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Peter Redgrove’s ‘Tapestry Moths’   

 

by  

 

Jo Furber  

 

 

Peter Redgrove has acquired a formidable reputation as being a poet who wrote too much; the implication being that quantity must necessarily be at the expense of quality. In a career spanning nearly sixty years he produced over seventy collections of poetry, prose, drama and non-fiction, a small number of which were written in collaboration with his partner, the poet Penelope Shuttle. As I hope to demonstrate, far from indicating that he merely churned out poem after poem, Redgrove’s remarkable output is a reflection of his fascination with the processes of the natural world and his conviction that these constant transformations are analogous with the creation of the written word. By focusing on just one poem - 'Tapestry Moths' from his 1977 collection From Every Chink of the Ark  it will become apparent just how painstakingly he crafts his poems, illustrating the wonder and delight with which he approaches his subject matter.

‘Tapsetry Moths’ articulates a number of Redgrove’s chief preoccupations and offers an insight into his view of the world as an ongoing process. For the reader unfamiliar with Redgrove’s poetry it offers an exciting introduction to his work and also begs the question of his critical neglect, which I shall address briefly before turning to the poem; for as Philip Hobsbaum states, ‘Tapestry Moths’ is “a masterpiece that no one should have overlooked” 2. As a white, middle class male poet, albeit one writing from the margins – Redgrove spent much of his life in Cornwall and published widely with smaller presses such as Stride as well as with larger, London-based companies – Redgrove is unfashionable. Although highly regarded by his peers, there is, for example, only one full-length academic study of his work, Neil Roberts’ perceptive The Lover, The Dreamer and The World: The Poetry of Peter Redgrove (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994). Other factors in the comparatively little critical attention given to Redgrove seem to include his prolificness, which could appear off-putting (though the three fine selected editions of his work preclude this argument 3 ) and his aforementioned decision to publish with smaller presses. He is also perceived to be a ‘difficult’ poet who demands of the reader that they be active, though this is surely something that should be approached as a challenge rather than an obstacle, not least as it places him within the tradition of writers such as Dylan Thomas, whose complex and syntactically dense early work was until recently frequently passed over in favour of later, and seemingly more accessible, poems such as ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’.

Although less formally adventurous than his later work, such as 2002’s The Virgil Caverns,4 where he successfully employs the technique of stepped verse, ‘Tapestry Moths’ draws together a number of the strands of thought, belief and methods that are woven throughout Redgrove’s poetry. Redgrove uses a number of key symbols and motifs throughout his oeuvre to articulate his world view, from doors, mirrors and stairs to those taken directly from the natural world, principally the sun and moon, apples, mud, water, bees and wasps, spiders, flies and moths. As a result of his education as a natural scientist, Redgrove has a particular way of observing the world, focusing on it both as a writer and as a scientist, and in so doing melding terminology informed by both areas and refusing to keep them separate. Broadly speaking, the central tenet of his belief system is that everything is connected in life and in death, as all entities consist of molecules and waves of energy. Furthermore, everything has a purpose – a corpse fertilises new growth, for example - and nothing is static. This philosophy of constant movement, change and flux sets up a creative tension between itself and any assumptions of a poem being a closed and completed object: Redgrove responds to the world and therefore literature as an endless process, so texts (his own and those written by others) like matter can be recycled and reinterpreted. These beliefs underpin his entire output and his attitude that literature is in flux is demonstrated when the subjects of early poems are revisited in later pieces, and when separate poems may be read as a continuation of other works.

In ‘Tapestry Moths’ the moths are the enablers of this process of movement and change, as they eat the cloth pictures, thereby “[c]arry[ing] the conceptions of artists away” and disseminating the vision of these artists far beyond the confines of Hardwick Hall. The poem opens:

I know a curious moth, that haunts old buildings,

A tapestry moth, I saw it at Hardwick Hall,

‘More glass than wall’ full of great tapestries laddering

And bleaching in the white light from long windows.

