Friday, December 4, 2020

Carmilla 2020 or 'The Governess was Repressed'

Carmilla 2020


In 1970 Hammer released a film called ‘The Vampire Lovers’. It was their version of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s iconic 19th century vampire story, Carmilla.  It played with the narrative’s sequence, making Marcella/Carmilla’s vampiric character too obvious from the start.  While its casting was undoubtedly strange, and Carmilla is far more predatory in an indiscriminate way than she is in the story, it stuck reasonably closely to the plot and can be watched as a reading of the story. Hammer did make the obvious mistake of thinking two topless women in a room with no men was box office gold. 


This 2020 film version claims to be based on Le Fanu’s story, it also seems to think that two young women kissing each other is art house gold, but it has so little in common with what Le Fanu wrote that it’s difficult to see why they bothered to call it Carmilla.


If you know Le Fanu’s little masterpiece, a plot summary of the 2020 film is all you need. (You can use the Carmilla/Le fanu links in the side bar or below to read about both Le Fanu and Hammer's version.)


Laura is a disconnected fifteen year old living in a big house in a generic somewhere, with only her father, a governess who likes to strap up her arm to stop her using her left hand, and a generic (I’m guessing) west Indian maid. She is looking forward to a visit from a friend. She hears the friend is ill and can’t come. The Governess is creepy and lingers a little too closely over her charge when she’s in bed.


A carriage crashes. The driver is killed but a young girl is saved and brought into the house. She has lost her memory. Laura is fascinated and the two girls are physically attracted to each other. The governess interrupts them rolling passionately on the floor. 


The governess, having given Carmilla a good beating, convinces the local doctor that Carmilla is a Vampire. Her evidence is so flimsy it’s laughable. She found a book about vampires in the wreckage of the carriage, no one knows who the girl is and girls are getting sick . Oh and a dog barked at her….it sounds like we’ve strayed into The Turn of the Screw. Her attempts to convince the doctor includes an awkward sexual encounter, but whether this is just repression breaking loose or her way of making him take her side against Carmilla is hard to tell. Neither of them seem to be having any fun. 


The girls escape and drift away from the house, but not too far. The Governess, the doctor and a random estate worker easily track them down. They slam a stake through Carmilla’s heart. The father turns up and carries Laura away. He does this for a very long time. Then we see Laura standing by a pond throwing stones in the water for a very long time and that’s the end of the very long, very slow story. 


The film makers have stripped out everything that makes Le Fanu’s story what it is. Whatever was subtle and ambiguous has gone; it was gone from the Hammer film too, but in this film they have replaced it with close up shots of insects and pictures of Laura wandering in the grounds, or Laura running in the grounds with Carmilla. 


What’s most surprising is that Carmilla is not a vampire in this film. Why you’d do this to the story is baffling. In both Hammer’s version and this one, the sexual aspect is amplified at the cost of the story. More effort goes in to building sexual tension between the two girls than to telling any kind of story. And on and on. 


If they had called this Laura and the Stranger…or The Lovers or The Governess was Repressed it would at least have been honest and would have stood or fallen on its own merits as a story about repression and adolescent fantasy. It wouldn’t have been all that interesting or convincing. 

But as a version of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, it’s just crass.


It’s an art house movie without art. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Ciaran Carson's 'Still Life'

My review of Carson's 'Still Life', his last book of poems, is up at the Brazen Head:

Still Life by Ciaran Carson

Wake Forest University press 2019


There’s a picture of Ciaran Carson on the back cover. He’s sitting on a bench seat. Tall buildings, trees and streetlights provide a diminishing perspective taking the eye towards an approaching bus. The bus is slightly out of focus. There’s something, perhaps someone on a bike, in front of it.


The word dapper presents itself to describe the poet. Hat, blazer, tie. The refinement of a white handkerchief in the breast pocket. The facial expression is harder to read. Perhaps a hint of a mischievous smile? Perhaps Puckish is an appropriate description?


In a book of poems about pictures, this one seems carefully arranged. Perhaps you know the story. You walk into the woods and meet a well-dressed man on a path you didn’t mean to take. He’s usually sitting on a log, or a style. If you share something with him, you’ll be rewarded with a story, though the story might take up several lifetimes and when you return to where you started, you’ll find the world has changed.


There’s an inviting space beside him on the bench. I would offer him the OED’s etymology of dapper, which I think he would enjoy. It suggests dapper was adopted at the end of the ME period ‘with modification of sense, perh ironical or humorous’ since in Middle Dutch it meant ‘powerful, strong, stout, energetic’, which might be superfluous to requirement, as the saying goes.  Mod Dutch gives ‘valiant, brave and bold’ and they don’t seem appropriate either.   


I want to thank him for ‘Last Night’s Fun; in and out of time with Irish music’, one of my favourite books, for ‘For all we know’, one of the most interesting of poetic narratives, and for the pleasure of all the other poems, translations and the weird and wonderful prose.


But of course, I can’t. He’s dead. 


The first poem in the book concludes:


It’s beautiful weather, the 30th of March, and tomorrow the clock’s go forward.

How strange it is to be lying here listening to whatever it is is going on.

The days are getting longer now, however many of them I have left

And the pencil I am writing this with, old as it is, will easily outlast their end. (p. 13)


Carson died in October 2019. Still Life was published posthumously that November. It’s inevitable that those two facts colour any response to the book. They don’t need to. The book doesn’t need your sympathy. 


On a first reading the poems seem colloquial, easy to read, informative, with moments of arresting imagery:


‘My dreams are filled with wavering buildings, avalanches of astonished/glass.’ (p. 19)


In characteristically long lines, with their deceptive appearance of artlessness, each poem is a reflection on a picture, which provides the poem’s title. ‘Reflection’ is inadequate because the colour and detail in each painting is a focal point, not always the beginning or end: ‘Because when looking at a thing we often drift into a memory of something else/however tenuous the link’ (p. 15).


But ‘reflection’ is also apt because the pictures become distorted mirrors which reflect the observer’s life and pre-occupations. Each viewing is a reviewing, no matter how familiar the he thought the picture was. The silent present ‘you’, often Carson’s wife, Dierdre, notices things he hasn’t. Things unnoticed re-present themselves, and perception and memory shuffle the elements into new versions of the picture.


A Carson poem is typically not a hermetic object which I think is one of the reasons he was a fascinating writer. An intelligence was moving through time and space and recording the process. 


