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Rave On John Donne - Van Morrison

In 1923 W. B. Yeats, like John Steinbeck and Bob Dylan in 1962 and 2016 respectively, won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

They are all, in their different ways, part of a poetic tradition that stretches all the way from the epics of Homer (circa 8th century BC) and the love poems of Sappho (circa 6th century BC). No-one is sure who Homer was - a man, or a conglomerate of men and even possibly women. He, she or they are rolled up into an image of an ancient troubadour travelling from court to court, from polis to polis, from island kingdom to coastal citadel, making a living by weaving words, setting them to music, telling stories and enchanting their listeners and readers. Sappho too would have sung her poems accompanied by music in the form of a lyre, played by the poet herself, the equivalent of the modern day guitar.

The idea of writing the poems down was the equivalent of putting them on vinyl, the idea that the performance could be recorded and later repeated; even though the poet was no longer there the reader or singer would perform the poem as though they were the poet, or the reader would imagine the poet singing the words in their head.

Yeats frequently acknowledges this tradition by invoking the work of Homer in his poems, likening his love and muse, Maud Gonne, to Helen of Troy, comparing Irish heroes to Achilles and Hector, and presenting Irish culture as analogous to that of ancient Greece. A famous example of the former is his poem, "No Second Troy":

Why should I blame her that she filled my days

With misery, or that she would of late

Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways

Or hurled the little streets upon the great,

Had they but courage equal to desire?

What could have made her peaceful with a mind

That nobleness made simple as a fire,

With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind

That is not natural in an age like this,

Being high and solitary and most stern?

Why, what could she have done, being what she is?

Was there another Troy for her to burn?

In the early 1990's I was given use of the Lilian Baylis Theatre (the now-closed adjunct to Sadler's Wells) to produce a St Patrick's Day event. I had the idea of holding a celebration of the life and poetry of W.B. Yeats, inspired by a similar show that ran for weeks at the Hammersmith Theatre about T.S. Eliot. I enlisted the help of poets Michael Donaghy and Matthew Sweeney and novelist Timothy O'Grady and one of them, Sweeney I think it was, gave the evening the title "Rave On Mr Yeats" (see post December 3rd, 2017 ) , a quote from the Van Morrison song "Rave on John Donne" wherein Morrison eulogises the tradition of poetry from John Donne onwards, through Walt Whitman, Yeats, Omar Kayyam and Kahlil Gibran.

Although John Donne is nowadays most famous for his love poetry, here Morrison is celebrating his secular poetry; all of the poets mentioned included in their visions their own take on religion, and the idea that the ecstasy of poetry is in itself holy and achieves immortality. Who, among ordinary people, can recall the names of the ministers of Elizabeth I, let alone those of the richest people of her time, yet all know of Shakespeare, and can speak at least a line of his, even if it is that well-worn question from "Hamlet"? While less may know of John Donne, they surely unwittingly quote his words such as "no man is an island" or "..never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Poets, whether Guthrie, Dylan or Morrison, Yeats or John Donne, Sweeney or Donaghy, are the tellers of truths in an ancient tradition that we need now, in a world of the perversion of words, internet opinions and fake news, more than ever before. They place us in the moment, reminding us that the "now" is what really counts, and that it should it be valued.

"...rave on words on printed page

rave on, you left us infinity

and well pressed pages torn to fade,

drive on with wild abandon.......

....rave on, rave on, rave on, rave on...."


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