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Landscapes/Cityscapes Situational Identity in British Literature and Visual Arts (20th-21st Centuries)
Landscapes of the common

You can hear the cacophonous landscape calling’: Contesting landscapes in Steve Ely’s poetic Yorkshire

You can hear the cacophonous calling’: Contestation du paysage dans le Yorkshire poétique de Steve Ely.
Claire Hélie


In Steve Ely’s three collections to date, Yorkshire is presented as a historic land of opposition, of resistance to centralisation. Yorkshire is therefore a Deleuzian nomad space that can be experienced physically and it is also a palimpsest through which voices from the past can be heard. By working the vertical and horizontal dimensions of landscape, the poet remodels the pastoral into what he called, after Ted Hughes, the guerrilla pastoral. For Ely’s landscape covers almost the same space and modes as the Hughes country, and, following his elder’s cue, the poet advocates for a right to roam poetically.

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1The clippity-clop of running horses against the ground, the giddy-up of mounted hunters in the first light of day, the bow-wow of dogs chasing through the trees, the squeak of a hare frightened up a hill—the sounds of landscape jar out of the painting from 14th century Le Livre de Chasse by Gaston III, Count of Foix, used as a cover picture for Steve Ely’s 2013 Oswald’s Book of Hours, entitled after the 7th century Northumbrian king. These sounds have a particular resonance for 21st century readers: the image of noble horsemen—probably Normans since they sport their typical swath of hair and closely shaved back of the skull—and their hounds chasing a brown hare which is disappearing in the top right corner can also be seen on the symbolic level as a quest for an evasive English identity. The cover of Ely’s 2015 Englaland—the ‘La-La land of the Angles’ (Ely 2016, 6)—is an example of another wildlife practice: birdwatching, or, more poetically birdlistening since the yellowhammer is caught singing. It is therefore reminiscent of Romantic birds such as Keats’s nightingale’s ‘plaintive anthem’ or Shelley’s skylark’s ‘harmonious madness’. However, as the yellowhammer is a species endangered by modern farm practices—it is on the RSPB’s red list—, it seems to deliver a song of the earth, or a song of England, that really sounds like a swansong. Ironically, Ely’s third collection, Incendium Amoris (2017), entitled after Richard Rolle’s account of his mystical experience as a hermit in the 14th century, has a bird burning on its cover, as if the process of consumption was reaching its climax. Is the painting taken from the 13th century Aberdeen bestiary as claimed on the back cover (though the online version of the manuscript at Aberdeen University1 does not contain it) or it is an apocrypha, a mercantile imitation of the medieval style (since it can be found on Etsy and Pinterest)? In any case, the bird is a phoenix that will be reborn from its ashes, just like England hopefully, through ‘heat, sweetness and song’, if Rolle’s meditative method developed in The Fire of Love is to be followed.

2Seeing the perfect blend of natural settings and expressions of imminent death, the readers who judge a book by its cover are likely to think that Ely specialises in pastoral elegies. However, Ely’s poetry is no walk in the park, nor is it a walk in a memorial garden—‘I suppose the thematic obsessions of my poetry—violence, religion, transgression, identity, class, “politics”, landscape and nature, England and the English—make for a quite distinctive, heady and inflammatory mix’.2 The blurbs on the back covers evoke a landscape ‘north of the Humber’ (Ely 2013) that bears the traces of the different settlements and battles launched by ‘Danish huscarls, Falklands war-heroes, pit-village bird-nesters, aging prize-fighters, flying pickets, jihadi suicide-bombers’ (Ely 2015) in order to ‘rehabilitate an organic English identity’ (Ely 2013), which would not be based on reverence to crowns and banners but on ‘contesting language and landscape’ (Ely 2017), that is to say on questioning all types of misappropriations by those in power and on promoting a right for all to roam both language and landscape. Ely’s poems, heteroglossic and polymetric in nature, are like forums where these misappropriations can be challenged and the voices of subversives can be heard.

3The present article traces Steve Ely’s inscription of and excursion in the Yorkshire scenery, history and poetry from text to site so as to hold a hearing into the cacophonous voices of landscape calling for new definitions—and therefore new appropriations—of the land and of poetic modes.

