In this latest Guest Blog, Thomas Tyrrell talks about his experience of the AHRC International Placement Scheme, and ultimately, his “Sestina for the Huntington”.
On my first day at the Huntington Library, Los Angeles, I was allocated a shelf for my books beneath a bust of Lord Byron. Madly jet-lagged but wide-eyed and vibrating on American coffee, I was here on the AHRC international placement scheme, which gives British PhD students the chance to travel abroad and access collections they couldn’t reach on their own budgets.
After a previous fellowship at the Chawton House Library, Hampshire, I had thanked my hosts with a country house poem. Suitably inspired by Byron, I set myself the challenge of writing a poem for the Huntington. To make things difficult for myself, I chose a sestina, an unusually difficult poetic form where the same six words are repeated in new orders in every verse. That meant that these six words had to be important—they had to embody my experience. These are the six I chose.
Library. Understandably, this was where I spent most of my time. Henry Huntington, one of the richest millionaires of the Gatsby age, had inherited a railroad fortune and built a property fortune on top of it. Much of this cash had been splashed in buying up wholesale the libraries of impecunious English aristocrats, or of other book collectors. I largely spent my time on early atlases and eighteenth-century poetry, but treasures of the library included Gutenberg bibles, first editions of William Blake and a beautifully illuminated Chaucer manuscript.
Garden. The greatest attraction for the Huntington’s ordinary visitors, however, were the acres of botanical gardens, which showcased a vast variety of flora and landscaping techniques, from the stillness of the Chinese and Japanese gardens to the baroque labyrinth of the cacti garden. It was more than possible to go for a quick stroll after lunch and lose yourself for the rest of the afternoon.
Art. Among the various galleries of American and European art in the Huntington grounds, one could find a William Morris stained glass window, a painting by Edward Hopper that used to hang (in reproduction) above the fireplace at my parents house and even a bust of John Milton, the key author of my thesis. When I was stuck, I used to go and gaze into his eyes for insight. He had a remarkably sympathetic expression.
Mountains. Waking up in a brand new place, the peak of Mount Wilson to the north made a great impression on me. They were a constant presence through the trip, towering above the parking lots of the Huntington, a reminder of the greater wilderness in tension with the immense urban sprawl of Los Angeles.
Window. American air-conditioning took some getting used to, but I was grateful for it when the temperature hit thirty degrees in February. As I looked out over the sun-baked gardens from the cool, climate-controlled archive spaces, it felt like looking into another world, and I tried to build that sense of slightly uncanny transition into the poem.
Move. I needed a verb to effect a transition between these elements, and stop the poem from falling into an elegant stasis. Something as simple as possible—I considered ‘walk’, ‘pass’, and ‘go’, but I found ‘move’ to be the most adaptable to my purpose.
Then I sat down and wrote.
Huntington Library Sestina by Thomas Tyrrell
The city sprawls out shoreward from the mountains,
Grids grafted to the plain by strength of art:
The craftsman’s skill that makes and frames the window,
With the persistence that sustains the garden
In times of drought; the eloquence to move
A people with the vision of a library.
It’s cool and still and silent in the library,
Where books inform me of the distant mountains:
How hawks and lizards and coyote move
Over a wilderness no human art
Can tame into a farmstead or a garden.
Beneath my eye the page becomes a window.
The world is beckoning beyond the window.
So from the studious pleasures of the library
I go to seek out nature in the garden.
Sheltered in the wind-shadow of the mountains,
The shoots sprout strongly, methodised by art
Which guides their courses as they grow and move.
When down the garden’s winding paths I move
I see far-distant lands as through a window,
The world’s arboreal and floral art
Arranged to form a vast botanic library.
Raked gravel and old stones encompass mountains
And oceans in the stillness of the garden.
The noon-day sun beats down upon the garden
And sweat rolls down my forehead as I move.
Against the cloudless blue horizon, mountains
Stand stark as cut-outs. Wishing for a window
On cooler air, too restless for the library
I go to walk the galleries of art.
The mind and hand combine in making art,
More than in writing books or tending garden.
There’s nothing that could tell me in the library
Quite how a pigment-loaded brush can move
Over an empty canvas, now a window
On men and women, palaces and mountains.
Here is great art with power to awe and move,
A library with all the world its window,
A garden in the shelter of the mountains.
(c) Thomas Tyrell