Wednesday 30 April 2014

First Poem

People keep mentioning ‘Tarantella’ – it seems to be having a Moment.  My mental map for childhood memories can locate where I was when I first heard it, aged 7: in a classroom with walls the colour of the less lurid kind of mushy peas.  On one wall was a grid with our names down the side and x2, x3, x4 etc along the top.  Whenever one of us mastered a new times table, the relevant square in the grid was filled with a coloured star.  Or were the stars all gold?  The room faced south and I’m seeing the sun lighting up our stars, which made an interesting pattern, though one very unlike real stars. 

It didn’t matter who this man with a strange name was.  I don’t think I associated him with the Cautionary Tales.  The poem’s rhythms, rhyme, speed and descriptive power took root.  The pattern of the sounds went in and out like the dance.  I could see most of the poem though had trouble with “the wine that tasted of the tar”; how could this adult drink taste of the sticky stuff that melted on roads in the summer?  I can still see what I saw – the courtyard of an old, white-painted inn with several floors of wooden-railinged galleries, red flowers/leaves and everyone looking Spanish.  There wasn’t a picture, I’d never been abroad and we didn’t have a television at home.

Attachment to the romantic sublime in landscapes must start early… re-reading the poem brings back my visualisation of the second verse too.  I relished the abrupt change of mood to doom and gloom – all those long vowels, “more.. hoar.. falls”, etc, and the feet tramping in the dead sound of the words ending in d, “sound.. tread.. ground.. sound”.  Not knowing what had happened only drew me deeper in.  Probably not understanding all the words (muleteer, tedding, hoar) did too.  So, I think, did the idea of remembering something that couldn’t be retrieved from the past but  could be recreated on the page.      

Of course some of the above may be false memories, as dubious as the goldness of the stick-on stars.  But at least some of it’s valid; and above all I can remember the feeling of the experience – my first ever grown-up poem, and the first time I got what poetry could do.  Anyway, here’s ‘Tarantella’.  You can listen to Hilaire Belloc himself half-reading, half-singing it on the Poetry Archive.  There’s an interesting piece about him on the same page.    

Tarantella       by Hilaire Belloc

Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding,
And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees,
And the wine that tasted of the tar?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
(Under the vine of the dark verandah)?
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
Who hadn't got a penny,
And who weren't paying any,
And the hammer at the doors and the din?
And the hip! hop! hap!
Of the clap
Of the hands to the twirl and the swirl
Of the girl gone chancing,
Backing and advancing,
Snapping of a clapper to the spin
Out and in –
And the ting, tong, tang, of the guitar.
Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?

Never more;
Never more.
Only the high peaks hoar:
And Aragon a torrent at the door.
No sound
In the walls of the halls where falls
The tread
Of the feet of the dead to the ground
No sound:
But the boom
Of the far waterfall like doom.


  1. Dear Fiona

    When we were cat-sitting in Provence, one of the books in the house was the Collected Poems of Hillaire Belloc. I read it from cover to cover. Although he was a flawed poet in many ways, he was also a natural poet whose poetry flowed out of him. I adapted one of his short poems as follows: 'Dawkins denies the soul and so do I/ The soul of Dawkins utterly deny!'

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

    1. Yes, he had a strong aphoristic streak, didn't he.. which you have taken on nicely, though I feel a bit for poor RD.

  2. Dear Fiona

    I meant, of course, Hilaire Belloc and not Hilarious Bollock. I must have been thinking of Hillary Clinton!

    Best wishes from Simon