Yuri Gagarin’s trip to space, 60 years on

by Neil Treby

On the morning of April 12th 1961 at a place called Baikonur in what is now Kazakhstan, a young man who no-one had ever heard of was strapped tightly into a machine over which he had no real control; in which no-one had ever travelled before, and which was so dangerous, so literally explosive that were anything to go wrong it would have destroyed not only the machine and its occupant but also the entire launch facility. Happily all went well and within the space of 108 minutes the man, whose name was Yuri Gagarin, had become one of the most famous people in the world.

And so began the history of human spaceflight. On that day Gagarin became the first human ever to travel into space. In his spaceship, Vostok 1, he travelled around the world just once at a speed of over 17,000 miles an hour. The spaceship, still going too fast and lacking retro-rockets landed with something of a bump and a bounce. Gagarin meanwhile came back to earth safely and serenely by parachute, having ejected at about 20,000 feet.

He was the first person, although not the first living thing to travel aloft. Both the Soviet Union and the United States had already experimented by sending dogs, monkeys and the odd rabbit up into the void. Many came back, but not all. The rockets had a nasty habit of blowing up on the launch pad or on their way into orbit and there were all manner of catastrophic failures that could happen with the machinery itself or the life-support system, or just something that hadn’t been thought of. No-one knew whether the conditions in orbit might disorient someone so much that they wouldn’t be able to function, or even survive. Maybe there was ‘something’ (never clearly defined) ‘up there’ that might infect a person, frazzle them with radioactivity perhaps, or just send them crazy. The early Cosmonauts and Astronauts have a well-earned reputation for bravery. They were being asked to sit on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile pressurised to bursting point with novel and dangerous types of fuel and just, well….hope for the best. And all on basic Army or Air Force pay.

Early Cosmonauts (if they were Russian) and Astronauts (American) had been selected from their respective Air Forces. They had been either civilian or military pilots, well-versed in decision making under stress and, crucially, unquestioningly responsive to orders. The one thing that they wouldn’t be expected to do though was actually fly their machines. All being well that would  happen automatically, under control from the ground. The so-called pilots in these early missions were, rather,  massively over-qualified passengers and while the early American astronauts fought the designers (with only gradual success) for some element of pilot control to be factored in – the more obedient Soviets had little or none.

Space mania didn’t begin with the Gagarin flight, sensational though that was. It had begun four years earlier, on October 4th 1957 with the launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik. That was Russian too. Even though it was just a small metal sphere with an aerial and all it did was circle the world once every 90 minutes and beep, it was considered an awesome piece of technology. The Soviet Union, a political institution that the West considered to be financially poor and technologically backward had beaten the sophisticated and rich Americans into space. And the principal point focussing everyone’s minds in the West was that if the Russians had the technology to put a rocket into orbit then they had the technology to bring it down pretty much anywhere on the globe that they wished – and it wouldn’t be just a beeping ball, or a dog or a cat or a rabbit descending from the heavens, but in all likelihood a nuclear weapon. As the space race began the American sense of invulnerability from mainland attack, which they’d taken for granted for the previous 150 years, vanished overnight.

And now the Gagarin flight seemed to underline the apparent Soviet technological mastery. The Americans had been about to put their own man in space but had decided on one last test flight just to be sure and in that time the sneaky Russians had stolen their thunder. The same thing would happen again and again over the coming years. Just as the Americans were about to do something novel and impressive in space the Russians would suddenly seem to jump two steps ahead and amaze the world.

It was that sense of constantly being beaten in those early years that led the Americans to decide to go to the moon. Shortly after the first American spaceflight, which happened just a month after Gagarin’s, when Alan Shephard became the first American in space with a brief 15 minute up-and-down suborbital hop (of which only 5 minutes were actually spent in space) the Americans sat down to work out how they could beat the Russians at anything at all to do with space. The only thing that they could realistically hope to achieve first was to send people to the Moon.  A mission that momentous would take years to plan and would involve developing novel technology and would cost so much (over 20 billion Dollars by 1960’s prices) that at last the Americans would have the advantage, because the one thing that The United States had that the Soviet Union didn’t was money.

In truth the apparent Russian lead in space technology didn’t really exist. It appeared to, largely because their development happened in utmost secrecy whereas the American successes, and more often it seemed their failures, happened with the world looking on, often live on television. And so when the Russians launched a two and even an three-person capsule, or launched two rockets at the same time to orbit in formation, or put the first woman into space, or conducted the first spacewalk, it seemed that they knew more and could do more and were simply smarter and better. What we now think of as the space race was largely a political exercise in projecting supremacy to the watching world through advances in technology. In terms of propaganda the Russians certainly were smarter, hiding their disasters and announcing their successes dramatically mid-mission. However, while the Americans developed slowly and safely, the Russians seemed to be ahead because they simply took more risks. When the Americans wanted to put two people into space they developed an entirely new spacecraft; when the Russians did it they simply gutted their one-person spacecraft, squeezed another passenger in and hoped for the best.

By the mid 1960’s it was becoming apparent that the Americans were moving relentlessly ahead. As far as the race to the Moon was concerned the Russians had quickly realised that they couldn’t compete. They had intended to send a manned spacecraft on a slingshot around the Moon without landing, purely to upstage the American effort, but constant rocket booster problems and the sheer expense made it impossible. When they had been entertaining the notion of a moon mission, one of the Cosmonauts they had thought to send was none other than Yuri Gagarin. Unhappily Gagarin didn’t live long enough to see anyone heading for the Moon. He was killed when the MIG 15 plane he was flying in crashed in 1968, only months before Apollo 8 first orbited the Moon and just over a year before the Americans finally won their (self-defined) space race by landing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969.

But the Russians too had, to all intents and purposes, won their own space race back in the late 1950s and early 1960’s when they startled the world again and again with their trailblazing heroics. And Yuri Gagarin was the person at the centre of their greatest triumph.

Should you wish to learn more on this or related subjects the Reader Services section, based on Floor 2 of the Library of Birmingham, keep a wide range of books, both historical and contemporary, on the history of rocketry, space exploration and the politics of the Cold War.  

Neil Treby, Senior Library Assistant, Reader Services

A librarian’s list of Christmas movies.

by Neil Treby

Reader Services keep an extensive collection of film-related books. We have books about the history of film making from the end the nineteenth century to the present day, books about the films themselves, the stars, the producers, the processes, the finances, the sociology, the politics of film, the globalisation of the industry and the whole shebang. On top of the books that we keep on display – some twenty shelves worth – we also have a wealth of historical material in both book and magazine format that we keep in the stack areas.

