I have started writing a book about English teaching based upon my own experiences over the past forty-five years and am determined to give it the title “There was a ship”. When I mentioned this to a colleague recently he asked what that meant and I explained something about the hypnotic power behind Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner who stopped a wedding-guest in his tracks:
“It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
‘The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.’
He holds him with his skinny hand,
“There was a ship,” quoth he.
The wedding-guest attempts to break away but is held by the Mariner’s “glittering eye” and he stands still to listen “like a three years’ child” as the old man unfolds his tale of guilt and redemption, a tale in which he tells the listener about how he was
“Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!”
In his Preface to this fine collection of Keith Bosley’s poems Anthony Rudolf directs us immediately to the central image of the story-teller:
“At the heart of the book is the powerful poem whose title the editors have chosen for the whole, ‘The Wedding-Guest’, a World War Two poem spoken by the poet narrator himself and his friend.”
Rudolf gives us the dramatic scene of Coleridge’s wedding guest standing as a literary antecedent behind Keith Bosley and the Ancient Mariner himself standing behind the friend “just as he did for Primo Levi, who inspired our cover illustration”. The illustration is by Jane Joseph and it was used for the fine Folio edition of Levi’s The Truce. However, as Rudolf also points out for us it is the wedding guest who tells this story and both the host and the reader are compelled to stand fixed, rooted to the page:
“Sometimes we are afraid of you
as if you knew too much
from going to the pit and back
so that when you touch
less travelled lives like ours
and we are scarred with a knowledge
from which there is no return”
Keith Bosley’s poem is immensely powerful and in a world where we are surrounded by so much inescapable history I was left thinking what is it about the quality of this writing that so moves me. The style of the narration reminds me perhaps of Brecht’s 1939 poem ‘The Children’s Crusade’; Bosley’s narrative has a similar simplicity in its style. Brecht opens with an almost naïve tone to his four-line stanzas:
“In ’thirty-nine, in Poland
a bloody battle took place,
turning many a town and village
into a wilderness.
The sister lost her brother,
the wife her husband in war,
the child between fire and rubble
could find his parents no more.
From Poland no news was forthcoming
neither letter nor printed word,
but in all the Eastern countries
a curious tale can be heard.
Snow fell when they told one another
this tale in an Eastern town
of a children’s crusade that started
in Poland, in ’thirty-nine.”
Perhaps it’s that word “curious” that rouses the attention, that sense of the singular nature of a tale to be told. Keith Bosley’s narrative possesses a similar sense of understatement as the simplicity of the four-line stanzas is used as a frame for the most awful experiences which will never disappear. The Guest’s narrative begins, like Brecht’s, with a clear and simple picture:
“In January ’43 (he will say)
because I had not enlisted
in the German occupying forces
I was arrested”
The tale is harrowing but it never moves into the sentimental: the craft of the poet’s language keeps us clearly on track:
“We were locked in the hangars to sleep
on sawdust and concrete
and the frost bit uncovered toes
on rows of wood-shot feet.
‘Blow wind…’: we sang the ancient song
huddled on a little hill.
The other nations who had no songs
gathered and stood still.”
Bosley has for many years been recognized as a translator of some distinction and Owen Lowery is very helpful in bringing this status to the fore in his introduction. Lowery reminds us of Bosley being awarded the Finnish State Prize for Translators and being made a Knight First Class of the Order of the White Rose of Finland in 1991. His translation of Kalevala is the one published by Oxford World Classics and an Agenda review of that publication celebrated not only its “scholarly awareness” but also how its freshness provides “sheer pleasure”. Lowery quite rightly also directs the reader to Bosley’s ability to focus on the details of individual stories and lives, “indicative of an intellectual and compassionate curiosity”. That quiet and humane concern for capturing the moment is clear in a previously unpublished poem written for Antony Rudolf, himself a poet and translator of distinction, ‘Visiting A Poem’:
“August, late afternoon: we are in Gloucestershire.
Chipping Campden: we pass through the old market town.”
The purpose of the journey is to visit the source of Eliot’s poem ‘Burnt Norton’ and to wonder if “great poems” can “be called private?” The “two middle-aged men” go down a track until they are confronted with a notice that spells out “PRIVATE”.
“We drive over a grid, scattering sheep and goats
and arrive at a gate: here is the poem, here”
With a sense of excitement Bosley takes us, now the guests, into a world in which “we have spotted a word, a / phrase and even a line or two”.
“But we waver because no one expects us here
so two middle-aged men take a quick photograph”
The two turn homeward “as if we / heard some bird saying Go, go, go.”
And the echo of that Wedding-Guest’s narrative from January ’43 can be felt as we recall Eliot’s lines:
“Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality,”
The integrity and care behind the craft of Keith Bosley’s poems make this volume from Shoestring Press worth getting NOW. Read these poems, then stop, and then read again. An Ancient Mariner is always worth listening to!
Ian Brinton, 2nd December 2018