The Mask of Anarchy, Percy Bysshe Shelley & Eleven Templar Poets
Templar Poetry, 2016 £6.00
‘Cobweb’, Colin Self’s artwork, enfolds these poems and makes my heart beat faster. Here is art as poetry — I’ve spent ages musing on it.
A heart is the perfect symbol for Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, not just because his poem is a passionate, controlled response (though there are times when stanzas spill over from four lines into five). Richard Holmes declares it ‘the greatest poem of political protest ever written in English’ (Shelley: The Pursuit, p. 532). How exciting for the poets who share this space!
Shelley’s sonnet ‘England in 1819’ is the pamphlet’s preface, leading the way in, passion controlled by form.
Readers will find their own favourites among the twelve more recent poems — mine is Tom Kelly’s ‘The Hoopoe at the Execution, Villebois’. I love the simultaneous movement in the opening line, and the images painted as the bird settles in place:
She landed as the blade was being lifted —
her crest rising as she settled,
feathers a feline ginger against the terracotta
of the low roof tiles.
The title hints at the French Revolution (making me think of The Romantics), ‘the blade’ adds to it, but it’s the Hoopoe we watch. The ‘I’ in the poem draws attention to the bird (‘As the blade began to fall I met her glance’) before this middle stanza turns mythical, adding a sense of timelessness. The final stanza keeps me wondering:
In those years I saw many executions.
But most of all I recall her eye —
I remember that stare,
the slight tilt of her head.
I find this poem unforgettable. Why? Most of all because of the bird, the way the poem narrows down to the near stillness of that closing image, and how its otherness keeps me wondering.
Tom Weir’s three-lined poem, ‘Teacher’s Book’, also stays with me for the controlled passion of its last line:
I’m supposed to teach them the meaning of sunset,
to: ‘explain, only, that it happens at the end of the day’.
Is that it? Is that really all you want me to say?