Under the Hammer by Robert Roberts

Robert Roberts. Under the Hammer Pikestaff Press, Ellon House: Harpford: Sidmouth: Devon EX10 ONH. £7.50

Under the Hammer, a narrative poem in four books, has as its theme the demise of a great imperial power and the culture and ethos which sustained it. Each of the four parts focuses on separate episodes in England’s history: the Battle of Mount Badon circa 517; the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s; the Glorious Revolution of 1688; and the Indian Mutiny in 1857. These focal points are in turn respectively visited by the author in a kind of cultural pilgrimage and, at his behest, we attend and bear witness. The book was first issued in four separate instalments under the collective title ‘Lest We Forget’, and there is a strong elegiac element of the restoring historian about the poet of this work (of whom I know nothing else) as he attempts to gage our attention on certain aspects of neglected heritage. From the outset he addresses us:

…Rare reader, trying hard to persevere

And wondering where you’ve found yourself, and I,

Whose timeless tapestries have lured you here…

That “trying hard to persevere” could be condescension or it could be the expectation which teachers have of schoolboys who weary to be taught history when the world is bright beyond the windowpane. The “timeless tapestries” seem to be the tapestries at Trew (the site of his first sojourn) but also those woven by the poet’s verse, in which case (as with many poets) there is an arrogant egotism at play. But then poetry is a means of confronting death, and poets make a wager on eternity. There is also the “timeless” essence of what can be preserved in books, and at one point in this book the reader is addressed as “Rarest of readers, rare in being well read” – an address which either singles out the erudite reader as the ideal reader, or else appeals to him as the only likely audience. This kind of connoisseur of literature is the kind that Derek Walcott envisages in his poem ‘Volcano’:

One could abandon writing

for the slow-burning signals

of the great, to be, instead

their ideal reader, ruminative,

voracious, making the love of masterpieces

superior to attempting

to repeat or outdo them,

and be the greatest reader in the world.

The opening sequence of Under the Hammer, centring on the battle of Mount Badon, Mons Badonicus, is misted with ancient history. King Arthur, on whom Milton intended to write a national epic, is a necessarily pervasive presence. Arthur continues to fascinate and elude us. He is reckoned by conspiratorial theorists to have been of Norman origin, but is far more likely to have been a Celt, an indigenous Briton, defending the isle against the Saxon invaders. Robert Roberts has Arthur, or Artorius as he calls him, say these words before the battle, and this, to my mind, has the ring of strong poetry about it:

My boyhood by the Abona where it bends

Its course towards the broad Sabrina showed

Me how in all affairs greatness depends

On confluence, how tributaries flowed,

Celtic and Roman, in my own mixed blood

And how mysterious are the hidden ends

We’re destined for: my blood – who knows? – will mix

With Saxon blood in vigorous plenitude,

The fruit of wise and patient politics.

The second section of the poem has the Dissolution of the Monasteries as its theme. The massive fracture which made England a Protestant country was brought about by little more than a greedy king’s concupiscence. Henry VIII would presumably have read philosophical treatise which favoured a monarch over a papal State, but it was impatient lust and belligerent bull-headedness which drove him to affect the schism. The King, Wolsey, Thomas More et al make their inevitable appearance in the poem like figures in a Holbein painting. The whole tone of the poem is remarkably sustained and diligent, though there is enough of the Catholic still in me to grimace at this sort of querying: 

                              Was More a shit –

To ditch his family so coolly, while

Acting it nobly on the scaffold for

The history books? If not a shit, a wet –

Like all the great and good disdaining to

Confront reality…

All right, the theme of Roberts’ book is England and Englishry, and England would not spare this great Catholic who endorsed European Christianity and was beheaded for it. A “wet” he certainly wasn’t: he was said not to have broken sweat as he stepped to the block. “Like all the great and good…” is a glib generalization, and for More God was the supreme reality, and God would be served before his family and before the king. Insofar as being called a “shit”, More himself was capable of scatological gibes. Here he is speaking to the father of Protestantism, Martin Luther: “If you extend your filthy mouth far open someone should shit in it.” That is the voice of a Londoner. Is it the voice of a man who fancies himself to be ordained into martyrdom, I wonder? But the Reformation had to happen, and such upheavals will have their massacres:   