4Naming places is essential in the mapping of a country. Steve Ely’s autobiographical note on the back covers of all his collections constitute a literary re-appropriation of landscape. His England is a terra Nordica that corresponds to the ‘Osgoldcross wapentake in the West Riding of Yorkshire’. The poet collates four words: ‘Osgoldcross’, a toponym whose etymology might hark back to Oswald; ‘wapentake’, a division in the Danelaw (called hundred in Anglo-Saxon and ward in Northern English); ‘West Riding’, a subdivision of Scandinavian origin; ‘Yorkshire’, the historical region turned into a myth of resistance to centralisation. In collating these place-names, Ely zooms out from the smallest part to the largest one, but stops short of mentioning England or Great Britain. This omission easily reads like a form of opposition to central power. All the more so as Ely’s collections are all published by Smokestack, a small poetry press that is proud to ‘champion poets who are unfashionable, radical, left-field and working a long way from the metropolitan centres of cultural authority.’ (​)

5Basil Bunting’s Northumbria, Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire, Tony Harrison’s Leeds… Questioning the identity of England through an exploration of the land and an excavation of the local past from a northern perspective has a long tradition that Ely is bent on continuing. Throughout his poems, he consistently resorts to prosopopoeia. For instance, in the second section of his first collection, ‘Godspels’ (Ely 2013, 17-25), he has four historical figures speak from the grave—Aethelstan, who won the Battle of Brunanburgh (937); Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381; Robert Aske, who led the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace and Steward ‘Scouse’ McLaughlin, apparently a paratrooper killed in 1982 during the Falklands War, all speak across time to King Oswald. These historical figures are not so much forgotten northern heroes or locals who have not had the chance to make themselves heard as they are subversives and underdogs, plain criminals, the ‘crude men, of appetite and violence’ (Ely 2013, 71), who will not repent, as well as men whose ambition or gullibility leads them to fail their ideals. The rather unchristian sentiment expressed in the poems is pitted against a Catholic imagery of heaven and hell, as well as references to the Bible (‘From Eden were all men created alike, according to God’s will and in His image.’ [Ely, 2013, 21]), titles given in Latin with no translation (‘Incipit euangelium secundum Aethelstan Rex’), and words spelt in (mock) Middle English as the phrase ‘godspelle angyn’ (Ely 2013, 19) shows. Even the layout is reminiscent of the New Testament, with its numbers and wide margin.

6Yet, the protagonists, for all their vices and misfortunes, are not redeemed by their faith but by their weak spot for nature, a natural piety of sort. For instance, in the third poem of the section, ‘Incipit Euangelium Secundum Robert Aske’ (Ely 2013, 22–23), the very reasons for the downfall of the leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace are his pastoral dream and naivety. Robert Aske expresses some regrets for not taking a more violent path of action during the Yorkshire rising against Henry VIII. Indeed, he was encouraged by his ‘peoples’ militia’ to kill the King but traded with him before being taken to the gallows. Yet he does not embody revolution but what could be called ‘Champagne socialism’, since he takes the issues of his people at heart, while not being one of them. What revives the pastoral mode here is the fact that his dream does not oppose production and capitalism, as in Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City, but manor house and court. He claims, ‘All I wanted was a quiet life’ and states, ‘I always preferred to be at home at the manor in Aughton’, before offering a lyrical description of the world he lived in, a world he feels nostalgia for, as the recurrent use of ‘would’ shows. This world of idleness and pleasure stands in sharp contrast with the Royal Court, whose lifestyle is expressed in short sentences and actions in axioms.

11. He stole our gold, our plate, our vestments of silk, our statues, saints and feasts. 12. Our way of life reduced to jobs. Religion reduced to propositions. Where once was meaning, now is only truth. 13. I should’ve followed the swords right through Tyburn and made him kick at the end of a rope—sic semper tyrannis. The king is to serve the people, not the people to serve the King.

7In other words, the pastoral is denounced as bourgeois escapism before engaging in collective action is promoted as a solution to tyranny. Indeed, Aske uses the rallying cry against abuse of power, ‘sic semper tyrannis’, and the axiom ‘The King is to serve the people, not the people to serve the King’, as closing words. In doing so, he reinstates, from the other world, Marcus Junius Brutus as a heroic figure and the assassination of Julius Caesar as a patriotic act. In other words, Ely’s provocative version of the pastoral challenges the hegemonic vision of history while questioning the very possibility of counter-hegemonic action.