The last poem ends:


And I loved the buzz of the one-bar electric heater as a bus or truck passed by

And I loved the big windows and whatever I could see through them, be it cloudy or clear

And the way they trembled and thrilled to the sound of the world beyond. (p. 84)


The key phrases here are ‘whatever I could see’ and ‘the world beyond’.


There is no ‘high and low culture’, no misplaced sense that some things aren’t ‘appropriate’ subjects for poetry. The verbal registers move from colloquial to technical.  Wittgenstein may be quoted, but he’s just as much at home as the small pot of daffodils broken by an idiot vandal, or the memory of ‘blue birds anticlockwise spiralling around the interior of the toilet bowl’ (p. 84). 


Carson once described a traditional music session: 

Every tune recalls other circumstances in which it has been played; and the conversations and anecdotes sparked off by the tunes are essential to a good session. It’s a mix of tunes, songs, stories, drinking, eating- whatever happens to be going on, including smoking in the days when you could smoke in bars. (Elmer Kennedy-Andrews (ed) Ciaran Carson, Critical Essays, Four courts Press, 2009 p.15)) 


Think of each poem not as a single tune but a recording of the whole session. It’s an astonishing achievement, and he sounds like no one else. 


I’d just found the book I had in mind-What Painting is by James Elkin-

When the vandal struck. Thud. What the…? The gate clanged. I looked out

The bay window to see a figure scarpering off down the street to the interface- 

What a book though. I have it before me, open at this colour plate, jotting notes

Into a jotter, which I’ll work up later into what you’re reading now. (p. 11)


The poet doesn’t live in self-imposed exile on Parnassus, occasionally sending his effusions to the plebs below.  Street names map a real Belfast and anchor him into the daylight world. You can reconstruct his daily walk which is recorded in many of the poems as possibilities on a map. Google maps and virtual art galleries, acts of minor vandalism, the insertion of a drip into the arm, a cat eating a bird, all find their way into the poems. Memory skips backwards, to bomb blasts, early attempts at writing, school days. A concern with the mechanics of writing is always present: the pen he’s using, the breaking of a pencil, memories of a typewriter, words and their possibilities.  Sounds too are included, like the phone and the doorbell, the post man interrupting him while writing, but unlike that person from Porlock, the interruptions kick the poem onward. 


However, although the poems are separately titled, this is a sequence and the intelligence and craft are in the architecture and that may not be immediately obvious on a first reading.  The poems pick up, echo and alter words, phrases, and images. The more you look for the links, the more there are.


As a single example, which doesn’t exhaust its own possibilities.


The sixth poem in the sequence is ‘Nicholas Poussin, Landscape with a Calm 1650-1651’ . Although this is the first of three paintings by Poussin to be used as a title, the artist  appeared in the first poem, where his habit of reaching among Roman ruins for a handful of marble and porphyry chips and saying to a tourist; ‘Here’s ancient Rome’ stands at the beginning of the book as a short hand for Carson’s method.


The sixth poem also refers explicitly to the second poem, ‘Angela Hackett, Lemons on a Moorish Plate 2013’, in which, ‘a fortnight ago’ Carson had placed a blackbird to sing from a blackthorn ‘for the sake of assonance’. He’s driven to look up the difference between blackthorn and hawthorn. Which also evokes the tune ‘The Blackbird’. 


But the poem also sets up what comes afterwards. Carson records his daily walk and for the first time mentions Number 1 Hopewell Avenue, ‘a beautiful house back then’ now a building site. The construction work here will become one of the markers of time passing as subsequent visits in later poems will record the developments on the site. ‘We’ remember the Goldfinch ‘you saw’ ‘two years ago’ and so on and so forth…You can pick up a phrase, a word or a detail and watch it move through the poems, threading them together. 


The most obvious link is the movement of time, which is not straightforward. Time moves forward as an accumulation of present moments, some dated, some sequenced by incidents. Time moves backwards to memory, some also dated. What is most obviously missing are references to the future. 


Time is also built into the complicated game Carson plays with the idea of the poem as a record of its own performance. The pictures might look like time frozen, but the poems often create the impression of a performance in progress, unfolding.  


Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the book, given the context, is that these poems manage to escape categories like ‘Personal’, ‘Autobiographical’ or ‘Confessional’. Just as a Carson poem can challenge your idea of what a poem is and does, these labels are called into question because the poems are paradoxically none of them, and all of them.  


It’s easy to imagine someone else in this situation, not knowing if they were going to live, writing self-indulgent or embarrassingly personal poems. But here a craftsman is taking pleasure in his craft and inviting the reader to share his enjoyment. 


Like the encounter with the man in the story, once you start paying attention, it’s hard to escape. The book invites rereading. Those possible etymologies of ‘dapper’ which seemed initially inappropriate are perhaps apt after all: the poems are indeed ‘powerful, strong, energetic’, ‘valiant, brave and bold’. 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Maurice Scully's things that happen


Enthusing in progress.

It’s that time of year. 

At the time of writing, the T.S. Eliot prize shortlist has been announced and soon we will be treated to the usual critical contortions as judges, journalists and those in the know reach for the usual terms of praise; ‘Ground breaking’ ‘Innovative’. ‘Original’, ‘Genre bending’ and so forth and so on to try and distinguish one book of well-written poems from another.

Shearsman’s announcement in 2020 that they were publishing a one volume edition of things that happen should have been hailed as one of the publishing events of the year. Of course it wasn’t.  But if you want to see what genuine ‘ground breaking’, ‘original’ ‘innovative’ ‘sui generis poetry’ is like, you need to read this book. 

It’s fascinating and baffling, endlessly enjoyable, and it raises all kinds of questions about what you do when you read, and the problems of verbalising the pleasure given by a poem that refuses to do the box ticking manoeuvres of the kind of poetry and poems that win the T.S.Eliot prize.  

I first encountered Maurice Scully’s work by accident. I bought a second hand copy of Livelihood which is a small part of things that happen. I was fascinated because it was like nothing else I’ve ever read. There were echoes, similarities, there has to be, but the thing itself was unique in my experience. It was also compulsively enjoyable. 

A few years ago, as part of a PhD, I read as many as possible of the book length long poems, narratives or sequences that had been written since the beginning of the last century.  Most of the works shared a great deal in common, most were what you’d call ‘well-written’, some were enjoyable, many I would never bother to read again and some I wondered if my presence as a reader was necessary. But I quickly discovered that my initial impression about Livelihood was sustainable. It is one of the few books on that ridiculously long bibliography that is unlike anything else.

