Tristan / Yseult by Harry Bonelle – Blogtour

Given my love of things Arthurian and mediaeval, and need – and yes, it is a need – to engage more with poetry I was not going to turn down the opportunity to take part in the blogtour for Harry Bonelle’s retelling of part of the myth of Tristan and Isolde / Iseult / Yseult – whichever spelling you choose!

Before I share some of the story and poetry with you, I want to tell you what a lovely little hardback this is. Published by indie press Unicorn Publishing Group based in Lewes, it has thick boards, a lovely matte finish to the cover with a gorgeous print on the front. The paper stock is white and high quality with well-spaced type and midnight blue endpapers. These qualities all add up to make this book a real pleasure to read.

Now to the contents. In his preface, Bonelle explains how he has just taken one episode from the legend of Tristan and Yseult with particularly apt bookends so to speak, ‘We open on a Tristan without Yseult, and close on an Yseult without a Tristan.’ In this episode, Tristan sails from Cornwall to battle the giant Morholt. It’s a Pyhrric victory though, for in winning Tristan is poisoned and drifts across the sea, landing in Ireland which is hostile to King Mark of Cornwall. The Irish princess Yseult finds the sick man and secretly heals him, but on discovering his identity attempts to kill him, but Tristan disappears, taking the Morholt’s head with him, leaving her alone. There is plenty of plot for Bonelle to get his teeth into there, and we begin with Tristan at sea:

Lurches quick and lurches long
Steady course, you oars, you rudder.
Hurry not. Do islands move? Is this the way?
Why splay the canvas, muscles wring,
When waves convey you all the same?
The course is good. Put faith in it.
The destination can’t but wait.Two hills.
They are of older things than shell alone.
Haste! Haste!, would be your cry
Were not this so. It doesn’t move. It is no shell
Of double hump, and under sleeping
Turtle great who rouses slow in tidal wake.
Were so, haste haste would rightly be, for
Samson’s Isle, its low twin hills, would quit its
Spot in salt and sea at whim of Turtle’s
Appetite. It would be gone upon his back.

First verse of the poem

I was immediately drawn in to Bonelle’s ‘direct sensory description’ as he describes his style. There is no set metre, yet there is a rhythm right from the start, which does feel like the waves pushing and pulling in a natural flow to the lines. Now I’ve not read any Old English, but did read Seamus Heaney’s wonderful side-by-side translation of Beowulf in which his translation’s cadence resonated with the original OE’s two parts to each line. This is often the case with Bonelle’s text too, which gives a nice nod to the setting of the legend’s origins, even if the main verse comes from the 12th century.

There is no rhyme scheme either, yet there are occasional pearls of it that glint on the page, ‘rightly be / salt and sea’ in the quote above, for instance. Bonelle alludes to Wagner’s leifmotifs too in his intro, adopting some repeated phrases as his own motifs, the ‘lurch and lunge’ of ships on the waves is one that stuck out to me.

One short section later in the tale does go against Bonelle’s main style, in the section ‘head home’ we are on Tristan’s return voyage, but it’s a total stream of consciousness sweary outpouring of unpunctuated speech from the Morholt’s head, caged in a wooden box! The double meaning of ‘head home’ here was a nice pun, for there is little humour otherwise in this tale!

To read this poetry retelling is to experience it, such is the depth and intensity of the sensory description; it’s not just visual, it’s almost tangible, both visceral and tender. It’s real action poetry which when read aloud, as I often do when reading poetry, takes on a life of its own. Cambridge Classics graduate Bonelle is one to watch, and I wonder what he’ll tackle next, something more directly linked to Arthurian myth or a branch of the Mabinogion perhaps? I loved it.

Source: Review copy – thank you! Unicorn Publishing, hardback, 86 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link

One thought on “Tristan / Yseult by Harry Bonelle – Blogtour

  1. Calmgrove says:

    The extract you give certainly has power, and as it’s been a while since I read Beroul and another early version of the Tristan and Iseult story in translation this sounds a good way of refreshing my acquaintance! And from Unicorn Publishing – hard to resist a small press with my blogging avatar as its identifier!

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