A Riddle from the Pulpit by Robert Peters



Which bank of the Tamar River
is the right and which the left?

Do circumstances of position
vary the possibilities?

I think not, friend, for
the position of the spectator

is fixed by custom:
you must always stand

with your back to the source,
with your eyes on the current.

Thus, the right bank lies absolutely
on your right, and not relatively only,

as would be the case for a vestibule,
if a river were not concerned.

We position our backs
towards Heaven, safe, and face
the purling of our lives.

Thus, the right is always on our right.
From thence we cast out prayers.


© Robert Peters, Hawker, Unicorn Press, 1984. Used by permission.

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Robert Louis Peters was born in an impoverished rural area of northern Wisconsin in 1924. A prolific poet and critic, his field of study has been Victorian literature, and in addition to publishing numerous articles and monographs, he edited, with Herbert Schueller, the letters of John Addington Symonds. His 1984 collection, Hawker, is one of a number of  ‘voice portraits’ – other subjects include Ludwig of Bavaria, Lord Byron, and the artist and friend of Keats, Benjamin Robert Haydon. After the publication of the Hawker poems he created a monologue play version in which two actors at different times performed Hawker.

Hawker is divided into six parts – ‘Bucolics’, ‘Hawker’s Church: His Love, His Joy’, ‘Holy Saint Morwenna’, ‘Poor Drowned Sailors’, ‘Witches, Warlocks, and Characters’, and ‘Opium’. These are bracketed by an introductory poem ‘Hawker to Peters in a Dream’ and ‘A Last Word’ – some prose admonitions from Hawker to the poet. In his introduction Peters describes Hawker as ‘one of the most complex humans I have ever encountered’. He clearly relished the time he spent in Morwenstow and Hawker is a generous and inventive tribute to both person and place.

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Thanks to Paul Trachtenberg for providing information and encouragement during the writing of this piece, and to Al Brilliant of Unicorn Press for permission to republish two of Robert Peters’ poems on the website.

LINKS

- ‘Gyp My Loving Big Black Pig’ by Robert Peters

- Voices: a website dedicated to the work of Robert Louis Peters