Saturday, 12 February 2011

Svend and Style

In a local secondhand bookshop a few years back I picked up a quaint little volume (which I have mentioned in this blog before) in the ‘King’s Treasuries of Literature’ series general-edited by Sir Arthur Quiller Couch. First published in 1922, it is titled: Atalanta’s Race and Two Other Tales from ‘The Earthly Paradise’. At the back of the book, after the three tales, we are offered a brief ‘Appreciation by Alfred Noyes’ and, more surprisingly, the text of Morris’s prose story ‘Svend and his Brethren’ from the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine.

Why the ‘Svend’ story, then? Well, first, ‘it is given here for purposes of literary comparison with the foregoing verse romances from the Earthly Paradise’. All well and good: let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. But then, second and much more intriguingly, ‘it is suggested that the reader should attempt the rendering of portions of it into one or other of the poetic forms represented in the three verse stories of this collection’ (p.169). The question of why one should want to perform this curious creative writing exercise is never addressed, but it is surely a lovely idea none the less.

To rewrite one of Morris’s works in the style of another, just for the hell of it! To an extent Morris himself did something like this, of course, since May Morris notes that he would occasionally write a particular story first as prose and then, not liking that version, as poetry – or vice versa. We might regard such stylistic rewritings as a kind of five-finger exercise that any keen Morrisian ought to chance his or her arm at now and again. So, just to start the ball rolling, I offer my own (very crude) version of the first chapter of News from Nowhere rewritten in something like the forceful anapaestic manner of Sigurd the Volsung. Comments – or improvements – would be very welcome:

At the League one sullen evening, great debate there gan to flare,
On the Morrow of Revolution, and the days that are fairer than fair;
And as Anarchists rant onwards, representing different schools,
Silent William broke amongst them, damning all the rest for fools.
As he wends his iron way homewards and stews in the vapour-bath,
‘If I could but see the future!’ he cries, and his great heart laughs.
Ugly bridge upon the river, young moon tangled in the sky,
Swirling waters up to Chiswick, as the hot debate goes by.
And as William lies to slumber loss and doubt come to the fore,
But he shapes them to a story, and they fall back to the floor.
Clock strikes three and he is sleeping, and now time begins to shift,
As the dark past gins to loosen, the claws of Capital to lift.

He awoke and tossed the bed-clothes, dazzled in the gleaming sun;
For the past was rent asunder, the days of Nowhere had begun.


ianmac55 said...

I love it, Tony!

The "curious exercise" seems part of an approach to English education in that part of last century. It reminds me of exercises in my Latin class at school. To translate Latin into English has an obvious point; but to translate English into Latin? One regular exercise was to redraft English into "Latin dress", that was, to rephrase the English original into a sort of English that was the equivalent of Latin grammatical use - so spotting which verbs would be replaced by absolute ablatives and so on. And these were regularly marked by the teacher!

I used to smile in my career in education when "transferable skills" became a watchword. Perhaps turning Morris's prose into Morris-style poetry was a skill which could be transferred into other areas? Belloc's "governing New South Wales" springs to mind.

Anyway, your Morris-style poetry version of the opening paragraphs of News from Nowhere cries to be chanted out perhaps by a group - more Songs for Socialists perhaps.



ianmac55 said...

Hi again,

By coincidence, within a day or so of your blog on Svend, the William Morris Society's blog carried news of a book sale by the William Morris Society in the US. Among the books offered was a copy of the Kings Treasuries of Literature volume of "Atalanta's Race ..."

I was tempted. I had a look first on Abebooks to see the going rate and spotted a copy for £1.00 from a British second-hand bookshop. My money didn't go to the US Society but the British bookseller.

Yes, it's the version with the Svend appendix and its strange suggestion to "attempt the rendering ... into poetic forms".

A clue that it was used in educational establishments is in the pre-printed bookplate. The publisher has "This book belongs to ..." and the pupil has filled in her name and "Bolton School, Lower V 1". "Atalanta's Race" has her annotations - in pencil - that I judge to be part of Lower V 1's class study of the poem.

The copy is a 1934 reprint of the 1922 publication. Perhaps J M Dent & Sons Ltd had a clear school audience as their target.



Tony Pinkney said...

Many thanks for your enthusiastic and very helpful comments, Ian. I don’t have much confidence in my ‘creative writing’ ventures, so your support was much appreciated. I’m a great fan of those ‘King’s Treasuries’ volumes, so I’m glad you’ve acquired yourself one. They’re tough and sturdy little volumes, aren’t they, exactly suited to the kind of battering they would get in school use! I have the Keats-Shelley and Matthew Arnold volumes too, and they each contain at the end literary-critical exercises which are extraordinarily revealing of the educational and poetic assumptions of their period – which now look hopelessly outdated, of course. Maybe there’s a good essay to be written on the series, from a history or sociology of education viewpoint. Morris’ poetry was around a lot, I feel, for school use in the early twentieth century – I’m not sure whether we’ve yet had a detailed study of that phenomenon. Thanks for your interest in the blog, and I hope the Green Party work on the city council is going well. Tony