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Pop up shop of poetic pollie horrors

  • 30 January 2015

When I was in Year 10, I was punished for some trivial misdemeanour the precise nature of which I have long since forgotten, by having to write out Byron’s poem ‘The Ocean’ twenty times. 

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll!Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vainMan marks the earth with ruin; his control/Stops with the shore …

I’m not bothering to check those lines as I type them but I bet they’re right, because if there’s one lonely virtue to be had from copying a poem twenty times it is that it becomes cauterised into some part of your brain and neither age nor vicissitude nor shock nor carelessness nor a concerted act of will can ever obscure or compromise it.

Byron’s salute to the briny, brought back to me yet again while walking this morning on the beach, is of course not the only rhyme stuck irremovably in the labyrinths of my subconscious. Far from it. We all have these abruptly resurfacing images, tunes, memories and references. Mine happen often to be poems or quotations or brief lines that pop up unannounced and unsummoned because I have spent a great deal of my working and casual life involved in some way or another with the written word. 

For example, Treasurer Joe Hockey’s musings on the difference between the poor, who don’t drive very far – ‘O scathful harme, condition of povertie’ (Chaucer) – and the rich, who are ‘lifters’, had me invaded mentally by Yeats’s ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’: ‘Surely among a rich man's flowering lawns/Amid the rustle of his planted hills/Life overflows without ambitious pains.’ Without pain and with cigars and feet up on desks and smirks of self-congratulation. Surely!

Every now and then, however, these otherwise random intrusions into one’s mental and imaginative world take on a kind of unwanted or certainly unorganised coherence; a theme emerges despite your efforts to concentrate on something quite different. 

So, suddenly, towards the end of last year, I found myself recalling fragments of that scene (Act 4, scene iii) in Macbeth where Macduff and Malcolm (!) bemoan Scotland’s descent into disorder. Their ‘poor country … weeps, it bleeds; and each new day a gash/Is added to her wounds’. Their long discussion is about leadership and, among Macbeth’s other shortcomings, his dangerous unpredictability. Yet to make a move, to oppose and attempt to overthrow him, is a fearful proposition fraught with