Poetry Corner: Robert Lowell


I live near an old whaling port, and the air I breathe is usually sea air.  Having grown up in a city far from the coast I can tell you that it’s very different.  However, by some distance, the most nautical, seafaring, ocean-soaked environment that I’ve ever been to is Cape Cod.  The Perfect Storm is not a great movie, but it does capture something of this essence – life on the edge of a vast and dangerous ocean. Another poet who had a remarkable gift of evoking the sea was Orcadian George Mackay Brown, from another community where the sea, with its gifts and snares, permeates daily life. Interestingly, Lowell visited the rarely travelled Brown in Orkney – see this great little memoir. The only other writing that I’ve come across that’s comparable when it comes to conjuring up images of man and the sea is Masefield’s short and brilliant Cargoes.


But back to Lowell. A manic depressive New Englander who died aged only 60, in 1977, he was highly successful in his lifetime, albeit life was never smooth for him. Oddly, like Mackay Brown, he was a convert to Catholicism.

This poem is longish, but worth it.  The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket (1946. Try this very brief interpretation)

Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and the beasts of the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth. 

A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket— 
The sea was still breaking violently and night   
Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet, 
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light   
Flashed from his matted head and marble feet,   
He grappled at the net 
With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs: 
The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,   
Its open, staring eyes 
Were lustreless dead-lights 
Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk   
Heavy with sand. We weight the body, close   
Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,   
Where the heel-headed dogfish barks its nose   
On Ahab’s void and forehead; and the name   
Is blocked in yellow chalk. 
Sailors, who pitch this portent at the sea   
Where dreadnaughts shall confess 
Its hell-bent deity, 
When you are powerless 
To sand-bag this Atlantic bulwark, faced 
By the earth-shaker, green, unwearied, chaste   
In his steel scales: ask for no Orphean lute 
To pluck life back. The guns of the steeled fleet   
Recoil and then repeat 
The hoarse salute. 
Whenever winds are moving and their breath   
Heaves at the roped-in bulwarks of this pier,   
The terns and sea-gulls tremble at your death   
In these home waters. Sailor, can you hear   
The Pequod’s sea wings, beating landward, fall   
Headlong and break on our Atlantic wall   
Off ’Sconset, where the yawing S-boats splash   
The bellbuoy, with ballooning spinnakers,   
As the entangled, screeching mainsheet clears   
The blocks: off Madaket, where lubbers lash   
The heavy surf and throw their long lead squids   
For blue-fish? Sea-gulls blink their heavy lids   
Seaward. The winds’ wings beat upon the stones,   
Cousin, and scream for you and the claws rush   
At the sea’s throat and wring it in the slush   
Of this old Quaker graveyard where the bones   
Cry out in the long night for the hurt beast   
Bobbing by Ahab’s whaleboats in the East. 
All you recovered from Poseidon died 
With you, my cousin, and the harrowed brine   
Is fruitless on the blue beard of the god,   
Stretching beyond us to the castles in Spain,   
Nantucket’s westward haven. To Cape Cod   
Guns, cradled on the tide, 
Blast the eelgrass about a waterclock 
Of bilge and backwash, roil the salt and sand   
Lashing earth’s scaffold, rock 
Our warships in the hand 
Of the great God, where time’s contrition blues   
Whatever it was these Quaker sailors lost 
In the mad scramble of their lives. They died   
When time was open-eyed, 
Wooden and childish; only bones abide 
There, in the nowhere, where their boats were tossed   
Sky-high, where mariners had fabled news   
Of IS, the whited monster. What it cost   
Them is their secret. In the sperm-whale’s slick   
I see the Quakers drown and hear their cry:   
“If God himself had not been on our side,   
If God himself had not been on our side,   
When the Atlantic rose against us, why,   
Then it had swallowed us up quick.” 
This is the end of the whaleroad and the whale 
