Writing about Nature: poets and the non-human: John Clare, William Wordsworth, Seamus Heaney, Steve Ely.

Awareness of climate change and the growth of ecocritical theory have placed a new value on poetry which foregrounds the non-human.  This may lead to the revaluation of past writings about nature or to the emergence of conscious attempts to acknowledge non-human forms or beings as themselves rather than as appendages or furnishings for the human perspective.  Fundamentally, however, we, as humans, continue to impose our own views, needs and ways of understanding on the world around us, although our ways of representing that world may be changing with changes in our knowledge.

One wing of ecocriticism links the ecological battle to other struggles against oppression and for social justice as expressed in feminism, post -colonialism and LGBTQ+ theory. This alignment of the environment with other ‘victim’ categories, has led to an upgrade in the status of the poet, John Clare, who has become a favourite of ecocritics, perhaps at the expense of his more middle-class predecessor, William Wordsworth. For example, in The Value of Ecocriticism Timothy Clark claims:

The case of John Clare exemplifies how ecocriticism is altering the literary canon.  Clare’s status has risen substantially in the last twenty years, precisely because his work offers a less human-centric view of life, giving moral standing and value to individual birds and creatures of the field, openly persecuted.  At the same time, the reputation of Clare’s contemporary William Wordsworth as a ‘nature poet’ has become contestable, with the realisation of how deeply a problematically human- and even male-centred stance structures a poem like the famous ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud.’ For this is concerned with natural phenomena (daffodils in this case) overwhelmingly as a psychic resource, to be celebrated in almost consumerist terms for their contribution to personal growth and pleasure (‘I gazed and gazed, but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought’ (emphasis added) – a ‘great wildlife spectacle’, in effect.[1]

The John Clare poem which Clark chooses counter Wordsworth is ‘The Ballad of Swordy Well’ where the poet speaks in the voice of a personified tract of land threatened with enclosure and over-exploitation: ‘When grain got high the tasteless tykes / Grubbed up trees, banks and rushes’. Clark argues that Clare’s poem ‘demonstrates a rhetorical, conceptual and narrative inventiveness sensitive to the claims of non-human entities’. This may be so but Swordy Well or Swaddy Well as it was more commonly known cannot be held up as an example of nature uncorrupted by human influence.  The area had been a quarry since Roman times and was therefore shaped and marked by anthropogenic activity for centuries. 

Clark rightly recognises that ‘Clare bestows Swordy Well mainly with the language and perspective of a labourer who would formerly have lived with and from the land, but who is now fallen in want upon the parish.’[2]  Clare’s poem recognises the parallels between the exploited habitat and the exploited peasant, both victims of what we would describe as oppressive capitalism. However, despite the poet’s strong feeling for the land, this is not really a biocentric or non-human-centric poem.  Swordy Well becomes an alter ego for Clare himself, and for the people whose lives and livelihood had been destroyed by the new agriculture, the demand for corn during and following the Napoleonic Wars and the appropriation of common land by larger farmers who could afford to finance the legally binding acts of enclosure.  Even so sensitive a portrayal as this cannot be more than a human perception of what the land has suffered and felt; it can never really represent the voice of the land.  Moreover, much of what Clare describes is presented in terms of the damage it has done to people and community: 

            Lord bless ye, I was kind to all

            And poverty in me

            Could always find a humble stall,

            A rest and lodging free.

            Poor bodies with a hungry ass

            I welcomed many a day

            And gave him tether-room and grass

            And never said him nay.

            There was a time my bit of ground

            Made freemen of the slave.   

            The ass no pindar’d dare to pound

            When I its supper gave.

            The gipsies’ camp was not afraid;

            I made his dwelling free, 

            Till vile enclosure came and made

            A parish slave of me.

This is a poem of political protest which recognises the injustice of the social system into which the poet was born, just a few steps away from villeiny or serfdom, which was to some extent mitigated by the existence of common land which made ‘freemen of the slave.’  It is most certainly anthropocentric but perhaps differs from other poetry of its time in that the poet recognises his kinship with the land and nature and identifies with it in fellow victimhood, rather than being awed or charmed by it as spectacle.  If we compare this poem with the famous passage from the stealing the boat episode in Wordsworth’s Prelude where the poet becomes aware of powers and forces in Nature which are terrifyingly other: 

   huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

we see a difference in perspective which may in part be connected to the types of natural phenomena the poets are writing about, in part to do with the difference in class of the two poets. 

The notion that the forms of Nature or behind nature ‘do not live/ Like living men’ contrasts sharply with Clare’s ability to empathise and identify with the creatures and even the land itself. Further insight into Wordsworth’s perception of Nature as ‘other’ is provided in the 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Discussing his choice to use simpler language, stripped of poetic artifice, Wordsworth wrote:

Low and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.

This now seems a very peculiar idea, derived more from the poet’s poetic, psychic and philosophical needs than any empirical evidence. Nevertheless, it became ingrained in the Romantic credo and goes some way to explain the initial popularity of the poetry of John Clare and other peasant poets, who were seen to be closer to the elementary feelings and forms of Nature.  It is an attitude which, I feel, persisted into the reception of Seamus Heaney’s early work, a somewhat condescending admiration for the lowly, even oppressed figure, from a rural background who somehow had the authority to speak with authenticity about and even for the phenomena of the natural world.  However, neither Heaney nor Clare primarily seek to portray the non-human as separate from the human; rather they use their detailed knowledge of the natural environment to express their own condition or plight; Death of a Naturalist, Heaney’s first book, is largely to do with growing up and moving from innocence into experience, while Clare’s beleaguered gipsies, birds and tracts of land represent his own sense of displacement and loss.  Clare nevertheless shares with the modern ecologist the sense of nature as impermanent and threatened, in contrast to Wordsworth who speaks confidently of ‘the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.’ Granted, it is never quite clear whether these forms are real and phenomenal or underlying ideas.  

