Featured Poem: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Lord Byron

“I awoke one morning and found myself famous”, said Byron. That morning was 3rd March 1812, the morning that Cantos I and II of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage were first published. “There, for the present, the poem stops; its reception will determine whether the author may venture to conduct his readers to the capital of the East”, Byron, ‘Preface to the First and Second Cantos’. The poem was lauded by critics and was immediately popular with the public. Byron, not known for his modesty, was firmly set on his path to become the eminent, successful poet he knew he was. From this morning in 1812, everyone else knew it too.

This epic poetical work, in which Byron claims there are some “very trivial particulars” (‘Preface to the First and Second Cantos’) that relate to his own personage and experiences to that of the fictitious Childe Harold, is written after his own travels and encounters abroad and it is thought by some, despite Byron’s repudiation, that this work elucidates Byron’s personality more explicitly than any other work of his. For a man who worked so hard on cultivating his stylised, oxymoronic artful-carelessness, to the reader of his poetry, we cannot be sure of what his truth or what is manipulated. Introducing the ‘Byronic Hero’, Childe Harold is typical of the mould: an outsider, argumentative, holding contradictory beliefs to the norm, never content, romantic but unfaithful, and always yearning for new sensations. An extension of Byron’s own beliefs and ideas, perhaps?

Whatever the autobiographical or imaginative qualities of this poem, or our opinions of Byron’s own image, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is an impressive work describing the travels and reflections of a discontented young man, who seeks abroad what he cannot find at home. Disillusioned with his life of revelry and hedonism, Byron’s poem is a reaction to the broader contemporary feelings of melancholy and cynicism felt by the post- French Revolution generation.

from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto I


Yet oft-times in his maddest mirthful mood
Strange pangs would flash along Childe Harold’s brow,
As if the memory of some deadly feud
Or disappointed passion lurk’d below:
But this none knew, nor haply cared to know;
For his was not that open, artless soul
That feels relief by bidding sorrow flow,
Nor sough he friend to counsel or condole,
Whate’er this grief mote be, which he could not control.


And none did love him: though to hall and bower
He gather’d revellers from far and near,
He knew them flatt’rers of the festal hour;
The heartless parasites of present cheer.
Yea! none did love him – not his lemans dear –
But pomp and power alone are woman’s care,
And where these are light Eros finds a feere;
Maidens, like moths, are ever caught by glare,
And Mammon wins his way where Serpahs might despair.


Childe Harold had a mother – not forgot,
Though parting from that mother he did not shun;
A sister whom he loved, but saw her not
Before his weary pilgrimage begun:
If friends he had, he bade adieu to none.
Yet deem not thence his breast a breast of steel:
Ye, who have know what ‘tis to dote upon
A few dear objects, will in sadness feel
Such partings break the heart they fondly help to heal.


His house, his home, his heritage, his lands,
The laughing dames in whom he did delight,
Whose large blue eyes, fair locks, and snowy hands,
Might sake the saintship of an anchorite,
And long had fed his youthful appetite;
His goblets brimm’d with every costly wine,
And all that mote to luxury invite,
Without a sigh he left, to cross the brine,
And traverse Paynim shores, and pass Earth’s central line.

Lord Byron, 1812

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Links We Liked for 29 February, 2008

Maybe the sky is falling in. If it isn’t it certainly looks as if the landscape for bookish debate–and for books themselves–is changing fast. This week’s harbinger of doom was George Steiner, who complained about the current state of the English novel in a speech at the Royal Society of Literature.

The debate about the merits or otherwise of literary blogging continues. The Reading Experience weighs in on the doomsayers who think all this webby stuff is bound to debase poetry, and by implication other kinds of writing too (via Ready Steady Book): "Literature will still be literature once the gates have been torn down. It’s just that there will be fewer people claiming the authority to define its boundaries for everyone else." Meanwhile the increasingly confident (I think anyway) Dovegreyreader explains her reasons for reading in a measured but forceful post about John Carey’s What Good are the Arts? DGR also commented on the Steiner Story.

