Happy Birthday Edgar Allan Poe, and a cheers to the Poe Toaster

Poe would be 210 if he was alive today, which would be a surprising development for all concerned. And presumably today will see the appearance of the Poe Toaster at Poe’s Baltimore grave. Alas, this is a revival of the original mysterious decades-long toaster:

 

Poe Toaster is a media epithet popularly used to refer to an unidentified person (or more probably two persons in succession, possibly father and son) who, for over seven decades, paid an annual tribute to American author Edgar Allan Poe by visiting the cenotaph marking his original grave in Baltimore, Maryland, in the early hours of January 19, Poe’s birthday. The shadowy figure, dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat and white scarf, would pour himself a glass of cognac and raise a toast to Poe’s memory, then vanish into the night, leaving three roses in a distinctive arrangement and the unfinished bottle of cognac. Onlookers gathered annually in hopes of glimpsing the elusive Toaster, who did not seek publicity and was rarely seen or photographed.

According to eyewitness reports and notes accompanying offerings in later years, the original Toaster made the annual visitation from sometime in the 1930s (though no report appeared in print until 1950) until his death in 1998, after which the tradition was passed to “a son”.[1] Controversial statements were made in some notes left by the post-1998 Toaster, and in 2006 an unsuccessful attempt was made by several onlookers to detain and identify him. In 2010 there was no visit by the Toaster,[2] nor has he appeared any year since, signaling an end to the 75-year tradition.[3][4]

Pleasingly, the revival since 2016 has maintained the anonymity aspect:

 

In 2015, the Maryland Historical Society organized a competition to select a new individual to resurrect the annual tribute in a modified, tourism-friendly form. The new Toaster—who will also remain anonymous—made his first appearance during the daylight hours of January 16, 2016 (a Saturday, three days before Poe’s birthday), wearing the traditional garb and playing Saint-Saëns‘ Danse macabre on a violin. After raising the traditional cognac toast and placing the roses, he intoned, “Cineri gloria sera venit” (“Glory paid to one’s ashes comes too late”, from an epigram by the Roman poet Martial), and departed.[25]

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“Shopping Centre” – a poem from September 2007

Came across this rather randomly lately, will leave it as is, with its hilariously unsubtle allusions to this and that intact, as  a memorial of pre-bust Ireland:

Shopping Centre.

Time outside time is still time.

Clean floors shine. Clean escalators, eternal
As they disappear and reappear, shine. Screens
Shine. Shops shine. Glass and air shine. As in a casino, no
Sign of time here.

Try and avoid anything as obvious as disdain. Try and accept
This shining universe as all that is the case.
These clean floors, these clean escalators, eternally
Dis- and Re-appearing, this timeless void, this void
Filled with sales and selling, shining.

Time outside time is still time.
The shopping centre is on still time.
Amidst the repetition of escalators, elevators, shoppers, sales
You achieve a kind of eternity.

This Be The Best

In 2013 I entered this in one of the Spectator’s poetry competitions, if memory serves a version of a well-known poem endeavouring to convey the precisely opposite message. With apologies to Philip Larkin:

They raised you well, your mum and dad,

You might not think so, but they did.

They made the most of what they had

And tried their utmost for their kid.

They were well brought up in their turn

By dedicated caregiver, teacher, and so on.

I am glad the soldiers were made return,

So our children could afford this glorious dawn.

Man hands on incremental progress to man

All rising, clear shore to sunny beach.

Reproduce as quickly as you can

And always enthusiastically teach.

Against the inspirational

A while back I posted about what I called the Inspirational Imperative; the pressure to craft suffering and distress and setbacks into more-easily-digestible, feelgood stories of “inspiration.”

The need to be “inspirational” can become like the “the success-failure whiplash”, wherein our identities become caught up in how inspirational and positive we can be.

An addiction, not unlike that to being busy or being responsible for others’ pain.

A pressure.

“The pilgrimage is not all plain sailing, not all peak experience.” Hype breeds disillusion. Most of all, our own internal hype, one that is pumped up and primed and built up by technology and our media-saturated lives – but is also something perpetual in human life.

 

We reach for quick fixes,  practice solutionism, search for the new New Thing.

We are continually being asked, “what then?”:

His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘ What then?’

All his happier dreams came true —
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
poets and Wits about him drew;
‘What then.?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost, ‘What then?’ 

When the viral video’s hits have plateaued, when the few seconds rush of Inspiration is gone, when any “success” has been achieved, there is always a “what then?”

I’ll end this post by simply saying that we all have our own Plato’s Ghost. But who is yours?

Are Daffodils a native Irish flower?

The thought occurred to me randomly, and wasn’t sorted out by a few seconds of Ecosia searching (but it’s not Google) – only this article by Dick Warner from 2011:

I know that the hundreds of varieties of cultivated daffodil have been bred from Narcissus pseudonarcissus, the European wild daffodil. What I wasn’t sure about was the status of the wild daffodil in Ireland.

So I went on the internet — spent quite a lot of time on it — and ended up baffled and confused. One reputable site informed me that wild daffodils were a rather rare and declining species in Britain but were not native to northern Scotland or Ireland.

Another, equally reputable, claimed that they were native to Ireland, though rather rare, and there was even a mention of a woodland site where they grow in Co Kilkenny.

So what’s the story?

Perhaps they are not native here but have been introduced at some time in the past to brighten up estate woodlands in spring.

Or perhaps the daffodils that grow ‘wild’ along river banks and in some woodlands are actually cultivated varieties that have naturalised and reverted to a simpler form. Or perhaps, and this happens quite often, someone was reading a British textbook and came across the word ‘native’ and assumed it applied to Ireland. If any botanists out there know the correct answer I’d love to hear it.

