Coleridge in flight with the starlings

Witnessing the murmuration of starlings is unforgettable. A good number of writers have described the experience. Doubtless anxious to avoid clichés, most diligently trawled through a Thesaurus for alternatives to describe the swirling, unwinding, and coiling motion.

The best account of starling murmurations I have read is by Italo Calvino in his wonderful book ‘Mr Palomar’, where he describes the birds gathering and dispersing over Rome. But who was the first to attempt a description? I believe it could be Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his Notebooks. Travelling by stage coach to London in 1799, he found himself mesmerised by the sight of starlings flocking over a nearby field. He begins by observing the sky, creating a word description of such meticulous precision that it anticipates the rapidly sketched atmospheric cloud studies of John Constable in the 1820s:

‘November 27th – a most interesting morning. 1799. Awoke from one of my painful Coach-Sleeps, in the Coach to London. It was a rich Orange Sky like that of a winter Evening save that the fleecy dark blue Clouds that rippled above it, shewed it to be morning – these soon became a glowing Brass Colour, brassy Fleeces, wool packs in shape / rising high up into the Sky. The Sun at length rose upon the flat Plain, like a Hill of Fire in the distance, rose wholly, & in the water that flooded part of the Flat a deep column of Light. – But as the coach went on, a Hill rose, and intercepted the Sun – and the Sun in a few minutes rose over it, a compleat 2nd rising, thro’ other clouds and with a different Glory.’

He goes on to describe the murmuration that followed:

‘Soon after this I saw Starlings in vast Flights, borne along like smoke, mist – like a body unindued with voluntary Power / – now it shaped itself into a circular area, inclined – now they formed a Square – now a Globe – now from complete orb into an Ellipse – then oblongated into a Balloon with the Car suspended, now a concave Semicircle; still expanding, or contracting, thinning or condensing, now glimmering and shivering, now thickening, deepening, blackening!’

This is not the surgical account of a scientist or natural historian. Coleridge is no dispassionate witness. If that fastidious observer of the natural world Gilbert White had attempted a description you could almost hear him announcing, ‘I am now going to describe the murmuration of the starling species. I have studied it closely on a representative number of occasions and this is an accurate summation of what I saw’.

But Coleridge is a poet, and we can imagine him being drawn out of his seat in the coach before ascending into the sky to participate in the throng. It is an account in real time, and I don’t think anyone else was writing like this in 1799. It is an extraordinary achievement, and anticipates Gerard Manley Hopkins sixty years later.

And here he is again just five years later, describing the flight of linnets.

Friday Evening, Jan[uary] 20,1804.
Observed in the garden of Eaton House the flight of the Brown Linnets, a large flock of whom I had repeatedly disturbed by my foot-fall as I walked by the thicket. / 1. Twinkling of wings. 2. Heavy & swanlike rise & fall, yet so that while one was rising, another was falling – & so 4. Their sweet straight onward motion / they swam on, not with speed or haste, much less hurry, but with easy natural Swiftness – & then [a] graceful wheel round one half of a circle or more, & then cut straight the diameter of it – 4. their change of position among themselves / right to left, hindw[ard] to the front, vanguard to the rear – these four motions all at once in one beautiful Whole, like a Machine –

These diary entries, and a plethora of similarly extraordinary examples, are what make Coleridge so outstanding as both observer and writer. It is regrettable that his reputation with the general reader rests on just a dozen or so (admittedly remarkable) poems.

Photograph courtesy of Adam, Creative Commons

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A walk round Nether Stowey in 1797 with Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Kubla Khan – Imagined Worlds

The Friends of Coleridge, in a project supported by the Arts Council, have been celebrating the bicentenary of the publication in 1816 of the visionary poem ‘Kubla Khan’ with a programme of poetry, art, walks, talks, film and competitions.

I led two Coleridge-related guided walks around Nether Stowey. Visitors and Coleridge enthusiasts (around 25 on each walk) were encouraged to experience the village as the poet knew it in 1797. There were readings on the way from Coleridge’s poems, with historical insights into the sights and sounds of the late 18th century.

