‘The Lie’ and other poems, Sir Walter Raleigh
Greville Press Pamphlets, £7.50
Preserving an experience indefinitely?
I didn’t know Sir Walter Raleigh was a poet. He was also a bit of a pirate and scoundrel, so maybe I should have guessed. I recognised the title of ‘As You Came From the Holy Land’, though, because John Ashbery borrowed it for a poem in ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’.
In Raleigh’s poem the speaker asks a passer-by whether they saw his old lover as they travelled from Walsingham. This established – the woman is the most beautiful person on earth, so easy to remember – the speaker compares false love with true:
But true love is a durable fire,
In the mind ever burning,
Never sick, never old, never dead,
From itself never turning.
This is bold, beautiful language. There’s something compelling, too, about the cold, melancholy mood of the poem, a mood it shares with Ashbery’s, in which the speaker asks a series of opaque questions of someone who has just passed through a surreal, ominous, landscape.
I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s ‘Girl from the North Country’. Dylan’s subject matter is similar to Raleigh’s: the singer asks a traveller to remember him to a girl. Dylan, in turn, is working from the folk standard ‘Scarborough Fair’, in which a man sets an old lover a series of impossible tasks, to which the lover responds in kind, implying an irrecoverable and possibly bitter separation.
‘Girl from the North Country’ is the most straightforwardly tender of these poems. But the strangeness of the landscape is significant: Dylan’s ‘North Country’ is bleak and foreboding: ‘the winds lie heavy on the border line’. This tone, I think, picks up on the mood of Raleigh’s ballad, in which ‘love likes not the fallen fruit / from the withered tree.’
There's something intrinsically, beautifully sad about the way the speakers in these poems attempt to experience something they’ve lost, or are separated from, vicariously. It’s this, I think, that creates the melancholy.
Larkin described poetry as an attempt ‘to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem’. The reader, then, gets to experience something infinitely—good for them. But what about the poet? Do their own poems allow them infinite access to an experience? Perhaps, like the characters in these poems, they’re trying to get back to the original experience vicariously, through the reader.