Redgrove’s choice of words and phrases for their multiple meanings is a feature of this poem, exemplified in the use of “curious” in the first line of the poem. The moths are both inquisitive, and also worthy of investigation and examination themselves: they are at once actively exploring their surroundings and being observed as singular and slightly peculiar insects by the speaker, whose bold claim that he “know[s]” them is thrown into doubt further into the poem. The layering of different dictions that is also typical of the poem is evident in the insertion of the popular assonantal jingle “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall”. Furthermore, this acts to highlight the significance of the location of the tapestries and the processes of change that are constantly at work on them from the “bleaching” light. Considered revolutionary in its time for the eccentric, showy and costly size of its numerous windows, the Elizabethan stately home Hardwick Hall was important architecturally as it marked a transitional point between medieval fortified houses and more open, exposed homes. The transparency of the windows is used by Redgrove throughout the poem to make the point that the windows let the inside out, as well as the outside in. The glass thus acts as a filter between indoors and outdoors, and whilst suggesting clarity it can also distort, and forms a boundary which can be traversed and transcended by the moth and by the poem. Furthermore, with its reputation for spectacular displays of vividly detailed tapestries, Hardwick Hall is an atmospheric site for the opening of the poem.

These four intital lines highlight the apparently destructive qualities of the light with the use of “bleaching” which is then compounded by the connotations of “laddering”, which convey not only the size of the tapestries and of the high-ceilinged rooms in which they are displayed, but also indicates the damage caused by the light and the moths: to ladder a pair of tights is to ruin them. This also introduces a different kind of material into the fabric of the poem. Different ways of seeing and observing are evoked in the next section:

I saw this moth when inspecting one of the cloth pictures

Of a man offering a basket of fresh fruit through a portal

To a ghost with other baskets of lobsters and pheasants nearby

When I was amazed to see some plumage of one of the birds

Suddenly quiver and fly out of the basket

Leaving a bald patch on the tapestry, breaking up as it flew away.

A claw shifted. The ghost’s nose escaped. I realised

It was the tapestry moths that ate the colours like the light

Limping over the hangings, voracious cameras,

And reproduced across their wings the great scenes they consumed 

The speaker claims to have observed “this moth” whilst “inspecting” the tapestries, and “I saw” is soon intensified into the wonder of “I was amazed to see”. This, however, is the first point at which the speaker does actually notice the moths, as they are so well camoflagued against the tapestry, absorbing its patterns and colours into their wings. The speaker believes, at first, that he is looking at nothing more than a tapestry but in this instance the tapestry partly consists of moth. The tapestry includes moth, and the moth is now partly made up of tapestry, and both transform what we can see. This interconnectedness is highlighted and emphasised by the dense patterns of assonance, alliteration and internal rhyme in the opening of the poem. The rhyme, half-rhyme and assonance of “moth”, “cloth” and “lobster” link the three apparently separate entities, and this is given further weight by the use of /l/ sounds in “Hall”, “glass”, “wall”, “laddering”, “bleaching”, “light”, “long”, “lobsters”, “fly”, “bald”, “flew” and “claw”. The internal rhyme of “Hall” and “wall”, “nearby” and “fly”, “white” and “light” and “moth” and “cloth” continue this effect. 

Like a camera, the moth takes an image away with it, appropriately, in this instance, making the cloth bird fly again. This movement is reflected in the fluidity of Redgrove’s language: after the well-timed pauses produced by two full stops in this section of the poem, there are no further stops until the close of the poem. The “I” of the speaker also disappears at this juncture, as Redgrove makes the point that both moth and tapestry are permanently altered by their interaction, as the moths are: 

Carrying the conceptions of artists away to hang in the woods

Or carried off never to be joined again or packed into microscopic eggs

Or to flutter like fragments of old arguments through the unused kitchens

Settling on pans and wishing they could eat the glowing copper

The moving pictures on the wings of the moth give this section of the poem a cinematic effect, amd contribute to the endless potential reincarnations of the original “conceptions of artists”. These fragments of tapestry can be hung in the woods instead of within a building, form the basis for a new generation of insects or become animated with their desire to eat the “glowing copper” pans in “the unused kitchens” of an old building. Again, the lines are tightly bound by assonantal patterning, here in the use of “Carrying”, “hang”, “carried”, “packed”, “fragments” and “pans”. The focus of the following extract of the poem remains with the moths and their own miraculous process of transformation, and the assonance is continued with “lamb-faced”, “pane”, “flaming” and “braid”:

The lamb-faced moth with shining amber wool dust-dabbing the pane

Flocks of them shirted with tiny fleece and picture wings

The same humble mask flaming in the candle or on the glass bulb

Scorched unwinking, dust-puff, disassembled; a sudden flash among the hangings

Like a window catching the sun, it is a flock of moths golden from eating

The gold braid of the dress uniforms, it is the rank of the family’s admirals

Taking wing, they rise

Out of horny amphorae…

In a device used frequently elsewhere in his work, Redgrove invests the moths with the characteristics of, or associations with, other animals. Here, the “flocks” of the “lamb-faced moth[s]” coated in the “wool” of their “tiny fleece[s]” are bound even more closely with the woven fabric of the tapestry, and thus of the poem. The use of light imagery that runs throughout the poem is particularly prominent here, as the unsuspecting moths are drawn to a variety of light sources that inadvertently – and without undue sentiment expressed on the part of the speaker - cause their death. They become “a sudden flash among the hangings” in life and in death as the old, candle-lit world of Hardwick Hall is joined with the modern era of electricity. The warm and evocative “glowing copper” of the pans that illuminated the previous excerpt becomes the bright “gold braid” of the dress uniforms depicted in the tapestry, and the moths themselves become “the rank of the family’s admirals / Taking wing”. The actions of the moths are bound closely with that of their pupae in this section with the use of “they rise”, which relates to both the caterpillars and the mature moths of the previous section:

Taking wing, they rise

Out of horny amphorae, pliable maggots, wingless they champ

The meadows of fresh salad, the green glowing pilasters

Set with flowing pipes and lines like circuits in green jelly

Later they set in blind moulds all whelked and horny

While the moth-soup inside makes itself lamb-faced in

The inner theatre with its fringed curtains, the long-dressed

Moth with new blank wings struggling over tapestry, drenched with its own birth-juices

The immature moths are connected with the vibrant pastoral scene depicted in the tapestry; here the “fresh salad” echoes the “fresh fruit” of the beginning of the poem, as the caterpillars eat the real greenery before discovering the representations of food in the tapestry. The use of food continues with “green jelly” and “moth-soup”, the former of which is shot through with the imagery of electricity in the powerful, transforming “pipes and lines like circuits”. The preponderance of /l/ sounds – “wingless”, “salad”, “glowing”, “pilasters”, “flowing”, “lines like” “jelly”, “later”, “blind moulds” “whelked”, “lamb”, “long-dressed”, “blank” – continues the patterning used throughout the opening stanzas, weaving closely together the processes undertaken by the moth at the beginning and nearer the end of its life. Before gaining the freedom offered by flight, the immature moths must leave the confines of their “horny amphorae” and “blind moulds all whelked and horny”. The drama of this story of transformation is played out in the “inner theatre” of the pupae; its “fringed curtains” and the creation of “long-dressed” moths introduce other kinds of fabric whilst recalling the “lamb-faced” moths previously described. The moth literally becomes a container in which to hold itself as it grows and transforms. Similarly to the “[l]imping” light/moths previously described they are delicate and fragile, “struggling over tapestry” before they suddenly “quiver and fly off”. Furthermore, like a sheet of paper waiting to be written upon, the wings of the moths are “new” and “blank”, waiting to be immersed in art, or to become part of the food chain:

Tapestry enters the owls, the pipistrelles, winged tapestry

That flies from the hall in the night to the street lamps,

The great unpicturing wings of the nightfeeders on moths

Mute their white cinders … and a man,

Selecting a melon from his mellow garden under a far hill, eats,

Wakes in the night to a dream of one offering fresh fruit,

Lobsters and pheasants through a green fluted portal to a ghost.

