On Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s ‘Michaelmas’

‘Michaelmas’ was chosen by Michael Schmidt as one of four poems to represent Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s sadly slim output in his Harvill Book of Twentieth Century Poetry in English, and, since reading Forrest-Thomson’s fantastic Collected Poems, I’ve been wondering why, as it’s a curiously difficult poem among an overall oeuvre renowned for being contrary, albeit not as contrary as I was led to believe it to be.

I confess to having a soft spot for the poem’s title, purely because my birthday falls on Michaelmas, the 29th September. However, it used to be celebrated on the 10th October, so that is the relevant date here, I presume. The poem is quirky, steeped in English history and I suppose one would say Post-Modernist or experimental through its inclusion of Old/Middle English fragments quoted from the OED. It reminds me a little of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns in its seamless movement from the present to the past and back again, and, among contemporary poets, of Steve Ely.

The poem is the opener of Forrest-Thomson’s 1971 collection, Language-Games, which, as the title suggest, is dominated by Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, as principally expounded in Philosophical Investigations. It’s a very playful and clever collection and I think the poem needs to be seen in that context.

The title and the first word of the poem are presumably meant to be read as a run-on. The second and fourth lines are syntactically similar, are comparatively crowded in reflective of the flowers they’re describing and have an internal rhyme – ‘aster’ / ‘masses’ – which works very nicely. It’s notable that the Michaelmas daisies are described as being ‘purplish’ rather than ‘purple’, which, in spite of the ‘-ish’, gives an exact picture.

I like how single words with colons introduce fuller definition, e.g. the first-glance blackbird is actually a ring ouzel, that lovely summer bird especially common in the Peak District; and that the crocus is in fact an autumn crocus, which isn’t actually a crocus at all though it resembles one. That is of itself a Wittgensteinian game of sorts, about how exact we can be with language and to what extent another person can grasp the exactness of what another person is trying to represent with their descriptive language. The three mentions of ‘the harvest moon’ in the poem and the other repetitions, notably of ‘masses of small purplish flowers’ serve to bind the whole together.

I’ve fruitlessly consulted my copy of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader and I don’t have a full OED, so I’m none the wiser as to the meaning of the first Old/Middle English fragment beyond that it seems to refer to a nobleman being wounded on Michaelmas in 1123!

The next six lines are laid out like a list, as though they’re summarising the picture which the poet is laying before us. They consist of the words or phrases ending lines above.

The word ‘tide’ is a little more problematic, since, if we take it to be a noun (which surely it is coming after ‘moon’), it conjures either a seashore or a stretch of tidal river, neither of which has previously been implied in the poem. Although it’s obvious that this is a poem of the imagination, perhaps purely an exercise triggered by the title word, ‘tide’ nevertheless takes the poem to a different place, and then free-associates (‘time and tide wait for no man’ and all that), seemingly, to the word ‘time’, possibly in recognition that the etymology of ‘tide’ is an Old English/German division of time. The word’ spring’ is equally difficult as it has multiple meanings; given that it leads to ‘Indian summer’ and that the poem has hitherto been autumnal, we can rule out the seasonal meaning, so maybe it’s meant as a verb collectively conjugated by ‘tide’ and ‘time’. Alternatively, perhaps Michaelmas could prefix each of ‘tide’ and ‘spring’ to make compound nouns, as it does with ‘term’. The definition of ‘Michaelmas term’ – minus its month parameters – is then stated and an example from the OED concerning Edward I is given. Again, there follows a sort of inventory of words or phrases ending lines above, which then shifts into another quotation from the OED, and then segues into a list of ‘cowrtes’ at Cambridge: Nevile’s at Trinity College, and Queens’ College. The poem then ends where it began, with the description of the Michaelmas daisies and ‘the harvest/ moon’.

As a poem mixing up Wittgensteinian theory, the Imagist depiction of natural elements, with ‘found poetry’ from the OED, it is very much of its time. It’s hard to respond to on any kind of emotional level, as it is such a cerebral exercise – Peter Riley has written, “Veronica Forrest-Thomson was very much an academic poet with a programme for poetry which was worked out in her study” , and she appears to have been staunchly opposed to poetry whose ‘meaning’ is crystal clear – yet this poem is an attractive one, and sounds mellifluous on the ear: the repetition of words, phrases and syllables – notably ‘-mas’ / ‘mass’ / ‘maesse’ / ‘-masse’ – has an incantatory, mantra-like impact. The unstated contrast between the simplicity of natural elements and the implicit great financial wealth of historical Establishment England is an interesting one though it’s hard to know whether there is an intentional political agenda on the part of the poet. In fact, there is no overt judgement in the poem, and adjectives are used sparingly and with the kind of exactness used by the Imagists or by lexicographers but queried so brilliantly in Wittgenstein’s mature philosophy.

It’s a minor point, but it’s surprising to me that Forrest-Thomson bothered with a full stop at the end of the poem, but then she had a habit of subverting her own experimentation: her witty poem ‘Ducks & Rabbits’ – concerning Wittgenstein’s consideration, in part two of Philosophical Investigations, of a picture which could be viewed either as a duck’s head or a rabbit’s depending on one’s position and perception – was in full end-rhyme throughout. How sad that Forrest-Thomson didn’t live and write longer than she did. As she wrote in ‘Alka-Seltzer Poem’, ‘[. . .] experience/ is an active verb and the end/ of poetry is activity.’

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