What appears here is a series of emails that began with Professor Roberts’ first introducing himself to me. I have edited them for view here, finding them an exhilarating discussion of the first two books, Odysseus and Spenser, of my epic trilogy, On the River of Time.
FX: Mr. Hare I recently purchased your Spenser, On the River of Time, from Amazon, and am enjoying it very much. As a long-time student (and teacher) of Edmund Spenser, I feel akin to your writing, and especially when I find in the CIP information on the verso of the book’s title page, that we were born in the same year, 1932!
My wife (a lady from Lancashire, England) and I visited Kilcolman Castle long before archeological digs began. I wrote an article on our visit (published in: SPENSER NEWSLETTER, At Kilcolman Castle, A Modern Pilgrimage, Vol 24, No1 (Winter 1993) pp 24-26. (The article, if you are interested, is now searchable under the Newsletter’s current title THE SPENSER REVIEW (Archives).
Kilcolman was not an easy place to find and visit. Folk in the countryside, and along the Doneraile Road wondered “what we were on about” as they would say, when we asked for directions. Back then, the castle ruin was (at least locally) mostly ignored, a lonely pile hidden in the tall grass of a farm field.
CH: I feel humbled in discussing Spenser with someone who knows and teaches about him. I await your judgement when you have finished reading the book.
FX: Hello Carl: I have “journeyed” through your Spenser… from Canto 1 to Canto 21. I can honestly say it was an interesting and wonderful trip! Can I not say more? Of course, and so I will:
The eight pentameter lines of your Spenserian stanzas read well, and the hexameters (where not end-stopped) flow easily into their following stanzas. Your whole tale is presented interestingly and readably, Canto by Canto. I would guess that one of the difficulties you might have had putting it all together was hunting the rhyme(s), often an “Aha” at two a.m. job, I would imagine! Please allow me to extend my congratulations; very professionally done!
CR: Now for your exceptionally generous responses to Spenser, acute and perceptive. Actually, I had little or no problems with rhyming, I don’t know why. The scenes played vividly in my mind (perhaps because of my theatre experience) The key in this book was to find a way to use Spenser’s own verse form in a more modern context. Although I have been involved in this project since the Nineties, it was only in the early Two-Thousands, after much research, as you may suspect, that I started to write–and even that was fraught, for each month I forced myself to write one canto, and in such a fashion that I wrote in the first month Canto One of Odysseus,then the next month Canto One of Spenser, and in the third, Canto One of Archer, and so on for each of the cantos. When the first draft was finished, the work began for each separate book, with my editor (who has now worked for me for fifty years (another story, of course} working off my different drafts with great insight.
FX: I am, here, going to make a negative comment, but only as a caution to readers. It is really positive, regarding your descriptive writing abilities. That is, “Be mindful when you choose to read Stanzas 97 to 101 in Canto 7.” I read them after dinner. A mistake!
In Canto 9, (Stanzas 20 to 32) where Queen Elizabeth is brought to tears, the emotion comes through well in your writing.
I think Canto 10 may be my favourite. You make Spenser and his family sound real and human, celebrating their 16th-Century (Elizabethan) Christmas. It reminds me of the seven years Dorothy and I lived in England, while teaching at Leeds in Yorkshire. We had a home in the village of Addingham, north of Leeds, and on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales (Dr. Herriot country). We spent many a happy English Christmas with Dorothy’s family in Lancashire over those years. Thanks for the memory!
Canto 11 is well presented, educationally interesting, and exciting (especially the latter Stanzas), a piece of literary fiction, based in part on some factual history, (e.g. the moving of the Globe Theatre). Of course, it all may be “true” to some extent. Did you create out of whole cloth the meeting of the poets and Bacon etc., or did you draw on some contemporary source?
In closing, allow me to note that your study of Homer seems to have leaked into the writing of Spenser…. where in Canto 7, Stanza 1 (line 4) “… the gun-black sea.” seems to echo Homer’s favourite metaphor.
CH: Yes, the meetings of the poets is whole cloth. I loved your description of Lancashire. Alas, I haven’t seen it, although I was in rep. in Carlisle. My late wife did go there when I was back in Canada finishing my MA thesis.
