Poetic Itch: The Cento or The Beauty of a Poetic Patchwork

The great poet T.S. Eliot once remarked, or confessed perhaps, that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” which might go some way towards explaining the poet’s device: the cento. Coined from the Latin word for ‘cloak’ it goes some way to revealing its nature as a poetic term for poems constructed out of other (pre-exisiting) poems. Think of it perhaps as a sort of literary method of recycling, the creating of the new out of the old. It is in essence still a creative venture, albeit one that requires less effort – or higher immaturity if Eliot is to be believed. This process of poetic revitalisation is nothing new. The ancient Greek verses of Homer were the biggest muse for aspiring and already famous authors in the Greek world.

Today though this technique has been honed to a new generation of uses. Perhaps the foremost among them and with no doubt one of the best centos (centi?) out there has been Alison Chisholm’s beautiful blend of so many famous poems for the BBC. In my mind, it goes far beyond the simple brief of advertising the showcase of television on offer for the then new year. Instead, by combing here both image and spoken word a greater depth of meaning is inferred from the already lugubrious lines. See for yourself:

it might be one thing to enjoy this cento in all its televisual glory, but perhaps the greatest function (and this is true of all centos) is how this poetical patchwork can act like a gateway to new worlds. A simple tagline of each poem can make the reader/listener want to step forward to for more. To seek out and discover the words behind the words. In this way, here’s the full poem with a colour-coded guide for the poetic origins of each line – left in black are Chisholm’s original additions.

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold, 
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen, [1]
But I still long to learn
Tales, marvellous tales, 
Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest, [2]
How others fought to forge my world.

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What wild ecstasy? [3]
How far the unknown transcends the what we know. [4]

We are the music-makers and we are the dreamers of dreams. [5]
Step forward, [6]
To feel the blood run through the veins and tingle. 
Where busy thought and blind sensation mingle. [7]
Come, my friends, ’tis not too late. 
For we are the movers and shakers
Of the world forever, it seems; [5]
To strive, to seek and not to yield. [8]

[1] On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer – John Keats
[2] The Golden Road to Samarkand – James Elroy Flecker
[3] Ode to a Grecian Urn – John Keats
[4] Nature – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
[5] Ode – Arthur O’Shaughnessy 
[6] Interlude – Walter Savage Landor
[7] Fragment – Percy Bysshe Shelley
[8] Ulysses – Alfred, Lord Tennyson  


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