.

From Parthenope’s coast each to his post,
Beseeching eyes upraised with steady gaze.
That night would nature’s cruelty erase
A city from the broiling earth and roast
The dying with the lying dead. Utmost
The pain, the choking pyroclastic haze
Whose toxic clouds cloak rivers all ablaze,
Each supplicating cast its living ghost.

The courage of the fearful soars beyond
The reckless resignation of the blind.
Vesuvius: our fears today still correspond
With his the way two thousand years behind
Our time, recorded on a water clock,
These seething seas met solid streaming rock.

.

.

Peter Hartley is a retired painting restorer. He was born in Liverpool and lives in Manchester, UK.


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14 Responses

  1. Jeff Eardley

    Peter, I read this, then went off to read about the painting, and then re-read this with a far greater understanding of the subject.
    I remember gazing at this with wonder in the Walker gallery, but your poem breathes a life into it that words alone cannot achieve.
    My history lesson for today. Thank you so much.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Thank you for the kind comment on this poem, Jeff, and having been brought up in Liverpool I too am very familiar with the painting. It was unbelievably popular in Victorian times but not so much today where sentimentality is so often written off as mawkishness.

      Reply
  2. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Peter, like Jeff I read about the painting and re-read your sonnet with a fresh eye. Your words flow beautifully, as ever, and your rhymes add to the smooth musicality of the piece. I particularly like the sibilance in the closing line… the striking impact it creates is masterly. For me, these lines capture the essence of the poem in its entirety and send a shiver of terror as I think of the dire situation of today’s corruption; “The courage of the fearful soars beyond/ The reckless resignation of the blind.” Very well done and thank you!

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Susan – Thank you as always for your comment, and for taking the trouble to read about the matter behind the poem. Not my favourite painting in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool (my award for that would have to go to John Brett’s “The Stone-Breaker”) but I don’t know how you could charge a human face with more fearful apprehension than this or how this model could speak more eloquently of terror without opening his mouth.

      Reply
  3. Monty

    I had to press a few buttons, Pete, to learn what the image depicts; and once learnt, I could understand why you felt inclined to put it into words. It’s quite a powerful image, and worthy of a poetic accompaniment.

    I’ve been to Pompeii (have you?) as well as the nearby (and equally fascinating) Herculaneum, and spent the whole morning combing through such abodes as shown above; many of which, although shells, remain somehow perfectly formed. Thus it’s pleasing to see the above image of how an abode would’ve looked at the time of eruption, as opposed to how such abodes looked when I was there.

    Tell me: behind the guard in the painting, there are two (presumably dead) bodies on the floor, and three living people behind, seemingly distressed (a scene you described beautifully in the poem as ‘..and roast the dying with the lying dead’). Would that indicate that the two have died from smoke-inhalation, and the other three are about to suffer the same fate? I ask because the guard – as gravely concerned as he looks – doesn’t seem to be displaying similar signs of physical distress.. which appears odd to me.

    (I must tell you that later that same day, after seeing Pompeii, we walked up Vesuvius. Did you know that one can walk not only to the very top, but also lean over the rim and see right into the heart of the volcano; indeed see right to the very bottom, from where thin, light trails of smoke are constantly rising.)

    Your piece contains some gorgeous phrases (‘beseeching eyes’: ‘supplicating cast’: ‘screaming rock’), but conversely, the sentence I admire most also contains the one word on which I stumbled.. ‘reckless’:
    ‘The courage of the fearful soars beyond
    The reckless resignation of the blind’
    What d’you mean by ‘reckless resignation’? I could easily grasp ‘hopeless resignation’ or ‘wretched resignation’ . . but ‘reckless’?

    Anyway, good stuff, Pete. It seems rather fitting to see a poem of yours based on a painting; given that you were once involved with paintings in a professional capacity.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Monty – Thank you once again for your kind and thoughtfully considered appraisal of my poetry. First of all to get the last point out of the way. I used the word “reckless” in its very old and much more passive sense of careless or heedless (in fact it could hardly be more passive) without any of the modern hints of flouting danger in the word. Chaucer in the fourteenth century might have used the expression to “reck his rede”, meaning to “heed his advice”. By “reckless resignation” I simply mean the giving up as useless all attempts to flee the flames and the poisonous gases as the blind might do, or indeed the very old or the tetraplegic. I also used the word for its alliteration but I can see that your word wretched would have done that job just as well. Having been to Pompeii you will understand exactly what I mean by “Each supplicating cast”, these being the blackened casts of human beings caught so suddenly by the flowing lava, their attitudes often displaying clearly their intense apprehension perhaps only seconds before a horrible fate, their precise shapes being preserved forever by filling the voids left by their subsequent decomposition. The two on the ground look very dead to me and I think the contrast between the guard and the corpses so close to him is just meant to remind us how very suddenly death occurred. I have walked around the rims of several volcanoes including Vesuvius and have also restored a J E Poynter upon which, incidentally, I was privileged to find a hitherto unknown date and monogram of the artist. Feelings and impressions are exaggerated on the summits of mountains. I will always remember the intense cold on Mont Blanc, the walk in the park that is Kilimanjaro, the airiness of the Matterhorn, the great stink of my stinkimost volcano (Mount Teide on Tenerife). Vesuvius is quite low for me on the scale of stinkiness but I’m sure you will have got some idea of it.