The Diagram Prize for the Oddest Book Title of the Year has received a lot of coverage this week, much of it of the tittering behind the hand kind. Nicolas Lezard is not amused.

Way back in the mists of last week The Times reported on the opening of The English Project, a museum dedicated to the history of the English language.

And finally, we have had a lot of traffic this week for the Stairway to Heaven. At the risk of tangling this blog and the blog on the bookshelf in a spiral of cross-linking that could lead to the collapse of the galaxy, take a look at this: A bookshelf bath.

Posted by Chris Routledge. Powered by Qumana

Featured Poem: London Snow by Robert Bridges

Selected by Angela Macmillan 

‘London Snow’ by Robert Bridges was much enjoyed by reading groups in care homes for the elderly this week. The first half of the poem beautifully captures the absolute wonder of snowfall, making us almost nostalgic for the times when seven inches of snow was not a particular rarity. For children the snow is ‘crystal manna’: a blessing falling from heaven. But for the rest of us, snow is the enemy, holding up the daily round and we must wage war against it with snow-plough and gritter. Yet even as we grown ups tramp to work through the brown slush we glimpse the charm of the once pristine loveliness we have spoiled.Born in 1844, Robert Bridges qualified as a doctor and served as a physician in London hospitals including Great Ormond Street, before ill health forced him to retire early. Apart from a few poems Bridges is rarely read today so it may come as a surprise that he was once Poet Laureate. He is perhaps best known now as champion and literary executor of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

London Snow

When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.
All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled – marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.
Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling,
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing;
Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees;
Or peering up from under the white-mossed wonder!’
‘O look at the trees!’ they cried, ‘O look at the trees!’
With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder,
Following along the white deserted way,
A country company long dispersed asunder:
When now already the sun, in pale display
Standing by Paul’s high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day.
For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.

Robert Bridges, 1890

Something in the Air: Perfume

Kimberley Long is a former Reader volunteer currently teaching English in Japan. In the second of her series of posts she praises internationalism through her recent reading experiences.

A couple of weeks back I went to Kyoto for a three day weekend. Three day weekends occur fairly frequently here as Japan is blessed with an abundance of public holidays. They give the perfect opportunity to travel around the country without using up any of our precious paid holiday. This one was for ‘Foundation Day’, a holiday to celebrate the founding of the Imperial line by Jimmu, Japan’s possibly mythical first emperor. During this weekend my novel of choice was Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. This book has been highly recommended to me from all directions, and always seemed to follow me about. From being in Germany when the film was released a couple of summers back; to a South African friend here who can speak fluent German having a copy in its original language on her bedside table. And while I was home in the UK over Christmas I spent a brief visit in London. On the tube there was a man about my age sitting opposite me reading it in Italian. This is clearly a novel that transcends the boundaries of nationality and language.

While reading it I had to marvel at my own contribution to its internationalism. It’s a novel originally written in German and set in France. And here I was reading it in an English translation in the most quintessentially Japanese city in the world. Kyoto was originally the capital of Japan before it was moved to Tokyo about 140 years ago. As a result it has kept much of it’s old grandeur from this period in the shape of hundreds of shrines and temples. It is also has the most working Geisha, as anyone will know who has read about these rare creatures in Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. I had to wonder about what it was that makes the novel so attractive to people throughout the world, and I can only conclude that it is its preoccupation with smell. I doubt that any work of literature has ever before been devoted to the sense of smell in such a way. I actually heard once that in Austen’s entire oeuvre there is not a single reference to smell, although I haven’t checked for myself. Why has this sense been neglected for so long in literature? What is it about smell that has relegated it compared to the other four?

