Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Lions In Our Midst and Other Stories . . .

Good Morning Children!

I thought we'd begin the day with a brief educational feature concerning the now little known but fondly-remembered (by some, at least) poet whose work I quoted the other evening.  I refer to Viola Da Gamba (1899 - 1983).  She was born, according to her unpublished memoirs,  in the last few minutes of the year, in the waiting room of Quainton Rd Station where her mother had bid farewell to her explorer husband Sergio on what was to be his last great adventure to discover the secrets of bow lakes in Patagonia.  The trauma of this parting caused her mother, Cordelia, to go into early labour and Viola made her entrance just before the century ended.

She had a somewhat unconventional childhood, living alone with her mother in a Buckinghamshire farmhouse which was populated with 'invisible friends' who would whisper verses to her and which she began to write down as soon as she was able; this accounts for the huge volume of work, most still to this day unpublished.  She was a bright child, although considered by some of her teachers to be a 'dreamer'  and managed to scrape an admission to St Biddulph's College, taking to heart the carving over the entrance gateway "Discretus non es si non fugis ecce leone" *, using this as the title for her first collection of poems "Flee the Lions!" published privately in 1919 (priced 6d and which sold 13 copies in her lifetime!)

Sadly, she didn't complete her studies, finding the rigors of college life - and the pronounced solidity of the people around her - too great a strain on her delicate nature and returned home to Bucks where she lived out the rest of her solitary life with her other worldly muses.  She died in 1983 from complications following an infected finger caused, ironically, by a splinter from a carved wooden lion sent by an unknown fan.  She is buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St Olliphant's in Quainton Regis

I'd like to end this little feature by quoting in full the title piece of her 1919 collection:

Flee The Lions

And I, alone in this crowd, 
with its rushing, gushing solid fluidity
See the unseen figures 
Islands of retreat in the torrent
With words for my ears only and with care for my soul
"Flee the lions" they cry with anguish
And I hear them but cannot swim

So many mouths to feed on me
Hands encircle like jaws
Teeth  between my ribs until I am carcassed
And chewed by you all
You lions of youth, lionesses of the corridor
Prowlers of my room in midnight blackness

I listen to my voices
Unembodied as they are
Who hold me with their love
and silent solitude awaits
In the soil of my birth

Viola Da Gamba 1919

Her work isn't to everyone's taste - even I find some of it - illusive? - but I find her obvious love of solitude and life-long infatuation with loneliness quite  refreshing in a society where we all must be connected constantly with every one else... I find the last stanza of Lions strangely prophetic, don't you?

Anyhow, on with the day and due to the untimely death of my boiler which was limping along with the help of gaffa tape and blu-tack, I jest not - I have a bath of 2 inches of tepidity waiting for me . . . 

Enjoy your day whatever it may bring; I hope I have sent my black dog scurrying for cover - not Sally obviously! - and that it may not bother any of us with it's snarling presence for a while to come!

'til next time

Be Seeing you !

* "You are not wise if you do not flee the lions"


  1. I like that. And the sentiment reminds me of your comments the other day, Ian, about the noise around you. Sometimes it's difficult to hear yourself think.

  2. I wasn't touched by the poem but I liked your brief biography of Viola. I read your blog most days but don't get too keen to teach us stuff some of us have finished our OU Courses.