8Ely therefore sounds the landscape to make its oppositional nature heard. For instance, in the poem ‘Winter Nightwalk’, from the section ‘Common’ in his second collection, he describes Ringstone Hill under a blanket of snow. All the noises around him are muffled, ‘in hush’, ‘absent’, ‘mute’, ‘in the silence of the snow’ (Ely 2015, 87). But as a poet, not only does he describe the snow and its visual effects, he also makes it heard by walking through the landscape, as he would make a white page grate under a pen: ‘my bootsteps in the creaking snow, the only sound in the Universe’. Therefore, despite the local place-name, the landscape fits Deleuze and Guattari’s definition of nomad space:

It is a tactile space, or rather’ haptic’, a sonorous much more than a visual space. The variability, the polyvocality of directions, is an essential feature of smooth spaces of the rhizome type, and it alters their cartography. The nomad, nomad space, is localised and not delimited. What is both limited and limiting is striated space, the relative global. (Deleuze and Guattari 382)

9The ‘smooth space’ occupied by the ‘nomad’ is the opposite of ‘the relative global’, that is to say not a particular place, but the absolute local. It is local because it is haptic and sonorous, rooted in the body and its environment; it is absolute because it is unlimited and polyvocal, reaching out to past times and distant places. The history of England is heard, or better said, imagined, through the sounds men made while working the land: ‘stone axes sounded in the forest’, ‘our neolithic fathers […] ringed hengestones on the hill, long smashes into wall-stone by puritan sledgehammers’. Imagination allows the poet to crack open the sod, a metonymy for landscape so that the spirits of the past are liberated, before being named one after the other:

Anglian farmers hauling home harvest, breaking bread in the beery oxgang; salt-burned Norse, glistening with pig-meat, feasting from east and west hagues; gleaners bearing baskets on balks and byways, cottars picking sticks in the gorsey assart; vardos circled on the wood-smoke common, colliers in mufflers, ploughmen harrowing tilth.

10Behind the visual prosaic effect produced by the use of verses reminiscent of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, the heterometric lines, neatly divided by commas and semi-colons, enhance the use of alliterations that harks back to Old English poetry. There is no disruption from the first settlers to nowadays farmers, only a long line of men that will be continued. The poet concludes:

Generations have trod these humdrums acres, lives written and erased in the palimpsest of earth; but in the snow-stilled quiet of a winter’s night, in mind, in fancy, or on the plasm direct, you can hear the cacophonous landscape calling: a fair field full of folk in clamorous reunion, saluting the mongrel blood that runs in the veins of kindred men.

11Sounding the landscape as if it were a ‘palimpsest’, the poet celebrates the diverse origins of its people (‘the mongrel blood’) who all come together from different periods (‘generations’) to share an anachronistic moment of togetherness (‘kindred men’).

12The landscape is cacophonous, and so is the language to describe it for it also celebrates the diverse roots of English. Besides echoes of past generations, the poem resonates with terms from Frost, Hopkins, Lawrence and Piers Plowman. It contains a few Old English words, such as ‘oxgangs’, dialect words such as ‘hagues’ for ‘haws’, technical words like ‘palimpsest’, or anachronisms like ‘plasm’. The language itself is a mix of these different origins. Heteroglossia, which Ely terms xenoglossia, ‘the incorporation into the text of foreign (Old English, Middle English and dialect) words’ (Ely 2016, 5), is a rather common feature in his work. The idea is to create a new poetic language that integrates dead or neglected languages, that alienates the English past from its present while affirming the value of that alienated past. Ely also constantly uses epigraphs from Latin, Old and Middle English, French even, without any translations or even references, which makes it particularly hard for the reader to grasp these extracts, while preparing them for a defamiliarising experience. Alliteration and consonant clusters, xenoglossia, compound-words that read like kennings (‘wood-stone’) arrest the readers who need to pause and think and turn the poems into a test for their ability to articulate the words properly and to make sense of the clamour. This is reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s reading of Geoffrey Hill in ‘Englands of the Mind’ when the poet writes: ‘There is in Hill something of Stephen Daedalus’s hyperconsciousness of words as physical sensations, as sounds to be plumbed, as weight on the tongue’ (Heaney 87). Paradoxically, the extremely rooted language creates a defamiliarising reading experience.