FX: Let me say how much I really do admire what you have accomplished, both imaginatively and creatively, so far as I have read, with the first two books of your trilogy. I am looking forward to Book Three.
FX: I am now into Canto 12 (of Odysseus) and trudging on. But first, taking in what I have read so far, I am about to make an “observation”. It is not a “criticism”; for (while I will make “observations”) I have no intention of commenting “critically” in any negative way on your three-volume journey down (or is it up?) the “River of Time”.
I say possibly “up”, because sometimes I do find myself struggling against the current of your very fertile imagination! But riding the rapids, getting lost in the whirlpool and eddies, and trying to keep from drowning, when over my knees in water on the textual raft of your poetic descriptions, is intellectually stimulating and enjoyable.
In any event, I am too much in awe of what you have accomplished (and are accomplishing) to do anything but read, and struggle happily on. (Thanks, by the way, for providing us (your readers) with the “Notes” on characters, etc. at the back of the book(s). They help! Now that I (and I hope “we”) have that established,
If the “situation” with Nausicaa (in Canto 14) doesn’t evoke some confrontational debate or argument, (especially among/with women) I will be surprised. You bravely sail close to the salient edge of fiction and reality, or “something” (I don’t quite know what!) Not a criticism, just an observation!
CR: The situation with Nausicaa may cause some ripples, but remember–through the ages, daughters have been forced to marry for political reasons, with love not the primary intention. Think of Helen, who essentially was auctioned off. In this case, Nausicaa’s parents are concerned that she could die from her intense feelings for Odysseus, and in desperation they come to him. And Odysseus in the ten years getting back had lived intimately with a goddess for years But what is important here is that the deepest feelings of Nausicaa are felt and responded to. And, of course, Penelope will never find out, and Odysseus is never not deeply connected to her. And what happens here has important consequences in the next two books of the epic.
FX: If producers and promoters (or whatever they are called) don’t see a “Made for TV” (or a Hollywood film!) in your Odysseus, then they are missing a good bet!
CR: As a matter of fact, that situation has come. My dear friend and former boss died a very short time before he would have been 100. The man who had taken care of him and his estate wished to send me one of Roger’s paintings; instead I agreed to a small statue of a mother pig with her progeny which my late wife had loved. But on impulse I suggested that Book I could make a great adventure. He asked me to send it to him (he is a TV producer); I did; I heard nothing back. End of story (?)
FX: In my considered opinion, and getting my oar in early, I really feel you have written what will (in time) be seen as an important “event” in Canadian literature (and even further afield).
CR: Your prophecy affects me deeply, but we will have to see what we shall see.
Now, of course, I will have to tell you something about Archer, the third and final (thank God!) segment of the epic. It is much different again, taking place between 2005 and 2007 before the big bust. It concerns Ray Archer, a renegade actor/director, who creates events independent of commercial theatre. The book is divided into three “acts”: In Act One he is taking his company on a tour across Canada with King Lear in mask and is also making notes for a huge production he will be creating about the whole history of Canada, which, of course, includes the aboriginals (in Canada we now use the term “Indian” only for citizens of India), who have lived here for thousands of years. In Act Two, we see the development and production of the event, which again crosses the country; in the Third Act, at the invitation of the government of Ireland, the company performs in a number of Fringe festivals there, during which strange things happen that deeply affect Archer.
So, there’s a brief summary of the book. But it finishes my examination of the relationship between men and women, and exposes the turbulent and blood-stained history of my country. This book is the closest to me; no exercise mentioned in it have I not done; I had a similar company that received international attention; and many of the characters found their inspiration in the many performers with whom I performed or taught.
FX: Hello Carl: I have completed a first reading of Odysseus. I say “first” for I’m sure I will “go through” it again. But at the moment, I am not sure whether it’s “tragedy” or “comedy”.
Certainly, there are tragic (very tragic) scenes, events etc. in Odysseus. But since it ends with a wedding, it could be “comedy”. Or perhaps, as Polonius might say, “tragical-comical”. But, as I cannot find such a designation in Polonius’ list of stage combinations, I will go with his “… poem unlimited”. That seems to fit; for I believe your trilogy is one long, connected poem in three parts.