I didn’t know anything about Scully the Poet. Over the years, I made desultory attempts to find information but to this day I haven’t met anyone else who reads him. I am happy to believe that he is a fictional character, dreamed up by Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett who had become bored by the afterlife and had entertained themselves by designing a truly modern poet: indifferent to biography, they had only sketched in suggestive details: there was a house, and a wife called Mary and children. The house was in Ireland, then Africa, maybe somewhere else, Italy? 

In the best Beckett tradition though, their story was about a penniless poet who spent his time in a tin shed writing poetry. The fact that the shed was made of tin was crucial. It should have the complete works of De Selby lying scattered on the floor and a fractured map of eternity on the roof. The poet listened to the rain and the birds and the rust forming on the roof and made it all into poetry.

And he kept writing. For twenty five years, releasing the product in hard to find pamphlets and books. Now the whole thing exists between one set of covers.  

Almost as exciting was Shearsman’s announcement that there would be a companion book of essays devoted to the poet. Hopefully there would be erudite insight and enlightenment on offer. Maybe someone could explain why this was so enjoyable.

And while I have nothing intelligent to say about ‘things that happen’ except that anyone interested in modern poetry should read it, the essays require a longer post all to themselves.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Dick Davis discussing Persian poetry


Did the Medieval Troubadours invent 'Romantic Love'. Is 'Romantic Love' always linked to death and misery? 

The link below takes you to Dick Davis, who is both poet and translator,  talking as a guest on 'Entitled Opinions'.  They discuss the beauty and complexity of Persian poetry, with fascinating links to Medieval European texts. There's a priceless reading of a short extract from the 11th Century 'Vis and Ramin' in Persian,  for those of us who can't speak that language .

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A review of Jeremy Hooker's: Selected poems 1965-2018 (Shearsman Books 2020)

 Jeremy Hooker: Selected poems 1965-2018 (Shearsman Books 2020)

It’s a strange feeling to hold a man’s writing life between two covers, and it would be presumptuous to pretend to be able to ‘asses’ it on such short acquaintance. But the book is very good. One of the great joys of interest in poetry is that there are always so many fine poets to discover. Ignorance is a fine place to begin, as long as you take it as a place to leave. 

My prior knowledge of Hooker is limited to the fact he was the author of a ‘pioneering study’ of David Jones, which I admire.( ‘David Jones, an exploratory study of the writings’ (1975).

I bought the selected because the blurb named David Jones and George Oppen as formative influences and I was having difficulty trying to imagine how anyone could combine those two very different writers.

The poems in the selected are grounded in places and things. They epitomise what Donald Davie called ‘a poetry of right naming’. In full knowledge of the slipperiness of words, or the slippage of the signifier if you want to be French, the poet doesn’t ‘Flinch’ into language or in it (to misquote Seamus Heaney) but tries to be as precise as possible. 

What I love is the fact of it. 

A channel kept open, shipping
stone for the cathedral;
blue Cornish slates;
coal from Woodmill
to Blackbridge Warf. 

A channel used, disused,
restored, until the last bridge
passed under the railway bridge
now abandoned, framing
water that is going nowhere, 
but silts, with passages 
the colour of stonedust
and boys rowing, a surface
silver and boiling
where blades dip and turn. 

from Itchen Navigation p. 102 (last stanza omitted)

The resultant poetry is lucid and compulsive. I can’t remember the last time I read a selected poetry from start to finish and then went back and read it all again. Although Hooker discusses the idea of Ground in the essay at the back of the book, and in more detail in his recently published essays, ‘Art of Seeing: essays on Poetry, Landscape painting and Photography’ (Shearsman 2020), the places in the poems shift: the Solent, Wales, Holland, The Holy Land. The poet is not so much tied to place as exploring places.

The book also provides on answer to a writing conundrum.

What kind of poem would you arrive at if you avoided a regular rhyme scheme and the predictable rhythms that gave melody and memorability to so much poetry in English written before the 20th century?

And then went further. If you avoided the tricks of the Avant Garde: no pyrotechnics, no disordered syntax or paratactic clauses? If you refuse to treat the poem as some kind of puzzle that the reader is invited to solve? If you were to avoid ‘clever’. 

If you avoided the thesaurus, and choose words you’d use in normal speech placed in normal order. If you avoid the temptation to be ‘poetic’, not pretending to thoughts and insights no one ever has in any given situation? And if you avoid the temptation to show off your considerable reading by dropping in allusions to other poems and poets? 

 If you avoid the selfie poem, where the words on the page are the debris left by your incessant scratching at your private itch, hoping your readers will sympathise with your pain for the length of time it takes them to scroll down to the next offering?

Take all that out and how might you end up with anything worth reading? 

One answer would be Hooker’s selected  poems. It’s the absence of the usual tricks of the trade that make them hard to discuss.  What to praise in words used carefully with a respect for the thing described. An unobtrusive control of rhythm. Poem as record of an intelligence moving through a landscape and recording its impressions, inviting the reader to not only look at what is being presented, but to look more carefully at the world he or she is moving through where-ever that might be?

Reading the selected reminds me of reading Ruskin’s Modern Painters. After reading Rusin on clouds, or light on water, you may never paint a picture, but you from time to time you find yourself paying attention to the detail in what you’re looking at. 

Hooker’s poem have the same effect. As he wrote about R.S.Thomas: 

We have heard his voice.
It will not be unheard. 

We have looked with his eyes.
What he has seen
will colour our seeing. 

                        ‘Eglwys Hywyn Sant, Aberdaron’  p. 251

 And that is a gift gratefully received.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Merion Jordan's 'Regeneration White Book/Red Book

 Merion Jordan 'Regeneration White book/Red Book’ Seren 2012

This is the second book I’ve been reading recently which retells stories from the Mabinogion in poems. If Mathew Francis’ ‘The Mabinogi’ (see previous post) raises the question of how to retell the stories, Merion Jordan’s ‘Regeneration’ poses the questions of what C.S. Lewis, in his discussion of Obscurity in Poetry, in his introduction to another writer’s revision of Arthurian matter, called ‘Privatism’ and ‘Unshared background’.

Warning…confusion in Progress.

Jordan’s book is a very ambitious take on the stories in the Mabinogion and the Arthurian story, split into two discrete sections.  

