Monday, 29 March 2010

Overheard on a Saltmarsh

I've just been re-reading some of the poetry of Harold Monro (1879-1932), a poet, poetry editor and bookshop proprietor whose reputation has dwindled to the point where he's remembered only via a handful of his works. One of these is the excellent Overheard on a Saltmarsh:
Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?

Green glass, goblin. Why do you stare at them?

Give them me.


Give them me. Give them me.


Then I will howl all night in the reeds,
Lie in the mud and howl for them.

Goblin, why do you love them so?

They are better than stars or water,
Better than voices of winds that sing,
Better than any man’s fair daughter,
Your green glass beads on a silver ring.

Hush, I stole them out of the moon.

Give me your beads, I want them.


I will howl in the deep lagoon
For your green glass beads, I love them so.

Give them me. Give them.

It's an enigmatic piece that - like many other classic works - rapidly became stereotyped as a children's poem. Even just a decade after being written, it was already being treated as that, as in Blanche Jennings Thompson's 1927 Silver Pennies: a collection of modern poems for boys and girls, which framed it thus:
Listen to this queer little conversation between a nymph and a goblin. How do you think they look? Can you read it so that we can tell which one is speaking? What do you think the goblin wished to do with the beads?
This classification was cemented by its use in any number of anthologies including Carol Ann Duffy's Overheard on a Saltmarsh: Poets' Favourite Poems. Perhaps it's understandable; the characterisations are clear-cut on first reading: of a pestering Gollum-like creature coveting the beads of an innocent nymph (see depictions by Harry Clarke, Gail E Hailey, Anna Christenson and Molly Stanton). But closer reading shows that the goblin is by far the more articulate and lyrical of the pair; nor does he attempt to take them, just says how unhappy he'll be if not given them. Meanwhile the nymph, having herself stolen the beads, is by no means on the moral high ground as the current owner.

Overheard on a Saltmarsh was one of three poems that achieved posterity by inclusion in Edward Marsh's Georgian Poetry 1913-15 (Gutenberg EText-No. 9506). The others are Milk for the Cat and Children of Love. The former is a well-observed but hardly very deep description piece about "Pinknose", a cat belonging to Monro and his assistant (later wife) Alida Klementaski. At least one of Monro's colleagues didn't think much of it:
... in a mixed gathering one evening in London, "There's Harold Monro," said one of his contemporaries, and then called out to him in a mocking voice, "Monro! Miaow, miaow!"

Monro turned, looked displeased, and said in a serious tone: "That's a good poem, Z. That's a good poem.
The latter, the title poem of Monro's 1914 first anthology Children of Love (Internet Archive childrenoflove00monrrich), features an encounter between Cupid and the Christ-Child. Cupid wants to play but Jesus refuses, and goes away crying even after having been scratched by Cupid's arrow. As Joy Grant writes in her biography Harold Monro and the Poetry Bookshop, it's
an allegorical tableau: the child Jesus meets the child Cupid in a landscape borrowed from a quattrocento Florentine painting ... The meeting is a pretty fancy: but the conduct of these Botticellian babes is heavy with moral implications...
In part it's a take on traditional imagery of profane vs sacred love, but it's hard not to read into this something of the conflicts of Monro's own life. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says of him:
Monro then set out on the walk from Paris to Milan described in his Chronicle of a Pilgrimage (1909), the prelude to three years abroad, mostly spent in Florence and the freethinking community at Monte Verita, Ascona. Psychoanalysed in Z├╝rich in 1908, he seems to have accepted that he was homosexual and that his marriage was beyond rescue. The separation became permanent, ending in divorce in 1916.

Few British people can have experienced so much of the alternative lifestyles that were being tried out on the continent. Monro's Before Dawn: Poems and Impressions (July 1911) declares boundless faith in the future, advocating sexual and social freedom, Wellsian socialism, and the Nietzschean ideal of the superman living at one with the earth.
Apart the few popular poems, Monro tends to be remembered as a very minor poet whose chief role was an enabler who published and supported other poets. However, his works are worth reading, and a number of them are on the Internet Archive: Judas (1907); The Chronicle of a Pilgrimage; Paris to Milan on foot (1909); Before Dawn (Poems and Impressions) (1911); Children of Love (1914); Strange Meetings (1917); Real Property (1922); and The Earth for Sale (1928). The title poem of the last is as powerful an expression of proto-environmentalism as you'll get:
How perilous life will become on earth
When the great breed of man has covered all.
The world, that was too large, will be too small.
Deserts and mountains will have been explored,
Valleys swarmed through; and our prolific breed,
Exceeding death ten million times by birth,
Will halt (bewildered, bored),
And then may droop and dwindle like an autumn weed.

How shall we meet that moment when we know
There is no room to grow;
We, conscious, and with lonely startled eyes
Glaring upon ourselves, and with no Lord
To pray to: judged, without appeal,
What shall we feel?
He, being withdrawn, no supplicating cries
Will call Him back. He'll speak no farther word.
I had been thinking of that final Earth.
Then I remembered she herself would lick
Her own lithe body clean, and from her girth
Wipe any vermin that might cling too thick.
Man makes himself believe he has claim
To plant bright flags on every hill he swarms;
But in the end, and in his own wild name,
And for the better prospect of his fame,
Whether it be a person or a race,
Earth, with a smiling face,
Will hold and smother him in her large arms.
- from The Earth for Sale, Harold Monro, University of Toronto, Representative Poetry Online
Addendum: since I wrote this, The Earth for Sale has been long enough out of copyright that it's findable online, hosted by the Bodleian Library on a Creative Commons license. See Europeana - The earth for sale poems - for a convenient portal.

- Ray


  1. I'd neve encountered Saltmarsh before. It's spellbinding.

  2. I have to admit that for me the word "Saltmarsh" is indelibly associated with geometry. When I was doing mathematics at school, we had Saltmarsh (a previous pupil) held up as an example of creativity. I never met Saltmarsh, but apparently he had rather stereotypical genius style, such as long hair before it was fashionable. Anyhow, he invented a short elegant proof of the Alternate Segment Theorem using symmetry; the teacher, Mr Armstrong, wrote it up in The Mathematical Gazette here.

  3. [grin] so, you all fantasised about giving Saltmarsh a good kicking behind the bike sheds?

  4. This poem was included in "Hallowe'en", edited by Robert Haven Schauffler in the late 40's. It was a collection of legends, traditions, stories, poems and party suggestions, part of a series of books Schauffler wrote under the umbrella title "The Days We Celebrate." I first read the book around 1960 when I was in junior high and have remembered the poem ever since.

    1. Thanks! That's rather cool - I'd never heard of Schauffler, and he looks an interesting author (see Wikisource. This would be the 1933 Hallowe'en: its origin, spirit, celebration, and significance as related in prose and verse, together with Hallowe'en stories, plays, pantomimes; and suggestions for games, stunts, parties, feasts and decorations . Sounds like my kind of thing.