We who are concerned with “the living whole
Of all the poetry that has ever been written,”
And the sodaliciis adstricti consortiis
Of all the authors who have been, are, or will be,
We remember Jacint Verdaguer whose Atlàntida and Canigó
Did for Catalonia what Mistral’s Mirèio did for Provence,
And the Italian, Marco Girolamo Vida,
Who duly figured in Chalmers’ collection of British Poets
(Trust the English to appropriate all they can!)
An odd fate for an Italian rhetorician
Who wrote Latin verse in defence of Greek poetics!
And let us not forget Doughty’s pregnant prototype,
Richard Stanihurst, who thus describes the Muse
I am, as will appear, concerned with now –
“Fame, the groyl ungentil, than whom none swifter is extant …”

A “GROYL” is a person ever on the move. Charles Doughty (1843-1926) was a weird and wonderful poet, with The Dawn in Britain (1906) and Adam Cast Forth (1908) and author of Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888). Richard Stanihurst (1547-1618) was a Dublin-born poet, translator, alchemist and historian. 

The lines above are from page one of Hugh MacDiarmid’s In Memoriam James Joyce (1955). They might set us off in any number of directions.

I remember an antiquarian bookseller in Cambridge whose shop I used to call in on as an undergraduate. I asked him if Doughty’s poetry ever came in. “Not often,” he said. “Arabia Deserta, sometimes. It’s a dangerous book.” 

And he told me a story. When he had been buying the property and moving in, he hired a young, bright, up-and-coming lawyer to look after negotiations. Once he had the shop and the books were on the shelves, he invited the lawyer to accept a gift as thanks for looking after the purchase so well – he could choose any book in the shop. 

He chose Arabia Deserta. And some months later, the bookseller heard that the lawyer had left his practice behind him, and his family, and set off to Arabia. The bookseller seemed wondering and slightly guilty about this. This is what he meant by saying it’s a dangerous book.

READ MORE: Brittany and Scotland: Connections exemplified and celebrated

It also has one of the greatest opening sentences of any book: “A new voice hailed me of an old friend when, returned from the Peninsula, I paced again in that long street of Damascus which is called Straight; and suddenly taking me wondering by the hand, ‘Tell me (said he), since thou art here again in the peace and assurance of Ullah, and whilst we walk, as in the former years, toward the new blossoming orchards, full of the sweet spring as the garden of God, what moved thee, or how couldst thou take such journeys into the fanatic Arabia?’.”

You can smell the trace of excitement in that, the urgency of enquiry, the vast territories of wandering and adventure, discovery and danger, and the perfectly pitched moment of asking: Now, traveller, tell me your tale …

A spoor in the air, salt in the breeze, with a trace of something unknown, worth tracking out of curiosity and connections as yet untraced.

There’s the Atlantic edge that takes us from the minorities, Gaelic, Scots, all the way round, Western Brittany and Breton, the Basque Country, Galicia, and then up to the north-east curling back around towards Catalonia, peoples, places, languages, cultures, cuisines, partly defined by what opposed and opposes them: London, capitals, centralised power, militarism: the police, in different voices and uniforms. 

Fascist authority means the extermination of languages. Its purpose is built upon killing, the ultimate simplification of life.

There’s Mistral, Aix and Provencal. Roparz Hemon, Anjela Duval and Breton. Félibrige and Occitan. And the outlaw, the criminal, not to be romanticised (you’d never, ever want to meet him): Jean Genet, in Querelle of Brest. 

Poetry keeps its outlaw status, always. Not to romanticise, but simply as a practice, breaking the rules, outwith the rules. Blaise Cendrars (Swiss father, Scottish mother): “Being a poet, I can get to reality quicker than anyone else.”

Sometimes breaking the rules, or noticing carefully what goes on beyond them, means creating a greater encompassment. 

One of Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems is entitled “On first Looking Out through Juan de la Cosa’s eyes” where he notes, “before La Cosa, nobody / could have / a mappemunde”. 

He was wrong, of course: there were many world maps before Juan, but none of them could be so encompassing. The seed of understanding is there, both its immense aspiration and its vulnerability, surrounded by the bathos of subtraction:

…The New Land was,
from the start, even by name was
swimming, Norte, out of the mists
(out of Pytheus’ sludge
out of mermaids & Monsters
(out of Judas-land

And in this chaos of the unknown, where discoveries were themselves building the markers and signals of the extent of their own limitations, just as the discoverers were pushing out against the undiscovered, voyageurs, in French, or in Scots, stravaigers. Not only Juan de la Cosa but others too:

North? Mud. 1480 John Lloyd, the most expert shipmaster of all England
On behalf of John Jay and other merchants Bristol
Set out to
the island of Brasylle, to
traverse the seas
Nine weeks. And storms
threw him back.
No worms. Storms.
Ladies &
to the bottom of the,
husbands, & wives,
little children lost their lives
(4,670 fishermen’s lives are noticed. In an outgoing tide
of the Annisquam River, at the August full,
they throw flowers, which, from the current there, at the Cut,
reach the harbour channel, and go
these bouquets (there are few, Gloucester, who can afford florists’ prices)
float out
you can watch them go out into,
the Atlantic
In Olson’s New England, 

Gloucester faces east. Ulysses set out from Lisbon, which keeps his name, heading west, to find new worlds, the new world, the storm that sends his ship down. In herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, the Pequod sails east, returning the direction, circling the globe. She goes down in the Pacific, on the line of the Equator, Earth’s quadrants and hemispheres held in perfect balance: East and West on either side of direction, North and South weighing in from above and below. 

