Fringe Online 2021
Directed by Helen Eastman for JST’s Footprints Festival. Lighting by Johanna Town’s simple. Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. Till June 6th. Filmed and may be later available as stream.
Met-a-phys-ic-als, Met-a-phys-ic-als you can imagine Samuel Johnson skirling that minted insult of his like Paul Scofield’s Salieri spitting out Ama-de-us, Ama-de-us with wit and venom. ‘Ideas yoked with violence together’ as Johnson continued, warming to his theme of poets from the last century.
The epithets stuck: deeply unfashionable for over two centuries, they were rediscovered, hailed as long-lost forebears of modernism from the early 1900s, remaining popular ever since.
So you’d think it’s all men? Directed by Helen Eastman for JST’s Footprints Festival, Live Canon – Anne Barclay, Jim Scott, Guy Clark – perform 27 poems by eleven poets, with the spine of John Donne’s poetry making up nearly a third of them. Three are women; in the Restoration period there’s thirty or so we know of, so it’s a great century for women poets, overall the finest till the 20th century. Live Canon make a fascinating traversal too: standards from this antique canon, and some new blasts from a magazine (in 1640s parlance).
When we say Metaphysical poets we’d think of four. Yes John Donne (1572-1631) great originator, roisterer Jack ‘a great visitor of ladies and plays’ and later divine; lapidary, gentle aristo-priest George Herbert (1593-1633); a generation later political secretary secret agent and MP Andrew Marvell (1621-78) and Welsh medical doctor Henry Vaughan (1621-95) whose twin was a famed – metaphysician, full of um… alchemy. So the quadricentennial of two of these fell on March 31st (Marvell) and April 17th (Vaughan) respectively.
Metaphysical poetry glimmered in slightly older poets like Fulke Greville, George Chapman (‘was it the proud full sail of his great verse?’ as Shakespeare complained in Sonnet 85) and Walter Raleigh (we’ll return to him).
But it’s with Donne the outrageous fun starts. A flea sucking the blood of a man and a woman so their bloods are mingled. Come to bed, it’s already happened. Though Donne wrote even more often of love – and sexual fulfilment: that’s rare in any age. It’s this riddling of ideas, intellect at fingertips, love searing out of paradox, makes this passionate, clever, tricksy, modern, lacking coyness or false innocence; treats you as a grown, sexual being.
We start though with one of the next tier of major poets: Richard Crashaw (1613-49) gave up his Cambridge Fellowship and Anglican priesthood to migrate to Rome, convert Catholic, die young in Loreto poisoned by a jealous cardinal’s circle. ‘Two Went to Pray’ is a sharply echoed poem in voices and all three Canons bounce off each other in this tight, clever piece, so unlike much of Crashaw’s rich verbal tillage, yet on a solemn quietly riddling act of faith and faithlessness.
Donne’s ‘The Prohibition’ performed by red-shirted robust Jim Scott is one of Donne’s lesser-known pieces, like a lawyer’s brief (Donne studied at Courts) ‘take heed of loving me’ and then ‘take heed of hasting me’ then combining. A curiously inert piece, blocked in a Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis and but for Scott edging with different vocal pressures really well you’d be yawning, despite the formal intelligence. Starting with two abstract quibblers warms our attention before showpieces blast in.
As they do with grey-shirted, elfin-tall Guy Clark, also known as playwright and director with Herbert’s ‘Love Bade Me’ which Clark has a rapt measure for (he gets ‘The Collar’ later). This is one of the most beautiful Christian poems in the language with the penitent deeming himself unworthy to be feasted by ‘Love’, ending with ‘You shall taste my meat/So I did sit and eat.’ Clark has this delivery in his bones.
Anne Barclay wittily dispatches Abraham Cowley’s ‘Resolved to Be Beloved’ with its altogether lighter register. Precocious Dr Cowley (1618-67) was for some reason regarded as the chief Metaphysical by Johnson and later ages, his first book out at fifteen in 1633. But he never developed with his contemporaries: Marvell’s edgy pastoral, the blinding light of Vaughan. Cowley set the stage for terminal playfulness. But he’s still superb on occasion. Barclay – who exudes the twisty glee of the metaphysicals – does her best with this chiaroscuro of jouissance.
If I’ve one criticism it’s that we get just two poems from the greatest Metaphysical after Donne. Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ might be a stanza too long but would have been welcome as introducing metaphysical-pastoral, which we’re a bit starved of! Still ‘The Definition of Love’ delivered by Clark in a rarefied atmosphere is one of three I’d have chosen (and the other’s here). It shows how Marvell even more than Donne could argue tautly as he bounces through the paradox of ‘love begotten by despair/Upon impossibility’ and ranges it through astronomical and astrological tropes, ‘collapsed into a planisphere’ or the end when planets ‘so truly parallel can never meet’ alluding to the astrological phenomenon of ‘parallels’ acting like ‘conjunctions’. Yes this is high academic stuff, but so elegant and so intelligent, and unlike some gloriously decadent explosions of the 1640s (here’s looking at you John Cleveland), quietly thrilling and satisfying.
Scott’s back with Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’ and ‘Busy old fool, unruly sun… go chide late schoolboys and sour prentices’ an exuberant post-coital hymn to morning.
Clark’s back with Marvell’s magnificent ‘To His Coy Mistress’ possibly the best-known of all these poems; he works nearly every passage of this out, every sexual peak as it were. Mortality troughs with that ‘but at my back’; and its other pause before: ‘Let us roll all our pleasures into one ball’, including the last ‘rrrun’ on the sun: ‘yet we shall make him run’. Again here we’re with solar imagery. Neatly chosen to see what the two foremost poets did with it.
