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This article is taken from PN Review 169, Volume 32 Number 5, May - June 2006.

The Word in Time (2): Diplomat and revolutionary Chris McCully

2: Diplomat and revolutionary

There's a temptation to think of the poetic past as a history of shadows. The English poetic past begins in half-light, in mud and blood, in the battles of the Stainmoor, in the verse of praise and endurance that hymned the remote and swinish grunting of a dirty peasantry. Then, somehow, with the Norman Conquest, England becomes positively Continental, and smiles in the beneficent daylight of the Middle Ages. Old English poetry is haunted by the hooked talon, the shadow of Grendel. Post-Conquest verse, on the other hand, is the shadowless stitching of the Bayeux Tapestry, followed by the clean-lined stonework of the Romanesque. Caught in this human architecture, it's as if green leaves from a spring-woken tree sprout from the pages of English medieval manuscripts. Why, we can even begin to read some of this poetry without much help from a glossary and the earnest apparatus of a century of German scholarship. English verse breaks out into debate poems, love poems, full-blown allegories, fables, lyrics. It murmurs, it smiles hesitantly, as it contemplates its own future. It's in love with sunlight, the intricacy of invention, and any woman's face.

A pretty picture - but a false one. The Norman Conquest was probably one of the greatest cultural disasters ever to have befallen these islands. It destroyed an age that if not golden, was certainly silver: an age in which new poetry was being composed and collected, in which art-and smith-work ...


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