I would love to too. Incidentally I cannot endorse Warner’s view that Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” is “awful.” Overfamiliar perhaps, like the Mona Lisa, but not awful.

Lincoln Allison on Belloc and the lost art of declamation

Looking for something else entirely, I come across this piece from 2005 on the Social Affairs Unit Blog by Lincoln Allison on Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Verses. Allison begins with a reminiscence which put me in mind of Kingsley Amis’ Popular Reciter:

In the 1980s one of the minor substantial pleasures of my life was to return home from work, choose something to sip and then to declaim comic verse to such of my sons as I could assemble. The frequency of my performance of this duty/pleasure went up markedly when I was instructed that the family had reached its target size. Now or never: concentrates the mind. Sometimes the audience was swelled by guest faces, intrigued and a little intimidated by the unfamiliar ritual of declamation, though I was much pleased when a woman stopped me in the street and told me how much her son was looking forward to coming round and having the experience again.

Roald Dahl featured prominently, of course, and A. A. Milne. Tennyson, Wordsworth, Southey and Sir Henry Newbolt made occasional appearances. Burns was not a success: Daddy’s Scottish voice and those dialect words were just too weird, taken together. The Great McGonagle is excellent for declaiming to a group of inebriated adults, but the ironies are lost on children who can’t see what is so funny about a railway disaster which took place on:

. . the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remembered for a very long time.

The second favourite was Marriott Edgar, a much less well known name, but he did write “The Lion and Albert” which was mainly famous as a recording by Stanley Holloway (who himself wrote “Old Sam” about the dropping and picking up of a musket). The Edgar-Holloway combination produced many narrative verses, mainly rather repetitive sequels, but there are also some good ones on episodes from English history which acted out well.

The winner, though, by a small but clear margin, was the French-born former Liberal MP for Salford with his Cautionary Verses, originally a satire on Victorian morality tales, but long outlasting both the original genre and the author’s 150 or so other works.

Allison goes on to consider Belloc in more detail. I read a couple of collections of his journalism and would generally concur with Allison’s rather mixed judgment (perhaps I should read more of him, but unlike unlike Chesterton whose oft-maddening style masks observations of real substance I can’t find much to lure me in) :

For Belloc is very susceptible to the accusation that he is primarily a poseur. I recall with some incredulity a passage in his best-known travel book, The Path to Rome (1902), in which he appears to be claiming that he can tell whether wine was made by catholics or not by drinking it. In 2003 a dryly scathing attack on Belloc appeared in The Tablet written by Fr. Ian Boyd, President of the Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture. One of the accusations was that Belloc (unlike Chesterton), given that he was a highly intelligent man who claimed to go to mass every day, showed a remarkable lack of interest in religious doctrine, blithely remarking that if the Mother Church instructed him that the communion wafer turned into an elephant, then he would be quite happy to believe that. This sounds more like a wind-up for fellow intellectuals than a serious interest in religion and seems to go with a rapidly waning enthusiasm for French national service. There is some evidence, also, that not all of his famous walks (including the one to Rome) were actually walked.

There are intriguing questions about all the great successful children’s writers concerning how one should relate their appeal to what is, in most cases, considerable achievement in other fields and dissident views on many matters. I think there is a general pattern: it is that such writers dislike industry, “modernity”, capitalism and the “hurly burly of everyday life” ( as Jonathan Miller’s Beyond the Fringe vicar has it, in imitation of Dean Inge) and offer us something more “spiritual”, usually either religion or rural nostalgia or both. This is true even when they happen to be Governor of the Bank of England as Kenneth Grahame was, though I have never gone through Tarka the Otter or Salar the Salmon to see if you can tell whether Henry Williamson was a Nazi. (There are no doubts if you read his adult novels.)

I have read Tarka, and can vouch there is no trace of Nazism.

Poem: Magheragallon

Poem: Magheragallon

A while back I posted a link to Non-Binary Review’s call for submissions for pieces inspired directly by Dante’s Inferno. Unfortunately (or not) my own efforts in this line were rejected. So I will inflict one on my readers here. Perhaps I should have anticipated this rejection given that I have to explain that Magheragallon is a graveyard in Gaoith Dobhair, Donegal :

Magheragallon
E ‘l duca lui: “Caron, non ti crucciare:
vuolsi così colà dove si puote
ciò che si vuole, e più non dimandare.
Inferno, Canto III.
Dúirt mo threoraí: “A Charóin, ná bí ina thinneas.
Toilíodh an cúrsa so san áit ar féidir
Gach a dtoilítear, ‘s ná déan t’fhiafraí a thuilleadh.”
Ifreann, Dán III (translation Padraig de Brun)

Here we are, on the rocky edge of the edge of Europa,
Far from where what is willed is done and
Far from where the inevitable and necessary
Forge together; far from where the living
And the dead never meet, where the boundaries are
Never crossed, where the ferryman holds a hard border.

We are far from there. Here is a place of stone
And sea, of island and mountain.
A battered place, tattered rocks mark memory,
Memory that lies in ruins.

Across the waters there are islands that defy the census-taker;
Who knows if they are inhabited or not? Sometimes they are deserted,
Sometimes they ring with another language, not that of
This poem. The teanga echoes each fainter and fainter.
And still it echoes. Sometimes that echo is a roar.

Ruined, overgrown, overthrown,
Far from where what is willed is done,
An edgeland of sharp stones,
Of marram grass grazed bare, of sand-dune mazes.
Here ruins still shape a form,
The overgrowth is marked by the old shape,
Things seeming fallen are only resting.

Again, I step away, making a distance,
From where, in this world, what is willed is done.
I turn my back on our Babel of one tongue.
Faced with death, I speak with Virgil:
Toilíodh an cúrsa so san áit ar féidir
Gach a dtoilítear, ‘s ná déan t’fhiafraí a thuilleadh.