Sitting in one of the cellar-reading rooms of the Bodleian (as I was when I read it) I was not sure about Jon Stallworthy’s poem(s) about the White Horse. Skyhorse (in Body Language) is a collection of voices from the earliest creators of the White Horse through Tom Brown’s scourers to the poet himself seeing in the new year and envisioning all these past people, all in a series of different poems. Some of them seem to me overblown – the rather odd parody of C13th lyric, the clumsy attempt at dialect straight from a C19th Archers character (if such a thing had existed – I was rather reminded of the country folk waking in Act 2 of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer) – and perhaps the whole attempt at a solemn parody across ages and languages and cultures misses me, but I have to say there are some wonderful lines and images.
“When the day’s eye opened
mine could see it shine…”
“No eye in England has seen so much…
Where legend says the Danes made their last stand.”
And for me (who saw in the dawn of a new millennium on another hill, above Oxford) the Wandering Scholar 1999/2000 has some resonance deeper than the words:
“…Lifting its lucent head
it turned a terrible eye to mine,
and a voice at my ear said
‘The skyhorse calls for his bondsman…’
For me, David Miles (yes, I have mentioned him before) has a clearer vision:
Landscape, as the word implies, is a matter of perception. We see it like a painting. We see what we expect to see; Flaubert and I, and everyone else, appreciate what we have learned to like. As an archaeologist I want to see beyond the immediate landscape into the palimpsest of fragments. To try and understand the interplay of geology, climate, plants, animals and humans.
As Philip Hughes puts it (with a directness that opposes this nuanced view) “To walk the track gives a very special feeling. You know you are in an ancient landscape.” His sparse and plain, largely unpopulated pictures of the Ridgeway or Orkney or the South Downs challenge the viewer to see shape and light, not history. Annie Dillon, likewise, paints the White Horse in beautiful, almost geological terms, from high above it like a Kite or a Buzzard or the Hill’s soaring skylarks. Like Hughes, her views of Oxfordshire are to do with colour and line, not directly people: the Thames at the foot of Wittenham Clumps; the clouds above the Clumps…
And yet of course they are to do with people, in both cases: Sarsens erected by people nameless now and dead; houses at the foot of Dorchester Abbey; fields ready for harvest or sowing; paths made by the tracks of humans.
The palimpsest of fragments: the idea that we piece together what we know about a place from the bits left, the ground written over by a later generation. It is a well-nigh perfect image. And maybe it continues as a model for literature? There has been some debate today in the run-up to the release of Hilary Mantel’s final Thomas Cromwell novel about what makes historical fiction work and what makes it popular. Is it about a reflection of the time and interests of the writer?
I know it’s rude of me, but I think I want to say “so what?” to that question. Of course historical fiction works like that, just as non-fiction writing reflects the interests of writer and reader; fantasy fiction too, in various ways in its various forms, might look at technological advance, at what moral choices are set before the characters…. Writing in “sundry times and in divers manners” (Hebrews 1:1) is not a fixed thing with a set purpose. The reader has the job of revelling in this richness – but maybe not being seduced into it. Was Peter Abelard the tortured soul his own account makes him out to be and which Helen Waddell picks up? Or a lecturer whose proximity to a very young female student had disastrous consequences for her, for him, maybe for their son? Writing and reading may have different contexts, and it is our job to read the palimpsests carefully – ours and the writers.
So I don’t come to Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse with the same eye as I have to the book that put me on to it, David Miles’ study of the history and culture of the White Horse. I can appreciate GKC’s lines:
His century like a small dark cloud
Drifts far; it is an eyeless crowd,
Where the tortured trumpets scream aloud
And the dense arrows drive.
but I almost feel the same about Chesterton himself: his life overlaps with that of my parents, but his ideas and his ambiguities seem of another time. Led by Miles’ study, I don’t need to accept GKC’s identification of Uffington, in the thornland of Ethandune, with the site of Alfred’s battles, any more than I do to accept the legend of the nearby Blowing Stone. I can appreciate the rhetoric of his poetry; I can at least feel the pull of his vision of/for England, maybe a despair at its state when he writes
The lamps are dying in your homes,
The fruits upon your bough
and even though I don’t share the feeling behind them, I can see the battle sequences work as well as many in Tolkien:
Steel and lightning broke about him,
Battle-bays and palm,
All the sea-kings swayed among
Woods of the Wessex arms upflung,
The trumpet of the Roman tongue,
The thunder of the psalm.
He has other voices here, too. When Chesterton writes
O’er a few round hills forgotten
The trees grow tall in rings,
And the trees talk together
Of many pagan things.
Yet I could lie and listen
With a cross upon my clay,
And hear unhurt for ever
What the trees of Britain say.
there is a poignancy I can really identify with. It is Kipling’s Charm Take of English earth reworked.
I can see, too, what he is imagining when he writes
One instant in a still light
He saw Our Lady then,
Her dress was soft as western sky,
And she was a queen most womanly–
But she was a queen of men.
Over the iron forest
He saw Our Lady stand,
Her eyes were sad withouten art,
And seven swords were in her heart–
But one was in her hand.
without the vision of Lepanto (which always seems a bizarre reworking of Marian theology) intruding on my understanding of the battles of Alfred.
How many layers of palimpsest are here? Scrape at the chalk of Uffington (actually don’t: I’m being metaphorical on a site of national importance), at Asser, at the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, at David Miles, at Thomas Hughes, Philip Hughes, Rosemary Sutcliff, Jill Paton Walsh and Kevin Crossley-Holland…. These are the layers, the voices, that Stallworthy is attempting to uncover with his Skyhorse. These are the layers the critical reader of historical fiction needs to take account of, to work through.