Thursday, 19 June 2008

In defence of Belloc ...

I'm not sure if this was coincidence or synergy, but at The Growlery, Felix Grant recently posted the full text of Hilaire Belloc's Tarantella. Felix reports that it attracted a surprisingly hostile postbag (see In defense of verse or worse and The tail of Tarentella) taking him to task for quoting a "doggerellist" rather than some poet of more stature. I find this pretty strange. I'll take the central points in turn.

Was Belloc merely a "doggerellist"? Clearly not: a glance at any biography shows that the light comic verse for which he's now best known - not that Tarantella comes into this category - was only one thread in a prestigious output: Catholic apologetics, histories and biographies, very sharp essays, travel writing, farce and satire.

Is Belloc's Tarantella doggerel or otherwise insignificant as a poem? Again, I don't think so. It seems to me very dark. I don't know at this instant if Belloc ever explained his intended meaning for the poem, which he presented to Miranda Mackintosh 20 years after they had met at an inn in the Pyrenean hamlet of Canranc on the River Aragon in 1909 (see Anyway "the author is dead" - but I don't think it's an unreasonable analysis to start by noting that the very title, Tarantella, refers to a dance with mixed connotations: on the positive side, courtship; and on the negative a form of dancing mania or dancing believed to cure tarantula poisoning.

The poem itself has two sections. The initial section, imitating the tarantella rhythm, is a recollection of an inn with a frenetic but threatening atmosphere (fleas, wine tasting of tar, jeering muleteers thumping on the door - a real Hammer Films / Wicker Man inn by the sound of it).The second section is an aftermath of doom-laden silence whose repetition of "Never more" could well be an allusion to Poe's The Raven. It doesn't come across at all as being merely about a scruffy inn that has become deserted. I find a strong implication of a remembered sexual encounter (various hints: the focus on bedding, the motion phrases "Backing and advancing ... out and in", and the muleteers' behaviour that matches a charivari). I may be completely off the mark, but whatever the intent, it clearly expresses a powerful emotional experience.

However, as Felix said, these issues are somewhat beside the point. Even if the accusation of "doggerel" and "doggerellist" are untrue in this case, it still leaves the judgement by Felix's correspondents that such poetry isn't worth quoting. More on this later.

1 comment:

  1. Keep up the defence! 'Tarantella' is still my all-time top poem as it has been since childhood. I read it with my own children just this week though and they were less than impressed!

    Your entry on Topsham was really interesting too. I enjoyed a Sunday morning cup of tea there a couple of weeks ago - I think I'm probably in the Top-shum camp. My husband had family in Bosham too but I'd never really thought about the different pronunciation until today...