*Misquoting Cromwell while reading Robin Robertson*
My father told me this one.
In April 1653 Oliver Cromwell–officially England’s “Lord Protector”, unofficially a military dictator, additionally a war criminal given to thanking God for his mercy but disinclined to show much of his own–dissolved the last vestige of Parliament, known as the Rump, with the following speech: “You have sat here too long for all the good you have done. In the name of God, now go.” And the Rump dissolved. Cromwell had thirty musketeers with him, of course, and a reputation for savagery; he might have said anything and dissolved the Rump. Told a joke, if he knew one. Issued his order in Basque. But (my father said to me, repeating that one-breath speech) what is it about those twenty words that makes them so damn effective? (When I was a boy, he liked to be teaching me things all the time. Especially when driving me places.)
I scratched my nose. I can’t remember, now, if I came up with any sort of response.
Certainly the Lord Protector’s speech had been short. Had the Rump dissolved in sheer gratitude? That was an age of interminable speeches, wasn’t it?
Twenty words, my father said, and twenty syllables. Count them.
They’re all one syllable, I said.
Right! he exclaimed–[_one two three!_]–smacking his free hand on the dashboard, dust rising with each smack. Through the windows a span of amber prairie under lucid blue sky: the Trans-Canada Highway, westbound lane, the Rockies still tucked under the horizon.
Each syllable, he said, [_bang_], [_bang_], like the slam of a judge’s gavel after he gives sentence. Or–or like a musket shot from each of those soldiers he brought in with him. Cromwell.
I thought there were thirty soldiers, I said.
Thirty, twenty–the point is there’s no arguing with it. It’s strong speech. People think they can make what they say impressive by using a lot of big words. Words with Latin roots, Greek roots. Jargon. Argot. Polyunsaturated syllables. It’s those hard little fist-shaped Saxon words that really grab you by the lobes.
They stay in your mind, too, I think now. Driven in there. Each sound a hammer-blow that nails meanings to the air and to the page. As for my father’s actual words, I recall only the gist and have improvised, of course. As for Cromwell’s, I’ve discovered they’re not quite the way my father recalled and quoted them–or at least the way I’ve recalled his quotation here. But close. My father was right–monosyllabic statements, if they’re euphonious and metrically potent, brand themselves into the brain in a way that no other statement can.
It’s unsurprising. Monosyllables form our core emotional lexicon. The most urgent, vital things we say in our lives, we say more or less monosyllabically. All the staple utterances: I love you. I hate you. Don’t go. Come home with me. Give it to me. Stay with me. Leave and don’t come back. Fuck off. Please. For God’s sake don’t die on us now. With all my heart. Yes. No. Till the day I die. Till I draw my last breath. Oh, my God. I’ve loved that child since the day she was born. Help me, please! It’s too damn late.
Housman was a master of monosyllabic eloquence, but it’s Seamus Heaney who has had the most marked effect on contemporary poets of the British Isles when it comes to using simple, sinewy diction–words with an earthy, physical feel. Take his early poem “Mid-Term Break”, about the funeral of a child killed by a car and ending with the lines, “No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.// A four foot box, a foot for every year.” On reading the poem in first-year university, I marvelled that poets, highly esteemed ones, could get away with writing so directly. I’d thought that poetry had to be complicated. I’d equated eloquence with elaborate diction. But I loved Heaney’s lines. Even then I sensed–[_felt_], as one does when the words are doing their duty–the poignant finality of the scene, those rough, right words hammered like nails into the boy’s small box, sealing it closed. Closed, yes, but this was not the “cold-blooded carpentry” that Coleridge abhorred–there was nothing cold-blooded about it. This was rather the lovingly made verse Yeats had in mind in describing poems that click closed at the end like the lid of a box.
Robin Robertson doesn’t always deploy this monosyllabic mode–how could he, given the broad range of his poetry–but when he does, he does it very well. In “The Harbour Wife,” from his second collection, [_Slow Air_] (Picador, 2002), I count at one point nineteen straight monosyllables–just one shy of Cromwell’s commanding twenty. In fact, “The Harbour Wife” in its entirety contains just seventy-nine words, fifteen of them disyllabic, the rest monosyllabic:
The steady-burning pilot’s light
rides out, and is gone in the gale.
There is fear behind her eyes
as she turns, goes inside
to her tea, to the heat of the range:
its steady-burning pilot light
p. And since a number of the words are repeated, in a cumulative, culminating pattern, the poem really uses just fifty-two distinct words. These short, simple words are the woman’s small, careful steps. They also mark the metre of her thoughts, which tend toward the sort of “staple utterances” I’ve litanized above:
her only light, now she is blind
in the dark from the tears in her face,
that fear behind the eyes.
Years spent waiting; waiting spent. The night’s
flare of matches, the coaxed flame,
the steady-burning pilot light
of fear behind the eyes.