I have written and designed a 12-page leaflet of the walk. It is intended for visitors and walkers who may wish to learn a little more about Coleridge’s short, productive stay in the village. An A5 printed version is available free in shops in the village and at Coleridge Cottage. Or you can download an A4-size PDF from the News section on the Friends of Coleridge website (


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A tragic end

I bought this small drawing in a West Country antiques shop. It wasn’t expensive, and was hung in the back room in a dark corner, but it spoke to me the way some things do.

It’s an 18th-century pastel drawing in its original frame showing a young man. The gilt is worn and rubbed, and the frame has split at the top and bottom. One of the reasons I like it is the strong sense of tranquillity it conjures, of an era a million miles away from our own frenetic world.

For some reason the sitter reminds me of the 18th-century poet William Cowper, whose portraits tend to reveal a similarly gentle, contemplative temperament. Cowper lived a reclusive life with his pet hare in rural backwaters in Buckinghamshire and Norfolk. Throughout he was tended and protected by kind, caring women who nursed him through his long bouts of depression. Yet, he still managed to write some of the most placid poems in the English language, never formal in the prevailing 18th-century style, but relaxed and conversational. Cowper was a strong influence on Coleridge, who extended the conversational form and helped usher in the Romantic Movement. For me the drawing could show Cowper in his younger days, before the terrible melancholy engulfed him.

But it isn’t Cowper, so who is it? I don’t know, as it isn’t titled. But I can make a reasonable guess that it shows a friend of the artist. The sitter is a young man, his coat unbuttoned, his shirt ruffling up at the bottom. This was no formal portrait intended to impress.

The drawing is signed. Pencilled in half way up on the right is the name W Wynne Ryland. This meant nothing to me when I bought it. However, when I did a little research I found out that Ryland was one of the two most celebrated engravers of the 18th century. He developed a technique of engraving copper plates for rendering the softest tones of chalk drawings. Ryland owned a print shop in the Strand, and went on to become engraver to King George II. His work is represented in collections all over the country, and many of his most impressive engravings are of paintings by Angelica Kaufmann  (see example below). This was exciting enough for an impulse buy, but I was to discover more.

Ryland was, his biographer said, ‘a tender parent, an affectionate husband, a capital artist, a favourite of the King and Queen, beloved, [and] respected.’ But he was also a restless character, ever keen to push the boundaries of his art and abilities. His fortunes wavered throughout his career. Sometimes he was rich and at other times managed to dispose of his money much too quickly. In 1783 he embarked on a singularly rash and dangerous act – he forged bills of exchange drawn on the East India Company. For a while it seemed he had got away with it, but the deception was finally discovered when it was found that the paper he had used was not being manufactured at the time. Ryland fled for his life and went into hiding, with all of London on the hunt for him. He was only discovered when a Dartford bootmaker spotted his name written inside a shoe he had sent for repair. Once again Ryland tried to flee, but was cornered in a house near Stepney. Desperate, he tried to cut his own throat, but was just caught in time. Bleeding profusely, he was carried away and imprisoned.

His trial at the Old Bailey was a cause celebre. He was found guilty and hanged at Tyburn on 29 August 1783. He left a widow and six children.

Quite a story to emerge from such a serene drawing! So, could it be a self-portrait? Who can tell? The sitter’s face is unlined, and he looks calmly out at us, unruffled, comfortable in his own skin. It’s frustrating that I will never know.


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Killing for a purpose?

Willow warbler (courtesy Bobthebirder)

We are all spoilt these days with our high-powered Leica binoculars and Swarovski spotting scopes. Watching birds in the 18th century was very different. Gilbert White of Selborne in Hampshire, the father of English natural history, shunned even the use of a telescope.

Yet somehow White managed to differentiate three tiny warblers from each other—the willow warbler, wood warbler and chiffchaff. It was an extraordinary feat of observation. Up to then no naturalist, however stealthy or subtle, had managed to get within ten yards of these tiny birds. They are all similar in size and appearance and highly secretive, hiding in dense leaf cover and flitting about so swiftly that to the observer they seem to be always where they’re not. So how did White achieve it? I’ve already said that he never used a telescope so it can’t have been through visual identification.

