Friday, August 30, 2013

`Spirited, Cornucopian, and Virtuosic'

“His poetry was for inspiration, company, a story, and to pass the time as he marched along.” 

The person being described was not a poet in the conventional sense but the war hero and prose craftsman Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011). The describer is Artemis Cooper in her biography Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure (John Murray, 2012). She’s referring to Fermor’s fabled memory for the written word. In 1933, at age eighteen and with Hitler already poised to ravage Europe, Fermor walked from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Later he devoted two masterpieces to his youthful travels, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). Fermor’s reputation remains unjustly small. He numbers among the last century’s great writers, and Ben Downing captures the charm of his books as well as anyone. A few years ago he discovered A Time of Gifts:  

“I began reading straightaway, but after a few pages stopped and rubbed my eyes in disbelief. It couldn’t be this good. The narrative was captivating, the erudition vast, the comedy by turns light and uproarious, and the prose strikingly individual—at once exquisite and offhand, sweeping yet intimate, with a cadence all its own. Perhaps even more startling was the thickness of detail, and the way in which imagination infallibly brought these million specificities to life. In the book’s three hundred or so pages, scarcely a paragraph was less than spirited, cornucopian, and virtuosic.”
Fermor travelled light when traversing Europe, often sleeping outdoors and in barns and stables, but he carried much useful luggage internally. His best-known feat of literary memory occurred a decade later when Major Fermor was part of the commando team on German-occupied Crete that kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipe. The commandos accompanied the German officer over Mount Ida, the birthplace of Zeus. From memory, Kreipe recited the first line of Horace’s Ode 1.9, Ad Thaliarchus: Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte (“See how Soracte stands white with snow on high”). Fermor, who had translated the poem in 1930, recited the remainder of it in Latin from memory. Cooper reports the German general and the young English major “realized they had more in common than they had thought,” and calls the event an “extraordinary moment of recognition.” In an Appendix, Cooper includes Fermor’s schoolboy translation. Describing the portable library he carried across Europe in 1933-34, Cooper writes: 

“The list of poetry he had committed to memory in A Time of Gifts covers almost three pages, and he does not include songs, which are too numerous to mention. He knew all the schoolboy favourites…” 

She lists, in part, T.W. Rolleston’s translation from the Irish of “The Dead at Clonmacnois,” Macaulay’s “Horatius,” Charles Wolfe’s “The Burial of Sir JohnMoore,” and  “long passages from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, most of the choruses from Henry V, and many of Shakespeare’s sonnets; most of Keats’s Odes, stretches of Spenser and Marlowe, `the usual pieces’ of Tennyson, Browning and Coleridge, lots of Rossetti for whom he had a passion, and Kipling.” After listing more poems in five languages, Cooper adds: 

"Among poetry lovers of his generation such command would not have been thought so unusual, except that it contained so little modern poetry. He was certainly familiar with Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and the poets of the First World War, and Yeats and T.S. Eliot were not unknown; but their preoccupations were not his, for Paddy had no need of poetry that tried to make sense of the twentieth century.” 

For Fermor and literate people of his generation (and ours), poetry was their iPod, source of comfort and consolation, entertainment and learning, a living link with the past, what Kenneth Burke called “equipment for living.”


Ian Wolcott said...

Here's the hoping that The Broken Road can stand up to the prior two volumes.

Dave Lull said...

Patrick Leigh Fermor: his final journey

Colin Thubron introduces an exclusive extract from Patrick Leigh Fermor's 'The Broken Road', the concluding part of his account of his teenage walk across Europe.