Parnassus, and patria

Tumuli at Revesby in Lincolnshire

Sunken Island: An Anthology of British Poetry

Various authors, edited by Alexander Adams, foreword by William Clouston, London: Bournbrook Press, 2022, pb, 55pps, £12.50

Bournbrook Press is an offshoot of Bournbrook Magazine, founded in 2019 to offer a “primarily British audience with traditionalist, socially conservative argument and entertainment”. This venture’s newest publication is something unusual, and unlikely to be financially profitable – an anthology of original poetry put together specifically to appeal to small-c conservatives, a subset of the population not noted for their interest in new verse.

Poetry written for political purposes always runs a risk of being bathetic, just as other arts can easily become ‘artivism’ – a point amply understood by this collection’s editor-contributor, who has written an informative book on this subject. I have a 1900 anthology on my shelves, Heroic and Patriotic Verse, and while much of the verse is excellent (it includes Byron, Goldsmith, Gray and Shakespeare), some has dated less well, including ‘Of old sat Freedom’ (one of Tennyson’s windier effusions) and the frankly indigestible ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’. The verse in Sunken Island is similarly uneven, but when it is good, it is, as Social Democratic Party leader William Clouston notes in his Foreword, “both serious and enjoyable”.

Clouston also points out that this book’s eight contributors are not “blind to the country’s flaws”, and this gives this collection both muscle and a certain wryness of outlook notably absent from some patriotic poets, like Rupert Brooke or Henry Newbolt. There is no bombast to be found in Sunken Island, nor sentimentality, nor Patience Strong-style platitudes. The two prevailing emotions are love, plus loss – an odd echo of Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island (1988), which concluded that “there’s no longer an English literature”. 

Kenner’s gloom is to some extent gainsaid by the poets in here, who suggest that a kind of distinctively English literary sensibility may still be discoverable – or at least a British one, because one of the poets included (the pseudonymous ‘Columba’) is Scottish, while another (Rahul Gupta) is a noted exponent of traditional alliterative verse. This does not mean that the other six contributors are stodgily suburban, nor even a hundred percent English. Alexander Adams is a justly well-regarded artist whose work is in the V&A (several of his drawings are used in Sunken Island). Benjamin Afer calls himself an “authentic reactionary”, but authors futuristic novels. Daniel Gustafsson is a bi-lingual (Swedish) doctor of philosophy, as well as a highly-regarded poet. A. Robert Lee taught in America and Japan, and lives in Spain. Nicholas Murray is a biographer of Kafka and Chatwin, and a Fellow of the Welsh Academy. S. D. Wickett is an aficionado of Lovecraft and Phillip K. Dick, and affianced to digital media.

The poems vary greatly in style. Nicholas Murray’s six short contributions feature everyday vexations, from standing on a train station concourse to being bitten by someone else’s dog (for which he apologises, the most stereotypically ‘English’ moment in the book). He notices small things, and honours the 19th century clergyman-diarist Francis Kilvert, who did too – “…the man of God whose fine gift / for seeing things lights the day / As sunshine after sudden rain”. He looks into a painting of a Lancashire landscape, and remembers its departed artist. He is abashed by the force of nature, in the form of a night wind which blew away rooftiles, and “glib proposals”. He then eavesdrops on an imagined conversation between James Joyce and Percy Wyndham Lewis, as verbose Irishman and Vorticist Englishman consider quantity, and the urgent need to stir things up, to dissolve “the solid shell”. 

A Robert Lee’s contribution, ‘From…’, addresses Englishness, coherent but complicated, encapsulated by the “multi-there” and “multi-then” of his own odyssey from 1950s Manchester via London, America, and Japan to 2022’s Spain. “The initial from takes on lengthening distance…” while everything changes and he changes with it, but remains in some ways strangely the same. ‘From…’ is more impressionistic jottings than verse, yet it ably conveys diverse textures and odd connections – between Manchester, Lancashire and Manchester, New Hampshire – between London periods and London postcodes – between the Kents of Chaucer and supermarkets – between the island mentalities of Britain and Japan, and the “inside outsider” status of being a Spanish-speaking Englishman in Spain. In him, national nostalgia seems in permanent tension with what Germans call Fernweh – ‘farsickness’, a wish to see far-off places – and perhaps he needed to get away to understand where he had come from. As Kipling asked, “what should they know of England who only England know”? Lee at least has come “to relish the from and the to: England’s away-day, England’s away-life”.