With all this film-related material you might think that we know a thing or two about the subject. Or ought to at least. We felt we could put this to the test. And it being Christmas we thought we’d come up with a list of Christmas movies – as recommended by your friendly local librarians.

Christmas movies are a peculiar sub-genre that never really existed before the spread of Television in the 1950s. Once upon a time if you wanted to see a film you had to actually get out of the house and go to the cinema. Some films ran for only a week, the more successful for a fortnight and if you missed that window then you missed the film. They were only rarely re-released into cinemas and until 1948 (in the USA) cinema films were simply not shown on TV. The habit of watching old films on TV only began in the 1950s in America and the late 1950s and 1960s in the UK.

And then something odd happened. Some films, which had not been hits on their initial release started to gain a following on TV where they might be shown on any number of occasions, but especially at holiday periods, and particularly at Christmas. It’s a Wonderful Life was considered a moderate failure at the box office when it was released in 1946. It only became the great seasonal favourite we now consider it in the mid-1970s when it began to be broadcast on TV.

And now, every December, the airwaves are full of Christmas films. You could probably watch them from dawn to dusk if you had the energy. Most of them are not great, many are American TV movies, often set at Christmas purely in order to boost their sentimental heft – and hopefully to allow them to be reshown every year until kingdom come.

There’s a predictable list of allegedly ‘classic’ Christmas films which we’re all assumed to go along with and love equally. But do we? Asking my colleagues for their thoughts on the matter, I felt, might produce a slightly more radical list than usual. So, we created a long-list and then voted on that to produce a final, authoritative list. Anything could be included, so long as it was either set at Christmas or was in some way ‘about’ Christmas.

Of the top three films in our final list, two are unrelentingly violent from beginning to end and the third is about someone who’s just about to commit suicide. Seasonal cheer anyone?

We considered the obscure: Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) which are both set at Christmas, but for no good reason; the macabre: Black Christmas (1974), which would make a spectacular double bill with White Christmas (1954) if you could cope with the literally violent contrast; Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) which is obscure, dark and Finnish – which perhaps demonstrates our cosmopolitan nature, but in the end no-one voted for it. We considered the off-beat: The Thin Man (1934) which was evidently made in a time when alcoholism was not considered to be any sort of social impediment; Bad Santa (2003) which is very funny but probably the rudest Christmas movie ever made and definitely not one to watch with your children. Or your parents for that matter. We considered the classy too: Fanny & Alexander (1982); The Shop Around the Corner (1940) but neither finished high in the list. We considered the outright sentimental: The Bishop’s Wife (1947) which was remade as The Preacher’s Wife in 1996 to no great effect; and Little Women (1994) of which there are multiple versions over the years. We considered the smart: Trading Places (1983) and The Apartment (1960) which, while good enough to win the Best Film Oscar of that year, ended up being only our second favourite suicide-related Christmas treat. And we considered animated films such as The Snowman (1984), The Nightmare before Christmas (1993) and Elf (2003) which isn’t a cartoon as such, but Will Ferrell gives it that quality. None of the above made our top five. But these did…

5th: A Christmas Carol (1951) Alistair Sim, Kathleen Harrison, Mervyn Johns, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. Again, multiple versions exist. We plumped for this one. It’s so old now it looks like it could have been made around the time the book came out. But it has bags of atmosphere and it has Alistair Sim. And it’s better than the Muppets version whatever you think.

4th: White Christmas (1954) Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera Ellen, Rosemary Clooney, directed by Michael Curtiz. Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas, would it? As a film It’s a bit creaky. It’s the end that everyone remembers. And the song. 50 million singles sold, allegedly. You can thank Irving Berlin for the fact that you’ll never get it out of your head. Ever.

3rd: Home Alone (1990) Macauley Culkin, Joe Pesci, Catherine O’Hara, directed by Chris Columbus. That Macauley Culkin is just so adorable. And so organised. And remarkably violent. And possibly a psychopath. It is a family film – albeit about a dysfunctional family. But it’s still laugh-out-loud in parts. And that Macauley Culkin, he’s just so…

2nd: Die Hard (1988) Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, directed by John McTiernan. “Now I have a machine gun, ho ho ho.” Big body count, lots of swearing, big explosions, and no, it’s not really about Christmas – any more than many on this list – but it’s great fun and I can’t for the life of me understand why it’s not the out and out number one. Oh, wait a minute, I remember…

1st: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore directed by Frank Capra. There really is little that can be said about this that hasn’t been said before. It’s dark. People love it.

So, there you have it, after all the consultation and prognostication, our list is pretty much the same as a hundred other lists. Why? Well, it looks like Christmas movies just operate to different rules to regular films. And perhaps Christmas sentiment saps our critical faculty to such an extent that we can’t really distinguish. We want something familiar. Outré and daring are for other times. We want something we can start watching and know that it’s okay to doze off twenty minutes in and for that to be okay. And if so many people feel that these films are the best, even if they can’t say exactly why, then perhaps that means that they really are the best.

If you haven’t seen any of them, I’d recommend any of the movies on this list. And if you have neither the time nor the opportunity to watch a whole movie then I’d urge you to take just three minutes and twelve seconds to watch this perfectly distilled bit of Christmas spirit – it’s Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis from 1944 singing Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, which was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. It came out during the dark days of the Second World War when many families were separated and never knew when, or even if, they’d see each other again. It’s beautifully photographed, full of nostalgia, yearning and guarded hope.

Some day soon we all will be together – if the fates allow, but ‘til then we’ll have to muddle through somehow…”

Happy Christmas.

Poetry Thursday: Focus on Lawrence Durrell

by Lucy Kamenova

Lawrence Durrell is best known for his novels, the most famous ones forming parts of The Alexandria Quartet (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea). However, the same cultural sensitivities, knowledge of ancient history and open mindedness are also to be found in his poetry. The breadth of his life experiences enabled him to produce a body of poetry remarkable for its beauty, richness, and integrity. Durrell produced lyrics capturing the constant beauty of the Mediterranean shores and its rich past, also reflecting the ever-changing lives of the people there. Durrell’s verse isn’t a form of travel diary; part of his integrity lies in adherence to the central purpose of poetry, the way he understood it: to illuminate the human experience.

