Peter Davidson, Carcanet, 2022, pb., 72pps. £11.99
DEREK TURNER feels impelled to look to the north
There are poets associated with particular places, or special states of mind, but Peter Davidson has made a geo-poetical genre of his own, as celebrant of a cardinal point. His interests are wide-ranging, but magnetized in one compass direction – towards ‘Norths’ geographical and conceptual, Norths as landscapes and mindscapes, Norths as essences of bleak beauty and soughing melancholy. Auden, Larkin and others celebrated septentrional subjects, but Davidson brings a clarity and suggestiveness all his own to the lonely latitudes that lie above the treeline.
Davidson studied literature and art history at Cambridge, and taught at Warwick and Leiden before spending many years as Professor of Renaissance Studies at Aberdeen. He is now Senior Research Fellow at Campion Hall, University of Oxford. His earliest writings were monographs on Scottish drinking songs, but he has also edited works of the 16th century Catholic martyr St. Robert Southwell and the 17th century Royalist diplomat-poet Sir Richard Fanshawe, and written an opera libretto (part of which features in this book).
A 2005 topographical tour-de-force, The Idea of North, set him undeviatingly on his compass course, and he followed up with Distance and Memory (2013), and The Last of the Light (2015). His 2018 book, The Universal Baroque, was a radical revisioning of cultural history in which national labels were rejected as otiose, and the very word ‘baroque’ released from its period prison. In his latest book, 2021’s The Lighted Window, the illuminated opening is seen in all its symbolical aspects – as sign of warmth and welcome for those out in the darkness, alternately allowing insights into interiors or outlooks onto wide worlds.
He has gazed northwards from different standpoints, but always through a prism (or snow-globe) refracting an English Catholic sense of dislocation and loss. Northern Europe has long been mostly Protestant (or post-Protestant), but he stakes an older claim, of the far North as fiefdom of ‘the Faith’. His Norths seem often empty, yet always echo, with thin ghost-voices wired on winds across gulfs of territory or time.
He is a celebrant of half-light and half-memories, looking out through long library windows onto winter afternoons with the cold coming down hard – of gloaming peregrinations across parklands and along secretive streets – of old houses and of wildness, of solitary ships and wandering stars, snowstorms and woodsmoke, falcons and thorns – bittersweetly aware of sacrifices made, failed schemes, doomed adventures, long exiles, lost expeditions and causes. Like Rose Macaulay, he takes pleasure in ruins; like Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, he finds substance in shadows. The North, he notes in Distance and Memory, can be a place of “grim consolations” and wintry raptures, where dearth and even death can be counterbalanced by pristineness and purity. The lights of the North are conventionally held to be harder than those of the temperate zones – but even under the most unforgiving rays this evocative writer finds ample room for romance and ornate symbology, conveying great meanings in vastly evocative blank verse.
From a British vantage point, Norths are not necessarily polar wastes, but can be Pennine hillsides, Yorkshire towns, or Hebridean isles. Even those motorway signs on the edge of London which read “A1(M) The North” act almost as ambassadorial outposts, indicating richly-imagined places, and suggesting the supposed attitudes, habits, and traits of those who dwell in them – guardedness, practicality, sternness, stubbornness, terseness, thrift, toughness. The folksong phrase ‘North Country’ has long elicited images of lakes left by the Ice Age, broad fells, and drystone walls – and even today’s political term, ‘Northern Powerhouse’, is more romantic than rational, conjuring a domain of latent strengths. Entire Northlands can be evoked immediately in everyday architecture and art – stained railway arches, empty mills, the evenings of J. Atkinson Grimshaw – or even sounds – foghorns, geese, the haunted songs of Joy Division. In other countries, their Norths can be our Souths; an Italian’s idea of North may be Austria, and an African’s Italy. In Australia or New Zealand, vague notions of Northness may be swivelled to the South, with Antarctica taking the Arctic’s place in the cultural imagination.