Who spewed Nantucket bones on the thrashed swell   
And stirred the troubled waters to whirlpools   
To send the Pequod packing off to hell:   
This is the end of them, three-quarters fools,   
Snatching at straws to sail 
Seaward and seaward on the turntail whale,   
Spouting out blood and water as it rolls,   
Sick as a dog to these Atlantic shoals: 
Clamavimus, O depths. Let the sea-gulls wail 
For water, for the deep where the high tide   
Mutters to its hurt self, mutters and ebbs.   
Waves wallow in their wash, go out and out,   
Leave only the death-rattle of the crabs,   
The beach increasing, its enormous snout   
Sucking the ocean’s side. 
This is the end of running on the waves; 
We are poured out like water. Who will dance 
The mast-lashed master of Leviathans 
Up from this field of Quakers in their unstoned graves? 
When the whale’s viscera go and the roll   
Of its corruption overruns this world 
Beyond tree-swept Nantucket and Woods Hole   
And Martha’s Vineyard, Sailor, will your sword   
Whistle and fall and sink into the fat? 
In the great ash-pit of Jehoshaphat 
The bones cry for the blood of the white whale,   
The fat flukes arch and whack about its ears,   
The death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears   
The gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail, 
And hacks the coiling life out: it works and drags   
And rips the sperm-whale’s midriff into rags,   
Gobbets of blubber spill to wind and weather,   
Sailor, and gulls go round the stoven timbers   
Where the morning stars sing out together 
And thunder shakes the white surf and dismembers   
The red flag hammered in the mast-head. Hide   
Our steel, Jonas Messias, in Thy side. 
There once the penitents took off their shoes   
And then walked barefoot the remaining mile;   
And the small trees, a stream and hedgerows file   
Slowly along the munching English lane,   
Like cows to the old shrine, until you lose   
Track of your dragging pain. 
The stream flows down under the druid tree,   
Shiloah’s whirlpools gurgle and make glad   
The castle of God. Sailor, you were glad   
And whistled Sion by that stream. But see: 
Our Lady, too small for her canopy, 
Sits near the altar. There’s no comeliness   
At all or charm in that expressionless 
Face with its heavy eyelids. As before, 
This face, for centuries a memory, 
Non est species, neque decor, 
Expressionless, expresses God: it goes 
Past castled Sion. She knows what God knows,   
Not Calvary’s Cross nor crib at Bethlehem   
Now, and the world shall come to Walsingham. 
The empty winds are creaking and the oak   
Splatters and splatters on the cenotaph,   
The boughs are trembling and a gaff   
Bobs on the untimely stroke 
Of the greased wash exploding on a shoal-bell   
In the old mouth of the Atlantic. It’s well;   
Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors,   
Sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish:   
Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh   
Mart once of supercilious, wing’d clippers,   
Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil   
You could cut the brackish winds with a knife   
Here in Nantucket, and cast up the time 
When the Lord God formed man from the sea’s slime   
And breathed into his face the breath of life,   
And blue-lung’d combers lumbered to the kill.   

The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.



Ayrton Senna: The W126 Mercedes SEC ~ men of taste and distinction (a continuing series)

…terrible number plate

This is the 6th post I’ve done on this topic, slightly to my surprise (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). They always get regular hits, presumably from people googling Mercedes W126/SEC/coupe. I do it myself.

I previously noted that racing drivers liked to drive SEC’s in their civilian lives, and if you’ve seen the remarkable movie documentary Senna, you’ll know that he was in some ways the greatest of them all, a true archetype.

One of my patients knew him from back in his Formula 3 days, and has nothing but praise for him as a driver, naturally, but also as a man.

Well, the excellent Mercedes Enthusiast magazine has done some detective work and unearthed Senna’s original 500SEC, which clearly has had a harder life than some. It’s been somewhat transformed, but this car has real pedigree, something not very common in the used vehicle market.

