Autumn at Taos by DH Lawrence

Evening Light on Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Evening Light on Sangre de Cristo Mountains, New Mexico.

DH Lawrence wrote that, in New Mexico, a “new part” of his soul “woke up suddenly” and “the old world gave way to a new”. In Native American religion he discovered there were no gods, because “all is god”. In a related way, America, in the shape of Walt Whitman, liberated his poetic landscape.

This week’s poem, “Autumn at Taos”, seems to occur in real time. The speaker is encountered while out riding, and the poem’s rhythms let us experience the small, muscular, intimate “trot-trot” movement of the pony through the contrastingly immense sweep of landscape. Repetitions slow the pace, acting as reins. For instance, when “the aspens of autumn” of line one immediately reappear in the second line, the narrative seems to pause and look around. Lawrence is not an unselfconscious poet, whose brilliancies happen by chance. His judgment is nowhere more apparent than in these repetitions. Look at “mottled” in stanza three. At first we see distantly a mottled effect; then the speaker makes it clear that the mottling is produced by cedar and pinion. No sooner have the trees come into focus than, out of the blue, out of the idea of “mottled”, comes that amazing otter. The word acts as a little visual bridge.

Earlier, aspen and pines formed the stripes of a tigress, and the grey sage of the mesa, a wolf-pelt. The otter, at first, seems only its sleek self, but it’s clear from later in the poem, when the speaker is relieved to get back to “the pine fish-dotted foothills” (curious but effective elision) and “Past the otter’s whiskers”, that this liquescent, “silver-sided” creature embodies another variation of the landscape.

The otter is as fierce as the previous creatures, if less hairy. “Fish-fanged” suggests the slender length of the teeth, and, inevitably, the impaled fish. We get, in effect, a fish’s view of its looming predator.

With the introduction of the mythical hawk of Horus the man on the pony himself becomes mythic. “Behold me” he says, biblically, “trotting at ease betwixt the slopes of the golden/ Great and glistening-feathered legs…” For a moment, we might think of Christ, mounted on an ass, entering Jerusalem. Horus was an Egyptian god represented by the sun as a winged disc but Lawrence may be conflating him with the feather-clad Mexican sun-god, Huitzilopochtli. Whatever his provenance, this bird gets royal poetic treatment. A duller writer might have gone for the “natural” word-order of his trio of adjectives: “great, golden, glistening-feathered…” Lawrence’s arrangement, split by the line-break, redeems the full force of words (“golden”, “great”) that are almost poetic clichés. The tarnished adjectives are suddenly made to tower and flare.

There’s a sexuality in these movements and positions, the rider bestrid by Horus or moving slowly under pines that are like the “hairy belly of a great black bear”. They might even imply different states of being. In Lawrence’s anti-democratic view of society, there were sun-men, an elite, and lesser mortals to be “thrust down into service”. Perhaps here he enacts a passage between both states: at any rate, the speaker is “glad to emerge” from the bearish pine-wood, and celebrates his release with a fresh, sunlit vision of the aspens, which, “laid one on another”, remind him of the hawk-god’s layered feathers.

Looking back on the “rounded sides of the squatting Rockies” unleashes more big-cat imagery, landscaped into metaphor. Possibly the speaker is a little unnerved by the “leopard-livid slopes of America”, comforting himself as he reassures the pony that all these predatory “fangs and claws and talons and beaks and hawk-eyes/ Are nerveless just now”. That “just now” implies only a temporary reprieve. The land, and the sensuous life-force it embodies, will triumph over its colonisers, artists included.

“The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention, and “discovers” a new world within the known world,” DH Lawrence wrote. The effort of attention here is also an effort of painterly imagination and out of the two he has made a strikingly original landscape poem. The creatures in it are not meant to emerge with that vivid, individualised presence of the different beasts of Birds, Beasts and Flowers: even the otter is a quick sketch. But the vision of natural integration between the land and these subliminally-present creatures could not be more alive. And, as so often in the animal poems, part of the charm lies in watching the amused, earnest, marvelling, deeply affectionate man who is watching the animal. Among the creatures in this poem is that small human figure on the pony, not a sun-god, but an English poetic genius, printing in his own way the new paths of technique which the American genius, Walt Whitman, has cleared before him.

Autumn at Taos

Over the rounded sides of the Rockies, the aspens of autumn,
The aspens of autumn,
Like yellow hair of a tigress brindled with pines.

Down on my hearth-rug of desert, sage of the mesa,
An ash-grey pelt
Of wolf all hairy and level, a wolf’s wild pelt.

Trot-trot to the mottled foot-hills, cedar-mottled and pinion;
Did you ever see an otter?
Silvery-sided, fish-fanged, fierce-faced, whiskered, mottled.

When I trot my little pony through the aspen-trees of the canyon,
Behold me trotting at ease betwixt the slopes of the golden
Great and glistening-feathered legs of the hawk of Horus;
The golden hawk of Horus
Astride above me.

But under the pines
I go slowly
As under the hairy belly of a great black bear.

Glad to emerge and look back
On the yellow, pointed aspen-trees laid one on another like feathers,
Feather over feather on the breast of the great and golden
Hawk as I say of Horus.

Pleased to be out in the sage and the pine fish-dotted foothills,
Past the otter’s whiskers,
On to the fur of the wolf-pelt that strews the plain.

And then to look back to the rounded sides of the squatting Rockies.
Tigress brindled with aspen,
Jaguar-splashed, puma-yellow, leopard-livid slopes of America.

Make big eyes, little pony,
At all these skins of wild beasts;
They won’t hurt you.

Fangs and claws and talons and beaks and hawk-eyes
Are nerveless just now.
So be easy.


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Trenches: St Eloi by TE Hulme

British troops marching to the trenches

British troops in silhouette march towards trenches near Ypres at the western front during the first world war. 

The author of this week’s poem is remembered today chiefly for the anthology-favourite, “Autumn”. TE Hulme published only six short poems in his lifetime. Without Ezra Pound’s faintly ambiguous championship, he might not be known as a poet at all. Though omitting his work from the official Imagist anthologies, Pound added Hulme’s five earlier poems to his own 1912 collection, Ripostes, “for good fellowship: for good custom, a custom out of Tuscany and Provence… and for good memory…”, as he put it in the preface.

No original manuscript of “Trenches: St Eloi” remains. According to some accounts, Hulme recited it from memory to his fellow Imagists at the Poets’ Club while home on leave from the front (he served with the Royal Marine Artillery). Pound’s epigraph suggests the even more informal origins of a conversation. The poem was transcribed either by Pound himself, or by Hulme’s lover, Kate Lechmere. Pound admired the poem sufficiently to include it later on in his Catholic Anthology, in the august company of Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Yeats, among others. If Pound had made revisions or “abbreviations”, Hulme must have approved them.

It’s arguably the most radical of any of the English first world war poems. (Isaac Rosenberg and Herbert Read are the writers who come closest.) The style and structure are casual, but a stringent craft underlies the appearance of improvisation.

The opening scene-setting needs some effort of imagination. “Flat slopes” could imply naturally low slopes, slopes flattened in battle, or even the trenches of the title. The image of the sandbags is contrastingly precise and arresting. To this disturbed pastoral is added one further detail – “night”, set on its own line, so that it seems to expand into the surrounding space. Hulme had a romantic predilection for nightfall in his earlier poems, but this night, unembellished, is absolutely unlike the others.

The poem illustrates the unceremonious way the routines and horrors of warfare coexist. The depiction of the men walking about casually, “as on Piccadilly” is a brilliant novelistic stroke. We can just about see them, “making paths in the dark”, instinctively feeling their way. And then the scattered horses and the dead Belgian’s belly are introduced not simply in the midst of these casual comings and goings, but virtually underfoot. Juxtaposition is everything. Hulme adds no grisly detail. He trusts the shocked listeners, including those non-combatant poets, to imagine it for themselves.

Despite the superb imagist technique, the poem is interested in something besides the visual. The later stanzas head for the psychological interior. The flat reportage of “The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets” seems childishly naive, and verging on self-pity, perhaps, but is perhaps intended to mime the obsessive, simple litany of despair. The image of the cannon, “lying back miles”, resembles the earlier wall of sandbags, only on a vaster, breathtakingly intimidating scale. Then the single abstract noun, “chaos”, declares what lies ahead: the defeat of the image by the indescribable.

Hulme’s speaker repeats twice the grammatical structure of the line about the rockets. The first line of this modernist couplet is completely unexpected: “My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.” The word “corridor” evokes emptiness, in utter contrast with the busy pottering and walking to and fro of the earlier scene. It originally meant a place for running. What runs through the hollowed-out mind might be the vague, impossible thought of running endlessly away. The stoic, Beckettian last line rebuffs it. “Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.” Hulme might be thinking about the poem, his sense that there is nothing more to say. But the whole horrible war must often have aroused a similar hopeless thought among those on the ground.

An aesthetic philosopher, influenced by Henri Bergson, Hulme seems to have arrived at an imagist theory independently of Pound, and perhaps earlier. He was a pugnacious character, sent down from Cambridge, allegedly, for brawling, and he became fascinated by military strategy. Possibly he thought war would be his métier.

“Trenches: St Eloi” reflects innocence transformed. In the previous poems, the images are a little whimsical. The moon is “like a red-faced farmer” in “Autumn”. Then there is the “old star-eaten blanket of the sky” that the fallen gentlman wishes could provide a warm cover in “The Embankment”, and the moon as a lost balloon in “Above the Dock”. The free-verse structure, and the brevity, make such poems seem fresh, but there is romanticism, or at least aestheticism, in the nocturnal air, and, sometimes, an anachronistic flourish: “Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy…” None of that fiddling obstructs the chilly line of “Trenches: St Eloi.” The poem is as stark as the period’s cubist art.

Pound wrote that Hulme “set an enviable example to many of his contemporaries who have had less to say”. Had Hulme not been killed in action in 1917, and had he continued to write poetry, the category “War Poets” might have had far wider connotations.

Trenches: St Eloi
(Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr TEH)

Over the flat slopes of St Eloi
A wide wall of sand bags.
In the silence desultory men
Pottering over small fires, cleaning their mess- tins:
To and fro, from the lines,
Men walk as on Piccadilly,
Making paths in the dark,
Through scattered dead horses,
Over a dead Belgian’s belly.

The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets.
Behind the line, cannon, hidden, lying back miles.
Beyond the line, chaos:

My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.
Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.


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Poem of the week: Square One by Roddy Lumsden

City workers walk across London Bridge

City workers walk across London Bridge.

Several commentators on recent books blogs have said they’d like to see a discussion of Roddy Lumsden’s poetry, and PotW’s own MeltonMowbray posted a request earlier this year. So for this week’s poem, I’ve chosen one of my favourites from Lumsden’s latest collection, Terrific Melancholy (recommended if you haven’t already got a copy). I hope aficiandos and new readers alike will enjoy the elegiac virtuosity of “Square One.”

Panning shots of the razzmatazz of contemporary London begin with an unnaturally motionless River Thames, which contrasts with the surrounding fluidity of endless construction and self-invention. The location is mirrored in spirited, slangy diction, and a repetitive device that stitches all together in bright gold lamé thread. On the page, you almost see the green light. Read the poem aloud, and you hear the gunning of engines in the repetition of the hard “g” – described in phonetics as a voiced, velar stop.

This technique recalls the generative devices of the poets and novelists of the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) who choose specific verbal constraints as a means of triggering ideas. The most famous, and diabolically complicated, is probably the “story-making machine”, set in motion by Georges Perec in the construction of his novel, Life: A User’s Manual. Poets have experimented with lipograms, palindromes, etc. Whereas these techniques need not, and mostly do not, emerge from the material, the “go” device in “Square One” connects directly to the poem’s theme and rhythmic energy-supply. It also echoes the dominant phonemes in the names of the two mythological giants who’ll emerge in the poem’s last line – Gog and Magog.

This is the London of Boris, bendy buses and bad bankers, but it’s also a tumult of lives harder to record, more slippery and edgy. As well as “the emos, indie kids/ Goths and ravers melting down the day” in stanza one, the prefix nets a jolly haul of “gowks”, “gonzos”, “gorillas” and “gomerils” to flesh out the “city’s multiplicity of fools”. Food is a vivid class-indicator: the “retired politicians” feast on dumplings and meggyleves (Hungarian sour-cherry soup) as well as scandal, while others “stare at bangers and bubble, tea/ gone cold … “. But the poem seems to imply freedom of choice. I like the fact that the power-brokers are simply given their space in the gorgeous, rotted tapestry, without comment. Brand- and place-names, from Gossamer to Gospel Oak, add further texture.

Are any other Oulipan devices used in the poem? I had a subliminal sense that further patterns were sometimes employed, but without being able to put a finger on them. I even wondered about the game of Go, which can be played with a 13 x 13 board (the stanzas are all 13-liners here), but drew a blank.

The title might suggest the Square Mile, or any of London’s many squares: it also recalls Larkin’s famous reference in “The Whitsun Weddings” to “postal districts, packed like squares of wheat”, a curious simile, since, contrary to northern myth, London has many postal districts nearer the breadline than the cornbelt. “Square One” might be anywhere, but it implies return, a reluctant new start. While elegising a lost Albion, the poem knows that new mythical creatures are constantly being born.

Perhaps the day of the poem represents a vaster historical period, one stretching from an almost-absurd respectability (“gongs struck in gentlemen’s clubs” to start the day and “dawn trains given the/ go-ahead at suburban junctions”) to the present social chaos. The poem’s author is a Scot, but an end-of-empire regret seems hinted. The accumulation of details evokes the thrill of change and movement, together with a despairing sense of being swept away into anonymity. Yet there’s no question that the speaker loves the city. The sun rises and sets almost romantically in images of the “gold tide,” the “slant shadows” of the high-rises, and the “misted moon.” Noted for its stillness in the first stanza, the river remains obstinately static, but, at the end of the poem, it seems to have found a voice, and utters a punning command to “own torn myths”. And this is exactly what the poem so exuberantly does.

Square One

Going steadily, rowed out from east to west, concrete
gondolas brink the Thames, which is still – it’s the land which is
googled by gravity, thrown around – an optical illusion
good enough to fool the city’s multiplicity of fools:
goons and gomerils who labour under Mammon’s lash,
gowks and golems who queue to flash their lips and lids in
god-forsaken church halls, reeking basements and seeping
Golgothas, clamped blithe to ardour: the emos, indie kids,
Goths and ravers melting down the day we launched with
gongs struck in gentlemen’s clubs, skirted girls at Nonsuch and
Godolphin thronging in corridors, dawn trains given the
go-ahead at suburban junctions, the first trace of the sun’s
gold tide as it washes back to our side of the sphere, but now,

 going for lunch, you swing between delight and throwaway,
gourmet and grease, dither between syrah in a silver
goblet or Tizer from a sprung can; you might stare over roasted
goose at the Gay Hussar, at your companion’s bowl of
goulash, as retired politicians two tables over whisper scandals,
gossip through dumplings and meggyleves, hissing the latest
Gordon or Boris anecdote, Obama’s honeymoon months,
government soap; you might stare at bangers and bubble, tea
gone cold; evening settles in at Kilburn, down Battersea Park;
Golders Green wanes; high-rises throw slant shadows over
Gospel Oak; students breathe the soot of a bendy revving on
Gower Street; in the doorways of basement strip joints,
gorillas strike stances; toms swap fat packs of Fetherlite and

 Gossamer, hitch into their tangas and fishnets waiting for the
gonk to finger a phone box card, the way a kid fingers what he
got from the kitchen drawer; evening touches Camden where
gonzos sup Stella; dancers shift in the wings of the opera;
goluptious girls slip into slingbacks, swim into creamy
gowns, or swash out of them, as that misted moon plays
go-between in a city of secrets, crimson or bilious – what
good will come of us, falling in the dark, our names
gouged into plane-trees? – we are becoming history,
godmothers to our own torn myths: twisted and crazed,
gorgeous giants, we hang spinning over the still river:
Go on! it murmurs – own torn myths – and midnight mentions
Gog and Magog – sweet, towering boys, long gone.


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Poem of the week: Stone by Janet Simon

A stone

‘A stone is a stone is a stone is a stone’.

“– Pebbles cannot be tamed / to the end they will look at us / with a calm and very clear eye,” Zbigniew Herbert concluded in “Pebble”. This week’s poem by Janet Simon, “Stone,” recalls the political-parable style of much central and eastern European 20th-century poetry, and seems to share Herbert’s sense of the stone as a point of moral reference.

There are four characters in Simon’s fable: the speaker, the addressee, a passerby and the stone itself. The addressee, as epithets such as “creamy” imply, is well-fed, well-washed, and, evidently, authoritative. This person is not initially unpleasant. He emphasises the stone’s smoothness, because he (or she) is an expert on smooth. Handing the stone to the speaker seems well-intentioned.

But the speaker’s ironical tone (“You sanction me …”) alerts our suspicions. The stone is identified with authority. Perhaps the speaker threw the stone in the first place? At any rate, it’s a difficult gift to receive. A “defence” is needed, one that proves an impossible compromise. Now an “outsized pebble” in the speaker’s mouth, the stone seems to implicate language – language as fixed and made “frigid” by those in control.

The spitting out of the stone is rejection, but certainly not malicious; nobody is meant to get hurt. The passerby misinterprets it, however, and sees, and uses, the stone as a weapon. The suave, creamy-skinned authority figure takes fright, becomes violently discoloured, bolts the door, rings the police – self-betraying reflexes that prove the power was hollow all along.

The crux of the poem comes when the speaker picks up the hurled-back stone. In six short, sparely-written lines the truth of the parable is laid out: the stone is neutral, uncoloured by its misinterpretations. Yet the stone seems to have a frailty of its own: it “pleads” for understanding.

The last stanza is more generalised, building from the situation narrated earlier. The “you” may be the same addressee, or a plural “you” that embraces everyone caught up in cycles of attack and revenge. The destruction is incomprehensible to the speaker, but there’s a clear insistence on the innocence of the stone. “And a stone is a stone is a stone is a stone,” Simon concludes, echoing her earlier notion of “stoneness” and, of course, alluding to Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”.

Stein herself said that her sentence was an attempt to escape the particularity of the Romantic “rose” and recover the universal. Incidentally, the line was parodied rather unkindly by Ernest Hemingway, reminding us that “Stein” can literally mean “stone” in German: “A stone is a stein is a rock is a boulder is a pebble.”

Simon’s stone may be all these things, too. And the hinted pun returns us to the idea of the stone as language, even voice – a difficult voice, a tongue you might have to hold. The act of holding the stone, in fact, seems mirrored in the poem’s shape.

This shape is one of enclosure around a central “core”. The exterior stanzas spread themselves. The first seems to mirror the spacious home, the easy hospitality of privilege. The last, conversely, suggests open air, lawlessness, danger, with the speaker needing to assert her eloquence.

These stanzas are like cupped hands. In the middle, the shorter-lined, indented core-stanzas focus on the stone, its adventures, and the cost of engaging with it.

It has been a consolation and a weapon, represented homeliness and the destruction of home. Personified, the stone seems not only a touchstone or neutral mineral, but an unreliable mortal. If it pleads guiltlessness and sings, even metaphorically, it must have about it some human quality. It’s not innocent, then, but perhaps it represents what Václav Havel called “Living in Truth”.

Janet Simon has published one full collection, Victoria Park (Loxwood Stoneleigh, 1995). “Stone” is from her pamphlet, Asylum, where its distinctive presence is underlined by realistic and moving poems reflecting the poet’s experiences working with asylum seekers and the homeless. Asylum was published by Hearing Eye in the Torriano Meeting House Poetry Pamphlet Series, of which number 62, “Protest” by David Floyd, will appear in November.


You would reduce this stone to something homely.
Set in the palm of your soft hand,
it rests as if it wouldn’t harm a fly.
In your pink fingers, it is a generous stone.
You offer its smooth surface as the best
of possibilities in the best possible of worlds.

      You pass this stone to me
      with pleasing manners.
      You sanction me to hold it
      for a few minutes
      and to speak uninterrupted
      in my own defence.
      Your gracious patronage
      reduces me to gibberish.
      To avoid stuttering
      I place this outsized pebble
      in my quivering mouth.
      Its frigid texture
      is cold, impenetrable.
      I cannot chew on it.
      I spit it out.

      An angry passerby
      picks up this stone
      and hurls it
      through your window.
      Your creamy skin
      turns puce-vermillion,
      and as he runs away
      you bolt your doors
      and ring for the police.

      I bend down and pick up
      this stone.
      It hasn’t changed
      its shape or colour.
      Its unrelenting stoneness
      pleads with me.

I do not understand what force of hatred
makes a man destroy your house,
what speed of terror grabs you to defend it,
but I accept this stone, I hear its silent plea
of guiltless being. It sings to me
in my own ignorance, I am a stone.
And a stone is a stone is a stone is a stone.


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Poem of the week: Tiny Pieces by Billy Mills

Broken glass

Broken glass.

This week’s poem is by Billy Mills, and comes from Lares/Manes: Collected Poems, published by Shearsman in 2009. While the title of the collection suggests concerns with hearth and home this is only part of the story: the vast and flowing home of the poems belongs to geological time. These poems are not confined to questioning language. They combine the musicality and intensity of poetry with the precision of scientific method, and the collection has the intellectual capaciousness of the bigger literary forms: it contains data of all kinds, found poetry, philosophical enquiry, and a variety of landscapes and cityscapes, including Ireland. While Mills is associated with a group of experimental Irish poets claiming independence from the traditional emphasis on identity politics, his poetry is fully alive to location. The fact that it doesn’t sing rhetorically about Ireland doesn’t mean that Ireland is excluded from the “important places” it considers.

 A poem in sections, “Tiny Pieces” forms part of a larger work, “What is a Mountain?” There is a trio of epigraphs: a brief report on the three car-bombs detonated in the centre of Dublin with the likely connivance of British Army intelligence, a quotation from Oscar Wilde (“All art is entirely useless”) and a verse by Godfraidh Fionn O Daláigh: “If they ask questions/ skilful poets will know; / bright this art you hear of: / questions the door to knowing.”

 The imagery of mountain-formation is introduced in a further, untitled prelude. “What is a mountain?” asks the fifth line. “Stone flows; folds. A name. It rises.” In the miniature-scale delicacy of the “Tiny Pieces” which follow, we find the inverse of the mountain and its associated cataclysm. What gradually emerges (each tiny piece has its own page in the collection) is tenderly consoling – a love poem more intimate and more spacious than such poems usually are.

 The first section considers both fragmentation (“scattered/ this glass”) and reintegration. “Folds” is a key word which will later give rise to three poems described as folds (“The First Fold,” etc). Fold mountains are formed by the collision of two tectonic plates, and the compressed material both rises and descends. “Folds” in the earth’s crust “determine” the shape of a mountain. “Folds” as sheltering-places also form our allegiances, and thus our blind-spots and our wars. Paper and poems are folded into shapes: lovers enfold one another. As the second poem suggests, tact and precision might inform and transform relations. With “Follow the lines” we move from particulate and scattered to particular and enclosing.

 The imagistic third section seems to excavate memory. Vividly present, the shining leaves (more tiny pieces) somehow lead back as well as up to the “boxroom/ window”. “Window” resurrects the scattered glass. The images suggest to me a child’s room, looking down on a small garden fronted with privet: safe containment, but with a view outwards. The symmetrical syllable-count 1/3/3/1/2/2 gives this poem the balance of a miniature sonnet.

The next segment stays with the natural world: it’s the most haiku-like of the pieces, and the depth of the stanza break seems to stand for the “cutting word” – often not a word, but a punctuation mark heightening the significance of a juxtaposition. Here, the thrushes emerge from the “various greens” and the printless space with the magical suddenness of actual birds seen suddenly close up, and with all the potential offered by “a pair”.

 Perhaps the thrushes help attune the reader to the sense of new young life, which is implicit in the next piece. The rift between the world and the word, the “imperfect charting,” after all begins with our earliest speech. Aligning word and world as accurately as possible is our first and life-long human concern.

 Exactness of language can at least find out the question and glimpse “the door to knowing”. In the sixth poem it finds song. This four-word invitation is a perfect musical phrase: “close/ now// slowly/ come.” Its unexpected, Latinate syntax, culminating in the verb, takes us from word to word, pause to pause. Having once read the sentence in this initially curious structure, it becomes impossible to imagine it otherwise.

 The lines in “Tiny Pieces” are themselves tiny. I counted 30 single-word lines out of 38, half of which are monosyllables: the longest line is “a pair of thrushes”. But their very shortness, emphasised by their separate pagination, insists on attentive reading. The tempo, in music, would be adagio. Words assert their primary meanings, but the silence around them allows us to hear other tones and resonance. So in the next poem, the simple verbs (perhaps imperatives) give the reader memory-room. We’re guided, told that the verbs represent “simple pleasures”, but the exact associations of “touch”, “call” and “remember” are gifts for private unwrapping.

 By the end of the poem, the shimmer of scattered glass is distant. The last segment might complete the sentence of the previous one: “here/where// all/is// tiny/ pieces” could denote the intimate space of a body or a room, the words of the poem itself, or the location of particles created by destruction. It could denote all these things simultaneously. And still the poem has a lightness and brightness with its images of leaves and building birds, its careful looking and touching. This sense of abundance and flourishing will continue throughout “What is a Mountain?”

 Singling one poem out of a collection inevitably distorts the poem to some degree. This is particularly true of “Tiny Pieces”. “What is a Mountain?” is conceived almost as one poem, its voices interrelated and recurring, as in a fugue. In fact, the whole of Lares/Manes is a voluminous web of connected images and themes.

 Tiny Pieces

this glass





the lines



after rain




various greens

a pair of thrushes


the world

the word













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Poem of the week: All Souls’ Day by Frances Bellerby

Day of the dead

Mexicans mark the day of the dead in San Gregorio. Bellerby’s poem likewise seems to melt the borders between life and death.

Frances Bellerby, who died in 1975, was born 112 years ago in Bristol. She wrote fiction, essays and poetry. Much of Bellerby’s verse is set in Devon and Cornwall; her first, 1946, collection is named after Plash Mill, her cottage near Upon Cross, on Bodmin Moor. Charles Causley praised, among the many other qualities he admired in her work, her ability to evoke “the ambience and essence of place”.

 Bellerby’s poetic locations are coloured by the changing seasons, and may respond to the church calendar, as here. All Souls’ Day, from her Selected Poems, weaves together imaginary and remembered conversation in a hushed, precisely-realised late-autumn setting. The sky is colourless, the “day draws no breath”. Such an atmosphere has an intense, mystical quality for Bellerby. And yet, although a Christian poet, she treats religious experience unconventionally, and seems to have an intuitive grasp of space-time, and the possibility of other dimensions, in those wishful lines: “what the small day cannot hold / must spill into eternity.”

 All Souls’ Day itself, usually celebrated on 2 November, is the day set aside for remembering and honouring the “ordinary” dead. In Mexico, on El Dia de los Muertos, the dead, and death itself, are made welcome among the living. Bellerby’s poem, too, though deeply English, seems to melt the borders between life and death, past and future: “Let’s go our old way …”

The brother she lost in the first world war may be the figure in All Souls’ Day. This otherwise taciturn person knows about butterflies; he has a poet’s eye as he compares their colours with those of the leaves. He is clearly a soulmate.

Psalm 42, in a metrical translation, begins: “Like the deer that thirsts / for running streams / my soul is thirsting / for you, oh God”; in a later verse, God’s might is imagined in terms of the sea. Similar images occur in Bellerby’s poem: the rustling of kicked leaves has “the rhythm of breaking waves”, and there’s a stream, though it’s almost stationary. Could the poem be alluding to this psalm, often included in the Office of the Dead?

Bellerby appears just as much a traditionalist in technique as she does in her subjects. Yet even in this poem of familiar-looking quatrains, there are unexpected touches. Half-rhymes (“moth”/”lost”, “together”/”November”) mingle with more conventional couplings (“breath” / “death”, “walk” / “talk”). The rhythm ebbs and flows informally: syllables sometimes crowd around the stresses (“witnessing the variousness of light”), or they may be suddenly thinned out (“enter the year’s night”). Nothing is fixed or rigid.

 The speaker is confidently intimate with her addressee, but, at the same time, the companion is present, however vividly, only in her imagination. There is a tremor of premonition in stanza seven. The walk is a memory, and the companion dead, but it’s as if – with sufficient care – the past could be relived and the future made safe.

 The poem increasingly vacillates: the companion is close, but, as always, “leaf-light” – and then not present at all. The last stanza sends a shiver up the spine: “and the leaves where you walk do not stir”. Death is feared in the poem, but the dead themselves are “scatheless” (harmless). The ghost is no Halloween horror: it is frail and sad and no sooner conjured than lost.

 Bellerby’s work reminds me of other quiet-voiced, independent-minded female writers of a similar era: Anne Ridler, EJ Scovell, Ruth Pitter. Gender, I think, is relevant to the way we read this generation as writers. Because of their particular, English experience of the early 20th century, it was inevitable such poets stayed with the pastoral and/or religious subjects and traditional forms they had always known. Although they increasingly had educational opportunities and paid jobs, they remained keepers of the emotional home fires. From our later perspective, we can see how Bellerby’s work claims continuity with the past (Charlotte Mew seems an important immediate forebear) and also begins to change shape and become coloured by the new century. It makes a bridge to the present, because the sensibility and diction, although not quite ours, are still close to ours.

 I’m grateful to the poet Maurice Rutherford, a regular reader of the printable version of poem of the week, for suggesting we take a look at the work of the underappreciated Bellerby.

All Souls’ Day

Let’s go our old way
by the stream, and kick the leaves
as we always did, to make
the rhythm of breaking waves.

 This day draws no breath –
shows no colour anywhere
except for the leaves – in their death
brilliant as never before.

 Yellow of Brimstone Butterfly,
brown of Oak Eggar Moth –
you’d say. And I’d be wondering why
a summer never seems lost

if two have been together
witnessing the variousness of light,
and the same two in lustreless November
enter the year’s night…

 The slow-worm stream – how still!
Above that spider’s unguarded door,
look – dull pearls…Time’s full,
brimming, can hold no more.

 Next moment (we well know,
my darling, you and I)
what the small day cannot hold
must spill into eternity.

So perhaps we should move cat-soft
meanwhile, and leave everything unsaid,
until no shadow of risk can be left
of disturbing the scatheless dead.

 Ah, but you were always leaf-light.
And you so seldom talk
as we go. But there at my side
through the bright leaves you walk.

 And yet – touch my hand
that I may be quite without fear,
for it seems as if a mist descends,
and the leaves where you walk do not stir.


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Poem of the week

Apollo’s Archaic Torso translated by Sarah Stutt

A Greek statue of Apollo at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
A Greek statue of Apollo at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
This week’s poem is a new English translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s sonnet “Archäischer Torso Apollos”. “Apollo’s Archaic Torso” is by a young Yorkshire writer, Sarah Stutt, who recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Hull. Sarah, a fluent speaker of German, has produced two translations, one fairly close to the original, the other looser. I’ve included both.

While the more literal version is stately and slow-paced, I like the colloquial touch of “incredible” for the torso’s head, and the brevity of the description of Apollo’s eyes, “ripened like apples”. Neither the literal “eye-apples” nor the generic “fruit” that other translators have used is so immediate. The comparison of the gaze to a candelabrum, or chandelier, whose flame has been lowered, is detailed in the original. Here, the treatment is straightforward and exact. Conversely, the description of the “curve” of the torso’s chest as a “bow” adds complication, suggesting the metaphor of a weapon. This literalises the idea that the “curve” has the power to blind the viewer.

The movements in the next three lines are swift and graceful. Now the writer introduces the word “curve” which most other translators have already used in describing the torso’s chest. The image of Apollo’s smile being “steered by the gentle curve of his loins” and gliding to “the centre of procreation” is subtle and humorous.

The past subjunctive “If this were not so” is perhaps more formal-sounding than the German original, but it seems preferable to the un-idiomatic “else” that some translators choose. Stephen Mitchell’s “otherwise” is a slightly more colloquial solution.

