A Poet’s Guide to Britain


By Niall McArdle

There are places that speak,

Telling the stories of us and them.

A village asleep, loaded with dream

An ocean flicking its pages over the sand.

Eventually we reply, a conversation of place and page over time,

Inscribing the map so that each, in turn, might hold the line.

Owen Sheers

As TV critic for the Sunday Times, A.A Gill used to dine out on the eccentricities and biases of the BBC, and he would frequently have a go at all the “Tristrams” who he imagined sat in plush offices in Broadcasting House commissioning the sorts of television programmes that would appeal to certain niche audiences that shared the Tristrams’ view of the world.

One wonders what Gill would make of Owen Sheers‘ marvellous A Poet’s Guide to Britain. It is a wonderful example of how television can explain so-called ‘high art’ to the masses. It’s not at all snobbish or pretentious, and it succeeds at the one thing you would imagine is more suited to radio than television: talking about poetry.

Owen Sheers
Owen Sheers

The series is as varied as its subjects. It’s a literary tour-guide of Britain; it provides slices of British biography and history; it’s an invitation to read and reread poetry; it’s both wonderfully twee and brilliantly subversive. It revisits and reimagines both the landscape and the poems they have inspired. Its appeal should be huge, watched by fusty Home Counties types as well as those who crawled out of dark Satanic mills. In other words, by more than just A.A Gill’s Tristrams.

The series examines the history of poems by six poets: William Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold, Louis MacNeice, Lynette Roberts, Sylvia Plath, and George Mackay Brown.  Sheer’s enthusiasm is infectious, and the series invites us to reexamine famous poems in the light of their creators’ lives and the landscapes they celebrated: Orkney, Belfast, Dorset, Yorkshire, South Wales, the Lake District, London, Dover. The poems are examined in relation to the events and other writers that inspired each poet: Milton, Coleridge, Hawthorne, Eliot, Mallory, Bronte, Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, Francis Scarf, the Viking Orkney Sagas, and Edwin Muir.

It also introduces us to contemporary poets, each of whom feels a special relationship to one of the six poets. So it has introduced me to the work of Owen Sheer himself, as well as Adam O’Riordan, Simon Armitage, Kathryn Gray, Paul Farley, Danny Abse, Gillian Clark, Clare Pollard, Jo Shapcolt, Don Paterson, Pamela Beasant, Morag MacInnes, and Daljit Nagra.

William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth

Sheer’s choice of Wordsworth’s ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’ is interesting. Although he likes the Lake District’s poet’s nature poems, he is more interested in Wordsworth’s sonnet about cosmopolitan London, and like the rest of the series, his choice invites us to reread a famous poem. London was halfway between the Lake District of Wordsworth’s youth and the revolutionary Paris that he visited after university, to where he was returning to be reunited with his former lover Annette Vallon and their daughter, Caroline. The poem is beloved by Londoners for its sublime quality of light and feeling at dawn.

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear

The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Matthew Arnold
Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ is about the religious doubt Arnold experienced, and considering it is such a shockingly desolate poem, it’s a surprise to learn that he wrote it on his honeymoon.

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the A gaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Louis MacNeice
Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice’s ‘Woods’ is an examination of the conflicted identity that MacNeice struggled with for most of his life; his sense of being both Irish and English, caught between his father’s wild Mayo and the tamer countryside of Dorset, where MacNeice was sent to boarding school as a boy.

My father who found the English landscape tame
Had hardly in his life walked in a wood,
Too old when first he met one; Malory’s knights,
Keats’s nymphs or the Midsummer Night’s Dream
Could never arras the room, where he spelled out True and Good
With their interleaving of half-truths and not-quites.

While for me from the age of ten the socketed wooden gate
Into a Dorset planting, into a dark
But gentle ambush, was an alluring eye;
Within was a kingdom free from time and sky,
Caterpillar webs on the forehead, danger under the feet,
And the mind adrift in a floating and rustling ark

Packed with birds and ghosts, two of every race,
Trills of love from the picture-book—Oh might I never land
But here, grown six foot tall, find me also a love
Also out of the picture-book; whose hand
Would be soft as the webs of the wood and on her face
The wood-pigeon’s voice would shaft a chrism from above.

So in a grassy ride a rain-filled hoof-mark coined
By a finger of sun from the mint of Long Ago
Was the last of Lancelot’s glitter. Make-believe dies hard;
That the rider passed here lately and is a man we know
Is still untrue, the gate to Legend remains unbarred,
The grown-up hates to divorce what the child joined.