If you are reading Regeneration/Red book, you arrive at page 68 to be confronted on the facing page by upside down text and page number 84. Turning the book over, and starting at what was the back, you can now read the White Book from page one to page 84.  Two front pages, two lots of ‘front matter’. This is cute.

Whether it was worth the publisher’s effort to print a book like this, is a different matter. It’s hard to see what would have been lost by presenting it as a single volume split into two discrete parts.

It also seems indicative of the overall problem the book has: it’s been over thought. Concept has been privileged over execution and the result is intriguingly uneven.

Regeneration Red book has short poems responding to the stories in the Mabinogion. These short poems are split into four ‘books’. They are lyrical responses to the characters and incidents, aslant and non-narrative. The writing is lyrical, taut and impressive. 

Because these poems are responses to the story rather than retellings of the story, they raise the inevitable question of what C.S.Lewis called ‘unshared back ground’. If you don’t know who Goewin was, the poem on page 32 isn’t going to tell you, and whether the poem ‘makes sense’ without that knowledge is a moot point. Whether it will reshape your reading of her story if you know it, is another.    

In his preface to Regeneration Red Book Jordan writes: 

The tales’ ‘…reading, I think, depends upon an involvement not only with the space and shape of the stories but upon a landscape that is half real, half imaginary, a kind of Britain that is centuries out of reach-so interspersed with these characters and wonders I have attempted to map some of the insular localities they sought to define, the discarded components of a Britain that never was, except in the minds of the British’.  

The four ‘Insula’ sections which alternate with the four ‘books’ contain some of the best poems in a book of fine poems. 

In terms of concept and achievement the Red Book is superb. I would have raved about it at length if I had come across it as a single collection.

However, I’m not so sure about Regeneration White book.

For a start its link to the White Book of Rhydderch seems very tenuous. Perhaps too tenuous to justify the split upside down halves.

It’s a sequence of poems each what might loosely be described as monologues, spoken by a range of Arthurian characters. Although Malory is being leant on heavily, the familiar Englished names have been Welshed and the characters drift in and out of versions of the legend. This works as a reminder of the fluidity and variety of Arthurian stories.  There are after all, only versions.

But I find it difficult to hear a difference in the voices or to care about them or their perspectives. Given a life long obsession with Malory, this is surprising. The condensed lyricism of the Red Book has given way to something much more diffuse and while there are localised moments of linguistic interest, they get lost. 

To complicate matters further, Jordan writes in his preface:

‘Where I have found some point of contact between the inevitable shape of Arthur’s story and the shape of my own memories, I have tried to bring them together through annotation.’ 

These annotations, presented as foot notes, link the figure of Arthur to Jordan’s memories of his family, and especially his grandfather. 

‘I suspect that too much precision would risk obscuring the reader’s relation to Arthur in favour of my own. Fitting my own notes to the main text, in short, was my attempt to identify Arthur and bring a grief deeply felt but tenuously experienced to light: I have tried to leave room for the reader to do the same’.

It’s a very ambitious aim, and ambition is no bad thing. But it doesn’t work in execution. The footnotes, which are Jordan’s family memories, intrude, interrupt, distract. 

My copies of Malory are scrawled with maginalia. If you annotate your own books, the annotations are your personal response to the text. If Jordan’s footnotes are his equivalent, then in making such annotations public he’s claiming they are of interest to a third party, without making an effort to make them interesting or coherrent.  It’s a strange way of muddying a public act of self-revelation. 

In rewriting the story Jordan has already privileged his relation to the Arthur story. It is the writer’s privilege to do so; to offer his or her version for the reader’s consideration. It would have been enough to do that and leave it there. 

The footnotes seem far too arbitrary. Too personal. They are examples of what Lewis called ‘Privatism’, the links are not often obvious to a third party and leave the writer and reader stuck between two stools. 

For example, Poem 12, Le Chevalier Mal Fet, begins:

He coughs up blood
She sleeps alone
Dreams of the fire
The love that melts bone
  To the blackened bone.

There is footnote on the first of the two ‘bones’. It begins…’You see it’s sometimes hard to reconcile my memories of my grandfather with the man he clearly was….’ There’s nothing in the rest of that footnote that links Grandfather, Jordan’s inability to imagine him as a school boy, and what’s happening here in the poem. 

Regeneration White book is an ambitious approach to the Arthurian story, but its conceptual underpinning seems ill conceived. It’s possible that I haven’t reread it enough times or I’m missing something. But I think it’s more likely that on one level the sequence is too private to work for a reader, and on the other the various voices aren’t differentiated enough to hold the reader’s interest.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Matthew Francis 'The Mabinogi'

 Warning, Enthusing in progress….sometimes books deserve their reputations....

Mathew Francis. The Mabinogi, Faber 2017

This is an excellent performance. I read praise of it that claimed it ‘Does for the Mabinogion what Heaney did for Beowulf’. This is unfair to Francis for several reasons: if you need a comparison it might be more accurate to compare it to what Logue did for Homer. And as far as narrative poetry, retelling an older source, that’s about as good as it gets in term of praise. 

In the version of ‘The Mabinogion’ that you buy as the standard prose translation, there are 11 stories. The collection is not coherent, and splits itself into three groups. There are three ‘Romances’ which read like Welsh versions of stories by Chrétien de Troyes. There is a cluster of ‘native tales’ which range from the elliptically odd to the sprawling magnificence of Culhwch and Olwen. And there are the ‘Four Branches’, the ‘Mabinogi’ which stand at the head of most translations and are rightly regarded as the jewels in the crown.

They are four uniquely strange and beautiful tales. 

Francis retells the four stories, shifting poetry to prose. He admits he can’t read the originals and that perhaps frees him from their syntax and means this in not a translation but a version. If you don’t know the Four Branches you are not at a disadvantage. If you do, the act of selection and emphasis implicit in any retelling will provide readers with much to think about. 

His basic unit is a fourteen line stanza organised syllabically.  To help the reader follow the story marginal ‘signposts’ are included. 

As poetry, the collection shows an unobtrusive verbal inventiveness which muscles along in service to the story. It rewards frequent rereading, from the small details:

The trunks of birches are like ‘Nobbly moonbeams’ (p.54) Efynysien is ‘unhorsing a king/one cut at a time’ (p.28). 

