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‘Strata’

April 6, 2011

That I am writing English is a given:
Whence are these words, if not of Saxon stock?
And yet the stones I set in line are riven

With shining streaks of older, starker rock:
Here are the gleaming lines of Rome Eternal,
Writing their ancient patterns in the block;

Each syllable a tomb and yet a kernel,
From which unfolds the stuff of poetry.
Quotidian rubs shoulders with supernal,

Seeding the page with untold history.
Even the scholar’s unexplained initials –
N.b. – cf. – e.g. – i.e. –  q.v.

Were spoken once by priests and by officials;
Caesars and Censors made them dance and fizz;
The high and base, profane and sacrificial –

Behind the academic’s casual viz.
Stands ghostly Cicero’s videre licet;
The words that were still haunt the word that is.

Like Sleeping Beauty’s city, lost in thickets,
The Latin streets fell silent long ago;
And yet its sounds still echo round the snickets,

The alleyways of English high and low –
The schoolkid’s curse, the engineer’s equation,
All laced with Latin, though it may not show.

Though swords are good for on-the-spot persuasion,
It is through words that hearts are realigned;
The settling-in that followed the invasion

Ploughed up the land and planted new the mind.
Our language, like our landscape bridged and roaded,
Is thick with what the legions left behind.

In both their strata stories lie encoded:
The fossils of a thing that lived and sang
Preserved in stone that will not be eroded

Beneath the chalky wash of cant and slang –
Still here and there we find their bones, intact as
They were the day the Roman death-knell rang.

The theatre, bright with poems, now has for actors
Only the muddy chorus of the herds;
The meadows where the Roman legions practised,

Abandoned to the sheep and to the birds;
And yet the English/England that we live in
Is built upon their ruins and their words.

*

This one, this one I’m proud of.

The first Latin-derived word in the poem is lines, which falls at the point at which I start rhapsodising about Latin remnants in English. From then on they’re all over the place, which was, after all, kind of the point.

Rome Eternal is an Anglicisation of Roma Æterna, a common appellation for both the city and the ideal of ‘Rome’.

The inclusion of the word ‘supernal’ is a tiny nod to Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation of Dante – undoubtedly the most famous exponent of the terza rima format I here abuse – who includes it in her translation of the inscription over Hell Gate. Unfortunately I don’t have the translation by me and it’s in copyright, but I encourage everyone to seek it out.

N.b. = nota bene, ‘note well’; cf.= confer, ‘compare’; e.g. = exempli gratia, ‘example given’; i.e. = id est, ‘that is’; q.v. = quod vide, ‘see (also) which’; viz. = videre licet, ‘it is plain to see’.

‘Bridged and roaded’ alludes to Kipling’s “The River’s Tale”, which I have known from childhood by its first words “Twenty Bridges”. My parents – especially my father – would recite poems to us at bedtime, and as neither of their repertoires was over-large we soon got to know their favourites very well. I can’t remember ever learning this poem; it’s just been there, in my memory, complete, as far back as I can recall.

It was also my father who taught me my first words of Latin, at the tender age of (I think) six, when I was homeschooled for a year (long story) and covered a gloriously eclectic curriculum that involved trips to castles and sticking pins in our big wall map of Australia alongside the conjugation of amo.

So yeah.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Xiémuç Guiri permalink
    April 7, 2011 12:25 am

    Very good indeed. I read this one several times. Nice work with the rhyming callback to the beginning. Did you really write this one in a day?

    It’s all very good, but from these lines onwards it soars:

    In both their strata stories lie encoded:
    The fossils of a thing that lived and sang
    Preserved in stone that will not be eroded

    Beneath the chalky wash of cant and slang

    and the ending has tremendous weight and impact. Jolly well done.

  2. April 7, 2011 1:59 pm

    I only barely finished within the day – this post went up at about three minutes to midnight – but yes, just about. Spending a lot of the day washing up and doing other chores that required my hands but not my brain meant, I think, that the creative juices had some time to simmer.

    Also, I totally had one of those moments of poetic sixth sense that Mr. Fry talks about in The Ode Less Travelled: during the tinkering phase, I was like “Hmm, the ends of stanzas don’t actually correspond to ends of sense-units very often – maybe it would work better as one big stream of thing?”, took out the gaps, immediately went “Jesus Christ no, that’s wrong”, and put them back.

    I am exceedingly flattered by your good opinion, and will go and blush in a corner for a while, I think.

  3. Xiémuç Guiri permalink
    April 8, 2011 12:48 pm

    Heh, that reminds me of the bit where Fry relineates a couple of lines from Dulce et Decorum Est and says, “Wouldn’t it be better if we set it out like that?… NO, DAMN YOU, NO! A THOUSAND TIMES NO!”

  4. Mark permalink
    May 8, 2011 4:20 am

    Somehow missed this the first time round. Awesome.

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