Sunday, 29 April 2012

King’s Cross and E M Forster

Among the many books I once owned, but do no longer, I would like to be able to open Sad Ires (1975), a slim volume of poems by D.J. Enright. Who now remembers Enright? In his own lifetime he was condescendingly written off as a poet in the following terms:

"Enright’s is a distinctive minor talent exercised by a humane intelligence that makes verse jottings on what life throws up here and there about the world to stimulate wry, rueful or deprecatory reflection."
(Harry Blamires, A Guide to Twentieth Century Literature in English, 1983)

Enright was better than that. Sad Ires contained a sequence of poems called ‘The Stations of King’s Cross’ that I admired and about which I thought last week when I found myself unexpectedly standing in the newly opened concourse of King’s Cross.

King’s Cross is not the first London terminus I ever visited. I must have arrived at Euston from Birmingham with my father when I was about four, and he took me to see the Changing of the Guard. I also have a dim memory of being shown the Golden Arrow boat train at Victoria. But King’s Cross is the station about which I have the most vivid memories. I first travelled from there to Peterborough, and thence to Tydd – a journey from the sublime to the miniscule - on 31st August 1956. A few years afterwards I saw my grandmother for the last time when she waved goodbye to us on Platform 6. Later, I used to catch the 11 o’clock to Durham at the start of each university term; and once I arrived back at King’s Cross in the very early hours of a Saturday morning, 13th  June 1970. I sat on a hard bench on Platform 8 for two hours until I could sit no longer, so set out on foot across London to Waterloo and caught a slow train to Leatherhead for the funeral of my best friend.

It’s all change at Platform 8 now. The old station gives way to the new. Long gone the hard bench, the beery old Bar and the Stygian gents’ loos. The new entrance fills the space between the Great Northern Hotel and the western flank of the station, curving round under a spectacular new honeycomb roof towards St Pancras– as if determined not to be outdone by its international next-door neighbour.

There’s an intriguing passage in Howards End, where E M Forster describes the feelings of his heroine, Margaret Schlegel, towards the two stations, as she conducts her aunt, Mrs Munt, to King’s Cross for her ill-fated mission to rescue Helen Schlegel from her precipitate engagement to Paul Wilcox:

To Margaret – I hope that it will not set the reader against her – the station of King’s Cross had always suggested infinity. Its very situation – withdrawn a little behind the facile splendours of St Pancras – implied a comment on the materialism of life. Those great arches, colourless, indifferent, shouldering between them an unlovely clock, were fit portals for some eternal adventure, whose issue might be prosperous, but would certainly not be expressed in the ordinary language of prosperity. If you think this ridiculous, remember that it is not Margaret who is telling you about it; and let me hasten to add that they were in plenty of time for the train; that Mrs Munt secured a comfortable seat, facing the engine, but not too near it; and that Margaret, on her return to Wickham Place, was confronted with the following telegram:

All over. Wish I had never written. Tell no one. - Helen

But Aunt Juley was gone – gone irrevocably, and no power on earth could stop her. (Ch. II)

This is a masterly piece of indirection: under the guise first of telling us what Margaret thinks about the two stations (“But don’t tell her I told you she thinks this,” gossips the narrator, tugging gently at the reader’s sleeve) and then of  explaining how Mrs Munt gets herself safely settled for her journey, Forster withholds the key information, until it is too late for Mrs Munt and too late for us, that the journey will be not only needless but disastrous. In a move that is typical of Forster, the disaster has happened before we have been allowed to notice it. The consequences of an act, rather than the act itself, always matter more in Forster’s fiction.

And yet, in terms of the novel as a whole, Margaret is quite right about King’s Cross: it is the gateway to Howards End, and thus to the infinite and as yet unimaginable possibilities that Howards End will offer her and her sister. It will be, for them both, an ‘eternal adventure’. It’s characteristic of Forster, too, to have preferred the ‘colourless, indifferent’ arches of King’s Cross to the ‘facile splendours’ of Gilbert Scott’s St. Pancras.

How do the two stations compare today, emerging from their recent make-overs? Both have been transformed - St Pancras more, of course, than its neighbour. I like the imaginative creation of space in both places. I enjoy the upper and lower levels of St Pancras, and the cafés with their seats outside help to make the atmosphere feel relaxed: not everyone is rushing all the time, and if you are waiting for your Eurostar train to be called there is space and to spare. At King’s Cross, the new concourse under its great glass lattice ceiling (echoing the Norman Foster roof of the British Museum’s Great Court), feels - at least for the moment - wonderfully spacious. Each station, it now seems, adds a sense of occasion to arrival or departure.

But there is one big difference. At King’s Cross I have the feeling of being in a space enclosed, almost submerged: this is partly because a large section of the glass roof is actually darkened. By contrast, St Pancras is a space opened up: the new concourse is located in the old cellars below the original platforms, but with the roof removed: you look up and up, to and through the great glass span of the train shed’s magnificent roof – in its day, the widest single-span vault ever built. And everywhere the cast iron pillars and the great girders of the roof are painted in their original light-sky hue, named now, I’m proud to say, after the eminent Victorian engineer responsible for the roof, English Heritage Barlow Blue.