As before, here are expandable .jpeg files (just click) and a pdf…





Poetry corner: Barack Obama, an appreciation

So farewell then Barack Obama

You were the first black president, which counts for a lot, but

You cynically divided the country

Demonised folk and bullied nuns

And wrecked your own party,

Whilst playing golf, hugely enjoying yourself

And talking a load of rubbish

You were smart to know when the game was up, but

We all know it should have been a lot better

It was good while it lasted, lads

Poetry corner: Walter Raleigh sums it up

Apparently this one (What is our life?) is a high school curriculum regular. It’s a gift in that situation, being short, memorable and easily  read and interpreted. That said, it’s a mini-masterpiece too. Raleigh was 65 when he was executed, having previously enjoyed the favour of (the late) Queen Elizabeth. Given the mood of the times and Raleigh’s own markedly violent martial past, he must have known that there was a good chance that he would fail to make three score years and ten. Still,  65 is pretty good, but you get the impression that he’d lived with death on his shoulder for a long time.

What is our life? A play of passion,
Our mirth the music of division,
Our mother’s wombs the tiring-houses be,
Where we are dressed for this short comedy.
Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is,
That sits and marks still who doth act amiss.
Our graves that hide us from the setting sun
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
Thus march we, playing, to our latest rest,
Only we die in earnest, that’s no jest.

Life as ‘a short comedy’ is a terrific concept.

“Life expectancy for smokers is at least 10 years shorter than for nonsmokers” [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta]

Alkan – Concerto for Solo Piano, the best recording


Reader advisory note: This one is for piano geeks, strictly speaking, and possibly only a select, but highly discerning group of them.

There used to be only two or three easily available recordings of this, the most gargantuan, brilliant and extraordinary piece in the Romantic piano literature. These days, relatively speaking, there are lots of them. The piece is so hard to get right though, that a number of them might be fairly described as feats of technical endurance, rather than providing the listener with the rare reward of a performance loaded with the essential brio, speed, rhythmic accuracy, and Alkanian elan.

Back in 2007, the magazine International Piano used its regular ‘best recording’  feature to focus on Alkan’s Concerto, in a piece by John Kersey. Kersey is an unusual fellow. Not only is he a genuinely accomplished pianist (with a pretty good disc of Alkan rarities under his belt), he also has another life as “eighth elected Prince-Abbot of the religious and chivalric foundation of San Luigi, the sixth Mukungu of San Luigi in the Kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara, and Primate of the Apostolic Episcopal Church”, which is as far as I can determine, an eccentric offshoot of Anglicanism. In addition he’s President, Director of Academic Affairs and David Hume Interdisciplinary Professor at European-American University (EAU). Normally I would be a bit suspicious of this collection of unusual titles, but the fact is, Kersey is a knowledgeable and discriminating musician who writes beautifully and with a hard focus on what matters in performance.

So here are the scans of Kersey’s piece, just click on them to expand, they can be saved as images.


Since then there have been new recordings from Vincenzo Maltempo, a second version from Stephanie McCallum, Stefan Lindgren, and various pieces on YouTube. All worthy, but none of them usurping the recordings summarised in the 2007 review. What I like about Kersey, is that while he pays the traditional and appropriate homage to Marc-Andre Hamelin (whose earlier version is his best, in my view), he very shrewdly identifies the qualities in Mark Latimer‘s raging and highwire performance which most other reviewers hopelessly failed on, for example the normally admirable Jed Distler. Latimer is a fascinating musician. He plays jazz, pretty well on record, brilliantly live, and he’s involved in all sorts of other artistic ventures. He’s a very modest and engaging man, but in a tragic twist his pianism has been badly affected by Dupuytren’s disease – no laughing matter.

Hamelin is Canadian, but Latimer aside, the two other finest performances are also by Brits, Jack Gibbons and John Ogdon (friend and mentor to Latimer). Ronald Smith, a quintessential Englishman, may not be particularly competitive in this company, but he gets the credit for repopularising Alkan, and also writing the highly readable and definitive book on our hero. Strange how the avowedly Parisian recluse Alkan has no French champions of note. A final point, even if you don’t read music as such, buy the (bargain) score and follow it with basic pattern recognition, it’s genuinely revelatory.