The construction is repeated in the original, but “were it not so” would be ungainly to repeat. Stutt’s neat solution is to carry on the argument by using the conjunction “and” after the close of the octet. The sestet flows beautifully. Sensuous violence suffuses the phrase “glisten like a predator’s pelt”. Stutt adds the verb “radiate”, which convincingly anticipates “star”. Similarly, “angle” is a good addition, a word whose visual-art associations place it in the context of the torso. The last half-line is simple and stunning. The construction “you have to” is far stronger than “you must”, generally the translators’ favourite.

This closer version of the sonnet is still quite bold, and introduces some new elements to the original. The looser version below is more impressionistic. The preoccupation now is with creating a soundscape by using assonantal rhymes, often quite distant ones. The lines are shorter, the movement brisker. Rhythmically, the brevity works well. I find the last three lines of the second stanza effective, even while liking the more elaborate imagery of steering and gliding in the first translation. “A lump of rock with no vision” is particularly striking, a jolt that thrusts us up against the raw material as it was before the artist transformed it. We seem to meet a younger Apollo in this version, a decisive, sexy god whose “lion’s mane” reminds us he is a god of the sun.

Rilke is the most popular foreign-language poet in the English-speaking world, according to Art Beck, who has written an interesting essay on American translations. The essay includes the original “Archäischer Torso Apollos” so you can check out Rilke’s poem and Beck’s own translation as well. Beck points out how important it is that Rilke should be re-translated in every new generation by writers who “return to the text – and themselves – rather than their predecessors”.

This is similarly true of ekphrastic poetry: it’s a popular contemporary genre, but only worth the poet’s while if the end-product is something more than a poetic “translation” of the picture or object in question. Rilke’s poem is a real encounter with the sculpture, and these two translations adhere to the spirit of that encounter, and engage thoughtfully with Rilke’s legendary sonnet.

Apollo’s Archaic Torso

We cannot know his incredible head,
where the eyes ripened like apples,
yet his torso still glows like a candelabrum,
from which his gaze, however dimmed,

still persists and gleams. If this were not so,
the bow of his breast could not blind you,
nor could a smile, steered by the gentle curve
of his loins, glide to the centre of procreation.

And this stone would seem disfigured and stunted,
the shoulders descending into nothing,
unable to glisten like a predator’s pelt,

or burst out from its confines and radiate
like a star: for there is no angle from which
it cannot see you. You have to change your life.

(Looser translation)

We will never know his magnificent head,
the ebb and flow of his youth –
an orchard of ripening fruit,
yet his fire has not diminished,

incandescent light radiates
from his torso, and in the curve
of his loins, a smile turns
towards the centre of creation.

Or else this body would be disfigured –
a lump of rock with no vision,
unable to glisten like a lion’s mane.

It would not burst out of its skin
like a star: for its searing gaze
penetrates your soul, the way you live.


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Poem of the week

The Black Guitar by Paul Henry

Striking an emotional chord … The Black Guitar by Paul Henry.
The late UA Fanthorpe said an interesting thing when she described Paul Henry as a poet who “gets the maximum effect from minimum language”. Her words are quoted on the back of his recent New and Selected Poems, The Brittle Sea, as well as those of Sheenagh Pugh, referring to Henry’s “musicality, his use of back-story and his ability to create the most haunting resonance”. These descriptions point to the reasons why Henry’s poems are such a pleasure to read and hear. Henry is not a minimalist poet, exactly, but there is a beautiful economy to his writing, as exemplified in this week’s poem The Black Guitar.

The Black Guitar originally published in his fifth collection, Ingrid’s Husband (Seren, 2007) is a sonnet, one of the more impressionistic of its kind. It includes lines that are barely lines – phrases on the edge of silence. Two of these fragmentary lines are set to the right of the text, reminders, perhaps, of the bilateral art of the musician.

To begin with, the territory feels fairly solid and familiar. The wardrobe-clearing might be the start of a comfortable little narrative journey into a gently poignant past. But the wardrobe conceals a further, more unsettling set of memories. The guitar is not named in the body of the poem, except in terms of the pronoun, “its” in the first quatrain and “it” in the last. There is no detailed description. The reader’s eye instead is directed to the name, “Joe”, and the “squiggled seagull or two”.

We see the name once, and then, insistently, twice (as it was written), and perhaps we imagine the childish letters aslant on the instrument’s black wooden surface, outlined in pale dust. But “Joe, Joe” is not only a visual device: it’s the beginning of an address to the child. The emotion builds.

In the next three lines the intensity comes from the moral re-focusing, the dismissal of “a man’s tears” beside the “life’s work” of a child’s name, written in dust and, on another occasion, in sand. The term, “life’s work”, ordinary enough but made striking by its context, encloses an immeasurable set of processes – the life-work of conception, birth, growth. How much has to happen mentally and physically for a child to learn to write his name? And how much for a life to make its mark in a world of dust and darkening?

The guitar, being dusty, must have already fallen into disuse when the boy wrote his inscription. Perhaps this is why the emotion is so painful. Before the solitary father unearthed the guitar, a solitary child performed the same action, signing an ownership and connection that perhaps felt tenuous.

“Two” is the essential number in the poem. It evokes separated lives, as well as the two hands that play music. That the name is written twice suggests the doubled identity one name might contain. In the ninth line, the phrase “two strings” introduces the idea of disharmony. Being out of tune, the strings’ relationship with each other is distorted.

The few end-rhymes are delicate and unforced. Particularly effective is the internal rhyme of “touched … much” in line 9, like a tentative plucking of the guitar’s strings.

The final repetition of the child’s name in line 12 marks a calming down, a turn into a more conversational register. The poem’s forestalled climax, however, is the reference to the sea and the child’s voice, memories which would be brought to life if the speaker played the instrument. A resonance so painful has to be deferred. There’s relief when the memories and their sounds are shut away, un-summoned.

I find the whole poem strangely mimetic, as if the sonnet itself had mysteriously turned into the guitar. Its sound-box is left vibrating with emotional chords that, once touched, linger a long time in the reader’s mind.

The Black Guitar

Clearing out ten years from a wardrobe
I opened its lid and saw Joe
written twice in its dust, in a child’s hand,
then a squiggled seagull or two.

                                                    Joe, Joe

a man’s tears are worth nothing,
but a child’s name in the dust, or in the sand
of a darkening beach, that’s a life’s work.

I touched two strings, to hear how much
two lives can slip out of tune

                                                then I left it,
brought down the night on it, for fear, Joe
of hearing your unbroken voice, or the sea
if I played it.


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Poem of the week

The Snow-Storm by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Snow storm
‘Whited air’ … a snow-storm.
This week’s poem, “The Snow-Storm” by the American Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, aspires not only to rugged grandeur but to irony. Emerson knew the English Romantic poets, and I think quite possibly “The Snow-Storm” is a response to Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”. “Tumultuous privacy of storm” and “the frolic architecture of the snow” carry an almost parodic echo of Coleridge’s “secret ministry of frost.”

Emerson’s poem, for all the sturdy authority of its blank verse, relishes the snow-storm’s gothic abandon, its subversive, “savage” disregard for “number or proportion”. Nineteenth-century American poets were determined to create a body of literature distinct from that of Europe, and there’s a suggestion that the primitive snow-storm could invent shapes at least as interesting as the “slow structures” of deliberate artistry. Conversely, the human architect might, in terms of geological time, amount to no more than a snow-flurry.

The first stanza is stately, smooth-flowing and picturesque, the faintly Biblical touches reminding us that, before rebelling against organised religion, Emerson had been a minister. The snow has an apocalyptic quality in that it blurs the usual life-or-death distinctions. Movement is halted. Boundaries are blotted out – even the boundary between earth and heaven. The scene then shifts to a friendlier indoors, where that unexpected word “radiance” emphasises the vivid contrast with the lightless landscape. Again, a scriptural note is struck, and the old-fashioned fire, or glowing stove, seems to burn with an almost sacred incandescence.

And then, it’s as if, in the white space between stanzas, the speaker had ventured outside. The shortened opening line of the second stanza increases the dramatic effect, the immediacy, of the summons, “Come see …” And the subsequent description convinces us there is something worth seeing.

The “fierce artificer”, the snow-storm, has carried out an entire building-project, from the quarrying of the tiles to the decorative marble drapes of the “Parian wreaths”. It’s only when he comes to the end of this extended conceit that Emerson seems to struggle. “Retiring” must be the subject of “leaves” but it’s hardly obvious. The qualification, “as he were not”, is confusing, to say the least. Clearly, the poet is still talking about the snow-storm. Perhaps he wants to convey that winter is far from over, and the snow’s retirement merely apparent, and temporary.

But I still like the poem, and have no objection to a little puzzlement. Emerson’s philosophy of self-reliance is partially carried over into his poetic technique. His diction here is mainly down-to-earth, with a dash of medieval (“steed”, “maugre”). The syntax, like his treatment of conventional forms and meters, dimly aspires to a more organic shape, although he stops short of real innovation. He recognised it when he saw it, though, and when Walt Whitman sent him a copy of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Emerson wrote back an exalted fan-letter: “I give you joy of your free and brave thought …”

Emerson and Thoreau, though important thinkers and writers, were not great poets, but it’s a pity that their work is not better known in Britain. They have as much claim as the Romantics to be the ancestors of today’s eco-poets and nature writers. The current obsession with rivers, rain and water among British poets, for instance, surely has a source in Emersonian metaphor.

And it’s not only the poets who echo the Transcendentalists. For many people, the natural world has become the focus of morality. We sense our obligation to nature also in terms of an obligation to ourselves to become more “natural”. Emerson was prophetic when he said, “Civilised man has invented the coach, but lost the use of his feet” and, less cheerily, “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilisation.”

The Snow-Storm

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden’s end.
The steed and traveler stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

  Come see the north wind’s masonry
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structure, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.


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Falling Back

Six poems to mark the end of daylight saving time.

Light Verse

It’s just five, but it’s light like six.
It’s lighter than we think.
Mind and day are out of sync.
The dog is restless.
The dog’s owner is sleeping and dreaming of Elvis.
The treetops should be dark purple,
but they’re pink.

Here and now. Here and now.
The sun shakes off an hour.
The sun assumes its pre-calendrical power.
(It is, though, only what we make it seem.)
Now in the dog-owner’s dream,
the dog replaces Elvis and grows bigger
than that big tower

in Singapore, and keeps on growing until
he arrives at a size
with which only the planets can empathize.
He sprints down the ecliptic’s plane,
chased by his owner Jane
(that’s not really her name), who yells at him
to come back and synchronize.

VIJAY SESHADRI, author of “The Long Meadow”


First divesting ourselves of worldly goods, as St. Francis teaches,
in order that our souls not be distracted
by gain and loss, and in order also
that our bodies be free to move
easily at the mountain passes, we had then to discuss
whither or where we might travel, with the second question being
should we have a purpose, against which
many of us argued fiercely that such purpose
corresponded to worldly goods, meaning a limitation or constriction,
whereas others said it was by this word we were consecrated
pilgrims rather than wanderers: in our minds, the word translated as
a dream, a something-sought, so that by concentrating we might see it
glimmering among the stones, and not
pass blindly by; each
further issue we debated equally fully, the arguments going back and forth,
so that we grew, some said, less flexible and more resigned,
like soldiers in a useless war. And snow fell upon us, and wind blew,
which in time abated — where the snow had been, many flowers appeared,
and where the stars had shone, the sun rose over the tree line
so that we had shadows again; many times this happened.
Also rain, also flooding sometimes, also avalanches, in which
some of us were lost, and periodically we would seem
to have achieved an agreement; our canteens
hoisted upon our shoulders, but always that moment passed, so
(after many years) we were still at that first stage, still
preparing to begin a journey, but we were changed nevertheless;
we could see this in one another; we had changed although
we never moved, and one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling
from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed
in a strange way miraculous. And those who believed we should have a purpose
believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free
in order to encounter truth, felt it had been revealed.

— LOUISE GLÜCK, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author, most recently, of “A Village Life”

How It Happens 

The sky said I am watching
to see what you
can make out of nothing
I was looking up and I said
I thought you
were supposed to be doing that
the sky said Many
are clinging to that
I am giving you a chance
I was looking up and I said
I am the only chance I have
then the sky did not answer
and here we are
with our names for the days
the vast days that do not listen to us

 — W.S. MERWIN, poet laureate of the United States and author, most recently, of “The Shadow of Sirius,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2009

The Green Flash

le rayon vert

And the sea’s skin heaves, saurian,
and the spikes of the agave bristle
like a tusked beast bowing to charge
tonight the full moon will soar floating
without any moral or simile
the wind will bend the longbows of the arching casuarinas
the lizard will still scuttle
and the sun will sink silently with a stake in its eye
bleeding behind the shrouding sail
of a skeletal schooner.
You can feel the earth cooling,
you can feel its myth cooling
and watch your own heart go out like the red throbbing dot
of a hospital machine, with a green flash
next to Pigeon Island.

DEREK WALCOTT, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992 and author, most recently, of “White Egrets”


I was always thinking about her even when I wasn’t thinking. Days went by when I did little else. She had left me one night as a complete surprise. I didn’t know where she went. I didn’t know if she was ever coming back. I searched her dresser and closet for any clues. There wasn’t anything there, nothing. No lotions or creams in the bathroom. She had really cleaned out. I thought back on our years together. They seemed happy to me. Summers on the beach, winters in the mountains skiing. What more could she want? We had friends, dinner parties. I walked around thinking, maybe she didn’t love me all that time. I felt so alone without her. I hated dinners alone, I hated going to bed without her. I thought she might at least call, so I was never very far from the phone. Weeks went by, months. It was strange how time flew by when you had nothing to remember it by. My friends never mentioned her. Why can’t they say something? I thought. I remembered every tiny gesture of her hand, every smile, every grimace. Birthdays, anniversaries — I never forgot. But then something strange started to happen. I started doubting every memory. Even her face began to fade. The trip to Majorca, was it something I read in a book? The jolly dinner parties, were they a dream? I didn’t trust anything any longer. I searched the house for any trace of her. Nothing. I started asking my friends if they remembered anything about her. They looked at me as if I were crazy. I sat at home and began to cheer up. What if none of this happened? I thought. What if there was nothing to be sad about?

JAMES TATE, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author, most recently, of “The Ghost Soldiers”

Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends
into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing, as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?
So let us go on

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

MARY OLIVER, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author, most recently, of “Swan: Poems and Prose Poems”


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Poem of the week

Poem by John Cornford

Madrid during the Spanish civil war
The heartless world’ … Madrid during the Spanish civil war.
John Cornford was one of the first British volunteers for the Spanish civil war. Born in 1915, he was the son of the classicist, Francis Cornford and the poet, Frances Cornford. They christened him Rupert John in memory of their great friend, the poet Rupert Brooke, but the first name was later dropped, as his father explained, because it seemed too romantic. John Cornford joined the Young Communist League at the age of 18, and became a full Party member at 20. Newly graduated from Cambridge, with a “starred” first and a brightly promising future, he left for Spain to fight for the Republican cause in August, 1936, and joined the anti-Stalinist POUM (The Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification). He fought in the battles for Madrid and Boadilla, and was killed on the Cordoba front in December, either on or just after his 21st birthday.

“Poem,” this week’s choice, addresses the poet’s girlfriend and fellow political activist, Margot Heinemann. It owes nothing to Rupert Brooke, nor, surprisingly, to WH Auden. Cornford begins dramatically, as if to invoke some great, abstract power. His innovative stroke, the repetition of “heart” three times, is wonderfully successful. A surge of emotion is created with each repetition, and, every time, the word earns its place by acquiring a faintly different meaning, and tracing a movement from impersonal register to intimate. The “heart of the world” is certainly a romantic notion, with a Yeatsian echo, but the depiction of the world as “heartless” is closer to realism than romantic exaggeration, given the immediate context of war, and the wider background of the rise of fascism. Cornford then shifts attention finally from the general to the personal and particular. “Dear heart” tenderly singles out the addressee, and it defines the poem. This is not to be a poem centred on war and politics, like his other great literary achievement, “Full Moon at Tierz,” but a love poem.

The newly intimate tone suggests, also, a love letter. From now on the poem will be concerned with confiding immediate experience, especially inner experience. The voice is calm, candid and direct, brave but without bravado. This bravery is not wholly connected to war: it is about confronting emotion. “The pain at my side” reminds us that war’s injuries are not only physical, not only in the body. Yet the absence of a loved one is felt so acutely it’s like an accompanying physical presence.

This idea recurs in the third stanza, where the speaker suggests a childlike device by which to transcend the absence. He uses the same rhyme-word, “side”, and the sad, high-pitched sound of stanza one is repeated, but now there is “pride”, and the hope of an intense, visionary comfort. The idea that love can be communicated telepathically, and the beloved’s presence conjured by her sufficiently “kindly” thinking, is so simply and touchingly put that it seems neither arch nor fanciful. Once more, Cornford brings the addressee into the poem with an endearment – this time, simply the familiar, informal “dear.”

The second stanza expands the sense of chill introduced by the “shadow”. Those first two lines, with the fluttering rhythm and the favourite “i” sounds of “rises” and “reminds” convey premonition and sighing loneliness. That the main verb, “reminds,” is used intransitively compounds the feeling of dislocation.

With its strong, often trochaic, rhythm, the poem invites us to hear the footsteps of marching troops. Even love is like a ghostly soldier who trudges beside the poet on that “last mile.” The death that he fears is embodied almost alliteratively by name of the town, “Huesca”. Constant little rhythmic adjustments ensure there is not a trace of monotony, but the ebb and flow of complicated feeling – fear, and the fear of fear, conviction, courage, longing for comfort – like a landscape flowing past.

The passionate apostrophe at the poem’s beginning is what moves us, and draws us in, but something else keeps us reading, something less dramatic and more truthful, almost matter-of-fact. This quieter tone is sustained to the end, where the last wishes are simple, declared with exemplary plainness.

In fact, after its first romantic flourish, the poem demonstrates many of the classical virtues: proportion, self-discipline, the integration of mind and body. You feel as if you have been presented with a photograph of a young soldier’s inner life. He is a passionate lover and a passionate warrior: these qualities are held in perfect psychic balance. And they are timeless. The speaker could be one of Homer’s heroes. He could be a Spartan at Thermopylae.

It is impressive that such a stately and achieved lyric should have been written under such pressure, and by a writer still only 20. As a “last letter” it is neither raw nor prosaic, and, with or without the reader’s knowledge of Cornford’s sacrifice, it stands as one of the most moving and memorable 20th-century love poems.


Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view.

The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn is near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.

On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.

And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love.


The Raptures of a Tragic Visionary

The Wanderer’s View: The ‘scattered ruin’ of Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius looming in the background in an 1870 oil painting by Robert Scott Duncanson

Sometime in the fall of 1821, the great Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, then 23 years old, composed an ode for his beloved younger sister Paolina’s upcoming wedding. As a later critic observed, the poem is more a dirge than a hymn in honor of the bride. Paolina probably knew better than to expect mindless cheer from her melancholy brother. She was well aware that Giacomo wouldn’t be heading up the conga line at the wedding banquet.

Still, she must have been taken aback by the brutal tactlessness of such lines as these, in Jonathan Galassi’s new translation:

The children that you’ll have will

either be

cowards or unhappy. Let them

be unhappy.

You could easily conclude that the young Leopardi had precious little sense of occasion. But you might also conclude that this was a poet who cultivated a fierce regard for the truth, however harsh. On both counts you’d be right.

Leopardi, for most of his short life, felt himself to be not only trapped in a stifling household under the rule of his fanatically pious mother and feckless father but also isolated in the moldering backwater of Recanati, a provincial town where nothing of significance occurred. Worse, his beloved Italy lay in shambles, its ancient glories forgotten or despised. What future might any child of his sister look forward to in a broken country where, as he saw it, only “cowards” could find happiness?

Still worse, existence itself, for Leopardi, seemed poisoned at the source. Hope was an illusion, but a lack of hope was unbearable. Nature, for all its beauty, was brutal and despotic. “The day we’re born,” he later wrote, “is cause for mourning.”

For all his glowing promise, Leopardi seems to have cultivated such dark thoughts from his earliest years. He was an intellectual prodigy as a child. By age 10 he had mastered the standard academic curriculum. He went on to teach himself Hebrew and ancient Greek, becoming so proficient in Greek that he forged ancient poems and passed them off to unsuspecting scholars as authentic. Before Leopardi was out of his teens he had consumed much of his family’s library—his father’s sole distinction was as a book collector—and read through the Greek and Latin classics as well as the works of the Church Fathers. By age 15, he had written a history of astronomy. Two years later he completed “Popular Errors of the Ancients,” a work of enormous erudition.

Not surprisingly—given the intensity of his reading—Leopardi’s eyesight began to fail. He also developed curvature of the spine, a deformity that he found humiliating and that, together with his shyness, made it hard for him to approach women. But he kept falling in love at a distance, often with married women who remained unaware of his feelings. He became something of a virtuoso of the most excruciating and unrequited love. The memory of a voice or a glance fed his imagination for years.

Leopardi’s bleak outlook, which he elaborated at obsessive length in his vast “Notebook” (or “Zibaldone”), can become monotonous simply because he allowed himself so few illusions. It is hard to imagine him whispering sweet nothings into a beloved’s ear. On April 22, 1826, he wrote: “Everything is evil. All that is, is evil; the fact that each thing exists is an evil.” And he concluded: “Existence is an imperfection, an irregularity, a monstrosity.”

It’s not so much what he says that’s shocking. In such passages he is simply inverting the Roman Catholic teachings of such theologians as Thomas Aquinas, who held that existence is intrinsically good. Rather, it’s the icy neatness of the phrasing that disturbs. If existence is monstrous, shouldn’t we lament the fact? At times there is something glib in Leopardi’s nihilism.

Leopardi has long occupied a hallowed place in the history of European pessimism, often alongside Schopenhauer, a contemporary. But his dour credentials may not be quite as impeccable as they seem. Especially in his “Canti”—his masterpiece, consisting of 36 poems composed over 20 years—there are moments of what can only be called rapture. Take “Infinity,” his most famous short poem. In Mr. Galassi’s translation it reads, in full:

This lonely hill was always dear

to me,

and this hedgerow, which cuts

off the view

of so much of the last horizon.

But sitting here and gazing,

I can see

beyond, in my mind’s eye,

unending spaces,

and superhuman silences, and

depthless calm,

till what I feel

is almost fear. And when I hear

the wind stir in these branches,

I begin

comparing that endless stillness

with this noise:

and the eternal comes to mind,

and the dead seasons, and

the present

living one, and how it sounds.

So my mind sinks in this


and foundering is sweet in

such a sea.

It is characteristic of Leopardi that he glimpses “the infinite” best from an impeded point of view, a hilltop on which a hedge obstructs the horizon. As Mr. Galassi observes in a note, most of Leopardi’s poems take place by moonlight. Here, for once, it is broad day. Two centuries earlier, Pascal, with whom Leopardi is sometimes compared, wrote that “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” The same spaces drown Leopardi in a sweetness of immensity. We are reminded that hardly a generation before, though a world away, William Blake had urged us “to see a world in a grain of sand,” not so different perhaps from finding the silence of infinity beyond the thin voice of a hillside wind.

As it happens, this poem, in Mr. Galassi’s new edition of the complete “Canti,” displays his strengths as a translator along with a few of his weaknesses. His translations are always clear and direct, stripped of rhetorical flourishes as well as of verbal padding, and they are scrupulously accurate. With the help of his detailed notes—he seems to have read everything about Leopardi in several languages—Mr. Galassi’s versions offer the reader without Italian the surest possible grasp of Leopardi’s poems.

Since Mr. Galassi says nothing in his otherwise informative introduction about his approach to translation, it is not always clear how he expects his versions to be read. I take them as faithful renditions of the originals that hope to stand on their own in English—in other words, the usual impossible undertaking.

My reservations about Mr. Galassi’s translations have to do with a certain flatness of tone. Of course, Leopardi rejects the extravagant bombast of so much overwrought Italian verse; that is part of his great distinction. His vocabulary is simple; he avoids conceits and elaborate metaphors; he is delicate and rigorous in his placement of words. But he does have his sly devices. And these Mr. Galassi tends to ignore.

In “The Infinite,” for instance, Leopardi achieves maximum effect by inversions of normal word order, and the result is electrifying. Consider lines four through seven. Taken word by word, while keeping Mr. Galassi’s individual word choices, it would appear this way:

But sitting and gazing, unending

Spaces beyond what’s here, and


Silences, and depthless calm,

I fashion in my mind . . .

It reads strangely in English. But it reads strangely in Italian too. It is meant to read strangely. This is, after all, a sudden but gathering glimpse of the infinite from a desolate hillside, not a Sunday picnic. Mr. Galassi’s syntax is smoother and more conventional but, for that very reason, it fails to give us the shiver we feel in Leopardi’s verse.

Even in the darkest of Leopardi’s “Canti” there is a sense of some rhythmic crosscurrent at work, as though the harsh message were being uplifted by the stately surges of the lines. It is not that Leopardi is using the considerable beauty of the Italian language to soften his stern views. Just the opposite. Mr. Galassi catches some of this double music at moments, as in this passage from “Broom or The Flower of the Desert,” where Leopardi evokes Pompeii:

Extinct Pompeii

returns to the celestial light

from her immemorial oblivion

like a buried skeleton

that greed or piety has raised

out of the earth

into the air, and from the

empty forum

the wanderer, gazing

down the rows of broken


contemplates the distant

double peak

and its smoking crest,

still menacing the scattered ruin.

In this passage, as in his version of the entire poem, Mr. Galassi gives us a sense of what Leopardi was aiming at. Pompeii is indeed extinct; there are only “broken colonnades.” And yet the dead city arises again in the lines with a passionate exuberance. If Leopardi praises the broom-plant on its arid slopes, that is because the humble weed possesses a cosmic modesty that we humans lack. It had no sense that its “fragile generations were immortal.”

This subtle perspective, it seems to me, is yet another way in which Leopardi steps away from pessimism, with its facile formulations. His is a tragic vision. The late D.S. Carne-Ross, a classicist steeped in the ancient world, believed that Leopardi embodied the Greek spirit to the full. His “Canti” bow to the inevitable even as they sing out against it. He despises nothing except the hubris by which we exalt ourselves “by senseless pride up to the stars.” His poems stand as a melodious corrective to such impulses of self-aggrandizement.

But he wasn’t a preachy poet, a moralist in meter. He was closer to the bone than that. He could have said, with Rimbaud, “I am of the race that sings under torture.”

Mr. Ormsby is a writer in London.


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Where Time and the Timeless Intersect

The influence of T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) on poetry and criticism in the 20th century was immense. His work was so original in terms of style and technique that no less a Modernist icon than Ezra Pound declared that Mr. Eliot had “actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own.” While Mr. Eliot’s early poems, most notably “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), had brought him considerable attention in literary circles, it was “The Waste Land” (1922), a fragmentary and highly allusive verse epic, that gave him his central position in British and American poetry.

Although Mr. Eliot would labor assiduously in several genres, it would be more than 20 years before he completed what critics and poets alike regard as his magnum opus—the exquisite “Four Quartets.” Comprising four long poems of five parts each, “Four Quartets” incorporated a number of themes that had been essential to Mr. Eliot’s earlier work. However, the length and structure of the poems—combined with a mastery born of maturity and perseverance—enabled Mr. Eliot to address these ideas in greater depth and far more coherently.

American-English poet and playwright T.S. Eliot

Each of the poems was named after a place that had deep personal significance for Mr. Eliot, who was born in St. Louis, and had spent the first two decades of his life in America before immigrating to England.

“Burnt Norton” (1935) was named after a house and garden on the edge of the Cotswold Hills in southwest England that the poet had once visited, the extraordinary beauty of which had left a lasting impression on him; “East Coker” (1940), after a Somerset village in which the poet’s family could trace its lineage to the late 1400s; “The Dry Salvages” (1941), after a group of rocks off the coast of Cape Ann, Mass., that the poet had navigated by as a young sailor summering in the Northeast; and “Little Gidding” (1942), after a humble chapel steeped in history to which the poet, a convert to Anglicanism in 1927, had made a pilgrimage.

But these are more than works of personal reflection. Mr. Eliot called on a vast store of images, symbols and allusions that, deployed in a historical context, enabled the poet to keep his readers’ focus on such themes as the redeemability (in the Christian sense) of the individual and the complex relationship between existence, reality and time. Indeed, the setting of the entire work seems to be “the point of intersection of the timeless / With time.” (“The Dry Salvages,” V, 201-2).

Despite the obvious affinities between the poems, at the outset Mr. Eliot did not plan a series. In answer to a scholar’s query, Mr. Eliot wrote: “The idea of the whole sequence emerged gradually, I should say during the composition of ‘East Coker.’ Certainly ‘Burnt Norton’ was a solitary experiment, and I had nothing in mind for the next step.” In fact, “Burnt Norton” developed out of a dozen or so lines Mr. Eliot had discarded from “Murder in the Cathedral,” his verse play about the martyrdom of St. Thomas à Becket.

The end result of more than eight years’ work was a sequence of skillfully interwoven poems that correspond with autumn/air, summer/earth, spring/water and winter/fire, respectively. The poems were first published together as “Four Quartets” in America on May 11, 1943, and in England on Oct. 31, 1944.

A house in East Coker. Mr. Eliot’s family could trace its lineage in this Somerset, England, village back to the late 1400s.

While it employs a number of symbols, “Four Quartets” is generally recognized as a “post-Symbolist” work. Helen Gardner, the author of “The Composition of Four Quartets” (1978), the definitive work on the poems, wrote that “literary echoes and allusions are less fundamental as sources than places, times, seasons and, above all, the circumstances in which [the poems] were written.” Mr. Eliot himself was quick to point out that a number of the things that were presumed to be “merely” symbolic were in fact based on observations and experiences.

Mr. Eliot tried hard to keep the poetry—even at its most philosophical and abstract—tethered to reality. “We had the experience but missed the meaning” (“The Dry Salvages,” II, 93), he wrote. In the end, conveying the precise meaning in “Four Quartets,” no matter how difficult an undertaking, was of primary importance to the mature, world-weary Mr. Eliot. Obliquity was acceptable; obscurity was not.

While the poems were intended to be read in the order in which they were composed—and, like suites, “heard” straight through—”Four Quartets” also has a perpendicular quality that enhances its integrity. More than a few scholars and devotees of Eliot’s oeuvre have gone to great lengths to convey that certain generalizations can be made regarding the natures and functions of the corresponding sections of the poems. But, in truth, the affinities of the sections to one another can be quite easily apprehended by any close reader of the poems.

Mr. Eliot was modest and reserved. In his early essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), he wrote: “Someone said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.” Since the publication of “Four Quartets,” Mr. Eliot has been, in no small measure, that which poets as diverse as Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney and Louise Gluck know or have known.

In recognition of his contributions to poetry, drama and criticism, Thomas Stearns Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. He continued to write well into old age (but produced no poetry) and gave numerous public readings in both Europe and America, on several occasions to many thousands.

I came to these poems as a young man, an aspiring poet with little knowledge of either the wide world or the variety and depth of human experience within it. The poems took me immediately and forever to a deep, mysterious and timeless place where insights seemed as plentiful as stars. I’m more than half a century old, and yet their brilliance impresses, informs and inspires me still.

Mr. Eliot died in London on Jan. 4, 1965, and his ashes were interred at the Parish Church of St. Michael in East Coker. Shortly thereafter, a cenotaph honoring him was dedicated at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. It bears the inscription: “The communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” The lines are from “Little Gidding” (I, 50-1), which Mr. Eliot regarded as the best poem of his best poetical work.

Mr. Zinsmeister is a freelance writer in New Jersey.


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Poem of the week

Dragon Talk by Fleur Adcock

‘My echo, my parrot’ … a dragon statue in London.

