Christos: Lovesong of the Son of Man
by Gavin Bantock
GAVIN BANTOCK’s prize-winning epic poem newly revised from beginning to end fifty years after it was first written.
The archetypal portrait of a man fighting for self-perfection.
A strikingly unorthodox poetic account of the life of Jesus the Son of Man, of his soul-searching encounters with two co-protagonists – Johanan and Madelena, and of his harrowing struggle to make coherent, and to find expression for, the inspirational turmoil of his inner mind.
Winner of the Richard Hillary Award, 1964
Winner of the Alice Hun-Bartlett (Poetry Society) Award, 1966
With introduction, explanatory essays, synopsis, comprehensive notes & glossary.
£20 free p&p
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Reviews of the original poem
- ‘A poet of potential genius. To have conceived such a poem and sustained it, and always at a level of imaginative vision, is something no young poet has been able to do for a very long time.’
- KATHLEEN RAINE
- ‘I am considerably impressed. The astonishing thing is how well he keeps it up over this long distance and is nearly always ready with something new and surprising. He is undeniably a notable poet.’
- SIR MAURICE BOWRA
- ‘Certainly the most impressive and possibly the most important poem by a young poet to appear for a number of years. What impresses me is the imaginative energy, very rare in contemporary writing, which is able to sustain its considerable length without falling into flatness. He is, if you like, something of a barbarian, arrogant, mad visionary. But these are qualities we can do with. Mr. Bantock writes like a dedicated poet. I cannot conceive that he will stop writing or grow tame.’
- JOHN HEATH-STUBBS in the Poetry Review
- ‘[Gavin Bantock] is not afraid to think big, to stick out his neck, and to write of man’s fragile vanity.’
- KEVIN CROSSLEY-HOLLAND
- ‘I was very impressed by your long poem. An heroic work.’
- MICHAEL ASTOR, M.P. (Chairman of the Judges), in a letter to the author.
Genesis of the poem
‘It was some time during 1958 when I was nineteen, while I was studying the Old and New Testaments of the Bible for my A-Level examinations for university entrance, that I first had thoughts about writing a long poem about Jesus Christ. I began a draft during 1959, but it was not until I entered New College, Oxford in October the following year, that I really put my mind to it.
For English Language and Literature undergraduates in those days, the first two terms at Oxford were spent preparing for Prelims examinations, the preliminary step before entering the Honours course proper. It was most fortunate and timely that the syllabus for these involved the study of epic poetry, more specifically Milton’s Paradise Lost, Virgil’s Aeneid (in Latin) and the Old English narrative poem Beowulf (in Anglo-Saxon).
Having spent most of my later school years becoming acquainted with the main body of English literature, from Chaucer, through Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth to the Romantics, and imitating their styles, I was very much attracted to the bardic tradition, which was quite new to me, and so the opening pages of my Christ (begun in 1960), were strongly influenced by the oral techniques of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Some of my class fellows, whom I invited to my rooms very early on for poetry discussions, condemned outright as hopelessly archaic these early efforts, and strongly recommended me to read Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot; and the poetry of these two pioneer poets, who were then both still living, literally revolutionized my poetic style and forced me to ‘modernize’ my Christ in the early stages of its composition. I was also at the time greatly influenced by the poetry of Ted Hughes and the then late Dylan Thomas, which enriched my poetic imagery, till then mainly of Keatsian colouring and character.
When I was studying the four Gospels in the late 1950s, I was more strongly affected by the Gospel of St. John for its poetic beauty than any of the other three, though St. Mark with its rough-and-ready directness of narrative was a not-too-distant second. But more than anything, I was profoundly curious about the identity of the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ and the nature of this relationship. This and my own teenage awakenings to the ambiguities in the world of love with its intense fascinations and frustrations led me to the idea of writing about Jesus Christ as a human being. I was already more or less agnostic in my religious leanings, and wrote some preliminary heretical tracts of great immaturity, with titles like New Jesus and The Vast and Boundless Deep, before I had the idea to attempt an epic poem about Jesus the man.