To larger descriptions of setting and character: In the first branch, Pwyll, disguised as Arawn, enters the latter’s bedroom: 

The room is many rooms, coming and going
At the whim of its flames. The red fire 
Utters yellow, and magics

A bed out of dark,
A cave hewn from curtain where they lie
In the candle’s buttered light

Or the description of Branwen, seen through her half brother’s eyes:

And his swan of a sister, who seems to walk
Without moving her feet, nudged at times 
To right and left by currents 

Only she can feel…

But the world of the stories is also richly sensuous with the presence of the physical world; woods, rivers, coast lines, hills, contrast with halls and rooms. It’s one of the ways the story world differs from the contemporary one. These characters are very much at home and part of their landscapes. Francis allows this into his writing, and keeps it in view, so that the book begins:

Here at the turn off the leaf a horseman is riding
Through the space between one world and another,
Warm in his company of noises. (p.3)

The third line being particularly good.

Throughout we are reminded of landscape and its natural inhabitants.  Later, in the third branch, when Dyfed is under enchantment

The land managed without them. Woodpeckers ratcheted,
A beetle cantilevered from a soft log,
Spangled flies twitched between slants of sun
That tip toed across the ground
Marking the non-hours.

Retelling these stories presents a modern writer with a host of problems, and Francis acknowledges some of these in his introduction. ‘Stories’ unavoidably evokes modern prose fiction. But if you approach the four branches looking for character development, plot coherence, thematic unities, you might be disappointed if not confused. Pryderi may be the one character who appears in all four branches but there’s no noticeable ‘development’ of his character from one to another.  

Attempts to make them into modern stories run the risk of killing off what makes them special. (This point deserves its own discussion.)

While Francis does streamline the stories, the effects of his cutting and rearranging are positive. 

He moves his narrative swiftly, which in the case of the third branch’s repetitions is something readers should be grateful for. In the fourth the speed doesn’t give anyone much time to stop and wonder at Lleu’s stupidity. (He not only tells his flower wife the unique (utterly improbable) way in which he can be killed, but willingly demonstrates how it can be brought about. Inevitably he’s speared during his demonstration).

There has been much discussion about the relationships between the four branches. And these versions bring some of the links alive. Changes made to the first story affect the third. Cutting the ‘badger in the bag’ incident isn’t a great loss to the first, but it does mean we don’t get to see how smart Rhiannon is, and by removing the incident Francis removes the motivation for the malicious enchantment in the third tale. Modern coherence demands Francis alter the reason behind the revenge since the original motive has been removed; medieval narrative would have ignored the problem. 

The major changes seem to be to the fourth story. But the changes pay off. The story is in some ways the most famous:  it’s the one where Gwydion the magician magics a wife out of flowers for his nephew, but while that gets quoted and remembered so much more happens and the beginning of the story is tangled. 

Long before we reach the the flower wife, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, two men at the court of Math the King, plan the rape of Goewin. However,  to get to her the two men have to get Math away from the court. Gwydion uses his powerful magic to steal Pryderi’s pigs (yes) and start a war. This leads to Pryderi’s death and their punishment. It’s only after this that the tale of the flower wife begins, and she is only the last of Gwydion’s attempts to side step the last of the three curses placed on LLeu by his mother.  

Francis cuts the rape of Goewin, the planning that goes into it, and Math’s uniquely appropriate and repetitious punishment of Gwydion and Gilfaethwy.  Scrapping Goewin’s story frees him to shift the death of Pryderi to the end of the book. Since the first tale includes his birth, his death now brings the stories to a close. 

His other major change is to make Gwydion into a storyteller who is entertaining his hosts. Instead of a 3rd person tale about him, the fourth branch becomes a first person tale told by him. This alters a tale about magic into a story told by a great storyteller who claims to be a magician in the story he’s telling.   

Francis hints that all the stories in the four branches are told by Gwydion. The link between the magician who can make a ship out of sea weed or dogs out of mushrooms and a poet who constantly presents one thing as another seems a fair one. But the idea seems to appear in the final branch rather than be a consistent motif all the way through. 

Rereading this book over several weeks, I haven’t found anything to dislike. There’s so much to admire.


Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Poetry Voice Podcast is 150!

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150 episodes means I've recorded readings of 150 poems. From Ancient Egypt, by way of Rome andGreece, though Old English to the present day.  Versions of English, including readings in Old and Middle English, and many poems in translation. The link below takes you to the full index.

The podcast began as a way of 'listening' to poems, mine and others, an enjoyable way of learning about poetry while enjoying it. A way of building an audio anthology of poems that interested me for one reason or another. Denied a classroom to read aloud in, the podcast became a surrogate. 

To my surprise, it's racking up listeners. 

Despite dogs, traffic, police helicopters, incessent building works and the ubiquitous, increasingly popular parrot,  there's complete readings of long poems like The Wasteland and The Ancient Mariner, as well as much shorter pieces.  

To celebrate the 150th episode a reading of one of the most popular poems in English.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Why are Oxford's ( OUP ) books so stupidly expensive?

Ranting in progress.

I would love to read this:

Divine Cartographies : God, History, and Poiesis in W. B. Yeats, David Jones, and T. S. Eliot

But it's one hundred and thirty six Australian dollars for 258 pages....

Has no one told OUP this is the twenty first century?  With print on demand technology they could easily produce a cheaper version which could be sold to people who wanted to read their books but can't possibly afford them? 

Don't they want people to buy their books? 

Monday, July 20, 2020

'Ruins', the story of Vortigern, is published in Long Poem Magazine spring 2020

'Ruins' is a long poem, 7 pages long, which tells versions of the story of Vortigern.

 In the 6th century, the remnants of a broken army, fleeing for the Welsh hills, find shelter in a ruined villa. To get through the night they tell the story of Vortigern and the Fall of Britain. But they have also found an old man hiding in the ruins, and he is adamant that he was a participant in the story they are telling. His version of events does not agree with theirs.

For someone interested in stories and storytelling there was so much to play with.

Although written to stand alone, 'Ruins' is the overture to a full length story of Vortigern, which will follow on from 'A Presentment of Englishry' (Shearman 2019).

You can hear a reading of an earlier attempt at this here: The poetry voice Podcast

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Strangeness and Power: Essays on the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill

Strangeness and Power: Essays on the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill
Edited by Andrew Michael Roberts. 

The common response to the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, acknowledged by the contributors and editor of this volume, is that Hill’s poetry is ‘Difficult’. Most readers, encountering his poems for the first time, would admit to their ‘strangeness’, though many might question their ‘power’. 