 If you’re already an afficionado, I hope you enjoy the review. If not, get the Gibbons CD and marvel.


Rembrandt: I have nothing new to say, I just love this painting

The man with the golden helmet, 1650, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin, by Rembrandt, OK?

Art appreciation is a subjective business, art history shouldn’t really be. However, great though Rembrandt is in so many of his paintings, I think that this portrait is one of his finest works, an out and out masterpiece, in a field where that word is routinely abused.

Except, it’s not by Rembrandt, after all. That’s the conclusion reached by various experts around 1985, on what you might call fairly trivial grounds. Not everyone agreed, implied in this fine article from the New York Times back then. Indeed, with a painting so wonderful, does the attribution actually matter?

It went on and on, with Rembrandt as the primary victim of warring art ‘experts’ with some pretty odd theories. This great piece in the FT from last year makes the point well:

..we might ask who are all these mysterious, supremely talented “followers of Rembrandt”? Who are the artists able to paint works as fascinating as “The Man with the Golden Helmet” in Rembrandt’s studio, but who have left no trace of any independent practice? I doubt many exist – they are a spectre of modern Rembrandt scholarship.

Funnily enough, this seems to be one of the most popular Rembrandts out there, judged by web hits, despite the claims about authenticity. The Knife loves most of his stuff (see here and here), and in these days of atavistic violence posturing as a challenge to Western cultural values, there is no better cultural riposte than this endlessly fascinating meisterwerk.




James Raphael and the Hatikvah Variations

I suppose you could have too many Beethoven sonata sets. Possibly
I suppose you could have too many Beethoven sonata sets. Possibly

Classical piano fans, a group which includes myself, have loads of favourites, prejudices, quirky tastes and so forth. For example, I can’t be bothered with critics’ darlings like Paul Lewis, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Richard Goode and others. I love Glenn Gould (reviled in numerous editions of the Penguin guide), I like Lang Lang and the way he upsets the self-appointed cognoscenti, I find the mighty Maurizio Pollini anything but cold, hard and austere. We can probably all agree on one thing – Sviatoslav Richter was a genius.

The trouble is that both in the music industry as a whole, and in our prized CD (and record) collections, much of it revolves around different artists performing the same repertoire. Really brilliant new works are rare as anything, and most recent works require you to have a distant relationship with melody, and a taste for atonality and chromaticism. This has been going on for the best part of the last 70 years.

So along comes the occasionally acerbic and highly knowledgeable Damian Thompson with a surprising recommendation: Michael Finnissy’s ‘History of Photography in Sound’, a recentish British composition, all five and a half hours of it. Finnissy is indeed a difficult listen, but worth a try – see also his Concerti for Piano Solo.

Thompson’s piece is well worth reading, and raises the question: what is there coming up, outwith the usual diet of Chopin, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Schumann etc – all wonderful, but even with Beethoven you sometimes need a break. The Knife is a bit of an Alkan obsessive, but even though he’s regarded as a little bit left field, it was all written well over a hundred years ago, and there’s been an upsurge in new recordings, he’s no longer hard to find. So what else is new?

Well, a couple of years ago in Edinburgh I was browsing the bargain bin in one of the few remaining classical CD shops, McAlister Matheson, and came across a piano CD with a cheesy cover by a guy called James Raphael. The immediate attraction was that he’d recorded stuff by Nino Rota, based on the Godfather theme no less, and excellent it is. The eye opener though was a magnificent piece by Raphael himself, a theme and variations on the Israeli national anthem, Ha-Tikva (‘The Hope’). If you appreciate piano variations, from the Goldbergs to Rzewski via the Festin d’Aesop, then this is definitely the business.

Raphael is something of a maverick. A wealthy jeweller, he competed in the Van Cliburn competition, and performed for Golda Meir, at the Vatican and similar prestigious stuff, whilst remaining an amateur. This posting tells you all you need to know about the work, and about Raphael. The problem is getting to hear it. There’s some Raphael on YouTube from the Cliburn competition, but Hatikvah isn’t there, though it’s usually somewhere on Amazon.