Durrell was born in 1912 in India to British parents. He was sent back to England as were many others of his generation, to finish his education at the age of 11. His early upbringing in Darjeeling must have been a happy one and probably nurtured an independent and adventurous spirit in the young boy that never left him. The pure, simple, innocent existence in India is much preferred and contrasted in his early poems with the drab and repressive feel of the English landscape, where he felt like being in prison:

Go walking to a church

By landscape rubbed in rain to grey

As wool on glass

Thinking of Spring which never comes to stay

Landscapes are sometimes more important than people in Durrell’s verse. They are the very instrument that allows him to immerse himself in the places he visits and to let his spirit roam freely. There is movement and excitement in the poems written in Greece in deep contrast with the flatness of the English landscape. You can feel the heat of the Mediterranean and the sound of the blue waves in Dalos:

On charts they fall like lace,

Islands consuming in a sea

Born dense with its own blue:

His poetry shines with the virtuosity of modernism gifted with an intense sensuality. Some of his best poems are set in symbolist Greece and full of mystic lyricism, the sea and “foreign music of the earth capable of turning a key…in the heart”:

The Pleiades are sinking calm as paint,


White House villa in Kalami bay, Corfu where L. Durrell lived with his wife Nancy 1935-1937

In his best poems, as in The Alexandria Quartet, a profound understanding both of the past and of mythology underlies Durrell’s quick and lively awareness of the present:

The statues of the dead here

Embark on sunlight, sealed

Each in her model with the sightless eyes:

The modest stones of Greeks,

Who gravely interrupted death by pleasure.


His poems draw deeply on two traditions: Ancient Greece and modern Greek poets such as Constantine Cavafy and George Seferis, and the Renaissance of Shakespeare and Donne as reinvented by the 20th-century “Metaphysicals” T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. Like the metaphysicals, Durrell is deeply philosophical in his outlook, searching for life’s truths and his own place on Earth. 

Mediterranean landscapes are where Durrell finds his creative power, his spiritual home, his inner-self. But the shimmer of the sea and wide blue skies of southern Europe are not the only reason for this ‘homeless voyager’ to feel at home there. These foreign shores are reflections of rich culture infused with an appreciation of beauty and creativity, of openness and warmth that suits him perfectly:

All our religions founder, you

remain, small sunburnt deus loci

safe in your natal shrine,

                     Deus Loci

Against all the world’s religions, Durrell finds his God in this small sun-burnt earthen dummy on the rocky island of Ischia in Italy. His ‘new religion’ is the unity with nature, the places and their people. It’s called love. Without giving it a religious name, the embracing nature of love in Durrell’s verse is nevertheless very close to the Christian sensibility in its honesty and openness.

Paul Cézanne, Bay of Marseille Seen from L’Estaque, c.1885

England’s colonial past is inevitably associated with the many dislocated lives of its citizens who went out to perform administrative duties in the new lands. Typical of writers in the postcolonial era, Durrell couldn’t settle in England, nor stay in one place for long. His restless nature and creative impulses took him from island to island around the Mediterranean. He accepted his choices and saw immigration as a necessity in keeping his creative juices alive:

So better with the happy

Discover than with the wise

Who teach the sad valour

Of endurance through the seasons.

Travel can be one of the most fruitful forms of introspection. As any frequent traveller will tell you, the reflective mood often brings a sense of loneliness:

Here alone in a stone city

I sing the rock, the sea-squill,

Over Greece the one punctual star.

 To be a king of islands,

Share a bed with a star,

Be a subject of sails.

 Exile in Athens

The weight of isolation was fully felt during World War two when Durrell found himself in Alexandria. The busy landscapes of this foreign city are again the background on which he recalls past loves and experiences that will help to sustain him during this difficult time.

To the lucky who have lovers or friends,

 Who move to their sweet undiscovered ends,

Or whom the great conspiracy deceives,

I wish these whirling autumn leaves:

There are Greek qualities in Durrell’s poetry, in his outlook and understanding of life. His philosophy is Hellenistic – profoundly aware of the essential and inevitable tragedy of man. Like the Greeks, he accepts this as the condition of his existence — and having accepted it takes his joy where he finds it – in travel, intellectual argument or in love and women. In his middle and later years, the lyricism of his early poetry changes to a more metaphysical quest for answers to the three big questions in his work – art, love, death. There are many philosophical tensions in A Portrait of Theodora – between appearance and reality, love and desire, intellectual and natural, distance and proximity. Theodora was a Roman/Byzantine empress, wife of Emperor Justinian I. She was beautiful and influential but cruel and heartless as well. The duality of human nature is strongly evident in the way Durrell describes the beauty of her mind in a perfectly non-intellectual style:

I recall her by a freckle of gold

In the pupil of one eye, an odd


Theodora – a mosaic image in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

The poet recalls history and experience to get a deeper understanding of human nature, of ancient and modern women, of current times on the back of history:

Now only my experience recognizes her

Too late, among the other great survivors

Of the city’s rage, and places her among

The champions of love – among the true elect!

Out of his whole life experience, one true sentiment appears stronger than any other in Durrell’s late poetry – the inevitability of death that erases the significance of all our previous efforts and life battles. The term that defines the title of one of his last poems – Stoic, is used in a modern sense, seen as endurance to life’s challenges.

With blunt and direct language sounding more like prose that poetry, Durrell accepts life with all of his imperfections as a learning journey that ends in loneliness:

About the matter of death I am convinced,

Also that peace is unattainable and destiny

Impermeable to reason. I am lucky to have

No grave illness, I suppose, no wounds

To ache all winter. I do not drink or smoke,

From all these factors I select one, the silence

Which is that jewel of divine futility,

Refusal to bow, the unvarnished grain

Of the mind’s impudence: you see it so well

On the faces of self-reliant dead.

‘After the rain’ painting by the Egyptian artist Mahmoud Said, 1936

You will find more resources on Lawrence Durrell in the Library of Birmingham – Floor 2 when we open our services.

This is the last weekly post for this blog. From July I’ll be publishing once a month as we are trying to open the library services again. Take care!

Lucy Kamenova

Poetry Thursdays: Two black voices in search of identity and belonging

by Lucy Kamenova

In the last few years, I came across two black poets that began to exemplify for me the search of African American and Caribbean writers for their identity, their roots and the need to belong. While I find Langston Hughes’ poetry very accessible and easy to understand, Derek Walcott’s verse is more complex with its imagery and symbolism. What unites them poetically is the internal desire to identify with their people, to understand the origins of their history and find their unique creative voices.