The blurb  claims that Hill was ‘by common consent one of the finest poets in the English language in the second half of the twentieth century and early years of the 21st’. ‘Common Consent’ erases his many critics and detractors but flags the writers’ assumption in this volume that whatever they write that might suggest the opposite, Hill was a great and important poet.  

What characterizes this volume of essays is this odd paradox: the authors acknowledge the problems readers face. Several of them lay out a detailed explanation of why readers might not be impressed or convinced by aspects of the poetry. At the same time, this does nothing to shake their faith that he was a great or an important poet. In presenting the ‘case against’, they do such a good job that the assumption of his greatness seems ever more fragile.   

In any general collection of essays on a single author there should be a core of essays of interest to any reader of Hill’s poetry, and then a few for those with more specialised interests. This book meets that criteria successfully.

In the first Category,  Martin Dodsworth takes on Hill’s difficulty; Alex Pestell discusses Hill’s  engagement with Philosophy; Mathew Sperling chronicles Hill’s relationship with his publisher and Stephen James writes on Hill’s later poetry.

Of the more specialised studies, the aptly named Tom Jones takes on Hill and the eighteenth century  while Steven Mathews explores the relationship to Eliot and Jones.  

There are other ‘specialised essays’ on Hill’s relationship to Denise Riiey and J.H. Prynne, his affinities with ‘Radical landscape Poetry’ and studies by Natalie Pollard and Samira Nadkarni of ‘Materiality and design’ and ‘Speech! Speech!’ respectively.   

It’s a fine spread of essays.

Before I read this collection, I would have counted myself amongst the admirers of Hill’s work. That admiration is qualified by my inability to see the value of the Day Books, but up to the publication of Clavics, he was the only living poet whose publications I bought as they appeared. The essays I read left me far less certain about Hill’s achievement.  

For example, Martin Dodsworth tackles the problem of Hill’s difficulty. This is an honest attempt to confront the problem most readers face. With the (probably unknown) ghost of C. S. Lewis looking over his shoulder[1]  he identifies three aspects of Hill’s difficulty for the reader: allusiveness, indefiniteness of relation, and ambiguity, pointing out there are others. 
Choosing a poem to anchor his discussion of allusion he does a masterly unravelling of allusion, but demonstrates convincingly that even when the allusions are explored and explained, the poem doesn’t become any more clear than it was two pages earlier when it was quoted. 

As Dodsworth’s essay unfolds, his scholarly explanations seem increasingly at odds with a different response. Compare the first two sentences of this summing up of the first part of the essay with the third sentence. The first two sound like a Professor performing a poetry reading. 
‘The reader follows the poet in searching for meaning within the language of the poem and within the world to which language is a mode of access. In this search, bafflement signifies failure, but also a kind of success, that of a sustained attempt at truthful utterance. Some readers however, may with reason, find this success difficult to accept.’ P185

The status of these unidentified readers, and their justifiable reluctance to accept the value of the poems, is acknowledged but brushed aside.

What is perhaps disturbing about this essay, which runs from p174-202,  is that having presented such a convincing ‘case against’ the value of the ‘difficulty’ he discusses,   Dodsworth does not balance the argument. Instead he writes:

At one or two points, this essay had suggested a resistant response to one aspect or another or the poems, and sometimes to a poet whose sense of the poetic invitation is often absent and (implicitly) to a nascent expository tradition that has too much of the inert about it. But it would be wrong to conclude without acknowledging that Geoffrey Hill has a place amongst the greatest of our poets……I should like to conclude with a list of some of the poems and volumes for which I am most grateful…….These are justification for Hill’s difficulties.[2]

If ‘At one or two points’ is understatement, then in terms of an essay collapsing into itself, this ending is a positively stellar implosion. After all the careful exposition, the justification of the difficulty, promised at the end of the first paragraph of the essay, is a list of the writer’s favourite poems.  

The best essay in some ways is Mathew Sperling’s short discussion of Hill’s relationships with his publisher. It doesn’t do him any favours either, he obviously had a very high opinion of himself from the start, but it does open an interesting window on Hill’s attitudes to his own work and reputation.

I bought this book specifically for Steven Mathew’s Essay ‘Felt Unities’, on Hill, Eliot and Jones.  Jones has 1 entry in the index to Hill’s collected critical writings, in which Hill lists Rosenberg, Gurney and Jones as ‘three of the finest poets of that war’. While Rosenberg and Gurney get a full essay each in the CCWs, there is nothing else about Jones.  I was intrigued by this. 

I’m not in any position to critique Professor Mathew’s argument, and I’m sure I’ll be reading this essay for some time, but it did send me back to reread Mercian Hymns. Having recently been stuck in quarantine rereading ‘The Anathemata’, the result of rereading Mercian Hymns was surprisingly unpleasant. Beside Jones, Hill suddenly seemed lightweight and self-regarding.

I was startled the first time I wrote those last two sentences because they were so unexpected. 

For all the ponderous seriousness of Mercian Hymns: ‘Then is now’, but so what? Against Jones’ intent, scope, and subtlety, reading Hill’s work is increasingly an exercise in over hearing someone talking to himself, and my presence as reader becomes increasingly redundant, except to applaud another performance.

This was not what I had expected.

It made me think of several of his critical essays, where I have the feeling that G. Hill is wrestling with the problems of communication while working out his thoughts on the topic. Which is what a first draft can often be. I wish, perhaps naively,  that he’d finished the wrestling match and discovered what he’d been trying to say in the draft, and then written a final copy which was as close to what he wanted to say as he could get. Too often it’s like listening to a medieval historian writing about the difficulty of accessing a manuscript and the difficulty of reading it, without ever getting to the point of saying what she learnt from the manuscript she had been struggling to find.

What also hangs over this collection is the vexed problem of the Author Function. Would these critics give so much time to an anonymous poet if he or she produced poems which can be so easily and thoroughly criticised on so many counts? The answer is obviously no. The evidence goes one way, but the conclusion, which was also the starting point, remains unaltered: Hill is a great/important/ fine poet. But no one takes on the task of explaining what was so great/important/fine about his work.

If a good book of critical essays should send you back to the subject of the collection and see him or her or it in a new light, this one is highly successful. 

It also raises some fascinating general issues, not least the whole problem of obscurity, intentional or otherwise.  Which would lead back to C. S. Lewis. 