Many apologies for the late arrival of this week’s Poem of the Week. My internet connection was in meltdown for a few days, rather appropriately, as you’ll see, because I’d chosen a playfully mocking address to a computer program. It’s the title sequence from Fleur Adcock’s most recent collection, Dragon Talk, and the “Dragon” persona derives from the program’s full title: “Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice recognition software”.

Behind the rueful humour lurks a writer’s nightmare. Ten years ago, after a stint of intensive typing, Adcock found herself with a severe case of RSI. While, happily, she is still able to write longhand, and to continue her practice of taking every poem through a meticulous re-drafting process, she has had to learn how to use (and train) the voice recognition program so as to make final publisher-ready copies of her text.

The icon that originally appeared on the desktop, Adcock tells me, was actually a small red dragon’s head. (It’s since been replaced by a less appealing green flame). Powerful beasts, even mythical ones, have always attracted advertising (and branding) agencies. The recycling process hinted at here is fascinating: old myth into brand-name, brand-name into new myth, enabling the poet to give a digital “airy nothing” bodily and symbolic presence.

The poem begins at the beginning, almost in “once-upon-a-time” fashion, with a friendly nudge to the Dragon, as if inviting reminiscences. It recalls the choice of Alice in Wonderland as the training text – because, Adcock says, “it seemed to me that the mythological creatures in that book would feel at home with a Dragon as part of their crew.”

With no fiery breath of its own, and only metaphorical claws and wings, the virtual dragon proves a little slow-witted. “If you pause between individual words the Dragon is less likely to understand them,” Adcock says. “It works by context – or at least that’s the theory.” In the poem, the Dragon’s difficulties with its imaginative context are comically and engagingly drawn. Its mistakes can clearly be infuriating but its docility, though merely that of the machine, arouses the poet’s, and the reader’s, sympathy.

The Dragon’s transcription errors occasionally verge on the sinister. It’s one thing to confuse “flirtation” with “flotation”, and another to mishear a child’s name as Death. Crisp, short lines, regular stanzas, occasional rhyme-patterns enhance a tone that is light and glancing, refusing self-pity. But perhaps there is a suggestion of parable. The idea of a “verbal being” that cannot understand laughter is rather frightening, and perhaps prescient.

The speaker scolds her tame beast but overall remains affectionate and teasing, flirtatious at times, and insistently curious. What gender is the Dragon; what is it made of? It takes various shapes. It becomes, among other things, parasite, slave, bird, drug-dealer (it’s an expert in pharmaceutical products), lover, and, perhaps, a kind of god (“Are we into theology?”). When the Dragon changes “wren” into “rain” or “ring”, Adcock momentarily turns it into a poet. Finally, the beast emerges from its tidy cage of quatrains, to be spotted “cresting the gable/ of someone’s roof” – only now it becomes a mere “graven image” without the poet’s voice to give it life. Words are the Dragon, and the poem itself, long and slim and elegantly draped over the pages, resembles a live, if mythic, creature, animated by the poet’s breath, and exhaling imagination’s fire.

Dragon Talk

How many years ago now
did we first walk hand in hand –
or hand in claw –
through Alice’s Wonderland,

your favourite training ground,
peopled with a crew
of phantasms – Mock Turtle, Gryphon –
as verbal as you?

Your microphone, kissing my lips,
inhaled my words; the machine
displayed them, printed out
in sentences on a screen.


My codependant,
my precious parasite,
my echo, my parrot,
my tolerant slave: 

I do the talking;
you do the typing.
Just try a bit harder
to hear what I say!

I wait for you to lash your tail
each time I swear at you.
But no: you listen meekly,
and print ‘fucking moron’.


All the come-ons
you transcribed as commas –
how can we conduct a flirtation
in punctuation? –

Particularly when,
money-mad creature,
you spell doom to romance
by writing ‘flotation’.


I can’t blame you for homonyms,
but surely after a decade
you could manage the last word
of Cherry Tree ‘Would’? 

Context, after all,
is supposed to be your engine.
Or are you being driven
by Humpty Dumpty?


I take it amiss
when you mis-hear the names
of my nearest and dearest;
in particular, Beth.

Safer, perhaps, if I say Bethany.
Keep your scary talons
off my great-granddaughter:
don’t call her ‘death’.


You know all the diseases
and the pharmaceuticals:

are no trouble to you,
compulsive speller,
virtual dealer.


You’re hopeless at birds:
can’t get wren into your head –
too tiny, you try to tell me:
it comes out as rain or ring. 

Let’s try again: blackbird, osprey,
hen, (much better), kingfisher, hawk,
duckling. But I have to give up
and type Jemima Puddleduck. 


What am I thinking of,
dragon bird?
How could I forget
that you too have wings?

Fly to me;
let me nuzzle your snout,
whisper orders, trust you
to carry them out.


Do I think of you as “he”? –
Beyond male or female;
utterly alien,
yet as close as my breath –

invisible, intangible,
you hover at my lips –
am I going too far?
Are we into theology?


Animal, vegetable or mineral?
Who’s playing these games? –
Abstract, with mineral connections
and a snazzy coat of scales.

Gentle dragon, stupid beast,
why do I tease you?
Laughter’s not in your vocabulary:
all you understand are words.


Today I saw you cresting the gable
of someone’s roof: a curly monster
smaller than me, but far too large
to hide yourself inside a computer.

They’d painted you red – was that your choice?
But this was only your graven image.
Your private self was at home, waiting
for reincarnation through my voice.


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Poem of the week

Bethsabe’s Song by George Peele

This time, an Elizabethan reading of a Biblical story hot with dangerous sensuality

Bathsheba with David's Letter by Rembrandt van Rijn
Detail from Bathsheba with David’s Letter by Rembrandt van Rijn (1654). 

George Peele (1557-1596) was a gifted playwright, whose work some critics consider prepared the way for Shakespeare. Contemporaries praised the effortless smoothness of his blank verse. The more flexible metres of his poetry show his dexterity. Peele is one of those Elizabethan writers whose verse has a grace and euphony that bring the spoken word uncannily close to the condition of music.

This week’s poem is, in fact, a song. Sometimes known as “Hot Sun, Cool Fire”, otherwise “Bethsabe’s Song”, it comes from a play Peele based closely on the Biblical account of King David’s adultery with the wife of “Uriah the Hittite”, The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe.

The song occurs immediately after the Prologue, headed by the stage direction: “He draws a curtaine and discovers Bethsabe with her maid, bathing over a spring. She sings, and David sits above, viewing her.” The lyrics have an incandescent quality appropriate to this erotic scenario, seeming to fuse the excitement of both the voyeur and the young woman who is his target, and who feels acutely aware of her own attractiveness and vulnerability.

The American poet and critic WD Snodgrass wrote that Peele “probably intended to imitate classical meters based on syllable-lengths, but actually creates a stress pattern.” The first two lines have an undertow of iambic pentameter, and these are followed by four (roughly) four-beat lines, but, overall, the rhythms of the sestet seem shimmeringly unstable and at odds with conventional metrical counting.

The opening words are like chords. “Hot sun” and “cool fire” are both spondees. Their evenly distributed monosyllabic weight gives them a strong presence, although their grammatical position is unclear. They are simply there, relished, dangerous. On the page, you can almost see the sun’s white-hot disc. The fierce heat recedes in the oxymoron of “cool fire”, and is followed by the effect of a gentle breeze with that little rhythmical tremor, “tempered with”. The mood is nakedly sensuous, and the great unwashed Elizabethan audience is surely meant to register Bethsabe’s tingling physical pleasure in her open-air bath.

But, of course, images of heat and coolness inevitably suggest metaphorical parallels: intense, ardent feeling versus the restraint that King David, as Peele’s audience would hardly have needed to be told, is not about to exercise. The moral dilemma is underlined by the strong physical and pictorial contrasts.

There are even sharper contrasts in the next line: “Black shade, fair nurse, shadow my white hair.” As the stage direction indicates the presence of a maid, we can suppose here that Bethsabe’s command is directed at a human “fair nurse”, although the lyric is equally effective if the “black shade” is itself personified as the protective nurse. That Bethsabe’s hair is “white” suggests an additional danger: she is blond and particularly unsuited to direct sunlight. Although the shade is kindly, the word “black” carries a reminder of burning and charring.

The Elizabethan love of paradox fuels this play of antithetical ideas (“shroud me and please me” is another striking example) and also creates an almost delirious, shivery dazzle of shifting sensations. In its compressed, impressionistic syntax, the writing seems almost modern but for the rhetorical devices that enrich the argument and heighten emotion. The chiasmus in line six emphasises the impending complications. A pun on “burning” in line four may imply that Bethsabe suspects she is being watched and is in danger both of arousing passion and of herself being aroused. (In line three, after all, she has demanded “shine sun, burn fire …” ). The heartbeat of the poem seems to quicken with the foreshortened lines and feminine endings.

The tempo increases again in the last four lines, where the pace of the iambic trimeter suggests that danger is now imminent. In fact, that “bright eye” suddenly seems to bring the voyeur into the speaker’s line of vision: at the very least, she has allowed herself vividly to imagine and anticipate the moment of intimate challenge.

Some commentators have interpreted the play as a satire on the relationship of Elizabeth I and her favourite, Robert Dudley, the first Earl of Leicester. In the song’s final quatrain, Bethsabe’s summary recognition of her “beauty’s fire” certainly has a regal, imperious air. In owning up to her erotic power, she does what royals have done since the Pharaohs, and probably long before: she identifies herself with the sun.

Bethsabe’s Song

Hot sun, cool fire, tempered with sweet air,
Black shade, fair nurse, shadow my white hair:
Shine, sun; burn, fire; breathe, air, and ease me;
Black shade, fair nurse, shroud me and please me:
Shadow, my sweet nurse, keep me from burning,
Make not my glad cause cause of mourning.
   Let not my beauty’s fire
   Inflame unstaid desire,
   Nor pierce any bright eye
   That wandereth lightly.


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Poster poems


Dorothy Parker
Getting straight to the point … Dorothy Parker.

The epigram is one of the briefest of poetic forms, but, as the derivation of the name might suggest, it is also one of the most enduring. Originally a Greek stone inscription, the form found its feet in Rome, especially in the frequently risqué works of Martial. In common with many short forms, the epigram looks easier to do than it is. A good epigram demands that the poet masters two of the most difficult things to achieve in verse, brevity and wit. A successful epigram will both encapsulate its subject in a few short lines and add a witty twist that makes us see it in a new light.

Given its origins, it’s hardly surprising that the epigram has appealed to English poets of an Augustan bent. Alexander Pope’s “You know where you did despise” meets both of the main criteria for a good epigram while simultaneously being as scabrous as anything that Martial managed. Walter Savage Landor’s Dirce is more explicitly classical in imagery than Pope’s poem, but more Victorian in its handling of the theme of lust. Fine as these poems are, I feel the need to place beside them a more tender, romantic epigram of love, Sara Teasdale’s Faults.

During the century or so before Pope, the Metaphysicals and the 17th-century songwriters were also fond of epigram writing. Donne’s distich, “A Lame Beggar” operates almost at the level of a riddle or puzzle poem while “But Men Loved Darkness” by Richard Crashaw is a fine example of that all-too-rare genre, the witty religious poem.

It may seem an odd conjunction, but I can’t but hear an echo of Crashaw in Hemingway’s “Chapter Heading”; it’s a shame that Ernest didn’t write more epigrams as the form seems ideally suited to his terse style.

In fact, it is interesting to see how writers have made this short poem their own: “Resumé” could only have been written by Dorothy Parker, “‘Faith’ is a fine invention” is unmistakeably an Emily Dickinson poem and “Fire and Ice” has Robert Frost written all over it. These poems are all excellent examples of the epigram, but equally they serve to show how even the slightest and most conventional poetic form can be moulded by an individual voice.

And so, this National Poetry Day, I invite you to share your own brief and witty epigrams. As with satire, the range of subjects the world around us offers up for epigrammatic treatment is broad indeed, so go on, have a go. It’s only a few words, after all, just a couple of lines. Well, maybe four. Or so.

And especially to mark the day, I’d like to finish up with a particularly apt epigram by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.


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Poem of the week

What mystery pervades a well! by Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson
Sending postcards to the future … Emily Dickinson.
Shamefaced confession: I’ve been renewing my library copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson for more than a year. It’s the perfect dipping-book, utterly reliable for a moment’s, or an hour’s, refreshment. There’s no poet who’s so consistently disconcerting, fascinating, odd-angled. Like Stephen Hawking, Dickinson takes you to the edge of the cosmos – which may be billions of light years away or at your back door. And it’s the cosmos in microcosm, of course – another advantage. Dickinson’s brevity convinces you that poems were never meant to be long or ostensibly complicated.

So it’s high time I faced my chronic indecision and made a choice of Dickinson Poem of the Week (and, yes, bought my own copy of the Complete Poems). From a possible 1,775, I’ve picked number 1,400, the one that begins “What mystery pervades a well!”

It’s a strange poem, “floorless”, in a sense, and perhaps not flawless. The well appears to be a real one, not a metaphysical source of spiritual refreshment, but Dickinson’s first stroke in the poem is to defamiliarise it, transform it into a kind of black hole. There’s no friendly face at the bottom as there is for Seamus Heaney, another poetic well-fancier. The startling personification of the water as “A neighbor from another world / Residing in a jar,” may briefly conjure thoughts of the genii in the bottle – but only briefly. The “lid of glass” takes us down further into the unfathomable depths of the jar, bringing the realisation that only the surface of the water would be visible. There’s a lot more beneath. In a jaunty tone, Dickinson offers us the “abyss”.

The grass beside the well, buoyantly undisturbed, leads to an analogy with sedge which is growing near the sea on much shakier ground. “Floorless” is such a brilliantly unsettling word, it seems that Dickinson wants to stop us in our tracks with it. So she shortens that line, making it the end-word, and adds the leftover foot-and-a-bit of “and does no” to the next: “And does no timidity betray”. Note that the grass and sedge are personified, like the water, and are also masculine. Nature remains traditionally feminine.

The repeated “e” rhymes in the third and fourth stanzas sound awkward. A run of four (he/me/be/sea), the last two unexpectedly consecutive, must be deliberate. Like the sedge as the waves break over it, the fourth stanza struggles for foothold, and seems designed to remain a little unfinished.

There’s an earlier poem that begins, “Bring me the sunset in a cup, / Reckon the morning’s flagons up / And say how many Dew, / Tell me how far the morning leaps – / Tell me what time the weaver sleeps, / Who spun these nets of blue!” Nature here is as immeasurable as in the “well” poem, but “she” is still resplendently present and active. Dickinson is a poet of vivid sight: her work records innumerable sunsets, flowers and bees in glowing, specific colour. The well, by contrast, is colourless; sinister and still.

The fact that the well is a man-made object doesn’t deter Dickinson from identifying it with the natural world. But the images by which Nature is evoked – a haunted house, a ghost – are disturbing. The Nature that impinges on the human world, and interests the speaker, remains a stranger. Is it only a shadow, like the shadows in Plato’s cave? Haunted houses are best avoided, of course. But “ghost” has a bigger theological meaning than mere spook. To “simplify” Nature’s ghost might be to “know the mind of God.”

Ultimately, the experience broached seems incomplete. The poem withdraws into a warning against arrogance: the arrogance of science, perhaps, and the arrogance of poetry. The narrator surely includes herself among those who know Nature, but whose knowledge turns out to be insufficient. The aphoristic last lines are a little lesson on humility.

The further the poem moves into abstraction, the deeper it seems to plunge into a well where words reflect no light. It admits defeat. And yet, by making deliberate imaginative “mistakes” – like seeing the water as a neighbour who lives in a jar – the speaker surely has presented us with a wonderful replica of her well. She is not Stephen Hawking, but a Martian, sending postcards to the future. Her bold comparisons and personifications may explain nothing, but they bring us thrillingly close to her sense of awe. And science has never yet shown us that awe at our surroundings is inappropriate.

What mystery pervades a well!
That water lives so far –
A neighbor from another world
Residing in a jar

Whose limit none has ever seen,
But just his lid of glass –
Like looking every time you please
In an abyss’s face!

The grass does not appear afraid,
I often wonder he
Can stand so close and look so bold
At what is awe to me.

Related somehow they may be,
The sedge stands near the sea –
Where he is floorless
And does no timidity betray

But nature is a stranger yet:
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.

To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.


Poem of the week

Easter, 1944 by John Lucas

Fork in country road
‘I am kept to a road / under a lowering sky and I can’t tell / which way the children took or when they left’
Childhood recollection is one of contemporary poetry’s favourite genres. It seems to replace unsettling notions that even poems may have fictional or unreliable narrators with a guarantee of frankness, freshness and, sometimes, a certain period charm. For the senior generation of poets who grew up in Britain, the memories may have less charm and more historical resonance. Gerda Mayer and Peter Scupham are among those who have powerfully re-imagined their very distinct childhood experiences during the second world war.

John Lucas, poet, scholar and publisher, is another writer haunted by “the pity of war”. This week’s poem, “Easter, 1944” comes from the “In the Wars” section of his latest, ninth collection, Things to Say (Five Leaves Publications).The section begins in the summer before the Great War, with predictable intimations of shattered innocence, and ends with “Fragments of an Imagined War Requiem”, a short sequence dated April, 2003, and culminating in the invasion of Iraq (“Satire’s Masterpiece:/ Bush. Blair. Rumsfeld. Straw.”). .

Connecting a festival of renewal and a date that signals the fifth year of the second world war, “Easter, 1944” is a title that alerts us to possible ironies. Chief of these is the fact that the child in the poem seems less innocent, or at least less deluded by false hopes, than the soldier-father.

The adult speaker sets recollection in motion with his opening, terse comment, referring to the Easter of the title: “A cold one.” This lack of expansiveness, as much as the weather itself, prepares us for the inarticulate distance between father and son. Even as the poem’s narrator, the son is unable at first to describe his feelings, and filters them through the gesture of his sister “holding hard” to his hand, as if he formed a protective shield between the dangerous male adult and the younger child.

That a tramp sleeps in the old tin bath the father has “innocently” pointed out is the boy’s big secret. It tells us he knows more than his father about the local landscape. But he is not going to share his wisdom. He clutches it to himself, as if it were too important, or slightly shameful. This reticence holds up a mirror to that of the father.. As a soldier, he must have undergone experiences that he cannot share with his son. For both, communication is blocked by the inexpressible. There is even a disconcerting hint of a parallel between the father, frightening the children who barely know him, and the tramp who (unwittingly?) scares “little girls”.

The poem is permeated by understatement. Its lines sometimes unexpectedly run on, minimising natural emphasis, creating odd jolts. A mixture of numbness and discomfort rules the rhythmic landscape as well as the emotions. As for the actual landscape, this is miserable but dramatic. Images of howling wires and bare branches thrashed by the wind bring battlefields to mind. If the description touches on pathetic fallacy, it’s still convincing. English Easters are often wintry. The anti-pastoralism is not necessarily exaggerated.

“Easter, 1944” looks as if it might be in terza rima, but it isn’t. There are hints of rhyme (howl/tell), and a repeating hiss of the s-sound as a final consonant (was/girls/face/eyes). The one strong chime is that of “walk” and “talk”. The two activities traditionally go together, as in the sentimental old song, “In the Twi-Twi-Twi-Light.” Walking and talking are elements of modern pastoral, symbolising the leisurely intimacy of lovers or friends. Here, though, we have the hollow, physical shell without the inner meaning, the walking without the talking, and so the old rhyme acquires new irony.

The emotion continues to be underplayed even as it builds into the clear distress of “I swerved from him, would not see his face.” That emphatic “would not see his face” suggests more than childish petulance. By refusing to “see”, the child is helplessly rejecting the possibility of understanding.

The adult speaks again at the end of the poem: “Father, forgive my dry, incurious eyes”. “Dry”, of course, has a double meaning, and both cynicism and lack of emotion are implied. “Incurious” negates the supposed natural condition of childhood, curiosity. The plea may point to a failure of father-son communication that reaches beyond the moment of the poem. Perhaps by now the father is dead. There is nothing in the poem to say that he even came “home for good.”

Before this concluding “prayer”, though, a new perspective has been attained. As if between stanzas, the child has grown up and become a father himself. The haunting, painful dream in which he literally loses his own children expands “Easter, 1944” beyond its wartime setting, opening out to reflect a more universal sadness between children and parents. The child eventually appreciates the parent’s point of view, but usually, by then, there really is an unbreakable silence between them.

Easter, 1944

A cold one. My father, home
briefly on leave, took me a promised walk.
My sister came too, holding hard to my hand.

There was a wind thrashed bare branches, made wires howl,
the flat, grey sky held no hope of sun. He was
strange to us and we did not talk.

In Lane End spinney he pointed to an old
tin bath half-hidden among weeds. I didn’t tell
him a tramp would sleep there, scaring little girls.

Trudging back, he spoke of walks we’d take
“When I am home for good.” But
I swerved from him, would not see his face.

There are dreams now in which I am kept to a road
under a lowering sky and I can’t tell
which way the children took or when they left.

Father, forgive my dry, incurious eyes.


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Poem of the week

A Mind of Winter by Martha Kapos

This time, a striking contemporary poem whose apparent clarity conceals some intriguing mystery as it pays homage to Wallace Stevens

Snow-covered window

Cold thoughts … a window covered with ice.

This week’s poem, “A Mind of Winter”, is by Martha Kapos, and comes from her most recent collection, Supreme Being (Enitharmon, 2008). As one of the reviewers who admired the collection, I liked its combination of linguistic nuance and emotional intensity. The poems often seem to be acts of mourning, but under such strong, imaginative pressure that absence becomes presence. To borrow that transformative pun from George Barker’s little masterpiece, “To My Mother” they “move from mourning into morning.”

Helen Vendler has pointed out that many American poets in the second half of the 20th century wrote in response to their modernist predecessors. Women poets, in her view, are excluded from this project, partly because of the want of female role models. Kapos, an American poet, though long settled in Britain, is proof, if any were needed, that gender does not dictate a poet’s choice of mentor.

For Kapos, the presiding spirit is Wallace Stevens. His influence can be felt occasionally at a technical level, in stringent craft and sonorous phrases, but, more importantly, it colours her imaginative philosophy. Poetry for Stevens was, famously, “the supreme Fiction”: in fact, it was the most sublime fiction of all. “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place in life’s redemption.” However, while Kapos is profoundly serious about poetry’s powers of transformation, she registers a 21st-century challenge, and, for her, untidy and recalcitrant humans may also enter the poem’s heart-room as the Supreme Being.

“A Mind of Winter” looks solid, with its firmly-packed six- or five-line stanzas, but it’s mysteriously hard to pin down. At first, it seems to have a clear agenda. The title comes from the opening line of Wallace Stevens’s almost Zen-like ars poetica, “The Snow Man” (“One must have a mind of winter/ To regard the frost and the boughs/ Of the pine-trees crusted with snow …”), and the epigraph is dedicatory: “For Wallace Stevens in March.” Then things get difficult. The “he” of the poem is not necessarily Stevens. The syntax is puzzling in the first stanza: it’s as if the poem does not want to divulge exactly who or what has been “silenced and sent outside/ as if the world was a child/ he wanted out of the room,” There’s no punctuation to guide us. It’s possible, if unlikely, that “he” in the third line is the sentence’s subject, and that “he wanted out of the room” means he wanted to get out of it. Elsewhere, the narrative clearly concerns a “he.” But here, there’s a snowball of nouns, compressing the logic of syntax to white and inescapable atmosphere.

The second stanza is arresting, with that strange image of the “mind” taking hold of the trees, an act both destructive and creative. The trees seem to be manipulated by a gigantic poetic intelligence. They might resemble letters on a blank page. And then the image of the banished child seems to hover again, when the winter sun, memorably “glowing like a pearl,” becomes the means of summoning that “small face on the pillow.” At the same time, this seems a very adult, even god-like child: an artist-child. Or perhaps it’s not a child at all, but someone withered by age? Does death, like poetry, demand a creative mental act?

No symbol in the poem, no metamorphosis, is water-tight or conclusive. The “one white quiet thing” suggests finality, but then, seemingly, life continues, the page of the book the protagonist holds containing an “icy scene” described as “pitiless and horizontal”. Is this death, a graveyard, or simply winter and the wintriness of the mind that gives itself up to seeing with such selfless clarity?

Another poem may be evoked here: “The Sun this March.” It marked a break-through for Stevens in 1930, his first poem after 6 unproductive years. Is creative stasis also part of the winter Kapos’s narrative evokes? There’s certainly a sense of liberation at the end, though accompanied by images of wounding, the “footprint gaping open in the snow” and the faintly terrifying idea of a “key-hole to the heart.” What happens to a snowman in spring, of course, is that it melts. A mind of winter in thaw, however welcomed that “holiday” might be, could dread the loss of grip.

There are plenty of seemingly non-symbolic objects in the poem: window, pillow, bed, blankets, a book, a page. It has a stoicism, too, which seems to follow Stevens’s aesthetic and moral injunction “not to think/ Of any misery in the sound of the wind,/ In the sound of a few leaves.” We seem to be in the presence of human experience as well as a symbolic death and recreation. March, the month before Eliot’s “cruellest month,” is the true crux of the year, but also, in this particular March, the turning-point for an individual who, I think, must go into the snows of death to find his spring.

A Mind of Winter

for Wallace Stevens in March

Silenced and sent outside
as if the world was a child
he wanted out of the room
the view from the window showed
only those cold thoughts
that tended to comply with white

a glaring region where his mind
took hold of trees and bent
their shoulders until they sighed
made them sag knee-deep
here and there like melted candles
stuck to a table in an empty house

and glowing like a pearl
placed a hard white sun low
in a windswept sky imagining his own
small face on a pillow in a new-made bed
then becoming one white quiet thing

draped thick blankets across his knees
so that the book he held
lightly in his hand was spread
open to a page where the icy
scene was set pitiless and horizontal

until his footprint gaping open in the snow
became a shape he no longer recognised
letting through a patch of green
and it was like a holiday
he’d been looking forward to for months
and a keyhole to the heart.


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Poem of the week

Wind by Sydney Dobell

This week’s poem has often been cited as an example of the most entertainingly awful verse. But is it really that bad?

Tawny owl

Wold gold … A tawny owl swoops to catch a mouse. 
Pegasus Descending: A Treasury of the Best Bad Poems in English, edited by James Camp, XJ Kennedy and Keith Waldrop (Collier Books, New York, 1971), does what the label says, and brings us bad poetry at its most entertaining. The editors’ witty head-notes and the assorted cartoons of a charmingly overweight, daft-looking Pegasus add to the pleasure. Extracts are trimly selected, and Kennedy, endearingly, includes an early effort of his own. Whether fustian or flimsy, homely or highfalutin’, these bad poems seem overwhelmingly innocent, and their unselfconscious comedy provokes a merry grin rather than a groan or a yawn.

The range is broad – from irredeemable doggerelist William McGonagall to the great and good in their wobblier moments – Browning, Wordsworth, Hardy and Emily Dickinson among them. The editors have a brilliant nose for rubbish, but, now and again, the cautious reader may be lured back to a poem to wonder if it really was as bad as all that.

At first, I was almost knocked unconscious by the hammer-blows of repetition in this week’s poem “Wind” by Sydney Dobell. Then I gave it another chance. I imagined hearing it recited in a flickeringly gas-lit auditorium by Sir Henry Irving, the actor who once reduced Bram Stoker to a state of collapse with his rendition of “The Dream of Eugene Aram”. And I wondered if “Wind” might not qualify as an enjoyably spine-chilling, though probably inescapably comic, Victorian performance poem.

Dobell, a prolific writer, was one of a group of poets dubbed the Spasmodic School (other members included Alexander Smith, Gerald Massey and Ebenezer Jones). The characteristics of their style have been variously described: “violent meter, egoistic disregard for community”, and, according to Coventry Patmore, “tawdriness, bombast and imbecility”.

Some critics have been kinder. Jason R Rudy writes in Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics that “Rhythm for Dobell expresses metonymically the physiological conditions of the human body – its pulses either harmonise with or strain against the throbbing of our physical beings – and poets communicate most readily through a reader’s sympathetic and unmediated experience of these rhythmic impulses. Only with the Spasmodic poets does the physiological shock of electricity approach literal enactment in poetic form.”

“Wind” is perhaps best read as a gothic sound-poem. At the core of each stanza, there seems to be the hint of an unfolding story – a ghost story. By Dobell’s vague standards of coherent narrative, this one is intelligible. It builds by means of a series of impressions, from some initial scene-setting (“winter stark”/ “level dark”) to “the mystery/ Of the blasted tree” and then, after the de rigueur owl (well, owlet), a horrid materialisation, finally and dramatically evoked as “the white sight”. Of course, the poem could simply be a depiction of a wild, moonlit night, and all the horrors could be natural phenomena, de-familiarised. But I like to think that Dobell’s wold had a grisly secret.

Meanwhile, the wind relentlessly howls “On the wold, the wold, the wold!” The repetition divests the word of meaning, but does it divest the reader of interested attention? Is “Wind” really a bad poem or a curious little gem? And, whatever you think of “Wind”, are there any Sydney Dobell poems that you feel should qualify him for a place in the serious anthologies, instead of those dedicated to the “best bad verse?”


Oh the wold, the wold,
Oh the wold, the wold!
Oh the winter stark,
Oh the level dark,
On the wold, the wold, the wold!

Oh the wold, the wold,
Oh the wold, the wold!
Oh the mystery
Of the blasted tree
On the wold, the wold, the wold!

Oh the wold, the wold,
Oh the wold, the wold!
Oh the owlet’s croon
To the haggard moon,
To the waning moon,
On the wold, the wold, the wold!

Oh the wold, the wold,
Oh the wold, the wold!
Oh the fleshless stare,
Oh the windy hair,
On the wold, the wold, the wold!

Oh the wold, the wold,
Oh the wold, the wold!
Oh the cold sigh,
Oh the hollow cry,
The lean and hollow cry,
On the wold, the wold, the wold!

Oh the wold, the wold,
Oh the wold, the wold!
Oh the white sight,
Oh the shuddering night,
The shivering shuddering night,
On the wold, the wold, the wold!


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Poem of the week

Lycidas by John Milton

This time, a remarkable supple kind of pastoral that makes room for a number of unexpected and daring fusions

John Milton

Complex passions … John Milton.

Dr Johnson, while recognising Milton’s genius, took a famously dim view of this week’s poem. “Such is the power of reputation justly acquired that its blaze drives away the eye from nice examination. Surely no man could have fancied he read ‘Lycidas’ with pleasure had he not known its author.”

Most readers since have united in disagreement with Johnson about the stature of “Lycidas.” But does his argument have any points in its favour?

One of his accusations is that the poem is artificial, and therefore lacks passion. The artifice can’t be denied. That’s the nature of pastoral. Theocritus, who provides the model for Milton, didn’t portray real shepherds, either. Whether all-singing, all-dancing, engaging in a dialogue of the dispossessed, or bewailing a lost companion, the shepherds and nymphs of pastoral poetry were figments of imagination from the start. Yet many poets, Virgil not the least of them, struck gold in the pastoral play-pen – reminding us, perhaps, of Marianne Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”.

The narrator of “Lycidas” is an unnamed shepherd, an “uncouth swain.” Maybe that description is a little in-joke. Lycidas himself represents Edward King, Milton’s fellow-student at Cambridge, and also an aspiring poet, drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of Anglesey. King had planned to take Holy Orders, and Milton uses pastoral allegory in the religious context, too. When, in the voice of the Pilot of the Galilean Lake (St Peter), Milton angrily tackles the unfit “shepherds” of anti-Protestantism, his pastoral becomes far more harsh and realistic: “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,/ But swol’n with wind, and the rank mist they draw,/Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread …”

The poem was commissioned for a memorial anthology for King. It begins with the author claiming reluctance to start work because he feels unready: his poetic garlands have no ripe fruit, only “berries harsh and crude” I don’t think this is just a conceit. Milton is expressing a reluctance he really feels, and perhaps (though he wasn’t directly involved in the shipwreck) a trace of what today we call “survivor’s guilt”. As he told another friend, he longs to be an immortal poet. He hesitates – and yet, what if death intervenes before he can achieve anything? The composition of “Lycidas” is a heavy challenge. There are many themes in the poem, but this implicit “memo to self” is finally the most significant – true fame is decided by heavenly, not earthly, judges, so gather your forces, lucky poet, and carry on. One thing is clear: Milton’s passions are complex and, as Johnson intuited, not dictated purely by simple grief for his friend.