13From oppositional landscapes to jarring soundscapes, Ely’s works are no easy read. He urges his readers to look at landscape as it is behind the layers of useless human additions like highways—a Romantic quest reminiscent of Wordsworth—and to listen intently to the sounds it makes, even when they are inharmonious. As a self-proclaimed ‘poet, poacher and preacher’ and a former activist of the Green Party, he also has a reverence for the land, which he considers as an animate entity that is being destroyed by capitalism and globalisation. Yet his extreme treatment of landscape is unapologetic. And while we may expect the violence—physical, verbal, linguistic—to be part of a dialectic that would lead to a renewed form of civilisation, the renewal remains something to hope for, it is never actualised in the poems, even though they do contain some hints at redemption.

14‘Pastoral’ (Ely 2017, 17), for instance, is part of the first section of Ely’s third collection, ‘Officium’, which contains 13-line poems that have the same structure as a sonnet with a volta and a couplet of sort.

By his cell, used condoms and rotovated earth;
elbow-dents, arse-rut, discarded tampon,
a drained half-bottle of rum. Horned
Cernunnos, Richard is naked,
pissing up a tree. His psalter is warm
and awry—every beast of this forest is mine.
Margret rolls like a dog in soapy bracken,
renewing her virginity. Oak crowns swelling
and rifting. Jays screeching overhead.
Smirking swineherd whistling through, broad front
of pigs at pannage. Dick pats her dry
with her untressed hair and orders her habit.
Her gret papys yet tremble and
lift to his touch.

15The pastoral of the title is both Richard Rolle, the hermit and mystic associated with pastoral care, and the literary genre synonymous with idealized nature. And obviously, there is some irony in the use of the term. Indeed, in the first six lines, the poet focuses on Richard and his cell, and suffice it to say that the reader has to strive to find any sanctity in the place that is anything but romantic… the greenery is turned into a modern-day Punk Land clotted with ‘used condoms’, ‘discarded tampon’ and ‘a drained half-bottle of rum’. Richard, ‘naked/pissing up a tree’, is compared to Cernunnos, the horned god of fertility in Celtic religions incidentally mentioned in Hill’s Mercian Hymns. The next four lines and a half describe Margaret of Kirkby, the anchoress who became Rolle’s disciple after he cured her from epilepsy, and the dissonant landscape. She is ‘like a dog’, in her hyper-carnal, post-coital state, and the animals squeaking around her look like extensions of her. Unholy as it is, the poem is a sonnet in which the last two lines and a half operate some sort of miracle through the touch of the two protagonists, a twist that has far echoes of John Donne, who questioned the possibility of faith in a world marked by decay: Margret is lifted, elevated by ‘Dick’ (pun intended by the poet), and she goes through a mystical experience of sort. The poem is deeply erotic, in both the philosophical and more mundane senses of the word and offers an optimistic counterpoint to the previous collections since it is based on carnal love as opposed to physical violence. The sonnet form, the pastoral genre and the Catholic faith all ‘undergo a process of radical defamiliarization’ (Hilson 15).

16Ely therefore deconstructs the pastoral tradition and uses a form of post-pastoral he has dubbed ‘a guerrilla pastoral prophecy of a yeoman-anarchist utopia’ in the thesis he defended in 2016 at Huddersfield University. Though this is not confirmed in the poet’s thesis, Steve Ely most certainly coined the phrase ‘guerrilla pastoral’ after Ted Hughes, the Poet Laureate who looms large in his poetic, academic and site-specific works. Indeed, in ‘And Hillstone was Content’ (Hughes 37) the Poet Laureate praises ‘the guerrilla patience/of the soft-hill water’, that is to say the patience environmental, non-human, natural forces show in their will to undermine human action on the Yorkshire moor. As in other forms of guerrilla, Ely’s guerrilla against the landed power is irregular but likely to win because he knows the northern landscape better than the back of his hand. Ely, much like his protagonists, is a hunter and a poacher, a trespasser of sort. By endorsing the values of the ‘common’ people though, he somehow manages to sanctify his transgressions.

17The ‘guerrilla pastoral’ is therefore a subgenre of post-pastoral, which Terry Gifford defined in six points in Pastoral (1999): an awe and attention to the natural world; a recognition that creative-destructive forces are equally in balance in the universe; the idea that the inner and the outer worlds are two sides of the same coin; so are nature and culture; with consciousness comes conscience, hence the responsibility towards the other species and towards the land ; the belief that all modes of exploitation are to be fought against (Gifford 151–152). Steve Ely’s ‘guerrilla pastoral’ enhances the dialectic of creation and destruction, be it in inner and outer nature or in power relationships—when they are or feel severed from their land by capitalistic greed and control, his protagonists fight back either through actions or through words, in order to reinstate a form of communion with the land and with others. In his first two collections, the guerrilla pastoral was a rather violent one; in his third, he slightly softens the violence and opens the poems to visions of a less gloomy future. His work is inflammatory because it rejects the idea that violence is all too human or that it is the driving motor of history, and therefore urges the reader to rethink the place of violence in history. His fourth collection, Bloody, Proud and Murderous Men, Adulterers and Enemies of God (2018) adds fuel to the flames, by analysing the one structure that organises violence—namely the state. His incensive poetics is therefore an incentive call to find peace in landscape.