Langston Hughes addresses his poetry directly to the black people of America. Writing about the ordinary, working black American, he confronts social stereotypes and caricature characterisations of his fellow brothers. His poetry changes the stereotypical image of African American as rural to one of urban sophistication. His verse is full of pride:

The night is beautiful,

So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,

So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.

Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

                         My people

Hughes was of mixed black and white heritage but chose to support his fellow African Americans. He was one of the founders of the Harlem Renaissance in 1920s New York encouraging and participating in the revival of black music, especially jazz, literature and the  black theatre. The Harlem Renaissance went on to influence black artists around the world but especially in France during the 1920-30s. There is a new found racial awareness and confidence in I,too:


I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”



They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

You hear the voices of his black brothers spoken as in a daily conversation. You feel the rhythms of black music, the dialects, the blues, life struggles and laughter. Langston wrote to anybody and everybody that could read. He mastered the rhymes and rhythms of black speech to establish a new poetic style, so called ‘jazz poetry’:

In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone

I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—

“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,

Ain’t got nobody but ma self.

I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’

And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

                               The weary blues

History provides Hughes with new confidence and a feeling of self-worth. In the search for identity, he is going back to his African roots and ancient history, to the folk stories and songs of his people. In the deeply soulful lines of The Negro speaks of Rivers, the main character calls the names of Euphrates, Congo, Nile and Mississippi, evoking a sense of traditions that keep his soul going:

I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

There is hope here for the future – “Hold fast to dreams “, he wrote once, hope that is based on self-worth that lacks hatred and chauvinism. Hughes had been criticised by fellow artists for this lack of aggression and coming forward in the fight against racism but he never changed his vision that a multicultural society can only exist on the basis of harmony,  not on confrontation:

And I’m gonna put white hands

And black hands and brown and yellow hands

And red clay earth hands in it

Touching everybody with kind fingers

                     Daybreak in Alababama

I have recently found another poet that appeals to me. Derek Walcott approaches the quest for identity in a slightly different, very personal manner. There is no question that the whole of his existence, his personality, was determined by his upbringing on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. His poetry rises from the rustle of the palm leaves and rain falling on the tin roofs of shacks. You can almost smell the exotic flowers of the island gardens. His childhood is wrapped in ‘amber’, the colour of St Lucian sunsets. The painterly style of his verses is a reflection of his memories but also on his training as an artist. This verse is trembling with feelings:

At night, the island reversed its elements, the heron  

of a quarter-moon floated from Hector’s grave, rain  

rose upwards from the sea, and the corrugated iron

of the sea glittered with nailheads. Ragged

plantains bent and stepped with their rustling powers  

                                                              Omeros, book six, chapter XLV, III

Winslow Homer, Rest, 1885

And yet, there is growing conflict. The poet is trying to make sense of a deep colonial damage, the feeling of being a ‘castaway’ without clear identity or history. There are reminiscences in his thoughts of ‘colonial travellers, the measured prose I read as a schoolboy?’ The poet, showing a brilliant control of the English language and knowledge of European and English culture, is trying to make sense of them:

I watched the afternoon sea. Didn’t I want the poor  

to stay in the same light so that I could transfix  

them in amber, the afterglow of an empire,

                               Omeros, book six, chapter XLV,II

The complexities of living in two different cultural zones are expressed vividly in Castaway. Walcott employs a range of devices to conduct the search – nature, history, myth and memory. The title stands as a symbol of deep isolation on the island. In this hostile environment, ‘The starved eye devours the seascape for the morsel Of a sail’ in hope to find purpose and inspiration. This is not just a search for belonging bur a personal identity crisis for the artist. Lack of opportunities, fear of the unknown and boredom are affecting the creative imagination:

I lie,

Sailing the ribbed shadow of a palm,

Afraid lest my own footprints multiply.

Blowing sand, thin as smoke,

Bored, shifts its dunes.

There are, however, signs of change –

If I listen I can hear the polyp build,

The silence thwanged by two waves of the sea.

Cracking a sea-louse, I make thunder split.

Castaway is a poem about the tensions that lie between the individual and his environment. Aware of his creative powers, the individual can achieve realisation by inventing himself. There are no ready-made answers but he is ready for change. The poet finds his unique voice growing from his surroundings:

The ripe brain rotting like a yellow nut


Its babel of sea-lice, sandfly, and maggot

Similar questions of artistic identity had been asked in Another Life. The landscapes of St Lucia populate this poem as a metaphor for creative insight and inspiration. The light is everywhere – the sun, twilight, the colour of amber, the ‘green flash’, all happening at sunset.

Mixing historic facts, fiction and mythology, Walcott is searching for answers to the relation between art and history, the effect of the past on the present, the effects of colonisation on the Caribbean islands, rendering them ‘as hollow as a coconut shell’. The mixture of the historic with the autobiographical in Another life and in Omeros, for which Walcott received the Nobel prise for literature in 1992, sound like a  postmodernist epic.

The crisis is very personal. The artist has decided to leave his painterly pursuits in order to write. Walcott finds that through the power of language – that’ crystal of ambiguities’, he can deliver a better picture of life:

Beyond this frame, deceptive, indifferent

Nature returns to its work

Behind the square blue you have cut from the sky,

Another life, indifferent, resumes.

                                         Another Life

Winslow Homer, A Garden in Nassau, 1885

Find these works and other by the two poets in the Poetry on loan collection, Book Browse or in the Literature section, floor 2 in the Library of Birmingham when we open.

Until next Thursday – Take care!

Lucy Kamenova

Poetry Thursdays: A Few French Poets to Know

by Lucy Kamenova

Continuing the theme of spirituality from the last post, I wish now to put the spotlight on five 19th century French poets who revolutionised French poetry and literature and marked the birth of modern art and culture. Rebelling against the oppression of Catholicism, they couldn’t find a new ‘religion’ in the industrialised city of Paris. They rejected society’s conventions and norms of behaviour. They wanted to stand on their own ground and make their mark on the world. In their rebellion, they went from one extreme to another – drink, drugs, affairs, without finding a lasting peace. They saw themselves as prophets that would hopefully change the world for the better, only to find bitter disappointment. But they gave us the desire to find beauty in the everyday and a longing for the ‘unknown’ – that inner dreamy place where we can be happy and fulfilled. They put the individual at the centre of their literary universe. See what you can make of it in the selection below.