“Lycidas” isn’t as difficult at it looks. Good footnotes will unlock plenty of its secrets. Milton is vastly learned, of course, but he’s also a ready communicator. One of his aims is “to justify God’s ways to man” and you, the reader, catch the urgency. He is a performer, and a performer, despite the masks, always seeks to fire an audience with imaginative empathy. The poem, a canzone, has verse-paragraphs of varied shape and size; sometimes they resemble mini odes, with uneven line-lengths and unpredictable rhymes (another cause of Johnson’s grumbles) but the fluidity is energising. Milton always knows where to pause, take a breath, and so keep us interested. His procession of eloquent gods is not stagey: it’s cinematic.

One of the most beautiful passages is a digression concerning the flowers to be strewn on Lycidas’s “laureate hearse”: “the tufted crow-toe and pale jessamine,/ The white pink, and the pansy freaked with jet,/ The glowing violet.” Then the dreamy fantasy is halted, and the poet confronts what has actually happened. King’s body is irrecoverable. The flowery coffin is a “false surmise.” The mood darkens with a lamentation (“Ay me! Whilst thee the shores and sounding seas/ Wash far away…”) and culminates in the famous cry to the mariners’ patron, St. Michael: “Look homeward Angel now and melt with ruth …” This is followed by the most tender of cadences: “And, O ye dolphins waft the hapless youth.”

Even in that single couplet you can read Milton’s daring fusions: elegy and foreign politics, Christian and classical imagery. It all seemed an indecent mix-up to Johnson, and his own piety got in the way of his response. But the harsh discords of one age or one ear are often the rich harmonies of another. Immune to piety but affirming “relativism”, our period is well-placed to appreciate the 17th-century “modernist” phenomenon that is “Lycidas.”

To whet your appetite, I’ve chosen the concluding strophes to represent this week’s poem. The whole work, with useful annotations, is here.

From Lycidas by John Milton

   Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor,
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with newspangled ore,
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low but mounted high,
Through the dear might of Him that walked the waves,
Where other groves, and other streams along,
With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves,
And hears the unexpressive nuptial song,
In the blest kingdoms meek of joy and love.
There entertain him all the saints above,
In solemn troops and sweet societies
That sing, and singing in their glory move,
And wipe the tears forever from his eyes.
Now, Lycidas, the shepherds weep no more;
Henceforth, thou art the genius of the shore,
In thy large recompense and shalt be good
To all that wander in that perilous flood.
   Thus sang the uncouth swain to th’oaks and rills,
While the still morn went out with sandals grey;
He touched the tender stops of various quills,
With eager thought warbling his Doric lay:
And now the sun had stretched out all the hills,
And now was dropped into the western bay;
At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue:
Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.

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Poem of the week

Pier by Vona Groarke

Filled with vitality and physical exuberance, this week’s bank holiday choice is that rare thing: a happy poem

Pier in Southwold

“Gulp cloud; / fling a jet-trail round your neck like a feather boa … “

This week’s choice, “Pier”, by one of today’s most interesting younger Irish poets, Vona Groarke, seems to be that comparatively rare thing: a happy poem. It centres on the thrill, in the author’s words, of “jumping into the sea from a high fishing pier.”

It might stir your own nostalgia for childhood and teenage derring-do, but if you’re lucky – and wise – you won’t have outgrown such experiences, nor save them only for bank holidays. “Pier” isn’t designed to deliver a message, but it nevertheless says something about the nature of the good and happy life. Our muscles, extensions of our minds, have “a need for joy”. Fascism exploits that fact, as regretted in the Auden sonnet which provides the poem’s epigraph. But the “sport” here has a different goal. It’s private and it’s fun; an act not of conformity but rebellion.

Vona Groarke was born in Edgeworthstown in the Irish Midlands, but, as she says in this too-brief interview, she thinks of the west of Ireland as her home. “Pier”, from her 2009 collection, Spindrift, is set in Spiddal in County Galway. Initially, what’s noticeable is that there’s no direct first-person narrative. This emphasis on active verbs turns out to be an excellent device, recreating how it feels to be fully absorbed in physical activity, the mind, that often unwieldy “organ”, streamlined into unity with the body. The body of the poem – its rhythms and syntax – is not a container, but a sinewy consciousness.

The poem begins with a series of signposts or instructions. The abbreviated style helps focus process and movement. The speaker seems to be doing something she’s done before – remembering, as well as reporting, a familiar sequence as she moves steadily to her goal. Each point of the landscape has its associated physical accompaniment. Past, present and future seem uncannily fused.

The noun “snout” suggests the shape of the land, and maybe the speaker’s orientation: the nose leads when you are following an instinct. It’s a nice, gristly, Germanic word, contrasting with the limitless space evoked by the latinate “America”. The diction is taut and spare: “flip-flop over/ tarmac” economises, possibly, by compressing foot-wear into verb-of-motion; “exchange the weather” wastes no time on chit-chat. Movement and purpose, are all outward-directed, a brisk negotiation with solid facts such as the “gangplank rooted barge”. The pier is seen as a workaday place, without charm or grandeur.

There’s a sense of arrival in line seven, but only a moment’s hesitation, enacted by the caesura, the full-stop, after “up to the ridge”. There’s no trembling on the brink. “And then let fly,” the poem commands. Airborne now, it opens up imaginatively with the idea of “blue nets” (not literal fishing-nets, I think, but impressions of the sky and the light-patterned water below). Altitude and vastness are conveyed by the dizzy, fantastical instructions to “gulp cloud” and “fling a jet-trail around your neck like a feather boa.”

A “you” has entered the poem, and with it a stronger mood of self-determination. No, the poem’s not simply about “fun”. The physical commands hint at a spiritual exercise. When the poet says “Enter the tide as though it were nothing, /really nothing, to do with you” the command is to deny encroaching consciousness. The sea-leaper has to work at her prophylaxis. If you “go with the flow” the fear recedes; the danger itself is reduced.

For the poet, this may also sound a reminder to beware the tense search for epiphany. How often, if you write poetry, or even fiction, do you find yourself ultimately writing up those very aspects of an experience which you didn’t record eagerly in your mental (or actual) notebook? Writers learn to duck in and out of manipulative states of mind – athletes, too, perhaps? But this is not a poem about the virtue of being passive. It’s more about achieving the active-passive balance.

As the narrative develops, so does the willed action. There is an almost violent wrestle with the water, which has to be “slit” and “dragged” open for the jumper to surface and breathe again. “You” need to “kick back”, escape from the tide’s “coiled ropes” and then “Haul yourself up into August”. This is the joyous free-fall in reverse, an ascent that demands deliberate hard work, fighting water and gravity to make the wide sky visible again, and the next jump possible. Yes, of course, there must be another jump! And this time, the speaker will set herself a bigger challenge.

In an understated way (provided we allow that the poet is the protagonist of her own poem) “Pier” seems a feminist work. Exposed in bathing-togs as she “flip-flops” past the fishermen, the woman here is untroubled about body-image. There’s no shrinking from either visibility or danger. Next time, in fact, she’ll claim even more visibility, and take a bigger risk: she’ll dive from the pier head-first, and she’ll shout. While not as blissfully at one with the environment as her project at first suggested, the speaker embraces the growing sense of power and liberation her risk-taking gains her. We might also infer that, where Church and state attempt to control women’s bodies, rebellious leaps and shouts may be fun but are also more significant politically than they may first appear.

“Pier” is reproduced here by kind permission of the author and Gallery Press. Enjoy – but if you’re inspired to jump into the sea from a height, please do it with due care.

Pier by Vona Groarke

Speak to our muscles of a need for joy

                      • W H Auden, “Sonnets from China” (XVII)

Left at the lodge and park, snout to America.

Strip to togs, a shouldered towel, flip-flop over

the tarmac past the gangplanked rooted barge,

two upended rowboats and trawlers biding time.

Nod to a fisherman propped on a bollard,

exchange the weather, climb the final steps

up to the ridge. And then let fly. Push wide,

push up your knees so the blue nets hold you,

wide-open, that extra beat. Gulp cloud;

fling a jet-trail round your neck like a feather boa,

toss every bone and sinew to the plunge.

Enter the tide as if it were nothing,

really nothing, to do with you. Kick back.

Release your ankles from its coiled ropes;

slit water, drag it open, catch your breath.

Haul yourself up into August. Do it over,

raucously. Head first. This time, shout.


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Poem of the week

A Trace of Wings by Edwin Morgan

A very unusual elegy this time, to Basil Bunting, which will also serve as a tribute to the vivacious inventiveness of its author

Edwin Morgan

Edwin Morgan at his home in Glasgow in 2003.

The mood of elegy does not have to be Gray. This week’s poem laments the death of Basil Bunting (1900 -1985) while reflecting the versatile and playful spirit of its maker, Edwin Morgan, who died last week. “A Trace of Wings” is wholly characteristic of a poet who delighted in whirling the goodie bag of tradition and innovation, and so often magicked forth blends and mixtures never seen before.

With its strict, economical patterning, “A Trace of Wings” has something in common with Morgan’s concrete poetry. Its structure might recall an old-fashioned sort of bird-book, with coloured pictures and friendly captions besides the more detailed and grammatically formal entry – the sort a child would enjoy. It’s almost a crossword puzzle without the puzzle, the answers preceding a three-part cryptic clue.

These “clues” in turn suggest the Anglo-Saxon/ Old Norse kenning reminding us that Morgan was a fine translator of Beowulf. The kenning, a metaphorical compound-word or phrase, is a descriptive stand-in for a noun. “The joy of the bird”, for example, means the bird’s feather, and “the dispenser of rings” is the prince. Anglo-Saxon listeners would be familiar with the metaphors, so “feather” and “prince” go unsaid. Morgan’s poem borrows the technique, but also names the names.

The core-idea of the poet-as-songbird is hardly new. But it is expressed through such shining technical originality, and gathers round it so many other shared attributes, that the common metaphorical coin seems diamond-faceted.

Morgan’s seven varieties of bunting bustle with birdy life. Conjured by swift phrases, they seem to flitter past as we watch, but leave indelible impressions of movement and colour. They are elusive: words like “shy”, “perky”, “scuttler”, “darter” evoke their quick, barely visible movement. “Find him!”, “What a whisk!” the speaker exclaims, surely glad that the birds are so fleet and wary. We catch, too, a moment of anger and fear when we reach the unfortunate Ortolan Bunting who “favours” (and flavours) gourmet tables, and has been hunted to near-extinction. The metaphorical associations continue to thicken. The poet might himself be an endangered species, like the ortolan, as well as a generous “grain-scatterer” like the corn-bunting. As a northerner, Basil Bunting could qualify, perhaps, as “blizzard-hardened.” It seems fitting that the Snow Bunting is the last bird named before the poet himself appears.

“A Trace of Wings” is full of lovely sounds, and the stop-start rhythms leave room for savouring their effects. The longer closing line, in which the poem uncovers its true subject and occasion, introduces a mournful cadence. A rise and fall of lamentation, it climaxes with the sharp assonance of “prince of finches” and dies away with the monosyllables of the colloquial understatement, “gone from these parts.”

Morgan was a writer who cared about a poem’s visual impact as well as its sounds. The extra spacing between the bird-name and the “kennings”, for instance, reflects the gulf between ornithological category and the elusive, living thing. Even the semi-colons seem to have a bird-like look, each a tiny pictogram of wing and eye.

In an essay in The Poet’s Voice and Craft (edited by CB McCully, Carcanet, 1994) Morgan talks about the need for a poem to be both “deliberate” and “open”. Particularly in some concrete poems, he says, “the danger would be that not enough space, not enough interstices, might be left for the spirit of inspiration to slip in”. This poem is a beautiful example of how Morgan negotiates a disciplined structural arrangement without fencing off the places where “inspired accidents” occur. In fact the poem’s very seed is an inspired accident – the fact that the superbly musical poet of Brigflatts should share his surname with a species of bird. It needed only a poet of Morgan’s genius to notice – and whip up a miraculous, sparrow-quick elegy that is tender, funny, sorrowful, Anglo-Saxon-ish and modernist, mimetic and metaphorical, all at once – and all in eight lines. “What a whisk!” indeed.

“A Trace of Wings” appears in Edwin Morgan’s Themes on a Variation (1988) and Collected Poems, and is reproduced here by kind permission of Carcanet. It’s a poem to sweeten and sharpen our sorrow for two great makers, now “gone from these parts” but placeless, and timeless, in their bright plumage and full-voiced song.

A Trace of Wings

Corn Bunting             shy but perky; haunts fields; grain-scatterer

Reed Bunting            sedge-scuttler; swayer; a cool perch

Cirl Bunting               small whistler; shrill early; find him!

Indigo Bunting           blue darter; like metal; the sheen

Ortolan Bunting         haunts gardens; is caught; favours tables

Painted Bunting         gaudy flasher; red, blue, green; what a whisk!

Snow Bunting            Arctic flyer; ghost-white; blizzard-hardened

Basil Bunting             the sweetest singer; prince of finches; gone from

                                   these parts


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Poem of the week

From Longfellow’s translation of the Divine Comedy

This time, a poignant excerpt as Dante meets his muse Longfellow’s Victorian version of the great medieval allegory


Detail from Dante Illuminating Florence with his Poem, by Domenico di Michelino. 

“You look like the Wreck of the Hesperus,” my mother used to exclaim irritably, when I came in from play looking particularly dishevelled. No, she wasn’t a literary lady: she enjoyed “the flicks” rather more than books, and preferred knitting patterns to poetry. But, like anyone else who had gone to school in the first quarter of the 20th century, she’d been introduced to verse by the venerable Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82). As for me, I loved the swashbuckling sound of “Wreck of the Hesperus”, but years passed before I met the poem.

Longfellow’s verse was swept long ago from the school curriculum, but he was once, after Tennyson, the most popular poet in the English-speaking world. He wrote prose as well as poetry, epics as well as lyrics, was a master of metre, and fluent in many languages. Although hardly an iconoclast, he was no less concerned than later American poets with the project of forging a national literary identity. The much-parodied “The Song of Hiawatha” (which Longfellow called “the Indian Edda”) is a dull plod to the modern ear, but try instead the rangy dactylic hexameters of Evangeline, still a wonderfully readable “tearjerker” of a romance, set in Nova Scotia. Longfellow sometimes reminds me a little of Charles Dickens (whom he met in London in 1842). He can be sentimental, like Dickens, but he too is a master story-spinner and conjuror of atmosphere.

Longfellow began translating Dante’s La Divina Commedia at a sombre point in his life, after the death of his second wife in a fire. Instead of attempting hendecasyllables, the American poet uses blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). He follows Dante’s syntax when he can, and writes compactly in unrhymed tercets (the “Mountain”/”fountain” rhyme here would appear to be accidental). The effect is nothing like Dante’s sinuous tide of terza rima, but Longfellow’s verse flows not un-melodiously, the cadence of the line pleasantly varied with both feminine and masculine endings. In general, the style is plain rather than florid.

I’ve chosen as this week’s “poem” an extract from Canto XXX of the Purgatorio. It describes an intensely emotional moment. Dante has reached the Earthly Paradise at the summit of Mount Purgatory. Having witnessed the Pageant of the Sacrament, he at last sees Beatrice: almost simultaneously, he discovers, to his dismay, that his guide, Virgil, “sweetest of all fathers,” is no longer at his side. For the first time in the whole Commedia, Dante’s name is used – and by Beatrice herself. But Beatrice’s address is stern and even a little sarcastic, her purpose not yet to welcome the poet but admonish him.

Subsequently, the Angels’ song reduces Dante, the pilgrim, to sobs. But Dante, the narrator, never loses control of pace or structure, and Longfellow’s style, too, is economical, though not always wholly natural-sounding.

Most, if not all, of the ellipses (“e’en”) and Latinate inversions (“continued she”) are inevitable for a translation of the period (the first edition appeared in 1867). The archaisms, in Beatrice’s speech, for example, would have seemed fitting in so deeply sacred a context. Today, translation’s “rules” are more flexible. And we prefer our English Dante in an earthier language, one which is perhaps closer, in spirit at least, to the poet’s Tuscan dialect. However, for a faithful translator of the Commedia, some formality is still unavoidable; Dante’s sentences are frequently complex, demanding, for instance, a spectrum of conjunctions not wholly natural to the terser poetic styles we use today.

Perhaps you prefer a different translation of the Purgatorio: you may even have worked on your own. Be copyright-conscious, but, otherwise, bring them on!

from Canto XXX, Purgatorio

“Dante, because Virgilius has departed
Do not weep yet, do not weep yet awhile;
For by another sword thou need’st must weep.”

E’en as an admiral, who on poop and prow
Comes to behold the people that are working
In other ships, and cheers them to well-doing,

Upon the left hand border of the car,
When at the sound I turned of my own name,
Which of necessity is here recorded,

I saw the Lady, who erewhile appeared
Veiled underneath the angelic festival,
Direct her eyes to me across the river.

Although the veil, that from her head descended,
Encircled with the foliage of Minerva,
Did not permit her to appear distinctly,

In attitude still royally majestic
Continued she, like unto one who speaks,
And keeps his warmest utterance in reserve:

“Look at me well; in sooth I’m Beatrice!
How dids’t thou deign to come unto the Mountain?
Dids’t thou not know that man is happy here?”

Mine eyes fell downwards into the clear fountain,
But, seeing myself therein, I sought the grass,
So great a shame did weigh my forehead down.

As to the son the mother seems superb,
So she appeared to me, for somewhat bitter
Tasteth the savour of severe compassion.

Silent became she, and the Angels sang
Suddenly, “In te, Domine, speravi:”
But beyond “pedes meos” did not pass.

Even as the snow among the living rafters
Upon the back of Italy congeals,
Blown on and drifted by Sclavonian winds,

And then, dissolving, trickles through itself
Whene’er the land that loses shadow breathes,
So that it seems a fire that melts a taper;

E’en thus was I without a tear or sigh,
Before the song of those who sing for ever
After the music of the eternal spheres.

But when I heard in their sweet melodies
Compassion for me, more than had they said,
“O wherefore, lady, dost thou thus upbraid him?”

The ice, that was about my heart congealed,
To air and water changed, and in my anguish
Through mouth and eyes came gushing from my breast.


“Car” – chariot

“Foliage of Minerva” – Beatrice was wearing the wreath of olive leaves associated with the goddess of wisdom

“In te, Domine, speravi…pedes meos” – The angels are singing Psalm 31, which begins, “In Thee, O Lord, have I placed my trust.” They stop at Verse 8: “Thou hast set my feet in a spacious place.”

“Living rafters” (“le vive travi”) – the pine-woods on the Apennines. The trees are frozen by the north wind from “Slavonia”, and thawed by the south wind from Africa.

(The text from which the extract from Canto XXX is taken is Dante’s Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory, Paradise, illustrated by Gustave Doré, edited by Anna Amari-Parker, and published by Arcturus, London, 2006).


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Poem of the week

The Sorrow of Love by WB Yeats

This early masterpiece combines great symbolic resonance with pin-sharp observation of the natural world

WB Yeats

WB Yeats.

This early poem by WB Yeats comes from his second collection, The Rose (1893). Superficially, it may look like a typical, heady-scented 1890s love-poem, but “The Sorrow of Love” is actually a challenge to fashionable conventions. Its bold reach and simplicity anticipate Yeats’s mature style. While rich in symbolism, it has a persuasively realist grain.

There’s the first line, for instance. What a stroke of genius – to begin the artistic ascent with a modest, domestic sparrow. Few words could better convey the little bird’s noisy activities than “brawling”, with its suggestion of territorial and sexual combat. The line might intentionally reference John Donne’s “Epithalamion” and “the sparrow that neglects his life for love,” but it remains a true depiction of ordinary bird behaviour. That draughtsman’s gift of exact, unfussy observation would be fully developed in such later works as “The Wild Swans at Coole”.

The second line leads the eye farther upwards and onwards. But, however archetypal the images of the moon and starry sky, we’re still within the bounds of natural observation. While “brawling” appeals to the ear as well as the eye, the impact of the new line, thanks to the beautifully contrasted epithets “brilliant” and “milky,” is luminously visual.

Yeats now signals that mere description was not his goal, and in the fourth line he passes judgment on his own, increasingly splendid list. It seems that the sparrow, the moon, the milky sky and “all that famous harmony of leaves”, placed in such knowing juxtaposition, have overwhelmed human experience. “Harmony of leaves” suggests laurels and lyres. A god may be inferred – Apollo, perhaps, the supreme musician. “Blotted out”, applied both to “man’s image and his cry”, is a phrase that could be associated with pens and writing. Is the young poet who wants to create a unique new voice for Ireland hinting that he is oppressed by the power of classical stories and symbols? Possibly, but I think it more likely that this is intended as a critique of shallowly cosmetic 1890s aestheticism.

Yeats was already mining Irish myth and folklore. The Rose includes “Fergus and the Druid”, “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea”, “The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland” and the glorious “To Ireland in the Coming Times”, the latter containing the poet’s solemn avocation: “Know that I would accounted be / True brother of a company / That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong/ Ballad and story, rann and song.” At the same time, the classical tradition was embedded in his imagination and would bear important fruit. Here, in the second stanza, Yeats squares up with grand self-confidence to both Irish and classical myth-making.

“A girl arose” – the trope is that of an ancient storyteller. Of course, there is also an actual girl in Yeats’s autobiographical picture at this time: Maud Gonne, who will later be compared to Helen of Troy. But the figure here is more than human. She belongs to the aisling genre, and, with those “red mournful lips” evoking the symbolic “rose” which for Yeats has erotic, mystical and nationalistic connotations, she is both the idealised beloved and the vision of Ireland.

What but Ireland itself could embody “the greatness of the world in tears”? This image conveys nationhood as simultaneously magnified and tragically “blotted out”. If, by itself, the phrase seems a shade overblown, its audacity is affirmed by the two subsequent comparisons, in which Odysseus, the heroic Greek wanderer, and Priam, the defeated Trojan King, are fused in this strange, mythic-human woman with the sensuous mouth. It seems significant that these are male heroes, a reminder that Maud Gonne’s political activism challenged feminine stereotype – and often disturbed her poet-lover.

And now Yeats performs a syntactic miracle. Instead of closing the second stanza, he pauses on a semi-colon and repeats the main verb, “arose”, at the start of the third, to carry on an extended, sinewy, almost Miltonic sentence. The woman strides on, asserting her power, although in a devastated setting in which she seems an agent of despair.

The rhyme-words from the first stanza recur in the last, emphasising the change of tone. The eaves are still “clamorous,” but the moon is “climbing upon an empty sky” (my italics). “Clamorous” and “climbing” seem to intensify the upwards-striving movement; in fact, the near-homonym, “clambering,” is additionally suggested by “clamorous”. The same powerful epithet, creating a similar combination of sound and movement, will recur in “The Wild Swans at Coole” when the birds “All suddenly mount / And scatter wheeling in great broken rings / Upon their clamorous wings.”

At the end of “The Sorrow of Love”, the man and his cry are re-framed. No longer obliterated, they are “composed”, in the pictorial sense of being held together, and perhaps somewhat pacified. Painful experience has redeemed shallow aestheticism. “The Sorrow of Love” proclaims that the young poet has found one of his major themes, and begun the transformation of failed relationship into imaginative triumph.

The Sorrow of Love

The brawling of a sparrow in the eaves,
The brilliant moon and all the milky sky,
And all that famous harmony of leaves,
Had blotted out man’s image and his cry.

A girl arose that had red mournful lips
And seemed the greatness of the world in tears,
Doomed like Odysseus and the labouring ships
And proud as Priam murdered with his peers;

Arose, and on the instant clamorous eaves,
A climbing moon upon an empty sky,
And all that lamentation of the leaves,
Could but compose man’s image and his cry.


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Poem of the week

Schubertiad by Fiona Sampson

Details of the composer’s life are weaved together with themes from his work and echoes of his music in Fiona Sampson’s deft sequence, Schubertiad

Out of time … Franz Schubert.

This week’s poem, the four-part sequence, “Schubertiad”, by Fiona Sampson, seems, at first glance, a kind of translation – of music into text. As the epigraph tells us, it is written “After the String Quintet in C, D956” and, if you know the quintet, you might hear an echo, in the first poem, of the mysterious opening of the Allegro, or recall the Adagio’s pizzicato passages in those very short lines at the end of the second. But the translation analogy doesn’t take us far. What these small, song-like poems seem to do is create a parallel world. They are impressionistic, and, in their swift movement and glancing, sun-and-water imagery, they realise the essential, mercurial quality of Schubert’s music.

It’s a quality demonstrated in the way the composer can take a single song through such varying tonalities it seems almost to encompass the emotional range of an opera. Sampson is a poet who shares something of this legerdemain. “Schubertiad” also weaves in a biographical thread. In the Quintet, an unusual second cello adds gravitas. In the sequence, darker harmonies arise from the conflict of the composer’s time-poor life with the power of his genius to re-make time on its own terms.

The Quintet was completed during Schubert’s final illness in the autumn of 1828. His deathbed forms the closing image of the poem. “Schubertiad” begins, though, by tracing an uncertain miracle closer to birth. “One moment before it starts – / one breath.” This is the pause before the music happens – before the composer writes down the first notes, before the ensemble, poised to breathe as one, begins to play. But the opening stanzas are not tied down to a particular narrative, and the reader might equally see a love affair unfolding, or any emotional event that tunes anticipation to concert pitch.

The risk of being out of time, in both senses, fades in the second poem, where there is a gorgeous, sensuous present tense. The Schubertiaden were organised by Schubert’s devoted friends to promote his work and fund its publication. They could be sumptuous affairs: after the performances (entirely of Schubert’s compositions) there would be food, drink and dancing. At the party imagined by the poet, there is a Turkish flavour (lokum is the sweet we call Turkish Delight) reflecting the Austrian fascination with Turkish culture after serious threat from the Ottoman empire had receded. The sense of abundance is confirmed by the shift from two to three-lined stanza, though the writing is still spare and delicate, with touches of assonance and one strong internal rhyme (“throws/rose”).

The singing girl seems casual and fluent, like the river (a recurrent motif) and like Schubert himself. It’s said he once composed eight songs in a day. This ease of composition perhaps connects to the allegorical figure of the wanderer, often found in German romantic poetry and in Schubert’s music. “Das Wandern” (wandering) is a delightful freedom celebrated in the earlier part of Die Schöne Müllerin. Conversely, “Der Wanderer”, one of Schubert’s greatest songs, sets a poem by Georg Philipp Schmidt in which the exile faces up to permanent estrangement: “There, where you are not, there is your happiness.” A similarly sombre mood shadows the third poem, the most fully rhymed of the sequence, with its opening apostrophe, “Wanderer”. It hints at the aberration which exiled Schubert from his own life, through venereal disease, and “kiss” finds the darkest rhyme imaginable: “Dis”.

In the last section, the patterns described are architectural rather than musical. The river of melody, blocked in the previous poem, strains impotently to flow again. We are brought very close to Schubert when the elaborate metaphor of the “spring ice/ yawing on its tethers” gives way to the colloquial intimacy of the exclamation, “You poor soul.” The man is “quite bare” and painfully visible in those quickly sketched details: the spectacles, the “soiled bed”. There is no sentimental suggestion that, because he has written transcendental music, his death doesn’t matter.


After the String Quintet in C, D956

One moment before it starts –
one breath.

Light stills
in the meadow,

stalls at oaks
and the river’s silver line.

For an instant
your stomach turns over –

as if you missed yourself

and this minute
and the next

were already a memory.


world slips from beat to beat
like a song.

The afternoon fills
with lokum’s evasive scent,
deep notes of cherry,

and there are saucers of honey
and peaches and a girl
who leans on a cushion to sing –

Open your notebook,
how she throws out the tune

as if she tongued
a rose
between her lips –


Wanderer, the wide river
shines in the morning sun.
Between the country and the city –
                          see it run.

You’d like to run with it
to a quiet place, in fields
time and sickness never visit
                      and joy shields.

Too soon the flood and battened sluice,
the detritus of a life
that’s been turned adrift
                      on this tide

which now seems beautiful and bright:
the river’s backdrop to the kiss
you borrowed from daylight
                     and bring to Dis.


Waiting (stateliest of the modes)
among Greek key, acanthus,
shuttered glass
and the light snagged in stucco –

where each façade rises
in stillness
and stone grows
infinitesimally –

you feel a creak and strain:
spring ice
yawing on its tethers.
You poor soul.

Without summer’s garlands and girls
you’re quite bare,
bespectacled and alone
in that soiled bed.


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Poem of the week

Two in the Campagna by Robert Browning

Published a few years before The Origin of Species, Browning’s paradoxical love poem seems to anticipate the Darwinian outlook

The Italian countryside

Robert Browning’s “Two in the Campagna” is a study in paradox. It’s a love poem that deconstructs love, a pastoral that has seen not only death but bio-diversity. Conversational, daringly sexual, it remains a soliloquy. There may be two in this campagna but two are not one, and the poet has no hesitation in admitting it.

By 1854, Browning had been married long enough to admit it, of course. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, according to an early biographer, regarded the poem highly, and a sense of complicity is sustained. The speaker frequently turns to his companion for verification. If he is more interested in thought than sensation, he never gives up on the desire for transcendent union. The burning question with which the poem begins, and which will be re-examined thoroughly in its later stanzas, is about shared experience: “… do you feel today / as I have felt …?”

The first paradox is that the pair of lovers sits down in order “to stray / In spirit better through the land”. “This morn of Rome and May”, the spacious, sunlit fields with their “endless fleece / Of feathery grasses” are to be thought about, rather than luxuriantly enjoyed.

But the train of thought is immediately elusive, “like turns of thread the spiders throw”. It can only be temporarily pinned down by the poet’s mastery of rhyme, not permanently secured. The second stanza evokes the tentative initial process of composition. Rhymes can’t always be found, or can’t always be trusted with ideas, and the poem seems to fear that the ideas it wants to explore will somehow escape.

The speaker is something of a naturalist, intently observing not only his own thoughts but the wandering gossamer of an actual web. It leads his eye from the fennel to the ruined tomb to the minutiae of the flower whose “orange cup” contains five small beetles. The beetles provoke a new thought about perception: “blind and green, they grope” and, by implication, the poet in his world is blind and groping, too.

Although Darwin’s The Origin of Species was not published until 1859, four years after Men and Women, the collection in which “Two in the Campagna” appears, new biological findings were certainly in the mid-Victorian air. “Such life here, through such lengths of hours” expresses awe not only of time, but of diversity. The ensuing four lines seem to attempt a Darwinian reconciliation of the universe, apparently free to get on with its own evolutionary processes, and the designer who watches the plans unfold: “Such miracles perfumed in play, / Such primal naked forms of flowers, / Such letting nature have her way / While heaven looks from its towers!”

At this point, the speaker remembers his companion and again the questions of union and separation begin to tease. The desire for sensuous hedonism is expressed with a touch of defiance, but the poet knows that this is not the whole answer. “Unashamed of soul” though these unconventional English lovers may manage to be, a perfect union is impossible; they cannot fuse into one self.

The problem of space turns into a problem with time. There is the almost-captured “good minute” and, then, the question, “Already, how am I so far / out of that minute” – perfectly timed to occur, if not exactly a minute later, after the single beat of the stanza break. To be in the moment, purely present to experience, is only fleetingly possible. Its achievement would mean an existence outside time, and that, as the poem recognises, is beyond possibility.

“Two in the Campagna” is one of the most sombrely honest of love poems, but its doubts and questions are so scrupulously recorded and so beautifully, coherently woven together that it reassures us. For most of the scientists of Browning’s day, the designer of the universe was still “in his Heaven”, and the poet, by analogy, still at the centre of his twisting, turning, but reassuringly symmetrical web of a poem. Random, meaningless and incoherent modernity is still many decades in the future.