Clare, Wordsworth and Heaney must all be seen as writing anthropocentrically. They can do no other, because they write as humans. The quest for a biocentric poetry can be little more than a poetic conceit or enabling device to allow us as humans to devise new human ways of presenting non-human forms to ourselves.  There is a growing body of ecopoetry in which writers do search for new, less egocentric ways of writing about the environment and the non-human life forms with which we co-exist. [3] It may be instructive to compare two texts, written about fifty years apart, which present the life of the eel. The first is Seamus Heaney’s “Lough Neagh Sequence’, a group of seven poems which were included in his second collection, Door into the Dark (1969)[4]; the second is Steve Ely’s book length poem, The European Eel (2021).[5] I should say that I think that this is not Heaney’s best work, whereas I was extremely impressed by Steve Ely’s poem. Nevertheless, both poets work through their perceptions of the eel, its otherness, its strangeness which is so very not human, to present a world where human and eel co-exist and do have a relationship.  In the end, both poets use the eel as a device to say something about humans, because it is impossible for humans actually to assume the voice or perspective of the eel.

Most of Heaney’s sequence makes very little attempt at the eel’s point of view. The poems are dedicated to the Lough Neagh fishermen and it is with them that Heaney identifies. 

  Only in the second and sixth poems does he focus directly on the eel and its journey. Interestingly, in the second poem his eel is male:

Dark

 delivers him hungering

down each undulation.

This poem, like the sixth, where his eel becomes female, is written in a form of free verse where the beginnings of lines are not capitalised and the short, enjambed lines slither down the page imitating the shape and motion of the eel.  ‘Undulate’ is a word which seems intended for the eel and both Heaney and Ely make use of it. 

 However, in Heaney’s poem, the attraction of the word as an appropriate end to the poem does not compensate for the vagueness of meaning. We know that eels prefer to feed in the dark and shun daylight, so in this sense Heaney is accurate; furthermore, this image is thematic for the collection in which the poems appear. ‘Dark/delivers’ seems to be a metaphor of birth, while dark, as always, has connotations of fear, death and the unknown, all of which are shared by the eel. However, what undulation is the eel ‘hungering down’?  His own body? or the riverbed or  ditch where he is lurking? The ambiguity is annoying rather than enriching.  Ely uses the word to describe his eels at an earlier stage, when they are known as ‘glass eels’:

                                                            each travelling 

            in the flexural power of its new undulatory wiggle.

These lines are as idiosyncratically Ely as Heaney’s image is characteristic of him.  The combination of scientific and colloquial language, ‘flexural’, ‘undulatory’, and ‘wiggle’ as well as the repetition of the ‘əl’ sound which creates an auditory image of the newfound wiggle make the eel simultaneously strange and recognisable.

Heaney too presents the eel as strange and ‘other’; indeed, the choice to use free verse for the two eel poems creates a forceful contrast with the ‘human’ poems, which are written in one or another carefully rhymed fixed stanza forms, where the beginnings of lines are capitalised. The first and last poems are written in quatrains, whilst 3,4 and 5 are in tercets.The eel becomes the antagonist in Heaney’s poems, where the fishermen or the poet himself are the protagonists. This sense of conflict, pitting the human against the eel, carries over into the language: ‘The fishermen confront them one by one’. In this first poem, Heaney seems to be trying to establish an epic struggle, man against the elements, in a battle which has chivalric rules: ‘There is a sense of fair play in the game’. However, the heroic flavour is undermined by Heaney himself, when he criticises the fishermen’s fatalistic attitude to drowning, expressed in the repeated line: “The lough will claim a victim every year.’ The implication that this is some kind of sacrificial tax, exacted by the lough in payment for the harvest of eels is countered by the poet’s common-sense argument that on inland water, even on Lough Neagh, a fisherman who could swim would be able to stay afloat long enough to be rescued.  The apparent timelessness of eel fishing is put in doubt by reference to new gates and sluices put in place at Toomebridge.[6] This doubt reappears in the fifth poem, Lifting:

            And when did this begin?

            This morning, last year, when the lough first spawned?

            The crews will answer, ‘Once the season’s in.’

The folksy wisdom of the fishermen is again undermined by the vagueness of the expression. In normal speech, ‘Once the season’s in’ would refer to a question about the future, i.e. ‘When will this begin?’ rather than responding to one about the past, as here. Further, it is unclear what is meant by ‘when the lough first spawned’ which recalls the mythic origin stories of the first poem. How can a lough ‘spawn’? Does the poet mean the fish within it spawn, even though we know that eels, which are at the centre of this poem, do not spawn in the lough? Throughout this sequence, we feel that the poet is struggling, on the one hand, to present an accurate picture of eel fishing while, on the other, to work out what the eel means to him. 

                                                            Each eel

            Comes aboard to this welcome:

            The hook left in gill or gum,

            It’s slapped into the barrel numb

            But knits itself, four-ply,

            With the furling, slippy

            Haul, a knot of back and pewter belly

            That stays continuously one

            For each catch they fling in

            Is sucked home like lubrication.

