Her Strong Enchantments Failing

Here’s another Halloween short poem with a supernatural spell and struggle in it, this time by British poet A. E. Housman. I found it spookily similar to Emily Bronte’s short poem from last time—but while Bronte’s poem wrung its fear from being frozen, this one is more hot-blooded.

Housman retains a degree of non-academic popularity in England but is less well known here in the United States. Academics on both sides of the Atlantic soured on his poetry during the 20th century as it didn’t hew to the Modernist ways of expression, because they viewed much of his verse as sentimental, not complex and allusive, and he often dealt with humble English characters. He’s not alone in that fate, but it’s somewhat ironic in that Housman was himself a formidable scholar, specializing in classical Latin poetry.

I found Housman’s language in “Her Strong Enchantments Failing”  as brisk and unemotional as an epigraph, despite its fantastic element. It would be easy to present as a pulp tale that starts with a statement about a failing spellcaster that by the fourth line has a knife at her neck. It moves as fast as any hardboiled fiction. Here’s a link to the text if you’d like to check it out.

The final two stanzas give us the summary, the box score, of a battle between the spellcaster and the knife-wielder. There’s no rigmarole of dice throws, just the final inning laid out as the poem ends with each character left a mystery.

All we know of the spellcaster, she with the weakened spell, is that she’s viewed as some kind of evil principal portrayed as at ease with killing. We’re told less about the other character, only that he’s young and a man, and that he’s got the upper hand holding the blade.

…this poem and Emily Bronte’s ‘Spellbound’  from last time have strange correspondences…”

Housman seems to be taking the young man’s side in the tale. His opponent is called the “Queen of air and darkness” here. I said this poem and Emily Bronte’s “Spellbound”  from last time have strange correspondences, perhaps only coincidental—but in Bronte’s “Spellbound”  the subject is held, apparently suspended, frozen in the darkening air. If we jam the poems together, our knife holding young man is a spellcaster too, and as today’s episode opens with a “previously on the Parlando Project…” connection, he was able to freeze our Queen, destroy her fearful towers and vials of poison. Bronte’s “Spellbound”  character isn’t described, but perhaps she shares Emily Bronte’s gender, and we sympathize and shiver with her for the length of Bronte’s poem. Bronte says the spell that binds her character is from a tyrant.

A E Housman

A. E. Housman, humble classics scholar, thinking how he could beat Emily Bronte in a fantasy boss fight

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There’s nothing that says the young man who is ready to kill an evil spellcasting Queen in Housman’s poem is not themselves a spellcaster and maybe not a humble freedom fighter either. After all, to slightly alter the old saw, who wants to bring a knife to a spellcasting fight? In my performance I couldn’t help but start to sympathize with this doomed formerly formidable Queen, even it she’s evil, or said to be so.

Well, that’s two good weird-tales poems now in our celebration of Halloween. The player to hear A. E. Housman’s “Her Strong Enchantments Failing”  is below. There may be time to do a third Halloween tale yet this month. Check back to see.

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The Poetry of a Root Crop

I’ll often choose a piece to present here from an instant impression. I’ll be reading another blog, looking at a writer connected with something else I’m looking for, or paging through an anthology and there’ll be this poem that strikes me as more interesting than the one before or the next one after.

Somewhere last month that happened with this piece. You can find the full text of Charles Kingsley’s “The Poetry of a Root Crop” here. It starts off as a garden poem (I may have been looking for one of those) but it soon gets a bit strange. “Swede” is the British term for what I (and Swedish-American Carl Sandburg) would call a rutabaga. “Golden globe” is a turnip. The “Feathered carrot” is a nice image, I see the root tendrils—but by the second stanza we’re getting weirder: “angel’s alchemy” is somehow involved and “blood and bone.” I think of the orthopedic snap of crisp root vegetables and what, beet juice? Sure, it is rhymed couplets, but this is very modern imagery. I knew nothing of its author: I thought late Victorian or maybe one of the “Georgian poets” from around the time of WWI who often use modern imagery inside of traditional forms.

And then the poem starts to take on visionary or prophetic imagery. There are also elements in here, pace the “angels’ alchemy” phrase that call to mind esoteric terms of alchemy.*  Where is this going? As the poem closes it becomes clear. This is a graveyard—and/or a garden. Which is it? I think it’s to be both.

By the time I’d finished reading the poem for the first time I’d decided I wanted to write some music and perform this. Those who consume the Parlando Project as a podcast hear only the short audio pieces, and I already knew this would be arresting there if my music worked out. But here, for my blog readers, I’d need to find out something about the author. Who was Charles Kingsley? I’d never heard of him, and it’s likely you haven’t either.

Charles_Kingsley._Photograph_by_Charles_Watkins

Charles Kingsley. If the British royal family is related to Odin, is there a part for Queen Elizabeth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

 

The weirdness didn’t end. First off, this poem was older than I figured it was. It was written in 1845. On first reading I would have guessed a contemporary of Yeats, but instead William Wordsworth was still alive. And Kingsley was strange. He was an ordained minister of the Church of England. He knew the British royal family and Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. He was an early proponent of Christian Socialism, and he was an advocate for increased worker’s rights.

But he believed in a historic basis for the old Norse gods, and thought the British monarchy was descended from them. He attacked Catholicism and thought Emerson and the American Transcendentalists were poppycock. He was a defender of the brutal suppression of the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica.**  If one wonders if that last was some technical or procedural objection, Kingsley’s Wikipedia page quotes what has to be the trifecta of a racist statement written in a letter to his wife after a visit to the County Sligo*** in 1860: “I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country [Ireland] … to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.”

So there you go: if you are a person of color, Irish, anti-colonialist, anti-racist, Catholic, an atheist libertarian, or I would suppose, a sentient chimpanzee, Kingsley is despicable.

Yes, these ideas caused, and cause, suffering and death, but his little-known poem brought me some pleasurable surprise. Big and little things.

Maybe I’m a bit glad that this poem is older than I thought. The vegetative minerals of Charles Kingsley are long absorbed into the earth, and I’ve performed Ezra Pound poems, so I guess you can put me down in the group that says the art can exist—at least eventually—separate from the artist.

Is the opposite so? The better, the more evolved, just, and righteous that a reader is, the smaller the number of poets they will be able to read?

The player gadget to hear a performance of “The Poetry of a Root Crop”  is below. My music for this is acoustic guitar and electric bass today.

 

 

 

*If you’d like to go off on a strange tangent into esoterica, consider Isaac Newton’s alchemical and occult studies.

**Wikipedia says Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens and Alfred Tennyson also served on a committee with Kingsley defending the actions of the British colonial governor of Jamaica.

***I’m moved to mention that within a decade, a certain young boy named William Butler Yeats was in that same County Sligo a lot during his childhood. Some chimpanzee, Kingsley. See Yeats moving poem in his primitive tongue: “Me Tarzan, You Maude Gonne.”