CR: An epic can be both comic and tragic, but the story should be completed. Odysseus had a task he had to accomplish; in doing it new aspects grew, including what happens to his family. In one sense he accomplished his task when he completed what Poseidon had demanded. But at the same time Apollo had influenced the possibilities. Odysseus was allowed to see that the next generation would be conquered. We see how Halitherses responded when he was permitted the vision; at the height of his success, Odysseus discovers the darkness of fate. The marriage of his son has behind it this vision, and the family sails back to Ithaca with that black cloud just over the horizon. But the present story ends with the ship sailing off; the darker story is still far into the future. And so the book ends both with the humanity and warmth of the wedding and its celebrations and the sense of mortality just on the perimeter of consciousness. I do not need to explain to you the lingering reminder of mortality; we have both been acquainted with this ourselves.
FX: The “oar” and “salt” are obviously symbols for the Sea and Poseidon. Do they have any deeper symbolic meaning within the four corners of your poem, that I am missing? As you suggest, I am thinking about Pelagia = “from the sea” relative to Odysseus. But other than that, Odysseus’ adventurous travels always connect with the sea in some way, nothing less obvious or more esoteric occurs to me as yet. . I’ll keep thinking!
As you may know, in Welsh mythology the name “Dylan” also means “Son of the Sea” and/or “Born of the Ocean”. It is interesting to note that the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, a favourite of mine, often has ocean themes in his poetry.)
CR: I let the symbols of elements relevant to the sea remain quietly lingering in the pathways of my consciousness. In this case, there is a more prophetic basis, and unfortunately, I can’t remember where this is found in the book, if indeed it exists in the book. There is a prophecy somewhere that Odysseus will meet his end because of the sea. Sorry I can’t be more explicit presently. But think about that.
Ah, you speak of one of my favourite poets. At the RADA I played First Voice in a production of Under Milk Wood. The production happened in the first term of the second year; unusually, it was repeated again the next term at The Commonwealth Institute, and in the final term it was presented at the Aldborough Festival and then at the King’s Lynn Festival for the Queen Mother, with whom I got to talk afterwards for five minutes. A very bright and knowledgeable woman.
FX: I am sure you must be familiar with James Hilton’s, Lost Horizon. It is a novel that has always haunted me. It was first published in September 1933, as you and I were entering our second year of life! Of course, that may mean nothing at all, but I like the serendipity.
Anyway, what interests me is that in the novel, Hilton’s hidden, isolated valley, surrounded and cut off from the outside by the mountains of Shangri-La, sounds much like the isolated valley Odysseus comes upon after struggling across the Pindos Mountains. I note too, that mining is an activity being carried on in both places! Question: Might you perhaps have had Lost Horizon (subconsciously) in mind as you wrote?
CR: Yes, I know Lost Horizon. However, it was never in the back of my mind. Confession: I have read a lot of fantasies and science fiction; but what I imagined was totally in my imagination. Serendipity with a vengeance!
FX: All the lovely ladies you write about (“causing men to gasp”) in the upper level of Greek society in Odysseus are a treat! You must have enjoyed putting pen to paper (fingertips to the keyboard) to give them (fictional) life. Their dance at the wedding feast (“the groom’s banquet”) in Canto 21, suggests to me the scene in The Faerie Queene (Book VI, Canto 10, Stanzas x to xv) where Spenser describes the Dance of the Graces.
CR: Yes, imagining the ladies and the dance at the wedding feast was enjoyable. Keep in mind that all of these things live intimately in my mind. But that is something that would take much longer to dwell on.
Books by F.X. Roberts and his wife, Dorothy
FX: You might also be interested in knowing that my wife and I have both published books on Amazon. Allow me to cite my wife’s book; you might wish to search for it on the computer.
Dorothy Roberts, There and Back Again, The Life and Travels of An English Lady (It has been well-reviewed.)
My book of poetry is titled, The Eye’s Plain Version, Fifty Years of Poetic Experiments.
If you find them, call them up on the computer, and “Look Inside,” you will get an idea of their contents from the descriptive and illustrated front and back covers of the books. You will also be able to read some of the book’s pages, as you may know. Hope you will take a look. Frank X.
CR: I’ll look for your books and that of your wife.
