Heart of the island nation

A Man of Heart

Liam Guilar, Swindon: Shearsman Books, 2023, pb., 197pps.

The state of modern poetry can be a cause of acrimonious arguments, with critics reprehending poets’ loss of interest in craft, opacity of meaning, and the burgeoning of often McGonagallesque political verse. Liam Guilar demonstrates that at least some modern poets reverence their craft, and know how to convey clear sense in words both evocative and memorable. His latest work is a celebration of long-neglected narrative traditions – an epic for an era which ironizes everything, a tribute to this once and future island and its stoically enduring people.

The author was born (like Larkin) in Coventry, and his work is bound up in his Midlandian boyhood – the legends and memories of his city, and underneath its storied streets wider Warwickshire, and underneath again the earth of Mercia. He moved to Queensland to teach English, but often looks homewards, his absence from England’s heart making his own heart grow fonder. His literary influences are nevertheless catholic, and if style and subject-matter make us think of Basil Bunting or Geoffrey Hill, Guilar has a voice utterly his own.

The Anglo-Irish (or Iro-English) poet has devoted his writing life to considering the conflicts, connections and contradictions of individual and national characters from prehistory to today. Behind his most personal lines and most elaborate creations can somehow be heard the swishing of elms in the fallen Forest of Arden, can somehow be seen phantom-shapes from English tradition.

A Man of Heart shows even earlier phantom-shapes – those who lived in England before it even had a name. It is a companion-piece to 2019’s A Presentment of Englishry, which took the legendary accounts of Albion’s origins by the 12th century poet Laȝamon – whose Brut was instrumental in establishing the Arthurian mystical-patriotic mélange now known as the ‘Matter of Britain’ – and projected them forward into actual history. Guilar extrapolated from fond legends about Trojan origins and King Arthur to think about the real-life English tribe under the Norman invaders, when ‘presentment of Englishry’ was a legal concept used to denote the natives’ sudden second-class status. Resentments from those times long resounded in English awareness, and arguably still resound. Inside Guilar’s work is always sociocultural sharpness; everything in England may change, but abuses will always be with us.

The Brut was largely a translation from the Roman de Brut by the Anglo-Norman poet Wace, which was based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. The intertwined roots of traditions allow vast scope for imagining these islands at the end of the Western Empire, when comfortably Romanized and largely Christianized Britons were suddenly stripped of army protection and left to deal with waves of pagan pirates and settlers landing along the eastern littoral.

Roman gravestone found at Hadrian’s Wall. Image: Derek Turner

Guilar tells of Vortigern, king (fl. ca. 425-450) of the newly independent Britons who, according to traditional historiography, used the Saxon leaders Hengist and Horsa to protect his kingdom against Picts and Scots, and granted them land. Vortigern has been mythologised, but here feels eminently real, thanks to the poet’s sweeping historical sense, and convincingly gritty detail of how those long-lost landscapes must have looked, how those nation-building lives might really have felt. Guilar combines incongruous skills – from reading Welsh to whitewater kayaking – that lend his work both sensitivity and strength.

We open in shadows suited to descending ‘Dark Ages’, as kingdoms fade into view, and a strategic marriage is being considered sadly in a crepuscular columned room:

“There was never enough light. / Even in summer, shade / and shadows contour brightness. / At night, torches and lamps / shiver the edge of sight.”

A Romano-British matron is thinking of her daughter courted by unrefined “men of power” – regrettably necessary allies in a province turned upside down, where the uncivilized hold the sword-hand, and sophisticates suddenly have only squatters’ rights.   

Her dilemma is contrasted with that of a left-behind legionary, whose relict cohort is held together out of habit by an officer, who orders them to keep gathering taxes against some day when imperial sway may be resumed. Grizzled veterans of many wars stand stolid in the rain, intuiting that their world is ended, but not knowing what else to do:

“Not one of those sad bastards / who abandoned us / can say we haven’t held our lines / and done our duty. / We’ve been, we’ve done, and now we stay.”

Elsewhere, a formal council still strangely meets, talking down to Vortigern whom they hope to utilise yet snobbishly undervalue, self-important “old men in togas” who don’t realise Pax Romana dignities now count for nothing. They seem to the clear-eyed warrior ridiculous – “dancers who had learned their steps”, but no longer had a polished floor.

There are such outlying outposts, but elsewhere, almost everywhere, there are signs of imperium’s end, and the imminence of something else. There are horses in the night, looting brigands, masterless slaves, painted Picts shattering against Saxon shield-walls, smouldering settlements, refugees on roads, abandoned villas with ornate mosaics sprouting grass, unmanned forts, untilled fields, hunger and disease, forsaken shrines, wandering visionaries, bear-skull wearing shamans, warlords more wolfish than the red-eyed real ones that batten on those years’ unnumbered dead. This is a land of startling juxtapositions – savage violence and sad nostalgia, suffering and élan, magic and cold realism, desolation and spaciousness, stone and sinew, where anything seems possible, for better or for worse.

Vortigern, a man of rare focus, indefatigably criss-crosses this chaotic country, forging alliances or fighting, convening councils and enforcing law, carrying the whole weight of his kingdom as it slowly starts to become our nation-state. We eavesdrop on allies and the king’s family conversations, sit by fires and sing old songs, experience his privations and sorrows, and gain insight into his strategies for survival – strategies as necessary now as then. The ruins of the Roman resemble other ruins; Guilar’s observer once time-slips smoothly into the 20th century, to stand in the calcined outline of Coventry’s medieval cathedral, almost eradicated by the Luftwaffe in 1940. The formidable king at the end himself disappears into the interstices of folk memory and history, his life and death and legacy all shrouded in mystery.

Much of A Man of Heart is conversational or reportorial in tone, and always understated. But quiet care and thinking-through work to the advantage of a subject that could too easily be overblown. Ultimately, all this modesty mounts up, to become something monumental, a worthy contribution to a cultural continuum. It is a notable achievement of a truly empathetic imagination – and a noble acknowledgment of Britain-builders past, present and to come.

This review first appeared in the December 2023 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.