Shooting such minuscule, rapidly moving birds was not an easy option either. Unless, of course, White had used a blunderbuss. And if he had there wouldn’t been much of their fragile bodies left intact to study.

It is generally thought that White made his identification of the warblers by listening to their differing songs. But he still needed specimens to dissect and examine, and to know which song he was ascribing to which bird, so he probably had them trapped. He was, however, prepared to have a bird shot if he felt it necessary to further his researches – including a very rare black-winged stilt. White was known to go further still in the cause of science, knocking down and destroying the nests of swallows and martins under the eaves of his stables so he could study how they constructed a new one.

Black-winged stilt

The eminent Victorian naturalist James Edmund Harting was much less economical in his approach to killing. He edited the prestigious journal ‘The Zoologist’, was Assistant Secretary and Librarian to the Linnean Society, and wrote articles on shooting for ‘The Field’. He also edited one of the best editions of White’s ‘Natural History of Selborne’, illustrating it with woodcuts by Thomas Bewick.

Unlike White Harting showed no reluctance whatsoever in killing birds, and apparently shot them at will. He felt no shame in admitting in his 1875 book ‘Our Summer Migrants’ to shooting landrails (corncrakes), and killed ‘as many as half a dozen in one day in September’. Why? For dissection and research purposes? It seems more than a shade profligate and wasteful.

He was equally ready to shoot garden warblers for the purpose of determining what they ate, but said, surprisingly, that it was ‘much against my inclination’. He raided a nightjar’s nest, pegging the young down with falconer’s jesses until they were fully fledged, and leaving the adult birds to feed them. When he finally removed the young birds and took them home he failed to keep them alive, ‘owing to the difficulty in procuring suitable food, and my inability to give them constant attention’. No feelings of doubt or guilt there.

Yet in a later chapter on the hoopoe in ‘Our Summer Migrants’ Harting regrets the actions of ‘thoughtless persons, whose first impulse on seeing an uncommon bird is to procure a gun and shoot it’. Janus-faced? Maybe.

On another occasion Harting spotted the nest of a rare golden oriole high up in an oak tree. He climbed it and was ‘obliged to saw off the branch before I could look into the nest, and after a great deal of trouble, when at length I got it down safely, I found, to my disappointment, that it contained three young birds instead of eggs … I fed them on maggots, and covered them with cotton wool to keep them warm’. Unfortunately, they died and were ‘entrusted to a skilled taxidermist for preservation’.

Catching and killing birds was a significant industry in Victorian times, and there was a ready market for stuffed birds, especially rarities, to furnish gentlemen’s glass trophy cabinets. In 1867 three London bird catchers took 225 nightingales in just three weeks. David Attenborough would have had a fit.

It wasn’t until the Kearton brothers Richard and Cherry began taking photographs of Britain’s birds in the first years of the twentieth century that things changed. They were pioneers of wildlife photography, and went places and did things with cameras no one else had dared try. They were skilled technicians, and more than a little mad. They used extra long ladders to reach the topmost branches of trees to photograph nesting birds. Their other innovative devices may have seemed Heath Robinson, but they worked. They balanced on an eight-foot tripod with one brother piggy-backing the other to photograph top-of-the-tree nesters, and created a realistic stuffed ox to hide inside to study skylarks.

Stuffed ox

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Hidden Quantock treasure


Triassic Cliffs, Blue Anchor, North Somerset, by Edward William Cooke (1811–1880)

The Friends of Quantock have been posting images of outstanding period paintings of West Somerset and the Quantocks on their Twitter site. A few are by artists who have lived and worked in the area, such as J W North, friend of Richard Jefferies, one of my favourite Victorian country writers. Others are surprise delights by painters of the calibre of Tristram Hillier, Edward William Cooke and William Henry Hopkins.

In some cases it is not clear whether the images have been sourced from private collections or public galleries. If they are held in public galleries, are they on permanent display or squirrelled away out of sight in storage?