Two in the Campagna


I wonder do you feel today

     As I have felt since, hand in hand,

We sat down on the grass, to stray

     In spirit better through the land,

This morn of Rome and May?


For me, I touched a thought, I know

     Has tantalised me many times,

(Like turns of thread the spiders throw

     Mocking across our path) for rhymes

To catch at and let go.


Help me to hold it! First it left

     The yellowing fennel, run to seed

There, branching from the brickwork’s cleft,

     Some old tomb’s ruin: yonder weed

Took up the floating weft,


Where one small orange cup amassed

     Five beetles, – blind and green they grope

Among the honey-meal: and last,

     Everwhere on the grassy slope

I traced it. Hold it fast!


The champaign with its endless fleece

     Of feathery grasses everywhere!

Silence and passion, joy and peace,

     An everlasting wash of air –

Rome’s ghost since her decease.


Such life here, through such lengths of hours,

     Such miracles performed in play,

Such primal naked forms of flowers,

     Such letting nature have her way

While heaven looks from its towers!


How say you? Let us, O my dove,

     Let us be unashamed of soul,

As earth lies bare to heaven above!

     How is it under our control

To love, or not to love?


I would that you were all to me,

     You that are just so much, no more,

 Nor yours nor mine, nor slave nor free!

     Where does the fault lie? What the core

O’ the wound, since wound must be?


I would I could adopt your will,

     See with your eyes, and set my heart

Beating by yours, and drink my fill

     At your soul’s springs, – your part my part

In life, for good or ill.


No. I yearn upward, touch you close,

     Then stand away. I kiss your cheek,

Catch your soul’s warmth, – I pluck the rose

     And love it more than tongue can speak –

Then the good minute goes.


Already how am I so far

     Out of that minute? Must I go

Still like the thistle-ball, no bar,

     Onward, wherever light winds blow

Fixed by no friendly star?


Just when I seemed about to learn!

     Where is the thread now? Off again!

The old trick! Only I discern –

     Infinite passion, and the pain

Of finite hearts that yearn.


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Poster poems


Get your Greek thinking caps on: your challenge is an ancient verse form beloved of Sappho, Alcaeus – and Ezra Pound

Sappho Holding a Stylus, a fresco painting from Pompeii

Doyen of dactyls … detail from a Pompeii fresco of Sappho holding a stylus.
There aren’t many verse forms that are named after their originators; poetry doesn’t seem to work much like biology in that respect. There’s the Clerihew, the Horatian Ode and Sapphics. I’m tempted to say that’s that, but I’m sure there are more I’m forgetting and that I can depend on you to remind me of.

This month, the challenge is to write a poem in Sapphics – the form favoured, unsurprisingly enough, by Sappho. Rather than tying ourselves up with longwinded explanations involving trochees and dactyls, let’s look at a Sapphic stanza in schematic form using “-” for long (in English, stressed) syllables, “u” for short (unstressed) syllables and “x” for an anceps (a syllable that can be either stressed or unstressed):

– u – x – u u – u – x
– u – x – u u – u – x
– u – x – u u – u – x
– u u – x

Easy, isn’t it? Maybe the way to look at it is as a quatrain with three long lines followed by a short one.

Of course, Sappho isn’t the only poet to have written Sapphics; another Greek poet, Alcaeus of Mytilene produced some fine examples of the form. As you might expect, Catullus, a fan of Sappho’s, also wrote excellent Sapphics, including the poem beginning “Ille mi par esse deo videtur” (“He seems to me to be equal to a god”), also known as Catullus 51.

Sapphics entered English with the Renaissance: a particularly interesting example, The English Sapphick, appears in Thomas Campion’s Observations in the Art of English Poesie. Captain Thomas Morris of Carlisle is probably less familiar to poetry lovers than Campion, but his Sapphics: At the Mohawk-Castle, Canada. To Lieutenant Montgomery is both a fine poem and a fascinating insight into 18th-century native American life as seen by an officer in the British Army. If Morris’s Sapphics deal with a subject that is public in nature, Lines Written During a Period of Insanity by his contemporary William Cowper is concerned with much more personal matters.

Perhaps the most celebrated English exponent of the form was Algernon Charles Swinburne. Swinburne wrote many Sapphics, but my personal favourite is the one simply titled Sapphics.

It is, I suppose, understandable given his interest in all things Greek and his admiration for the poets of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, that a young Ezra Pound would try his hand at the form. His poem Apparuit has all the strengths and weaknesses that you might associate with his early work. Allen Ginsberg would have been the first to recognise his poetic debt to Pound, but the casual reader would be forgiven for thinking that this debt was confined to what he learned about free verse from the older poet. But Ginsberg, too, dabbled in the old Greek form in a very fine poem that begins “Red cheeked boyfriends tenderly kiss me sweet mouthed”.

And so, it’s time to get your ancient Greek thinking caps on and get cracking. Don’t worry too much about the finer points of the trochees and dactyls: focus on the antic spirit of the thing. Most of all, have fun with it.


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Poem of the week

The Candle by Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield brings a touch of her prose writing into her poetry, while creating a ‘direct line’ to sharp, unmediated experience

A candle

 ‘By my bed, on a little round table, the Grandmother places a candle’.Katherine Mansfield is rightly praised for her short stories. As a poet, however, she is virtually forgotten – ignored even – by the 20th century anthologists dedicated to the recovery and re-evaluation of neglected women poets. That’s why I didn’t expect much more than a literary curiosity when I picked up an elegant little 1930 edition of Poems by Katherine Mansfield in my local Amnesty bookshop.

Although the editor of this volume chose to remain anonymous, it seems to have been put together shortly after her death in 1923 (the date of the first edition) by her second husband, John Middleton Murry. The introduction refers to “a cottage on the shore of the Mediterranean where we lived in 1916”. This was the Villa Pauline, where “for the whole of one week we made the practice of sitting together after supper at a very small table in the kitchen, and writing verses on a single theme we had chosen”.

Mansfield had written poetry since the age of 19, much of it fed by the bright springs of her childhood in Karori, New Zealand. While the diction is sometimes childlike, even in her maturer poems, their “direct line” to sharp, unmediated experience guarantees them against affectation, and the reader warms to their sensuousness and apparent candour. They resemble no other poetry of their time, notwithstanding odd hints of the influence of D H Lawrence. Some, like In the Rangitaki Valley, are unguardedly joyous, , while others are sad and chilled, as the lament she wrote for her brother, Leslie Beauchamp, killed while training soldiers in the use of hand grenades, To L.H.B. (1894-1915).

The Candle is an early poem, interesting in its own right, and also because it clearly comes from the same imaginative space as the short story Prelude. Begun in 1915, and printed by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press as their debut publication three years later, Prelude is a third person, multiple viewpoint story – it is not told entirely from the point of view of the sensitive rebel child, Kezia, although this character forms the emotional touchstone. The Candle, which dates from 1909 or 1910, might almost be a practice run for Kezia’s interior monologue, and we can fairly assume the voice to be Mansfield’s own. Here, too, is the much-loved grandmother from Prelude – and the setting is surely the same mysterious, rambling countryside house to which, in the story, the family has just moved.

Mansfield sometimes uses regular rhyme schemes, but for The Candle she prudently chooses free verse. The narrative is spare, vivid and well paced, its many one-line sentences creating an effect of dramatic pauses. At first, the atmosphere is reassuring. But the shadow of an end-rhyme – “tucked/shut” – suggests the final click of the bedroom door, and signals a shift of atmosphere between lines four and five. Once the Grandmother has left, danger seems to seep into the room, leaving the child wondering if she has given away her three dreams in the form of three kisses. The idea is not perhaps merely fanciful: it could be the potent warning of a feminist myth. A woman who opts for the comforts of domestic love may have to relinquish her imaginative journeys.

The handling of the subsequent metamorphosis, in which familiar objects acquire menace in slightly comical, almost cartoonish ways, is masterly. Is the danger outside or in? The child, as a future writer, decides it’s “better to know” and bravely opens a slit in the blind.

The conclusion might seem to have a consolatory, faintly sentimental touch, but there is something a little off-key about the consolation. The stars are like candles “in remembrance” of the frightened children, an odd phrase which could suggest the children had died. The dreams start “singing a little song” – which is not quite what dreams are supposed to do. Are they perhaps deceptive, like the smiling jug on the water stand?

Mansfield’s stories avoid comfortable closure, and this poem, I think, just manages to pull off the same trick. Despite its cosy title, it seems to focus on the final intractability of childhood fears. Imaginative play shape-changes them, but the shape is never secure.

Ultimately, Mansfield is by far a greater poet in her prose, but her poetry has a special quality of its own, not least because the prose writer is there too, adding realistic details and rhythms that have the breath of life in them.

The Candle

By my bed, on a little round table,

The Grandmother placed a candle.

She gave me three kisses telling me they were three dreams

And tucked me in just where I loved being tucked.

Then she went out of the room and the door was shut.

I lay still, waiting for my three dreams to talk;

But they were silent.

Suddenly I remembered giving her three kisses back.

Perhaps, by mistake, I had given my three little dreams.

I sat up in bed.

The room grew big, oh, bigger far than a church.

The wardrobe, quite by itself, as big as a house.

And the jug on the washstand smiled at me:

It was not a friendly smile.

I looked at the basket-chair where my clothes lay folded:

The chair gave a creak as though it were listening for something.

Perhaps it was coming alive and going to dress in my clothes.

But the awful thing was the window:

I could not think what was outside.

No tree to be seen, I was sure,

No nice little plant or friendly pebbly path.

Why did she pull the blind down every night?

It was better to know.

I crunched my teeth and crept out of bed.

I peeped through a slit of blind.

There was nothing at all to be seen

But hundreds of friendly candles all over the sky

In remembrance of frightened children.

I went back to bed …

The three dreams started singing a little song.


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Poem of the week

Jasmine by John Eppel

John Eppel explores the duplicities of the word freedom while, in characteristic style, evoking the odours and symbolism of flowers

Winter jasmine flowers

 ‘The sweet / mingling of woodsmoke and jasmine / with dust’ … winter jasmine flowers.John Eppel was born in 1947 to a miner father and housewife mother, both originally from South Africa. His first language was Fanagalo. When he was four, the family settled in Matabeleland, and here he still lives and works, teaching English at the Christian Brothers’ College in Bulawayo. A prize-winning novelist and poet, Eppel is currently collaborating with Julius Chingono on a compilation of fiction and poetry by both authors, Together. It’s a project that seems to be foreshadowed in the childhood memory explored in this week’s poem, Jasmine.

The poem first appeared in Eppel’s 1995 collection, Sonata for Matabeleland, a book whose very title signals cross-cultural transaction – a fertile but uneasy seed-bed. While written in English poetry’s favourite traditional structure, quatrains, “Jasmine” begins impressionistically, almost synaesthetically, with an odour that merges into cinematic images. The Zimbabwean garden of memory quickly becomes a charged political space.

Eppel’s poems, it is worth pointing out, specialise in close, sensuous descriptions of flowers, often in un-flowery settings. In “Star of Bethlehem”, he recalls how, as a young soldier, he found a single brave specimen of the eponymous plant while digging a bunker, “and stuffed it in my combat/ jacket on top of a phosphorous bomb”. He is particularly interested in capturing odours. Try to get your imaginative nostrils around this description of the marigold: “a pungent,/ khaki odour of crushed beetles, soil,/ old men, hat linings, ointment and dung” (“A Flower Poem, No. 2”). Eppel’s flowers smell of death and war as well as nectar, and, as in Jasmine, allow him imaginative access to a complex identity.

There is a hint of irony (as well as future tears?) in the opening phrase, “When they cried freedom”. The film Cry Freedom was shot in Zimbabwe, with many white extras inevitably cast as bad guys. Eppel writes about this elsewhere, and also considers the duplicities of the word, freedom: “again we are told of a free press/ a free state, free will, freedom of speech” (“The Coming of the Rains”).

“Wrists” in line four seem to salute the freedom but twist it into something else; “the colour of blood” shadows the second stanza. But the poet finds the integrity of his own vision of freedom by going deeper into his personal past: he finds in fact the opening lines of that magnificent African anthem, Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika and weaves them into his fifth stanza. When sung by a choir, these lines are usually performed fortissimo, but in the poem, we’re asked to imagine them as sung by two children, perhaps rather softly at first, until the learner, the white boy, gains confidence. Is he receiving a political lesson from the black child, Sibanda? Perhaps, subconsciously. At the same time, the emphatic rhythms make this a good work-song as the boys share uncomplicatedly the task of polishing the family’s shoes.

The memory for the adult poet denotes equality. He underlines this visually by describing the children’s identical dress. One child, we know, is historically privileged, but privilege is mutable and, anyway, a relative term: Eppel’s parents “never owned one square inch of this land”. “Jasmine” the poem, like jasmine the white-flowered plant, claims the land with gentle defiance. It says: your song is also my song and your earth is also my earth.

The poem is not ultimately ironic. The transcendence of race and class is its vision. The political reality has been very different in Zimbabwe, but the poem does not give up hope. The song is passed on. Their cheeks “pinched” by a “chill” that implies something colder than cold weather, the next generation joins in the hymn of blessing to Africa. And we do, too.


When they cried freedom, when the sweet
mingling of woodsmoke and jasmine
with dust – grass, granite, antelope
bone – gathered into wrists which turned

light the colour of blood, darkness
a memory of the colour
of blood – when their voices lifted
that song and sent it echoing

across Africa, I knew it.
Sibanda had taught it to me,
polishing the family’s shoes,
squatting outside the scullery

door. We both wore khaki trousers
many sizes too big; no shirt,
no shoes. I spat on the toecaps
while he brushed: and while he brushed

we sang: ‘Nkosi sikelel’
iAfrika…’ over and over
till the birds joined in. August birds.
‘… Maluphakanisw’ udumo lwayo …’ *

It comes back to me, this August,
now that the jasmine is blooming
and the air is stilled by woodsmoke;
how they cried freedom, and how I

knew their song. A lingering chill
pinches Zimbabwean sunsets
into the cheeks of my children
squatting beside me as I write.

It is their song too. I teach it
to them, over and over, till
my tired eyes are pricked with tears
held back, sweet smoke, dust and jasmine.

*(Zulu) “God bless Africa … Raise up her spirit.”


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Poem of the week

Hüm (noun) by Jen Hadfield

Jen Hadfield’s poem, set in Shetland, will leave you feeling drenched, windswept and thoroughly invigorated

WEATHER Storms 2

Battle against the elements … Jen Hadfield’s poem Hüm (noun) vividly evokes the driving wind and rain.

Jen Hadfield’s latest collection, Nigh-No-Place, feels like a gust of bracingly fresh air through the English language.

Even if, like me, you have never been to Shetland, where Hadfield lives and where many of her poems live, too, you come away from the book feeling as if you had spent days there, getting drenched and windswept and thoroughly invigorated. The landscapes are fierce, unbiddable and unexpectedly magical.

The poems I especially like have the swagger of meteorological “events”. They are elemental, but they avoid the grimness associated with that genre and are often humorous, or a touch ironical – an unusual and pleasing combination. Within the apparent spontaneity there is a highly conscious and disciplined poetic technique at work.

Hüm (noun), this week’s poem, begins with a dictionary. The title gives us the Shetland dialect word, Hüm, and its part of speech; the first line provides the definition. This is a bit of a tease, a signpost turned round the wrong way; it would be easy to be lulled by those rich sounds, “Twilight, gloaming”. However, the prospect of a gentle, if unconventional, pastoral poem is swiftly dispelled. This will not be a gloaming for roaming in. The wind starts blowing in line two, and then, in stanza two, slashes of rain. The pastoral tradition and even language itself are brought back to basics. A clever human, faced by such weather, can do nothing but submit to animal instinct. What’s the good of a hanky or tissues? A tongue is better adapted to licking the streaming “snot and rain” from the “top lip”.

No word in the poem is wasted, yet many are repeated. We have, for instance, triads such as “blind/blinded/blinded” and the three occurrences of “dark”. The repetitions do important narrative work. They are reminders of the power and inescapability of the forces around the speaker. Nor do they simply reinforce the human experience; they remind us that the weather itself is blind and dark.

Having lived in north Wales, I know something about bad weather. In merciless, driving wind, and rain which comes at you sometimes from the north and sometimes from the west, in starless, light-less night, there is nothing else to think about. You can’t see what’s ahead: you can only battle on, reduced and determined. The stop-start rhythms in the poem enact the efforts of will needed by the walker to keep pushing forward. “To be abject” … “To be blinded” are constructions that imply a passive subject, and the protagonist at first is all but invisible. Agency returns with the subsequent litany of infinitives: “to walk”, “to pass”, etc, but the dominance is still hard-won and in combat with real danger. The Trowes may only be folklore – to “bluster a deal” with them a bit of literary fancy – but what about the peatcut (is there boggy land nearby?) and the bull, invisibly lurking in “his” field? Bulls, in fact, are far less aggressive than their reputation suggests, but still, a storm-panicked bull would not be one to tangle with.

We aren’t told if the gate that finally surprises the speaker signifies home, or is simply another dark object to be negotiated on a continuing journey. The wind is the biggest “character” in the drama: it’s everywhere, even whining inside a previous gate’s hollow metal bars, and there is no consoling abatement. The byre “like a rotten walnut” is, perhaps, meant to show us what wind and weather ultimately do with human strategies for survival – whether that strategy is a cowshed or a dictionary. If the poem has a subtext about the diminution of a language, its enjoyment of dialect words suggests how the stubborn seeds of words may travel, and germinate far from home.

Hüm (noun)

(For Bo)

Twilight, gloaming;
to walk blind
against the wind;

to be abject; lick snot
and rain from the top lip
like a sick calf.

To be blinded by rain
from the north.

To be blinded
by westerly rain.

To walk uphill
into a tarry peatcut
and bluster a deal
with the Trowes.

To cross the bull’s field
in the dark.

To pass in the dark
a gate of hollow bars
inside which the wind is broaling.

To pass in the dark
a byre like a rotten walnut.

To not know the gate
till you run up against it.

broal: cry of a cow or other animal; to cry as in pain
hüm: twilight; gloaming
trow: a mischievous fairy


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Poem of the week

A Fire Shared by Peter Didsbury

A repeated refrain adds pragmatism to a poem on assimilation, grief and human understanding, making it a truly moving read

Hall fireplace 

The solace of sharing …

This week’s poem, A Fire Shared by Peter Didsbury, echoes the astute old proverb, a trouble shared is a trouble halved. The poem’s variable refrain gives it a pragmatic, down-to-earth twist: “A fire shared is a fire cheaper.” Those words of indisputable economic sense also touch an emotional chord, almost a chord of longing for a harsher but (sometimes) humanly warmer age.
Closing the first and shortest stanza, they draw us into the hearthside of the poem.

A Fire Shared is set in Didsbury’s hometown, Hull, where many Irish immigrants arrived during the 19th century. The trouble shared by the two figures, one English and the other Irish, is not only poverty, but one of the diseases of poverty, cholera. In an essay that accompanied the poem’s first publication in Poetry Ireland ’78, Didsbury notes that, in Hull during the summer epidemic of 1849, “upwards of 2,000 people perished in three months …” He quotes a report by a clergyman of the time, describing how the Irish women would fling themselves on to the graves and “howl out, in their native tongue, the ‘death wail'”. The echo of this keen (Irish – “caoine”), softened by the passage of time and the sharing of friendship, can perhaps be picked up in the cadences of the poem.

The linguistic process that is detailed foreshadows the eventual loss of a language. The Irishwoman’s initial estrangement from English has been modified … “a fire shared is a fine instructive tutor”. She will become fluent in English and, implicitly, the dominant language will obliterate her own. But at this early stage of assimilation, the learning is two-way, and the English speaker seems satisfied to have picked up some knowledge of Irish in return.

In sharing languages, the speaker and the Irishwoman have also shared their local myths, which relate to the snatching of children, and are therefore linked to cholera. It is this idea of linguistic and cultural sharing that forms a utopian political dimension for the poem. If only new languages and customs could become naturalised in the existent culture, and not subsumed by it.

The narrator is most probably a woman. But the poem also works if the speaker is understood to be male – perhaps a clergyman or teacher who has fallen on hard times and seen his own family devastated. Great loss erases social distinctions and, in such circumstances, a poor man could sit down unremarked at a poor woman’s hearth and console himself with the faintly scholarly pleasures of exchanging words and folk tales. Does the idea of a man going to a woman’s room (and she going to his, as the last stanza tells us) simply to share the fire and conversation change the poem? Perhaps it then becomes a chaste love poem, one that might conjure a more complicated backstory than if the friends were two women.

Whoever the speaker is, male or female, fishwife or schoolmaster, there is nothing literary in the voice. The language, with its unforced touches of dialect, is beautifully plain. The inversion of the opening sentence (“This evening I have spent / In the Irishwoman’s room”) surprises us into paying attention. Does it have a faint Hibernian-English flavour? And what about “but now it is fitting / that one of them bides cold”? That fine, sturdy verb, “bides” – as in “bides cold” – belongs to Old English, of course (“abidan”). These little quirks of idiom not only give the poem force and freshness, they seem to suggest the assimilations that the speakers are already sharing.

The narrative moves forward cumulatively, almost like a folk tale itself, quietly building up the background detail. It’s hard not to seem over-expository when imparting information in a monologue. This poem never seems so. Description is minimal but essential. “Dark flagged yards” evokes an entire neighbourhood; the isolated words, “sorrow”, “cholera”, “children”, give us the whole emotional and narrative core. So we discover that these two people have met unknowingly before, at the graveside, where they expressed their grief in such different ways that they did not realise that it was essentially the same grief.

Shakespeare’s “Sweet are the uses of adversity” is another adage the poem calls to mind. It’s the characters who make this sweetness possible. We know they have somehow learned to be generous, patient and unaffected with each another. We can almost hear them, muttering quietly like the fire.

Didsbury is a writer whose historical imagination and linguistic awareness illuminate a poetry of unusual reach and resonance. He is often a poet of borders – between lyric and narrative, comedy and tragedy, fantastic and realistic. His latest collection is Scenes from a Long Sleep: New and Collected Poems. A Fire Shared is reprinted in Old City, New Rumours, published by Five Leaves Press.

A Fire Shared

This evening I have spent
in the Irishwoman’s room.
A fire shared is a fire cheaper.

A twelvemonth since
I knew her not at all.
Our hearths were crowded then
but now it is fitting
that one of them bides cold.
A fire shared is a fire cheaper by far.

She has enough English now
for January tales
of our slavering bargeist
which stalks these dark flagged yards
intent on the taking of children.
She would not have understood a year ago.

A year ago her English was just enough
for blessing or cursing,
to ask the price of bread
or direction to a pump.
But now a fire shared
is a fine instructive tutor.

She has enough English now
to match my bargeists and goblins
with pookas and suchlike,
and I find I have learned what these are,
from many a night
spent sharing and cheapening fire.

A twelvemonth ago I would not have known
the Irish for ‘sorrow’, ‘cholera’, ‘children’,
or who stood by me at the same wide grave-mouth
as we wept after each of our fashions.
But now I know these things,
which are things I have learned
in the school of the ruined hearth,
which is held in both our rooms,
where a fire shared
is the cheapest fire of all.


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Poem of the week

A Parental Ode to My Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months by Thomas Hood

This early 19th-century domestic ode makes a stunningly modern and poignant footnote to Father’s Day

Thomas Hood

A master rhymester and outrageous pun-maker … Thomas Hood

The last time I smiled out loud at a poem was while hearing Ian McMillan on Radio 4 yesterday morning, reminding English football fans to cherish nostalgia and low expectations. Good stuff it was, and a reminder of an even greater – do I mean infinitely greater? – English tradition than football: that of the comic poem.

Thomas Hood (1799-1845) wrote all kinds of verse besides the comic, some of it conscience-piercing social commentary. He could be conventionally romantic or fashionably gothic. Mixing genres and registers came naturally to him, and the “protest” poems may have broad jokes in them, and the comic ones, political edge. Like Dickens’s novels, Hood’s best poetry teems with the sights, sounds and smells of London, and happily rubs shoulders with butchers, clerks and shirt-makers. Hood himself is a hard-working craftsman of a poet – a master rhymester and outrageous pun-maker.

He never seems to have felt professionally secure. Often ill, always over-worked, he combined a day-job as an engraver with endless editorial activities. The wild energy and eclecticism of his writing sometimes seems born of freelance desperation. And, of course, he had a large family to support.

You can hear the cri de coeur in this week’s poem, A Parental Ode to My Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months. It’s number three in a group of four of what he called “Domestic Poems”, all worth reading. Though it can be found in earlier poetry, the domestic poem became a speciality of Hood’s, and for modern readers it may seem braver and more original than his excursions into the gothic. Here, he gives it extra zest with the mock-heroic treatment.

He had already written Domestic Asides, or Truth in Parenthesis, which can be seen as a sort of trial-run for the device used here – the alternation of a public, social voice and a subversive, private one, sheltering between brackets. In the ode, however, the “asides” are spoken aloud, bathetically interrupting the elevated poem the speaker is presumably trying, and failing, to write. These interruptions, combined with the different line-lengths befitting the formal ode, produce a sense of restless energy and anxiety.

Hood’s narrative poems are usually spacious, sometimes a little too spacious. This “ode”, however, earns its scope. The child, never still, teases the dog, sets fire to his pinafore, climbs on a table, tries to cut his mother’s dress, etc. We never know where he’ll be going next, so we follow the narrative willingly. Occasionally, there’s an artful connection between the parenthetical line and the preceding apostrophe. “Thy father’s pride and hope!” is followed by the reference to the danger of breaking the mirror, taking us on a brief flight into metaphor (the child might not mirror the father’s pride and hope, after all). Despite all the random movement, there’s a distinct sense of (oedipal?) climax in the concluding exclamation of this stanza: “He’s got a knife!”

While the point-of-view is that of the frazzled father, the parenthetical material is often a disguised plea to the mother, a “can’t-you-do-something”, or an outright “I-told-you-so”. Whether intentionally or not (and in a poet so aware of social exploitation, I think the intention is there), Hood reveals the imbalance between the male and female roles. This becomes explicit in the politely phrased demand of the last two lines: “I’ll tell you what, my love/I cannot write unless he’s sent above.” Incidentally, the reader assumes “sent above” means “put to bed” and not “despatched to the angels” – but with Hood one can’t be entirely sure.

Of course, we read the hyperbole as Wordsworthian parody, a mockery of the male poet’s elevated view of childhood, based on the fact that his wife and female servants do most of the work. But even this “voice” is oddly convincing. Despite the interpolations, and partly because of them, we understand that the child really matters, and actually is rather wonderful. Those delicate comparatives (elf, humming-bee, thistle-down) remind us of his real vulnerability in the hard material world.

I always want this poem to make me laugh, but it doesn’t, quite: it touches too many once parental (now grandparental) nerves. Complex with parentheses (there’s surely a Hoodish pun in there) this early 19th-century domestic ode makes a stunningly modern and poignant footnote to Father’s Day 2010.

A Parental Ode to My Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months

   Thou happy, happy elf!
(But stop, – first let me kiss away that tear) –
   Thou tiny image of myself!
(My love, he’s poking peas into his ear!)
   Thou merry, laughing sprite!
   With spirits feather-light,
Untouch’d by sorrow and unsoil’d by sin –
(Good heavens! The child is swallowing a pin!)

   Thou little, tricksy Puck!
With antic toys so funnily bestuck,
Light as the singing bird that wings the air –
(The door! The door! He’ll tumble down the stair!)
   Thou darling of thy sire!
(Why, Jane, he’ll set his pinafore a-fire!)
   Thou imp of mirth and joy!
In love’s dear chain so strong and bright a link,
Thou idol of thy parents – (Drat the boy!
   There goes my ink!)

   Thou cherub – but of earth;
Fit playfellow for Fays, by moonlight pale,
   In harmless sport and mirth,
(That dog will bite him if he pulls its tail!)
   Thou human humming-bee, extracting honey
From ev’ry blossom in the world the blows,
   Singing in Youth’s Elysium, ever sunny –
(Another tumble! – that’s his precious nose!)

   Thy father’s pride and hope!
(He’ll break the mirror with that skipping rope!)
With pure heart newly stamp’d from Nature’s mint –
(Where did he learn that squint?)
   Thou young domestic dove!
(He’ll have that jug off, with another shove!)
   Dear nursling of the hymeneal nest!
   (Are those torn clothes his best?)
   Little epitome of man!
(He’ll climb upon the table, that’s his plan!)
Touched with the beauteous tints of dawning life –
   (He’s got a knife!)

   Thou enviable being
No storms, no clouds, in thy blue sky foreseeing,
   Play on, play on,
   My elfin John!
Toss the light ball – bestride the stick –
(I knew so many cakes would make him sick!)
With fancies buoyant as the thistle-down,
Prompting the face grotesque and antic brisk,
   With many a lamb-like frisk –
(He’s got the scissors, snipping at your gown!)

   Thou pretty opening rose!
(Go to your mother, child, and wipe your nose!)
Balmy, and breathing music like the South,
(He really brings my heart into my mouth!)
Fresh as the morn, and brilliant as its star, –
(I wish that window had an iron bar!)
Bold as the hawk, yet gentle as the dove –
   (I’ll tell you what, my love,
I cannot write, unless he’s sent above!)


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Poem of the week

Descent by Frances Williams

Part of a new generation of Welsh poets writing in English, Williams’s sharp visual language reinvigorates the world of travel

An airplane in the sky

‘Exhilarating, but scary’ …

Does travel broaden the mind or narrow it, as some sceptics claim? It depends on the mind, of course. For many writers, travel elsewhere productively enhances their perspective on home. Flaubert possibly would not have written Madame Bovary had an Egyptian journey not refreshed his eye for the narrow minds of provincial France.

This week’s poem, Descent, by Frances Williams, concentrates on arrival in Australia, and doesn’t revisit the poet’s native Wales. Nevertheless, Wales seems present in the psychic hinterland, the poem’s tension partly informed by the experience of exchanging a small country for a vast continent.

Frances Williams is one of a lively younger generation of Welsh poets writing in English. Born in Bridgend in 1968, she has published three collections with Seren: Flotsam (1992), Wild Blue (2000) and The Red Rubber Ball of Happiness (2003). Descent is from Wild Blue: it also appears in the well-named dual-language anthology, Oxygen, edited by Amy Wack and Grahame Davies.

Williams trained as a sculptor, and her sharp visual imagination enlivens the poem. Looking down from the aircraft, the speaker observes both the horizon’s broad curve and the minute curliness of the edges where beach and scrub entwine: she notes colours by analogy (“biscuit”, “urine”, “strong char”), and is alert to tricks of perspective. That tilting aerial view of the Earth is a thrill no amount of frequent flying entirely dispels, and the poem, with its slightly out-of-breath movement in short, energy-pumping sentences, captures the exhilaration. Similarly, defamiliarisation techniques jolt us into looking harder, reminding us of the so-called “Martian school” of the early 1980s, particularly Craig Raine’s brilliant Flying to Belfast. Williams nicely observes some optical illusions the single-minded metaphorist might miss. “My cheese cracker is bigger/ Than Kangaroo Island. I measure the gap/ Between hand and mouth as Melbourne/ Fades to Adelaide.” Later on, there is the arresting image of the “long white sun/ Which laces the window with its ice”.

There are some metaphysical contortions. “Out through/ The bushy tail of history, my travels blow/ Sky high,” is one example. This delivers a pun on the word “bushy” (as in the Bush) and perhaps a further pun on “tail”. The landscape has become urban and the dream of wilderness evaporates, but why is history’s tail the exit route?

Steadily nearing terra firma, the poem confronts the downside of what Elizabeth Bishop termed “questions of travel”. The streets are “thin experiments in meaning”; the speaker’s mother sounds a note of what might be self-serving caution. Her words recall Bishop’s inner voice, hinting that it might have been better “to have stayed at home and thought of here.”

