Me, Sir Kenneth and Charlemagne

Well, you wouldn’t even attempt it nowadays, would you, standing in front of the camera and pontificating in a posh accent about western civilisation. In fact even the idea that there might be such a thing as civilisation here in the west would be enough to cause half of Facebook to implode. And yet, the DVD of Civilisation by Sir Kenneth Clark which I’ve been watching again, has surprisingly a lot to offer, and defuses many of the prejudices with which one approaches it, along the way. For one thing, Clark doesn’t deny that there are other civilisations out there, though he doesn’t spend much time on them; and though there are a few uncomfortable gaps, what he says is balanced and intelligent. And unlike many modern documentaries, the camera moves slowly and carefully over the works of art he shows giving you time to appreciate them.
I realise now that much of the of the art that I’ve seen over the years was inspired by watching the series years ago (even though that must have been in black and white)Ravenna, Urbino, Mantua, Chartres, Assissi ; all those places I’ve been to because of Sir Kenneth.

And we’ve just completed another Sir Kenneth pilgrimage, we’ve been to Aachen, to see the treasures of Charlemagne. Aachen is a pretty little town, not ancient because it was destroyed twice, once by fire in the seventeenth century, and once -er- by us in WW2. But Charlemagne’s cathedral, which is at the heart of it, and really all there is to see, remains fundamentally undamaged. It’s a surprisingly tiny cathedral, built as an octagon, as Solomon’s temple was supposed to be, and though Sir Kenneth is somewhat disparaging about it, rises inside as a forest of fragile columns, in a shimmer of blue and white marble and golden mosaic. (the mosaics are 19thc but that doesn’t matter) We heard High Mass there on Sunday morning, and it gave me a frisson to know that we were sitting where Mass had been celebrated
non-stop for well over a thousand years. And the cathedral treasures – especially to those of us used to seeing cathedrals as grey stripped spaces, are quite incredible, exquisite manuscripts in minuscule, carved ivory and silver book covers, gem studded reliquaries (with some of the dodgiest relics you can imagine, still revered – Jesus’s loincloth, anyone?) Dark Ages, what Dark Ages? said Richard in amazement as we looked at them all. On the whole, as ancient despots go, Charlemagne didn’t seem to be too bad. He supported scholars, especially English ones, in his court, and promulgated learning as well as art. He was also – in a literal sense – the father of his people -siring so many children that today one European in five can claim descent from him. It was a magical weekend, we saw unforgettable things, and once again, I’m grateful to Sir Kenneth.
I’m a rather clumsy downloader of pictures, but the pictures I show are: an exquisite pulpit, which for reasons I can’t remember is more properly called an ‘ambo’, the restored mosaic and Charlemagne’s throne, made with marble brought back from the site of the Holy Sepulchure ds/2015/11/throne.jpg”>throne

a narrow fellow…

   Here’s another recycled piece from my 2011 Bracelet of Bright Hair.  I left it out of the finished volume because for complicated reasons Emily Dickinson’s poetry I think is still in copyright, though I don’t suppose anyone will track me down here.  Probably my list of Desert Island poems would be different now, but this is what it was then.

Lying awake last night, (or that dead time in the very early morning when your mind seems to run rather nerdishly into list-making, ) I thought of the question I’d been asking other people- and if someone had asked me for a favourite poem, what would it be.  Easy to ask, hard to answer. Instead, I tried to chose a DesertIsland eight. And that isn’t easy either.

The first ones come smoothly enough. There must be a Shakespeare sonnet, and it would probably be no 29,  When in disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes, if only for the wonderful lift of those last lines:
             Haply I think on thee, and then my state

             Like to the lark at break of day arising

             From sullen earth…


There’d be a Donne, probably The Sunne Rising.  It’s one of the first I remember reading, and I recall my startled delight ; poetry can do this!  And without one of his nasty little anti-woman gibes – an undiluted love song.  There’d be Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight, simply because  it’s one of the greatest English poems. There’d be Arnold’s Dover Beach,  because  it sums up so movingly a crucial turning point in Western consciousness.

Okay – so that’s four. Probably The Bailey Beareth the Bell away because it’s beautiful, mysterious and works at a level you can’t quite fathom. Lyric poems only work in the moment – they are gorgeous, then they stop; the ripples cease and the shining water closes over them; they don’t go on working in your head like a ‘real’ poem – but beauty earns them a place.

There’d have to be W.H. Auden’s  As I walked out one evening,  a ballad turning suddenly sinister, which for years I treasured in an EP record (remember them?) read mesmerically by Dylan Thomas in his outrageously plummy voice.

Then at this stage, the poems start competing, and vying for space, raising hands and jumping above the crowd, shouting Choose me! Choose me!  While you’re aware that the quiet one saying nothing at the back is the overlooked one you really want….

Yeats’  Long-legged Fly .  though the second two verses don’t quite match the eerie and concentrated focus of the first verse.

Something by Emily Dickinson. What?  Wild Nights….  A Narrow Fellow in the Grass…  There’s a certain slant of light…the Soul Selects her Own  Society…  Impossible. But I’ve set myself this silly task, so I’ll choose A Narrow Fellow, because of the precision of her metaphors, the light conversational tone,  and the heart-stopping last line.

How many is that? And still no Seamus Heaney, no Gillian Clarke. Have I room for Denise Levertov’s The Secret?   Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art?

              What moron would even try and do something like this?


A Narrow Fellow in the Grass:   Emily Dickinson


                      A narrow Fellow in the Grass

Occasionally rides-

You may have met Him – did you not

His notice sudden is –


The Grass divides as with a Comb –

A spotted shaft is seen –

And then it closes at your feet

And opens further on –


He likes a Boggy Acre

A Floor too cool for Corn –

Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot –

I more than once at Noon

Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash

Unbraiding in the sun

When stooping to secure it

It wrinkled, and was gone  -


Several of Nature’s People

I know, and they know me –

I feel for them a transport

Of cordiality –


But never met this Fellow

Attended, or alone

Without a tighter breathing –

And Zero at the Bone -