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I've been reading some of Roy Fuller's poetry, and was very puzzled by his "News of the World":

The seaweed-eating sheep of Ronaldsay;
Don Giovanni set for wind octet;
New Zealand hedgehogs strangely lacking fleas;
And Poincaré’s Conjecture solved at last:
How can this world end through the human will?
(Although we know the destiny of stars
Is to explode or cool or fatally
Devour their very farthest satellites.)

Yet courier after courier arrives:
‘They sank our ships within twelve miles of shore’;
‘The latest fashions are to hole the ear
In divers places, and to cram the toes
In shoes as narrow as the serpent’s tongue’;
And ‘God’s mad vicars war like infidels’.

Fuller, Roy. "News of the World." 1989. Selected Poems. Manchester: Carcanet, 2012. p. 184. Accessed from archive.org 8 April 2024.

I'm assuming the title is a reference to the English newspaper, and the first stanza felt like the factoids a newspaper might offer; is it possible the second stanza is made up of cryptic crossword puzzle clues? I couldn't solve a cryptic clue to save my life, but I thought they had that feel. But any explanation of the second stanza would be welcome!

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  • News of the World was never well-known for its crosswords AFAIK. If you wanted to pick a title hinting at crossword clues, you'd be more likely to choose the Times.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Apr 9 at 8:13

1 Answer 1

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Crossword clues come with letter counts. An example could be Titan maps mountains (5)†. With no letter counts given, the statements in the second stanza are highly unlikely to be intended as crossword clues. But let's try to read them as clues nevertheless. What kind of clues are they, and what are they cluing?

The first quatrain of the sonnet quotes headlines and the sestet quotes the actual stories in the newspaper. The headlines in the octave are about animal oddities (flea-less hedgehogs, seaweed-eating sheep) and human achievements (opera, mathematics). These indicate both the potential of the human mind, and the world that exists outside it. As the second quatrain says, this world isn't controllable by the human will, because its destiny is tied to that of the sun.

Yet the sestet is full of violent acts (war, ships being sunk) and angry commentary on what humans do to their bodies. When an animal is mentioned, it's the serpent, which in Christian mythology is associated with the devil. The negative tone of the sestet sharply contrasts with the more optimistic tone of the octave. The contrast is what hints at the poem's meaning. Is the point that any attempt to assert human will over existence is futile? Or that by acting in a way that relies on will rather than wonder, we alienate ourselves from the natural world and the cosmos? Both readings are possible, and they are not inconsistent with each other.

So if the sestet does give us clues, the solution is still for us to work out. And we can't know which solution is the right one, because many are feasible. This is another reason, besides the missing letter counts, why the sestet isn't like a cryptic crossword, where the clue points to a single answer. This is also what makes the quotations in the sestet poetry: even though they're just snippets from newspaper articles, they suggest a larger meaning that isn't explicitly spelled out.

†ATLAS

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    If you're writing poetry as crossword puzzle clues, there's absolutely no reason to include letter counts. But I agree ... I think there aren't any crossword clues in this poem.
    – Peter Shor
    Apr 9 at 13:23

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