Wanderer on worms

One of the greatest of the poets of the First World War, Isaac Rosenberg is remembered best for poems evoking the close-up details of life on the front, right down to its smallest, dirtiest aspects. One of his poems, Louse Hunting, describes men, trying hopelessly to clean ‘a shirt verminously busy’ with lice; another, Break of Day in the Trenches, with an ironic nod towards Rosenberg’s Jewish roots, or rather to the negative stereotypes of Jews of his age, addresses a ‘sardonic rat’ with ‘cosmopolitan sympathies’-one who runs between the British and German camps without any particular national sympathy. In his anthology of First World War Poetry, however, Tim Kendall chose to start the selection of Rosenberg’s with the short prophetic poem that begins:

A worm fed on the heart of Corinth,
Babylon and Rome.
Not Paris raped tall Helen,
But this incestuous worm

As verminous as the poems quoted above this may be, but the vermin in question here is a strictly metaphorical fellow – the worm of corruption that, as Rosenberg saw it, caused the destruction of four great Empires– Corinth, Babylon, Rome, and Troy – and would, he goes on to warn, consume a fifth: England. It would not occur to many observers of the First World War, then or now, to blame the slaughter of the war on the corruption of the British Empire – most pin the blame more squarely at the feet of the Kaiser (and I tend to agree); but, as his reference points show, Rosenberg takes a rather longer view of events. Rosenberg’s worm has a definite sexual connotation, but I don’t think Rosenberg means to say that England is doomed because of its licentiousness; rather the ‘seduction’ or rape is a metaphor for the fatal weakening of a civilization’s resolve by the corruptions of greed, self-enrichment, nepotism, and exploitation. In any case, it is an inspired choice to introduce the reader to Rosenberg, putting the sordid details of the war in a wider perspective.
As in Rosenberg’s poem, the worm of William Blake’s The Sick Rose has obvious sexual connotations, but this poem too may have a political meaning:

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
Through the howling storm

Has found out thy bed 
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

The poem is from Blake’s Songs of Experience, a companion to the Songs of Innocence, and the poem does indeed seem to be about the corruption of young innocence by the old and lustful. But – if we take the rose as a symbol of England, as it often is, it could as easily be about the corruption of the idyllic Albion of Blake’s imagination by the corruptions of the age he lived in – of industry, rationalism, Empire. Of course, the poem is so resonant and ambiguous it could support a number of interpretations. To contemporaries of Blake, the worm would have been reminiscent of the serpent of Eden, whose temptation of Eve led to the expulsion of man from paradise. Certainly, the worm seems to have some impressively devilish powers – whoever heard of a worm that flies through the night?
Well, the Anglo-Saxons certainly had. The dragon in Beowulf, the great epic poem of old English, is sometimes called the 'Wyrm', a word the Anglo-Saxons used for anything from a maggot to a giant serpent. This is odd to speakers of modern English, but it may have reflected a general belief about the link between small serpentine creatures and giant ones. I believe there are old Japanese and Korean folk tales of tiny worms lurking in small pools that become great dragons. Growing up in the north east of England, we sang a song at school called The Lambton Worm, a nineteenth century music hall song in the local dialect, based on a medieval legend in which a local knight finds a strange worm – perhaps an eel or lamprey– in the river Wear, and throws it back, only to find that when he is away fighting the Crusades:

the worm got fat an’ grewed an’ grewed,
An’ grewed an aaful size;
He’d greet big teeth, a greet big gob,
An greet big googly eyes.

The worm ravages the lands around the Wear, swallowing cows, sheep, and children whole until Sir Lambton returns. The knight dispatches the worm, with the method recommended by a local wise woman of covering his armour in spikes so that the greedy serpent chops itself to pieces when it wraps itself around the hero. From the ‘wyrm’ of Beowulf to Saint George’s dragon and the Lambton Worm, it seems the English have something of a penchant for slaying dragons, or worms.
If such great dragons, as opposed to little worms, have any relation to corruption, it is in the legend that he guards a great hoard of gold, the greed for which brings destruction down on man. Tolkien, who borrowed the imagery of the dragon’s hoard for The Hobbit, was alive to the sense of the dragon’s wrath as a symbol of the devastation that overweening greed for money or power can bring.
Tolkien readers may also remember a character called Wormtongue from The Lord of the Rings. He was the evil counsellor, working for the forces of evil, who poured evil counsel into the befuddled King of Rohan. As in Middle Earth, so in the Middle Ages – and into Tudor times, people preferred to blame a monarch’s ‘evil counsellors’ for his failings rather than the monarch himself. When Henry Bolingbroke raised a rebellion against Richard II at the opening of the 15th century, he sought foremost to restore the rights to his land that the king had stripped of him, but also to rid the court of the clique of new men and flatterers who enriched themselves at the expense of the country (or at least at the expense of the old nobility that Bolingbroke represented). In Shakespeare’s Richard II, written in Elizabeth’s reign almost two hundred years after the events it depicted, Bolingbroke, after landing in England, calls the King’s clique
The caterpillars of the commonwealth, 
Which I have sworn to weed and pluck away
The caterpillar metaphor is elaborated upon later in the play, when the queen overhears two gardeners complain of the realm’s corruption, asking why they should tend their garden so carefully
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined,
Her knots disordered and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?
If ‘caterpillars’, rather than ‘worms’, sounds a rather light insult to modern ears, bear in mind that for an agricultural country, few creatures could be as loathsome as those that destroy vegetation (while, as any gardener knows, worms – earthworms at least – are actually good for your garden). The accusation levelled at the corrupt courtiers in Shakespeare’s Richard II is that they have used for their own ends, and destroyed, resources that belong to the commonweal, just as a caterpillar destroys a garden and the fruits that are meant for the enjoyment of all. For a person living in the sixteenth century, a devastated garden makes perfect sense as a metaphor for a ruined country.
Some thirty years later William Browne of Tavistock used the motif of gardens as Shakespeare had before him:

A rose as fair as ever saw the north
Grew in a little garden all alone;
A sweeter flower did Nature ne’er put forth,
Nor fairer garden yet was never known
Browne continues his sonnet by describing the Arcadian delights of this garden – dancing maids and fairies and what not, but…
But welladay! The gardener careless grew;
The maids and fairies both were kept away;
And in a drought the caterpillars threw
Themselves upon the bud and every spray.

‘Careless gardener’ is a fair description of James I, who was a notorious spendthrift and was ridiculously generous to his friends and favourites. Although his reign was by no means a bad time for the country, it was known for the favour-seekers who would swarm around the court, hungry for titles, sinecures, and privileges; it was common in his reign for people to look back with nostalgia at Elizabeth’s reign and exaggerate its glories.
It seems likely that Blake writing a century and a half on, had been influenced by Browne and Shakespeare and other poets who had used such garden imagery with a political message. On the way, the caterpillar was replaced by the worm, but the connotation is the same –that which eats away, that which destroys. And from its insistent appearance in our literature through the centuries, we see this worm, caterpillar, or dragon– this corruption – is an eternal presence in the garden, or as Rosenberg has it, the heart of England, indeed of any human society.
But of course, we can also see this merely by opening the newspapers.

All the poems in this article are available on the internet.

There is a fine selection of Rosenberg’s poetry and some illuminating biographical notes in Poetry of the First World War, Ed. Tim Kendall, Oxford World’s Classics, London 2013.

The Lambton Worm song was written by Clarence L. Leumane( d. 1928)