Waxing lyrical: a brief reflection on the Great Pool of Reference

'if you seen her you know the reason for the caper'

Luxoria, from a 10th-century manuscript of Prudentius's Psychomachia: 'if you seen her you know the reason for the caper'

Other blogs, especially of medievalists in the USA whose courses are more literary than my hard-history background and approach, occasionally feature poetry, not always even medieval poetry. This has never happened here, but my outdated counter-culture tendencies may still sometimes out. And it’s surprising what you can find there. Recently, I have been very much enjoying a song with these words:

Banged up in the spires of bone and glass
A heavy blue chain dragged the Pencil Kid down
Wailing for the spoils, the loot, the swag
Of Annwn and to wear the crown
Be the champ while the next contender
Answered his Mayday from behind the fender
Still only seven dangled back from the Otherworld
Still only seven breezed back from the Otherworld
Still only seven drifted back from the Otherworld
Still only seven made home base from the Otherworld

While the castle keeps on spinning
Transmissions from the One Cauldron
Nine dames making with the heavy breath
He grabs a cloud and loses the come-on
Horns of light shall blaze from the portals
Shed no light away from the revels
Still only seven dangled back from the Otherworld
Still only seven breezed back from the Otherworld
Still only seven drifted back from the Otherworld
Still only seven made home base from the Otherworld

Twilight and Jet was shacking up together
Six KG men making with the rubber neck
I’ll drink a bracer to you of hooch on the rocks
Some wiseguys say they know Studs the big ox
And the A T A of K is that constitutional
And the cat with the silver head is that emotional
Still only seven dangled back from the Otherworld
Still only seven breezed back from the Otherworld
Still only seven drifted back from the Otherworld
Still only seven made home base from the Otherworld

Art with his smile like a frozen fish
His face as grey as arsenic fly paper
Gone skirt simple over a rotoqueen
If you seen her you know the reason for the caper
She’s the kind of dame who settles her accounts
And him the hot grounder that took a big bounce
Still only seven dangled back from the Otherworld
Still only seven breezed back from the Otherworld
Still only seven drifted back from the Otherworld
Still only seven made home base from the Otherworld

This is ‘Otherworld’ by a band called Space Ritual and the words were written by Nik Turner, mainly famous now for having been the man behind the saxophone in the early days of a band called Hawkwind, where he was the first person to do that flying saxophonist thing that Madness made famous. Nik is a lovely guy, if a bit, er, under-rehearsed, but I evidently don’t know the Mabinogion, Damon Runyon or Mickey Spillane and Philip K. Dick (at a guess) as well as he does. (Edit: Michelle of Heavenfield shows her wisdom in comments by pinning down the medieval source as a poem in the Book of Taliesin called ‘The Spoils of the Otherworld’.) Because they’re all here, aren’t they, but I have no idea what Nik may have thought he was writing about. It sounds fabulously significant and ominous when it’s chanted past you so quickly you have no time to realise it’s nonsense, and just see in your mind’s eye a kaleidoscope of dissonant and disassociated imagery coming together in a weird half-imagined literary device.

Cover of Space Ritual's album <em>Otherworld</em>

Cover of Space Ritual's album Otherworld

But it struck me as I thought about Nik pulling imagery from twelfth and twentieth centuries without apparent care or distinction, that this is a lot more like the literature of our subject period than a lot of the literature of that where we just happen to live (like friends we can choose versus relatives whom we can’t). For Prudentius, for example, that’s a narrow range: the Psychomachia draws on legends from the Homeric age, the Classical one, and a newer late Antique world of martyrs who themselves however considered themselves as the inheritors of a Judaean culture going back as far as Homer if not further. (A translation is here and a text here if you would like to experience this yourself. The translation appears to be by one W. Stevens, the text is unattributed.) And one could say very similar things of Martianus Capella, and these two are medieval best-sellers par excellence if you go by manuscript transmission. A reminder, perhaps, that conventions of genre and period and the avoidance of anachronism are fairly modern things to care about.

About these ads

6 responses to “Waxing lyrical: a brief reflection on the Great Pool of Reference

  1. Hawkwind, wow!

    Now we are talking early history!

    And I read the Psychomachia in Latin around the same time.

    Very Robert E. Howard!

  2. Interesting remake of the Old Welsh Arthurian poem called Preiddeu Annwyn (Spoils of the Otherworld) from the Book of Taliesin. Here is a translation of it: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/CAMELOT/annwn.htm

  3. Hawkwind are playing London on Tuesday, they have a new line-up (of course), new material in the set and are apparently really good this tour, and I can’t go dammit. But anyway… Michelle, thanks so much for pinning that one down, I hadn’t guessed it would be so straight a lift, but I think that actually makes it more fun :-)

  4. Very nice job, Michelle….and once again kudos to you Jon for another helpful and informative post. I envy your ability to consistently do this.

    I do have a couple questions. Did Jinty say anything about the figure in the jewel? How does it compare to the other examples (since I’ve not seen them or even photos)?

  5. I’ll answer that one with a comment where the actual post is, so that future generations may know what the heck we’re on about…

  6. funnily enough, I just listened to the BBC adaptation of The Owl Service the other day. And I have to admit, my early experience with the MA is all through either real folk tales, adaptations of folk tales, or sf/f…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s