Edwin Morgan: Pilate at Fortingall
A Latin harsh with Aramaicisms
poured from his lips incessantly; it made
no sense, for surely he was mad. The glade
of birches shamed his rags, in paroxysms
he stumbled, toga’d, furred, blear, brittle, grey.
They told us he sat here beneath the yew
even in downpours; ate dog-scraps. Crows flew
from prehistoric stone to stone all day-
‘See him now.’ He crawled to the cattle-trough
at dusk, jumbled the water till it sloshed
and spilled into the hoof-mush in blue strands,
slapped with useless despair each sodden cuff,
and washed his hands, and watched his hands, and washed
his hands, and watched his hands, and washed his hands.
This is possibly the best known living Scottish poet, and this poem is from an overwhelming volume/sequence of poems called “Sonnets from Scotland”, published in 1984. These poems, along with a huge number of others, can be found in Edwin Morgan’s Collected Poems , which you can buy here and which I fully recommend. It collects all of Morgan’s poetry up to 1990 and fills almost 600 pages of brilliant, musical, experimental, tragic, funny poetry. This poem, following up on a legend that would have Pontius Pilate’s birthplace be Fortingall, is serious, funny and devastating at the same time. It’s almost perfectly balanced, I think. I almost swooned woith admiration when I read it the first time. This balance few of Morgan’s poems are, but they are all good, and quite a few are very good. Very, very good.
I have spent a lot of time recently re-reading specifically the Sonnets from Scotland, because these past weeks I have done some more reading and thinking about the whole post-war sonnet issue I briefly mentioned here re: the Tony Harrison poem. Writing and thinking about Lowell’s Notebooks and Berryman’s Dream Songs has led me to all other kinds of poetry, with apparently similar goals, comparable spiritual and artistic visions, but executed in completely different manners. Within the next month I may follow up this babble with something more substantial. By the way, except for criticism on Berryman on Lowell, I have done little secondary reading on this. I welcome any recommendations.