Grey over Riddrie the clouds piled up,
dragged their rain through the cemetery trees.
The gates shone cold. Wind rose
flaring the hissing leaves, the branches
swung, heavy, across the lamps.
From King Billy (1963)
Why do we remember particular poems and poets – and happily forget others? The Scottish poet Edwin Morgan was born 100 years ago, and this week marks the the start of a year of celebration of the man and his work. It goes ahead in a virtual way, with public events cancelled in days of lockdown or deferred to 2021 – an advantage of a year-long celebration.
Born in Glasgow on April 27, 1920, Edwin George Morgan led a remarkable and wide-ranging creative life. He published 25 collections of his own poetry and translated hundreds of Russian, Hungarian, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and German poems too. He also wrote plays, opera libretti, radio broadcasts, journalism, book and drama reviews and literary criticism.
His work continues to be published, produced, taught and celebrated. His poetry is memorable not only for Glasgow, his native city, and for Scotland – but for a wider audience thanks to Morgan’s lifelong concern with universal and cosmic matters.
Glasgow and Scotland
Morgan loved the city of his birth for its energy, industrial inventiveness, humour and crowded streets. He warmed to its humanity, shared its sorrows, wrote against scarring deprivation, recovered its history (real and imagined), and projected several Glasgows into the future.
He celebrated its changing cityscape in The Starlings in George Square, and its interactive street culture in Trio, where we encounter three Glaswegians bearing Christmas gifts of a guitar festooned with mistletoe, a new baby and a chihuahua, cosy in a tartan coat. He recorded the darker elements of Glasgow too, such as the city’s sectarian violence and notorious tribal gang culture in King Billy.
The directness of these interactions is carried in authentic urban speech rhythms new to Scottish poetry at the time. In the Snack-bar and Death in Duke Street vividly describe the long deprivation and the sudden death that are also part of the scene:
Only the hungry ambulance
howls for him through the staring squares.
Morgan taught English at Glasgow University all his working life, and became the city’s first poet laureate in 1999. He became Scotland’s laureate too, in 2004 – its first “makar” or national poet. He celebrated Scotland’s varied landscapes, people and places, whether humorously in Canedolia, or reflectively in Sonnets from Scotland.
For Morgan, part of a poet’s job was to remind Scots that if they want to achieve something in the world and to really be taken seriously, then they need to find words to show the world what they stand for. Poets and other writers can help them to do this. When Scotland’s ambitious new parliament building opened at Holyrood at the foot of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, he wrote:
What do the people want of the place? They want it to be filled with thinking
persons as open and adventurous as its architecture.
A nest of fearties is what they do not want.
A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want.
A phalanx of forelock-tuggers is what they do not want.
And perhaps above all the droopy mantra of “it wizny me” is what they do not want.
Lines from For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, October 9 2004
The world, the universe and love
Morgan travelled widely – to Africa and the Middle East during the second world war, to Russia and Eastern Europe during the Cold War, to the US, New Zealand and the North Pole. These are the places he writes of in his poetry. The New Divan is his mysterious war poem in which he records in 100 sharp filmic stanzas, memories from the second world war desert campaign that shift like characters in an Arabian Nights tale – and yet are modern soldiers and lovers too.
Space and time travel fascinated him. A supersonic flight by Concorde to Lapland was the nearest he could actually get to outer space, where he had often journeyed in his imagination. The First Men on Mercury dramatises a linguistic encounter between Western astronauts and Mercurian beings that ends in a complete and hilarious transposition of language and power. Morgan believed that humanity would ultimately endeavour to create “A Home in Space”, which is the title of another poem that follows “a band of tranquil defiers” who decide to cut off all connection with the Earth.
This was a poet who could speak as a space module or a Mercurian, and also as an apple, a computer, an Egyptian mummy. He was an acrobat of words and identities. Perhaps his own identity as a gay man, risking censure or imprisonment through most of his life, encouraged that ability to shape-shift. His love poems are haunting. Some deal with loss or transience, as in One Cigarette, or Absence, or Dear man, my love goes out in waves, or with the physical risks of a forbidden lifestyle, as in Glasgow Green or Christmas Eve, which tells of a fleeting encounter with another man on a bus.
But his poems also celebrate ways in which all lovers share the tender details of everyday life together, as in Strawberries. His writing of gay and queer experience had a significant impact on social attitudes and political change in Scotland. His voice spoke for many young or isolated gay people, with an advocacy that was subtle but powerful in effect.
Morgan was an individualist, in some senses a loner. And yet he was also an inspirer of creative partnerships – in art, photography, opera, music and drama, cultural journalism and poetry in performance. His early support was invaluable to an array of groundbreaking poets and artists such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead and Jackie Kay, and he enjoyed collaborations with Scots musicians such as jazz saxophonist Tommy Smith and indie band Idlewild.
