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This review is taken from PN Review 43, Volume 11 Number 5, May - June 1985.

VADE ELLIOTCUM Alistair Elliot, On The Appian Way (Secker & Warburg) £5.95

Travellers' tales, like people's accounts of their own dreams, can be boring beyond belief. Not so Alistair Elliot's immensely engaging and enjoyable poem, which retraces a journey from Rome to Brindisi made by Horace two thousand and eighteen years earlier. Not only the classical antecedents - present in the poem, but also extended by explanatory notes at the back of the book - but other associations come to mind, from Chaucer to Auden and MacNiece. I found myself thinking too of the contrast with American poetry, where travelling still has about it a whiff of pioneering: here the journey is essentially European in its awareness that to travel is to go back as well as forward. The inscriptions of the occasional and the personal are seen as a palimpsest on a parchment already well used - 'the poaching traveller', as Elliot puts it or, as he writes later in the poem, 'my fraternising with the dead'. Even so, the discursive and intimate style may owe something to America.

The great charm of the poem lies in its conversational tone, a kind of downbeat amiability which proves very flexible, able on the one hand to encompass erudite references and on the other to pun, or to chat about food, sex and the vagaries of Italian public transport. Like every journey, this one has its occasional longueurs and wrong turnings, and the route was never a straightforward one in the first place - but even this can sometimes work ...

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