A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Ambushed By Beauty

My mother-in-law was staying with us all last week and on Saturday we drove her back to her home in the Lake District. We followed the A1 up to Scotch Corner, turned west along the A66 as far as Brough, then took the A685 to Tebay and Kendal. From Scotch Corner onwards this is a fine route with great views of the Pennines. We picnicked in the Howgills on open grassland close to the village of Newbiggin-on-Lune.

After arriving mid-afternoon at her little rented cottage in Kendal, I perused her bookshelves and suddenly recalled that it was here I'd seen the phrase "ambushed by beauty" which, as some bloggers know, I've been trying to trace. I soon found the poetic source - in Moya Cannon's book of poems The Parchment Boat (1997) published in Ireland by The Gallery Press of County Meath.

My mother-in-law had met the author, heard her read, and bought a signed copy of her book at the Sligo Yeats Festival in 2003. I flipped the pages and soon came to the poem Mountain. As you can see, I'd misremembered slightly:


Beauty can ambush us, even through a car window.
This green galleon sails eternally through Sligo,
dragging our hearts in its wake.

One singer was found by hunters on these green flanks
and another chose them as a deep cradle for his bones
but neither the Fianna's chroniclers nor Yeats
did more than pay their respects
to what was already here -

a mountain
which had already
shaken off glaciers,
carried a human cargo,
known grace in stone.

It might have been the same February light
on these tender slopes
which drew the first people from the coast
to set their fires on this plateau,
to build on this great limestone boat
whose boards are made of fishbones,
whose water is green time.

Moya had explained during her reading that she'd suddenly had a dramatic view from her car of Ben Bulben, the flat-topped limestone and shale mountain that overlooks Sligo town on Ireland's west coast, and this unforeseen satori moment had been the seed from which the poem grew.

The ghost of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) haunts this whole area. One of his poems is actually titled Under Ben Bulben; and Yeats himself lies buried in Drumcliff Churchyard near the mountain's foot. His tombstone famously reads: Cast a cold Eye/On Life, on Death/Horseman pass by!

There's a big and fascinating theme waiting to be explored on 'sacred' mountains like Ben Bulben, mountains with literary, mythological and spiritual associations - such as Mt Rainier in Washington State's Cascade Range, Canigou in the French Pyrenees and Cadair Idris in Snowdonia, North Wales. I've touched briefly on this theme once before.

The Fianna were warrior bands in Irish mythology found in the stories of the Fenian Cycle.

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