‘Welcome’ is a strange word to use in this context; perhaps it is ironic. The lines which follow, however, are visually and aurally effective as the poet describes the brutality of the hooks, and uses a combination of slithery ‘l’ s and plosives to convey the sound of the wet fish ‘slapped’ into the barrel. I can’t help asking how he knows the eel is ‘numb’ but am won over by the enjambed, coiling lines ‘furling, slippy/Haul, a knot of back and pewter belly’ only to be brought up short again by the confusing simile in the last line. How can a catch be ‘sucked home’ like ‘lubrication’? Although the image of slipperiness is maintained, the exact meaning is unclear. 

This is one of several places in the sequence where the poet swithers between empathy and revulsion. In the third poem which shows the fishermen collecting worms for bait, we can see the same fascinated disgust as he first describes the capture of the worm: “Nab him, but wait //For the first shrinking, tacky on the thumb’ and then sympathises with it, ‘Innocent ventilators of the ground’. The tactile language of the first quotation contrasts strangely with the Latinate vocabulary in the second again, to my mind, creating an uncertainty of tone in the poem.  Perhaps Heaney finds the solution to his dilemmas in the final poem where he stops trying to write about fishermen or eels in any objective sort of way and reveals the place of these amphibious images of land, water, worms and eels in his own psyche.

            Vision

Unless his hair was fine-combed

The lice, they said, would gang up

Into a mealy rope

And drag him, small, dirty, doomed

Down to the water. He was

Cautious then in riverbank

Fields. Thick as a birch trunk

That cable flexed in the grass

Every time the wind passed. Years

Later in the same fields

He stood at night when eels

Moved through the grass like hatched fears

Towards the water. To stand

In one place as the field flowed

Past, a jellied road, 

To watch the eels crossing land

Re-wound his world’s live girdle. 

Phosphorescent, sinewed slime

Continued at his feet. Time

Confirmed the horrid cable.[7]

Interestingly, in this early version of the sequence, this poem comes first and I think that it illuminates the poems which follow. As the sequence stands, in the published version, we have to read meaning back into the group from the final piece. We are presented with a small child, recognisable from Death of a Naturalist although distanced from the poet by the use of third person.  This is a very vulnerable and insecure child, ‘small, dirty, doomed’, terrorised by the bogey threat used by adults to force compliance.  It is easy to see how the lice who ‘gang up/ Into a mealy rope’ metamorphose into the ‘four-ply’ oneness of the captured eels.  The ‘riverbank/ fields’ previously simply the place where the fishermen found their bait are revealed to be places of terror, where the wind rippling the grass suggests the ‘thick cable ‘ which is the monstrous rope, be it lice, worm or eel, which will drag the child down out of his own element into the water.  Migrating eels, even for the adult, are ‘hatched fears’ and their sinuous oneness is said to have ‘re-wound his world’s live girdle.’ This line may, to some degree, explain the line about the worms in the third poem ‘Making the globe a perfect fit’.  The ‘live girdle’ is an ambiguous image; it seems to take in the figure in the poem and the world, perhaps binding them together in a recognition of the continuity between human and the natural.  However, the final three lines and the curiously anticlimactic shudder of the last three words, suggest that this is not a happy resolution and that this ‘horrid cable’ of connectedness is a threat to life and identity. The sense of flux and disorientation is powerfully conveyed as the stationary becomes mobile and the solid turns liquid: ‘the field flowed past’, ‘eels crossing land’. Whether placed at the beginning or the end, this is by far the most successful poem of the sequence. At the same time, it confirms Heaney as a poet who is using the imagery of the non-human and the world around him to explore his own place in that world.[8]

If, for Heaney, the eel is the antagonist, in The European Eel it is presented as the protagonist.  However, like Heaney, Steve Ely is concerned to show the creature as other, non-human and he takes considerable care to avoid anthropomorphism or sentimentality, specifically through the use of a vast amount of scientific and technical vocabulary, which creates the effect of objectivity and in forcing the reader to look up so many words, makes the eel and its environment strange.  This is a poetic device; it may allow for accuracy of detail and allow the poet to say things about the life of the eel which could not otherwise be conveyed, but no matter how latin or greek and unfamiliar, this is still human labelling, not the language of the eel itself.  There is, however, a relish in bringing this scientific lexis into the poetic realm:

                        the bluefin persist into open ocean,

            harrowing the holocaust photocline with xiphius,

            macrocephalus, savage architeuthis. 

                                                                        p.47

The notes tell us that xiphius, macrocephalus and architeuthis are swordfish, sperm whales and giant squid, all names with which most readers are more familiar. Ely subdues the jaw-breaking terms to the music of his propulsive unrhymed lines with their ancestral memory of blank verse.

The poet counters the estranging, alienating effect of scientific language with sudden incursions of the familiar, for example, when he describes how the minute leptocephali, eels in their larval stage, begin to feed: ‘hunts /in the eutrophic blizzard, seizing diatoms, /dinoflagellates, polyethylene microbeads’. This has the same shocking effect as Chris Jordan’s photographs of the guts of baby albatrosses that have died from ingesting plastic. It also reveals the human purpose of Ely’s poem. He is not writing as the eel, or even directly for the eel, but for, or to, humans, showing us how we have created the toxic environment which has made the eel, like so many other non-human creatures, an endangered species.