One of Davidson’s lost causes is the Stuart succession, with ‘Jacobite Song’ launching this second collection for Carcanet (following 2008’s The Palace of Oblivion). The forces of the pre-Reformation, clannish, chivalric Caledonia that briefly terrified Anglican, mercantile, rationalist England in 1745 are honoured in absentia – “The regiments like snow all overborne / The boat rowed far from the cold shore, long gone. / O blackbird taken in the fowler’s snare / He is now far who will return no more.” His king over the water has now gone over the ice, once-bonnie emblem of a past that has “Faded, flown, taken, frozen, falling, gone.” Later (‘Secret Theatres of Scotland’), under a carving of a stag in 1740s plaster he ponders scratched Scots words of desolate departure, graffiti of the gone – “Lang befor daylicht, he began his flicht”.
We then journey to find the jaded, tired Queen of the Adriatic reflected in Murano-made convexity in ‘Venice Glasses I’, one of three poems inspired by Victoria Crowe’s paintings. We can almost smell the Grand Canal and see gondolas rocking gently at their posts as another frantic day fades out – “When vanished things take shape in the stir of the waters / When glimpses and shadows pass at the edges of glasses”. This is a black and dank prospect, suggesting slimed piles and a faint under-whiff of sewage, mercifully uplifted by ‘Venice Glasses II’, where an overflying aircraft scrapes a bright stripe across the darkening welkin.
Back in the hushed old-maid austerity of Edinburgh, he scans second-hand bookshops well-stocked with the frigidly unsatisfactory productions of the eighteenth century – “A back room full of quarto shelves of Scotland / The August pleasures of dead advocates”, searching for sparks of passion within rows and rows of reason – “These wintry precincts of enlightenment / Which hold out for the moment, just, they hold.”
He hovers above 1845-8 to birds-eye the high-tech, high-hoped, disastrous Sir John Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage, which got frozen in forever, where “The ice grows downwards building in the dark”. He soars skua-like back to anxious England, and awaiting Lady Jane, pacing in her garden, seeking psychic aid to link to her too-long absent spouse, and eventually enlisting patriotic public opinion to make the Admiralty send in too-late search. We think of those famous pictures of the frozen corpses discovered long after – the luckier ones who died earlier, and received obsequies, before the rest perished miserably out in the white hell, benighted among bitterness, enmired in allegations of anthropophagy, insanity, lead-poisoning, and uncertainty. Davidson prays for intercession for these expeditionaries still – “Lord of the treasuries of Hail, absolve them now, / Queen of Miraculous Snowfall, lead them home.”
In ‘The Early Christian Monuments of Wales’, a poem titled like a treatise, we find evidence of earliest missionaries in monoliths on hawthorn-studded hills, and crude lettering in eroding inscriptions – the gospellers who gave birth to the monks, and the monks to the Matter of Britain – “Words growing thin in time’s vastness, names themselves breaking” – apostles long unreachable, and yet omnipresent even in today’s physical and psychological landscapes. Some poems are more straightforwardly devotional, like ‘St Edmund Campion meditates on the Passion’, or ‘Sonnet for Trinity Sunday’, but his abstractions are rooted in the natural kingdom of the North – “For we are God’s hands and eyes through each green day / Of dog-rose and elder, plough-furrowed leaf of the hornbeam.” Serenity of God is one with sublimity of scenery.
Faith filters into everything he writes – onto the fretted neck of John Dowland’s lute (‘Mr Dowland’s Midnight’), and into his allusions to Caspar David Friedrich’s hyperborean heroism, (‘Dialogue at Kloster Edelna’), and the works of other painters (‘Pryde’s Ghost’, ‘Rex Whistler’s Blues, August 1938’). The most personal lyrics of all thaw all permafrost to remember old friends, taste again late fruits once eaten in disordered once-elegant rooms (‘Lastness, or Rory’s Apple’), and honour his ages-ago aunt, losing her mind yet still able to remember Rilke (‘September Castles’).
Davidson’s conservative, mordant philosophy feels very far removed from those of most modern poets – indeed, it diverges radically from all modern outlooks – but there are times when he can cut through the deepest coldness, to pierce the most glass-slivered heart. He shows us in Arctic Elegies a land and state of mind both lyrically described and thrillingly delighted in – a land and state of mind both eminently deserving of celebration, and capable of shining suddenly with beauty and transformative warmth.
DEREK TURNER is the editor of The Brazen Head, as well as a novelist (A Modern Journey, Displacement, and Sea Changes) and reviewer. His first non-fiction book, Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire, was published June 2022. Some of his writing may be found at www.derek-turner.com He is also on Twitter – @derekturner1964