Thursday, January 3, 2019

James Harpur, 'Kells' and rewriting the middle ages. 1/3

James’ Harpur’s ‘Kells’ is a sequence of 4 poems in his book ‘The White Silhouette’ (Carcanet 2018). Harpur rewrites the middle ages in ways I admire so I want to consider his practice in some details.
Three posts: This one admiration for Harpur’s skill as a poet; the second consideration of the way he gives the appearance of life to a man known only as “scribe B’ and the third some questions about the practice of using a known historical character as a mouthpiece for values/attitudes/beliefs. And then I’ll tidy the three posts and post them as one on the website.
Part one.
In which he admires the poet’s skill.
The easiest was to do this is to compare Harpur to his source where he’s following it closely. ‘Gerald of Wales’ (56-64), the third piece in ‘Kells’, begins with a quotation from ‘The History and Typography of Ireland’ Harpur merely notes ‘Gerald of Wales 1185’. Good luck tracking that one. Anyway…. On pages 59 to 60 Harpur retells a miracle story from the same source. 
(In what follows the prose is taken from John O’Meara’s translation of Gerald’s ‘The History and Typography of Ireland’, and page references are to the readily available Penguin Classics edition. Page references for Harpur are to ‘The White Silhouette’.)   
Compare:
Gerald:
On the night before the day on which the scribe was to begin the book, an angel stood beside him in his sleep and showed him a drawing made on a tablet which he carried in in his hand…. (85)

Harpur
The night before a certain monk
was due to paint a page
he dreamt an angel proffered him
a tablet etched with silver circles
enclosing threads of gold.
Between circles, lines crossed
like swallows skimming fields;
their ends split up and curved
away, entwined again, were spun
towards the firmament
by figures of saints and animals
In gold and dragonfly viridian. (59-60)
[The monk admits the task is beyond him. The angel tells the monk to pray to Brigid and returns the next night.]
Gerald
‘…on the following night the angel came again and held before him the same and many other drawings.’ (85)
Harpur.
Next night the angel came again
With other tablets filigreed
As if with webs picked off the grass (60)
In both examples Harpur’s skill as a poet Is evident. He’s following Gerald closely but turning the prose into poetry and making it his own. Some of the exuberance of the book is captured in his language. 
But both similes, ‘like swallows skimming fields and ‘As if with webs picked off the grass’ are not only effective in isolation as images but have a structural purpose so that taken together they contribute to the movement of the story. 
Before his spiritual eyes have been opened the lines look like ‘Swallows skimming the grass’…a blur of random movement, swift and graceful, but hard to follow and confused. If you don’t pay attention and glance at the Book of Kells or one of the carpet pages in the Lindisfarne gospel, that’s what you see. 
When his ‘bodily and mental eyes’ (Gerald 85) have been opened, he sees the delicate patterns as ‘webs picked off the grass’.  
 Whet he now sees, rather than the chaotic movement of birds, is the delicate organized patterns of a spider’s web. Paying attention, he sees patterns rather than chaos. The difference in the images mark the development of his understanding. 
But what he draws, no matter how well he draws it, is heavier, thicker, less delicate. Whatever the intricacy of Kells reminds you of, it’s unlikely to be spider webs picked off the grass on a dewy autumn morning, unless you’ve read this first. 
The image suggests the way that things imagined are often diminished when made real and the way spiritual experience is inevitably transformed when it’s expressed in any human sign system. 
Good similes are hard to make. Similes that are not only good as images but structural components of a development in narrative and argument are priceless. 
In the next post. ‘Scribe B’ and the creation of a character.

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