At one level, this is an epic like the Odyssey, recounting the maritime journeys and adventures of its hero and celebrating miraculous escapes and astounding achievements; as in the Odyssey, the initial group of voyagers reduce to one.  However, unlike Odysseus, Ely’s eventual protagonist is neither male, nor human and although her journey brings her home and unites her with a ‘nuptial’ partner, it results in new life for her progeny but in her own death. At another level, though, this is a poem which seeks to inform and persuade. It is a protest poem and as such, employs some techniques which are as much journalistic as poetic.  Ely provides a detailed set of notes, which go some way to absolving him of the charge of obfuscation. In addition, he frequently uses journalistic or didactic similes, as opposed to purely poetic ones. In a poem we are accustomed to seeing the simile used to draw a comparison between two known elements so that we see one or both of them in a new light.  Heaney very few similes in his sequence, although there are many metaphors which work in a similar way: ‘Thick as a birch trunk/ That cable flexed in the grass’ (Vision). Here the cable which has already been introduced  in the first stanza as the ‘mealy rope’of lice is given dimension by being compared to a ‘birch trunk’, something which we can also relate to.  In the didactic simile, one of the terms is unknown. Showing us the feeding leptocephali, Ely writes:

            A month or so since hatching, the size

            of an April tadpole, they move in the plankton

            like Pac-Man’ 

                                    p.11

This is a brilliant simile, because it is so visually effective but also smacks us straight back into the realities of the Anthropocene which are listed in gruesome detail at the bottom of the same page:

            oestrogen-saturated sewage, methamphetamine

            neurotoxins, chromosome-warping

            neonicotinoid run-off.  The leptocephali soak it up,

            and tumble to Hatteras with the flotsam

            of the current – single-use Canaveral

            space junk, the strip mall’s car-tossed,

            fast-food trash and radioactive manatees.

Such passages, which could be described as merely eco-rant, are redeemed by their rhythmic force, their skilful deployment of assonance and alliteration and by the surprising juxtapositions which keep us alert and make us want to know more.  I think the manatees are radioactive because they seek refuge in the warm waters created by nuclear power stations.

As the eel reaches England, the landmarks and ecological disasters become more familiar and homegrown. Ely seizes the opportunity to show his political hand: ‘they’ll travel north and west/ into the PRIVATE salmon and brown trout streams/ of Northfield’s Tory spots day;’ and 

            Barely a cordon, hardly a shoal, they move into the kingdom

            of the Amazon Fulfilment Centre, its clear-fell

            devastation of investment, jobs and growth.

                                                                                                p.20

Ely’s distaste for consumerist modernity sometimes topples over into growling misanthropy as when he fantasises a cultural avatar of the eel, the Bentley Worm:[9]

                                                seizing tribute

            from the ranks of the High Street’s drunks

            and the grave-yard’s coked-up, shrieking children.

                                                                                                p.25

Nevertheless, despite the devastation of the deindustrialised landscape the eel travels through, when she eventually reaches Frickley Beck, there is enough goodness left to sustain the survivor and perhaps the faith of the writer in the ‘dark pleroma’ defined by him in his notes as ‘the fullness of life and spirit on Earth’:

                                    you can still tickle trout,

            and river fish flee before your bootsteps – 

            dace and gudgeon, bullhead and barbel,

            the odd patrolling pike. And eels, of course,

                                                                                    p28

This is one of only a few authorial intrusions into the poem, where we understand that he has brought the eel to his own place, somewhere he knows personally and where, we learn from the prose interlude between the two sections of the poem, he has captured the eel which he kept in an aquarium for three months in order to study its behaviour.  

Generally, the poet keeps himself out of the eel’s story, fulfilling his intention of foregrounding the natural object and avoiding anthropomorphism. Sometimes, though, the empathy seems so strong that it becomes a form of anthropomorphism, as in the final three page long account of the eel’s mating and orgasm which matches Molly Bloom’s in intensity. The eel is described as shivering ‘in the warm,/aphrodisiac current, every nerve-end tingling,/ each tender tip engorged.’ ‘Aphrodisiac’ is surely an adjective which is culturally human and just as I found myself asking how Heaney knew his eel was ‘numb’ so I wonder how Ely knows his has ‘tingling’ nerve-ends. I suppose the description is physiologically justifiable but the arousal and excitement of these final pages draws on human feeling and experience.

In the reflective essay which appears in the blog of the Longbarrow Press, Ely presents three hypotheses which underpinned the writing of his long poem.[10]

My first research hypothesis asserted that grounding the writing of the poem in scientific research, ecological commitment, and direct, sustained experience of the natural object would provide the basis for writing about nature that would have scientific as well as literary credibility, and might therefore contribute in an informed way to debate about the ecological and human crises of the Anthropocene. I think the poem vindicates the hypothesis. The engagement with research that informed the piece is clear, as is the ecological commitment. The natural object is foregrounded, protagonism[11] is limited to the structurally necessary middle section, and the piece is, I hope, not exploitative or parasitic. The poem has the potential to educate and inform the poetry reading public and be an adjunct to scientific research.

Ely hoped that researching the eel as a scientist or scientific journalist might have done would allow him to write in a way which would have scientific as well as literary credibility. He believes he has done this and this may well be the case.  However, the poetry -reading audience is at best, fairly small and it is questionable how far this poem does more than could be done by a good, popular science writer.  For me, this poem does succeed in foregrounding the representative endangered species and so contributing to ‘debate about the ecological and human crises of the Anthropocene’. However, I can’t help wondering if the poetry needs the eel more than the eel needs the poetry. In other words, are poets seeking to justify their endeavours by taking on the mantle of the scientist and the eco-crusader? And, if so, is there anything wrong with that?

