The Living Mountain

Nan Shepherd.  Introduction by Robert Macfarlane. Canongate 2011

Recommended by Martin Stott

I re-read The Living Mountain on a recent hiking trip in the Scottish Highlands. It speaks of the mountains in such a contemporary voice that it could have been written yesterday. In fact, it was completed in 1945 and only published in 1977 a few years before Nan Shepherd’s death. It remained practically unknown until about a decade ago when her writing, including a book of poetry In the Cairngorms (published in 1934) was re-discovered and championed by Robert Macfarlane.

Shepherd records her feelings about the views, the rocks, the wildlife and the hidden joys of a part of the Highlands close to where she spent her whole life – the Cairngorms. Her approach to this wilderness was less about conquering the peaks and more about listening to the landscape, becoming one with it: ‘…I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain. I am a manifestation of its total life as is the starry saxifrage or the white-winged ptarmigan’ (p. 106).  The Living Mountain gleams with the insights of a prose poet in her chosen landscape.

 

The Heart of the Country

By James and Robin Ravilious, foreword by Ronald Blythe (Scholar Press, 1980)

Recommended by Martin Stott

The Heart of the Country captures — in the words of Robin Ravilious and the photographs of James Ravilious — a slice of rural north Devon between the Taw and Torridge rivers. Structured around four themes (The Land, Farming, Village Life, and Occasions), each with a short introduction by Robin, James records in over a hundred photographs what Ronald Blythe calls ‘the poetry of the commonplace’.  Taken over a six-year period in the 1970s within a ten-mile radius of Beaford (covering three towns and about thirty villages), the photographs have an immersive quality which Blythe describes as ‘saying something very memorable about the deeper actuality of rural experience’. Forty years later, they evoke a romantic, almost wistful, air of a community where the threads of people’s lives—the Post Office, the village shops and pubs, hedge laying, foxhunting, the village forge, and winter snows with all the challenges they brought for farmers and their livestock—entwine to create a record of a rural society to which the authors themselves belong, connecting a lingering yesterday to the present.

An Oxfordshire Market Gardener

The Diary of Joseph Turrill of Garsington 1863-67

Edited by E. Dawson & S.R. Royal (Alan Sutton, 1993)

Recommended by Martin Stott

Joseph Turrill was a young man working as a market gardener in the Oxfordshire village of Garsington when he kept his diary. As a working-class lad, he experienced the landscape less through the views and more by what he could grow. His detailed observations of the seasons, the weather, the wildlife, and what would sell, as well as the habits and quirks of his neighbours, customers, family and girlfriend, reflect a very different experience of life and locality from contemporary diarists such as Francis Kilvert in Clyro, or earlier natural historians such as Gilbert White in Selborne, let alone his neighbour in Garsington Manor, Lady Ottoline Morrell and the galaxy of literary stars that she entertained there. Whether it is the progress of a row of beans, gathering walnuts for pickling, or gardening by moonlight (’the parish lantern’) after a late shift in his mother’s pub, the diaries shed a fascinating and distinctive light on a much written about locality.

Diary of Joseph Turill

 

William Cowper, Art and Afterlife

William Cowper lived in and around Olney in Buckinghamshire from 1768 to 1795. It was here that he wrote Olney Hymns (1779) (with John Newton), Poems (1782), The Task (1785), and his translations of Homer. The poet’s experience of his immediate surroundings, his close attention to the natural world, and the importance he attached to domestic life gave particular energy and vision to his poetry.

On 3rd and 4th of September 2021, Arts of Place members Andrew Hodgson and Will Bowers hosted a conference at The Olney Centre, focused on Cowper’s career in verse. The event included a visit to the Cowper and Newton Museum where attendees toured Cowper’s home and the beautiful garden in which he worked.

 

‘William Cowper’ by George Romney (1792)

A range of papers explored formal and stylistic elements of Cowper’s writing (Gregory Leadbetter discussed the ‘exploded couplets’ of the blank verse of The Task; Samuel Diener examined warring lyric and narrative impulses in ‘The Cast-away’; Jessica Fay looked at Cowper’s handling of movement and stillness in the closed stanzas of the Hymns). There were also papers focused on Cowper’s critical heritage (Tim Fulford traced an association of ideas about church-bells from Cowper to Coleridge and the Wedgwood family; Alexandra Harris explored Virginia Woolf’s appreciation of Cowper’s ‘white fire’, while Andrew Hodgson read Cowper’s fear and dread through Donald Davie). Meanwhile, Will Bowers offered a paper on Cowper’s conception of time, Andrew Newell introduced Cowper’s ‘exegetical poetics’, and Tess Somervell presented Cowper as a key poet of the anthropocene.

The highlight of the conference was Fiona Stafford’s lecture on ‘Cowper’s Hare Care’. Cowper owned a number of pet hares but alongside an exploration of his personal attachment to these characterful animals, Stafford showed that a close reading of Cowper’s poetry can open up the extended literary heritage of the hare — a heritage that stretches from John Gay to Seamus Heaney.

The conference also included an informal discussion of the value of teaching Cowper’s poetry at a time when many of his preoccupations have renewed pertinence in the classroom.

 

 

Featured image: ‘William Cowper’ by George Romney (1792), National Portrait Gallery

The conference was supported by the British Association for Romantic Studies, British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and Queen Mary University of London

Listen to Alex Harris and Kate McLoughlin talking about Cowper’s poetry here.