The nineteenth century was a time of enormous change in techniques and style with regard to French poetry. It started with a rebellion against both classical literature and Romanticism with their focus on grand historic events or natural beauty. Politically, French society went through turbulent times. The ideal and vision of equality of the 1789 French revolution had long died. A series of political changes brought uncertainty with quick successions of both Republican and Monarchist governments. The first half of the century was also a time of rapid industrialisation that destroyed traditional ways of life and brought masses of workers and intellectuals from rural areas to Paris. While finding new liberties and anonymity there, they also became acquainted with loneliness and isolation. Out of all this a new quest began in French poetry focusing on the inner life of the individual and the search for a new type of beauty.

Victor Hugo is best known for his novels, but during the 19th Century he was also admired as a poet. While he wrote for most of his life in the traditional classical style, his late collection Les Contemplations (1856) marks the beginning of experimentation with individualism. The verses are poignant and autobiographical, in memory of his daughter Léopoldine Hugo who drowned:

                     Tomorrow, at dawn, when the countryside brightens,

I will depart. You see, I know that you wait for me.

I will go through the wood, I will go past the mountains.

I cannot remain far from you any longer.


And, when I arrive, I will put on your grave

A bouquet of green holly and heather in bloom.

At the same time, Charles Baudelaire published his most influential work Les Fleurs du Mal (1857). What a contradiction of terms in the title, and a brilliant new form of poetic expression! Society’s illnesses are contrasted with the beauty of flowers, fleeting moments, individual experiences.

Les Fleurs du Mal by Baudelaire, 1857 edition

Baudelaire set his literary manifesto early on – the poet is a free creation, above the everyday, a prophet-like figure in search of otherworldly beauty:

                     The Poet is alike the prince of the clouds

Who haunts the storm and laughs at the archer;

Exiled on the ground amidst jeers,

His gigantic wings prevent him from walking.

                                                              The Albatross

Les Fleurs du Mal was to change the path of French poetry and even, it could be argued, western literature. Baudelaire moved poetry away from the Romantic style of verse to the modern understanding of poetry using symbol and suggestion. In Les Fleurs du Mal he writes about everyday life, love, beauty, the capital Paris, decay and falling morals, the destruction of humanity and, in consequence, a desire to escape to the ‘unknown’.  Baudelaire was one of the first poets (along with Arthur Rimbaud) whose subject was the darker side of urban life with its evils and sense of degradation. Baudelaire introduced new themes and new ways of looking at the world as well as a new complex and modern sensitivity in expressing it. Here is a quote from The Voyage, the journey through life that will take you to the new, to the unknown. There is a rejection not just of official values but Christianity as well and traces of the mysticism and the occult:

This fire burns our brains so fiercely, we wish to plunge

To the abyss’ depths, Heaven or Hell, does it matter?

To the depths of the Unknown to find something new!”

Seeing the maladies of society, the poet is looking for another world where aesthetics and beauty are more important. His main theme is the inseparable nature of beauty and corruption:

I am as lovely as a dream in stone,

And this my heart where each finds death in turn,

Inspires the poet with a love as lone

A love as indestructible as matter.


In his influential essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, Baudelaire defines his kind of beauty- the idea that beauty has two elements: one is “eternal and invariable,” and the other “a relative circumstantial element”— “contemporaneity, fashion, morality, passion”. Beauty must contain the absolute and the particular, the eternal and the ordinary. He made it possible to extract beauty from what is ugly, for example the reality of life in the city, to juxtapose fact and fantasy, to find poesy where you don’t expect to find it.

This image was created by the Italian illustrator Manuel ( Emmanuel) Orazi for the 1934 edition of Les Fleurs du Mal

The dreamy escape into a world of fantasy and beauty expressed in simple words is the domain of another great Symbolist Stephane Mallarme. His most famous poem The Afternoon of a Faun describes the sensual experiences of a faun who has just woken up from his afternoon nap and discusses his encounters with several nymphs in a dreamlike monologue:                                                     

          These nymphs I would make last.                    

So rare

Their rose lightness arches in the air,

Mallarme is considered a prime example of so called ‘pure poetry’ where the poet disappears as a speaker, giving way to words as symbols expressing a deeper meaning. The musicality of his verse has been translated into music: Debussy composed his ‘Le Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune’ which the Russian (or Polish?) ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky first performed with the Ballets Russes in 1912.

This image is a programme for the performance of the ballet L’Apres-midi d’un Faune created by Leon Bakst in 1912.

Paul Verlaine continues the tradition of dreamy explorations of the soul. His verse is so evocative:

                     See, blossoms, branches, fruit, leaves I have brought,

And then my heart that for you only sighs;

With those white hands of yours, oh, tear it not,

But let the poor gift prosper in your eyes.

The meeting of the two lovers and their relationship is not in the description, but in the way it makes them see the world.

The problem of translating poetry had always been associated with the risk of losing the beauty and meaning of the original language. It certainly makes the job of understanding and appreciating foreign poetry more difficult. Despite this, there is one poem of Verlaine that sounds as expressive in English as it does in French:

                     It is crying inside my heart

As it is raining over the town;

What is this lethargy

Entering my heart?

                                                              It is crying inside my heart

Verlaine’s name is forever connected with the name of another enfant terrible of French poetry – Arthur Rimbaud. It is hard to imagine any other literary figure representing rebellious youth with such vigour as the precocious Arthur Rimbaud. He radically changed the perception of poetry not only because he was one of the most experimental poets of his time, writing in both rhyme and prose, but also by living a life of sheer audacity and recklessness. It is amazing that he wrote all of his famous poems between the age of seventeen and twenty one. Here is a taste of the young Rimbaud:

          It’s a green hole where a river sings

As it madly hangs onto the grass its rags

Of silver; where the sun, from the proud mountain,

Shines down: it’s a little valley bubbling with light.

A young soldier, open mouth, bare head,

And neck bathing in the sweet blue watercress,

Sleeps; he is stretched out among the grass, beneath the skies,

Pale in his green bed where the light rains down.

                                         The Sleeper in the Valley

Even in this peaceful scene there is shock waiting for us – He sleeps in the sun, one hand on his chest, Motionless: he has two red holes in his right side. The solder is dead.

In his outrage with society and rejection of conformist bourgeoisie values, Rimbaud goes on a destructive spree, killing all senses in order to start anew, to declutter, to discover happiness. He finds fulfilment in the ‘unknown’ – that inner oasis of the soul where human impulses and creativity reside. The journey is described with vivid imagination and beautiful metaphors in The Drunken Boat:

                     If I want a water of Europe, it is the black

Cold puddle where in the sweet-smelling twilight

A squatting child full of sadness releases

A boat as fragile as a May butterfly.

An affirmation that Poetry, and the Arts in general, have always been a place where the soul finds rest and applies its creative powers of transformation.

