Leigh & District

Poetry Appreciation

Facilitator:Jane O\'Rourke01942 517862
Venue & time:Leigh Miners10am - 12noon2nd Thursday in month

August
As it was near to the anniversary of the Peterloo massacre and it is part of our history we read The Masque of Anarchy by Percy Shelley. We were all surprised how few of us had studied this at school when it had happened so close to where we live. The Massacre occurred during a period of immense political tension and mass protests. Fewer than 2% of the population had the vote, and hunger was rife with the disastrous corn laws making bread unaffordable to most of the people.

On the 16th of August 1819 the huge open area around what's now St Peter's Square, Manchester, played host to an outrage against over 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters; an event which became known as The Peterloo Massacre. An estimated 18 people, including four women and a child, died from sabre cuts and trampling. Nearly 700 men, women and children received extremely serious injuries. They had come in peace, many dressed in their Sunday best.

Local magistrates watching from a window panicked at the sight of the assembly, and read the riot act, (in)effectively ordering what little of the crowd could hear them to disperse. With an astonishing 600 Hussars, several hundred infantrymen; an artillery unit with two six-pounder guns, 400 men of the Cheshire cavalry and 400 special constables waited in reserve, the local Yeomanry were given the task of arresting the speakers.

The poet Shelley was living in Italy at the time but heard about Peterloo. His horror at the atrocity prompted him to write the poem. It pulls no punches and names those who he holds responsible.

2
I met Murder on the way--
He had a mask like Castlereagh--
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:

3
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew

4
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.

5
And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.

The poem seems to offer nothing but death and despair until Hope tentatively makes her entrance. She seems to be overwhelmed and strangely without hope until her heart cries out aloud:
37
`Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another;

38
`Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you --
Ye are many -- they are few.

The words ‘Ye are many – they are few’ are the closing lines of the poem and can be seen as a clarion call to ordinary suffering people that they do have power in numbers and can turn the tide against their oppressors.

90
`And these words shall then become
Like Oppression's thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain,
Heard again -- again -- again--

91
`Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number--
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you--
Ye are many -- they are few.

One of our group, John, is a historian and he gave us some context. Peterloo happened not long after the French Revolution and it was feared that revolution was contagious and that England was at risk. He likened it to the fear of communism in the 60’s.

The poem was not published until 1832, ten years after Shelley’s death and 13 years after the atrocity because the Government passed new legislation limiting free speech and the right to gather for peaceful demonstration.

Historians acknowledge that Peterloo was hugely influential in ordinary people winning the right to vote, led to the rise of the Chartist Movement from which grew the Trade Unions, and also resulted in the establishment of the Manchester Guardian newspaper.
According to Nick Mansfield, director of the People’s History Museum in Manchester, "Peterloo is a critical event not only because of the number of people killed and injured, but because ultimately it changed public opinion to influence the extension of the right to vote and give us the democracy we enjoy today. It was critical to our freedoms."

July
Amongst other poems we concentrated on those about the holocaust. We looked first at Nelly Sachs who was a Jewish woman living in Berlin but not actively practising the Jewish religion. She seems to have been made aware of her Jewishness only when persecution started. She is generally assumed to have had a nervous breakdown following a traumatically unhappy love affair with an older, divorced man who was not a Jew. The man in question is considered to have been a man of honour who was involved in the anti-nazi resistance movement. Their paths crossed again, almost 30 years later (1937 or 38), during the Nazi regime, when she was interrogated by the Gestapo. The man – whom she refers to in her poems as her “bridegroom” – was also arrested at the same time and tortured to death during interrogation. Nelly was most likely witness to at least part of his interrogation This had traumatic results: her “lips were sealed” during interrogation and after being released she was unable to speak for some time.

Her works unequivocally show the inadequacy of language when trying to describe the holocaust or what happened to individuals when caught up in this nightmare; their utter helplessness in the face of such orchestrated cruelty. How can you express the unspeakable and the unthinkable? There is no language to articulate this. We have to understand a concept before we can externalise it in language and the holocaust is incomprehensible. Nelly turns therefore to metaphor. This is frequently symbolised in her poems by her references to words and letters of the alphabet, and to fish, mute or caught on the angler’s hook.

The poems we looked at had been translated and this is interesting in that there is always “slippage” between one language and another. In “Vergebens verbrennen die Briefe” - (In vain burn the letters) the poem ends:

And the Word was
with God
And the Word
O my love
the Word was –

There is no word with which the poem can end.

In “Job” there is also the inability to verbalise events or experiences.

Your eyes are sunk deep into your skull
Like cave-dwelling doves in the night
Brought out blind by the huntsman,
Your voice is silenced
From asking too many whys,
To the worms and the fishes your voice has gone.
Job, you have wept through all the watches of the night

We then turned to arguably the most famous of the holocaust poets – Paul Celan - and looked in detail at his best known work – “Todesfuge” which translates to “Death Fugue”. Again, Celan is trying to express the unspeakable. He chooses the form of a linguistic fugue which, in the musical equivalent, relies on repetition.
‘The Black milk of daybreak’ is repeated at the beginning of each verse.

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink it and drink it
we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined

It's important to know that the Nazi guards at some of the death camps really did make prisoners play music before executions. Auschwitz in particular – one of the very worst camps – was notorious for this practice. The music was sometimes referred to as the "Death Tango." In fact, the original title of the poem was "Death Tango," but when Celan translated it from Romanian to German he changed the title to "Todesfuge”.

He calls out jab deeper into the earth you lot you
others sing now and play
he grabs at the iron in his belt he waves it his
eyes are blue
jab deeper you lot with your spades you others play
on for the dance.

We are lucky in that we have several German speakers in our group because we read two English translations of Celan’s Psalm, together with the original German version. Bron was able to give slightly different versions of the German words. All words can have different meanings and nuances and this is the same in any language. On encountering an ambiguous word the translator has to choose one “meaning”. This then sets the tone for the poem in translation, in effect it becomes a new poem.

It is never easy to read about the holocaust but it is essential that we do so that we never forget.

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More Group Pages
Art Appreciation Bird Watching
Board Games Book Reading & Armchair Critics
Bowls Creative Writing
Crime & Punishment 1 Crime & Punishment 2
Culture Club Egyptology
Family History French
iPads & Tablets Italian
Knitting Local History
Luncheon Club Maths
Musical Instruments Play Reading
Poetry Appreciation Quilters & Needlework
Relaxation/Support Scrabble
Shakespeare Singing for Fun
Spanish Ukulele
Watercolour Painting Women & History