      Reply
      • Monty

        Ah, I see what you mean now. I didn’t know that ‘reck’ is a word in its own right (now I think of it, I imagine that any word which ends in ‘less’ will still be a word if one detracts the ‘less’: use-less.. aim-less, feature-less, etc). Thus “reckless resignation” now makes sense to me: reck=reckless=careless=I couldn’t ‘care less’ now about surviving=careless resignation=reckless resignation . . . I got there in the end.

        Talking of Kilimanjaro: two very dear friends of mine – a he and a she – once walked up there; and when they reached the very top.. he proposed to she! She, I’m glad to say, accepted; but only once she’d got over her shock (she literally had no inkling at all that it was forthcoming).

  4. Peter Hartley

    Monty – Glad to hear that your friends will have something more worthwhile than the ascent of Kilimanjaro to remember that day by. It is the highest free-standing mountain in the world (the highest mountain that isn’t itself part of a range) and it is the highest mountain on the second biggest continent in the world but after that the superlatives end. There is nothing on the mountain to convince you that you are doing anything
    more interesting than a stroll on the North York Moors. But it does have quite a big failure rate because it is so easy, I suppose, that some people take a bit of a rush at it and end up being very sick. It is so straightforward, though, that I think it must be one of very few mountains in the world of that sort of height (19340ft) that you could reach the top of without using your hands at any point (except when you fall over).

    Reply
    • Monty

      Yeah, I’m aware. As well as the aforementioned he and she, there are two other couples dear to me who’ve both walked Killy . . and they’re unanimous in citing the incredibly favourable gradient of the ascent. So favourable that one she decided to walk all the way back down the mountain on her hands without once stoppi . . . only jesting!

      Reply
      • Peter Hartley

        Monty – I once walked up and down one of my local hills in the English Peak District backwards. It was only about six miles there and back. I believe there is or was a gentleman rejoicing in the name of Plennie L Wingo who set himself up as the arch-exponent of reverse pedestrianism by walking backwards across the American continent

      • Monty

        One of my chums pulled a ligament in his leg one time while we were trekking through the Himalayas; and we were still three days walk from the nearest small town (where he had the option of chartering a donkey or a jeep to get back to our digs). Curiously, it transpired that the only way he could walk without pain was sidewards, or preferably backwards; which he had no choice but to do (where possible) for large chunks of those three days.

        I’m sure that Plennie Wingo (one wonders why he would “rejoice” in such a name) felt quite at home walking backwards across America; I’ve always considered it to be a backward country in its laws and systems.

      • Peter Hartley

        Monty – Come to think of it I’m not so sure I’d rejoice in a name like Plennie L Wingo either. Why do Americans preserve that middle initial, even to the extent of making one up like Ulysses S Grant if they haven’t got one already. But then in the UK what could be more vacuous than vanity number plates. They seem to me to be telling the whole world, “I have so much money that I really don’t know what to do with it apart from donating it to charity and that would just be ridiculous”. You could relieve the national debt of Nigeria with the
        cost of some registration plates.

  5. Margaret Coats

    The poem corresponds well to the method of the painting, which is rather difficult for someone unfamiliar with it to understand. Your poem, Peter, offers a crazy jumble of effects suited to the events pictured behind the sentry. The perspective changes every couple of lines, as if a volcano were erupting in the background. Ultimately, the images fit together to depict disaster, and I find there are three lines key to the structure. The last, of course: to say it’s a powerful ending is an understatement. The turn, “Each supplicating cast its living ghost,” which works once we understand “cast,” so I’m glad you explicated it to Monty. I also admire the first line with “Parthenope’s coast” serving as an ominous warning. Tough poem that offers a lot to careful re-reading!

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Yes, Margaret, and who knows but next time a Vesuvian erruption may well reach Parthenope’s coast and destroy the city of Naples. It is amazing even today how high up the slopes of Vesuvius people still live. It is almost as though they are throwing down the gauntlet before the gods. Parthenope was of course the name of one of the sirens who drowned in Homeric legend and was washed up on the shore where Naples now stands (as I’m sure you know far better than I). It is also the title of an exquisite opera by Handel. During the war my father was in Venice and fought at Monte Cassino, and while he was there he saw Vesuvius erupt in the early 1940s – I can’t remember the year – from many many miles away. You honed in straight away on perhaps the biggest difficulty I had with the poem which was, within the space of fourteen lines how on earth to get across exactly what I meant by the polysemous word “cast”. In the end I gave up on that one and just hoped that anybody puzzled by the word would eventually work it out from the context. I don’t know if you, like Monty, haVe been to Pompeii but one of the things that surprised me most was the survival of countless ruts in all the roadways as though sloppy mud had been frozen forever in one instant. Thank you for your verythoughtful comments

      Reply

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