Maybe it’s because smell can be so difficult to explain. It’s such a personal sense. While most people will have similar experiences of what affects through sight and touch, smell influences people in different ways. For me the smell of lavender always reminds me of being aged 11. There was a lavender bush in my school and all through the spring and summer there was one corner of the playground that would be filled with its delicate yet prevailing scent. But perhaps it’s also because it is the sense we pay the least attention to in our day to day lives. I could vividly describe the view of Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, with snow on its slanted roof, the noise of the many tourists present, and the chill in the February air. But as much as I try to find it in my memory I have no idea what it smelt like there. The reason that the lavender bush stays with me is because it was so incongruous in the middle of an inner-city school yard. I had never smelt real lavender before, only the synthetic kinds that comes in soaps and drawer liners. Perhaps that’s why Perfume seems to have spread around the world. Like the lavender its evocation of smell intrudes on our normally scentless literary lives.

By Kimberley Long

Featured Poem: Winter, A Poem. By James Thomson

For some reason the weather seems to to have a strong bearing on the poetry featured here. I have no idea whether this is a preference of my own or a tendency in poetry itself, but today’s poem fits the pattern nonetheless. The name of Scottish poet James Thomson (1700-1748) is not well known now, but some of his words most certainly are: “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves: / Britons never will be slaves.” Beyond writing the original lyric to the famous patriotic song Thomson was a powerful descriptive poet and often wrote about the area around the border between Scotland and England; though he lived the second part of his life in London, Thomson was especially fond of Jedburgh.

Here is an excerpt from his poem Winter, which is part of a long poem called The Seasons. The whole poem can be found at this link. For the last week or so we have been enjoying sharp, frosty nights and bright sunny days and Thomson clearly enjoyed weather like this too. I especially like the lines “This of the wintry Season is the Prime; / Pure are the Days, and lustrous are the Nights”:

from Winter
CLEAR Frost succeeds, and thro’ the blew Serene,
For Sight too fine, th’Ætherial Nitre flies,
To bake the Glebe, and bind the slip’ry Flood.
This of the wintry Season is the Prime;
Pure are the Days, and lustrous are the Nights,
Brighten’d with starry Worlds, till then unseen.
Mean while, the Orient, darkly red, breathes forth
An Icy Gale, that, in its mid Career,
Arrests the bickering Stream. The nightly Sky,
And all her glowing Constellations pour
Their rigid Influence down: It freezes on
Till Morn, late-rising, o’er the drooping World,
Lifts her pale Eye, unjoyous: then appears
The various Labour of the silent Night,
The pendant Isicle, the Frost-Work fair,
Where thousand Figures rise, the crusted Snow,
Tho’ white, made whiter, by the fining North.
On blithsome Frolics bent, the youthful Swains,
While every Work of Man is laid at Rest,
Rush o’er the watry Plains, and, shuddering, view
The fearful Deeps below: or with the Gun,
And faithful Spaniel, range the ravag’d Fields,
And, adding to the Ruins of the Year,
Distress the Feathery, or the Footed Game.


James Thomson, 1726. Here’s the link to the whole poem again.

Posted by Chris Routledge

Featured Poem: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thursday this week is of course Valentine’s Day, so our featured poem really had to be a love poem. So here is arguably the best love poem in English, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. For the geeks amongst you it is worth noting that this poem is also available in programming languages including ActionScript, which you can find here on Boing Boing.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft’ is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Posted by Chris Routledge. Powered by Qumana

Links We Liked for 9 February 2008

Literary blogs seem to be taking over from the regular book review pages. In terms of the sheer number of books reviewed and the international audience available, print publications can’t compete. A recent piece at Vulpes Libris gives an excellent overview of how the amateurs and the professionals co-exist and asks ‘Book Bloggers: The Saviour of Small Publishers? The End of Decent Criticism? Or Unpaid Cheerleaders?’ (via Dovegreyreader). Another post at the OUP Blog looks at a different aspect of this: Should Book Authors Blog?

The excellent Lifehacker entreats us to read more ebooks and points at an article in ePublishersweekly giving 30 Benefits of Ebooks. My feelings are mixed about this, but one commenter on the Lifehacker post concludes that ebooks are ‘about as sensible as electronic socks’.