Collected Poems, 1956-2001

Thomas Kinsella (Wake Forest University Press, 2006)

Recommended by Trish Halligan

Thomas Kinsella (born 1928, Inchicore, Dublin) is a poet of the random and of restoration: ‘order’ is one of his most-used words, though he uses it in the sense of reconciliation rather than of restriction.

Kinsella came from a family of stone cutters and this inheritance somehow comes across in his writing: he puts shape to the stone but doesn’t always dress it. Similarly, his explorations of nature and his recollections of his native Dublin are neither bucolic nor nostalgic, and even more rarely are they consolatory. Kinsella often savagely satirises contemporary Dublin city planning, especially with reference to Ireland’s frequently catastrophic lack of conservation.

His other great recurring interest is the exploration of the physical similarities and differences across generations of his family. While his thoughts are often rooted in the sensuous and tactile (‘His Father’s Hands’, for example), he frequently describes hands which stroke, twist, clench and work, but which also touch to communicate when words fall short or as a silent assurance of trust.  These poems are vivid fragments: they possess the quality of memories bursting upon the mind, like light cast into a room by a door suddenly thrown open.

Kinsella is not interested in tidiness or pat conclusions: there is rarely a sense of an ending in his work; even his later (much shorter) poems end by creating ripples of thoughts and evoke other times and places.

The Poetics of Space

Gaston Bachelard (1958)

Recommended by Trish Halligan

This book is difficult to categorise but this is where, to me, the joy of it dwells. In describing the domestic spaces that both give us shelter and provide an untrammelled place in which to think and feel, Bachelard explores poetry, philosophy, observation and memory (sometimes simultaneously). He offers reflections on drawers, chests, nests, wardrobes and corners; there is also a seemingly contradictory but completely revelatory chapter on what Bachelard terms ‘intimate immensity’.

I especially love this latter chapter and the one on corners. Somehow I never realised that I most comfortably read, think and work in the shelter of a corner, either a naturally occurring one or one I have managed to construct. Bachelard removes entirely the negative connotation of being “cornered” and in these chapters beautifully aligns the absence of claustrophobic thinking with its opposite of being present in vast exterior spaces: on the sea or in forests. It summons to my mind Woolf’s recognition of the need for the ‘queer amalgamation of dream and reality, the perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow’.

‘Housed everywhere but nowhere shut in’, writes Bachelard, ‘is the motto of the dreamer of dwellings… A daydream of elsewhere should be left open therefore, at all times’. This also puts one in mind of anchoresses or of William Cowper in his beloved alcove at Olney. In both cases their bodies are sheltered by a small space and their external vision is only fixed on one point, yet this provides their internal vision with endless space to explore.

Four Hedges

Clare Leighton (1935; Little Toller, 2010)

Recommended by Martin Stott

Clare Leighton is remembered as one of the finest wood engravers of the twentieth century. Having made her name with The Farmer’s Year (published in 1933), the publication of Four Hedges in 1935 established her as an engraver as well as a writer. Her skill as a chronicler of nature, the seasons, and of place (the half acre in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns that she and her partner, the radical journalist Noel Brailsford, transformed into a garden in the early 1930s) is on full display in this luminous work structured around the twelve months of the year. By observing the seasonal changes in their garden she grew familiar with its wildlife and character, forming a bond that fed her work as an artist. The book is illustrated with over eighty of her wood engravings, each one a microcosm of the landscape that encompasses them. Together, prose and engravings combine to give a sense of an earth that is full of wonder and joy.

 

The Harz Journey

Heinrich Heine (1826)

Recommended by Andrew Hodgson

Der Harzreise is an account of a trip from the German town of Göttingen (‘famous for its sausages and university’) into the Harz mountains. You couldn’t want a more entertaining travel companion than Heine, whose voice is by turns sarcastic and lyrical, sentimental and ironic, curious and bored. Along the way are encounters with grotesque tourists, records of hallucinatory dreams, a descent into a coal mine, poems and songs in celebration of the quiet life, an ascent of the Brocken, and passages of unaffected pleasure in nature. The book ends, in a moment typical of its witty self-awareness, with Heine ‘lost in thought’ on top of a rock in the Ilse Valley, almost tumbling into a ravine under the influence of his own giddy delight in the surroundings.

The Discovery of France

Graham Robb (Picador, 2008)

Recommended by Andrew Hodgson 

Robb offers a magnificent description of France as a massive patchwork of places. The ‘discovery’ is both the author’s uncovering of the intricate jumble of tribes, tongues, and traditions that make up France’s history, and the country’s attempt to forge a unified identity from them. The book is written with an ironic care for the way the spirit of place shapes and finds expression in the everyday existence of its people. One of the most attractive passages involves Robb pausing over the ‘large and luckless’ contingent of ordinary lives strung out among the nation’s gradual incline to modernity, who spent the best part of their years ‘cocooned in idleness’ from the gloom and cold of winter, attempting to make life as uncomplicated as possible.

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

Jan Morris

(Faber, 2002)

Recommended by Andrew Hodgson

Jan Morris’s book on Trieste is a lyrical history of the city. It is a description of Trieste and its past; it is also an attempt to work out what Trieste means to Morris, and to understand how one’s relationship with a place changes through time. It shows how to appreciate a place’s sadness, ‘the allure of lost consequence and fading power’. It’s a great book on place because it doesn’t just tell you about a place, but shows you how to enjoy it. The best place to read it is outside a bar off the Piazza Unità d’Italia, sipping a Campari and soda, gazing out into the Adriatic for a glimpse of the ghost of Browning’s Waring.