The partly-internal rhyme (“you”/ “new”) reinforces the point. There’s a similar chime when “roar” is picked up in the end-rhyme of “carnivore”, and “tight” by “bite”. In fact, another Welsh echo in the poem is that of the verse-form cynghanedd, which translates literally as “harmony”: as a metaphor, this is broadly suggestive of the poem’s various overlapping effects, which are not only aural, as here, but visual and philosophical – wing and horizon, ocean and beach, future and past, the different time-zones.

The last couplet seems to be describing, rather obliquely, that moment when the plane has landed and must be slowed by a furious counter-thrust of energy. Again, it’s an exhilarating moment, but a slightly scary one. This poem, like a good traveller, enjoys risk, including the technical risks of odd images and jump-cut rhythms. It’s an upbeat poem, which says the “coming new” may not be all good, but certainly good enough. It makes me want to pack my bags and head off to the nearest airport, if just for that sensation of beating gravity and riding the winds into a bluer, clearer light (plastic meals, volcanic ash, baggage-handlers’ strikes and eco-guilt notwithstanding).


The wing can hold the curve of the earth
Tucked like a pillow under its hard arm.

Australia is passing me her endless
Biscuit prairie, patch scrub trimming off

To curly beach. Peninsulas are sharp
As holly. And then a rash of salt lakes,

A strange pox, turquoise then urine.
At such altitudes, reassurance arrives

In the small white intimacy of plastic
Meals. My cheese cracker is bigger

Than Kangaroo Island. I measure the gap
Between hand and mouth as Melbourne

Fades to Adelaide. Between safety and
Danger, a continent surrenders its widest

Plan. Its dust is the colour of strong char.
Lower, and roads criss cross in grids, run

Straight and true, hold too fast to purpose,
Are thin experiments in meaning. Out through

The bushy tail of history, my travels blow
Sky high. Wherever you go, you’re only

Ever you, my mother warned me. But
There again, perhaps she had an interest

In the retardation of the coming new.
The chord at my tail frays in wispy spray,

Slowly dissolves in the long white sun
Which laces the window with its ice.

At Perth the runway beckons as the future
Swiftly rises from the past. Local time

Greets me with a roar, my head held tight
In the playful bite of the world as carnivore.


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Poem of the week

The God of Love by George MacBeth

The Scottish poet’s tragic ode to a herd of musk oxen unfolds as a warning against defensive masculinist values

Siberia, Russian Federation ... Yukagir's Arctic extraction site

Mannerism, metaphysics, muscularity … George MacBeth’s The God of Love. 

George MacBeth, who died prematurely of motor neurone disease in 1992, was a prolific poet, novelist, children’s writer, anthologist and ambassador for poetry.

Working-class and Oxford-educated, shaped by postwar and anti-Movement influences, a stylish and often experimental formalist, he was undoubtedly a poet of his time, but also ahead of it. His birds and beasts may not be subjected to such fierce psychic projection as those of his contemporary, Ted Hughes, but they are realised with sympathetic verbal energy, and a nice interplay of mannerism, metaphysics and muscularity.

This week’s poem, The God of Love, is written as an eye-witness account, almost in defiance of the quoted epigraph. “I found them,” the narrator declares authoritatively of the herd of musk-oxen, as if reporting on a field trip. After the crisp, distant precision of the initial scene-setting, the threat to the oxen is registered on the reader’s skin in a little shiver as we’re shown the wolves with their “ears flattened against the wind”. This movement is intensified by the next stanza’s dramatic “whirlpool of wolves”.

The poem’s dominant religious symbol is prefigured early on in the image of the “ark of horn”. The ark is static, enshrining the sacred, and itself sacred. This is its tragedy.

At first, the moving “fragment of bone and muscle” seems more abstract than animal. It will turn out to be a shorthand description of one of the oxen, whose violent movement is economically conveyed by that powerful verb, “plunged”. The poet is careful to signal the distinction between the two opposing forces, and references to the “herd” or the “pack” tell us which animal regiment is engaging with which.

Against the animals’ circling movement is set the upward flight of the owl. Her aerial view is accompanied by maternal understanding. A more forceful contrast is drawn between the “iron collar of death” that the oxen instinctively but disastrously employ and the young calf’s need for “a softer womb” – a grassy safe-haven that seems to morph into death itself. The oxen are literally bone-headed: their guardianship of the calf has become a compulsive, futile ritual.

The image of the dead creature with its horns buried in the ice is an unanticipated, perfectly placed shock. It has an archaic quality, suggesting the sacrificed god himself, whose death sets in train the sacrifice of the whole herd. The narrative seems like a pencil sketch, in that we see living movement and shape, but not the colour of blood or the glisten of guts. It is somehow elegantly done despite the disruptive effect of caesuras and enjambment as MacBeth stretches his sentences over lines and stanza-breaks in unpredictable sweeps and lunges.

The stanzas themselves seem like supple collars, encirclings formed by the extensive first and fifth lines. While their shape is quite unlike that of George Herbert’s poem The Collar, that poem’s cry, “Call in thy death’s-head there”, surely re-echoes in The God of Love. The repeating pattern of lines of different lengths and degree of indentation also suggests Herbert’s verse forms.

MacBeth’s language is beautifully melodic: the stanzas unfold like operatic arias, becoming more florid and complex in thought as the poem develops. There’s never any doubt that the unfolding action will be a tragic one, and the last line underlines this starkly. The social critique might inculpate religion, perhaps, and even love – but more profoundly it is a demonstration against defensive masculinist values, and warns that the iron collars of blockade and invasion can never nourish the future. I suggested it was an “animal” poem, but it’s really no more an animal poem than Derek Mahon’s A Disused Shed in Co Wexford is a mushroom poem. Like the latter, it is a great political parable for desperate times.

The God of Love

The musk-ox is accustomed to near-Arctic conditions. When danger threatens, these beasts cluster together to form a defensive wall, or a “porcupine”, with the calves in the middle.
– Dr Wolfgang Engelhart

   I found them between far hills, by a frozen lake.
      On a patch of bare ground. They were grouped
   In a solid ring, like an ark of horn. And around
      Them circled, slowly closing in,
Their tongues lolling, their ears flattened against the wind,

   A whirlpool of wolves. As I breathed, one fragment of bone and
      Muscle detached itself from the mass and
   Plunged. The pad of the pack slackened, as if
      A brooch had been loosened. But when the bull
Returned to the herd, the revolving collar was tighter. And only

   The windward owl, uplifted on white wings
      In the glass of air, alert for her young,
   Soared high enough to look into the cleared centre
      And grasp the cause. To the slow brain
Of each beast by the frozen lake what lay in the cradle of their crowned

   Heads of horn was a sort of god-head. Its brows
      Nudged when the arc was formed. Its need
   Was a delicate womb away from the iron collar
      Of death, a cave in the ring of horn
Their encircling flesh had backed with fur. That the collar of death

   Was the bone of their own skulls: that a softer womb
      Would open between far hills in a plunge
   Of bunched muscles: and that their immortal calf lay
      Dead on the snow with its horns dug into
The ice for grass: they neither saw nor felt. And yet if

   That hill of fur could split and run – like a river
      Of ice in thaw, like a broken grave –
   It would crack across the icy crust of withdrawn
      Sustenance and the rigid circle
Of death be shivered: the fed herd would entail its under-fur

   On the swell of a soft hill and the future be sown
      On grass, I thought. But the herd fell
   By the bank of the lake on the plain, and the pack closed,
      And the ice remained. And I saw that the god
In their ark of horn was a god of love, who made them die.


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Poem of the week

The Deserted Village by Oliver Goldsmith

Oliver Goldsmith uses an array of little details to breathe life into the political purpose of his nostalgic long poem

Detail from Sir Joshua Reynolds' portrait of Oliver Goldsmith

”Twas certain he could write’ … Detail from Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Oliver Goldsmith.
Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village is both a marvellous descriptive poem and a powerful political essay. Polemic comes alive when it is grounded in detail, and Goldsmith conducts his argument using an expansive array of vivid supporting material – topographies, interiors, and sharp human portraits. The passage chosen for this week’s poem is the best-known of those portraits. It provides an affectionate, humorous moment of respite from the surging emotions that carry the poem on its flood-tide of nostalgia, lamentation and invective.

Goldsmith’s “Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain” is fictional, or at least a composite. The poet is blending recollections of the Irish village of his boyhood, Lissoy, and the fruits of his more recent travels through the villages of England, which had undergone similar enclosures and depopulation. Goldsmith’s political argument is also a moral one, and the “shapeless ruin” he sees in the landscape reflects the decadence produced by the pursuit of luxury. The enclosures are aggravated by what might be called “privatisation by life-style”, as “The man of wealth and pride / Takes up a space that many poor supplied; / Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds, / Space for his horses, equipage and hounds.”

So, in the second line of the extract, we have the telling description of the furze blossom as “unprofitably gay”. The school-master is a partly comic figure, but he too values something besides profit: learning. We are invited to see him through the villagers’ eyes. The parson probably considers him a windbag. Others naively admire him for unexceptional skills such as the ability “to write, and cipher, too”. However, some of those listed qualifications are practical and worth passing on, and there seems no irony in the claim that “Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage.” He amounts to more than a pedant.

The next section introduces the village pub, and its details are recounted with much charm. Like the school-house, this building is described as a “mansion” (although now a tottering one), signalling the reverence for communal values. These shared places are the real wealth of the country, not the private estates. Of course, the poem is selective and village life idealised, even if the ideal is attainable compared with that of conventional pastoral. Conversely, emigration is viewed thoroughly negatively as a horrible journey into wilderness. But then, this is a poem of exile – written by an exile. The loss of the connective tissue between a land and its people was also Goldsmith’s personal, individual experience. He struggled for survival in England and remained impoverished until the end of his life. The only way home was on that twin-rigged sailing ship of his imagination.

 The Deserted Village

Beside yon straggling fence that skirts the way,
With blossomed furze unprofitably gay,
There, in his noisy mansion, skilled to rule,
The village master taught his little school;
A man severe he was, and stern to view;
I knew him well, and every truant knew;
Well had the boding tremblers learned to trace
The day’s disasters in his morning face;
Full well they laughed, with counterfeited glee,
At all his jokes, for many a joke had he;
Full well the busy whisper, circling round,
Conveyed the dismal tidings when he frowned;
Yet he was kind; or if severe in aught,
The love he bore to learning was in fault.
The village all declared how much he knew;
‘Twas certain he could write, and cipher too;
Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage,
And even the story ran that he could gauge.
In arguing too, the parson owned his skill,
For e’en though vanquished, he could argue still;
While words of learned length and thundering sound
Amazed the gazing rustics ranged around,
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew.
But past is all his fame. The very spot
Where many a time he triumphed is forgot.
Near yonder thorn, that lifts its head on high,
Where once the signpost caught the passing eye,
Low lies that house where nut-brown draughts inspired,
Where grey-beard mirth and smiling toil retired,
Where village statesmen talked with looks profound,
And news much older than their ale went round.
Imagination fondly stoops to trace
The parlour splendours of that festive place:
The white-washed wall, the nicely sanded floor,
The varnished clock that clicked behind the door;
The chest contrived a double debt to pay, –
A bed by night, a chest of drawers by day;
The pictures placed for ornament and use,
The twelve good rules, the royal game of goose;
The hearth, except when winter chilled the day,
With aspen boughs, and flowers, and fennel gay;
While broken teacups, wisely kept for show,
Ranged o’er the chimney, glistened in a row.
Vain transitory splendours! Could not all
Reprieve the tottering mansion from its fall!


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Poem of the week

Sonnets from the Portuguese, No 43, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

From its brilliantly unassuming beginning, Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43 – better known for its opening line, “How do I love thee?” – unfolds into a merging of erotic and mystical experience that recalls Dante

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Late-found happiness … Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Every good sonnet strives to encompass the world in its grain of sand: occasionally, there’s an inner mass that defies all logic. It’s as if a Life had been written on the back of a postcard. This week’s poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning has that quality. It’s the penultimate sonnet in a sequence of 44, Sonnets from the Portuguese, the one that begins, “How do I love thee?”

The sonnets are not, of course, real translations. The title of the sequence is said to have come about because Robert Browning had admired one of Elizabeth’s earlier poems, Caterina to Camões. This poem was a dramatic monologue; that extrovert form that Browning was to make strikingly his own. The ruse of presenting her love poems as translations enabled Barrett Browning to explore freely what we can fairly assume to have been her own feelings – and, in 1850, to publish the results without embarrassment.

The anthologists aren’t always right in their tendency to single out certain poems at the expense of others by the same author, but the endless popularity of Sonnet 43 is understandable. It is less tortuously self-analytical than many others in the sequence. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth’s joy in her late-found happiness is mixed with reminders of early hardships, and the notional rejection the form seems to demand produces some heavily mournful Victorian postures in many of the sonnets. This poem also touches on the early sorrows, but only to pass lightly over them. “I love thee” the poem repeats, and the mood of that quiet, confident statement is reflected technically. Tightly structured, but simple enough to be memorable (few sonnets by any poet are so quickly memorised, the first few lines, at least), gradually spreading itself across space and time, Sonnet 43 nevertheless has a brilliantly unassuming beginning.

We open in medias res – in the middle of a conversation, in fact. It could be that this is simply the poet’s private conversation with herself. More likely, she wants us to feel the presence of the other person, the addressee. He has asked the question, and she is repeating it: “How do I love thee?” It’s a clever ploy, setting in train the answers that will form the poem. Perhaps it was a playful question, perhaps a serious one: how do you love me, how much do you love me, why do you love me are the kinds of question lovers ask, with varying degrees of emotion, all the way from carefree compliment-fishing to agonised desire for reassurance. The answers the poet gives are profoundly serious, of course: Barrett Browning is bringing her whole intelligence to bear on answering the question.

The poem’s unity is born of carefully arranged variety. From the grandest of spatial metaphors, the focus turns to the detail of “everyday’s most quiet need”: then it soars to the moral and political high ground with the insistent anaphora of lines seven and eight. The “passion put to use / In my old griefs” encapsulates the story of her earlier life, but holds it in check. It’s followed by a further push back through time, perhaps to “intimations of immortality” embodied in the “lost saints”. These are not left unreachably in the past, as for Wordsworth, but joyously recovered.

In rhythm and feeling, the poem, which began conversationally, progresses into an act of worship. It addresses a beloved almost as if he were God. It’s also a poem about the god-like fulfilment of loving. The merging of erotic and mystical experience might suggest Dante as a poetic model. That image of the soul “feeling out of sight / For the ends of being and ideal Grace” is a potent one in its very hesitation. As often, in this sonnet, abstract nouns are favoured to good effect, giving the reader space in which to translate them into imagery. My own image for these lines is a night sky, with its vanishing terraces of stars, and the enthralling if barely imaginable vision of the multiverse. A poem that begins with the idea of counting, and the desire for description as well as enumeration, “How do I love thee?” is really about the incalculable wonder of it all.

Sonnets from the Portuguese, XLIII

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

I love thee to the level of everyday’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right,

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith;

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints, – I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.


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Poem of the week

Ring Out Your Belles … by Sir Philip Sidney

The Elizabethan soldier-poet deserves more recognition for the variety and originality of his verse

Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney charmed earlier generations of readers, not least through his personal qualities: his courtesy and soldierly valour. He was also among the most highly esteemed English poets. In the 17th century his collected works ran into nine editions (Shakespeare mustered only four). Relegated to second division these days, Sidney deserves more attention. His poetry is not mere charm, but richly varied and highly original.

Sidney was an innovator, little influenced by the poets of his day. In his rigorously argued Defence of Poetry he claimed that the only works with “poeticall sinewes” were those of Chaucer and Surrey. He said of himself that he was “no pick-purse of another’s wit”: perhaps, like all the best poets, he picked numerous purses, assimilating a range of techniques both from his wide reading of the classics, and from the Italian and Spanish poets with whom he became acquainted during his travels.

His major works are Arcadia and the sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella. Certain Sonnets, the collection containing this week’s poem, Ring Out Your Belles … , is less well-known, but it contains much to remind us that the young Sidney was full of new ideas.

It includes, in fact, the first examples of regular accentual trochaic meter in English: “This you heare is not my tongue/ Which once said what I conceaved,/ For it was of use bereaved,/ With a cruel answer strong.”

There are translations in the traditional sense of the word, and also poems which are, in a sense, translations from music into poetry, and headed “To the tune of … ” The song in question is usually Spanish or Neapolitan. Of course, the term “sonnet” is used loosely, to denote any song-like poem.

I’ve chosen Ring Out Your Belles … for its fire and originality. Although the meter is conventionally iambic, the variation of line-length is refreshing: pentameter in line one, dimeter for the little refrain of line two, followed by eight trimeters that sustain the energy by alternating patterns of feminine and masculine endings, and an ABAB, AABB rhyme scheme.

The last four lines of each stanza form the chief refrain, and an angry and misogynistic one it seems, with that “femall franzie” (“female frenzy”). The concluding line, “Good Lord deliver us,” is hardly prayer-like. It might recall, rather, the exasperated, mock-comic curses of young men getting together to have a grumble about the unfair sex. But the thought develops into something subtler than that. Deliverance is sought not only from “them that use men thus” but from Love itself. It’s the fantasies and disappointment aroused in him which the speaker ultimately curses – and feminises. Love, he seems to suggest, has made a woman of him.

The first three stanzas present a complete and chronological torrent of funerary images: chiming “belles”; weeping neighbours; Trentalls (prayers for souls in Purgatory); the mistress’s “hart” itself transformed into a tomb. What’s original here is the lavishness and gusto the poet brings to a conventional trope. The tone is invigorating in its lack of self-pity.
And then comes the startling volte-face: “Alas, I lie: rage hath this errour bred,/ Love is not dead.” Now the marble-hearted mistress is praised for her “unmatched mind” and her discretion in keeping Love’s counsel. The refrain needs only a little alteration to suit its new context.

What could have been merely a clever rhetorical device delivers a poetic charge, thanks to the consistent pace and flow of the rhythms, and the frankness of the tone. We trust the transformation to joy as much as the earlier rage, because of the absolute conviction the poem brings to both, epitomising the “all-or-nothing” moods of love. The logic has been revised, and the poet’s attitude to his mistress reversed, by some off-stage flourish of erotic magic. How could he ever have called “such wit a franzie” – and only moments ago? It was evidently all just a lovers’ tiff.

From Certain Sonnets, No 30, Ring Out Your Belles …

Ring out your belles, let mourning shewes be spread,
For love is dead:
All Love is dead, infected
With plague of deepe disdaine:
Worth as naught worth rejected,
And Faith faire scorne doth gaine.
From so ungratefull fancie,
From such a femall franzie,
From them that use men thus
Good Lord deliver us.

Weepe neighbours, weepe, do you not heare it said,
That Love is dead?
His death-bed peacock’s folly,
His winding-sheet is shame,
His will false-seeming holie,
His sole exec’tour blame.
From so ungratefull fancie,
From such a femall franzie,
From them that use men thus
Good Lord deliver us.

Let Dirge be sung, and Trentalls rightly read,
For Love is dead:
Sir wrong his tomb ordaineth,
My mistresse Marble hart,
Which Epitaph containeth,
‘Her eyes were once his dart’.
From so ungratefull fancie,
From such a femall franzie,
From them that use men thus
Good Lord deliver us.

Alas, I lie: rage hath this errour bred,
Love is not dead.
Love is not dead, but sleepeth
In her unmatched mind:
Where she his counsell keepeth,
Till due desert she find.
Therefore from so vile fancie,
To call such wit a franzie,
Who love can temper thus,
Good Lord deliver us.


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Poem of the week

A Braid of Garlic by Marilyn Hacker

Partly an elegy to Mahmoud Darwish, this poem combines a sorrowful cadence with a vigorous appetite for joy and survival

Mahmoud Darwish

The final poem in Marilyn Hacker’s new collection has various affinities with the work of Mahmoud Darwish.
This week’s poem is from Marilyn Hacker’s new collection, Names (WW Norton, 2010). As suggested by the title and the book’s dedication (“In Memory of Hayden Carruth, Mahmoud Darwish and Reginald Shepherd”), many presences and literary mentors are invoked. These guardian spirits, living and dead, local and distant, have their appropriate modes of address. Among the verse-letters are less familiar forms. A favourite technique is that of the Glose, in which lines from another writer’s work, usually in Hacker’s own translation, are woven into a new poem. In conversation with Arabic writers, she often uses the ghazal.

A Braid Of Garlic, the last poem in the collection, is partly an elegy for Mahmoud Darwish, “whom, daring, I called a brother”. The verse is written in an informal Sapphic quatrain, its stanzas sometimes impressionistic ‘scenes’ or vivid jottings. The dying fall of the feminine endings and foreshortened last lines seems appropriate to the overall mood. But against this sorrowful cadence is pitted a vigorous appetite for joy and survival, expressed in the muscularity of the syntax, and embodied by the “aging women” who continue valiantly to shop and write and celebrate their “memories and continence”.

That little litany of fruit and vegetables in the poem’s second line is the opening gambit against the “loss” that “comes round with every changing season”. Alertness to everyday sensuous pleasures underlines one of the affinities with Darwish. The speaker is observing what is surely a Parisian market, and savouring its smells and colours. Stanza six is like a still life, with its decorated, homely basket of “mottled purple shallots” and the garlic-braid looped nearby. The images spark off memories, the “counterpoint and candlelight” of a birthday celebration followed by an unsettling medical diagnosis. The braid of sensory experience is a lifeline and a bridge, but there is always a “wolf asleep underneath the table”. A contrary motion unsettles this narrative counterpoint, reversing the seasons so the spring-light seems to decline rather than lengthen.

Writing, like living, means taking chances. Preparing for the life-or-death risk of surgery, Darwish wrote: “this poem is a dice throw/ onto a board of darkness/ that glows and doesn’t glow/ words fall/ like feathers on sand” (The Dice Player). Hacker’s poems aren’t feathery or provisional: they are packed and dense, but also active, full of movement and shifts of perspective. This one turns outwards again towards the heroism of another woman writer struggling after ill health to “get her nerve back”. The “elegant proofs and lyric” and the “incoherent furious trolls in diapers” make a memorable antithesis. This is endurable, the poem seems to say, only because both exist on the same continuum – the “human spirit”.

Finally the poem returns to Darwish, and his last moments. The butterfly, one of his significant images, symbolises the soul, of course, but it becomes a metaphor here for physical reality: we see the colour of surgery, “crimson”, and the “wings” seem like an opened chest cavity, exposing the faltering heart.

Garlic, old folk-cure for numerous ills and device against vampires, can’t stop the butterfly from vanishing. But the braided stanzas of a poem are tenacious, forming a tough loop of imagination and language that might outlast death. Whether the writer’s war zone is a country, or her body, or both, this poem reminds us, as does the poetry of Darwish, that the demand is essentially the same: to bear witness.

A Braid of Garlic

Aging women mourn while they go to market,
buy fish, figs, tomatoes, enough today to
feed the wolf asleep underneath the table
who wakes from what dream?

What but loss comes round with the changing season?
He is dead, whom, daring, I called a brother
with that leftover life perched on his shoulder
cawing departure.

He made one last roll of the dice. He met his
last, best interlocutor days before he
lay down for the surgery that might/might not
extend the gamble.

What they said belongs to them. Now a son writes
elegies, though he has a living father.
One loves sage tea, one gave the world the scent of
his mother’s coffee.

Light has shrunk back to what it was in April,
incrementally will shrink back to winter.
I can’t call my peregrinations ‘exile,’
but count the mornings.

In a basket hung from the wall, its handle
festooned with cloth flowers from chocolate boxes,
mottled purple shallots, and looped beside it,
a braid of garlic.

I remember, ten days after a birthday
(counterpoint and candlelight in the wine-glass),
how the woman radiologist’s fingers
probed, not caressing.

So, reprise (what wasn’t called a ‘recurrence’)
of a fifteen-years-ago rite of passage:
I arrived, encumbered with excess baggage,
scarred, on the threshold.

Through the mild winter sun in February,
two or three times weekly to Gobelins, the
geriatric hospital where my friend was
getting her nerve back.

At the end of elegant proofs and lyric,
incoherent furious trolls in diapers.
Fragile and ephemeral as all beauty:
the human spirit –

while the former journalist watched, took notes and
shocked, regaled her visitors with dispatches
from the war zone in which she was embedded,
biding her time there.

Now in our own leftover lives, we toast our
memories and continence. I have scars where
breasts were, her gnarled fingers, these days, can hardly
hold the pen steady.

Thousands mourn him, while in the hush and hum of
life-support for multiple organ failure,
utter solitude, poise of scarlet wings that
flutter, and vanish.


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Poem of the week

Eros Turannos by Edwin Arlington Robinson

In his astute analysis of an unhappy marriage, Robinson turns away from 1890s sentimentality towards psychological veracity


The marriage is the third, most difficult ‘character’ in the poem.

Poet and critic Louise Bogan described Edwin Arlington Robinson’s 1897 collection, The Children of the Night, as “one of the hinges upon which American poetry was able to turn from the sentimentality of the 90s toward modern veracity and psychological truth”. The significance of that achievement, which Robinson shares with a near-contemporary, Edgar Lee Masters, can be too easily submerged by the more dramatic renovations of imagism. He was, paradoxically, an innovative poet who quietly fulfilled the old, elusive Romantic doctrine of humble attentiveness to Everyman. In this week’s poem, Eros Turannos, he is at his most astute, his analysis of the bargaining tactics in a seemingly “co-dependent” marriage reminding us, perhaps, of Tolstoy’s famous observation: “happy families are all the same; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Robinson is always interested in how individual characters behave at their defining moments (as in his poems Reuben Bright and Miniver Cheevy). Here, two antagonists are revealed in the long series of defining moments that have bound them in courtship and marriage. This marriage, in fact, is the third, most difficult “character” in the story, and I wonder if it’s altogether fanciful to see the unusual use of triplicate rhymes in each stanza (three B rhymes, and three consecutive C rhymes) as denoting this.

The narrator moves novelistically between points of view. The wife’s angle is the most explored, but we learn something of the way the husband feels. We brow-tap with the know-all neighbours and nod at the wise summing-up of their mouthpiece, the speaker himself: “Meanwhile, we do no harm …” If we began by thinking the husband a tyrant, we soon sense a power-shift towards his wife, and then vice versa. Finally, according to ancient poetic tradition, the finger points at Eros. Tongue-in-cheek the poet may be, and the husband and wife are plainly self-deceiving. Nevertheless, amor omnia vincit.

The use of polysyllabic rhyme in verse usually signals comedy but not here, or not quite. It certainly adds a lift to rhythms that might otherwise seem drearily iambic. In the opening stanzas it delicately underlines closure: choose him/ refuse him/ lose him // sound him/ found him/ around him. We feel for the husband, however deeply unpleasant he is, trapped in the delicate net of erotic fantasy and need. In stanza 4, the three-syllable abstract nouns are heavy and sticky, and express the ingrown quality of the wife’s mental imprisonment: confusion, illusion, seclusion.

The poem’s diction is interesting. Robinson’s verbs are exceptionally active, his adjectives carefully planted. Offsetting the slight wordiness, most of the verses include some natural images, or suggest sensations of headlong movement. The marriage is blent with ordinary, natural processes of entropy and change.

We don’t see the couple physically: in fact, I imagine them back-view or in profile, never full-face. But they are plainly located. The first bit of landscape we see is metaphorical: the “foamless weirs/ Of age” (a remarkably evocative metaphor). The wife’s “payment” to the husband in return for his protection is evoked brilliantly in “a sense of ocean and old trees”. This imagery seems both literal and metaphorical. We are also given a town and harbour-side. Why do the latter “vibrate” with the wife’s seclusion? Suddenly we realise how closed and tradition-bound the neighbourhood must be if her absence is so widely noticed. Robinson has found a striking way of expressing the ordinary but menacing phenomenon of small-town gossip.

The couple’s complex difficulty is left in the shadows – “as if the story of a house/ Were told, or ever could be …” A wise diagnostician who knows what he does not know, Robinson in his reticence calls to mind Chekhov’s storytelling technique. This is a marriage in which, for all its faults, “passion lived and died”. We learn enough to be moved, if ultimately to share the speaker’s fatalism. Thus Robinson, with a melancholy smile, creates a new stylistic legacy, and American poetry is ready for the splendid, expansive genius of Robert Frost.

Eros Turannos

She fears him, and will always ask
      What fated her to choose him;
She meets in his engaging mask
      All reasons to refuse him;
But what she meets and what she fears
Are less than are the downward years,
Drawn slowly to the foamless weirs
      Of age, were she to lose him.

Between a blurred sagacity
      That once had power to sound him,
And Love, that will not let him be
      The Judas that she found him,
Her pride assuages her almost,
As if it were alone the cost –
He sees that he will not be lost
      And waits and looks around him.

A sense of ocean and old trees
      Envelops and allures him;
Tradition, touching all he sees,
      Beguiles and reassures him;
And all her doubts of what he says
Are dimmed with what she knows of days –
Till even prejudice delays
      And fades, and she secures him.

The failing leaf inaugurates
      The reign of her confusion:
The pounding wave reverberates
      The dirge of her illusion;
And home, where passion lived and died,
Becomes a place where she can hide,
While all the town and harbour side
      Vibrate with her seclusion.

We tell you, tapping on our brows,
      The story as it should be –
As if the story of a house
      Were told, or ever could be;
We’ll have no kindly veil between
Her visions and those we have seen –
As if we guessed what hers had been,
      Or what they are, or would be.

Meanwhile we do no harm; for they
      That with a god have striven,
Not hearing much of what we say,
      Take what the god has given;
Though like waves breaking it may be
Or like a changed familiar tree,
Or like a stairway to the sea
      Where down the blind are driven.


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Poem of the week

To Helen by Edgar Allan Poe

This week, an uncharacteristic but exquisite lyric from the dark lord of the Gothic

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe (1848).

“There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge,/ Three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge” quipped James Russell Lowell in the “Poe and Longfellow” section of his satirical poem, “A Fable for Critics”. TS Eliot compared Poe’s mind with that of “a highly gifted young person before puberty”.

Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry, whatever its limitations, was a catalyst. The current of his imagination flowed on into Europe and helped nurture the French symbolist movement. Stéphane Mallarmé in “Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe” hailed him as the poet whose angel gave “a purer meaning to the dialect of the tribe”. Poe may have seemed to Eliot an intellectual adolescent, but we could retort that he was in fact the grandfather of one of Eliot’s most famous lines, “To purify the dialect of the tribe”.

A child-like quality is certainly present in his verse. It’s in the diction and the idealised childhood eroticism of “Annabel Lee”. The Gothic imagination generally seems formed out of nursery shadows and nightmares, infused with adolescent sexual guilt. Poe’s vision of love tainted and destroyed reaches an almost ecstatic pitch in “The Raven” and in “Ulalume: A Ballad” (a superbly made poem, better than “The Raven”, I think). Poe enjoyed writing burlesque, and these narratives enjoyably teeter on, and draw back from, its brink.

In more lyrical, less Gothic mode, Poe might be a decadent reincarnation of William Blake. His simple rhythms and rhymes are asserted with an emotional directness that renders the simplicity trustworthy. Poe’s idealism is purely aesthetic, however. His angels are jealous or demonic; he sings his liebestod in a fallen world.

In an essay, The Poetic Principle, Poe explains his aesthetic, and weaves into it an instructive anthology of poems he admires. Classics were an important influence, as the skill of his versification testifies. In this week’s poem, “To Helen”, classicism and aestheticism seamlessly fuse.

It’s an atypical poem, perhaps, with its air of calm concentration, its almost imagistic focus. Poe, like Yeats later on in “Sailing to Byzantium” tries to transfix a notional Golden Age in verse that itself is timeless and hard. Whoever his personal “Helen” may have been, she is more than an earthly beloved; partly the Helen of classical legend, she is also, the last stanza suggests, a Beatrice-like figure of moral – or, at least, untainted – illumination.