[1] In his Conclusions (chapter vi) to ‘Williams and the Arthuriad’ in ‘Arthurian Torso’ (1948), a piece known to David Jones. Lewis’s ‘Conclusions’ is fine example of a critic trying to explain why he thinks a poet is good while mapping out different types of ‘obscurity in modern poetry’.    
[2] The body of the essay is followed by two dated post scripts, postscript 2017 and post postscript 2019 respectively. One wonders what professor Dodsworth would think of a student who treated essay writing as live performance and didn’t simply rewrite the first draft to bring it in to balance and focus. 

Friday, May 29, 2020

An Introduction to David Jones.

A Dominican talks about his interest in David Jones. It's a neat, short introduction which I think benefits from the Catholic perspective. And i finally know how to pronounce The Anathemata.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Art in a time of Disaster. David Jones and The Anathemata.

Hotel Quarantine in WA, followed by a week of being stranded there, was an unpleasant lesson in how helpless the individual really is when the men and women in suits are making up the rules and indifferent to the welfare of the individuals in their care.  

So confronted by the suits and their ability to enforce rules which aren't laws, what price poetry or any other art? Forget protest, the suits are deaf. Common sense and logic are invalids on life support, so your protest poem or song is a sparrow's fart in a thunder storm. 

I've been rereading David Jones, and his work offers one possible answer. In his excellent study, 'The Song of Deeds' (p.19) Neil Corcoran writes of Jones:

'The Anathemata' manifests a pessimism informed and transformed by a resilient refusal to capitulate.

But this resilient pessimism is the result of his sense that if man ‘at best can suffer the circumstances of his nativity and tradition’, he nevertheless ‘can, must and does’ make a song about it.

 It is this joy of making a song about it, a song of deeds, that most often restrains David Jones’ work from Elegy and lament. Such joy is not vague, ‘romantic’ subjectivism but a belief that the artist partakes through his ‘making’ in that gratuitous creation that sustains the world in being.  

or to put it another way, to make something beautiful in a time of breaking is a very human act of defiance. 

The key term is making. The 'Modernist' and 'Post-modernist' claim that since the world is broken, art should be too, might have seemed a natural response to some in the traumatic aftermath of the first world war. But the jellyfish school of poetry, that simply goes with the tide, pretending coherence is unavailable or undesirable, is as out of date as Pope's certainties and the inevitability of his ordered heroic couplets. 

Friday, April 3, 2020

An extra ordinary moment in Lawman's Brut: Vortimer meets Saint Germanus

Vortimer is the eldest son of Vortigern. He has a very small part in the Legendary History. After Vortigern marries Rowena and begins to show favouritism to both Hengist’s people and his religion, the Britons rebel. They choose Vortimer as their leader. As is usual in the Brut no reason is given for the decision, and no evidence is provided prior to the election of his character or actions.  However, he immediately demonstrates his abilities by defeating Hengist. He offers a bounty of twelve silver shillings per Saxon head. When Hengist has been driven out after four battles, and Vortigern has fled, Vortimer asks for help from Rome to re-establish the church. This is the context of St Germanus’ visit. 

When the saint arrives Vortimer makes a speech to greet him. The speech is not in Wace. He begins by introducing himself. In the standard way of the Brut this means naming his father, which gives him the opportunity to twice say Vortigern has been led astray by the German woman. Vortimer then boasts of his victories over Hengist. And there’s not much that’s startling about anything in this until the speech suddenly shifts gears and becomes extra-ordinary. It’s one of the minor eruptions in the Brut  which are easy to miss.

& we scullen an londe; luuiæn ure Drihten.      
Godes folc ur((o))frien; & freond-liche hit halden.      
wurðen mils liðe; wið þa lond-tilien.  
churichen we scullen hæhȝen; & hæðene-scipe hatien. 
Habbe alc god mon; his rihte ȝif Godd hit an.    
& ælc þrel & ælc wælh; wurðe iuroeid.    
& here ich bi-teche eou an hond; al freo ælc chiric-lond. 
& ich for-ȝiue ælchere widewe; hire lauerdes quide.  
& þus we scullen an ure daȝen; aniðeri Hengestes laȝen.    
& hine & his hæðene-scipe; þæ he hider brohte.      7408-7417

(source is the superb ‘Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse”;view=fulltext)

‘& ælc þrel & ælc wælh; wurðe iuroeid.’  And free every slave and thrall? The promise to free people is absent from Cotton Otho. I’d like to consult the various translations to see what has been made of these lines, but that will have to wait.  

Slavery was an integral part of both Classical and Old English society. It came to an end in England with the Norman conquest and the development of new ways of tying people to the land. Here is a fictional king with a dream of freedom, who cares for all of his people. And is willing to enter into some sort of contractual arrangement with the Church as institution. 

The Brut rarely admits the non-heroic poor. Kings and their retinues are the focus of the story. But not only are the non-Heroic being admitted, they are being promised freedom and the implication is that this is the Christian thing to do. Widows too are being forgiven their husband’s debts. Laȝamon's ideal kings are ruthless war lords, and Vortimer is no exception. But here is something that looks like an attempt to imagine a Christian society. 

Nothing comes of this because Vortimer is about to die, a victim of English Literature’s first wicked step mother. Here in Quarantine, a long way from my books, I can’t check this, but I wonder how many of Laȝamon's King’s share such an ideal? I’m reasonably sure that the answer to that is very few or none. I don’t remember anything similar in Arthur’s reign.

In the Prologue to the Brut, Laȝamon is identified as a priest. This explicit identification has exercised its own gravitational pull on scholars, sometimes in a detrimental way. But whatever you know about ‘Author Functions’ and the danger of succumbing to them, it’s so very tempting to see this insertion as our Priest’s attempt to imagine what an ideal Christian King would do: Not only would he trash his enemies; he would establish a contractual relationship with the Church; he would look after widows; he would care for the poorest and least powerful of his people. 

It would also be tempting to then go one step further and read this as the author’s reaction to the church’s ongoing problems with the Angevins…particularly with Henry II and John, with some of the clauses of Magna Carta echoing around to confuse things.

Did the garbled story of the historical Germanus, which I’ve been tracking here, give him an opportunity to suggest what a genuinely, radical Christian King might do? Did he put his own ideals into Vortimer’s mouth? 

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Legendary History of Britain: St Germanus of Auxerre and how the process worked

If we think of medieval writers as first and foremost, writers, facing writing problems, and dealing with their problems within the framework of their understanding of narrative, the results can be illuminating. Rather than looking at theories of practice, one can observe practice at work. 

