Names and Places

Names and Places

This week’s poems celebrate the inspiration to be gained from the names of domestic and foreign places.

Our journey starts on “The Rolling English Road” with G.K. Chesterton.

We stop on the way to admire the views presented by Walter J. Turner in “Romance”.

Our end point is John Keats’s eleventh sonnet recording the inspiration he felt “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”.

Poem 61. The Rolling English Road

A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

G.K. Chesterton (1874—1936)

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

I think this is my favourite of Chesterton’s verse because it is a glorious celebration of language and of the unmarked and often unnamed English roads that are unconcerned with getting from A to B as fast as possible; they are better at getting you to somewhere peaceful and quiet.

I like the idea that those English roads were not so much planned as traced across the landscape by the unsteady gait of drunkards—anyone who has spent quality time off the motorways, A roads and dual carriageways can attest to the suggestion that sobriety had little to do with their genesis, a suspicion that matches well with the wild variations in place names: one often feels that a journey is taking in both Bannockburn and Brighton Pier. The final stanza speaks of travelling to Paradise by way of Kensal Green: Kensal Green is a cemetery in West London, hence its presence on the itinerary immediately before Paradise. Kensal Green is the final resting place of many eminent Victorians: Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Anthony Trollope, Charles Babbage, and William Thackeray for example, as well as the more modern names of Ingrid Bergman, Freddie Mercury and Alan Rickman.

It is interesting to note that this poem may have been written to counter the suggestion that Prohibition (which had recently become law in the USA) should be replicated in the UK. Chesterton felt deeply that everyone was entitled to ordinary pleasures (including enjoying a drink in peace), but he didn’t make a big deal out of it, he wrote a timeless poem instead.


Poem 62. Romance

Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Took me by the hand.

Walter James Turner (1889—1946)

When I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Took me by the hand.

My father died, my brother too,
They passed like fleeting dreams,
I stood where Popocatapetl
In the sunlight gleams.

I dimly heard the master’s voice
And boys far-off at play,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Had stolen me away.

I walked in a great golden dream
To and fro from school –
Shining Popocatapetl
The dusty streets did rule.

I walked home with a gold dark boy
And never a word I’d say,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Had taken my speech away:

I gazed entranced upon his face
Fairer than any flower –
O shining Popocatapetl
It was thy magic hour:

The houses, people, traffic seemed
Thin fading dreams by day,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
They had stolen my soul away!

I like this poem because Walter Turner captures the romance of the names of foreign places, and because anyone who can fit Popocatapetl into a rhyme deserves respect in my book.

The romance of these strange names does spark the imagination though perhaps not to the obsessive extent described in the poem—the narrator is so enchanted by the thought of these amazing foreign places that he neglects his studies and cares nothing for the loss of his father and brother.

Poem 63. Sonnet XI: On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer

…and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise,
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

John Keats (1795—1821)

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific, and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise,
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

John Keats wrote this sonnet of the scenes his imagination conjures from George Chapman’s 1616 translation of the Greek poet Homer. Keats likens the translation to the feelings of an astronomer who discovers a new member of the solar system or the conquistador Cortés when his eyes saw the Pacific for the first time. Keats and his friend Charles Cowden Clarke who had obtained the text sat up all night reading it, and Clarke found the sonnet on his breakfast table at 10am the following morning. They found the more direct, earthier phrasing employed by Chapman refreshing compared to the mannered style of Dryden’s and Pope’s translations. Keats understood Latin but could not read Greek so he relied on the translations.

P.G. Wodehouse references this poem in some of his Jeeves and Wooster stories, generally when Bertie is expecting Jeeves to concoct another of his escape plans, he looks at his valet “with a wild surmise”. Wodehouse often referenced poems in his comic writing, and I’ve always enjoyed picking out the references, which can be quite subtle.

The peak of Darien is also part of the geography of the lake explored by the Walkers (the Swallows) in Arthur Ransome’s first book, “Swallows and Amazons”. Darien is the name they give to the headland from which they first see the lake.