The Writing of 'HOLBEIN'S WIFE'

It all began at Emerson College in the Ashdown Forest, the educational community that draws its inspiration from the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. I had been there many times before on weekend or summer courses, visiting the ‘enchanted place’ at Gill’s Lap where Christopher Robin said farewell to Pooh Bear and his own childhood, exploring the beautiful surroundings of the College which have often been the backcloth to my poems and insights.

One of my favourite places in the grounds is a small lake or maybe it is a large pond. Every time I went to Emerson, whatever the season or time of day, I found myself drawn there like a homing pigeon. So it was natural that when I was given a writing ‘exercise’ and sent out into the grounds to scribble, that I should eventually wander, notebook in hand, towards my lake.

The writing course this particular weekend was being led by Paul Matthews, poet, teacher and author of ‘The Ground that Love Seeks’, ‘Sing Me The Creation’ and ‘Words in Place’. The task was to go for a walk in the gardens and, since the course was about the senses, to use them to create a piece of writing to be shared later on with the group. The task was more challenging than this however ― each person was ‘given’ a different feature of language to use; some had to write with lots of verbs, or no verbs, lots of nouns or no nouns, lots of adjectives or no adjectives. Some were asked to write in an Anglo-Saxon tradition using only words of one syllable. I was hoping to be given this last task myself, the opportunity, perhaps, of creating one of my favourite aspects of language ― the kenning. The one exercise I did not want was to use lots of adjectives ― something I avoid as a rule, agreeing with Paul Matthews that ‘the danger of adjectives is that they may tell people what to feel.’ Needless to say, this was the task I was given. So off we went, into the grounds and the rain, remembering Paul’s advice to be mindful of the word spirit, the Kotodama.

So I wandered around in an abundance of adjectives, getting wet but not feeling it till my notebook grew damp, describing rain-light on leaves, pink blossom on stone, and lemon-coloured waterfalls. By my lake, where the wind was now gusting and the water was ‘full of brown life,’ I noted ‘an uplift in extravagant air’ ‘wind swept mercurial light, metallic and purple,’ ‘a moss-green mud-deep lake’ and finally ‘bird song, foreign, untranslatable, million- tongued.’

These words were to lie in my notebook for several weeks, all the time growing in energy and working their spell in their own secretive, underhand ways, biding their time until I should discover Holbein’s wife for myself and it could all connect.

Holbein painted the picture of his wife Elsbeth and two of their four children in 1528 while he was living in Basel and before he abandoned his family to seek fame and fortune at the court of Henry V111. I was planning to go to the Holbein exhibition at the Tate and was idly surfing the Net in search of background information when I came across the portrait. The look on Elsbeth’s face affected me ― she is so weary and frail, her eyes heavy and swollen from weeping, the background is black, the colours sober and dour. I knew that I was going to have to start writing.

Other elements crept in. I read about the age of discovery that Holbein was living in, thought about the outlandish creatures and exotic peoples that made the news of the day, looked at Durer’s woodcut of The Rhinoceros which he had based on descriptions and sketches of a fantastic Indian creature drowned in its shackles during a shipwreck, read about Erasmus’ ‘Praise of Folly’ with its image of the Silenus ― a box that is grotesque and ridiculous on the outside but containing wonders inside, read about Rabelais’ ‘Gargantua’ – a giant with huge and monstrous appetites, like King Henry himself. All this Holbein would have known and absorbed into himself and his art.

Holbein died of the plague, leaving behind a load of debt and two illegitimate children. He is buried in a churchyard in Leadenhall Street. I wondered how Elsbeth felt, if she even cared very much by this time after living close to poverty and bringing up the children on her own. She seemed to me, even more than her husband, to be a figure for our time as well as her own.

How all the different aspects of information and language came together in the poem I called ‘Holbein’s Wife’ is a mystery to me, but connect they certainly did. For a while I considered having the whole thing as a ‘poem’ or the whole thing as ‘prose’. In the end I let the piece take its own shape and have a mixture of both. That, I was sure, was the only way that ‘the tremors of hidden fish’ could be felt.

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The Artist's Family ca. 1528