Saturday 16 April 2016

Crossing the Bar, by Sue Purkiss

Be warned - this is not a learned post about Shakespeare, our focus this month - though he will drop in at the end. It's one of those shoes and ships and sealing wax posts - a little bit of all sorts. It was set off last night at choir practice, where we were starting a new song. It's an arrangement of a poem by Tennyson - this poem.

Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star,
  And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
  When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
  Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
  Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
  And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
  When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
  The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
  When I have crost the bar.

It's lovely, isn't it? I recognised the title, but I certainly wasn't familiar with it. Issy Emeney, who runs the choir and arranges the music, told us that Tennyson wrote it on a voyage, during which he became so ill that he thought he might die. 'Crossing the bar' has become a metaphor for dying. Issy also told us that not long before he died, he told his son Hallam that he wanted it to be the last poem in any future editions of his work. 

I've just been to dig out the old edition of his work that I bought when I was studying English at Durham. It doesn't have Crossing the Bar at the end, or indeed anywhere. I looked for the date of the edition, but there isn't one. However, in the introduction, Elizabeth Sharp says that 'At the beginning of the present century...' ...Alfred Tennyson was born - in 1809. He died in 1892, so she must have written her introduction not long after his death (she mentions the date of his death) - and before Hallam had chance to carry out his father's instructions.

I bought this edition, along with other ancient second-hand editions of 19th century poetry, because the backbone of the study of English Literature at Durham was a rolling course which sought to cover the entirety of British literature from Chaucer to the beginning of the twentieth century. All three years attended the same main series of lectures, and it just happened that when I started, the cycle had reached the Romantics and the 19th century. We had a long list of books to buy before the beginning of the course, and I got some of mine from a second hand stall on Derby market. (Money was an issue!)


Durham has been at the back of my mind this week, because fellow History Girl Caroline Lawrence has been on a course there and has been posting photographs on Facebook. It's a beautiful place, and I loved being there. But at the time and afterwards, I thought the course was disappointingly old-fashioned. It was said to be the only university in the country where the departments of English Language and English Literature were entirely separate - and often at war with each other. They were headed by two venerable and highly respected professors, Profs Smithers and Dorsch. Once, an impish drama lecturer (who lectured brilliantly, I think in Jacobean and Restoration drama) put a notice on his door that declared 'A plague o' both your houses!' Everyone knew what he was talking about. Some of the lecturing was dismal - there was one series of three on Shelley, given by an anxious woman who read out every word with a precise, dry-as-dust delivery. She talked for almost the whole time about the introduction to Prometheus Unbound. When she announced that she was about to begin talking about the actual poem, there was a ragged cheer from those of us who'd managed to stay with her.

Even so, it was a fascinating place to be, especially for a working class girl like me. It was the early seventies, and so much was changing - even Durham itself was on the cusp; new lecturers arrived while I was there, who looked bewildered at what they found but immediately began to change things. I had a wonderful tutor in my last year whose speciality was colonial literature, and who was clearly passionate about teaching. 

Arthur Hallam
It's easy to mock the old set-up, and I often have. But after Issy mentioned Tennyson last night, I got to thinking. I didn't know that particular poem, but because of my Durham education I was able to recall some things about him. We spent a lot of time looking at In Memoriam, which he wrote in memory of Arthur Hallam, a very close friend who died young and for whom he grieved very deeply - and after whom he named his first son. And there was The Lady of Shallott, and the other Arthur poems.

Nowadays, people study far fewer authors, or topics, but probably in more depth - certainly in rather different ways. But it occurs to me that what the Durham course sought to give us was an overview, and also, via literary criticism, the tools to examine the text - the actual words on the page. Literary theory, which has become so significant in the study of literature, was very much in its infancy then. At least, it was at Durham. Fashions change. I wish we'd had livelier teaching (though there were honourable exceptions - some of it was brilliant) - but actually, on reflection, I do quite like it that I have that broad sweep of knowledge - a little bit, but about a lot of things.

I promised you Shakespeare! Well - I have no memory of lectures about Shakespeare. That may just mean that they were so mind-numbingly dull that they've been erased from my memory. But I do remember a series of seminars, which we had to take it in turn to run. This was a pretty revolutionary notion for Durham, and none of us had a clue how we were supposed to go about it. So we did what we usually did. Terrified of getting it wrong, we hared off to the library, then on Palace Green in an utterly gorgeous ancient building between the castle and the cathedral. It had tiny rooms and winding staircases, and quite probably if you listened very carefully you might have heard the ghostly scratching of quills from ancient scholars who had never quite managed to leave. We hunted out all the books we could find on the topic we'd been given, and regurgitated them. Of course, the seminars we gave were insanely dull.

Palace Green - the old library
Shakespeare had been done far better at school - we'd studied the texts in depth, but we'd also gone to see lots of productions. I remember Gemma Jones and John Neville at Nottingham Playhouse in A Midsummer Night's Dream: the production was enchanting, and she was so commanding with her long golden hair, those strange hooded eyes and that rich deep voice. And there was Richard Chamberlain as Hamlet at Birmingham, in a surprisingly mesmerising performance. (Everyone knew him only as handsome young Dr Kildare in the eponymous American soap, so expectations weren't high.) And we went to Stratford, though I don't remember what we saw. I remember an actor coming to talk to us once about Shakespeare, and insisting that you could only truly appreciate him in performance. Our wonderful English teacher, Mrs Gough, gave him a very old-fashioned look, and I think she had a point; my very best experience of Shakespeare has been seeing Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet, and though that was mostly down to the quality of his acting, the fact that I know the play very well certainly helped. But I think that actor knew what he was talking about: the play in performance is really the thing.

Well, enough. 'My story now is ended', as Prospero didn't quite say. I crave your indulgence - and the rest is peace.

(I blog, mostly about books, at A Fool on a Hill.)


Sue Bursztynski said...

I think I was luckier than you with Shakespeare at uni. The lecturers really loved what they were teaching. One of them felt that Shakespeare needed to be performed, so he excused us all an essay in exchange for being involved in productions of Coriolanus and The Winter's Tale. Another one, the professor, did a lecture on Antony and And Cleopatra so entertaining that some students who had turned up in the wrong lecture theatre hung around to hear the whole lecture! At school, on the other hand, I had one very good teacher who enthused us all about Richard III(I ended up joining the Richard III Society), but the others...not so good.

Linda said...

Ah, the Palace Green library! Wonderfully atmospheric. I used to sit at a table by a window overlooking the Green, doing my best to look studious for the tourists' cameras . . .

Sue Purkiss said...

And did you pop next door for tea at the Union? Sue - your lecturers sound great!

Linda said...

Nah - I was put off by all those young men with voices like seagulls. There was usually someone in Hatfield who could be persuaded to put the kettle on. Oh no, I've just realised - my university years are actually history!

Joan Lennon said...

Heady times - thanks for posting, Sue!

Unknown said...

I love Tennyson's 'Crossing the Bar', Sue. We used to sing it at school as a hymn. There was something about the slightly lugubrious tune which appealed to me as a teenager.

In fact, I loved Tennyson altogether and learned reams of his poetry off by heart. He's brilliant at summoning up a mood. For example, 'Round and round the spicy downs the yellow lotus dust is blown,' from The Lotus Eaters. It's all that assonance!

Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely, Elizabeth!