Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A poet draws inspiration from Mary Queen of Scots

“The Guidman’s Daughter” by Henry Marsh

Henry Marsh has just published his fifth major volume of poetry, “A Voyage to Babylon”. Its principal focus is on the Covenanters. His fourth volume, “The Hammer and the Fire” began with thinking about John Knox. I intend to review the new book – just published. But to whet your appetite I will post my reviews of Three and Four.

This is a review of his third volume. His friends and former pupils will not be surprised to hear that he is now regarded - by better informed judges than me - as one of the leading poets writing in Scotland today. One of the things that make him so highly regarded is that his poems are accessible as well as moving. If you have never read a poem since you sat Higher English, this book might get you back into the habit.

The poems are organised into sections which reflect the various themes. His reactions to paintings form one section – Titian, Rembrandt, Hopper, Kym Needle, Renoir. The Titian under discussion is “The Virgin and Child with St John” - and a lamb.
            The scene is pastoral, seemingly tranquil

But then, sixteen lines later, comes the shock:

                                    It has no comfort for her.
            She knows that lambs are for slaughter

Through Henry’s eyes we become very aware of the artists, and the models, and the subjects, as human beings, caught up in the creative artifice of picture-making. Why on earth, for example, does Rembrandt put such heavy armour on a half-grown boy? We can enjoy the poems, and be led ourselves to look deeper into paintings when next we are in a gallery.

Another section is inspired by his beloved South Uist. It takes just a handful of words to create a special place.

            A sea, deep blue, cavorting,
            running south…..


                                    From a doubt
            of sea or cloud the Atlantic
            resolves to milky green

There is passion here for the sailing fulmars and clues of machair flowers. But there is also wry wit at the local games:

            Grim, they are, in their wee shelter
            on the machair – the pibroch judges

and the poet has an eye for twenty-first century marauders:

                                                They hurtle
            past in cars. Their lager cans
            lie buckled in a ditch.

I hope you can get a glimpse, in these few quoted lines, of the sharp eye, the well-tempered, finely chosen words, and the deep humanity of the vision.

Other sections deal with his family, private moments of love laid out for us to wonder at, to sense the loveliness, and to share. Those of you who know Jackie Marsh will at once recognise the lady in blue of the opening section (and the dedication), with her insistent goodness. I guess that most people’s favourite verses will be the ones arising out of moments with his grand-daughter; I defy anyone who has ever loved a lively infant to be unmoved by them. We hear of her instinctive shiver under a massive pine tree, and her rapture at Tinker Bell. And it is impossible to believe that the description of her meeting with a toad will not end up as an anthologised classic.

            “Bonjour. Je m’appelle Emily….”
            Solemnly she’s addressing a toad
            in her one morsel of French.
There are eight sections altogether. Poems are sparked off by tunes – “McPherson’s Rant” – by spiders in the bath, by a summer holiday in France:

            Depths of sunlight where an eye might
            drown, flow in the cobbled fissures
            between shops and medieval houses.

The discovery of some of his own discarded manuscript blown off the recycling lorry under a hedge transports us in the twist of a line to the pages torn from the Sybiline books. Infant Emily plucking her first apple needs no words to set us thinking of how vulnerable is Eden. A chance encounter on a train produces one of the more moving poems, and a memory of the boyhood destruction of a garden syringe (used as a rocket launcher) one of the funniest.

Section Eight is devoted to the “Guidman’s Daughter” of the title: Mary Queen of Scots; and the final group of poems are reflections on her extraordinary career. Poets need historians, if they are to write with meaning about past (and John Guy is acknowledged in the introduction) but historians need poets too, to make sure that the individual and the personal, the human moments, the absurdities and the stresses and the tragedies and the fatigue are not ignored amongst the statistics, nor forgotten in the generalisations, nor trampled beneath insensitive analysis. Henry Marsh’s Mary is always a woman – a school leaver taking on an impossible country, a lover taken in by the beautiful boy who turned out to be the drunken, poxy Darnley, a mother, separated from her child, a victim of violent and selfish men. The mystery of her relationship with Bothwell remains a mystery:

            What desperate loyalty tied her
            after brutal nights, the anguish that reached
            the Maries through the bristling dark?

Then she was the prisoner:

            A spirit,
            is breaking her mind.

And finally condemned and executed:

            her dignity defiant, she wrested her meaning
            from a stubborn February dawn.

Superficially this is a book of three-score separate poems, each one a pleasure in its choice words, unexpected angles and precise observation. But the more they are read the more unifying themes emerge, and are brought together in Mary’s story.

                                    Was it just,
            in the end, she was a woman?
            You can see, any night, our
            crushing Scot’s brutalities,
            the blood and glass. And you hear
            the blast of that Trumpet – a woman’s
            rule is repugnant to nature,
            contrary to God

Poem after poem challenges – denies – the pessimism implicit in this question. Others deal with other subject matter altogether. But all the Scots who read this collection should not only have enjoyed a treat; they will also have been moved to think a little, laugh a little, ponder a little.

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