So, to promote a terrific pianist, and as it turns out, composer, with something new, brilliant and tonal, here, via SoundCloud, are James Raphael’s Hatikvah Variations.

Poetry corner: Alexander Pope foresees the Labour/SNP love in

..forsooth, these Nats are scoundrels or worse..
..forsooth, these Nats are scoundrels or worse..

If you’re prone to pessimism, this seems on the face of it to be a bad time to be keen on keeping the United Kingdom, well, united. Despite being such abject, sorry losers at the independence referendum in September 2014, the Stalinist zoomers of the SNP are gleefully declaring a new route to power that they could never have foreseen.

Doughty unionist warriors in the press, such as Fraser Nelson and Chris Deerin, have even seen their own families infiltrated by the nationalist plague. Depressing times indeed.

The absurdly overrated Nicola Sturgeon – a dictatorial tunnel-visioned health minister in her most significant previous stab at power – is dripping with hubris, and her new swain, Ed Miliband is looking more wretched by the day as he tries to square the circle. His disdain for principle in pursuit of power is predictable. Behind them both lurks the currently gagged figure of Alex Salmond, a regular in this blog (try these: 1,2,3,4), and after careful consideration, and fighting very strong competition, is easily the most repulsive and unpleasant British politician of my lifetime. A man who wants to make a thriving economy and basically pretty good country ‘ungovernable’.

Here is the timeless Alexander Pope, rounding up the final book of his aptly named epic The Dunciad, which is essentially inspired by stupidity. Perfect for the General Election of 2015:

…See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion, blushing, veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all.

Eck as great Anarch seems to fit. But when it comes to the self praising morons of the Nats, I prefer to recall Ozymandias. Ed, on the other hand, is neatly summed up by Pope:The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read, With loads of learned lumber in his head.”

Indeed, Pope has a warning for Ed if does end up being held to ransom by the vindictive but limited  talents of the SNP They dream in courtship, but in wedlock wake”, and his wording here seems uncannily appropriate: Party-spirit at best is but the madness of many for the gain of a few.” We’ve already begun to suffer from convenient short termism, with the original devolution of 1997, concocted by Labour to buy off some of the noisier Scots, then the dreaded ‘vow’, days before the referendum. As Pope has it: The hungry judges soon the sentence sign, and wretches hang that jurymen may dine. Us non-Nat voters are those wretches.

When it comes to Sturgeon, who is currently basking in her version of Cleggmania (itself an omen), Pope has this to say: Never was it given to mortal man – to lie so boldly as we women can.Her popularity with much of the media, just because she’s not as obnoxious as Eck (who still has a journalistic fanclub, and to whom this therefore also applies), is perhaps summed up by: A wit with dunces, and a dunce with wits.”

The Knife, as you may gather, is a fan of Pope. One wishes his equivalent was around today in Britain, as a true wit like Mark Steyn mainly concerns himself with less parochial matters, sadly. However, the spirit of Pope remains with us in his extensive (and very readable) works. So if you want to know who to vote for in about two weeks time….

“For Forms of Government let fools contest; whatever is best administered is best”,

…which would seem to rule out
both Ed and his new friends

The new SNP/Labour manifesto
The new SNP/Labour manifesto

Poetry corner: GK Chesterton ~ The Donkey

Seeing as today is Palm Sunday, here is one of Chesterton‘s short but artfully worded masterpieces, from 1900, before his conversion, as it happens**

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

Christ's Entry Into Jerusalem, from a Russian manuscript
Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem, from a Russian manuscript

** it’s worth reading Christopher Hitchens on Chesterton. He clearly admires him, but can’t get over the bits he disagrees with. It’s a sort of devil’s advocate piece by a fellow English man of letters





