Today is World Poetry Day, so naturally I want to discuss Mary Stewart and poetry.
Mary Stewart wanted to be ‘Professor of Poetry at Oxford, no less’ according to her mini-autobiography ‘About Mary Stewart’. In Stormy Petrel, her narrator Rose is an English tutor at Cambridge, a secret best-selling author of fantasy fiction and, by calling, a poet. In reality, Mary Stewart was a teacher (of English but also of sewing, Latin, you name it) and a lecturer in English Lit but she left academia to be a writer not of poetry but of prose. Of her 24 books, only one, Frost on the Window and other poems, is a book of poetry, published in 1990 and containing verse written for the most part decades beforehand.
Mary Stewart’s earliest poetry does not feature in Frost: legend has it that as a very young child she wrote two poems called ‘Teeth’ and ‘Dawn’. She describes ‘Dawn’ as being
a long narrative about a dapple grey horse ‘called Dawn, who lived upon a hill’, from which she had driven out a black stallion called Midnight, and from which eventually she was ousted by a white horse called Daylight. I only remember this because at intervals I was required to recite it in public, which I did with great pride.
(‘About Mary Stewart’, p3)
‘Teeth’, we are told, was written when Mary Rainbow (Mary Stewart’s maiden name) was five or six years old, and published in her vicar father‘s parish magazine. Durham County Record Office, miraculously, holds the Trimdon Parish Magazine, which was issued monthly from January 1918 until December 1924, a timescale that corresponds to Rev Rainbow’s tenure in Trimdon at St Mary Magdalene Church. When I visited Durham last autumn, I was very excited to dig out Mary’s childhood poem. The magazines are fascinating for all sorts of reasons but I failed to find ‘Teeth’. Convincing myself that I had managed, somehow, to miss it, I searched the magazines again last month with the same result: no poem. One page is missing from the December 1924 magazine, so perhaps that is the very page that held ‘Teeth’. Or perhaps the poem was published slightly later at the next parish of which her father was vicar. Sadly the Record Office does not hold any parish magazines for Shotton Colliery. Toothless we remain. So if anyone has ever seen a copy of ‘Dawn’ or ‘Teeth’, please please get in touch!
Mary also had poetry published in the Durham University Journal. On my visit to Durham University Palace Green Library last year, I found the poem ‘Now from the Valley’, with ‘Miss MFE Rainbow (St Hild’s College)’ being described as ‘a recent Honours graduate at Durham’. This poem appears in Frost under the title ‘Lucifer Outcast’: apart from slight changes in punctuation, the only alteration seems to be that ‘Now from the Valley’ has the line
Where Michael’s shining legions bow before Adonai
whereas, almost 50 years later, ‘Lucifer Outcast’ changes bow to wheel:
Where Michael’s shining legions wheel before Adonaï
The poem is written I think in rather archaic style, and Biblical themes may seem outdated to many but I like parts of the poem very much. I particularly like the change in tone across this sentence:
For I am Death, and dread, and lust, war, strife,
And sharp unrest,
Who once was light immortal, of all angels
To me, this starts stridently, a boastful stuccato (imagine it enunciated by Kenneth Branagh or Brian Blessed in full voice)
and then turns wistful, or remorseful (but still perhaps with some boastfulness, this is the Devil talking after all!).
The final sentence is dated in my opinion by its “poetical” ‘Ah, might I’ beginning but I am moved by what the Devil is wishing for: a return to heaven
Ah, might I tread again where once that bright
And put my weary hand into the pitiful
Hand of God
I’m a sucker for tales of Judas or Satan regretting what they’ve done: I’m all for a redemptive change of heart and I’m rather with Rob Bell and Love Wins in wishing Hell to be empty…
Hmm, okay, I started this as a quick post about ‘Teeth’ and I’m not sure how I strayed onto faith and religion… And here in the UK it is almost midnight. So all I can say, while there are a few moments of it remaining, is: Happy World Poetry Day! Have you read any of Mary Stewart’s poems? What are your thoughts on them?