Foray of Centaurs - line by line notes
Publishing Foray of Centaurs (in Cyclic Serial Zeniths from the Flux, the selected poems of Joseph Macleod) comes with the realisation that one is revoking the decision made by Eliot 70 years ago not to publish it – an awesome feeling. Actually, I think Herbert Read was the person who read and declined it. He said it was “too classical” – three years later Faber published Sacheverell Sitwell’s Canons of Giant Art, which includes a more classicising account of the same Centaur myth. And, actually – Eliot was wrong.
(these are textual notes so if you don't have the text they will make no sense at all)
keep a curious oneness: dance in unison (the leader of the dance calls out instructions to the dancers)
cannibal dendrophagy: not too sure about this. This works if the centaurs are partly trees, rather than partly horses. 'dendrophage' is 'tree eater'.
puddling: they trample what is on the ground as they dance
Ancestors: apparently an idea that the Centaurs are descended from trees. This is not a Classical idea, but I find that Chiron’s mother was Philyra, which would mean “linden spirit”, so perhaps Macleod decided that Centaurs were descended from trees. And grew from ‘cotyledons’ – which would explain why there are no female Centaurs?
the twisted coil: must be the figure the dancers make
Heoigh: a cry the Centaurs give as they dance
riotous a new sun: first reference to the Sun, a leitmotif of the poem
Cuts the gut: strums the strings of the lyre (imagined as made from the shell of a tortoise)
Hexagon: possibly a ring of six swords, a figure within the Sword Dance
The scene shifts to England, where horses, related to the Centaurs, are kept in servitude.
Glossy roundels spun: using roulette as a metaphor?
But who’s to tend machines: a passage difficult in detail whose theme seems to be the problems of automation. In the absence of economic problems, social problems are those of surplus leisure – and self-fulfilment.
(Great West Road)
We follow on with a scene showing a public holiday. It is a road which leads into London from the West – a ribbon development. Someone rich drives by in a car with his daughter, who is going to be married in a later scene. There has been a disturbance which we later find out to have been the Centaurs passing by. The scene moves to Fleet Street.
Entirely circular to the square: earlier, we had “the entire circle copse-square”. a leitmotif – meaning what?
dormice. What are all these dormice doing here?
teemed to the mould: reproduced from the (same) matrix
The Lapith (English) crowd defeats them by laughter (the “pink odour of derision”)
Theseus, speaking in rhyme, announces that the Centaurs are to be their deities (hallows) –to whom they pray. Theseus is remotely controlled by Heracles, the real holder of power.
These are mainly the prayers offered up to Centaurs by the ordinary people of London. The first is an exception – the description of a carving of a group of centaurs. Its theme seems to be depersonalisation, and the breakthrough to a deeper, shared, reality.
Chameleon-throned: the foam (aphros) from which Aphrodite was born refracts light (and resembles this marble)
This idea of the organisation of behaviour by chemical messengers (a “civilised plant”) is typical of Macleod’s interests, and is related to his theories on theatre (seen as a collective identity).
Animated Gazette: newsreel
We dedicate: models were typical offerings left in temples. This one is an offering to the Theatre – seen as a form of romantic relief.
This sugared shell – another offering (or sanctification specimen), a bit of icing from the wedding-cake.
A grave from the parish: i.e. a pauper burial
Chalked: i.e. in white clown make-up
polygonal hippanthropus: probably, a sculpture of a Centaur, the word means 'horse-man'
Arion: a poet
episode: kind of small poem (episodeion)
Atthis: a castrated figure (from Catullus, poem 69)
(The spurious wedding)
hatchments: armorial bearings showing ancestry
poppyheads: ornamental carvings on pews
Theseus delivers a sermon expounding an utterly weird fire-based cosmology. The lance and cup imagery is slightly more familiar – from the Grail legend.
swallow fledglings: symbols of fertility?
Collect: part of the service (a reading from Scripture)
I am not quite sure why the wedding is spurious, but presumably it lacks that biological vitality which the Centaurs embody.
(The world bursts like a pod)
Scene of bored and conventional guests. Heracles is planning the downfall of the Centaurs by getting them drunk.
At sea dolphins torpedo convoys: what? how?
The gorse pods: the same image appears in a section of The Ecliptic. Gorse is rather common in Surrey, where Macleod grew up. The bursting of the yellow or orange pods is a symbol of the sexuality of plants.
dud crumps: shells that fail to explode
plasmic: plasma, a kind of hot gas
reefline: a high-up part of the rigging of a ship
rubber… mastic symptoms of fear and shock
Chiron is expecting the horses to start a revolution, but they are too intimidated. The centaurs, inflamed by wine, assault the women at the wedding, as at the wedding of Hippodamia in the original myth. Chiron wants a revolution, but not an outburst of ill-directed violence. He sings a song recalling Thessaly.
the human engineer: Lenin wanted writers to be the engineers of human souls; a depraved and totalitarian image. There is some connection between the automation we saw bemoaned earlier on, and this political manipulation.
(Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs)
This is the event which Ovid wrote an elaborate description of, and which was the subject of a frieze of the Parthenon – of which some parts are now in the British Museum. The first intent of the Centaurs is conquest, but they are distracted by lust for the women. The whole poem is an 'animation' of the figures in this frieze in the British Museum.
Ruisshle: I have not found any entry for this in any Scots dictionary. The closest I have got is a gloss in a novel by Samuel Crockett for a similar word which he glosses as “wrestle” and which refers to the noise made by a high wind in vegetation. I now think it is the same word as English "rustle", but louder.
fleering showing their teeth in a threat gesture
viale (Italian word) broad path in a formal garden
eyebright ephebus: some of the victims are boys
Heracles has ordered a large number of troops to hide in the garden – he foresaw the whole course of events. Indeed, it has happened before.
My body fills with air: I think this is a subjective description of Hippodamia responding to Eurytion? An obscure passage. Hemlock – spontaneous but unwelcome feelings? Some odd affinity between this compressed air and the turbine motors which the soldiers are about to use to spread gas?
The closing telescope of the spire: this whole passage is a description of detumescence.
The following passage seems to be a personal reminiscence of erotic experience, in the image of a boat entering harbour and docking. (“graceful of act” etc.)
The victims ponder sexual frustration and social restrictions; Theseus delivers a sermon on the shocking event. The Centaurs are to be deprived of their souls and consigned to physical labour, which will liberate the humans. This is thematically confusing – is this a metaphor for the working class? For the subject races of the Empire? Anyway, we are back with the problem of leisure. A force arrives to subdue the Centaurs with a gas which is also laughter. Chiron is struck with an incurable wound from a poisoned arrow. Eurytion alone is turned to stone – presumably as a punishment for stealing the bride (who is also turned to stone).
Flat is the glass: tanks looked like parallelograms at this date (tilted armour tends to deflect the impact of incoming munitions); the glass is the slit the commander looks out of.
An entire circle: leitmotif
this thick disc: the paving of Piccadilly Circus itself, a round area seen as a disc because there is a hollow space beneath it containing an underground station
the entire periphery: another “entire circle”
pastures: a reference possibly to the Elysian fields, the “meads of asphodel”
diurnal scale: I think this relates to the octave and twelfth mentioned below? As intervals. Somehow this relates to the geometry of the sun (from which anything “diurnal” proceeds). The segment is part of a circle – an incomplete circle. Their days are an endlessly repeating cycle? This resembles the circular drive of the escalator? (“stairs’ drum”)
(Palais de danse)
where people go to recover a part of the Centaur energy (?), while still exhausted by automation.
Keep a curious oneness: cf. the Centaur dance in Canto I.
from the entire circle, hall-square: the circle in a square motif
cloth-besplashed piston,/of open induction mouths etc.: comparing the dancers’ bodies to machines
melting memory… parthenic: excitement makes it seem like your first sexual encounter (parthenic = virginal)
(Idle death, busy pain)
back to Thessaly. Death is idle because Chiron is immortal, still with his arrow-wound unhealed. Chaldaeans set up an aerodrome.
the circle of mountains is entire: the circle leitmotif. Of which “broken cycloid” is a counter-example.
Jack-i'-the-Green: a figure of English folklore, symbolic of spring and the fertility of plants. This whole passage is difficult, but I think we are seeing bonfires as part of a seasonal ritual, and these “raddle” (=turn red) the mountains.
obelisk cf. cone and pyramid, probably the shape of the bonfire heap. Cf. also the shape of man, described as a “cone” in the wedding service in a previous canto.
squib, a kind of firework or explosive charge
cowry cf. the cowries worn by the Centaurs for their dance
pink air: cf. the “pink odour of derision”
clarion shell: I don’t understand this (maybe a conch that you blow into?)
The Chaldaean mages (from northern Iraq in modern terms) invented the Zodiac (where Chiron is being equated with the Sagittary) and appear as insurance employees because of their expertise in mathematics (and at fortune-telling). In Latin, astrologers were known as mathematici.
carp-pond: where Chiron had thrown it in disgust at seeing Heracles’ plan work
lime-trees: Philyra was a lime-spirit. Chiron gives up his immortality so that he can die. Under the aegis of dance, eternal cyclical motion is accompanied by a cyclical song.
Eurytion and Hippodamia now de-petrified.
Stiff share: a ploughshare, which so far as I am concerned is the same as a coulter.
Stereoscope: invented by Charles Wheatcroft in 1837. Mainly used for viewing photographs – to yield an apparent 3D effect.
Marriage-prostitutes: Engels said that bourgeois marriage was just a form of prostitution
Gone native: a phrase which in the days of the Empire referred to all kinds of sinful behaviour. Interracial sex was probably the primary association of the phrase.
In square box the roundels: the circle in a square motif. We saw the word roundel earlier, in a passage about horses winning races.
Pull of the chemical sun: more sun imagery, and presumably the “circle” imagery refers to the sun’s annual course.
amphitheatrical sky-signs: possibly in Piccadilly Circus, seen as an amphitheatre. It was a showcase for big neon displays – which must have been fairly new in 1930.
pink gas: cf. “pink odour of derision” Or possibly we are just back with the Zodiac (and the pink gas is the sky at sunset).