The country house poem is sub-genre of topographical poetry popular in the seventeenth century. Famous examples exist by Ben Jonson, Thomas Carew, and Andrew Marvell. In this form the poet would praise a wealthy patron by offering elaborate and often intricately symbolic descriptions of the house and grounds often drawing on their history and political or religious associations. This week we’re pleased to be publishing a new country house poem by Karl O’Hanlon, but one with a contemporary, self-reflexive twist.
‘I limned this night-piece’
ooo – John Webster
Where broken hedge reveals a biting snow
in first settle a badger roots, its slow
brusque eradicating head earthward bent.
The formless, roomless sky pent
with thunder silhouettes my masterpiece,
her body resurrected
in sullen brick, perfected
in line and form (a voice in the aster trees…)
In countless drafts the movement never tires,
a necromancer’s dark reactive fires
kindling her conformable will.
I’m after a plain high style
demanding architectural constraint:
to render her massed electric,
all her vanished eccentric
lines in clean and classic restraint
And yet mark how these leathern sow-faced bats
flit in stone on the escutcheon – if that’s
not a compromise of classic and absurd,
mock-Tudor piece of tact. The surd
mansion flesh quickens, my January bride;
the masons, the brittle glazier,
the sunken gardens of pleasure
bristling in tune. In the end, she too will bridle.
‘I do hope it’s MY dream, and not the Red King’s’
ooo – Lewis Carroll
Margaret Batt (née Greg), d. 1840
Summer, glorious variegator,
sways sycamore stormcladding treetop
-lusty. In the gloom of my father’s house
my lace ministry of dolls
precisely gather under a draped table,
hacking up fealty.
Behold the linen and the china Queen.
‘Come, Miss, into the pollen-sweating fields,
Miss, come you out
to promenade Donegall Square; lampboys
will flit ahead to measure your footsteps
with oil roses.’
‘A mill, Miss Peg – ’ ‘A shipping company…’
‘These veins silted
with de Courcy blood!’ I spurned all
for bats to roost among my auburn hair.
The house sighs, the house grins;
thick bars of light
lock the gold dust in pert quadrilles.
I learn the new courtesies, his tenderness
close to cruelty.
He builds his love in hunched study
late (I am an unfinished blueprint).
He will beat my soul into shape.
I will not go –
the bed that winter went like snakes
and it coloured.
Robert Narcissus yawled, a blue shoat,
giving my pierced mind a kind of hope
that milked my blood.
Flesh of my burning flesh,
disinherited by finials, spandrels!
at twenty-two I died, happy.
What can be built
can be destroyed:
I will not be laid
brick on brick:
no stark passion
so far obsessed:
listen to the voice
in the aster trees.
Note: the daughters of Narcissus and Margaret Batt declined inheritance of Purdysburn estate, and Batt handed it over to the Hospital Commissioners. Purdysburn House became ‘an asylum for the lunatic poor.’ The building was demolished in 1965. Today, the site is a mental health hospital.
Karl O’Hanlon was born in Belfast and grew up near Purdysburn. His poems have appeared in Stand, Agenda, and Blackbox Manifold.