Poetry corner: Winterreise

Schubert is the most poetic of composers. His ear for the emotional tune is matched only by Beethoven, or occasionally Chopin. However, if you write more than 600 songs for solo singer, never mind the other works, there may well be a problem with consistency. In attempting to get through every piece on Hyperion’s remarkable 40 CD recording of the complete songs (all 2,851 minutes of it), Damian Thompson of the Spectator eventually admitted defeat. Part of the problem is the words, Schubert always used other writers’ poems.  To quote Thompson:

Despite Richard Wigmore’s sparkling translations, many of the poems are garbage. In ‘Der Liedler’ (1815), a minstrel saves a maiden from a werewolf by smashing his harp against him and then hurling him over a cliff. Even Schubert couldn’t polish this particular turd. Long, corny, cod-medieval ballads never showed him at his best. Short, commonplace love poems weren’t a problem, however. Schubert could invest the plainest lament — his poets were champion lamenters — with emotions far beyond the grasp of the writer. A lilting rhythm jumps into the pianist’s left hand; a flattened sixth creates a flicker of fear; a predictable cadence dissolves into a remote key. Earthbound verse takes flight.

Which makes Winterreise all the more remarkable. The poet is Wilhelm Müller, and, put frankly, it’s a very bleak and miserable trip. The spurned lover sets off into a very cold, dark, threatening landscape, bereft of hope. In the era of the romcom, this is its antithesis. Here is the translation by Celia Sgroi. It’s not great poetry in English, but it’s effective, and the sentiments are clear (and timeless, we’ve all been there to some extent). The German is more melodious, even in plain speech:

Gute Nacht
 Fremd bin ich eingezogen,                      I came here a stranger,
Fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus.                     As a stranger I depart.
Der Mai war mir gewogen                        May favoured me
Mit manchem Blumenstrauß.                   With many a bunch of flowers.
Das Mädchen sprach von Liebe,              The girl spoke of love
Die Mutter gar von Eh’, –                          Her mother even of marriage –
Nun ist die Welt so trübe,                        Now the world is so gloomy,
Der Weg gehüllt in Schnee.                     The road shrouded in snow.
Ich kann zu meiner Reisen                       I cannot choose the time
Nicht wählen mit der Zeit,                       To begin my journey,
Muß selbst den Weg mir weisen              Must find my own way
In dieser Dunkelheit.                                In this darkness
Es zieht ein Mondenschatten                    A shadow of the moon travels
Als mein Gefährte mit,                              With me as my companion,
Und auf den weißen Matten                     And upon the white fields
Such’ ich des Wildes Tritt.                         I seek the deer’s track.
Was soll ich länger weilen,                       Why should I stay here any longer
Daß man mich trieb hinaus ?                    So that people can drive me away ?
Laß irre Hunde heulen                              Let stray dogs howl
Vor ihres Herren Haus;                              In front of their master’s house;
Die Liebe liebt das Wandern –                   Love loves to wander –
Gott hat sie so gemacht –                          God made it that way –
Von einem zu dem andern.                        From one to the other,
Fein Liebchen, gute Nacht !                      My dearest, good night !
Will dich im Traum nicht stören,              I don’t want to disturb your dreaming,
Wär schad’ um deine Ruh’.                         It would be a shame to wake you.
Sollst meinen Tritt nicht hören –               You won’t hear my step,
Sacht, sacht die Türe zu !                           Softly, softly the door closes !
Schreib im Vorübergehen                           I write in passing
Ans Tor dir: Gute Nacht,                             On your gate: Good night,
Damit du mögest sehen,                            So that you may see

An dich hab’ ich gedacht                            That I thought of you.

The key to it all, is Schubert and his extraordinary gift for plangent melody. Here is Gute Nacht performed by Daniel Barenboim and Thomas Quasthoff. When you consider Quasthoff’s disability, married with his amazing voice., it’s hard not to discern an extra level of poignancy. Try the piece whilst reading the lyrics and translation, that is the real poetic Schubert.


**For interested readers, this blog and its successors are pretty good on the whole Winterreise thing. This podcast is worth a listen if it remains available, and this geeksite is pretty comprehensive re past recordings and other links.