The second hypothesis asserted that writing emerging from an engagement with scientific research, ecological commitment and direct, sustained experience of the natural object will show the influence of those factors in the foregrounding of the natural object, the nature of the language used, the forms and structures adopted and in an expression that seeks to create its effects as much by the artful deployment of empirically, experimentally and experientially derived knowledge as by rhetorical means. Again, I feel that the poem vindicates the hypothesis. The poem is replete with scientific and technical language to the degree that a distinctive register is achieved, and the engagement with research that underpins it echoes through its structure and language. The natural subject is foregrounded, in a largely non-anthropomorphic manner. The poem’s epic monology, a deviation from my usual dialogic, polyphonic practice when composing longer poems, emerges directly from the ethos and praxis implied in this hypothesis.

This is where I think Ely justifies his project.  His poem is ‘replete with scientific and technical language’ and does create a ‘distinctive register’.  This is not simply through the acquiring of empirical and experientially derived knowledge, which is surely what we do all the time to some extent anyway, but by the artful deployment, using the poetic skills, traditionally called rhetoric, of the unfamiliar scientific and technical vocabulary.

The third hypothesis asserted that it is possible for writing that is shaped by the first two hypotheses to nevertheless demonstrate a sophisticated and reflexive artistic subjectivity that constitutes affective, but non-didactic art. I believe that the principles embodied in the first two hypotheses led directly to the vindication of the third hypothesis, in the specific and unexpected sense that the decision to imagine in detail the lifecycle of the European eel paradoxically highlighted the elisions, lacunae and uncertainties in our knowledge of the species, and created in me an overwhelming sense of its enigma and otherness. This produced a speculative expression that infuses a religious or spiritual aspect into what began as a strictly scientific project and broadens the focus from the European eel to the cosmic context of life on Earth. I’ll conclude with some reflections on this unexpected development.

Ely suggests his poem is ‘affective but non-didactic’; this contradicts the intention, stated in the first hypothesis, to educate and inform. As far as I can see, the poem is both affective and didactic, but not preachy.  The rest of this paragraph refers most obviously to the last part of the poem, which presents the part of the eel’s journey about which least is known, that is, its return to the Sargasso. As the poet himself admits, in another authorial intrusion: ‘I’m making it up as they go along.’ (p.44) What the poet seems to be acknowledging is that the unsolved mysteries of the eel have propelled him into writing not a treatise, but a poem. He takes this further by suggesting a ‘religious or spiritual aspect’ which is indeed reflected in some of the language in the final pages, which abound in aureate expressions almost as ornate as the gold leaf on a medieval icon: ‘her gold load’, ‘glittering golden ova’, ‘cornucopean flame’.  I’m not sure about this; I felt that the poem was working very well without this dimension and that the poet had conveyed his respect for the eel’s ‘enigma and otherness’ very successfully by the scientific language mediated by explanatory or didactic metaphor and simile found throughout the poem.  

I admire this poem because Ely has succeeded in presenting and foregrounding one of the natural objects with which we share our world in such a way as to show how the human and the non-human co-exist and to emphasize the damage inflicted by the human on other species. By presenting the eel’s life in the recognisably human form of epic, just as Clare chose to represent Swordy Well through a recognisably human first person voice, Ely has shown us which side he is on – the side of the oppressed and the threatened, whether it be by capitalism, industrial and agricultural revolutions or consumerist pollution.  The poem attempts to be with and for ‘nature’ whilst respecting non-human otherness, rather than distinct from and threatened by nature and indeterminate but terrifying natural forces, which is what we see in Heaney’s ‘Lough Neagh Sequence’ and in the boat-stealing episode from The Prelude.


[1] The Value of Ecocriticism by Timothy Clark (Cambridge, 2019), p.11

[2] Ibid, p.8

[3] The very awkward locutions I use here arise out of the attempt not to refer to Nature or the natural, terms which are always problematic.

[4] Faber

[5] With artwork by P.R. Ruby, Longbarrow Press

[6] The poem implies that these measures are intended to maximise the catch, rather in the manner of factory fishing, and so this might seem to be an ecological protest., or a romantic protest against an industrialising   process. However, the sluices and gates have a more complex purpose and are used to allow a certain number of eels to escape and to maintain numbers of eels arriving into the lough where they will spend years maturing.  https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjV9fzdxZfyAhWMJMAKHfZ-B-cQFnoECAMQAw&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.co.uk%2Fnews%2Fuk-northern-ireland-33892222&usg=AOvVaw2o9MoLRD0qH30ceMCYxcYN

[7] https://belfastgroup.digitalscholarship.emory.edu/groupsheets/heaney1_10415/

[8] I don’t intend to suggest that Heaney should have been writing eco-poetry, or been more aware of the eel. When he wrote the sequence, the eel was not an endangered species and awareness of what is now referred to as the Anthropocene was in its infancy.

[9] Google does not seem to recognise this creature but in behaviour it seems to resemble the Lambton worm, a monster from medieval legend which terrorised the Durham countryside until eventually vanquished by the man who had first discovered it as a small, elver-like creature.

[10] https://longbarrowblog.wordpress.com/2021/07/02/body-of-dark-steve-ely/

[11] Ely uses ‘protagonism’ to mean authorial intrusion into the poem.