18Ely’s love of the landscape, of poetry, and of England is better seen in his engagement with Ted Hughes. For Hughes’s influence on Steve Ely’s work cannot be emphasized enough since the two poets share a love for the same region—the Calder Valley. It could even be said that Ely participates actively in turning the Calder Valley into a Hughes Country. Terry Gifford, in his article ‘Dead Farms, Dead Leaves’, had already shown how Remains of Elmet (1979) had participated in regenerating this part of the valley, in particular thanks to the conversion of Lumb Bank into the Arvon Poetic Centre and to a sort of local New Age community that is open to poetic experiments. Poets in residence can thus roam the land and participate in the local economy.

19Ely plays an important role in mapping and literally inscribing Hughes’s poetry in the area. For instance, in 2015, his Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made in Mexborough was published by Palgrave MacMillan. It is a biography that contests the assumption that Hughes’s formative years were spent in the region around Mytholmroyd and advocates the role Mexborough and its industrial and rural landscape played in his coming of age as a poet. The director of the newly-formed Ted Hughes Network at the University of Huddersfield where he lectures in Creative Writing, and the chair of the Ted Hughes Project (South Yorkshire)—described on their website as a community-based organisation that seeks to develop the legacy of Ted Hughes in and around Mexborough—Steve Ely promotes Hughes’s work through the annual Ted Hughes festival and, with Dominic Somers, through the ‘Ted Hughes Paper Round’, a performance trail around Mexborough that enacts the site-specificity of the Laureate’s poems. Participants in the trail, if they are inspired by the places, are also asked to write and read their own verses to the group. The poet certainly contests traditional modes of landscape poetry, it seems that he more often than not lends an ear to a landscape that contests its uses by man and engages man to poetic contests in landscape. In other words, poets and amateurs combine forces to add new voices to the contesting landscape, which is what academics are also doing to the many landscapes of England when dealing with any kind of -scape.

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Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P, 1987.

Ely, Steve, Oswald’s Book of Hours, Ripon: Smokestack, 2013.

Ely, Steve, Englaland, Ripon: Smokestack, 2015.

Ely, Steve, ‘Tales of the Tribe: Modern Epic, Guerrilla-Pastoral and Utopian Yeoman-Anarchism in Oswald’s Book of Hours and Englaland’, Doctoral Thesis, University of Huddersfield, 2016.

Ely, Steve, Incendium Amoris, Ripon: Smokestack, 2017.

gifford, Terry, Pastoral, London: Routledge, 1999.

gifford, Terry, ‘Dead Farms, Dead Leaves: Culture as Nature in Remains of Elmet and Elmet’, ed. Joanny Moulin, Ted Hughes: Alternative Horizons, London: Routledge, 2004.

Heaney, Seamus, Finders Keepers, Selected Prose 1971-2001, Faber: London, 2002.

Hilson, Jeff, ed., The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, Hastings: Reality Street, 2008.

Hughes, Ted, Remains of Elmet, London: Faber, 1979.

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Electronic reference

Claire Hélie, You can hear the cacophonous landscape calling’: Contesting landscapes in Steve Ely’s poetic YorkshireÉtudes britanniques contemporaines [Online], 55 | 2018, Online since 01 December 2018, connection on 16 May 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Claire Hélie

Claire Hélie has been a Senior Lecturer at Lille University since 2013. She holds a PhD from la Sorbonne Nouvelle on English poetry in/from/about the North of England since the 1960s. Her research bears on different processes of minoration, with a focus on dialect (she has recently organised a conference on Dialects in English poetry in Lille). She has written a few articles on Northern English poetry, and more specifically on Basil Bunting, Ted Hughes, Tony Harrison and Simon Armitage. She has recently set up a biennial conference on contemporary playwrights with a focus on adolescents and young adults.

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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