome years ago, I stayed in the Foret du Cranou (Forest of the Fairies) in Brittany. While I was there, I had a number of odd experiences, including a lucid dream in which I was inside a goblin shop that I knew to be in somewhere in the Forest. I was talking to the shop keeper when one of my cats, Jack, came in. I realised he had come because he missed me, but I didn't want him to be hurt crossing the roads back, so I walked him home and the dream ended. Sadly, two years later, almost to the day, Jack was killed by a car on my lane.

Recently, while I was writing in the Museum of Witchcraft, I found the following description by Pomponius Mela, of the Korrigan, the Breton little people:
[The Korrigan are the] oracle of the Gallic God. His priestesses, holy in perpetual virginity, are said to be nine in number. They are called Gallicenae, and are thought to be endowed with singular powers, so as to raise by their charms the winds and seas, to turn themselves into what animals they will, to cure wounds and diseases incurable by others, to know and predict the future.

For years I wondered whether my dream was connected to Jack's death. Secretly I worried that he might have been taken by the little people, as he was a gorgeous cat and I could understand someone wanting him. Now I wonder whether instead the dream was a premonition: Jack's death was so sudden, perhaps the Korrigan were trying to prepare me.

After reading Pomponius Mela's words, I made the following notes:

These ones who catch us, teach us, punish us for our ignorance, dance with us; who live underground, in the dark places, in wells; who swim up to us, or who hide in wait; who sit for years alone.

Their power is so much greater than ours. We blunder about, seeing through our one good eye, stuttering. They ask us questions we cannot answer. We grope to complete rhymes that are beyond our skill. We play with words we've never heard before, or try to repeat songs that are beyond our hearing.

Did they make us? If so, why? Are we their dolls, or their students? We who move in circles, around supermarkets, roundabouts, one-way systems and ring-roads. Are these the dances they taught us at night in the fields? Are we endlessly driven to repeat them?

At the few holy wells that aren't yet blocked, do they still hear our wishes? Do they grant them, or keep them, as we keep money, stuffing them into their pockets to save for later?

And what if we created them? What do they give us, poor ragged, jagged-toothed beasts, poor goblins? What is it in their laughter, their cruelty, their dancing, that we desire?

And if we are their students, why try to teach us? What does it mean that they come into our dreams to prepare us for the worst? Can they change anything? Can they influence the future? Are the truly powerful things also the smallest, the seemingly least significant?

This post has taken me a long time to write. I have felt awkward discussing goblins and Korrigan. I'm quite embarrassed and my notes are full of questions because I don't want to commit to anything too pointy-eared.

Finally then, to return to something safely literary, here's Christina Rossetti's thoroughly creepy Goblin Market.