Adams’ poem ‘Roadside Diner, Shropshire’ is less sanguine, a contrast between the heartbreaking hills of Housman, and the plastic-bottle spotted county Adams and companion view from a bleary café window, downing terrible food while “vital, indifferent” traffic dashes by, heading nowhere purposefully. This England is, he repines, “an absent people, a civilization surrendered”, and sometimes he feels like a “lone journalist remembrancing a defeated land”. Lack of legacy nags and nags at him, as he sees sunning girls arising and going “back to life, leaving nothing of themselves” – fewer traces than even the evanescent, underestimated flowers of May.

Daniel Gustafsson’s ‘Bulbs’ strikes a brighter botanical note, reminding us that even the gnarliest corm in the coldest ground pushes green spears upwards each spring, offering potential for beauty and self-realisation. His work is rhizomed in Yorkshire, a county whose notoriously crumbling Holderness coast offers plentiful metaphors for erosion of substance. “The guards have let us down”, Gustafsson warns, political leaders and opinion-formers mere “architects of entropy”, letting everything slide into the abyss out of sheer carelessness. “We’ve seen our footings fall / to sludge… have seen, through slurred decrees and sleights of hand, / a state of blank forgetfulness / usurp the patterned sand.” Spurn Point at the northern tip of the Humber could be nationally emblematic, a sandy spur soon to be an island, near where the great port of Ravenspur once saw kings land, and monks build monumentally. The East Riding’s erosion is symbolic to him of a country’s “great diminishing”, as a former “common ground” is washed across by shallow sloganeers, who impose their views on others like some postmodern Morality Police.   

Gustafsson’s lyrical wistfulness is given a more combative edge by Benjamin Afer, whose ‘Lines on an English Street’ express feelings of inner exile, the author feeling alienated from his ancestral domain by demographic changes as symbolized by ethnic restaurants – “a surfeit of whiffs”, from an alphabet soup of eateries in High Streets that have somehow become Grand Bazaars. “It’s a solitary walk the Englishman beats / In the swelling crowds of the English streets”, he insists bleakly, notwithstanding possible economic upsides: “The happy ringing of tills and drumming feet / Make a merchant at home on the English street.”

The collection closes on an unexpected crescendo, with four extracts from larger works by Rahul Gupta. The author, who holds a doctorate in alliterative verse, and is undertaking a major translation project from Old Norse, is alive with logophilic intensity, pouring torrents of words onto pages as if upending some wonderfully capacious cornucopia. Familiar words are deployed in unexpected ways, unfamiliar ones summoned from OE word-hoards where they have lain too long asleep, and new ones are smithed – and all are marshalled to striking mythopoeic purpose.

Gupta’s chief area of operations is the post-Roman, pre-English world, when Angles, Celts, Jutes, Saxons and Scandinavians moved across claimable spaces between downfallen towns, where horse-masters could be kings and stones sacred, and ravens battened on bodies at real battles whose locations we have lost, and which we barely now remember even as names. This is ‘Matter of Britain’-territory, Gog Magog-country, the Logres that lies under even the ugliest parts of everyday England, giving the least imaginative modern Englishman some vague sense that he belongs in some continuum. This epic subject – so liable to be conventionalised and sentimentalised – gains vastly in vitality at his hands.

‘A Norse Étude’ is a combat scene condensed from all the hyperboreal epics, from Heimskringla and Orkneyinga to Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon, imagining “horny-nebbed” hooded crows descending on men falling under a hail of “Flanged arrows as flinder- / fledges leapt from edges / over shields, bows shrilling, / when shank-deep was dankness / of gore”.  Poems were – and are – also weapons in these wars of all against all, as tribal minstrels interpret and invent legends, weaving words “from that web of swords”, trying to forge the future by capturing the past.