Is Steve Ely like Geoffrey Hill or Basil Bunting?

incendium amoris

When I read a poem by Steve Ely in The London Review of Books, I was intrigued and sought out more of his work. Ely, who lives in Yorkshire, has produced three books: Oswald’s Book of Hours (2013), Englalaland, (2015) and Incendium Amoris (2017), all from Smokestack. The blurbs for these collections compare the poet’s work to Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts. I thought it would be interesting to consider how far these comparisons can be sustained.

 

The three most obvious characteristics that come to mind are the autobiographical element, the strong sense of place experienced through time and the fact that all three poets are men. The work of Ely and Hill is also informed by a strong commitment to Christianity, whilst Bunting, reared within Quakerism, though less obviously Christian, arguably has a religious vision. For the purposes of this essay, I shall concentrate mainly on Incendium Amoris, Mercian Hymns and Briggflatts.

 

Incendium Amoris is inspired by the work of the same name by Richard Rolle, a fourteenth century and mystic. Ely uses the life and writings of Rolle to build connections between his own time and the past, in a manner which is “unapologetically inauthentic”, a phrase used by Umberto Eco to describe neomedievalism in its many manifestations from computer games to Dan Brown.[1]

Ely’s collection opens with the section, ‘Officium’, which may refer to the daily prayers or duties of the Catholic Church. It is made up of thirteen 13 line poems, with recurrent phrases and themes. The first poem establishes the link between past and present: ‘Catweazle in cuccula,somehow it’s me’. Catweazle, the poet’s note tells us, was a ‘time-travelling 11th century wizard in the eponymous 1970 LWT children’s TV programme.’ ‘Cuccula’ is a cowl, or monk’s hood, probably signalling the poet’s connection to Rolle, the hermit, and his own commitment to Catholicism. Again in the first poem, Ely refers to ‘Timeslip gleaners on Love Balk stubbles’; Love Balk is a place in the poet’s locality and the gleaners are apparitions in a dream or vision. However, the phrase also suggests the poet’s technique-gleaning fragments of local history over the centuries, perhaps redeeming the stories of the poor and the outsiders of the Yorkshire region where the poem is set. Contemporary characters the poet refers to as his ‘moochers’, Yommer, Joey Bach and Malc Spencer, seem like him, to have set their face against modernity –‘dynamiting windfarms, ‘chopping barbed wire’, deploring the ‘glyphosate sterility’ of commercial agriculture. These characters, like the speaker of the poems, exist on the borders of legality, poaching drinking and engaging in illicit sex, activities which bring them closer to Richard Rolle, who, though long regarded locally as a saint, never had this status ratified by the Church, possibly because of his scandalous relationship with the female nun, and later, anchoress, Margaret of Kirkby. This relationship, ‘Richard and Margret, couchant in bushes’ is celebrated in the sequence, particularly in the poem, ‘Pastoral’:

Dick pats her dry

with her untressed hair and orders her habit.

Her gret papys yet tremble and lift to his touch.

Ely’s identification with Rolle is suggested repeatedly: ‘somehow it’s me…She lay on me like brock-pelt, greasy as weasel./Lips found her nipples, familiar.’

By the end of the sequence, the voice is predominantly Rolle, perhaps a mystic but flawed and conflicted, ‘torrid and incontinent’. In his forest retreat he wakes ‘to the Beast, horned like Cernunnos, and flee[s] to the Name of Jesus.’ He preaches turning ‘your back/on this world’ but himself backslides repeatedly: ‘Seduced, we embrace,/ over and over, heat and sweetness, song.’ The penultimate poem quotes from and justifies Rolle as it reflects the title of the hermit’s treatise and Ely’s poems: ‘The fire of love incinerates sin:/in fullness of flame I am blent in bliss’. In the final poem of the sequence, the writer distances himself from the hermit using a third person perspective, but manages to make his allegiances clear. Sounding quixotic and almost forlorn, he is on the side of the poor, the uncouth, the enlisted men, lining up with the Pilgrimage of Grace, William Blake and the ‘Scrubbers at the lists on horsemeat ponies,/tilting at Zetors,[2] nephilim[3], windmills.’

 

Ely describes himself as a Socialist, a Catholic and a hunter. He is also an expert on Ted Hughes and the Director of the Ted Hughes Network in the English Literature & Creative Writing Subject Area at the University of Huddersfield. The blurb for Incendium Amoris describes the work as ‘peasant’s revolt against the accelerating cultural, social and environmental devastations of globalizing capital, a guerilla-pastoral prophecy of a yeoman-anarchist utopia.’ Ely, like Hughes, has been accused, despite his socialist protestations, of giving succour to the far right. Certainly, the survivalist references to ‘Baikal’ (a type of shotgun) and Realtree (camouflage wear), along with the neo-medieval nostalgia and the clinging to Catholic ritual and terminology have an effect which seems backward- looking and reactionary rather than seriously prophetic. It is hard not to hear Brexit in these poems.[4]

Briggflatts

How accurate, then, is it to compare Ely to Basil Bunting? Certainly, they share some of the same influences. Ely alludes to Pound and Yeats in his first poem, while Bunting was a friend and colleague of Pound, living close to him in Rapallo.

Bunting sees the past as existing still in the present, ‘Then is diffused in Now.’ They share some of the same texts, including the Song of Solomon and they have a shared northernness, Yorkshire for Ely, Cumbria for Bunting. They both like dogs:

I have a yong whippet

            off Baz from Brierley

            much is the mete

            she has brought to me.