Steep Holme, looking over the Bristol Channel, by George Frederick Harris (1856–1924)

It would be wonderful if some of these (plus other paintings with local significance wasting their sweetness in storage) could be drawn together for exhibitions at regional galleries, museums, town halls, public libraries or civic centres. There would, of course, be difficulties. One constraint is the sheer cost of curating exhibitions. Specialised transportation is expensive, and insurance cover often prohibitive for a small cash-strapped gallery or museum. Curators rightly talk about risk, and if works of art are transported hundreds of miles across the country and displayed for weeks on end in small regional galleries and other venues, there could well be damage or the odd random act of vandalism. As a consequence major galleries and museum trusts can be reluctant to enter into lend or loan agreements, their primary responsibility being to protect and conserve the works of art in their care.

Yet surely it is a risk worth taking? Every time we cross the road and drive our car we accept risk. We are not talking Rembrandts or Michelangelos. Most are ‘minor’ paintings with a distinctive local and regional interest, and I firmly believe the benefits of allowing them out on public display outweigh any risk. There would surely be enough responsible volunteers prepared to give their time to help staff an exhibition.


Quantoxhead, by Tristram Hillier (1905–1983)

It seems to me that issues of security and the balance sheet have usurped the public good. I wonder for whom these works of art are being so painstakingly protected. For posterity? Who will, eventually, if ever, benefit from this meticulous safeguarding? Posterity is defined as ‘future generations, those who come after us’. Yet if our generation is unable to experience and enjoy these paintings, is it likely that the people who come after us will? Who will be there to inspire them, if not us?

The internet has allowed us to view works of art we would not normally be aware of. Will art end up as something to experience on a screen? Surely a thumbnail image can never be a substitute for the experience of standing in front of the real painting, viewing it at its actual size, and with the time and opportunity to appreciate its brushwork and true colour.

Below is a list of some of the paintings on the Friends of Quantock Twitter site. Unless there is a change of policy it seems likely that paintings such as these will have little lasting artistic legacy, acting merely as figures on a balance sheet. Do visit the Twitter site, they are well worth a look.

Quantoxhead, by Tristram Hillier (1905–1983)
A calm day at Burnham Beach, 5 August 1856, by William Henry Hopkins (1825–1892)
A walker on the Quantocks in 1873, by J W North
Pergola at Bicknoller church gate in 1860s, by J W North
The Quantock Hills, by J W North
Porlock, 1913, by Francis Abel William Taylor Armstrong (1849–1920)
Exmoor & Porlock, British Railways poster artwork by Jack Merriott (1901–1968)
A Somerset Farm, by Norman Macbeth (1821–1888)
Steep Holme, looking over the Bristol Channel, by George Frederick Harris (1856–1924)
Triassic Cliffs, Blue Anchor, North Somerset, by Edward William Cooke (1811–1880)

PS. I find it equally frustrating when I am unable to inspect books in the libraries of National Trust properties, the argument being that many of the older volumes are fragile – and, more importantly, of significant monetary value. The shelves of books act as little more than historical wallpaper.

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Hirst – a short story extract

I have been writing about John Hirst for a while. A solitary young man in his his early twenties, Hirst feels miserable about the relentless rate of change in his village and uncomfortable in his own skin. Not much happens in the following exract. Lee Child it ain’t.


Late morning. Hirst wakes with a mouthful of fur. He chokes then thrashes an arm across the bed clothes. Timmo squats astride his chest, their noses not four inches apart. Hirst wriggles but Timmo sits tight, riding the blanket waves.

He arches his back and the cat traces a miniature arc across his master’s cheek with the point of a claw, its touch light as a feather.  Still comatose, Hirst misses the warning, digs his elbows into the mattress and raises his body, stretching his muscles to bring them to life. The cat’s claw extends and retracts again in the space of a second, and Hirst slumps back down into the pillow, nursing his cheek. The welt burns, pain running down his jaw as if along a fuse.

Hirst has never thought of Timmo as a friendly cat, let alone a companion. Whenever he has felt the need for blood warmth and scooped the creature up and cradled him in his arms, Timmo has struggled as if for his life. It seems that the thought of giving something of himself to order, forfeiting his independance for even a second, is beyond what he considers a reasonable barter for his keep.

It’s significant that the cat wants his master now, as a motionless hump warming the bedclothes. Hirst, drained, and not immediately comprehending, draws his hand out from under the covers and goes to stroke the cat’s fur. As his fingertips make contact Timmo jumps, as if he has been expecting the violation, and seconds later the cat flap in the kitchen rattles.