Such lists could be extended. They continue to grow through the Edwin Morgan Trust, set up to administer his cultural legacy by supporting new poets and poetry in Scotland and Europe as well as wider artistic responses to Morgan’s work. There are centenary publications too with new collections of selected poems and prose. For those who loved this quiet man of Scottish poetry it promises to be a memorable year.
Everybody knows the concept of “desert island books”, the novels you might pack if you were going to be marooned on a desert island. Thanks to the pandemic, many of us are indeed now marooned, except that instead of lazing on palm-fringed beaches, we’re in lockdown – in urban apartment blocks, suburban terraced houses or village homes.
A good book can help us forget about the world around us and also substitute our longing for pastures greener. It can take us from our sofa to the beaches of Thailand (as in Alex Garland’s The Beach) or to the streets of New York (as in Paul Auster’s City of Glass).
So, as someone who researches and teaches literature, I’ve chosen five novels that allow me to be elsewhere in my mind, whether that’s a glorious English countryside setting, the streets of a European metropolis, or the urban sprawl of an unnamed Indian city.
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
The Remains of the Day tells the story of Stevens, the aged butler of Darlington Hall, and his ill-judged life choices that saw him being involved, albeit only on the fringes, with British fascism in the interwar years.
This allusion to British fascism in particular is something that makes this novel stand out: it is a subject matter not often discussed or even taught.
But at the moment, I can particularly take solace in Ishiguro’s beautiful descriptions of the countryside that Stevens – unused to the freedom of travel – encounters during his journey across south-west England:
What I saw was principally field upon field rolling off into the far distance. The land rose and fell gently, and the fields were bordered by hedges and trees … It was a fine feeling indeed to be standing up there like that, with the sound of summer all around one and a light breeze on one’s face.
As the lockdown drags on, this is a feeling I am longing for.
W.G. Sebald: The Emigrants
This collection of four novellas is predominantly set in England and Germany but also offers glimpses of the US, Egypt, Belgium and Switzerland. Focusing on a different protagonist in each novella, Sebald portrays how the long shadows of the second world war have affected individuals – but also how Germany has engaged with its troubled past.
His descriptions of the town of Kissingen’s illuminated spa gardens, with “Chinese lanterns strung across the avenues, shedding colourful magical light” and “the fountains in front of the Regent’s building” jetting “silver and gold alternately” conjure up images of times gone by and a town as yet untroubled by the scourge of antisemitism.
Sebald’s narrative is a collage of fiction, biography, autobiography, travel writing and philosophy. His prose is so full of quiet beauty and eloquence that it always helps me forget my surroundings and enter a quiet and contemplative “Sebaldian” space.
Patrick Modiano: The Search Warrant
The Search Warrant pieces together the real-life story of Dora Bruder, a young Jewish girl who went missing in Paris in December 1941.
Modiano attempts to retrace Dora’s movements across Paris and his book is full of evocative descriptions of quiet squares and bustling streets where she might have spent some time.
In comparison with the Avenue de Saint-Mandé, the Avenue Picpus, on the right, is cold and desolate. Treeless, as I remember. Ah, the loneliness of returning on those Sunday evenings.
From the first page it is clear that the city of Paris assumes the status of a character – and as readers we can follow the narrator’s (and Dora’s) movements on a map.
If we are familiar with Paris, we can picture where they are. By tracing Dora’s possible steps, Modiano evocatively recreates the twilight atmosphere of Paris under occupation.
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance
A Fine Balance is a sprawling narrative that takes the reader all the way to the Indian subcontinent.
Set initially in 1975 during the emergency government period and then during the chaotic times of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Mistry’s novel focuses on the lives of four central characters whose lives are on a downward spiral, from poverty to outright destitution and, ultimately, death.
Mistry does not whitewash the reality of urban poverty in India. His narrative does not hide away from disease or overcrowded slums with “rough shacks” standing “beyond the railroad fence, alongside a ditch running with raw sewage”. His are not places where we might want to be. But as readers, we become utterly engrossed in his characters’ lives – we hope with them, we fear for them and, at the end, we cry for them.
Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend
Elena Ferrante’s novels take me straight to my favourite city of Napoli. Starting with My Brilliant Friend, the four novels chart the intensive relationship between two girls, Elena “Lenù” Greco and Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo, who grow up in a poor neighbourhood in the 1950s.
Reading Ferrante’s sprawling narrative conjures up images of Napoli and makes me feel like I am standing in the Piazza del Plebiscito or having an espresso in the historic Caffè Gambrinus. Together with Lenù, I can see Vesuvio across the Bay of Naples, the:
delicate pastel-colored shape, at whose base the whitish stones of the city were piled up, with the earth-coloured slice of the Castel dell’Ovo, and the sea.