As usual, you will find these and other poetry books in the Poetry on loan collection, Book Browse and in the Literature section on floor 2 in the Library of Birmingham when we open.

Until next Thursday – take care!

Lucy Kamenova

Poetry Thursday: An Introduction to Rumi

by Lucy Kamenova

What I like about poetry is that it manages to say so much in so few lines. One master of this is the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. Devoted to Sufism, an ancient mystical branch of Islam, he is concerned not so much with the rules of Islam but more with getting closer to God. His poetry brings spirituality we desperately need in our daily life. Not overly religious but speaking directly to our hearts, Rumi’s poetry manages to bring the best out of us, to raise our minds above the everyday and to show that there is more to life than material things. Above all, it speaks of love that infuses the world. Here is a small selection of his work which, in the lack on my side of any proper knowledge of Sufism or Persian language, is only presented as an appreciation of his talent. The selection was made ever harder due to a number of various translations of the texts but that could be a subject of a whole new article.

Before he became a poet, Rumi had been a religious scholar and teacher. There is no question that at the heart of his poetry is the experience of a Muslim cleric. It’s because he lived his life through his religion, he was able to see the beauty of love, belief, acceptance and inner peace.

I am the servant of the Qur’an as long as I have life.

I am the dust on the path of Muhammad, the Chosen one.

If anyone quotes anything except this from my sayings,

I am quit of him and outraged by these words.

Nevertheless, the depth of his spiritual wisdom is universal. It doesn’t need any particular religious context in order to be understood, to feel his emotions or reach a solace:

                     Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu

Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East

or the West,


                             I belong to the beloved, have seen the two

worlds as one and that one call to and know,

first, last, outer, inner, only that

breath breathing human being.

                                         Only Breath

Detail from illustration of Gayumars and his court from the Shāhnamah ‘Book of Kings’ by Firdawsī. 16th century Safavid (IO Islamic 3540, f. 17r) – British library

Self-knowledge, loss of self and complete identity with God who is love is at the centre of mysticism and Rumi’s world:

                     I have put duality away, I have seen that the two worlds are one;

One I seek, One I know, One I see, One I call.

I am intoxicated with Love’s cup, the two worlds have passed out of my ken;

What I see here is not just a call for overreaching love in the religious sense but also on a human level. Although Rumi was afraid to mix both and put them on the same level, in his world one leads to the other:

                               Love is neither a tale nor a game.

Love is such a powerful torrent

that no one can stand in front of it.

Love is such a blazing fire which, when it blazes up,burns away everything except the Beloved.

Rumi has written one of the most beautiful lines on human love I have ever read:

                               The minute I heard my first love story,

I started looking for you, not knowing

how blind that was.

Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.

They’re in each other all along

Addressing the reader directly, this poem delivers a strongly felt message. The beauty of love – religious or human is in the spiritual connection and understanding of each other more than anything else. Lovers carry each other in their hearts so no separation can kill the feeling. Rumi had known about the suffering of the soul due to separation (from his companion Shams Al Tabriz) – “Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation.”

In his love poetry, the storyteller is taken completely out of self and embraces the world. The thought is more about the ‘other’- the lover, and as a consequence there is a connection to the whole Universe:

                               I said to the night,

“If you are in love with the moon,

it is because you never stay for long.”

The night turned to me and said,

“It is not my fault. I never see the Sun,

how can I know that love is endless?

In every line written here, there is a deep understanding of the human soul. Never more so than in the Guest House:

                     This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!


Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Every day brings new challenges and emotions but being human means facing them, learning to overcome them and enjoy the varied ways these experiences can enrich us. The message is not for the daydreamers, rather an observation on how to reach personal realisation, satisfaction and inner peace in a world full of aggression, conflict and confrontation.

Rumi’s poetry calls for open-mindedness, acceptance, compassion and soulfulness. For us, for humanity, to be the best we can ever be.

                   Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.

As always, you can find these and many other poetry books in the Poetry on loan collection in LoB, Book Browse and on Floor 2, Literature section when we open for service.

Interest in poetry has risen enormously during the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown. Here is my pick from some of the poems published online:

Until next Thursday – Take care!

Poetry Thursday: Christina Rossetti, a Victorian woman poet

by Lucy Kamenova

Most of the time, I am drawn towards the big thinkers both in poetry and in life, but there is something to be said about the attraction of some more lyrical verses. You won’t find grand ideas or life changing statements, but they will touch you with their sincerity, simplicity of language, beautiful imagery and the bravery of feeling. Christina Rossetti is one of them. A product of Victorian upbringing and sensibility, she managed to find her own voice as a poet, dreamy and soulful in an era dominated by man’s rule.

Here is young Rossetti’s voice of love and hope;

My heart is like a singing bird

         Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;

My heart is like an apple-tree

         Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;

My heart is like a rainbow shell

          That paddles in a halcyon sea;


Although a joyous and upbeat mood dominates this poem, one can spot some biblical references in the images of the apple tree (the Garden of Eden) or in the rainbow/ halcyon sea – the fulfilment of God’s promise to Noah to escape the floods, which suggest a deeply religious upbringing.

Born and raised in the middle of 19th century to an exceptionally gifted family (her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the famous Pre-Raphaelite painters, her other two siblings also had creative careers), Christina had been home educated in the spirit of traditional Victorian values of family life and churchgoing. She had learned early about the place of women in society as either an object of male’s fantasies and desires or later – as wives and mothers. The model from ‘In An Artist’s Studio’ has been deprived of her own personality. She dresses up and takes a turn in different roles – the exotic queen, the angel – in order to fulfil the male fantasy of women as pure saints or seductive queens:

One face looks out from all his canvases,

One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:

We found her hidden just behind those screens,

Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

As pointed out elsewhere, Victorians saw women and love in very much black and white terms – as virgins or prostitutes, saints or monsters. The inconsistency of human love and vanity of earthy pleasures are recurring themes for Christina Rossetti and eventually lead her both creatively and in real life to devote herself to the divine love of God.