It is ironic, though central to the poem and to Redgrove’s philosophy, that the moth’s attraction to light frequently causes its death, whether directly or via the “nightfeeders”. This process is vividly described as their “great unpicturing wings” “[m]ute their white cinders”. The use of “mute” – foregrounded by its position at the start of the line - is crucial, as it implies that the moth/tapestry/art is not snuffed out, rather altered and continued in a different form. As always with Redgrove, nothing is static and everything is constantly renewing itself and the world around it.

In this final section, the rich colours of the tapestry, and of the poem, are drawn together here, from the brightness of the lobsters and the plumage of the pheasants to the vivid green of the fruit – the melon from the garden and the fresh fruit of the tapestry. All are viewed through the “green fluted portal” woven into the tapestry which also becomes, in a sense, the poem, the portal through which the reader sees. The moths become more than themselves as they are described as “tapestry” and then as “winged tapestry”. The circularity at the end of the poem is emphasised by the repetition of the scene depicted on the tapestry through the dream of a man “under a far hill”. The moths have broken down the boundaries of time and distance. This endless cycle is not only suggested by the repetition at the end of the poem but by the lack of full stops throughout the main body of the text. The processes of recycling and renewal are indicated by the succession of images that flow through the poem unchecked; the artful use of commas relates each clause to its predecessor and even the end of one stanza and start of the next are intended to be read as a continuation of each other rather than as more contained units.

Like the owls and pipistrelles, the man at the close of the poem is a nightfeeder, as the moths, the tapestry and their joint story become his dream and the story is mediated again. His dream becomes the poem: he dreams art. This links him, of course, with the speaker at the opening of the poem who observes and introduces the moths. A further connection is made with the use of the word “haunts” in the first line and the last word of the poem, “ghost”. The moths and the ghost both haunt in the day and at night, transcending boundaries and disseminating art.

For Redgrove, then, there is no essential distinction to be made between the destructive and creative capacities of the moth: they are all part of the same process. The moths are facilitators, rather than the creators of something new, and this is indicated by the circlur structure of the poem, 5 and as Pawling comments, “[t]he circularity is beautifully achieved so that the ghost seems to be a presence belonging to both past and future, a being who has faded in order to re-emerge” 6. The tapestries are kept alive by the moths and the conceptions of artists are carried far away from Hardwick Hall and from the originating imagination of the artists to re-emerge “in a dream of one offering fresh fruit, / Lobsters and pheasants through a green fluted portal to a ghost.”

 

copyright © Jo Furber

 

Jo Furber completed an MPhil on the poetry of Peter Redgrove in 2003. She is the Dylan Thomas Project Officer at Swansea's Dylan Thomas Centre.


1  Hobsbaum, ‘After Barbarism – the later poetry of Peter Redgrove’. Poetry Review (71: 2-3, September 1981, 54- 58) ,57

Sons of My Skin: Selected Poems. Edited by Marie Peel. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975); Poems, 1954-1987. (London: Penguin, 1989); and Selected Poems. (London: Cape, 1999).

The Virgil Caverns (London: Cape, 2002)

4  This is in contrast to Redgrove’s depiction of spiders and bees, who are creators of webs/poems and honey/words respectively – please see, for example, his poems ‘My Father’s Spider’ (Poems 1954 – 1987) 147, ‘Or was that when I was grass’ (Poems 1954 – 1987) 117, and ‘Enýpnion’ (Assembling a Ghost, London, Cape, 1996), 15 for good examples of this.  

 

5  Geoffrey Pawling :‘Towards Eleusis – the Vision of Death in Peter Redgrove’s Poetry’ (Poetry Review (71:2-3) September 1981), 41-44, page 44. Pawling is here quoting what he wrote on first reading ‘Tapestry Moths’. His other remarks on the poem are also pertinent: “[it is a] finely achieved … vision of past and future entwining …. The tapestries, products of the long dead, are fading; in age they gain a new profundity – an idea the poem offers without ever deserting its succession of images”.