CR: I indulged myself and read all your poems yesterday afternoon. My response comes from the vision I had while reading it. Behind me, four men were cheek by jowl looking past me at the computer and taking in the poems as they drifted by. There was Donne, full-bearded and ruffed, large piercing eyes absorbed in text; beside him Vaughan, less pronounced mustache and bearded chin, head turned slightly, eyes watching from their corners; Herbert, wigged, an even smaller mustache and a larger cloth upon his chest, eyes open fully and absorbed; Marvell, bewigged even more, just a sliver of a mustache like a lothario of the last century’s 20’s and the shadow of a beard seen by he-men today, eyes direct and knowing. All began with intense concentration, lips firm; then, as the poems passed, smiles slowly appeared, until at the end all grinned and nodded as they faded away. I concur with them.
FX: While smiles (which could be enigmatic) and grins (possibly critical) are, on the surface at least, better than frowns or smirks, I will take what I can get. But, my friend, as I have vowed with myself to stick with your long, wonderful/wonder-filled creation, I will go on (if I may) about just one of my poems, of which I am especially proud, for the following reason:
The poem, “A Darwinian ‘Explanation’” (see page 32 of my book) was recently given some high praise by none other than Professor Richard Dawkins of Oxford University (Retired), the famous expert on Charles Darwin, and Evolution. I quote: “Dear Dr. Roberts… Your poem beautifully captures Darwin’s cat/mouse/humblebee reasoning – still one of the best examples of the complexity of ecological relationships… Very best regards. Richard Dawkins.”
Now at age 89, as you know well, and in my pre-posthumous days (I won’t say “our”, I will let you claim your own), you can understand my pleasure at receiving some small positive recognition of my fifty years of poetic effort. Thus, when a little-known poet, such as myself, gets his poetry highly praised by one of the world’s admired intellectual elites, who is also a famous Darwin expert, permission to crow a bit is (should be) granted!
CR: I have finished reading your late wife’s book. Charming in a number of ways. She brings alive her memories of her home and family; she has a quiet but shrewd sense of humour; she quietly lets us understand the major events in her life (not least the event of you); her descriptions of train and plane travel are deadly accurate (as I have experienced myself); her love of your pets I understand completely from the ones I’ve had (dogs only; I’m allergic to cats but have been fascinated with the three cats in my younger son’s family); and her straight forward way of indicating what was an enriching career was done simply and effectively. Well done!
Of course, wives upstage us—compare what I said about your accomplishments to what I expounded on hers!
FX: Thanks for all your good words about Dorothy’s memoir. Her personality was that of a sweet, quiet, very intelligent and extremely talented lady! All of these superlatives may seem to increase their bias and weaken their force coming from me, but I can only say, “It’s all true”! So too, about Dorothy, is the old cliche, “To know her was to love her”. Indeed, your “wives upstage us” comment is spot on; for in the changes of location we experienced in our professional (and personal) lives, many folks we left behind (I can attest to proudly, without regret) were more often saddened and upset to lose Dorothy, than they were to see the back of your truly.
FX: I am writing to let you know that my little book of sonnets (The Dorothy Sonnets) is now up on Amazon. If you do opt to get a copy, it will most likely be the Kindle version. But on the computer screen, the Paperback version is better for viewing some of the first sonnets, and the Front Matter of the book. I think you will like the cover.
I am still reading Stanford’s The Ulysses Theme, and trying to wrap my mind around the mysteries of your Odysseus. I am waiting patiently for the publication of Archer. Will it be available on Amazon soon? Trusting this finds you well. Best wishes Frank X.
CH: Good to hear that you’ve published the sonnets. lAnd Archer is available on Amazon for pre-purchase.
CH: I purchased your book.
And here is my response. Although I think it is rather rough, I hope that the intention will overcome the quality:
THE DOROTHY SONNETS
How much love and craft you take to reveal
“The Lady of the Sonnets”, Dorothy,
Each fourteen lines, the frequent rhymes, appeal,
A vibrant order with so much to feel.
So–over continents, a loving zeal
As teacher, ideal administratively,
Praised those of fine character, ideal,
Cherished the Lake District and by the sea.
She loved her much-travelled companion, cat,
Hodge; quilted; fine cook of English food;
A life embraced fully to its late end.
And, of course, her lovely smile, and love that
She shared with her husband, whose plenitude
Is seen in this book that we need commend.
Carl Hare, February 2022