Rossetti turned to fantasy and fairy tale form to express her inner feelings. ‘Goblin market’ is one of her best known poems. It can be read as a moral allegory of temptation, indulgence, sacrifice and redemption. Themes of lost Eden and fallen women are taking again a central stage just like in most Victorian literature. Here are the goblin men creatures, often categorised as animals and sexual predators – cat, rat, snail, selling some exotic fruits from foreign countries and tempting two young maids sisters to try them:

Morning and evening

Maids heard the goblins cry:

“Come buy our orchard fruits,

Come buy, come buy:

Apples and quinces,

Lemons and oranges,

Plump unpeck’d cherries,

Melons and raspberries,

Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,

The imagery is very much in the style of Pre-Raphaelite art, using both rich, precise natural detail, and the poignancy of symbols. The verse reminds me of a painting by William Holman Hunt of a fallen woman – The Awakening Conscience. On the floor, well below the two main characters, there is a rather sinister looking cat ready to eat the bird in front of it….that makes me shiver.

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt

In a similar scene, full of luscious detail and symbolism, Rossetti describes the fall of Laura – one of the two sisters:

She clipp’d a precious golden lock,

She dropp’d a tear more rare than pearl,

Then suck’d their fruit globes fair or red:

Sweeter than honey from the rock,

Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,

Rossetti doesn’t deviate from the official Victorian view that sexual curiosity is dangerous for women and any frivolous behaviour is a sure way to the ‘fall’, depriving women the opportunity to fulfil their role as wives and mothers. Another ‘fallen’ woman’s barren grave is a chilling reminder about the price to pay:

but dwindled and grew grey;

Then fell with the first snow,

While to this day no grass will grow

Where she lies low:

However, Rossetti rejects the Victorian idea that fallen women are always impure before the fall and monsters by birth. There is a lot of sympathy for both sisters and deep symbolism in the scene of their sleep:

Like two blossoms on one stem,

Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow,

Like two wands of ivory

There are no words here to suggest dirt and low morals, rather sorrow for the lack of economic opportunities for women, making them an easy prey for men. Finding her individual voice and lyrical expression through a series of biblical images, Rossetti is not afraid to point to the inequalities between the sexes in the Victorian era without sounding too harsh or political. The positive image of sisterhood and uplifting ending of the poem where Laura is saved though Lizzie’s sacrifice, establishes in my eyes Rossetti as a poet with a human heart. She hasn’t got the answers to Victorian inequalities, but she feels for women’s fortune:

 “For there is no friend like a sister

In calm or stormy weather;

To cheer one on the tedious way,

To fetch one if one goes astray,

To lift one if one totters down,

To strengthen whilst one stands.”

While later in life Rossetti is known for her devotional poetry, it is images from her early poetry like the one in Dream land that make her timeless:

Where sunless rivers weep

Their waves into the deep,

She sleeps a charmed sleep:

Awake her not.

Led by a single star,

She came from very far

To seek where shadows are

Her pleasant lot.

As always, you can find these and many other poetry books in the Poetry on loan collection in LoB, Book Browse and on Floor 2, Literature section when we open for service.

Here is a link to another current poetry competition organised by Write Out Loud, together with Andrew McMillan and the BBC Casualty team –https://www.writeoutloud.net/competitions/beyondthestorm. It is now open for submissions, closing date – 19/06/2020.

Until next Thursday – Take care!

Lucy Kamenova

Poetry Thursday: Let’s laugh together.

by Lucy Kamenova

Sometimes, you just need to stop and press the ‘pause’ button. When life gets too heavy going or others don’t seem to understand you anymore, it’s time to let go. It’s funny how a small joke or a completely nuisance idea can turn your mood upside down, refresh the senses and clear the mind.

It’s so refreshing to be able to see the world through a child’s eye, as if seeing it for the first time – new and without prejudice. Or just to be able to spin words around without a clear direction for the fun of it, to forget reality and find your happy place. Here is a selection of limericks which I hope you will enjoy as much as I did.

They all started as a children’s entertainment:

There was an Old Man with a beard,                

Who said, “It is just as I feared!—

Two Owls and a Hen,

four Larks and a Wren,

Have all built their nests in my beard.

                                                              Edward Lear

It was suggested that this short poem, as well as many others, was written by Lear to entertain the grandchildren of his patron Edward Stanley, later 13th Earl of Derby, during his stay at Knowsley. Published in his first anthology ‘The Book of Nonsense’ in 1846, they are full of eccentric characters becoming increasingly strange :

                     There was an Old Man of the South,

Who had an immederate mouth;….


                     There was a Young Lady of Norway,

Who casually sat on a doorway;…..

The characters exist in a state of happiness and light heartiness and are never nasty. They appear eccentric but only to the prejudiced mind. In the spirit of the Victorian era, the limericks proved to be a way of presenting examples of inappropriate adult behaviour to ‘properly’ raised children without resulting in obvious moral storytelling.

The limerick form allowed Lear to indulge into sentiments for a happy family life, escaping his own loneliness and using his experiences as a world traveller and wanderer. But sometimes the limerick verse, both Lear’s or others, is not so innocent. In fact, it’s pretty cynical:

                     There was a young lady of Niger

who smiled as she rode on a tiger;

They returned from the ride

with the lady inside,

and the smile on the face of the tiger.

                                                   Edward Lear


                     I shoot the Hippopotamus

With bullets made of platinum,

Because if I use leaden ones

His hide is sure to flatten ’em.

Hilaire Belloc

Both Lear and Belloc share the same verbal device of wordplay to extract humour from cruelty and pain and to reveal societies’ ‘illnesses’ in such a way that they become absurd. These early limericks certainly set a trend taken further by the Surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd during the 20th century, not forgetting Monty Python and the Flying Circus. Here is an extract from a poem by Spike Milligan written in the good old tradition of limericks:

                     On the Ning Nang Nong

Where the Cows go Bong!

and the monkeys all say BOO!

There’s a Nong Nang Ning

Where the trees go Ping!…..

In a series of humorous verses – Have a nice day, The ABC, Jumbo Jet or The Lion, Spike exposes the ‘some- time’ absurdity of life, the prejudices of modern society and the fact that hardly any of us have the answer to the ‘big’ questions of existence. You can hear the voice of the ‘outsider’:

                     If you’re attacked by a Lion

Find fresh underpants to try on

Lay on the ground quite still

Pretend you are very ill

Keep like that day after day

Perhaps the lion will go away

A further take on the playful and irreverent nature of the limericks is provided by the American poet Ogden Nash (1902-1971):

The ant has made himself illustrious

Through constant industry industrious.

So what? Would you be calm and placid

If you were full of formic acid?

And have you heard the poetic explanation of the theory of relativity by Arthur Henry Reginal Buller published in 1923?

                     There was a young lady named Bright

who traveled much faster than light.

She set out one day

in a relative way,

and came back the previous night.