Adrian Barlow

[photo: King’s Cross station, new concourse

My new book, Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, has now been published by Lutterworth Press. For details and first reviews, click here.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Short measures (i): William Blake and Eternity’s Sunrise

                 In small proportions we just beauties see
                 And in short measures, Life may perfect be.
                                                                            Ben Jonson

‘Short measures’ – here, short poems. I’m going to start an occasional series in which I discuss very short poems. No more than eight lines, often fewer. Perhaps ten but certainly shorter than a sonnet, sometimes much shorter. Translations allowed, and suggestions welcomed.

What is there to say about a poem so short it may be no more than a couple of lines? What can such a poem add to the conversation between poems, poets and readers of poetry – a conversation that goes backwards and forwards across time and cultures? I’m starting with a poem by William Blake: ‘Eternity’ in four lines.

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the wingéd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

This quatrain, with its two pairs of rhyming lines, works by contrasts. It balances negatives against positives: the life-denying destructiveness of a selfish act set against the reward of a selfless gesture. What is ‘a joy’, however? To King Lear dividing his kingdom among his daughters, his favourite child Cordelia is ‘our joy’, the person who most gladdens his heart. And when Bassanio selects the lead casket in The Merchant of Venice, hoping to win Portia, he says, ‘Here choose I, joy be the consequence.’

Poets a generation later than Blake tended to see joy not necessarily embodied in a person: to Keats, ‘a thing of beauty is a joy forever’; when Wordsworth found himself ‘Surprised by joy’ he was ‘impatient as the wind … to share the transport’. Importantly, he does not wish to keep the joy to himself: ‘I turned to thee’. Nor did Byron in Childe Harold: on the Eve of Waterloo, the cry goes up, ‘On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined!’

Byron is here using ‘joy’ in the same way as Macbeth at his banquet, proposing a toast ‘to the general joy of the whole table’. Blake’s joy, though, even though it is not specified, is a specific thing (‘a joy … the joy’) with a life of its own.  Any attempt to imprison the ‘wingéd life’, to keep it for oneself, deserves to be condemned. We remember the lines from ‘Auguries of Innocence’:

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage.

Joy, Blake suggests, is fleeting: the wingéd life is always in flight, and the trick is not to capture, but kiss it – to share it and help it on its way. Nearer to our own time, at the end of the 1930s, Louis MacNeice makes this point in ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’: ‘You cannot cage the minute / Within its nets of gold’. And here is Auden:

Moments of happiness do not come often,
Opportunity’s easy to miss.
O let us seize them, of all their joys squeeze them,
For tomorrow will come when none may kiss.

Here, however, such carpe diem anxiety comes dangerously close to what Blake condemns: squeezing all the joy out of a rare moment of happiness is as bad as binding it to oneself. And in Auden’s lines (which come originally from his 1936 play The Ascent of F6) anxiety is heightened by the fear of tomorrow – specifically, the fear of looming war; existentially, the fear of death. This empty tomorrow recalls the ‘deserts of vast eternity’ in Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’, but this is a very different eternity from Blake’s. In his climactic phrase ‘eternity’s sunrise’, Blake juxtaposes against empty endlessness – what Thomas Hardy called ‘wan wistlessness’ – the promise of hopefulness. Living in Eternity’s sunrise is not a definition of joy (though it could be), it’s the reward for acknowledging, but not appropriating, joy.

For Wordsworth, just after Blake, sunrise is a mystical and transformative experience: ‘Ne’er saw I, never felt a calm so deep,’ he recalls after watching from Westminster Bridge the sun rising over London. Blake’s sunrise, too, is not just a spectacle, it is all-involving. To ‘live in’ eternity’s sunrise is to become, the poet implies, a part of the activity of continuous creation: to cite Wordsworth again, it is to have a

                                                 sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused ….
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. (from ‘Tintern Abbey’)

Wordsworth is here the great interpreter, with his stately piling up in blank verse of phrases, clauses and repetitions - four ‘all’s in two lines. Blake by contrast condenses ‘Eternity’ (the title of his poem) into a single verse, using a metrical form that at first seems almost like a nursery rhyme. The obvious way to scan the poem would go like this:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the wingéd life destroy,
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

Four ploddingly predictable stresses per line dull the sense of the poem. It is no small part of Blake’s artistry that this short piece invites the reader to think, and re-think, what might be a better way to let the lines speak. I don’t expect you to agree, but here is my suggestion:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the wingéd life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun-rise.

The adjacent stressing of flies / lives, emphasized by the running on from one line to the next, creates a momentum that carries the poem towards its climax. By a nice metrical irony, Blake allows us no time to linger over eternity:  it’s on the final word of the poem he wants us to dwell, sun-rise - a word of two stresses and infinite promise.

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: William Blake, from an engraving of a portrait by Thomas Phillips (1802)

[photo by Faye Steer. See Truly a Well-wrought Urn

My new book, Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, has now been published by Lutterworth Press. For details and first reviews, click here.