Poet's Corner III: Animals
Updated: Nov 11
with Audrey Ardern-Jones
In episode three of Poet's Corner, Audrey continues the theme of nature with poems about two "wonderful, wonderful animals I absolutely adore". The Tyger by William Blake and her poem, The Elephant of Madurai from her collection "Doing the Rounds" published by Indigo Dreams.
In Listen to Audrey we learn why Jonathan Jones describes The Tyger as: "The single most urgent work of art of our time." The beautiful original illustrations are The Tyger by Audrey and The Elephant by her talented granddaughter, Miri Scott. You can listen to Audrey read and discuss her third Poet's Corner choices by clicking on the link below.
The Tyger by William Blake
Image: The Tyger - an original illustration / Credit: Audrey Ardern-Jones
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
The Elephant of Madurai
Image: The Elephant - an original illustration / Credit: Miri Scott
We queue to meet him, he greets us, his trunk tickles our skirts,
he bends his knee, lowers his tusks, smiles with his eyes closed.
Today’s a day for devotees’ photo-shoots – bundles of rupees
for keepers Sanjay and Ravi – he strikes the perfect pose.
He’s worshipped in this sacred place, at weddings he’s adorned
with umbrellas of peacock feathers and jewelled gold throws.
At night a trumpet sounds in temple grounds – his minders
say it’s his soul let loose, free and like a lemon moon, it glows.
Lord Ganesha monitors his Godliness – a deity with words
of wisdom, resplendent and holy in prayerful repose.
I long to touch his flap-wide ears, flick the tassel on his tail,
stroke his stipple-grain skin and wash the dust off his toes.
by Audrey Ardern-Jones
Published in ‘Doing the Rounds’ by Indigo Dreams in 2019.
Listen to Audrey
Image: Self-Portrait of William Blake / Source: Monochrome wash drawing, c. 1802. Essick Collection.
Audrey starts by reading one of the most famous poems in the English language, The Tyger by "one of our greatest poets", William Blake. Born in 1757, Blake lives on for Audrey and many others, for so many wonderful poems she has enjoyed. "Astonishingly," he was unrecognised in his lifetime for his brilliant artwork and painting, as well as his poetry.
Blake became an apprentice to an engraver at a young age having only started his schooling aged ten. Resonating with Audrey's African childhood where she started school aged seven. Leaving her the time and space to explore her "huge imagination" and develop her own language. Dovetailing with Audrey's concern modern schooling regiments children too young to the detriment of their creative development.
Audrey describes William Blake as: "A man of great integrity, great spiritualism and mysticism. I love that that was such an important part of his life and that he was so determined to try and make the world a better place." Audrey believes Blake achieves this aim today as his words live on in "so many amazing writings" often quoted in books and at the top of paintings.
A Cat Person
Image: An early illustration of The Tyger / Credit: The British Museum
Turning to The Tyger, Audrey reveals her love of the poem starts with her being a "cat person" who loves cats for being "glorious creatures" and for their mysticism. Audrey would look at her last cat, a Ginger Tom, and tell him he was a little tiger.
On the poem, Audrey loves its "rhythm, the mystery, the questioning". The nerve-wracking tension, trying to explore the danger within the animal. Blake, a "very spiritual" person, questions how God could make such a tender creature like a lamb and then "this ferocious creature, the tiger".
Jonathan Jones describes The Tyger, as: "The single most urgent work of art of our time. No other work of art so urgently tells the truth about nature and our relationship with it as Blake’s poem about a ferocious, precious beast. Urgent, that is, if you look at it not from the point of view of art, literature, galleries or school texts but the perspective of planet Earth. If Gaia could tell us what to read and look at, she’d surely whisper “The Tyger”."
For Jones: "This is why his (Blake's) poem so matters today, when tigers are close to extinction in their natural habitat. It’s not enough to save animals. We have to save animals that want to destroy us. We have to preserve nature not just as a decoration, but a thing bigger than ourselves. Tigers are infinitely precious and terribly threatened. To lose such a creature in the wild would be to lose the miracle of strangeness, otherness, and inhuman grandeur that filled Blake with wonder."
After reading The Tyger out loud for us Audrey reflects on how she "loves the poem even more. I think about the symmetry, the beauty of the way the tiger moves, its colouring, its shape, its eyes. It's incredible!"
The Greatest Visionary in 200 Years
"Jerusalem, 1820: Blake’s poem has become England’s unofficial national anthem, but it called for revolt, its author a fan of the French Revolution – in 1803 arrested for treason" / Credit: BBC Culture
In a BBC Culture review of a 2019 Blake retrospective at Tate Britain, titled The Greatest Visionary in 200 Years, Kelly Grovier considered how the painter and poet helps us “dream outside the sphere”.