                                                Ely

 

fell-born men of precise instep

leading demure dogs

from Tweed and Till and Teviotdale,

with hair combed back from the muzzle,

dogs from Redesdale and Coquetdale

taught by Wilson or Telfer.

Their teeth are white as birch,

slow under black fringe

of silent, accurate lips.

 

Bunting

This is an instructive comparison. Both writers place their poems with exact reference to people and places: ‘Baz from Brierley’, ‘Tweed and Till and Teviotdale’, ‘Wilson and Telfer’. In both there is an element of regional celebration. Both poems make use of alliteration, but for Ely this is a conscious archaism, part of his neo-medieval project where he mimics the poetic forms of middle English and the alliterative lines of pre-Chaucerian verse. In Bunting’s writing, the alliteration is part of the music of the poem which is in free verse, but relies on the sounds of vowels, consonants and syllables as well as the patterning of phrase to build up its complex effect. Moreover, Ely’s dogs are hunting dogs; Bunting’s are sheepdogs. Both writers are very male in their perspectives; both recognise violence as an aspect of masculinity. Bunting, despite his early pacifism, writes

I hear Aneurin number the dead and rejoice,

being adult male of a merciless species

Ely’s poems also refer to ancient battles and atrocities –‘Je te plumerai’, ‘Little Saint Hugh’ and there is a lot of killing, often of animals. The most violent aspect of his poetry is the language; there area lot of taboo words, often, I suppose, of Anglo-Saxon origins and plenty of references to sex and defecation. ‘Wesyll’ is an egregious example:

Stick your fucking wedding ring up your arse.

Sucked a cat’s brain through its orbital socket.

splunk pikejaws of viper, squirmed millipede

ribcage; et out via vulva, the unhinged head.

 

Shit in the hole. See them fall: Chaz, Lou,

Nick, Reza Pahlavi. They never sin

no one like me; stynkand, shrieking: curling

to sleep between hot breasts cold by morning.

With the references to executed kings, this may be the raw voice of the resisting common man, but it is definitely a male voice. It seems to me that Ely is exploring, or perhaps trying to preserve, a particular version of masculinity. He sets his face against modernity in all its forms. Women play a very secondary part to the role of the male; even the presentation of the relationship between Richard Rolle and Margaret Kirkby has a conventionally male perspective. The exceptions are perhaps the love sonnets in the section called ‘Flame’, but even here the male is shown as a hapless ‘man behaving badly’: ‘puking sweet purple/over her shoulder’ in the pub car park. Perhaps we can identify the same sense of guilt and betrayal in the two poets. Ely writes in his second sonnet,’Jacket’:

Gallant I gave her my envied jacket,

a red leather from X-Clothes in Leeds.

I cloaked it over her flowery shoulders

in a rite of debt and devotion. I would have

given her the world and everything in it –

my love, my honey, my harp. I gave her away.

 

The structure of Bunting’s Briggflatts depends on the betrayal of a lost love who is returned to at the end of the poem. “Fifty years a letter unanswered;/a visit postponed for fifty years.//She has been with me fifty years.” Like Ely, he makes use of traditional, almost courtly love language (here, an aubade):

We have eaten and loved and the sun is up,

we have only to sing before parting:

Goodbye, dear love.

Incidentally, in Bunting’s lines, the lovers sing together; in Ely’s, the woman has become a possession, something edible, an instrument.

 

Bunting’s poem starts from and returns to Peggy Greenbank and the hamlet of Brigflatts, but along the way it takes in not only his life and travels through Europe and Asia but the history and culture of the places he has seen. Ely, on the other hand, gives the impression that he would prefer to turn the history of civilization back to a period before the Reformation. His attacks on modernity include a concern for the environment but his ecopolitical view seems indiscriminate, rejecting windfarms along with weedkiller. His poems abound in Church Latin titles, but despite the central character of Richard Rolle, I find more religious reference than religious vision.. There is no overt religion in Briggflatts which could be described as a personal odyssey which offers no answers; in fact, the poem ends with a question mark. We might bear in mind Bunting’s upbringing as a Quaker, an approach to religion antithetical to Ely’s Catholicism; we might also remember Bunting’s own note to the poem:

In silence, having swept dust and litter from our minds, we can detect the pulse of God’s blood in our veins, more persuasive than words, more demonstrative than a diagram. That is what a Quaker meeting tries to be, and that is why the poem is called Briggflatts[5].

Although I imagine Ely is writing in the wake of Bunting and is familiar with his work, it seems to me too glib to consider the poets as similar. Bunting is a modernist, whose writing is located in high culture and a formalist in that he puts the poem before the message; Ely is post-modern, selecting and fabricating from the past, he is overtly political and he seeks to excavate and support his own rather strange notion of the proletarian and the peasant. With every word I write, I am conscious that I am probably being unfair to Ely, but I am put off by his relentless blokishness.

mercian hymns

When we come to consider links between Ely and Geoffrey Hill, some are immediately obvious.

Asiotic[6] night screams horned like Cernunnos-

we like that kind of noise.

