October 12, 2008

An Appreciation of Charles Bennett's poem, 'Salthouse'

Blue hills

Salthouse

When we walked up the hill above Salthouse
and saw, looking down where we’d been,

ourselves on the beach waving,
we were there and here and no-place,

coming and going at once, perceiving
the speckled clouds as sleeping seals,

as we dipped our toes in the breeze
and watched from the hill’s shoreline

a kestrel come in with the tide
and hold his stillness open

over the ship weathervane
of the famous drowned church,

his shadow on the ground below him
the anchor that kept him aloft.

Commentary
I really enjoyed reading this poem by Charles Bennett. It has a quiet beauty about it and a strong sense of awe about nature.

The poem begins in Salthouse, a small village in Norfolk (see http://www.tournorfolk.co.uk/salthouse.html), with the act of climbing a hill with all its symbolism of work, ascension, success. The first couplet lingers on the summit of the hill and then introduces the players, the mysterious “we” who might be companions, lovers or simply fellow travellers. They are caught in the act of looking back before the poem jolts from one couplet to another in a kind of jump-cut.

The description that follows creates a doubleness as the travellers at the summit of the hill also exist in the space of the beach. These others might be the selves left behind in previous times, experiences, eras, but there is a strong sense of multiple identities. This weird warping of time and space is complicated by the gesture of the others on the beach: they wave. A wave is a gesture of recognition, so the others must know and recognise the travellers on the hill. They almost seem to be encouraging the climbers and one might read into this that the others are fathers, mothers or ancestors encouraging the continuation of a lineage. The act of waving is also a friendly gesture and one wonders whether the others on the beach are happier than the travellers who have made the strenuous climb. In this couplet, there is a questioning of identity and a sense of unreality and loss of these other selves that appear like a fleeting apparition.

This feeling continues in the next couplet where there is disorientation as the narrator is literally unsure whether he is “coming or going”. The imperceptible becomes the concrete and tangible objects appear in the insubstantial: this is the feeling of the seal/cloud metaphor. It is also significant that the seal is sleeping, as sleep refers to dreaming and also creates a feeling of anticipation and stillness: what will happen when the seal awakes?

It is at this point that a change occurs in the poem and it moves from insubstantiality and lack to sensual experience. The image of dipping a toe in the breeze recalls the anticipatory act of testing sea water before plunging in and the whole poem appears to anticipate the appearance of the kestrel.

When the kestrel does arrive, he travels with a natural flow – the turn of the tide – and in contrast to the climbing of the hill by the human travellers, the kestrel remains motionless and still. The kestrel is remote to the world of human beings; he floats at a distance over human attempts to read the natural world (the weathervane) and the tragedies that they suffer at the hands of nature (the drowned church).

The kestrel does, however, have something in common with the human travellers watching him: a sense of doubleness. Yet even this is different to the human doubling at the beginning of the poem, because rather than being a source of anxiety, the kestrel’s double (its shadow) is an anchor, something that keeps it rooted and safe. The narrator in the end seems to admire the kestrel’s lack of self-consciousness, a fault that is so endemic to human beings. Like Rilke and others, Bennett admires the kestrel’s ability to be at one with itself, a characteristic that takes it far higher than the hill summit climbed by earth-bound humans.


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