‘The Turn and Fall of Leaf’ could be a title from Tolkien (to whom Gupta has been likened), a lambent disquisition on autumn, its colours and significances, its glories and sadness, as the glowing greenwood goes glorious, then brown and blighted. Winds pick up and shiver the timbers, and their chlorophyll clothes weep to the far-below floor. Secret glades are shockingly made naked, and rides are mounded deep in dry detritus – “pathways choked, by parched masses: / crinkled chamoisy, crunched underfoot / as shuffling drifts. With shift and ruffle / They enswathe the sward”.

Time for ‘The Onset of Winter’, with clouds and winds as “sky-skirmishers, obscure armies / of ill omen”. The Wild Hunt passes, baying and foaming hounds headed by Herne, antler-masked “wood-warlock of the warrior-band”, in elemental pursuit of white harts from heraldry, while berserkers and whippers-in howl and scream and “chew the shieldedge” in frenzy. And then – the chase passes and the thrumming hoofbeats recede into infinity. Nature exhales, and all is suddenly motionless. Overhead, “Hunter and Hound are hovering still” in a sky diamonded with stars and a moon of mother-of-pearl.

At other times, winter deals harsh hail and sleet to punish the patient earth – “gravel-grain that grows no harvest”. Yet other days, snowfall hushes all noise, subdues all striving; a giant Cold Genius walks the whitening land with his finger to his lips, casting crystals of infinite variety indifferently over the quick and the dead, obliterating boundaries, ivorying all the colour-fields. “All wear his harness: / ironhardened earth” and “The ice tightens / Wonderfetters”.

But there is release at last, as even in winter there is the possibility of warmth. In ‘The Midwinter Sun’, the “all-tending orb” suddenly rides high and reaches down with effortless sensuality. He “…drives the spore: he inspires the bud, / as the twig whitens, to untwist her whorl: / he parts her petals; the pollen to smoulder / from flaunting catkins”. Blinking, yawning animals emerge from hibernation, hungry for the starting grass, conscious of urgent impulses that make the male hen harrier seek out multiple mates, send hares careering across champaigns, adders intertwine Gordianally, and unsettle cattle in crew yards. The poet tracks Phoebus lovingly through his golden ascents, then Wheel of Fortune downturns, as the “traitor-barons…eclipse the glory of his lion’s mane”, as so often before. The uncertain sun sinks into the sea, and troubled men set out in tiny boats, “travailing westward /… on benighted tides, / In search of the dawn.” Like all his others, this is a virtuosic performance, a welcome reminder that there is still blood in the tradition.

The contributors to this volume could all be seen like Gupta’s metaphorical sailors, navigators of unknown waters, seeking Sol-ace in a gathering dark, reaching for verse to reverse eclipse. If sometimes their reach falls short, at other times it does not, and always they are honourably-intentioned. This public-spirited Parnassian project can be judged a success if even a few of the many other anxious among the English are inspired to poetry in their turn.

Seas within seas

Bucentaur at the Molo, Ascension Day, by Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto)

History of the Adriatic: A Sea and its Civilization

Egidio Ivetic, Cambridge: Polity, 2022, hb., 352 pps, £25

DEREK TURNER wallows in warm world-historical waters

The Mediterranean flows always through European awareness, Homer’s ‘wine-dark-sea’ and the Romans’ Mare Nostrum becoming ‘Our Sea’ too by ancient immersion. But within the world-historical susurrations of those waves can be heard the sounds of smaller waters, whole seas within seas. University of Padua historian Egidio Ivetic draws attentions to the oddly-overlooked Adriatic, a more intimate body of aqua but one with its own identity and importance, which he calls ‘the Mediterranean of the Mediterranean.’

As well as academic insights, Ivetic has personal connections around these shores, criss-crossed the Adriatic frequently while working on ships, and evinces unflagging interest in everything from sixth-century BC amphorae to twenty-first century ephemera. His book is not lushly impressionistic in the style of many northern European writers, but it is deeply affectionate, and his subject intrinsically poetic. It is not free from ‘academese’, but it is vastly informative, helping fill a surprisingly blank space in the expanding area of thalassography – the history of seas, as opposed to history in or on seas.