The British have always found ways to escape the restrictions imposed by the ‘polite society’ and associated emotional suppression to enjoy life for what it is and celebrate its diversity. Although not an English invention (the limerick’s roots lie somewhere between Charles Perrault’s France, the pub poetry traditions of Ireland’s county Limerick and America), the genre has certainly found a fertile soil in England and it’s here to stay.

As always, when we are open you can find this and many other poetry books in the Poetry on loan collection in LoB Book Browse and in the Floor 2, Literature section.

If you enjoy poetry, why not visit https://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/ to find more of your favourite verses for adults and children. Until next Thursday – Take care!

Lucy Kamenova

Poetry Thursday: Robert Frost and the wisdom of the natural world.

by Lucy Kamenova

There will be lots of students this year that will miss on lessons, exams and opportunities their peers had in the past. Some might feel disadvantaged; others will enjoy the freedom to be away from school or to follow their own interest. Life is not straightforward now but then again – when had it been? Even the best planned life journeys go wrong or turn into unexpected direction. So these are poems for everybody facing the dilemma of making a choice today.

Robert Frost paints some of the best images of nature in  20th century American poetry. In scene after scene the mountains, forests, trees and brooks of his native California appear in a gallery of natural beauty –

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

  Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening

This wouldn’t come as a surprise to readers aware of his rural upbringing:

Here further up the mountain slope

Than there was ever any hope,

My father built, enclosed a spring,

Strung chains of wall round everything,

Subdued the growth of earth to grass,

And brought our various lives to pass.

                                                   The Birthplace

With only a few masterful strokes of his poetic brush, Frost creates the most evocative and memorable images of calmness and hope. Time after time the poet finds solace and peace when he is close to the countryside of his childhood. Nature is a metaphor of life’s journeys and often- a contemplative place for making observations. The numerous country walks give a chance for reflection on the human emotions – the need for inner peace but also connection to others:

I had for my winter evening walk—

No one at all with whom to talk,

But I had the cottages in a row

Up to their shining eyes in snow.

And I thought I had the folk within

                                         Good Hours

Nature is often the source of balanced wisdom and quiet acceptance of life’s destination:    

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both


I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

                                                              The Road Not Taken

The message of the poem seems simple enough and plenty of readers have taken it as a hymn to the individualism, self-assertiveness and free will of citizens to choose their destiny – the narrator has taken ‘the road less travelled’. The individualist message of the poem has become so popular that for many the title of this poem became ‘The Road less Travelled’.

On closer look, however, the two roads don’t actually seem too different – ‘And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black’. It seems that both roads symbolise good enough life’s choices. It’s about the road taken, not about the road less travelled.

Robert Frost didn’t intend this poem to be taken seriously, he just wanted to poke some fun at the indecision of his friend the English poet Edward Thomas. But the work became an example of great insight into human nature and man’s tendency to misinterpret his own life story or to fill it with regrets. Perhaps the message, however hidden, is to accept life’s complexities, not to dwell on missed opportunities and to accept one’s own choices. Make the most of life. Every reader will see it differently and draw their own conclusions.

However tempting the natural world is or appealing the idea of escaping society, Frost’s poetry doesn’t steer away from the real world of urbanised and industrialised America of the early 20th century. The woods are the source of his strength and perspective but they don’t take away the focus on real life’s responsibilities. The poet’s choice is clear – he is with the people. There is so much to take away:           

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

                               Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

As always, find these and many other poetry books in the Poetry on loan collection in LoB, Book Browse and on Floor 2, Literature section when we open for service:

During this week of Mental Health awareness, find plenty of poetry to soothe and uplift the spirit at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/foundation/ .  As Rumi once said –

The dark thought, the shame, the malice

           Meet them at the door laughing

and invite them in’.

Until next Thursday – Take care!

Lucy Kamenova

Poetry Thursday: ‘No Man is an Island’ by John Donne

by Lucy Kamenova

As we enter yet another week of lockdown, I cannot think of a more appropriate poem to capture the feel for the times we live in than John Donne’s ‘No Man Is An Island’.  John Donne (1572-1631) was an early 17th century poet, philosopher and Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. His poem written nearly 400 years ago in 1624 cannot be more relevant today. It is a sombre reading but is also full of warmth for mankind and with a positive message for us all. Enjoy!

‘No Man is an Island’ by John Donne

No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thy friend’s

Or of thine own were:

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.


John Donne by Unknown English artist, oil on panel, circa 1595. National Portrait Gallery, London

This poem originally started as a prose text, part of Donne’s sermon Meditation XVII on Devotion Upon Emergent Occasions and was converted into verse only in modern times.

Two phrases in the poem capture the imagination and stay in the reader’s mind. ‘No man is an island, Entire of itself’ presents the idea that humans are social creatures and suffer in isolation. We are all interconnected and the pain of some affects many others. This is a Christian belief also shared by the Buddhists. The sermon is a reflection on life and death after the poet recovered from an illness. It’s full of empathy for any human suffering and loss of life – ‘Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind’. These lines immediately take me to the current situation of a global epidemic and the loneliness it had introduced.

But the reaffirming love for mankind is in the search for meaning in human suffering. Just like all of us, John Donne is asking himself why this is happening and finds meaning in the hope that afterwards the world will be a kinder and more pleasant place in which to live. Only when the survivors change for the better then the loss of the fallen will not be in vain. There is an enduring hope in this poem that people will learn to live together as individuals, as countries and as humanity – ‘Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main’.  Now more than ever we feel the need for getting together in a common effort to find a vaccine and treatment for this disease.

Arguably, the second proverbial phrase in the poem – ‘For whom the bell tolls’, was the inspiration behind Ernest Hemingway’s novel of 1940 with the same name. Both the poem and the novel mark the highlight of their creator’s careers.

A modern reading of the poem can bring so many more ideas. You can translate it as a political pamphlet on society, see the emerging environmental issues for humanity, raise moral questions about wealth and justice and reaffirm the need for scientific cooperation. The universal call for human unity is one that assures the longevity of the poem and its relevance for today.

Listen to the poem here:

When we open to the public again, you can find this and many other poetry books in the Poetry on Loan collection in the Library of Birmingham , Book Browse and on Floor 2, Literature section.

If you like to keep yourself busy, why not have a go at the Poetry on loan competition – https://poetryonloan.org.uk/poetry-competition-2020. Poetry on loan is a local organisation supporting aspiring poets in the West Midlands area. Visit their website https://poetryonloan.org.uk for information on online workshops, poetry readings and publications.

Until next Thursday – Take care!

Lucy Kamenova