Barclay’s back to complete the trio with another Donne poem ‘The Good Morrow’ with its equally ‘I wonder by my troth what we did till we loved’ where sexual fulfilment obliterates memory. Barclay makes us listen back to the poem’s archness for other notes.
Clark delivers the narrowly playful Cowley ‘Inconstancy’, with its thread of lyric grace, then Scott hammers us with Donne’s magnificent ‘The Flea’ with the not-yet-lovers’ blood mingled ‘within these walls of living jet’ but baffled at the purple blotch the reluctant woman makes of it. It’s thrillingly impertinent, of course extraordinary as a mode of seduction. There’s a deep metaphysic going on here, bound up with misogyny, momento mori and calculated slap in the face. But bloody funny, as it were.
Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) hails from a pre-Donne tradition in ‘The Definition of Love’ which in its elegant wit shows how Donne brilliantly skewed otherness into classically-taut British poetry that elsewhere runs into Ben Jonson and his classical school.
Anne Southwell (1574-1636) only a couple of years younger than Donne, but active around 1626 when his influence was paramount makes her appearance. All three actors enjoy the gentle antiphony of ‘Anger’ and ‘Dialogue’ where two voices counterpoint each other in poems with sharp bright edges like this:
Beauty, Honor, yeouth, and fortune
In ‘Sonnet Like a Man’ there’s something more, a power and individuality looking forward to the Restoration. The trio slipped past rapidly, and now quibbling on her avowed Calvinism turns on Man for his original sin:
This is a misterie, perhaps too deepe.
for blockish Adam that was falen a sleep
Donne’s ‘The Canonisation’ in Scott’s hands wrenches back power to man all right: ‘For God’s sake hold your tongue and let me love!’ Live Canon certainly know how to play with the running-order, and it’s beautifully subversive of Donne’s dramatic outburst that it succeeds a woman’s eloquent tongue who blames ‘blockish Adam’. Amused murmur from audience.
Clark is back very differently with ‘The Collar’ with its choleric ‘I struck the board and cried ‘No more!’ Choler seems the pun on the dog-collar of priesthood all of which miraculously melts in its end: ‘Methought I heard a voice say ‘Child’/And I replied ‘My Lord.’ Herbert’s sweet didacticism is immensely persuasive, and again particularly in Clark’s realisation.
Scott with Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ shows despite its title the beautifully achieved admonition to the poet’s wife (or lover) with the trope of love/death on the havering of a dying man, and their dissolution into their own love. This is the poem employing ‘as stiff twin compasses are two/thy soule the fixt foote, .. leans and hearkens after it,/And the growes erect, as that coms home.’ Sexual puns notwithstanding this is a terrific poem of constancy.
Herbert’s ‘The World’ given air by Barclay is a lesser-known poem comparing the world to a palace built by ‘Sinne and Death ‘But Love and Grace took Glorie by the hand/And built a braver palace than before’. It’s definitely the church poem here.
So Scott brings us Vaughan’s exalted single poem – very different in tone, unlike anything else here and the opposite of churchy; like Marvell it’s late on, from the early 1650s.
They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit ling’ring here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.
It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast,
Like stars upon some gloomy grove…
Clark brings Crashaw’s second poem ‘But Men Loved Darkness’, more in keeping with his religious side but again keeping to his best suit, soberer than some of the outré Marian ‘Two baths, two weeping motions/Two compendious and portable oceans’ – so you’re really missing some OTT poetry like that for this brief epigram an answer to Vaughan, another clever rug-shift from Live Canon:
The world’s light shines, shine as it will,
The world will love its darkness still.
I doubt though when the world’s in hell,
It will not love its darkness half so well.
Barclay brings us Margaret Cavendish’s (1624-74) poem on ‘Small atoms’ which fascinates for straddling the divide of theology and science, the post-Epicurean and the rational divine. All three unite for Katherine Philips (1631-62) and her elegant, taut ‘Friendship in Emblem’ addressing her friends in pseudonymous terms like ‘Orinda’ (the name attached alter to Philips herself) and:
The Compasses that stand above
Express this great immortal Love;
For Friends, like them, can prove this true,
They are, and yet they are not, two.
Donne’s paid homage and with interest.
Clark brings MP and failed spy Edmund Waller (1606-87) who had to confess to Parliament and might have been forced to name Royalist accomplices. It’s not his anthology-piece ‘Go, lovely rose’ but ‘The Self Banished’ much more around the solar and sick images ending on the riddling:
But vow’d I have, and never must
Your banish’d servant trouble you;
For if I break, you may distrust
The vow I made to love you, too.
Which Clark elegantly points. Barclay too sharpens Cowley’s ‘The Heart Breaking’ with its elegant brittle opening:
It gave a piteous groan, and so it broke;
In vain it something would have spoke:
The love within too strong for ‘t was,
Like poison put into a Venice-glass.
Cowley develops the glass motif beyond its shattering but morphs these fragments into armies quartering for billets, ingenious but a slip away from what Donne or Marvell might do in so short a space.
Clark then introduces the last phase, Donne’s magnificent ‘Death be not proud’ with its thundering admonition ‘Death thou shalt die!’ Scott brings Herbert’s famous ‘The pulley’ where God bestowing ‘a glasse of blessings’ keeps ‘Rest’ back then bestows it modified in a restlessness so at last ‘weariness/May toss him to my breast’.
And all join in the roistering misogynistic coda ‘Go and catch a falling star/Get with child a mandrake root’ all about faithless woman, delivered just a bit tongue in cheek.
There’s lots more from the end of the Metaphysical school; some are just weird. Here though we get a remarkable range, delivered consummately in fifty minutes, a cross between cheerfully-spun recital and quicksilver treasury.