The Adriatic was historically considered a discrete region of the Mediterranean, a third branch that was neither the Levant (east) nor the Ponent (west). It was where the Latin West encountered the Orthodox East and later Islam, and where numerous empires had their farthest frontiers – the Carolingian, the Byzantine, the Holy Roman, the Hapsburg, the Ottoman, and the Napoleonic. It was strategic too to the Spanish crown, and always a corridor of concern to Popes, especially after the fall of Constantinople allowed the Turks to subjugate much of the Balkans. The area was both recognizably European and exotically Near Eastern; Saracens captured Bari as early as 847, into the 1920s camel caravans travelled as far west as Sarajevo, and Al Jazeera broadcasts in Bosnian-Croat-Serb. Albania, Croatia, Italy, Montenegro and Slovenia are the latest manifestations of infinitely older identities, rooted in both reality and romance. Bosnia-Herzegovina is also Adriatic although it does not have a coastline, because whatever transpired on the sea always made ripples far inland.

Reliable counter-clockwise currents, and the narrowness of the gulf, impelled Archaic then Classical Greeks northwards along the eastern shores then all the way back down the western ones, founding colonies and making myths as they came, alternately encountering transhumant pastoralists or sophisticated Etruscans, Gauls, and Italics.

Many Greek colonies became fought-for Roman provinces and towns – Hannibal prevailed at Cannae (Barletta), and Caesar’s Rubicon flows north of Rimini – then Avar, Frank, Hun and Ostrogoth conquests – and eventually celebrated market- and meeting-places. The twin-sailed bragozzi of fishermen timelessly ploughed the liquid plain between passing triremes, dromons, galleys, cogs and galleons and countless other craft of ambassadors, bishops, corsairs, crusaders, dukes, kings, mercenaries, merchants and pilgrims – constant interchanges often exploding in conflict.

Ancona, Apulia, Brindisi, Calabria, Dalmatia, Epirus, Istria, Picenum, Ragusa, Ravenna, San Marino, Trieste, Urbino, Venice… The names sound down centuries, magnetizing today’s tourists as they magnetized Greeks, Tudor Englishmen (Twelfth Night was set in Illyria), or eighteenth-century Grand Tourists. Later wanderers too were entranced – James Joyce, who decamped to Trieste in 1904, Gabriele D’Annunzio, the flamboyant future Fascist who took Fiume in 1919, or Lawrence Durrell, who joyfully swapped 1930s Bournemouth for balmier Corfu (where Alcinous hosted Odysseus).

Not all who live around the Adriatic have been sailorly, but Venice by herself made up for any regional maritime deficit. Centuries of daring, enterprise and ruthlessness are symbolized by the annual ceremony of ‘Marriage to the Sea’, when the city’s mayor is rowed out into the lagoon to do what Doges did – drop a consecrated ring into the water while intoning ‘Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique domini’ (‘We wed thee, sea, as a sign of true and everlasting domination’). Venice’s Arsenal was probably the largest manufacturing facility in the pre-industrial world, experimenting with secret weapons and turning out ships on something resembling an assembly-line. When Napoleon’s troops took the Most Serene Republic in 1797, it was the shocking end of over 1,100 years of independent existence, but perpetuated the modern legend of the unique ‘Mistress of the Adriatic,’ the enigmatic, imperilled dream-city of commerce and Carnival.

Over the ensuing two centuries, the Adriatic was gradually “transformed from place to geography”, increasingly lined by new nation-states with ‘rational’ constitutions and industries, plied by steamships and overflown by aircraft, studied by scientists, and treated thematically by historians. The old empires imploded, buffeted by ethnic and liberal rebellions, then 1914-18, but leaving vestiges of vassalages that ultimately made Yugoslavia unviable, and still envenom regional relations.

Since the 1990s, bureaucrats have presented the fabled Adriatic as bathetic ‘Euroregion,’ an allegedly integrable socioeconomic zone suited to mass tourism and ‘multicultural’ connections, which perspective brings problems of its own. Ivetic applauds attempts at cooperation, but knows the Homo Adriaticus foreseen by certain fond theorists has yet to be born.For now, at least, he concludes shrewdly, ‘the Adriatic is first and foremost history.’

This review first appeared in issue 31 of Bournbrook Magazine ( and is reproduced with permission