Earlier last week Andrew Saikali wrote an interesting piece for The Millions on films about writers and the writing process.

Meanwhile on Shrove Tuesday Samuel Pepys pondered an age-old question.

Posted by Chris Routledge. Powered by Qumana

Tales From the Land of ‘Day Book’

Kimberley Long is a former Reader volunteer currently teaching English in Japan. This is the first in a series of posts in which she will tell us about her experiences and her reading.

Konnichiwa to you all and welcome to my first post from Japan. I am currently working here as an assistant language teacher with the JET programme and not, luckily for me, NOVA, the other teaching in Japan scheme that recently went bust. I live in a smallish town called Beppu in Oita prefecture on Kyushu. Beppu is famous throughout Japan for its hot springs and is a bit of a tourist town. However this doesn’t exactly make us world famous. I work with senior high school kids, roughly sixth-form age in the UK. My school is currently the designated specialist English Language high school in the area, so I have the joy of working with some of the most linguistically talented youngsters Oita-ken has to offer. Some of them travel two hours every morning just to have the honour of attending the school. However I also work with the non-specialist classes in the school; teaching English to them can be highly amusing. The second year class I’ve affectionately termed the Nihilists because of their apparent apathy towards everything.

I decided to use my time away from home to expand my reading. New life and experiences I thought, so some new books too. I don’t usually take recommendations from other people, but this year I intend to read what is recommended, handed, or left to me. To begin this new era of reading I arrived in my apartment to find my predecessor had left me a shelf of varied reading material ranging from Bill Bryson, textbooks on childhood psychology and a biography of Sting. Only time will tell if I get round to reading that one. It was interesting to see what books she had decided to leave behind. I have since been told that her vast book collection was plundered by the other ALTs living here so I was witnessing it in a depleted form. But why had some books been taken but these left behind? Surely Bill Bryson is always worth a read, let alone a book with the intriguing title of ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’.

And with regards to the title of this post: Japanese comprises three forms of writing; hiragana, katakana, and kanji. This doesn’t make it easy but I’ve picked it up fairly quickly. Kanji is the form that you’ll most likely think of when you think of Japanese, all the pretty little picture words. Well Japan, or Nihon, has two kanji which can translate into ‘day’ and ‘book’. So what better place to think about reading than in a country with books in its name.

by Kimberley Long

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Featured Poem: John Clare’s ‘I am!’


John Clare is famously a poet of the rural working class and the Northamptonshire countryside, but he is also a well-known inmate of an insane asylum. This poem, reflecting on the poet’s life, his forgotten achievements and abandonment, was written at the the beginning of twenty years or so in the asylum.

I am!

I am! yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest–that I loved the best–
Are strange–nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below–above the vaulted sky.

–John Clare, written around 1845.

And if you thought that was good, take a look at the John Clare blog.

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Featured Poem: The Send-off

I spent most of Sunday riding on steam trains at the East Lancs Railway. There is something very appealing about the size and elemental power of mainline steam locomotives. They harness fire and water in ways that would have impressed Milton or Blake. Railway posters from the 1930s take pride in the scale, speed, and modernity of the venture. The famous ‘summer comes soonest’ poster for Southern Railway, showing a small boy looking up at the driver of a huge engine, was parodied "with apologies" by LNER, using an even smaller child and an engine with even larger wheels. These things were a status symbol then and in steam, 70-odd year-old museum pieces that they are, they are still glorious.

But while they can be beautiful and awe inspiring trains are also suggestive of loss and tragedy: the lovers parted on the platform, the cattle trucks heading for Dachau or Auschwitz, the soldiers off to war. Perhaps more than anywhere off a battlefield, the railway platform is where soft humanity and hard modernity meet. This poem by Wilfred Owen captures that idea of machines in service to humanity’s causes and the  fatal pact we sign with them: "Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp / Winked to the guard":

The Send-off

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

by Wilfred Owen

Posted by Chris Routledge. Powered by Qumana