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Notes from the Editor

Arthur Meets the Muses

Artorius: A heroic poem in four books and eight episodes,
by John Heath-Stubbs
Enitharmon Press, London, 1974.

Artorius is in many ways a spectacular tour de force, a poem well worth reading for brilliance of language, for depth of knowledge and intellect. And for its sense of humor, which always stabs out suddenly when least expected.

Though it has flaws. This is not a poem to read for the story: it uses the story as the basis for brilliant poetry and subtle symbolism, in a postmodern vein. You could almost call it a deconstruction of the Arthurian tale. Some may appreciate that: I do not.

Artorius is quite literally devoted to the nine Muses. Each book and episode is devoted to one Muse, under a particular sign of the zodiac (following a classical system) -- and the form changes to suit. Calliopea, the muse of epic poetry has pride of place. The narrative glue of the poem is provided by these sections, which use traditional alliterative meter. But other sections provide us with pieces of prose, of drama, of all the traditional literary endeavors sponsored by each Muse. The depth of classical knowledge, the depth of knowledge of the whole Matter of Britain, is staggering, yet the poem remains very readable.

The humor hits you in the very first lines. I can think of no invocation of the Muses in English literature at once so traditional and so very casual and familiar:

    Take down, Calliope, your trumpet from its tack:
    Rested has it long, and rusted? Give us a rouse, girl:
    Your voice I invoke now, and your eight with violets crowned
    Sisters to sing, to a star-dance I dispose them.

The alliterative verse ranges from very well done to jagged. Many passages have all the atmosphere and beauty of Middle English verse, such as the following passage, describing the turning of the seasons - and also marking the turning point in Arthur's career, from ascent to descent, from Summer to Fall:

    At the autumnal equinox, in even opposition,
    The bright and heavenly Balances hold
    The softness of summer and the savagery of winter;
    As on a field of fighting, the fierce tides
    Doubtfully turn, in indecisive tumult.
    Yet the doom of Summer is sealed, though the sun
    Suffuses the landscape serenely with light.
    There is an edge of death in the dank air,
    And the fading leaves, as listlessly they fall.
    The swallow and the swift, and the sylvan warblers
    Have moved off on migration; no more is heard
    The note of the nightingale, nor the nightjar's churning,
    The calling of the cuckoo, nor the dry-voiced corncrake;
    Richly the apples ripen in the orchards;
    The harvest is garnered and hauled into granges;
    Geese are set in the stubble to glean,
    With relish, the residue of the reaped grain,
    Fattening their flesh for the feast of Michaelmas.
         Such was the season when Myrddin suddenly
    Came to the King, Artorius, in his court.

However, there are other passages where the author takes liberties with alliterative meter: requiring alliteration to fall on unstressed syllables, requiring secondary stresses to count as metrical beats, crowding in too many primary stresses per line. These detract somewhat from the overall effect, though it is pretty clear that Heath-Stubbs knows what he is doing, and isn't trying actually to write consistently in alliterative meter: his goal is to evoke the atmosphere of Middle English Arthurian verse, not to revive the substance. And in that he succeeds admirably.

Taken singly, each of the pieces of this poem makes its own weird sense. Such as book II, devoted to Thalia, the muse of comedy (done as drama in blank verse.) Two poets in Arthur's court, the Celt Gwalchmai, and the Saxon Dagraefn, are sent to find Phyllidulus, last of a school of scholars in rhetoric who settled in Britain. Lacking students, Phyllidulus is reduced to lecturing to the tadpoles in the swamp where he lives. Yet the tadpoles never become frogs: something is missing. His only companion is his young ward, Lalage, whom he has promised in marriage to the first tadpole to become a frog. I won't spoil the humor of the scene by giving away the ending, but the scene is hilarious. Though it has a clear symbolic meaning: everything does in this poem. The tale of Phyllidulus can only be taken as a kind of allegory; in which the spirit of the muse is freed from a life stuck in the mud (while the tadpoles turn not into princes, but poets of a sort.)

And yet ... something is missing. The poem works on many levels, but it does not really work as a story. Of all the characters who pass through its pages, they are all of them (with one exception) more abstractions set to strut across the stage , than living breathing people about whom the reader can care. The exception is Modred [not Mordred: this poem follows the earliest version of the Arthurian story], who fills the roles both of traitor (as in the later tradition) and seducer of Guinevere. He at least is a believable character, with motivations that make sense, and his betrayal is foreshadowed subtly but interestingly as the poem proceeds, culminating in the hilarious spectacle of Modred and his conspirators converging on Arthur's court in his absence - in the guise of entertainers masked as satyrs, singing a bawdy parody of the Twelve Nights of Christmas.

But alas, that's not enough, at least for me. The poem works as an intellectual puzzle, as a display of verbal brilliance and erudition, perhaps even as an allegory. But I find it hard to accept that a narrative poem should be held to lower standards (when it comes to telling its tale) than an ordinary novel.

That's perhaps a contentious point. There are those who feel that poetry can't compete with novels, and so they shouldn't try. Sounds to me like a self-fulfiling prophecy: works like Shakespeare's are effective on many levels at once; there is no reason why great poetry should not also be great narrative. Through most of history, the two have coincided.

Copyright ©1999, Paul Deane