As the distance in the bedroom finally resolves itself into wardrobe, cupboard, chair and lamp, he understands that his relationship with his cat is one with very little give, and still less take. But, he reflects, as he pulls on his trousers and tucks in his shirt, it is the only one he has.
Hirst pushes open a wicket gate, which is almost invisible in the hedge. Brambles take swings at his head as he treads a path to the cottage alongside a crumbling cob wall. At the far end he turns a corner and steps on to a cracked flagged terrace. Thatch drips overhead and a dormer winks at him from under its brown lid.

At the open porch Bobby is feeding a robin. He sits at a settle facing the cottage door. Blue tits forage for crumbs in cracks in the flagstones.
‘Hurt your eye, Bob?’
Bobby looks up, showing an eye patch.
‘Prim, John’s come! Sit down, boy – here, by me. You dispense cake for young Pinky here and his friends. Prim’ll bring us a drink.’

The old ex-army major shuffles along and taps a celebratory tattoo on his knee. Hirst wriggles in alongside him until they are sitting like two schoolboys at a desk.
‘What happened to you?’ Hirst nods at Bobby’s eye patch.
‘Cork. Prim’s just made a batch of banana. Special stuff – you know Prim when she puts her mind to it. I was checking one of the bottles – close up – see if it had cleared. Damned cork hit me slap in the eye. They pack a punch, those buggers.’
‘Serves him right, John. Pure greed. He’s an old soak – no, Bob, there’s no other word for it.’ Primrose scuttles in on worn carpet slippers and reaches up to Hirst on tip-toe. He feels the old lady’s wrinkled kiss against his cheek. ‘He’s never got the right corks for the right bottles, so he got what he deserves.’
‘Don’t start, woman. A drink for our neighbour and one for your lord and master.’
‘So how’s my favourite John? What shall we give him, Bob?’
‘Fancy a glass of poison, John?’
‘Course he will, Prim.’
‘It’s all very well killing ourselves, Bob, but it’s only fair to warn the neighbours. John’s a young man, a handsome young man. I’ll give him what’s left of the elderflower.’

Hirst blushes and watches Primrose shuffle off with a glass in each hand. He peers into the gloom. Hope Cottage sprawls against a steep bank. The living room is tiny and square. There’s another beyond it, still smaller, and then a lean-to outshut kitchen, deep in shadow. Upstairs is reached by scaling a tier of steep wooden steps.

‘Hope you’re careful on those stairs with that eye, Bob. You’re not a spring chicken any more.’
‘I was once, John. But those stairs are lethal. Whenever I wanted a bit of slap and tickle in the old days I needed a rope and crampons to get Prim up to the bed. By the time we got there I’d lost the urge.’
‘Don’t believe him, John. He was a dirty old devil. No wonder I look old and haggard.’ Prim calls from the kitchen.
‘She may be old and wrinkly but there’s nothing wrong with her ears. Careful what you say, John.’

Tongue and groove lines the walls. A single casement lets in a square of sunlight. There are wilting flowers everywhere, clogging mantlepiece, sills and shelves. Bits of brass shine like stars in the half light. Two armchairs with well-worn hollows face each other. On the table are wine bottles, old and squat with rolled lips. Some have embossed seals. Bobby’s fond of telling visitors if they don’t have vintage wine they have vintage bottles. He’s already on his second glass of daffodil.

‘Just watch it, John, pours like engine oil.’ Bobby drains his glass. He holds the bottle out to John for a refill. ‘All the wine books in the circulating library …’
‘Which is one suspect looking paperback,’ cuts in Prim.
‘… Say you have to be careful with daffodil. Bulbs can be poisonous.’
‘So what’s Bob gone and done? He’s made bluebell, tulip and daffodil, all in one go. All bulbs, mind you. Stupid man’s got a death wish.’
‘Just trying to get away from you, you old hag.’
‘Listen to him! Him get away from me!’