I can feel, hear and smell Napoli around me. Reading about the city might not be as good as being there in person; but, at the moment, it is a close second.
Of course, books can’t stop a global pandemic. But, for a short while, they can let us forget the world around us and, instead, transport us to different places, allowing us to at least travel in spirit.
While theatres remain closed, the way we watch Shakespeare is changing. When I picture the audiences Shakespeare would have written for, I think of the groundlings in Shakespeare in Love(1998). They stand, arms on the edges of the stage, staring upwards, eyes filled with tears – laughing, clapping, gasping. They are part of the show – and they show that they’re there. In the bright afternoon sun, the actors can see and hear every reaction.
Right now, of course, it’s not possible to take a trip to the playhouse. Still, with the National Theatre, the Globe, and the Really Useful Group moving quickly to put past performances online, the theatre can come to us via YouTube. We can see and hear the actors (and, having watched Hamlet, Jane Eyre and The Phantom of the Opera, I’ve been very grateful for it). But even though we can tweet our reactions, the actors can’t see or hear us.
The possibility of live performances during lockdown might change that. Over the Easter weekend, I watched an Oxford-based theatre company, Creation Theatre, and their co-producers at Big Telly Theatre Company from Portstewart in Northern Ireland, put on a production of The Tempest via video conferencing platform Zoom.
It seemed a tricky challenge under lockdown, with each cast member performing (and rehearsing) from home. Indeed, as chief executive and creative producer Lucy Askew warned before the play began, the night’s events were at the mercy of the technological gods.
But, when the play began and Ariel conjured a storm, suddenly it became clear that – despite our isolation – we too were part of the action. The audience’s microphones (muted while the actors spoke) were suddenly raised and we were asked to click our fingers to make it rain. The screen was full of audience members – and their pets, and their glasses of wine, and their pyjamas – and the storm was, even if I say so myself, convincing.
Within the space of an hour, the audience asked Antonio for answers via the chat function as he boasted of his usurpation of Prospero, we blew wind into the path of his ship and – in lieu of a banquet – all held up an offering of snacks (chocolate biscuits, from me). Each time other audience members appeared on screen, there was a rush of excitement as we got to see one another.
Listening to the island.
Shakespeare knew the importance of his audience’s reaction. At the end of The Tempest, Prospero relinquishes his magic and asks for something in return:
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails.
It’s a moment when we are asked to make some noise – to clap with our “good hands”, to cheer (or whistle, or shout) with our “gentle breath”. Prospero’s redemption, if we allow him that possibility, comes from finally turning outwards, it comes from him seeing the necessity of his connection to others – to his daughter, to his once-forgotten subjects in Milan, and, perhaps, to us.
Yet, for all of the noise we made, this new medium exposed the myriad kinds of loneliness in The Tempest. Prospero sat in front of a backdrop of television screens, reminding us that we were all at one remove from one another. When Caliban described the noises of the island, the “Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not”, it was painfully apparent that he was alone and that there was nothing real to hear. When Ferdinand proposed to Miranda and reached from his screen to hers in an impressive feat of Zoom technology, that brief moment of “contact” was bittersweet.
After all, the despair of being alone is a fear which Prospero seeks to create. As ordered, Ariel deliberately scatters the shipwrecked courtiers across the island. Yet, as John Donne, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote:
No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
The dispersed groups come back together – Prospero leaves his island exile, and returns home. It’s not a perfect resolution, and it’s not a happy ending, but it is, nonetheless, a reunion.
As site-specific, conference call plays go, The Tempest lends itself to such a production. It’s a play about isolation and exile, about characters moving around a small island without ever meeting one another. Creation’s performance did nothing to disguise its new medium. In fact, the most powerful part of the performance came as Prospero spoke the famous epilogue which begins: “Now my charms are all o’erthrown”.
The cast slowly and methodically packed up their bedsheet green screens and wiped off their makeup. They changed their onscreen identities from their character’s names back to their own. By the time we were invited to stay on Zoom for a moment or two, to catch up with friends, thank the actors, and wave goodbye, the spell was broken.
But the magic may not be entirely over, not least as the popularity of their performances have led to Creation extending its run. Moreover, The Tempest is not the only play offered in this new genre of “Zoom Shakespeare”. Another group of actors recently collaborated to create A Midsummer Night’s Stream, which they advertise not simply as a reading but a live performance, “adapted for our stage”. And there is no reason to think that “Zoom Theatre” will stick to Shakespeare.