If you would like to explore William Blake's work a good starting point is The William Blake Archive. "Over the course of two centuries, respect for the prints, paintings, and poems of William Blake (1757-1827) has increased to a degree that would have astonished his contemporaries. Today both his poetry and visual art in several media are admired by a global audience. In the broadest terms, the William Blake Archive is a contemporary response to the needs of this dispersed and various audience of readers and viewers and to the corresponding needs of the collections where Blake's original works are currently held.
A free site on the World Wide Web since 1996, the Blake Archive was conceived as an international public resource that would provide unified access to major works of visual and literary art that are highly disparate, widely dispersed, and more and more often severely restricted as a result of their value, rarity, and extreme fragility. A growing number of contributors have given the Archive permission to include thousands of Blake's images and texts without fees."
The Elephant of Madurai
Picture: Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple / Credit: imvoyager.com
Audrey's poem, The Elephant of Madurai, is about another animal she "absolutely worships and adores", having known many elephants as a child in Africa. She never felt frightened at those times and believes she would have been fine if left alone in the jungle with the elephants. With that vivid imagination at play, when she looked them in the eye she thought the elephants would speak to her.
This article by John Cannon on Mongabay, a source of news and inspiration from Nature's frontline, gives a positive update on the fate of Zambia's largest remaining elephant population in the North Luangwa National Park and its interdependent relationship with the local population: Community buy-in stamps out elephant poaching in Zambian park.
The poem describes an adult encounter with an elephant, when Audrey was a tourist in another continent. The elephant of Madurai in the poem was used for worship in a temple in the southern tip of India, the Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple. Dedicated to the goddess Meenakshi and her consort Sundareshwar, the temple is one of the oldest and most beautiful temples in Tamil Nadu.
Audrey thought there was something "magical and mysterious and wonderful" about the elephant she met and thinks about how he lives on in her poem. Inspiring her choice of the magical illustration by her granddaughter Miri to reflect the elephant's essence, over the more life-like photographs taken at the time.
Describing the structure of the poem, Audrey says it is loosely based on a Ghazal, a form of verse originating in Arabic dealing with loss and romantic love and adopted by the Persians, where each couplet of lines should stand alone and have their own intrinsic meaning.
Gallery: Parvati the current elephant at Madurai in 2012 and a traditional Hindu image /
A 2012 blog elaborates on temple elephants in Hindu culture and mythology. "Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed God of wisdom is probably the most worshiped deity in the country. The elephant is associated with the Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. In the history of Buddha a white elephant descended from the heavens to announce to Queen Maya the coming birth of Prince Gautama. It is considered auspicious to be blessed by an elephant with its raised trunk at a Hindu temple."
The current elephant of Madurai, Parvati, was recently in the news for being provided with mud flooring and treatment for a cataract condition. You can listen to Audrey read and discuss her third Poet's Corner choices by clicking on the link below.
A Poet with an Artist's Painterly Sensibility
Audrey Ardern-Jones at the summer 2021 unveiling of the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial in Epsom's market square where Audrey read her poem 'Tattenham Corner' about Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison's last moments / Credit: Audrey Ardern-Jones
“Ardern-Jones is a poet with an artist’s painterly sensibility, a musician’s fine ear, a nurse’s affinity for strangers and their plight. Poems for the ear, poems of language – Polish and Bemba, Portuguese and English. An intelligent, finely crafted poetry of curiosity and caring, of listening and loving, of humour and hope.” Paul Stephenson, an award winning poet and blogger, podcaster and co-curator of Poetry in Aldeburgh and teacher at the Poetry School, who interviews poets on their first collections.
Audrey Ardern-Jones spent her childhood in Africa (Lusaka, Zambia) where her English father and Polish mother were posted. She’s enjoyed a wonderful nursing career, specialising in cancer genetics. Audrey has always loved the Arts and founded The Poetry & Music Ensemble in 1984.
Her poems are widely published and have won prizes or been commended in international competitions. Currently, she is Artist in Residence at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and is an active supporter of poetry projects in her community of Epsom & Ewell.
Credit: Indigo Dreams Publishing Ltd.
The publisher's link takes you to Doing The Rounds, Audrey's collection of poems. "This collection touches on the poet's childhood memories of living in Africa - her feelings of being in awe of so much and yet uncertain about many of the happenings. Most of her travel poems in India relate to incidents that have made her question herself - some of the poems about her Polish mother and her suffering post WW2 echo throughout the collection."