Alice Oswald, A Sleepwalk on the Severn, lines 1 – 12

A Sleepwalk on the Severn kept coming into my mind while I was reading Memorial. It’s full of passages of extreme beauty and originality that I should have written about when I first read it. An overall review would be redundant now but I want to say something about the first twelve lines of the prologue:

Flat stone sometimes lit sometimes not
One among many moodswung creatures
That have settled in this beautiful
Uncountry of an estuary

Swans pitching your wings
In the reedy layby of a vacancy
Where the house of the sea
Can be set up quickly and taken down in an hour

All you flooded and stranded weeds whose workplace
Is both a barren mudsite and a speeded up garden
Full of lake offerings and slabs of light
Which then unwills itself listen

It’s immediately obvious that we’re reading a major poet, not just in the startling beauty of a line like “full of lake offerings and slabs of light” or the startling originality of a coinage like “uncountry” but in more muted effects, like that of the first line. Simplicity, originality and sheer poetic skill come together in a way that is subtle and spell-binding almost from the first word. On the level of lexis and of statement what could be more ordinary, more banal, more bathetic even, than this line? But of course no reader of poetry would register that level on its own. The spell created by rhythm is also part of the meaning. The pattern of stresses makes the words space themselves out with a slight pause between “flat” and “stone” and longer pauses between “stone” and “lit” and between “lit” and “sometimes”[i]. This gives the line a stately, almost incantatory pace and a tone that I think weirdly combines rapt contemplation with a suggestion of mischievous humour at the (yes) ordinariness of what is being so extraordinarily evoked.

Oswald’s style is formal, each word carefully weighed by the poet and asking to be weighed as carefully by the reader. Formality can seem stiff and imprisoning (as I think it does in the rhythms of her recent TS Eliot Award rival Sean O’Brien). It can also be full of suppleness and grace, as it is here, both in the movement of the verse and still more in the movements of meaning. In the hands of a really capable poet formality seems less like a restraint than a liberation; it creates a kind of field of aesthetic force within which a dancing multiplicity of suggestions and associations, some fleeting, others sustained and developed, can spin off from the poem as it proceeds. Everything that carries meaning in poetry is involved in creating this effect. I’ve said something about metre. I also want to comment on one or two semantic details, and a couple of allusions.

Semantically there’s an obvious brilliance about the invention of the word “uncountry” to describe the estuary. Less conspicuous perhaps but almost equally important is the way Oswald releases multiple energies from a simple word like “settled”, which both evokes a vast, shadowy sense of all the creatures, including the swans and humans, who’ve made their homes in the Severn Estuary[ii] and also makes me see a highly specific image of the flat stone itself slowly spinning through the water and settling in the mud. I say “me” because this may only be a personal image. Nothing explicitly says that the stone is small enough to fall through the water in that way. But I do think my image is triggered by something out there in the writing rather than just by personal association: “moodswung” in the line before slips the image of a rocking movement like of a small flat stone falling through flowing water into my mind. In other words the verbal brilliance isn’t just an obvious matter of making up words but also a subtly inventive sensitivity to the subliminal pressure words exert on each other. The potentially flat word “beautiful” seems to me to become extraordinarily charged and renewed by being placed on the line break before “uncountry”. Finally, I want to pick out the unusual use of the word “creatures”. While this makes us think of “creatures” in the modern meaning of the word (ie biologically living beings), its application to a stone harks back to the older medieval and renaissance meaning, which included all created things, animate or inanimate. The use of the word in such a sense would be enough on its own to precipitate thought, but here it’s integrally connected to the sense of the passage as a whole.