Thus from a city when my father would frame
Escape, he thought, as I do, of bog or rock
But I have also this other, this English, choice
Into what yet is foreign; whatever its name
Each wood is the mystery and the recurring shock
Of its dark coolness is a foreign voice.

Yet in using the word tame my father was maybe right,
These woods are not the Forest; each is moored
To a village somewhere near. If not of to-day
They are not like the wilds of Mayo, they are assured
Of their place by men; reprieved from the neolithic night
By gamekeepers or by Herrick’s girls at play.

And always we walk out again. The patch
Of sky at the end of the path grows and discloses
An ordered open air long ruled by dyke and fence,
With geese whose form and gait proclaim their consequence,
Pargetted outposts, windows browed with thatch,
And cow pats – and inconsequent wild roses.

copyright Faber & Faber

Lynette Roberts
Lynette Roberts

‘Poem from Llanybri’ by Lynette Roberts is of special importance to Sheer. He is from South Wales. Lynette Roberts grew up in Buenos Aires and later lived in London before moving to a tiny Welsh village very close to where Dylan Thomas lived. Thomas was best man at her wedding to Cydrech Rhys. She had a passion for the village, as well as for Welsh poet Alun Lewis (the poem is for him.) Sheer describes her as a war poet, and the programme is a reminder of the poverty and deprivation that Britain went through during and after the war.

If you come my way that is …

Between now and then, I will offer you
A fist full of rock cress fresh from the bank
The valley tips of garlic red with dew
Cooler than shallots, a breath you can swank

In the village when you come. At noon-day
I will offer you a choice bowl of cawl
Served with a ‘lover’s’ spoon and a chopped spray
Of leeks or savori fach, not used now,

In the old way you’ll understand. The din
Of children singing through the eyelet sheds
Ringing smith hoops, chasing the butt of hens;
Or I can offer you Cwmcelyn spread

With quartz stones from the wild scratchings of men:
You will have to go carefully with clogs
Or thick shoes for it’s treacherous the fen,
The East and West Marshes also have bogs.

Then I’ll do the lights, fill the lamp with oil,
Get coal from the shed, water from the well;
Pluck and draw pigeon, with crop of green foil
This your good supper from the lime-tree fell.

A sit by the hearth with blue flames rising,
No talk. Just a stare at ‘Time’ gathering
Healed thoughts, pool insight, like swan sailing
Peace and sound around the home, offering

You a night’s rest and my day’s energy.
You must come – start this pilgrimage
Can you come? – send an ode or elegy
In the old way and raise our heritage.

copyright Estate of Lynette Roberts

Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath

I thought I knew everything worth knowing about Sylvia Plath: the move to Britain from America, the tumultuous marriage to Ted Hughes, her mental illness, The Bell Jar, her suicide. Sheer, though, introduces the viewer to a nature poem by her, ‘Wuthering Heights’, inspired by the same Yorkshire moors that moved Emily Bronte to write her famous novel. The episode also has a brilliant moment when hairy north country types sit in a darkened pub telling ghost stories. Plath was brought to Yorkshire by Hughes, and the gloomy Pennines, the supernatural setting, and the stones of the village echo in her poetry.

Copyright prohibits publication of Plath’s “Wuthering Heights”.

George Mackay Brown
George Mackay Brown

George Mackay Brown lived in Strongness in the remote Orkney Isles, and Sheer views him as a literary outsider. Unlike the other poets in the series, Brown wasn’t a part of a literary circle, and though he lived for a time in Edinburgh, he lived for most of his life in the tiny Scottish outpost. During the war Orkney became an important point for British naval defence. Brown contracted TB, and as a consequence lost his job and failed the physical for the Army, and so, sick and jobless, he was stuck in Strongness for the duration of the war. Luckily for poetry, the Scottish poet Francis Scarf was boarded at his house, and Scarf encouraged Brown’s poetic ambition. He also became friendly with Edwin Muir, who submitted his poems to publishers without Brown even knowing.

His poem ‘Hamnavoe’ is a celebration of the rugged island landscape and an elegy for his late father.

I don’t know if the series was popular, but I hope that the Tristrams at the Beeb commission a second series; Sheer is a wonderful guide to both poetry and the landscape. Please never stop doing this kind of thing, BBC.

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2 thoughts on “A Poet’s Guide to Britain

  1. I think programmes like this are to be lauded. I was delighted to see Louis MacNeice and George Mackay Brown included. I’m only sorry I’m not in the UK now to watch the BBC, but MacNeice was on my mind yesterday (I posted his poem ‘The Strand’).

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