These are the last two lines in the first poem of Incendium Amoris, and they seem to echo the last line in the first poem of Mercian Hymns: ‘”I liked that,” said Offa, “sing it again.’ That, along with the reference to Cernunnos, a version of the Green Man, who also appears in Hill’s collection, suggests an acknowledgement of a poetic influence or debt. Both poets are interested in the ancient past of England, before the Reformation, before even the country was a single kingdom. In Mercian Hymns, there is a fusion of past and present, of Geoffrey and Offa, a sort of palimpsest of two different times in the same place. The identification of the poet with the king is indicated in the second poem, where the two names are brought together in a sequence of half-buried puns; ‘curt graffiti’ = eff (Geoff) off (Offa).[7] The poems clearly rely on autobiographical material, although they are no more straightforward autobiography than Briggflatts or Incendium Amoris. Interestingly, the personal details which are worked into Mercian Hymns are mostly episodes from boyhood rather than adolescence and young manhood in the case of Ely and the whole life ‘fifty years’ of Briggflatts. It is not always clear whether Geoffrey or Offa is speaking and it seems to me that the poet makes use of the ancient king to create a figure of selfhood, who develops from the lonely but ‘staggeringly gifted’ boy drawing strength from his natural environment “I was invested in mother-earth, the crypt of roots and endings” to the arrogant adult capable of self-centred brutality. Hilary Davies notes Hill’s insistence ‘upon how much the ignorant egotism of the child lives on in the knowing malice of the adult man.’[8] The casual cruelty of the child who ‘battered a ditchful’ of frogs turns into something more horrifying in the flaying of Ceolred, the friend who lost his toy plane. This mythologised incident which forms poem VII and is titled ‘The Kingdom of Offa’ reverberates with meanings, not least in the appropriation of the name Albion for ‘his private derelict sandlorry’ –now more derelict than ever. The poem acknowledges cruelty and violence, in a way which is different and more horrifying than that in Bunting or Ely. This is violence which is gratuitous and selfish but which is owned by the complex persona of the poem. Offa was a king operating within the paradigm of Christianity and I think Hill is showing us sin and evil as part of man’s unregenerate nature. Later, on Offa’s journey to Rome, callous indifference to the torture of Boethius at Pavia fuses with a modern tourist’s journey:

He wiped his lips and hands. He strolled back to the

car, with discreet souvenirs for consolation and

philosophy.

Although I find the allusion to Boethius’ work rather flippant, it could be argued that this is part of the persona Hill is creating. The acceptance and even indulgence in cruelty is presented to us as a facet of human behaviour, just as Bunting refers to the ‘merciless species’ and Ely shows us violence through the centuries. Bunting clearly stands outside the violence he shows; Hill, and perhaps Ely after him, inhabit the context in which the violence is produced. This is the argument of Andrew Michael Roberts in his study of Geoffrey Hill:

…the poet writes from within the subject matter, inhabiting it and being inhabited by it, using its language to varying degrees, exploring the attitudes, mood and preoccupations of a particular ideology, tradition or historical period. The poem is less the utterance of the poet than something which the poet shapes out of the linguistic and cultural material found to hand within a particular cultural field….Hill sees himself as diagnosing elements of culture, not primarily as expressing his own feelings or views.[9]

 

This begs all sorts of questions. The poet is exculpated, the heresy Offa denounces in VIII, in an abnegation of responsibility which ignores the fact that the writer has chosen and selected the linguistic and cultural elements of which he writes. Moreover, the language Hill has chosen is clearly his own; no matter what the influences, his voice in these poems is distinctive. Ely, on the other hand, is writing in the parallel universe of neo-medievalism, often in an invented language that combines Northern dialects with middle or old English vocabulary, spelling and alliterative phrase-making. Hill has been accused, as Ely could be, of hankering after a ‘traditional, religious England’, in Tom Paulin’s phrase, of being a ‘chthonic nationalist.’ Both would reject charges of being apologists for right wing politics, but as we have seen with Brexit, radical right and radical left can meet up at the back of the hall.

 

It would be true to say that Bunting, Hill and Ely all concern themselves with English landscapes through time, bringing the past into the present or seeing it as co-existing with the present. This is a recurrent theme in English literature and an earlier version can be found in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. Bunting, although he starts and ends his poem in Briggflatts, ranges much more widely than the other two poets. All three present a particularly male view of the world and this is linked to the way in which they deal with cruelty and violence, in all three writers shown as an attribute of masculinity. While Ely’s work is undoubtedly written in the shadow of Bunting and Hill, it is unhelpful to conflate the three poets. In writing this post, I have come to have a profound admiration for Briggflatts, for its range, for its generosity of spirit and for its fluid and beautiful language. I have always found Geoffrey Hill’s work difficult and difficult to like and my feelings have not changed. Steve Ely’s poems are still surprising me although I hope he will tone down the made-up medievalism which sometimes obscures rather than promotes his message.

[1] ‘Postmodern (re)constructions of the Middle Ages in contemporary poetry? Neomedievalism in Simon Armitage, Jacob Polley and Steve Ely.’ By Claire Hélie. Études britanniques contemporaines. No. 54/2018

[2] A type of tractor

[3] giants

[4] To be fair to Ely, his range is greater than this suggests and he has challenged racism, Islamophobia and global global capitalism in other work.

[5] Brigflatts was the site of a Quaker meeting house.

[6] ‘Pertaining,’ Ely tells us, ‘to the long-eared owl.’

[7] I find this sort of obscurity annoying rather than instructive, but then I have always found Hill’s poetry inaccessible and rebarbative, although I recognize the passion and level of seriousness which informs his work.

[8] ‘The Castaway of drowned remorse, the world’s atonement on the hill’ History, Language and Theopoetics: Geoffrey Hill’s dialogue with David Jones in Mercian Hymns and Tenebrae, (Revue Études Anglaises,2/2018)

[9] Geoffrey Hill by Andrew Michael Roberts (2004) p.55-56.