At all events, the composition proceeded. During 1961, I read The Odyssey, A Modern Sequel by the Greek poet Nikos Kazantzakis, in the English translation by Kimon Friar which brilliantly captures the swashbuckling masculine vigour of the original, the influence of which can be detected in some of the later pages of my poem. I also read Kazantzakis’s novels Christ Recrucified and The Last Temptation, which did much to reaffirm my own treatment of Jesus as a down-to-earth human being with both strengths and weaknesses of personality.
There were times during the writing of this poem, I have to admit, when I felt I had literally almost become Jesus Christ. I grew a beard at the time (See photo on the back cover of the book), and there were startling occasions when, in 1961 for example, an old woman made a sign of the cross towards me in a side street of Naples. And near Rothenburg in Bavaria I happened to stand beneath a huge wooden cross on a hillside, and when I looked back down to the bus-park and open-air restaurant below, I found hundreds of people staring up at me with a kind of awe and wonder. One day, my sister-in-law suddenly said to me, ‘You look like Jesus Christ!’. These and numerous other ‘signs’ led me to a kind of obsession with ‘myself as Christ’, and I remember the enormous relief I felt when in 1963 I shaved off my beard and could say, ‘Thanks be to God, I am not Jesus Christ!’
And so, on 5th November, 1961, the first hand-written 10,000-line draft was finished. I wrote the last six hundred or so lines at one sitting while listening to Beethoven's Missa Solemnis played at full blast in my college room, and at 11pm that evening burst into the room of one of my friends, organ scholar John Morehen, and announced ‘It is accomplished!’ or words to that effect. I find in my pocket diary of 1963 that I completed the second draft on 13 March of that year; and a few weeks later, on Sunday, 7 April (Palm Sunday) I somehow persuaded my three closest university friends, Adrian Husain, Roy Mules and the late Cal Clothier, taking turns to read, to undertake a recitation of the entire (by then 7,000-line) poem in three sessions, morning, afternoon and evening, which took a total of seven and a half hours.
During the year 1964, when I was doing my Dip.Ed. teaching course at Oxford, someone, and to this day I don’t know who it was, submitted the poem for the Richard Hillary Award, and to my amazement and delight it was a Joint-Winner and I received a letter and cheque in the post from Michael Astor, former M.P., the prize money of £200 being the equivalent of almost £4,000 today (2016), no mean sum. In 1966, the poem having been published a year earlier, Christ shared a similar prize, the Alice Hunt-Bartlett Award administered by the Poetry Society based in London – such honours being quite noteworthy at the time. I gave readings in Oxford and elsewhere in the U.K. But after emigrating to Japan in 1969 I moved out of the English poetry circuit and the poem and its early successes passed out of memory, though I did win a further major award (Arvon) for poetry in 1998.
And so, around the age of seventy-five I decided to revise this long-neglected work, somewhat as Wordsworth did with his Prelude, but whereas he tended to make his landmark autobiographical work more ‘orthodox’ I have taken the opposite direction and quite probably made my poem even more heretical and iconoclastic than ever. In fact, it would be truer to say that this version is an entirely new poem rather than a mere revision, so much has been rearranged, altered, removed or added.
For me at the time of its original composition the work was a battleground in which, by attempting virtually every poetic technique and style then known to me, I struggled to find a creative voice of my own. Now, after years of writing and publishing poetry, I feel more assured, and have given the poem more cohesion and stylistic identity, though at no time have I allowed it to fall into a jargonistic or formulaic compositional rut, doing my best to sustain, in the late Kathleen Raine’s words, its ‘level of imaginative vision’ and to be ‘always ready’, as the late Sir Maurice Bowra, Warden of Wadham College, put it, ‘with something new and surprising’. Hopefully, I remain, as the late John Heath-Stubbs described me in his 1966 review, ‘something of a barbarian, arrogant, a mad visionary’.
Gavin Bantock June 2016