Primrose ambles to the kitchen and comes back with a colander and a folded newspaper. She unwraps it and starts shelling peas, flicking them one by one into the colander where they rattle to the bottom. For five minutes or more this is the only sound.

‘Been drinking a lot of daffodil, Bob?’ John’s concerned, he loves these two old people.
‘Too much, the silly old fool.’ Prim flicks a pea which catches Bobby on the chin.  ‘Between you and me, the old devil has been a bit odd of late. Tummy troubles.’ She prods Bobby in the belly and he roars with laughter. ‘There’s my old pot calling the kettle black! Anyway, we grew the bulbs for free. Stupid not to use them.’

Hirst shakes his head and sips his wine. He settles back, lets the sun play over his face, and stares out at the garden. A cat stalks leanly by, squats on the terrace, turns its back on them, then washes its fur with long licks.

Hirst nods at it. ‘How’s the stray doing?’
‘Bugger ate my breakfast,’ says Bobby.
‘And your lunch,’ adds Prim, and perches on the end of the settle, like a delicate bird.
‘Take that, you little devil,’ shouts Bobby, flicking peas in the direction of the cat. ‘He likes his saucerful of daffodil.’
‘Bob, you didn’t!’
‘Ran out of milk. Forgot to go to May’s. The hedgehogs love it, too – bread and daffodil.’
‘Beans coming up, Prim?
‘Haven’t planted any, John. Ran out of time.’

Hirst smiles at the idea of Bobby and Prim running out of time. At Hope Cottage time doesn’t figure much. To Hirst the two old people have all the time in the world.

‘So what are you up to, boy? Found a girl with a good strong pair of thighs?’
‘Bob! Leave the boy alone.’
‘Stay and help me eat Prim’s lunch. Can’t offer you mine now.’

Hirst closes his eyes and lets the wine dose his depression. Thank God for Bobby and Prim. Suddenly he’s happy, conscious only of bird song, the popping of pea pods, and the rustle of breeze in the thatch. Bobby leans clumsily across him, grabs a handful of pods and starts shelling, tossing the peas half a dozen at a time in the general direction of the colander. The mound swells.

‘What’s the time?’ Hirst is struggling to stay awake.
‘Tummy rumbling time. Time we ate Prim’s lunch.’
‘No, really, Bob – but thanks for the offer. I’d better be off.’
‘Come back when you’ve done whatever it is.’

Hirst staggers off, bouncing off the cob walls until he reaches the lane. Since Hirst’s father died Bobby and Prim have been like parents. He always means to have a serious talk about what he’s doing with his life, but each time the opportunity slips away. He’s finding it hard to focus.

‘Thee want a day’s work, Jarn?’ Jack Ridout’s mangold head pokes out of his tractor cab. ‘Tomorrow, boy?’

Hirst is always short of money. Jobs in the village are few and far between, and his benefit seems designed for a four day week. By Friday he’s ripe for coercion. But he has mixed feelings about working for East Farm. Helping old Edlin muck out his shippon is one thing, but working for Jack Ridout feels like signing on for the enemy. He stands in the street with the tractor engine thundering over him, his head thick with wine and his eyes smarting in the sharp light.

‘Well, boy?’ Jack’s invisible, a voice from on high. The tractor quivers, impatiently.
‘Kind of you, Jack. I’ll thi…’
‘Eight o’clack, tomorrow, then. Sharp, mind you.’

There’s a gust of diesel and a rattle of chains. The tractor bounces down the lane on the uneven camber. Hirst totters, his legs threatening sabotage. As he catches hold of his front gate an airhorn blasts a discordant jingle a yard from his ear.

‘What you reckon, Jarn? Like it?’

It’s Laurie, Hirst’s next door neighbour, leaning against the bonnet of his van. Hirst shakes his head, unable to make the effort to think.

‘New horns, you berk. On the van, you pissed sod. Where you been drinking, boy? Not down Cross Keys. Josie and me just come back from there. What about this, then?’ Laurie’s lank hair swings as he ducks inside the van window. The CD player whirrs and the speakers blare out a deep bass thump.
‘What you think, then?’
Hirst stares at the path to his kitchen. Can he make it?
‘Now or Never. Now or Never, for Christ’s sake. Wake up, boy. Elvis! The king!’
Hirst knows it is now or never and forces his legs forward.
‘You coming down Cross Keys tonight? Josie’s got a mate – Sal. Good bit of fanny. You think it over, boy. If not, Saturday?’
Hirst plods up the path.
‘You take life too serious. Come and have a giggle. Game of arrows. I tell you, boy – I’d give Sal one if Josie weren’t looking.’