A little patience is required of today’s readers, not only with those “Nicéan barks of yore”. There is a “perfumed sea” to compound the decorative fantasy. But why not? This sea is “perfumed” because it’s an ideal sea, sniffed on board the ideal boat of imagination. The adjective prefigures the flower which, in the next stanza, will give us both the sea’s colour and a lovely image of scented, curling hair: the hyacinth.

In the second stanza, a slightly dislocated, Latinate grammar floats the poem towards symbolism. The speaker is the literal subject of “long wont to roam”. But, metaphorically, the hair, face and “Naiad airs” have shared the voyage. The “roam/Rome” rhyme that “book-ends” this verse is a subtle touch – a miniature history in a pair of homophones.

The variation in each stanza’s closing lines deserves comment. The trimeter line that follows the tetrameter in “The weary, way-worn traveller bore/ To his own native shore,” has the cadence of homecoming. “To the glory that was Greece./ And the grandeur that was Rome” are regular trochaic four-beat lines, planted so firmly as to transform the banal thought – and the perhaps rather vague distinction between “glory” and “grandeur”.

The last stanza is the amazing one. We don’t expect to see Psyche at this point but there she is, in a silhouette as clear-cut as her “agate lamp”. If she is the self, or soul, perhaps “the regions which/ Are Holy-Land” denote the Unconscious. The poem ends on its only dimeter line, a curtailment suggesting perfect sufficiency. This is the limit past which poets – and readers – travel only in silence. Unusually, for Poe, “To Helen” leaves a lot unsaid. But, personally, I’d rather have this one exquisite lyric than any number of his narratives.

To Helen

Helen, thy beauty is to me
       Like those Nicéan barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
       The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
       To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
       Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
       To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome.

Lo! In yon brilliant window-niche
       How statue-like I see thee stand,
       The agate lamp within thy hand!
Ah, Psyche, from the regions which
       Are Holy-Land!


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Poem of the week

Donal Og by Lady Augusta Gregory

The translation from the Gaelic leaves much of the original’s grammatical structure in place, giving her English remarkable energy

Lady Augusta Gregory

Lady Augusta Gregory in 1911

Rarely does a translation so stunningly refresh the language it enters as this week’s poem, “Donal Og” (“Young Donal”) by Lady Augusta Gregory. It owes its power to a variety of attributes. One is its lyric economy. The only version I could find of the original 8th century Irish ballad has 14 stanzas, whereas Gregory manages with a mere nine. Then there’s the strong but non-metrical rhythm, borne on incantatory psalm-like repetitions. Most importantly of all, the Hiberno-English grammatical structures have been allowed to remain intact.

Lady Gregory learned Irish as an adult. The English she chooses to work in is not the standard variety one might perhaps expect from a member of the Protestant aristocracy, but it would have been the dialect she heard spoken in her area, the barony of Kiltartan, County Galway. Her contribution to the Irish literary revival was not only to translate the legends, folk-tales and ballads from their original Gaelic but to do so in a way that could almost make the Irish language available to the non-Irish-speaker.

With WB Yeats, Gregory co-founded the Abbey Theatre, and wrote numerous plays for it. Here, her use of the Kiltartan idiom can seem overdone, nudging towards parody. But in the poetry, and in this poem in particular, it acts as intensification. The traditional lament of the abandoned girl raises generic expectations. Sometimes, it’s the musical setting that invigorates the form. Gregory’s ballad has such a distinct verbal melody it already seems to be set to music.

The grammatical strangeness touches us at almost every turn. The mixture of tenses in the opening line is just one example. “It is” (present tense) combines with “late last night the dog was speaking of you” (past tense) to create a kind of double vision. What must be a memory is pulled right into the present moment. And that heightening of perception mimics the effects of love, there in the front of the reader’s mind.

The translation by PL Henry, included in his collection of poems by Irish women, Danta Bán, simply has “The dog cried out to you late last night”. The simple past-tense may be better English, but it’s less memorable, thus challenging the usual wisdom that a translated poem should sound thoroughly naturalised. Another point in Gregory’s favour is that the dog, perhaps howling, is speaking about, rather than to, the absent lover. So begins the building sense of a world whose every element is the embodiment of loss.

The lament is continuously rich in narrative detail, so the reader shares not only the speaker’s emotion but her immersion in scenes of everyday rural life: the lambing season, the churchgoing. The contrast of erotic and sacred can seem exquisitely artful (“And myself on my knees reading the Passion/ and my two eyes giving love to you for ever”) but these details are also entirely realistic. The lover’s increasingly grandiose promises stand out all the more as stark fabrication against such a background.

The emotion reaches an almost unbearable pitch in the last two stanzas. The triad of similes conveying the darkness cast over the speaker’s life seems to be Gregory’s invention: it’s not present in Henry’s translation. If so, it’s a brilliant touch – literary, perhaps, but in keeping with the down-to-earth imagery elsewhere, and leading to the notion of eternal darkness, the loss of God (by suicide?) suggested in the last line.

Donal Og
It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.

You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.

You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.

You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.

When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.

It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday
and myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.

My mother has said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.

My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you put that darkness over my life.

You have taken the east from me, you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!


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Poem of the week

Sappho and Phaon by Mary Robinson

One of the first of the Romantics, and admired by Coleridge, she deserves to be more widely known

Sappho holding a stylus

Detail from Pompeiian fresco painting of Sappho holding a stylus.

One of the first Romantic poets, a position she shares with William Blake, Mary Robinson (1757-1800) is probably more familiar to us today from her portraits than her poetry, although before she died she had secured a reputation as “the English Sappho”. This may be an exaggeration (women poets have been almost as cursed by excessive praise as by excessive neglect) but she certainly deserves to be more widely known.

Her life was always one of fluctuation between luxury and poverty, male protection and abandonment – the two, of course, not unrelated. She was only 14 when she became a teacher at the girls’ school her mother ran. When the school was closed down by her absconding father on one of his return visits, she was married off to a fortune-seeking conman, Thomas Robinson. At 21, playing Perdita in David Garrick’s arrangement of A Winter’s Tale, she caught the eye of the young Prince of Wales (the future George IV). After a year, the prince lost interest in his mistress. In the latter years of her short life, her health failing, she wrote prolifically: poems, novels, polemic and memoir. Coleridge thought highly of her poems; she wrote admiringly of his. One of her longer-term liaisons was with Colonel Banastre Tarleton, a hero of the American revolutionary war, and it’s thought that he provided the model for Phaon in her 44-sonnet sequence, Sappho and Phaon. Three extracts from the sequence form today’s Poem of the week.

Sappho and Phaon is generally thought to be her major work. Sourced from Ovid’s Heroides, the tale of Sappho’s love for an unfaithful boatman is apocryphal. But it’s a useful vehicle for Robinson, enabling her to make her case for the right of women to live by the dictates of sexual passion. If this seems akin to the liberation-by-lap-dancing widely advocated today, Robinson’s political seriousness is not in doubt. Though her lovesick Sappho rails at the futility of “reason” and “philosophy”, elsewhere, Robinson argues eloquently for women’s rationality and right to education. She was an ardent admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft, and her Letter to the Women of England against Mental Subordination still makes powerful reading.

She describes the Petrarchan form she uses as “the legitimate sonnet”. Despite the greater difficulty of the Petrarchan rhyme-scheme, the more open pattern of the sestet suits her narrative purpose. She is revising Ovid and Pope, as well as reinstating Petrarch. They “have celebrated the passion of Sappho for Phaon; but their portraits, however beautifully finished, are replete with shades, tending rather to depreciate than adorn the Grecian Poetess.”

The three sonnets here demonstrate Robinson’s originality. In XIII, “She Endeavours to Fascinate Him”, Sappho’s attitude and attire are those of a Regency beauty dressed for subtle suggestiveness (contrast Ovid, who, in the Heroides letter, has Sappho wearing a rough shift). XX, “To Phaon”, is interesting in its imagery, particularly that of the snowdrop entwined with the thistle. Robinson, Coleridge and Wordsworth all wrote poems about the snowdrop, and the presence of the modest flower makes for an authentic touch of local, English Romantic, colour. XXX, “Bids Farewell to Lesbos”, has Sappho crossing the sea to Sicily, to leap from the high rock, Leucadia, and either cure her love, or drown. The sonnet has a gentle, graceful but forward-thrusting rhythm that suggests the movement of her boat. I’ve never seen the elision “shad’wing” used before, and find it strangely expressive, a word that breaks like a wave, and, thus divided, evokes a dark-winged bird. The reference to the boat’s gaudy trappings perhaps recalls Robinson in her youthful triumph, riding in the grand carriages she loved, towards her uncertain, but certainly heroic, future.

XIII. She Endeavours to Fascinate Him
Bring, bring to deck my brow, ye Sylvan girls, 
A roseate wreath; nor for my waving hair 
The costly band of studded gems prepare, 
Of sparkling crysolite or orient pearls: 
Love, o’er my head his canopy unfurls, 
His purple pinions fan the whisp’ring air; 
Mocking the golden sandal, rich and rare,  
Beneath my feet the fragrant woodbine curls. 
Bring the thin robe, to fold about my breast, 
White as the downy swan; while round my waist 
Let leaves of glossy myrtle bind the vest, 
Not idly gay, but elegantly chaste! 
Love scorns the nymph in wanton trappings drest;  
And charms the most concealed, are doubly grac’d.

XX. To Phaon
Oh! I could toil for thee o’er burning plains; 
Could smile at poverty’s disastrous blow; 
With thee, could wander ‘midst a world of snow, 
Where one long night o’er frozen Scythia reigns. 
Sever’d from thee, my sick’ning soul disdains 
The thrilling thought, the blissful dream to know, 
And can’st thou give my days to endless woe, 
Requiting sweetest bliss with cureless pains? 
Away, false fear! nor think capricious fate 
Would lodge a daemon in a form divine! 
Sooner the dove shall seek a tyger mate, 
Or the soft snow-drop round the thistle twine; 
Yet, yet, I dread to hope, nor dare to hate, 
Too proud to sue! too tender to resign!

XXX. Bids farewell to Lesbos
O’er the tall cliff that bounds the billowy main 
Shad’wing the surge that sweeps the lonely strand, 
While the thin vapours break along the sand, 
Day’s harbinger unfolds the liquid plain. 
The rude Sea murmurs, mournful as the strain 
That love-lorn minstrels strike with trembling hand, 
While from their green beds rise the Syren band 
With tongues aёrial to repeat my pain! 
The vessel rocks beside the pebbly shore, 
The foamy curls its gaudy trappings lave; 
Oh! Bark propitious! bear me gently o’er, 
Breathe soft, ye winds; rise slow, O! swelling wave! 
Lesbos; these eyes shall meet thy sands no more: 
I fly, to seek my Lover, or my Grave!


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Poem of the week

The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins

This time, Hopkins’s astonishing control of his wildly experimental form is as awe-inspiring as its subject matter

A kestrel

A kestrel in flight.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote “The Windhover” in May, 1877. He had been a student at St Bueno’s Theological College for three years, and this was a productive period: the year of “God’s Grandeur”, “Spring” and “The Starlight Night”, among others. “The Windhover” is the most startlingly experimental of this gorgeous tranche of sonnets. Hopkins seems at ease, fully in control of the energies of his sprung rhythm and effortlessly folding the extra-metrical feet he called outrides (see line two, for example) into the conventional sonnet form. He recognised his own achievement, and, sending a revised copy to his friend Robert Bridges, declared that this was the best poem he’d ever written.

Much discussed and interpreted, “The Windhover” plainly begins with, and takes its rhythmic expansiveness from, a vividly observed kestrel. That the bird is also a symbol of Christ, the poem’s dedicatee, is equally certain. Perhaps too, its ecstatic flight unconsciously represents for Hopkins his own creative energy. When he exclaims “How he rung upon the rein…” his image might extend to the restraints and liberations of composition. The phrase means to lead a horse in a circle on the end of a long rein held by its trainer, and it certainly makes a neat poetic metaphor.

What a marvellous sentence Hopkins sets soaring across the first seven lines of the octet: I particularly like those cliff-hanger adjectives summoned “in the riding/ Of the rolling level underneath him steady air”. The diction throughout is rich and strange: “wimpling” (rippling and pleating), “sillion” (a strip of land between two furrows), “the hurl”, “the achieve”. There are resonant ambiguities: “buckle” for example could be imperative or indicative, and it could mean any of three things: to prepare for action (an archaic meaning), to fasten together, or to bend, crumple and nearly break (“buckled like a bicycle wheel” as William Empson remarked when analysing the poem in Seven Types of Ambiguity).

The metaphysics may be complex but the imagery of riding and skating are plain enough. The wheeling skate brilliantly inscapes the bird’s flight-path. It’s important to our sensation of sheer, untrammelled energy that we see only the heel of the skate, and not the skater. Empson wrote that he supposed Hopkins would have been angered by the bicycle-wheel comparison, but I am not at all sure he would have been: the poem welcomes ordinary physical activity, and a cyclist has his heroic energies and painful accidents like any other athlete.

Christ’s Passion is central to the poem, the core from which everything else spirals and to which everything returns. The plunge of the windhover onto its prey suggests not simply the Fall of man and nature, but the descent of a redemptive Christ into the abyss of human misery and cruelty. References to equestrian and military valour (the dauphin, the chevalier) evoke the Soldier Christ, a figure to be found in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola which Hopkins devotedly practised. The swoop of this hawk-like dove is essentially spiritual, of course. But the poem doesn’t forget or devalue the “sheer plod” of the farm-labourer – another alter ego, I suspect.

It’s remarkable how the sestet slows down without losing energy. Instead of flight there is fire: is this a reference to Christ’s post-mortem descent into Hell? The adoring “O my Chevalier” softens to a Herbert-like, tender “Ah my dear”. And now the great impressionist painter, having so far resisted any colour beyond that suggestive “dapple-dawn”, splashes out liberally with the “blue-bleak” embers and the “gold-vermilion” produced by their “gall” and “gash” (both words, of course, associated with the Crucifixion). Again, there is terra firma as well as metaphysics. The earth is broken by the plough in order to flare gloriously again, and the warm colours suggest crops as well as Christ’s redemptive blood. Beyond that, we glimpse some other-worldly shining, a richness not of earth alone. As always in Hopkins’s theology, Grace in the religious sense is not to be divorced from athletic, natural, often homoerotic, grace. In fact, it is fuelled by it.

The Windhover
To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
      dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
      Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
      As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
      Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing. 

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
      Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier! 

      No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
      Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.


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Poem of the week

My Sweetest Lesbia by Thomas Campion

A poem inspired by Catullus this week, but Thomas Campion’s version of Carmen V, My Sweetest Lesbia, is far more than a translation

The Lute Player by Caravaggio

The lute on which passion plays … detail from The Lute Player by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
Thomas Campion belongs to that fascinating tradition of medically-trained poets, the analysis of which deserves a book rather than a blog. He was born in London in 1567, left Cambridge without a degree, briefly studied law, but ultimately graduated from the University of Caen with an MD. After practising medicine in London he later returned to the continent as a gentleman-soldier. He is believed to have died of the plague in London in 1620.

The Romance languages he heard and read must surely have contributed to the training of his poetic “ear”. He was not simply a melodist but an experimenter; part of the poetic movement which was then seeking to adapt quantitative measure to the English line. All the same, he is rightly considered to be the most flawless lyricist of the Elizabethan poets. No lutenist or madrigal choir is needed: his “airs” sing from the page. He was himself a composer and he collaborated with other composers. In his Preface to the Reader from P Rossiter’s 1601 Book of Ayres, he declared “What epigrams are in poetry, the same are airs in music, then in their chief perfection when they were short.” Within the relative brevity, and alongside the mellifluous cadence, Campion does more than make music: he shows us nuanced, often painful, always convincing human emotions. His poetry is the lute on which “passion” plays. As he says in “Corinna”, “For when of pleasure she does sing, / My thoughts enjoy a sudden spring; / But if she doth of sorrow speak, / Even from my heart the strings do break.”

This week’s poem, “My Sweetest Lesbia”, is sometimes described as a translation. Its inspiration is the Latin poet Catullus’s poem, Carmen V, which begins “Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus”. Campion opens, more or less, with Catullus’s first six lines. But his goal is to turn the poem into a song – a strophic song with a refrain. He soon departs from the Latin. Catullus’s erotic crescendo (“Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred / then another thousand, then a second hundred … “) completely disappears. Instead, Campion takes from the Latin poem the antithetical ideas of brief light and never-ending night, and weaves them into a refrain, delicately varied at each appearance.

Delicacy is the key to this poem. Campion’s lines are not typically uniform, and the beauty of his rhythm often lies in the variation of line-length. However, within this poem’s uniform lines, his syntax creates similarly graceful, if lighter, pauses. The iambic pentameter treads on tiptoe. Delicacy for Campion is not wafty poetic fragility, but a habit of mind – shown in the wit and tact which move him delightfully to turn Catullus’s “senum” (“old men”) into “the sager sort”. But admittedly the poem’s tone is on the sombre side: if Carmen V was a Song of Innocence, this is a Song of Experience.

I don’t suppose “My Sweetest Lesbia” has even been included in an anti-war anthology, but it embodies a pacifist statement: it pits the hedonist’s sensible and simple argument against “fools” who “waste their little light / And seek with pain the ever-during night”. Campion, we remember, knew battlefields first-hand, and, as a doctor, he may well have closed the eyes of the dead.

The conclusion is hardly straightforward. Is the speaker asking Lesbia to close his eyes and then kiss him? Is it her memory of him that will “crown” his love? The “little light” seems full of possible metaphor, too. That Arcadian image of the celebrating lovers and their “sweet pastimes” at the tomb-side seems to take a graceful turn from artifice into generous humanity. The speaker is giving life and love permission to continue without him – and possibly to continue for Lesbia.

It is Campion’s wonderful art to be seriously playful. Catullus is playful, too, but more intense; the Elizabethan keeps lusty defiance in check. “My Sweetest Lesbia” is only partly a carpe diem poem. It moves us because it celebrates love without begging or bragging, and because of the pathos of its minor key; its unconsoled, recurring awareness of that “ever-during night”.

My Sweetest Lesbia

My sweetest Lesbia, let us live and love,
And, though the sager sort our deeds reprove,
Let us not weigh them: heaven’s great lamps do dive
Into their west, and straight again revive,
But, soon as once set is our little light,
Then must we sleep one ever-during night.

If all would lead their lives in love like me,
Then bloody swords and armour should not be,
No drum nor trumpet peaceful sleeps should move,
Unless alarm came from the camp of love:
But fools do live, and waste their little light,
And seek with pain their ever-during night.

When timely death my life and fortune ends,
Let not my hearse be vexed with mourning friends,
But let all lovers, rich in triumph come,
And with sweet pastimes grace my happy tomb;
And, Lesbia, close up thou my little light,
And crown with love my ever-during night.


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See also:

Catullus, Carmen V

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus inuidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

Poem of the week

Sir Patrick Spens

This time, a potent ancient ballad with a strange modernity

The Isle of Islay

The Isle of Islay.

It’s time for the redoubtable Anon to take the stage again, this time as a balladeer. The ballad is an evergreen form, originally sung, and, if the name is to be believed, accompanied by dancing. It twines its indestructible way through written literature and still attracts contemporary poets and musicians. There are dozens of magnificent old ballads that continue to be set and sung, and for whose survival we owe much to the first great collectors like Allan Ramsay, Thomas Percy and FW Child.

A ballad inevitably has many different versions, and this week’s poem, “Sir Patrick Spens”, is no exception. The variant I’m posting here is the one most often anthologised, and no wonder. It’s an excellent distillation, combining minimal exposition with swift, exact reportage. However, the other versions are often lively and well worth comparing. In some of these you’ll find mermaids, rows about “expenses” and even bolts of silk being used to stuff the holes in the side of Sir Patrick’s unfortunate ship. The more expansive variants are also useful for filling in some noticeable narrative gaps, such as the purpose and destination of Sir Patrick’s voyage, left unexplained in the shorter version.

First recorded in the 18th century, the ballad is said to describe an incident, or combination of incidents, dating from the 13th. Sir Patrick himself, probably an invention, emerges as a fallible, generous sort of character. We first meet him in close-up, reading the King’s “braid letter” in that wonderfully imagined fourth verse. His reaction is described by a typical ballad convention, the “first he/then he” narrative pattern, but here the device is powerfully suggestive. He laughs aloud at the ridiculousness of the king’s request, and the next minute weeps because he sees no choice but to obey. In one of the versions he denies that he’s any sort of seaman at all, heightening the possibility that he has been set up by an adversary. Nevertheless, like the biblical Abraham, he accepts unquestioningly his superior’s demand for sacrifice.

The narrator moves on swiftly from Sir Patrick’s solitary reading of the letter to his command that the crew prepare to sail, and then into hurried, urgent dialogue. Our version doesn’t tell us the identity of the second speaker. In some variants, he’s “a pretty boy” and in others, an old man. His words heighten the tension, bringing in meteorological evidence to justify the fears of the fatalistic captain. It’s also possible, with a punctuation by-pass, to read these passages as soliloquy, and imagine Sir Patrick talking partly to himself, and partly, in his head, to the King (“my master”).

After the ominous seventh stanza, you might expect a slow build-up to the shipwreck. Instead, we get another “first/next” compression, with two expressive long-shots: the pathetically fussy nobles “right laith” to spoil their expensive shoes as the vessel begins to ship water, and then a rapid cut to the image of the hats that “swim aboon” on the ocean’s surface, and are all that now remain of the travellers.

This tragedy is a collective one, and, unusually for the ballad, “Sir Patrick Spens” pays attention to the many bit-players – those hopelessly decorative nobles and the ladies waiting at home. Many little details illustrate material wealth – the cork-heeled shoes, the gold combs. Is there a hint that that these lords and ladies have got what they deserved? Perhaps, but, having displayed a certain irony, the narrator quickly raises the pitch to pathos and sorrow. There is an almost keening tone in the two stanzas beginning “O lang, lang …”

Ballads are human stories writ large. The past they inhabit is a strange and shadowy country, haunted by violence and death. They sing in ancient measures, and stir primitive emotions. This one seems also to possess a strange modernity. It may partly be due to the absence of the traditional refrain, but it also lies in the shorthand style, the brisk parade of revealing images, the telling shifts of viewpoint and angle. As for the plotline, it manages to combine inevitability with suspense, realism with parable. Kings, or politicians, should trust the experts: loyal servants at any level in the chain of command should dare to disobey unreasonable requests from above. Then there’s that moral about the limits of wealth. To be reminded that fine shoes and fancy hats are no insulation when seas are rough is always welcome. Especially to the down-at-heel troubadours like Anon.

Sir Patrick Spens 

The king sits in Dumferling town
    Drinking the bluid-red wine:
‘O whar will I get a guid sailor
    To sail this ship of mine?’ 
Up and spak an eldern knicht,
    Sat at the king’s richt knee:
‘Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
    That sails upon the sea.’ 
The king has written a braid letter
    And signed it wi’ his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,
    Was walking on the sand. 
The first line that Sir Patrick read
    A loud lauch lauched he;
The next line that Sir Patrick read,
    The tear blinded his ee. 
‘O wha is this has done this deed,
    This ill deed done to me,
To send me out this time o’the year,
    To sail upon the sea? 
‘Mak haste, mak haste, my mirry men all,
    Our guid ship sails the morn.’
‘O say na sae, my master dear,
    For I fear a deadly storm.’ 
‘Late, late yestre’en I saw the new moon
    Wi’the old moon in his arm,
And I fear, I fear, my dear master,
    That we will come to harm.’ 
O our Scots nobles were richt laith
    To weet their cork-heeled shoon,
But lang or a’ the play were played
    Their hats they swam aboon. 
O lang, lang may their ladies sit,
    Wi’their fans into their hand,
Or ere they see Sir Patrick Spens
    Come sailing to the land. 
O lang, lang may the ladies stand
    Wi’their gold kems in their hair,
Waiting for their ain dear lords,
    For they’ll never see them mair. 
Half o’er, half o’er to Aberdour
    It’s fifty fathoms deep,
And there lies guid Sir Patrick Spens
    Wi’the Scots lords at his feet. 


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Poem of the week

The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams

This time, an unforgettable image that is also a manifesto for modern poetry

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams at home.

This week’s poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams, was untitled when it first appeared as number xxi in his 1923 collection, Spring and All. Titled or untitled, it’s surely one of the most memorable poems ever written. But do we remember it in the way we usually remember poems? If you’re familiar with “The Red Wheelbarrow”, shut your eyes now and see what happens when you try to recall it. The poem probably appears in front of you, more or less intact. It’s the visual memory that it appeals to: once seen, its overall shape and inner patterns, as well as its key images, seem printed on the brain.

The visual arts had a profound effect on Williams’s poetic development, beginning with the new work he encountered in the epochal 1913 Armory Show. The moving spirit behind this exhibition was the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. His avant-garde Gallery 291 became another hub of creative activity for the new American artists, and Williams was a regular visitor.

As his Autobiography reveals, Williams was interested in Cubism, Futurism, photographic art, and the “readymades” of Marcel Duchamp. He talks particularly about the significance of Paul Cézanne and his successors, approving their concept of “sheer paint: a picture a matter of pigments upon a piece of cloth stretched on a frame.”

The four stanzas here are rather like that “piece of cloth, stretched on a frame”. The structural tension gives every word its space and focus. The dominant nouns are like objects painted vividly onto a neutral ground. Williams emphasises the colours rather than the shapes – the shape, after all, appears in our minds as soon as we see a word like “wheelbarrow” or “chickens”.

“The key, the master-key to the age,” Williams said of the modern movement in literature, “was that jump from the feeling to the word itself: that which had been got down, the thing to be judged and valued accordingly.” But we shouldn’t forget that poems are made of line-breaks as well as words, and “so much depends”, in this poem, on the splitting of the two compound words, “wheelbarrow” and “rainwater”. These dissections slow us down, and help the mind’s eye to register more: the individual wheels as well as the body of the barrow, the water that is more than raindrops.

Important for their spatial emphases are the prepositions. “Upon” and “beside” are two little words that the poem magnifies hugely. Their implications float beyond the phrases that contain them. The abstract “so much” depends upon the objects, but the rainwater also depends physically upon the barrow, and the glazing effect depends upon the rainwater. The idea of the barrow being “beside” the chickens is complex: the barrow is stationary (there is no sign of anyone pushing it) while the chickens are likely to be moving about. If they are not specially posed, their aesthetic effect is sheer lucky chance. The effect is snatched after all from the flux of existence.

Had Williams simply set down his imagery as a description, the poem would still have its visual impact, but we would be in an entirely contained pictorial world. But the poem’s opening assertion, “so much depends/upon…”, shows that, perhaps paradoxically, the speaker is not simply content with the thing itself.

A naive reading could take it as a comment about the great usefulness of wheelbarrows on small-holdings where chickens are kept. Unharmed by the rain which has simply left a sheen on the painted surface, the barrow will shortly be filled with more useful matter. It would be amusing to think that the doctor-poet, so pragmatic and modest in his daily life, meant nothing more than that. But no: the poem has an obviously aesthetic agenda. Its author is a radical innovator, and he is setting out his poetry-barrow, not describing his wheelbarrow. This is his manifesto, surely – a poem quietly declaring how modern poetry works.

“No ideas but in things,” as he famously said. And yet, in this poem, so much depends on how we interpret the statement “so much depends”.

“The Red Wheelbarrow” evades what it seems to invite: a simple, visual interpretation. It seems to be absolutely clear, but, at the same time, it’s a riddle. Whatever you may decide the poem means intellectually, as an art-object it holds on to its own indelible shape and colour. Its images are irrefutable, and no amount of verbal rain will ever wash them from the memory they have entered – nor dull the shiny, spring-like, fresh-paint patina of happiness that this particular wheelbarrow seems to carry.

The Red Wheelbarrow 

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white


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Poem of the week

Last Meeting by Gwen Harwood

This time, a poem from a 20th century writer with a claim to be one of the great female Romantics

Walking on the beach during a sandstorm

Walking on the beach

Gwen Harwood was an astonishingly versatile poet, an ingenious formalist and a-formalist, variously witty, philosophical, feminist, romantic and ironic. She wrote under a variety of pseudonyms and introduced invented characters, named and unnamed, into many poems. She was equally clever at arranging incidents apparently drawn from childhood into gripping, poetic short stories. Trained as a musician, she became a prolific librettist.

Harwood was born Gwendolyn Foster in 1920. She was educated in Brisbane, and moved to Tasmania with her husband, FW Harwood, when he took up an academic post in Hobart in 1945. There were four children, and Harwood did not publish a collection until the age of 43. Poems such as “Burning Sappho” expose the tensions of being a poet and a mother. Invariably, the abrasive edge between “life” and “art”, ideal and actual, are fruitful for Harwood. The conflict produces one of her funniest pieces, “Poet and Peasant”, with its hilarious counterpoint between passionate nature-poet and Average Man (“You’ve had it, mate. Lay off the birds.”) The ventriloquism in this week’s poem, “Last Meeting”, is a very different matter. Here, the second speaker is much closer to the poet’s voice, an alter ego that is hardly “alter” at all.

It was hard to choose from poems by so accomplished and wide-ranging a poet, but “Last Meeting” appeals to me because of its emotional power. Arousing emotion is a somewhat unfashionable poetic skill, but there’s no good reason otherwise for writers to bother with the drama-heightening apparatus of lines, stanzas, metaphors. In the way Harwood pushes romanticism and realism against each other, she reminds me of the great Irish novelist, Elizabeth Bowen. Neither writer is deluded by intensity of feeling: they expose their lovers to realism’s fullest rebuttal, yet the significance of intense experience to the individuals concerned is nearly always validated, and never trivialised.

Harwood writes a packed economical quatrain, while expanding her unit of sound across the stanza breaks, as if pressing a piano’s sostenuto pedal. The full rhymes alternate with some assonantal vowel rhymes (Wittgenstein/lips and thighs is a particular treat) and sometimes pairings that are not alike but simply sound good together, or vaguely reflect each other in meaning, like “dusk” and “melt” in stanza one.

The tousled, stormy, light-streaked imagery is an appropriate backdrop to the lovers’ last walk. But this conventional romantic device of sympathetic nature is somewhat undercut by the acknowledgement that the desolate winter grass was once “a silver-bearded congregation” that “whispered about our foolish love”. Projection can make any season or natural phenomenon appear complicit.

Foolishness, folly – the judgment is taken up strongly by the second voice, speaking “from the dry eminence of thought” for six lines, beginning in stanza five. It’s strange, perhaps problematic, that this voice shares the poem’s own idiom, enriching it not with argument but with harsher impact. In producing the metaphor of the reef, built of “time’s horny skeletons” which wreck the love-affair, voice two merges with the poetic voice. After that, it resorts again to moralising: “Our hearts drown in their cardinal guilt”. But, remember, the tone is one of “astringent melancholy” – the thinker on his eminence is not in an entirely different emotional place.

Wittgenstein is not rebuffed (even if the witty half-rhyme seems to tease linguistic philosophy a little). But in the last stanza any voices that, by moral argument or artistic arrangement, could bring order, or at least justice, out of the desolation are silenced by the image-that-is-not: “the piercing absence of a face”.

We have seen so much of the landscape as the poem unfolded: at this moment, we see nothing but an absence. It can’t be described, but it is the poem’s most powerful vision.

Recently, the Romantic poets blogs drew comments about the absence of women writers from the Guardian’s series, and there’s no doubt that poets such as Mary Robinson and Caroline Norton deserve more visibility. But it would be hard to argue the existence of Romantic female poets of the stature of Coleridge or Byron. And this suggests to me a possibility that, for historical reasons, male and female poets occupy different time-lines, and that the equivalent of a Romantic movement did not get fully started for women poets until they had enjoyed a longer period of intellectual tradition-building. And, perhaps, when it began to bear fruit in the mid 20th-century, this movement flourished primarily in Australia, New Zealand and the USA?