From Gildas to Bede to Nennius, from Nennius to Geoffrey to Wace, from Wace to Laȝamon, the Legendary History can be imagined as a Work in Development, with successive writers shaping the material. It’s not the same as successive versions of history, with each one getting closer to ‘the truth’. It’s a developing narrative where what controls the development is how the writers understood the art of storytelling. 

While Saint Germanus of Auxerre plays a very brief role in Vortigern’s story, the incident illustrates how The Legendary History worked as a process. It also suggests something positive about Laȝamon as story teller.

First the history, the problem and the process, then the result, because one of the more startling moments in Vortigern’s story, or in the whole of Laȝamon's Brut,  occurs when Vortigern’s son, Vortimer, meets with the Saint and delivers a speech that is probably Lawman’s invention. 

Who was Saint Germanus of Auxerre?

St Gemanus of Auxerre is an historical character. He’s as real as anyone can be in the fifth century. There’s more evidence for his existence than there is for Vortigern, Hengist or Arthur (which isn’t saying much). One commentator even extends that list to include Saint Patrick#. 

He visited Britain, from Gaul, in the early fifth century to combat the Pelagian heresy, possibly twice, at the request of the British church. While there he did not meet anyone called Vortigern, but he did lead a British force to victory over a mixed army of Picts and Saxons. Modern historians debate the reality of a second visit, and contest the plausibility of the ‘Alleluia Victory’, but the majority accept the historical reality of the Saint. His life was written in the late fifth century, and there are independent chronicle references to his visit, placing the first one in or around 429. He died on the continent before 450.

A writing problem.

Imagine you’re writing The Legendary History. Germanus presents you with three problems.  
1)    The purpose of the visits 
2)    The timing of the visits
3)    The visits are too well known to ignore.

1)    The purpose of the visit was simple: to combat the Pelagian heresy. There is no suggestion that the visitors were also asked to combat Paganism, or back sliding Christians. And there is no mention of any King. 
2)    The problem of timing is equally simple. Germanus visited in 429. According to Bede’s calculations, the Saxons (Hengist and Horsa) don’t arrive until 449/450.  
3)    In his note on this incident in Laȝamon, Madden pointed out that Geoffrey of Monmouth simply couldn’t leave such a famous figure out of the narrative. Bede tells the story of the visit at length, in his History of the English Church and People. It takes him five chapters (17-21) in book one.  Vortigern is nothing more than a name, Arthur isn't even that. 

Germanus later appeared in Nennius (though ‘Nennius’ may have got his saints confused). He tries to convert and redeem an incestuous Vortigern and failing, prays him to death. 
By this point Germanus’s story had already slid into the world of folk tales. His miracles have become less Bede’s muted proof of the saint’s holiness and more the extravagant actions of a powerful magician. 

Germanus, therefore is a fine example of what happens when you try to reconcile the legendary history with Bede, or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle let alone with ‘history as we define it. Quite often, you can’t.

But if you take up the challenge to incorporate this incident into the narrative, then you have to try to make it meaningful within the narrative.

The process.

Madden may have been right, and Geoffrey may have felt that Germanus had to be in the story. But Geoffrey’s treatment is almost dismissive. And his placing of the incident doesn’t make a lot of sense.

He knew why Germanus had come to the country. ‘It was in this time [Vortigern has just married Rowena] that St Germanus, the Bishop of of Auxerre came, and Lupus Bishop of Troyes, with him, to preach the world of God to the Britons; for their Christian faith had been corrupted not only by the pagans but also by the Pelagian heresy, the poison of which had affected them for many a long day. However, the religion of the true faith was restored to them by the preaching of these saintly men. This they made clear almost daily by frequent miracles, for through their agency God performed many wonders which Gildas has described with great literary skill in his treatise.’ P160 

The throw away reference to ‘Gildas’ (he means the text we ascribe to Nennius) might be sarcastic as the miracles in the Historia Brutonum are exaggerated. But Just as Geoffrey has removed the incest motif in Vortigern’s story, he has left out the Saint’s dramatic role in Vortigern’s end. If Geoffrey knew the Britons had asked for help he doesn’t mention it. The incident is pointless in this version. It’s wedged between the wedding of Vortigern to Rowenna and evidence of Hengist’s growing influence over Vortigern.  It could be cut out and the story would not be affected.

But the narrative is already exerting its pull. There’s nothing in Bede, or the life of Saint Germanus, about combating paganism. The theological enemy is heresy. But If St Germanus arrived after Hengist, and if Hengist was corrupting the Britons, then it’s logical that the saint would need to do something about that. It’s also logical, in narrative terms to get rid of the saint as the divine killer of Vortigern. For Geoffrey’s narrative, it’s necessary for Aurelieus to kill Vortigern. And the incest motif can be dropped as well. 

The Variant version of the Historia, which is probably Wace’s source, moves the story to later in the narrative, after Vortimer has defeated Hengist and become King. And this might suggest the Variant is later than the Vulgate rather than earlier. If Geoffrey, for all his narrative sense, moved the incident earlier he was having a bad day.

Perhaps the Vulgate’s writer could not understand why Geoffrey had a holy man sorting out the church under such an unholy King.  But the move makes narrative sense. Having got rid of Hengist, his legacy has to be erased. 

The Variant is just as confused as to what the Saint was doing. In this version, the saints (plural) have come to stamp out ‘the Arian or Pelagian heresy’ as well as the impact of Hengist.    

Either Wace doesn’t understand Geoffrey’s reference to Pelagius, or the Variant’s ‘Arianism and Pelagianism’; he thought it uninteresting, or it just seemed out of place. Germanus is sent by ‘Saint Romain ‘ (Sainz Romainz) which looks like a dramatic misreading of ‘the roman pope’. Religion is restored and the people returned to the faith. However, even though the faith is restored, ‘Hear what devilry was perpetuated’.

Lawman must have picked up on the potential significance of the episode for his portrayal of Vortimer. He will expand it in a surprising way (see next post) giving the episode a significance it does not have in his sources. 

The initial narrative problem is one of chronology and it is simply ignored. It is impossible to   reconcile Bede and Geoffrey, and since Wace is committed to following Geoffrey, or the Variant, or both, he didn’t need to waste time in the attempt. 

It’s easy to forget a medieval author had very limited access to information. It wasn’t possible to ‘evaluate the sources’ as a modern student learns to do. Once the incident becomes embedded in the story, the process begins which sees the incident changing as the writers make it fit into the narrative and answer the question:  Why are you telling us this?  

For Laȝamon's answer, see next post.