Allusions give a continual added depth and texture to the writing. Among the more fleeting of them is the echo of the beginning of Keats’ “Bright star” sonnet heard in the first two words of this poem. Just put the phrases “Bright star” and “Flat stone” together, remembering that both are vocatives and each is the beginning of a poem, and you can see how delicately crafted but strong the allusion is. Fleeting though it is, an incidental enhancement rather than a determinant of larger meanings, it’s an instance of something I think is pervasive in the whole poem and in Oswald’s work in general – a volatile richness of imaginative texture achieved partly through a subtle mastery of allusion. I think there’s a lot to be said about it.[iii]

However, the really extensive allusion in this passage is to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, to the great speech in which Prospero renounces his art:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make
Whereof the ewe not bites; and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war …

What the passages share is the stance of speaking to a world in which everything is imagined as alive – in which all creatures in the older meaning of the word are imagined as creatures in the modern sense. This is the sense in which Ariel, speaking on Prospero’s behalf earlier in The Tempest, has said “The powers, delaying, not forgetting, have / Incens’d the seas and shores, yea, all the creatures / Against your peace”. I call it an allusion, but really it’s the recovery of an imaginative stance of extraordinary poetic power. Its power as sheer recovery of an older way of seeing the world is testified to by its impact on people who haven’t made any conscious association with The Tempest, and may never have read or seen it. This, of course, is the fundamental test. I find confirmation of my personal sense that Oswald is a really major writer in the ability of her poetry to speak straight to the hearts and imaginations of people who are imaginative and sensitive to words without necessarily being literary specialists.

At the same time, I think it enhances one’s reading of this passage if one does see it against the background of Prospero’s speech. The visually open texture of Oswald’s prologue, the shifting line lengths and the lack of punctuation give it a wavery, evanescent quality appropriate to the water-and-moonlight world it describes, and this quality defines itself against the way Prospero’s speech unfolds towards a climax through a surging accumulation of sets of parallel clauses. But syntactically, despite the lack of punctuational signals, Oswald’s prologue is also a single sentence (one which goes on for another 16 lines after my quotation). Its surface may be full of swirls and eddies but under them, included within the passage, there’s the powerful swell of the speech from The Tempest. Of course the suggestiveness of the allusion leads beyond the passage itself in multiple ways, among them into thoughts about similarities and dissimilarities between Prospero and the dream-led note-taking figure of the poet in Oswald’s poem, and the relation between this figure and the power of the moon (and beyond it of the whole natural order) as she describes it. And I think the allusion is an act of homage, the expression of a debt, specifically to Shakespeare’s art and way of seeing in The Tempest but also more generally and broadly to older ways of seeing and writing that flow into and through A Sleepwalk and that we follow both into the poem and beyond it. It suggests a writer who not only absorbs and richly transmutes influences from the wider literary tradition but who consciously enters into it as a participant in a great ongoing conversation between poems, plays (with allusions to Under Milk Wood and more surprisingly Waiting for Godot as well as to The Tempest) and no doubt novels too.

[i] Oswald doesn’t need the spacebar to create this effect: it happens of itself because two stressed syllables coming together fend each other off like the positive poles of two magnets. This creates various kinds of animating tension. The absence of punctuation or extra spacing means that we’re visually impelled to read the line continuously but the metre prevents our doing so. You just have to imagine commas after “stone” and “lit” to see how the tension would collapse as the movements created by inner ear and by eye were brought into alignment with each other, an intonation pattern appropriate to the introduction of qualifying phrases in speech was introduced and the stately, almost incantatory pace of the line as actually written dissolved into prose.


[ii] Wide and varied perspectives open and flow into each other here – the movement of peoples through history and prehistory but also minor individual relocations with furniture vans; biological adaptations and colonisations as different plant and animal species flow into the area; plant and rock sedimentations over geological ages, and so on.


[iii] Of course the shimmering interplay between Keats’ scene and tone and Oswald’s will have different effects on different people, and on the same people at different times. For me now the effects include simple pleasure at the sudden opening of a verbal window on Keats’ very different nocturne; pleasure in the wit with which Oswald subverts Keats’ bright star with her own flat stone or – contrariwise – her flat stone with Keats’ star; recognition that stars and stones have their own different beauties; recognition that romantic yearning for fixity and for the serene, ethereal, intangible beauty of stars as seen from earth has one kind of beauty and goodness, while mature resignation to change and to passivity and a prosaic valuing of the solidity and presentness of stones have another; and recognition that all these things represent complementary rather than necessarily antagonistic aspects of life. I suppose the larger point that I’m trying to get at through this small example is that Oswald’s sensitivity of expression is worth poring over because it is the expression of a generous, open, mobile imagination. As one reads through the poem as a whole one absorbs these finer suggestions in a largely subliminal way.






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