Right now the only thing Hirst is taking seriously is the prospect of sleep. Yet even in his daffodil stupor he cannot believe that an ignorant sod like Laurie can be such a skilled thatcher.

Back at the cottage he keels over, vomits on the hearth rug and spends the rest of the afternoon flat out on the kitchen lino. The tabby Timmo sniffs the pile with interest.

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Prose and poetry


Photo courtesy of Ron Knight

Most of us were taught in primary school that poetry rhymes. We were encouraged to read poems as incantations, as if by simply uttering the words we were releasing something of magical power, way beyond the possibilities of everyday speech. However, since Eliot, Pound, and the American beat poets, poems no longer have to rhyme, and can be arranged on the page in both poetry and prose form. Alice Oswald’s exceptional poem ‘Dart’, much of it arranged as prose, is the perfect example.

So what is poetry? The Oxford dictionary states that a poem is a ‘literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm’.

Note that the definition does not mention how a poem should be set out on the page. Yet the general reader would not normally consider a piece of writing to be a poem if it is arranged on the page like a novel or travelogue.

But look at the following paragraph from J A Baker’s remarkable 1967 book ‘The Peregrine’. In it Baker records in diary form a decade of close observation of peregrines on the Essex marshes.

‘Pouring away behind the moving bird, the land flows out from the eye in deltas of piercing colour. The angled eye strikes through the surface dross as the obliqued axe cuts to the heart of a tree. A vivid sense of place grows like another limb. Direction has colour and meaning. South is a bright, blocked place, opaque and stifling; West is a thickening of the earth into trees, a drawing together, the great beef side of England, the heavenly haunch; North is open, bleak, a way to nothing; East is a quickening in the sky, a beckoning of light, a storming suddenness of sea.’

The language is intense, and rich in imaginative metaphor. It is clear that Baker has taken immense care with every word, ensuring the piece expresses precisely what he was observing. Yet, with the page-wide line length, close leading, and the sheer density and complexity of the imagery, it is hard to absorb the full meaning at a single reading, which is all most readers would grant a piece of prose. Whereas, we all have our own favourite poems, poring over them time and again in our search for untapped layers of meaning.

Now see the same prose piece arranged as a poem:

Pouring away behind the moving bird,
The land flows out from the eye in deltas of piercing colour.
The angled eye strikes through the surface dross
As the obliqued axe cuts to the heart of a tree.
A vivid sense of place grows like another limb.
Direction has colour and meaning.
South is a bright, blocked place, opaque and stifling;
West is a thickening of the earth into trees,
A drawing together, the great beef side of England,
The heavenly haunch;
North is open, bleak, a way to nothing;
East is a quickening in the sky, a beckoning of light,
A storming suddenness of sea.

No one could deny the poetic power of Baker’s writing. But is it poetry or prose? And does it matter? In a way I think it does, because readers in general hold poetry in greater esteem than prose. Arranging it as a poem most certainly aids comprehension, the short line length offering air and breathing space, granting the reader more time to weigh each individual word and image, and to more fully share Baker’s experience.

‘The Peregrine’ could, of course, be termed a prose poem (‘a piece of imaginative poetic writing in prose’). Yet few novels or works of prose are granted this status except by critics, and then usually in retrospect. ‘Les Illuminations’ by Rimbaud, is arranged as prose but is deemed to be a poem, as are some of  Amy Lowell’s Imagist poems. But are they simply classed as poems because they are by poets and included in anthologies?

What am I suggesting? Simply that we should take more time when we read prose, bringing it the same close attention we grant poetry. If we do not, we could be missing out, especially in the work of writers of the calibre of John Banville, W G Sebald and Lawrence Durrell.

I could quote many passages from Baker’s book to build my case. Do read it, it’s a masterpiece.

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