We live in the long aftermath of the geographical comprehension Melville demonstrated finally and forever. But if all this refers to the physical geographies of historical circumstances, we’re also referring to the priorities of “Art” or the aesthetic understanding that comes into play when we write, paint, compose, or read, look closely at or listen to, works of art. 

All of it is reading, one way or another. Reading is the aptest metaphor, or rather, parallel, a different exemplification or exploration.

When we read, we are most often sedentary, but your mind is on the move, just as much as Melville (below) was, bodily, in his world wanderings. Essentially, that’s the difference. That’s not to romanticise reading but to help see its value and purpose. It’s a serious business. Without it, risks multiply.

The National:

The gauge of the world’s politics is how few leaders you trust to have read anything deeply at all.

And I don’t mean fashionable books or commercialised festival favourites. I mean reading the words of those minds that help keep others alive. Those who sense the depths. Those, in Melville’s phrase, who dive. Here’s Melville’s poem, “Art”:

In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity—reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art.

There’s a word that  seems pertinent here: “Grenzsituation”. It means “A Limit Situation”. 
Limit situations are disturbing, unsettling, defined or circumscribed moments in which individuals are broken out of their normal comfort zones and inauthentic mindsets, places where a shocking disclosure reveals the falseness of their normalised identifications, moments that remove people from their conventional social bonds, and by which they are forced to wake up and find new ways of expressing themselves. 

They can be bewildering. They can be infuriating. They can be moments of revelation or extreme anxiety, as when you watch someone die. Or witness a birth. Or give birth. Or see a flock of birds flying in what seems the wrong direction. Or encounter someone from the past or from a sideways slant geography, arrived to tell you things must go another way than the one you’d planned.

John Troy, Doctor Long Ghost, comes back from Melville’s Omoo, to tell him at his home, Arrowhead, where he was writing Moby-Dick, no, that won’t do: no more South Seas Tales for you. Moby-Dick is something else. And something else is what it became. 

Melville introduces the Long Ghost in Omoo: “His early history, like that of many other heroes, was enveloped in the profoundest obscurity; though he threw out hints of a patrimonial estate, a nabob uncle, and an unfortunate affair which sent him a-roving.” 

Over six feet high, “a tower of bones, with a complexion absolutely colourless, fair hair, and a light unscrupulous gay eye, twinkling occasionally at the very devil of mischief. Among the crew, he went by the name of the Long Doctor, or more frequently still, Doctor Long Ghost”.

He quotes Virgil, repeats poetry “by the canto”, “had more anecdotes than I can tell of” and sang “such mellow old songs ... in a voice so round and racy, the real juice of sound. How such notes came forth from his lank body was a constant marvel”.

At the end of the book, he decides “to tarry awhile in Imeeo” and after “a mad, merry night” with “a couple of flasks of wine”, when dawn streaks over the mountains, the canoes come alongside: “I shook the doctor long and hearty by the hand. I have not seen or heard of him since.”

And yet, that is not all. Omoo was published in 1847. The Ghost and Harry the Reefer, Melville, shook hands and parted in 1841. 

READ MORE: Alan Riach: Exploring the great works of Breton literature

The New Zealand poet Ian Wedde’s novel Symmes Hole (1986) is introduced by a certain Dr Keehua Roa of the University of West Hawai’i (“kehua” is Maori for “haunted” and “roa” is Maori for “long” and there is no “University of West Hawai’i”), where we have: “John Troy … wrote in 1850 a letter to Melville reminding him that he needed to write a subversive book, and ... this letter arrives at the famous moment in Moby-Dick where, all scholars agree, it takes  a turn.”

And in The Melville Log, Jay Leyda’s “documentary life” of the author, there is a mysterious entry for September 14, 1850, noting a letter from George Duyckinck to Joann Miller of September 23: “John Troy writes to M. Do you remember ‘Long Ghost’ in one of his books? He had a letter from him the other day dated from California – that mesh net of humanity.”

And the Scottish poet Kenneth White, long resident in Brittany, writes of him in Across the Territories: Travels from Orkney to Rangiroa (2004), where he mentions that Long Ghost was a Scotsman, “the son of Allan Cunningham, a poet” (1784-1842), early editor of Robert Burns and author of the poem “A Wet Sheet and a Flowing Sea”: with its “white and rustling sail” and ship “like the eagle free”:

… white waves heaving high, my lads,
The good ship tight and free –
The world of waters is our home,
And merry men are we.
There’s tempest in yon hornéd moon,
And lightning in yon cloud;
But hark the music, mariners!
The wind is piping loud;
The wind is piping loud, my boys,
The lightning flashes free –
While the hollow oak our palace is,
Our heritage the sea.

How did White come to this identification? How did Wedde’s “Dr Keehua Roa” come to identify the letter that shifted the purpose of Moby-Dick? Where did the Long Ghost go? I have no further data at this time.