Victoria Moul reviews Arctic Elegies by Peter Davidson (Carcanet, 2022)
This impressive and unusual collection sets the tone straight away: “The falcon flown, far in the starving air / So many lost, this long, half-secret war.” Davidson’s verse is meticulous, metrical, alliterative; driven as much by musical half-rhyme as full rhymes; historically specific; highly emotional but broadly impersonal (these are the opposite of anecdotal poems); and intensely romantic. He has a style, tone and set of characteristic themes which I found beautiful, unfashionable almost to the point of provocation, highly accomplished, and just occasionally, perhaps, a little self-indulgent.
These poems are, as the title suggests, elegies – if there is one term that works for them all, that must be it – and though the elegiac ‘occasion’ varies, two are dominant: the doomed Franklin Expedition of 1845-48 (from which the collection takes its title), and the recusant Catholic world of Jacobite families in late seventeenth and eighteenth-century England and Scotland, loyal to their lost cause in another version of doomed endeavour. Seasonally, we are usually either at the turn between summer and autumn; or in the deepest of winter. There is a strong sense, too, of the liturgical year (‘Canticles for Good Friday’, ‘Sonnet for Trinity Sunday’) and the routines of Catholic religious practice. Several poems are hymns or prayers, and three are addressed directly to Mary, including ‘Prayer to the Virgin on a Winter Night’, which ends:
Crowned with searchlights,
Crowned with stars,
Look down in pity on our sins and wars.
The poems have their own particular soundscape and a marked tendency to a very traditional kind of ‘natural abstraction’ – they are full of snow and roses, frost and fog, ash and stars. The effect is atmospheric without bringing any particular landscape to the mind’s eye in detail, even though many of those poems do have specific historical and geographical settings. While this aspect of the collection is powerful but, as it were, somewhat generic, its use of translation and allusion is resonant and highly specific: we recognise more precisely where we ‘are’ in literary than in visual terms. Davidson is an early modernist scholar by profession, and it is unsurprising that we hear traces of Campion, Lovelace and Shakespeare; but the collection is also dense with echoes of later poets, both from the English tradition (such as Tennyson, Swinburne and Hopkins) and wider continental literature: one poem (‘September Castles’) is a touching response, albeit at several removes, to Rilke’s ‘Herbstag’. A series of pieces scattered throughout the book are versions of poems by Martinus Nijhoff (1894-1953), originally in Dutch.
Davidson’s verse is meticulous, metrical, alliterative; driven as much by musical half-rhyme as full rhymes; historically specific; highly emotional but broadly impersonal … and intensely romantic
Formally, Arctic Elegies is extremely impressive, rewarding and here, too, unfashionable – the collection contains only one unambiguous sonnet (often the stand-by ‘form’ in largely free-verse collections). Davidson writes short lyric lines very beautifully, but the most distinctive feature of his verse music is a long line, usually of six beats, influenced metrically more by the Latin hexameter than the French alexandrine:
This is the desolate month, month of reproaches and mourning
Death-bag November, gaslighting out of the darkness,
Whispering there is no voice which can outlive the silence;
Whispering there is no name, though lovely, beloved in season,
Of which the echo’s not faint now and faded to nothing.
(‘Against the Vanity of the Poets’)
There’s a feeling for the quantity of syllables here too – that is, how long they take to pronounce, rather than whether they are stressed or not – which also recalls Latin verse. Some of the pieces were commissioned to be sung, and you can hear the discipline of the librettist or lyric writer, as well as that of the classically trained scholar, informing much of Davidson’s verse.
This is the work of a mature poet who is led from his subject and occasion to the appropriate style and form. Most collections don’t have this kind of formal maturity, range or sense of integration. But there are surprises too: a hint of whimsy in the prose poem ‘The Museum of Loss’, which I didn’t like, exactly, but found interesting, and a thoughtful inclusion. Several of Davidson’s lyrics contain a kind of epigrammatic modulation, a rhetorical snap that works not against the romance, but across it. The first poem of the collection, ‘Jacobite Song’, ends not in fact as the song of the title, but as an epigram:
The falcon flown, far in the starving air
So many lost, this long, half-secret war.
The regiments like snow all overborne
The boat rowed far from the cold shore, long gone.
O blackbird taken in the fowler’s snare
He is now far who will return no more.
The burn is frozen and the bird is flown
The rose is withered and the tower is down.
Snow, falcon, blackbird, water, rose and tower:
Faded, flown, taken, frozen, fallen, gone.
Overall, the romance of Arctic Elegies is most effective when it is cut in this way with something else: with the rhetorical rigour of epigram, as here; with musical influences; with other voices, in the several poems alluding to or ‘after’ others (especially the Nijhoff versions which, in tone and content, are both recognisably related to Davidson’s own style, and interestingly distinct from it); or – rarest and most satisfying, perhaps – with the astringency of emotional honesty, as in the long and unforgettable poem ‘The Mourning Virtuoso’. Quite unlike anything else in the collection, in tone, form and content, here Davidson recalls and evokes a very specific personality: “Your lovers knew you least, your friends hardly at all”, as he puts it in a kind of refrain. An (unnamed) friend characterised by evasion and disguise, an imagined past, the sort of person who tells everyone he knows a different but equally glamorous and fictitious story before dying young and alone: “You were very brilliant and very ill, that was the nugget of truth, where everything else was a fiction.” The poem manages to convey both the attraction of this kind of personality and its sadness: the waste and deception, the real brokenness of it, and the moral and even religious challenge of making sense of it:
Forth from such broken selfhood where could the soul go?
Into which purgatory of delinquent mirrors, into which aftermaths and dissolving places?
Which regions like fairgrounds under white rain in the wastes outside our lives?
‘The Mourning Virtuoso’ is a very good poem in its own right, and markedly different from the rest of the collection – the poem is haunted by the music of Davidson’s characteristic six-beat line, but at a considerable distance, with many shorter and longer lines, as if metrically, too, the poet struggles to pin down the person he writes about. The poem is so peculiarly effective, however, because the questions it raises, very near the end of the book, cut across the dominant tone of the entire collection. Arctic Elegies romanticises failure, up to and including martyrdom, against a backdrop of religious certainties. But both that romanticisation and its certainty stumble alike upon the character, questions and even the distinct conversational style of ‘The Mourning Virtuoso’: the portrait of a kind of moral failure which is presented not just unromantically, but with a conscious effort to strip away the romance from loneliness and deception. It is telling that the least convincing bit of this extraordinary poem is its closing attempt to imagine its addressee in the kind of heaven we find evoked elsewhere. But it is a remarkable poem and the counterpoint it sets up with the rest of the book helps to make a distinctively accomplished collection into something stronger and more strange.
Victoria Moul is a poet, translator and scholar living in Paris. Recent publications include A Literary History of Latin and English Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 2022) and (with John Talbot) C. H. Sisson Reconsidered (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023). Recent poems, reviews and verse translations have appeared in the TLS, The Dark Horse, Amethyst Review, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, Bad Lilies, Modern Poetry in Translation, Ancient Exchanges and the anthology Outer Space (CUP, 2022). She writes about poetry and translation at Horace & friends.