Some notes on Peter Porter’s poem ‘An Exequy’
As he acknowledges in verse 2, Porter is using the form and theme of Henry King’s poem ‘Exequy on his Wife’, written by the bishop in the 17th century: http://www.bartleby.com/101/280.html As in that poem, Porter is talking to his lost wife. It was possibly easier for him to draw on this poem as a model, given his state. As is known, he had a lifelong argument with religion, in particular the Anglicanism of England that he both admired and could not accept. The poem is remarking implicitly on the bishop’s own poem; one can imagine Porter enjoying having a spar with a bishop. As happens in grief, most everything else seems fairly pointless, most especially in his case poetry – the very thing he employs to say how hopeless everything seems, the world and the loss.
Now for some notes on references. “The country you wouldn’t visit” cannot be England or Italy, and my guess is he means Australia, though I will suggest he also means hell or purgatory, whatever the awful place he now finds himself. Andromeda is the woman chained to a rock and saved by Perseus, her future husband: Porter cannot save his wife, not even in life, but later he makes light of the fact that she has saved him more than once in awkward situations. O scala enigmatica: the poem is full of references to Italy, where the two obviously spent a lot of time and he even calls Italy their paradise, cf. the hell he now finds himself in; Verdi invented the enigmatic scale, but the line plays with the idea of a staircase (la scala), i.e. that is the invisible staircase of music, where he can meet her once more in memory. “A true unfortunate traveller” is a reference to a crazy travel book by Thomas Nashe called The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) where the main character encounters every kind of atrocity while going through France and Italy: Porter is engaging in self-mockery, and admitting that he is a hopeless case without his wife around to help him through Italy. I cannot help feeling that Grinner is an in-joke, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he is talking about a grinning corpse or skeleton, of the kind that Italian artists enjoy painting on walls of churches: the two must have spent a lot of time church crawling. Holy Dying is a reference to a very important work of Anglican spirituality by Jeremy Taylor, who was an exact contemporary of Bishop King: Porter is making a metaphysical joke about his fear of flying. The final lines are from a motet by his beloved Bach, using the words of Isaiah spoken by the Lord: Do not fear, I am with you.