While we will (to entirely misuse one of Prospero’s lines) return to a time when we “have no screen between this part he play’d/And him he play’d it for”, Zoom Theatre may not be a temporary measure. Perhaps new plays will be written with the possibilities of Zoom and YouTube in mind. For many, watching theatre from home will allow for greater access and comfort. And, for now, speaking back, making noise, and waving at strangers, could inject a bit of silliness into our own isolated worlds.
War has been widely used — and criticized — as a metaphor for dealing with COVID-19. But the metaphor didn’t come out of nowhere. Writers have long linked war and disease, and not only because war often contributes to the spread of disease.
In my study of British and Irish literature from around 1800, including writing about medicine, it’s clear that people struggled to understand disease without having evidence of bacteria or viruses. In a chapter on “Contagion” in his 1797 handbook on medicine, the physician Thomas Trotter even laughed at the suggestion that diseases were spread by “little animals.”
Yet the idea persisted. In 1828, cartoon satirist William Heath imagined river water as “Monster Soup.” In 1854, English physician John Snow used what we might now call contact tracing to show that a London water pump was at the centre of a cholera outbreak. The same year, Italian physician Filippo Pacini used a microscope to identify the cause of the disease.
An easy step from disease to war
Writers were aware of public and research interests in medicine and drew on them, as in the familiar example of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818. Writers also used medical metaphors: for instance, William Blake called the influence of Greek and Latin literature a “general malady and infection.”
These writers are using figures of speech to link concepts together: war is like a storm, disease is like war, and disease is like a storm, spread through clouds of bad air, raining contagion.
Metaphors aren’t simply decorative. They help explain unfamiliar ideas, and help us remember them by making them vivid or surprising. When Shakespeare had Hamlet talk about picking up weapons to fight “a sea of troubles,” he was communicating a sense of overwhelming odds. The metaphor was good enough to stick and is still widely used. Metaphors can also pass judgement, like Blake associating Greek and Latin literature with disease because it promoted war.
War was almost constant for Britain at this time, and writers often turned to thunderstorms to capture the terrible sound of battles. Blake’s 1793 poem about the American Revolutionary War describes the new United States as “darkned” by storm clouds while “Children take shelter from the lightnings” and leaders speak “in thunders.” A few years later, in his poem “Fears in Solitude,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about “Invasion, and the thunder and the shout.”
Medical writers of the era thought that bad air carried disease because they didn’t have the technology to see further. But they were able to connect the spread of disease with soldiers and ships. This made it an easy step from disease to war — with weather still in the mix.
In “Fears in Solitude,” Coleridge associated British imperialism with a spreading infection, carrying “to distant tribes slavery and pangs” “Like a cloud that travels on, / Steamed up from Cairo’s swamps of pestilence.” In “Adonais,” P.B. Shelley wrote of “vultures to the conqueror’s banner true … whose wings rain contagion.”
King Cholera goes to war
Two hundred years ago, disease wasn’t an “Invisible Enemy” or a “little animal”. It had power to kill, much like the kings who sent armies around the globe.
In her influential 1792 essay, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, English writer Mary Wollstonecraft wrote that “despots” are the source of a “baneful lurking gangrene” and lead to “contagion.” A quarter of a century later, the cholera pandemics began.
In John and Michael Banim’s 1831 poem “The Chaunt of the Cholera,” cholera doesn’t just “Breathe out the breath which maketh / A pest-house of the place.” It is a mercenary working for Europe’s monarchs: “Kings!–tell me my commission, / As from land to land I go.” Others, like English cartoonist John Leech, called the disease Lord Cholera or King Cholera.
John Leech’s 1852 cartoon, “A Court for King Cholera,” relayed a message we’re hearing now: inequality feeds pandemics. The 1853 poem “King Cholera’s Procession” also details the unsanitary conditions of the urban poor while condemning “Those that rule” for being King Cholera’s “friends.”
In her 1826 novel about a devastating pandemic, The Last Man, Mary Shelley also links rulers, war, and disease. The plague “shot her unerring shafts over the earth,” a shower of arrows, and becomes “Queen of the World.” Shelley idealizes the leader “full of care” who doesn’t want victory — only “bloodless peace.”
The coming storm
To these writers, war was a metaphor for the problem, not the solution.
In our time, business media suggest “battle metaphors” are overused. We have television shows like Robot Wars and Storage Wars, training sessions called “bootcamps” and elections in “battleground states.”
War is all too real and devastating in many parts of our world. But as a metaphor it is worn out — perhaps no longer vivid, no longer explanatory. Writers such as Coleridge, the Shelleys, and Blake may have seen close connections between war and disease, but their work also hints at another possibility.
Instead of talking about a war on COVID-19, let’s consider those storm metaphors. We need to stay inside and wait for it to pass.
And, while we are, perhaps we can also look to the past for help in understanding our present. Before they had evidence of germs, they could see that war and inequality spread disease.
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