                                     Nothing justifies

What Cromwell did to them. The monasteries

Of Western Christendom, each one an ark

Of civilizing grace through centuries

Of barbarous violence and ignorant dark,

Inviolate, have ridden storms, brought light

And contemplative calm, Christ’s witnesses,

To lapsed mankind.

 Whatever it means to be English – whatever it means to be “civilized” – comes at a cost. We are and were then a mongrel nation, and the enforcement of religion, like our present day enforcement of democracy, will often slaughter those who oppose it. The purpose of Roberts’ poem is itself to be, in some degree, an “ark of civilizing grace” and here is a nostalgic (if slightly Draconian) litany denoting our cultural quintessence:

The Prayer Book’s almost buried heritage,

Wrought out of Cranmer’s prose, Foxe, Latimer,

Hooker’s fair-mindedness, the Platonists,

The Milton Areopagitica,

Johnsonian orotundities, the mists

Of Cumbrian fells and Coleridgean thought,

Good-humoured jostling through Vanity Fair,

High Table talk, wit, whimsicalities,

Greats, C.S.Lewis, Greek and Latin taught

In dingy VI Form classrooms, all that is,

Or was, the Grammar School, the Public School,

The smoke-filled Common Room, gowns, mark books, canes,

Beaks feared, ignored, objects of ridicule,

Guests at reunion dinners, what remains

Of all their unpretentious scholarship…

There isn’t room here to analyse the whole of this book, and the fact that I’d be tempted to is testament to its ambition. It is a subtle and lyrical narrative, exhibiting a patient, unfussy craftsmanship in which the quantity of every syllable is weighed and measured. Parts of the poem are a little fusty and stilted, and some would find the scenery to be so: of gilded portraits and embossed pediments, escutcheons and tableaux, presented in an almost Tennysonian grandeur, “stonework where time’s dissolution sprawls/ And lichen spreads.” And in our present age of surfeit so busy with push-button technologies many would disdain to read of blue-blooded gentry born into the bastion of privilege. But this book can be savoured (though it shouldn’t be solely) on a purely aesthetic level: “Rooks in the ruined vault of leafless beech”; “White-habited shaft of godlight slid between/ Lugubrious darknesses.” I respond to the sculpted certainty of such phrasing. There are lines reminiscent, perhaps deliberately, of earlier poets: “A convocation of carnivorous crows” recalls Hamlet’s “A convocation of politic worms”, and “The necessary silence and slow time/ For undistracted reading of old books” recalls Keats’s line to his Grecian Urn: “Thou foster-child of silence and slow time.”

It may be a reduction to call Roberts an Anglophile, or – to use an often misused word – a chauvinist, but like any sensitive cultured man living in a time of accelerated change and confusion, he wants to fortify the traditions which sustained him, even if only as a means of escape: “The past is a Palladian paradise/ We go to when there’s nowhere else where we’re/ Still known.” The poem’s closure seems to me an inconclusive anticlimax, ominously foreshadowing the Great War, and I can imagine Roberts writing well on that, “our finest hour”.

The title of the collection Under the Hammer calls to mind Larkin’s ‘Going, Going’ – another plaintive poem about the erosion of England, an auction for a country which has lost its value. This book, which deals with that cultural decline, I definitely recommend, though not to everyone. Its 124 pages are a memorial to a great tradition, like a tour of the National Trust. The sheer effort gone into the making of it is exemplary, though we are at times, to borrow a phrase from the poem, “Awed by the haunting antique lifelessness/ Of so much life.” I recommend it in the forlorn hope that it will not, like the sites he visits and seeks to garner into our national psyche, be destined for oblivion.


Jim Newcombe, 2006