So. Thirteen lines in all, fifty-two words. I could do more math here. But what’s the point of all this bean-counting? The poem is a good one, but not great–not one of Robertson’s best, not on the level of his brilliant “Wedding the Locksmith’s Daughter” (also from [_Slow Air_]). Still, it’s a fine instance of how a careful poet can build something significant out of very little–in this case, as stated, about fifty simple words, i.e., well beneath the auditory vocabulary of the average border collie. The point is that when writing or chanting the urgencies–those naked states we sometimes find ourselves raised or reduced to–simpler is better. The woman in the poem does not think her fear in Latinate abstractions. Fear is never abstract. She moves directly, from window to window, from window to range, with small, carefully placed steps (you know the feeling), as if a step too hard or making too loud a din might jar the cosmic fulcrum and cause something awful to happen, elsewhere. Note too how the poem repeats words in a way characteristic of a mind in an anxious or obsessive state. _Please God. Help me. Help him, please._ The monosyllables of prayer. There’s no philosophy in raw fear. Fear is when the body thinks alone–or prays. And here the word-stock that the poet draws from is that of the body, those old Anglo-Saxonisms that seem to have grown up out of the earth, from deep, firm roots.
Robertson’s most accomplished poem–the aforementioned “Wedding the Locksmith’s Daughter”–is on the whole more typical of his work than is “The Harbour Wife. ” It’s a metaphysical poem (in T.S. Eliot’s sense of the term), and with a hint of violence and immense ingenuity of conceit it melds Erotic and Thanatic elements into a seamless whole: “The slow-grained slide to embed the blade / of the key is a sheathing” and “geared, tight-fitting, they turn / together, shooting the spring-lock.” What it shares with “The Harbour Wife” is the exacting austerity that marks all of Robertson’s work. Of course, severity and reserve can have drawbacks; in Robertson they sometimes result in short poems that are also slight, including “Head Over Heels”, “Break”, and the second part of “Itamai-San” (from Slow Air). But the virtue of such reserve is that it allows the poet to take on Loaded Topics without lapsing into pomposity or sentimentality. For instance, “Apart”, the opening poem in [_Slow Air_], ends with the lines, “looking too late to the ones we loved, / we stretch out our hands as we fall”–lines that really have no right to succeed, but do, if barely, because of the care and austerity of the preceding eight lines, and the monosyllabic directness of that final couplet.
Canadian fiction writer and critic John Metcalf has observed that some writers, trying to imitate Hemingway, believe that working with simple words and small sentences is enough to produce the Hemingway effect. A chateau, it seems, can be built of homely stones of a limited size. And so it can–but the stones have to be laid in a shrewd, intricate order. As Metcalf argues (here quoting David Lodge), Hemingway’s imitators often fail to see that his “words are simple but their arrangement is not.” I quote Metcalf and Lodge here to re-emphasize the fact that simple diction, in a poem like “The Harbour Wife,” may be necessary, but is not sufficient. In fact, Robertson builds the feeling and overall power of the poem by practising incremental repetition of the sort that Hemingway himself used often, having gleaned it at the feet of Gertrude Stein. (The opening passage of Hemingway’s story “In Another Country” neatly exemplifies the technique: Hemingway, like Robertson in the poem above, gradually introduces his elements–the cold, the fall, the wind, animals hung in a butcher shop window–then brings things to an elegiac climax by reprising all that diction in the final sentence: “It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.”) At the end of “The Harbour Wife” Robertson likewise reprises “fear”, “eyes”, and a “steady-burning pilot light”, but with an extra incremental twist: having begun with the vessel’s “pilot’s light” (a faraway object vanishing into the distance), and then citing the much closer “pilot light” of the range (an indoor object, proximate to the woman in the poem), he ends by bringing the light even closer–in fact right inside the distressed woman’s mind–as a “steady-burning pilot light/ of fear behind the eyes”. This deft, telescopic movement from distant/external/objective to immediate/internal/subjective, along with the final reprise of the poem’s key elements, gives the ending of “The Harbour Wife” its power and its satisfying click.
Readers will have noted that the poem is composed in a form that owes something to both the villanelle and the sestina, though mainly the former. And here’s another point of comparison between that Hemingway passage and “The Harbour Wife”: while Hemingway may have learned at the feet of Stein, he also, I think, must have gleaned ideas from the villanelles and sestinas that he’d read and studied in the early years when he hoped to write poetry as well as fiction.
p. As poets perhaps we sometimes forget that the materials available to us from the time we were small–the crude mud bricks of our childhood vocabulary–are more than ever useable, once we have the tools in our toolkits to do something with them. Robin Robertson’s toolkit is full. As for Cromwell’s actual words, they turn out to be less “crude” and simple as the ones I misquoted above. The true words, in fact, number twenty-nine and include three disyllables. But no matter. The point–proven by Robertson’s artful poverty of diction–stands up. _You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go._