However we label her, romantic with a small or upper-case “R”, Gwen Harwood is a virtuoso poet who stirs and sometimes stuns the heart, and always interests the mind. 
“Last Meeting” appears in Mappings of the Plane: New Selected Poems by Gwen Harwood, edited by Gregory Kratzmann and Chris Wallace-Crabbe, and published by Fyfield Books at Carcanet.

Last Meeting

Shadows grazing eastward melt
from their vast sun-driven flocks
into consubstantial dusk.
A snow wind flosses the bleak rocks,

strips from the gums their rags of bark,
and spins the coil of winter tight
round our last meeting as we walk
the littoral zone of day and night,

light’s turncoat margin: rocks and trees
dissolve in nightfall-eddying waters;
tumbling whorls of cloud disclose
the cold eyes of the sea-god’s daughters.

We tread the wrack of grass that once
a silver-bearded congregation
whispered about our foolish love.
Your voice in calm annunciation

from the dry eminence of thought
rings with astringent melancholy:
‘Could hope recall, or wish prolong
the vanished violence of folly?

Minute by minute summer died;
time’s horny skeletons have built
this reef on which our love lies wrecked.
Our hearts drown in their cardinal guilt.’ 
The world, said Ludwig Wittgenstein,
is everything that is the case.
– The warmth of human lips and thighs;
the lifeless cold of outer space;

this windy darkness; Scorpio
above, a watercourse of light;
the piercing absence of one face
withdrawn for ever from my sight. 

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From the Land of Yeats, Verse of More Recent Vintage

The one Irish poet people used to know was Yeats. More recently it has been Seamus Heaney. And yet “the standing army of Irish poets never falls below 20,000,” proclaimed Patrick Kavanagh, who was one of them. “An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry,” running to almost a thousand pages, comes from a country with a population roughly equal to that of Tennessee. The book includes upwards of 50 poets— and there’s not a dull page in it. Editor Wes Davis’s selection is judicious, while his introduction and notes are as informative as they are brief.

No one would deny the Irish gift for language, whether writing or speaking in English or in Irish (called Hiberno-English by the scholars), a variant of the Gaelic that the occupying British tried for centuries to eradicate. Yet ceist na teanga, or “the language issue”—as the poet Paul Muldoon renders the phrase in a translation of the Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnail—continues to be a hot topic in Ireland. Irish is compulsory in the schools, where it is greeted less than enthusiastically by most students.


Clearly the long decline of Irish in ordinary life shows no sign of abating—much to the alarm of many Irish poets, even though most of them don’t use the language in their own work. Perhaps inevitably, then, the tension between Irish and English words is also at play in this anthology. Pearse Hutchinson, for instance, who has worked in both Irish and English, writes in the poem “Achnasheen” of “The Gaelic names beating their wings madly / behind the mad cage of English.” His best-known poem, “The Frost Is All Over,” begins: “To kill a language is to kill a people.”

One of the book’s many virtues is that it brings attention to a poet such as Michael Hartnett (1941-99), little known outside Ireland but an iconic poet at home. His beautiful “Death of an Irishwoman” laments the decline of the old way of life, ending with the litany: “She was a summer dance at the crossroads. / She was a card game where a nose was broken. / She was a song that nobody sings. / She was a house ransacked by soldiers. / She was a language seldom spoken. / She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.” Elsewhere, in “A Farewell to English,” he writes that the last of the Irish bards “walked in rags / from town to town / finding English a necessary sin / the perfect language to sell pigs in.”

Granted that this characterization reflects the point of view of the old Irish-speaking bards, is there not an element of post-colonial whingeing in referring to the language of Shakespeare, Milton and Marvell, Pope and Keats, not to mention James Joyce and Seamus Heaney, as “the perfect language to sell pigs in”?

The threat of extinction to a language is as saddening as the endangerment of a natural species; but in some ways the luckiest thing that ever happened to Ireland was the introduction of the English language. Hartnett mocks Yeats’s “celebrated Anglo-Irish stew,” but that admixture constitutes the genius of the country’s literature—a position stoutly supported by Anglo-Irish scholar Declan Kiberd in “Inventing Ireland” (1996), which applauds the rich national literary identity forged from Gael, Viking, Norman, Hugenot French and Briton.

But “An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry” is remarkably wide-ranging— the push-pull of the Irish- and English-language tension is never far offstage, but plenty of the poems included here are concerned with other matters. There’s domestic unhappiness in Paul Durcan’s “The Haulier’s Wife Meets Jesus on the Road Near Moone”; a harrowing death in Matthew Sweeney’s “Where Fishermen Can’t Swim”; and, perhaps inevitably for a book of Irish poetry, there’s “The History of Rain,” by Conor O’Callaghan. “In the photograph of 1940, my granduncle and his mother. / Late that tall summer they fold their sleeves and step / into the front yard to watch a swarm of veined clouds pass. / As if the full world might still end here, / away from the horizon of more populated storms.”

One of the handful of poets in the anthology who write in Irish demonstrates that the old language is flexible enough to address contemporary realities. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is not above a spot of language-mixing that linguists call “creolizing.” Her winningly enigmatic “As for the Quince” begins (as translated by Paul Muldoon): “There came this bright young thing / with a Black & Decker / and cut down my quince tree. / I stood with my mouth hanging open.” If you’re wondering what the Irish for Black & Decker is, it’s “Black & Decker.”

My favorite poem out of the hundreds here? Mr. Muldoon’s 10-page “Incantata,” which manages to be both high-spirited and heart-rending as the poet recalls a friendship cut short by cancer. Imagine a 21st-century Shelley writing “Adonais,” his impassioned elegy for Keats, and finding room, as Mr. Muldoon does, for “The Book of Kells” and “Waiting for Godot,” for Seurat and Dire Straits, for Vivaldi and Frankie Valli. The poem is vibrant with a Joycean alloy of the ludic and the grave.

Mr. Tillinghast is an American poet who lives in rural Ireland.


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‘Hard to Understand, but Easy to Love’

Robert Frost’s ‘Directive’ sounds ornery and ironic, heartbroken and lyrical, all at once

Robert Frost’s tour de force “Directive” has disgruntled and captivated readers for more than half a century. Like many of his best poems, it describes a walk in an unnamed wood and, in this case, to an ancient brook, which he calls our destination and destiny. The poem takes readers into the past—the personal past of childhood, as well as our cultural past—and evokes a “time made simple by the loss / Of detail.” Typical of Frost’s colloquial style, “Directive” sounds ornery and ironic, heartbroken and lyrical, all at once.

Other poems by Frost are perhaps better known—”Fire and Ice,” “The Road Not Taken,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Mending Wall,” and a half-dozen others. “Directive,” first published in 1946, when Frost was in his 70s, must rank with these. The poet Randall Jarrell praised it as “one of the strangest and most characteristic, most dismaying and most gratifying, poems any poet has ever written.”

The story the poem tells is deceptively simple: We are led on a walk though the woods by a mischievous guide past the site of a former town. At a brook, beside a “house that is no more a house,” the guide produces a broken goblet and encourages us to “drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” The poem begins with one of Frost’s most striking lines: “Back out of all this now too much for us.” A master musician, Frost modulates the pulse of the verse to produce a signature rhythm all his own.

What it was that had become “too much” for Frost, whether a personal grief or the “universal crisis” engendered by the war years, is hard to say. Frost touched on his struggles with a confused present a few years earlier in “Carpe Diem”: “The present / Is too much for the senses, / Too crowding, too confusing— / Too present to imagine.” Stemming from a similar frustration, “Directive” addresses a “you,” but also, ruminatively, the poet himself.

Whatever the cause of Frost’s apprehension, his withdrawal from the world is total. His “directive” to readers (for he is also our guide, who “only has at heart [our] getting lost”) takes us on an interior journey into a remote countryside, where civilization has been effaced. Only when we are completely lost may we come to our true selves: “And if you’re lost enough to find yourself / By now, pull in your ladder road behind you / And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.” The poem shares not only Thoreau’s passion for nature but also his occasional wariness. Frost recommends we sing a “cheering song” to ward off the fear “of being watched from forty cellar holes, / As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.” Then unease and nostalgia grow as we find a “house that is no more a house” but only an indentation in the landscape, “Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.”



Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping
And there’s a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods’ excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the
Weep for what little things could make
them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in
Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says
they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s
Here are your waters and your watering
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Robert Frost

“Directive,” from the book, THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST edited by Edward Connery Lathem.


Deep in the woods, we discover broken crockery beneath a pine tree, the long-ago site of a children’s playhouse: “Weep for what little things could make them glad.” Beside the playhouse was the “house in earnest,” which has become a “belilaced cellar hole,” and, behind it, a brook “Too lofty and original to rage.” Here is the origin toward which Frost has been leading us. What he shows us next is both a spiritual vision of considerable power and the crushing realization that clarity and wholeness may remain unavailable to us in this lifetime.

Among the branches of an old cedar, Frost has kept hidden “A broken drinking goblet like the Grail / Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it / So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.” The gospel reference to those who “see” but do not “perceive,” who “hear” but do not “understand,” may be Frost’s wry fillip to those readers whom he felt did not understand or (worse) misunderstood his work. In a crushing bit of irony, he admits that he has stolen the goblet from the children’s playhouse—it is a travesty of the Grail, a mere toy. Or is he suggesting that it is only in the innocence of childhood that wholeness is possible?

The final lines ring out slowly, like an incantation, as the goblet is raised: “Here are your waters and your watering place. / Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” This sacramental dream of clarity was, for Frost, deeply rooted in the art of poetry itself. His prescriptions for poetry in “The Figure a Poem Makes” (1939) come very close to describing “Directive” itself. A poem, he writes, “begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification of life, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.”

The poem was for Frost a late flowering—the most ambitious and resonant poem in the largely lackluster collection “Steeple Bush”—and decidedly not to everyone’s taste. The noted Frost scholar Richard Poirier called the poem “a prime example of misplaced adulation.” Poirier went on to characterize “Directive” as “anxious to please those who want their elevation in an easy chair.” He found the poem’s argument tricky not because of the complexity of its statement, “but because it is not sure of what it does want to say, or do.”

Jarrell, perhaps Frost’s greatest critic, had no such qualms. “Is the poem consoling or heart-breaking?” he asked. “Very much of both; and its humor and acceptance and humanity, its familiarity and elevation, give it a composed matter-of-fact magnificence.” Frost was not always interested in complete transparency: He understood that there would be those he could not reach. Instead, he produced an emotional artifact that is both immediately appealing and elusive, a poem that, in Jarrell’s words, “is hard to understand, but easy to love.”

Robert Frost has been many things to many people. The winner of four Pulitzer Prizes, he was that rarest of birds: a poet of the highest achievement who was also widely popular. He has always been a poet we feel we know—the folksy New Englander, the genial bard, the public man—as well as a poet of troubling mysteries, whose poems the critic Lionel Trilling famously found “terrifying.” Like so many of Frost’s finest poems, “Directive” feels familiar, almost elemental, essential. Yet its darker resonances, rooted very near the source of our hopes and our beliefs, continue to beckon.

Mr. Yezzi’s most recent book of poems is “Azores.” He is executiv director of The New Criterion.


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Ten of the best monsters in literature

Echidna Spawned in Greek mythology, this “Monster direfull dred, / Whom Gods doe hate, and heauens abhor to see” returns to vigorous life in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. She couples with “Cruell Typhaon” and their progeny is “the Blatant Beast”, poisonous embodiment of slander and detraction.

Cyclops The best monsters want to eat you. In The Odyssey, the Cyclops is a one-eyed giant with a taste for human flesh. Polyphemus, a monstrous son of Poseidon, is the scariest of all. He imprisons Odysseus and several of his men in his cave, killing and eating a couple of them each day. Odysseus manages to get him drunk and blind him with a red-hot stake.

Grendel Another man-eater, Grendel is the monster that Beowulf must kill. No one knows exactly what he looks like, but he dwells at the bottom of a lake, and at night carries off Hrothgar’s warriors (for food). One night, however, Grendel comes to the warriors’ hall for some victims and Beowulf rips his arm off, pursues the monster to his watery lair and then decapitates him.

Basilisk “Its methods of killing are most wondrous, for aside from its deadly and venomous fangs, the Basilisk has a murderous stare, and all who are fixed with the beam of its eye shall suffer instant death.” Many readers of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets may suppose that this is a new monster, but the basilisk has been around in legend since ancient days and is often mentioned in Shakespeare. When nasty Richard (III to be) tells Lady Anne she has nice eyes, she retorts, “Would they were basilisk’s, to strike thee dead!”

Balrog Down in the mines of Moria, things are pretty grim, but something worse than orcs is after the brave fellowship of the ring. It is a big, horrid Balrog, swathed in both darkness and fire, and carrying a whip. Close textual analysis of Lord of the Rings fails to reveal whether it has wings or not.

Kraken This giant sea monster has lain in wait for seafarers since the days of the Norse sagas. In Tennyson’s celebrated poem, it lies on the ocean floor, “Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep”. Naturally the submariners in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea also have to escape from this omnivorous creature.

Apollyon In the Valley of Humiliation, Bunyan’s Christian meets a “monster . . . hideous to behold”. Not only is Apollyon “clothed with scales like a fish”, he also has dragon’s wings, bear’s feet, “and his mouth was as the mouth of a lion”.

The Gruffalo Another hybrid monster: a terrible tusk, claws, and purple spikes down his back. It’s the poisonous wart at the end of his nose that makes you feel some sympathy for the top monster of recent children’s fiction, outwitted by a clever mouse in Julia Donaldson’s woodland tale.

Shoggoth HP Lovecraft was a great monster-monger, and this is one of his most glorious. “A terrible, indescribable thing”, it slithers along, “a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light”. It can change shape at will and likes to eat penguins.

It The eponymous monster of Stephen King’s novel is protean in form, often appearing as a human clown, though with fangs and claws, and eventually as a massive spider. It lives under a small American town, waking from hibernation every few decades to kill some children. It is killed at the end of the book, but it has laid eggs . . .


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Ten of the best unfinished literary works

Don Juan by Lord Byron

Byron composed new instalments of his great mock-epic poem whenever he was inspired or angry or at a loose end without his mistress. Young Juan, his sexually irresistible adventurer, travelled from Spain to a harem in Constantinople to the court of Catherine the Great and then to England, where he was left in mid-episode when the poet died.

Woyzeck by Georg Büchner

The title of Büchner’s tragedy, whose protagonist is brutalised in the army and driven by jealousy to murder his mistress, was supplied by later editors. Büchner left four different versions of the play, all incomplete.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Gaskell’s novel was being published in the Cornhill Magazine when its author died in 1865. The journalist Frederick Greenwood stepped in to provide a conclusion. Some intriguing sexual entanglements in an English provincial town have to be unravelled, and Molly Gibson must surely be rewarded with marriage to the squire’s deserving son, Roger.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

It may be a magnum opus of 24 tales plus prologues, but it was intended to be even larger. There are 27 pilgrims described in the General Prologue, and each is supposed to tell two tales on the way to Canterbury, and two on the way back. In the event Chaucer did not get a quarter of the way to his goal.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

If you’re going to leave a novel uncompleted, it is a good idea to announce it to be a “mystery”. Dickens’s final novel reached only the sixth of 12 instalments before its author died. Edwin Drood has disappeared, but how and why? We suppose that he has been murdered, and his guardian, the opium-taking John Jasper, looks a likely suspect . . .

Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

When Wollstonecraft died, days after giving birth to the daughter who would be Mary Shelley, she left this uncompleted novel. Its title sardonically echoes that of her own Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a pioneering work of feminist political theory. The heroine of Maria has been incarcerated in a lunatic asylum by her despotic husband. She writes an account of her cruel life, but does not get to complete her story.

“Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor ­Coleridge

Coleridge was the master of the tantalising fragment, perhaps because of his drug addiction but also because he was always setting off on grand projects. This poem was inspired by opium but unfinished, claimed the poet, because its composition was interrupted by a “person from Porlock”.

Sanditon by Jane Austen

It is delicious agony to Janeites to wonder about the final shape of the novel whose 11 chapters she had completed when she died in 1817. Set in the bright, absurd new seaside resort of Sanditon, it promised to be a deadly satire of Regency follies.

Bouvard and Pécuchet by Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert’s novel concerns two middle-aged Paris clerks who, when Bouvard inherits a small fortune, dedicate themselves to intellectual pursuits. They wander through almost every science and discipline, bungling all the way. Only half the novel was completed.

The Trial by Franz Kafka

We are not used to thinking of Kafka’s most famous novel as incomplete because he gave it one of the most justly famous final chapters in all fiction. “‘Wie ein Hund,’ sagte er . . .” But in fact the novel was a collection of unfinished manuscript sections whose destruction Kafka ordered at his death.


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Poem of the week

A Letter to a Brother of the Pen in Tribulation by Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn by Sir Peter Lely

Playwright, poet and novelist Aphra Behn was the first woman to make her living as a writer. Not much is known about her early life, but most commentators agree that she was born Aphra Johnson, some time around 1640, the illegitimate or foster daughter of Lady Willoughby, whose husband was the founder and governor of the South American colony, Surinam. Behn certainly lived for a time in Surinam; she draws on the experience in her novel, Oroonoko, a colourful, action-packed page-turner containing digressions that reveal a gifted travel diarist. On her return to England she was briefly married, probably to a Dutch merchant. She became a spy for Charles II in Belgium, and, insufficiently recompensed by the King, subsequently spent time in a debtors’ prison. These unusual experiences must have helped foster her independent outlook, providing an additional perspective from which to satirise English courtly behaviour.

Her verse shares the elegance and wit of the Restoration comedy-of-manners to which she was such a brilliant and prolific contributor. But poetry affords her an opportunity to explore sexual behaviour and gender politics in a more personal and combative way than the plays. Under cover of pastoral conventions, Behn writes observant, searching poems about her complex personal relationships with other male and female writers in her coterie, or “cabal”, and her satires on male sexual behaviour are astute, if at times a shade melancholy.

This week’s poem, appropriately set in the “holy time” of Lent, is one of the jauntier satires. “A Letter to a Brother of the Pen in Tribulation” ostensibly sympathises with its male addressee. “Poor Damon” is on a strict diet, but not for reasons of piety or vanity. He is suffering from the pox.

The real identity of “Damon” remains uncertain. Janet Todd suggests it may be the playwright Edward Ravenscroft. If Behn is not simply using comic exaggeration, he must have been unusually young-looking: “I durst have sworn thou hads’t thy pusillage” implies he appeared to be too young for sexual activity. Behn’s own footnote tells us she had been hoping he would write a prologue for one of her plays. We should clearly infer a professional rather than personal relationship.

The rake-hero was a favourite character in Restoration comedy, but in the poem he is the anti-hero. The unpleasant treatments for syphilis in the 17th century are described in mocking detail. “Tabernacler” refers to the regimen of the sweating-tub, a kind of fumigation. (Tabernaclers were originally those worshippers who used the temporary structures that replaced the churches burnt down in the Fire of London.)

Behn fast-forwards in the second stanza to “Blooming May”, and enjoys elaborating on the spring-time celebrations from which the unhappy “swain” must be excluded. The satirical tone from now on steadily sharpens. Damon, naturally, will blame a woman for his condition, and Behn scathingly hands him the weapon: “And ’tis but just thou shouldst in Rancor grow/ Against the sex that has confined thee so.” Pretending to take the man’s side, she declares she could “curse this Female” but there is no need to do so, since “She needs it not, that thus could handle you.” The woman in question is already cursed – and perhaps not only because she herself has the infection. Male inconstancy is one of Behn’s perennial themes. As she says elsewhere, “The roving youth in every shade/ Has left some sighing and abandoned Maid,/ For ’tis a fatal lesson he has learn’d,/ After fruition ne’re to be concern’d.”

The rhyming couplets nip along in a characteristically lively and unforced manner. Behn has honed her rage against misogyny to an elegant, almost airy point. Although we have only a sketchy sense of the poem’s context, there is plenty of vivid detail, and an unmistakable emotional charge. The inscription on Aphra Behn’s tombstone in Westminster Abbey reads, “Here lies a proof that Wit can never be/ Defence enough against Mortality.” Behn’s poetry suggests otherwise. “The Incomparable Astrea”, as she was sometimes called, stands as a landmark satirist at the beginning of the Augustan age – and her clear, knowing, distinctive voice rings out directly from that vantage-point to our own.

A Letter to a Brother of the Pen in Tribulation 

Poor Damon! Art thou caught? Is’t ev’n so?
Art thou become a Tabernacler too?
Where sure thou dost not mean to Preach or Pray,
Unless it be the clean contrary way:
This holy time I little thought thy sin
Deserved a Tub to do its penance in.
O how you’ll for the’Aegyptian Flesh-pots wish,
When you’r half-famished with your Lenten dish,
Your almonds, currans, biskits hard and dry,
Food that will Soul and Body mortifie:
Damn’d Penetential Drink, that will infuse
Dull Principles into thy Grateful Muse.
– Pox on’t that you must needs be fooling now
Just when the wits had greatest need of you.
Was Summer then so long a coming on,
That you must make an Artificial one?
Much good may’t do thee; but ’tis thought thy Brain
E’er long will wish for cooler days again.
For Honesty no more will I engage:
I durst have sworn thou’dst had thy pusillage.
Thy Looks the whole Cabal have cheated too;
But thou wilt say, most of the Wits do so.
Is this thy writing Plays? who thought thy Wit
An interlude of Whoring would admit?
To Poetry no more thou’lt be inclin’d,
Unless in Verse to damn all Woman-kind:
And ’tis but Just thou shouldst in Rancor grow
Against the sex that has confined thee so.
      All things in Nature now are Brisk and Gay
At the Approaches of the Blooming May:
The new-fletched Birds do in our Arbors sing
A thousand Airs to welcome in the Spring;
While every Swain is like a Bridegroom drest,
And ev’ry Nymph as going to a Feast:
The Meadows now their flowry Garments wear,
And ev’ry Grove does in its Pride appear:
Whiles thou, poor Damon in close Rooms are pent,
Where hardly thy own Breath can find a vent.
Yet that too is a Heaven, compar’d to th’ Task
Of Codling every Morning in a Cask.
      Now I could curse this Female, but I know,
She needs it not, that thus cou’d handle you.
Besides, that Vengeance does to thee belong,
And ’twere injustice to disarm thy Tongue.
Curse them, dear Swain, that all the Youth may hear,
And from thy dire Mishap be taught to fear.
Curse till thou hast undone the Race, and all
That did contribute to thy Spring and Fall.


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Poem of the week

Twilight by Samuel Menashe

In this week’s poem, a beautiful nocturne, the New York poet Samuel Menashe finds transcendence in everyday images

An image of distant spiral galaxy Messier 74 captured using the Hubble space telescope

‘There’s only one star in the poem, but others come out faintly in the auditory imagination’.

Samuel Menashe was born in New York in 1925. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants, and his first language was Yiddish. “Scribe out of work/ At a loss for words/ Not his to begin with” he declares wryly in the opening lines of “Curriculum Vitae”. The language of his poetry is certainly unusual, but not because it’s self-conscious or strangely angled. On the contrary, it seems beautifully natural and unforced. Such naturalness, it reminds us, is a rare quality in contemporary poetry in English. It’s not simply that poets feel obliged constantly to do something different and surprising: there’s also the problem of paring down the clutter of modern experience. Menashe’s short poems are stringently economical, but never reductive.

Their central structure of a few sharp images still leaves room for shadows and open questions. Some poems take the form of proverbs or Talmudic snippets of wisdom. Christopher Ricks describes the latter as apophthegms. Whatever their preoccupations, all are invariably songs: lightly woven mnemonic chants reminding you that poetry begins in, and ultimately belongs to, the mouth.

Menashe takes pleasure in rhyme and assonantal echoes. His full rhymes sound out clearly but often evade symmetrical pattern. Sometimes there is no rhyme, and still the melody sings out, as in “Promised Land”: “At the edge/ Of a world/ Beyond my eyes/ Beautiful/ I know Exile/ Is always/ Green with hope –/ The river/ We cannot cross/ Flows forever.” Poems like this one are plainly biblical in their imagery and feeling. Others have an engaging trace of New York wit. Their little jokes may be pleasingly “little”: a closed-down diner, apparently called Homer’s, inspires not the scholarly allusion most poets would strive for, but a streetwise-silly pun: “Where can we eat/ With a garden view/ And a bell tower/ Across the street – / No place like Homer’s” (“Diner”).

Menashe has described how he learnt poetic structure from reading Shakespeare’s sonnets as a young man. A number of poems can usefully be thought of as miniature sonnets: the term alerts us to all the connectedness with which the simple outlines are inlaid, and to the work’s musical, “sounded” quality. This week’s poem, “Twilight”, is typically sonnet-like, and a fine example of the way Menashe parcels mystery in imagistic simplicity, straightforward statement in unpunctuated grammatical ambiguity. Its first three lines contain teasing layers of meaning and sound: “Looking across/ The water we are/ Startled by a star”. The syntax is arranged so that, irresistibly, the reader is reminded that human beings really are, mostly, water – although this is far from the main grammatical intention. We have to read on and find another, plainer meaning, but the inner, teasing, un-meant meaning lingers. Then, the way “startled” contains the “star” that follows it creates a kind of Doppler effect. Perhaps it reminds the reader that the subject of the sentence is plural, and that therefore “we” are two pairs of eyes and see a slightly differently star. That same “ar” or “ah!” sound is then echoed once more in “dark”. There’s only one star in the poem, but other stars come out faintly in the auditory imagination.

In the following rhyming couplet (“It is not dark yet/ The sun has just set”) the lines are not quite metrically compatible. The uneven distribution of stress on the rhyme-words (unlike ‘set’, ‘yet’ is barely stressed at all) softens the emphatic chime that the twin monosyllables may suggest to the eye. The white space between the stanzas, though, is a neat visual effect: we can imagine the stretch of water lies just there, separating the human watchers from the star.

In the next stanza, the same opening lines introduce a different, subtle and perhaps faintly amused emphasis: this time “we are/ Alone as that star/ That startled us.” This might be one of those little jokes, a frail, affectionate, smile-inducing joke between the speaker and his companion. But there is also something startling and unsettling in the poem’s insistence on finding the “star” in “startled”. Again, the syntax seems to draw us teasingly on, as if, each time the reader had reached the end of a line, and cottoned on to what was being said, it turned out instead that there was a further mental distance to travel.

And finally, the questions still hover, unresolved: what are “we” as “far” as, or as far from? Perhaps “we” are two lovers who find that their closeness was illusory? Perhaps the star is now viewing the human beings, and finding them as far away as the star is far away from them. Perhaps there is a biblical hint that we are far from God or the Promised Land. Menashe is the kind of poet who almost makes sense of that vague word “spiritual” – a word I usually try to avoid, but which seems to insert itself quite naturally at this point. Somehow, he anchors a sense of “something else” in the everyday imagery he uses, and nowhere more effectively than in this beautiful little nocturne.

There is a certain resemblance between Samuel Menashe and his near-contemporary, Paul Celan. The scale, the intensity, the Jewish consciousness are a significant shared inheritance. Menashe does not write about the Holocaust, except, perhaps, indirectly in a searing quatrain called “Daily Bread”, but he is at times elegaic and always concerned with mortality, recalling in early poems the hardships of his own military service in Europe during the second world war. Overall, however, he seems less haunted by historical trauma than by the ordinary sorrow and fragility of the human condition. Clear language and flowing melody are still his, a psalmist lit by a clear New World light, keeping his eye on the metaphorical Promised Land lying beyond that forever-flowing river: “Whatever he saw/ Receding from sight/ In the sky’s afterglow/ Was what he wanted/ To see, to know” (“Enlightenment”).


Looking across
The water we are
Startled by a star –
It is not dark yet
The sun has just set

Looking across
The water we are
Alone as that star
That startled us,
And as far

• “Twilight” is published in Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems, ed Christopher Ricks.


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Poem of the week

Twenty-Sixth Winter by John Dofflemyer

This time, a simultaneously hardbitten and tender example of ‘cowboy poetry’

Sheraton Wild Horse resort in Arizona

Sheraton Wild Horse resort in Arizona.

If you find the term “cowboy poetry” impossibly paradoxical, you might need to think again. Last month, Elko, Nevada, saw the 26th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, an annual event that began with a small group of writers, folklorists and musicians, coming together to celebrate and regenerate an increasingly threatened way of life. Among the participants was the author of this week’s poem, John Dofflemyer, whose first full-length collection, Poems from Dry Creek / was the winner of the 2008 Western Heritage award for outstanding poetry book.

Poetry often has a big role in regionalist movements. It creates visibility, helps establish the endangered minority on the wider cultural map, sustains community spirit. But the end-product has to be accountable to more than “identity”. And there must be the raw material capable of generating fresh linguistic energies.

John Dofflemyer’s poetry draws fruitfully on his life as a cattle-rancher on the southern edge of the Sierra Nevada. In a note to the collection, he describes the setting: “steep ground my family has learned to work with for generations … Our grass is strong feed, our native cattle hearty – the character of the land shapes all.”

Poems of homage to other regional poets show how seriously alternative traditions are regarded: poetry here is not commonplace, as in urban environments, but hard-won and essential, a shared and treasured “strong feed” for the mind. The politics are not usually overt, but the tension behind the release of a self-conscious defiance can be felt when “Sometimes we howl like coyotes,/ let our yippee-ti-yi-yos go/ to God knows where/ just to let every living thing out-there know/ we own the space they can’t look after/ with rules and paper credentials -/ everything ‘cowboy’/ that makes you uneasy.”(“Cowboy Capitulation”).

The plain rectangular blocks of this week’s poem, “Twenty-Sixth Winter”, evoke clear sunlight, long shadows, clean sheer rock-sides. The poet’s language, on the other hand, is at times both idiomatic (“to only let her go/ another winter”) and heavy with a slightly bookish richness. “Once I chased the rainbow’s end on horseback” he writes in another alliteratively-titled poem, “Exercise in Excess” and there is something of that quest in many pieces of work, the rainbow being poetry itself.

Dofflemyer writes kindly about animals, reminding us that those he is currently grazing might be among the last. Like the cow in “Old Speck”, the mare in “Twenty-Sixth Winter” is aged and threadbare. While there are still bull-pens, and poems, jostling with vigorous young livestock, it’s as if these frailer creatures embodied “the disappearing moment/ we have become”.

Such animals, the speaker freely admits, should be humanely slaughtered, but he has resisted longer than he perhaps should have, and the poem itself springs from the moral dilemma. If such creatures are partly symbolic, they are also individuals, regarded with respect and affection. The skinny mare already looks as if she’s part of the land, but it is “hard” for the speaker to see the painfully exposed “ridgeline of her spine”. She is also connected to the human by the “memory” imagined in “her one soft eye” (my italics).

The speaker’s father is a singularly mysterious, ghostly presence, who slips into the poem in its first indented passage, seems to challenge the son, but then slips away, leaving him, perhaps, to accept that he is “another man” and this mare “another horse”. The inevitability of broken tradition shadows the poem, but tone and rhythm remain somehow upbeat. In the final stanza, the decrepit mare has perhaps once more been reprieved. Touchingly eager to start each day, she provides her owners with a lesson in survival and, implicitly, good dying: “She trains us …” The whole complex matter of negotiation between nature and human interference remains, of necessity, unresolved. The balancing of softness and hardness, animal and mineral, sympathetic cultivation and brutal “development” – these are the deeper paradoxes of cowboy poetry.

Twenty-Sixth Winter

I’ve wanted to squeeze
despair into thin air,
discharge bold charity
with my Remington
muzzle to her ear,
blast grey suffering
from this fleshless, ratty hide
tight as a drum
over Willow Buena’s bones
half-a-dozen times
when shadows climbed
up canyon evenings
each September,
to only let her go
another winter
with each memory
in her one soft eye,
the other in a cloud.
And were I young again –
she’d be gone.

Her neck is softer
beneath the halter
as I lead her out
of her retirement, away
from the fretting mules
babysat the past six years

       and I think of my father’s step
       as it slides along the furrow,
       led up and down the orchard row
by something
       I can’t quite see
in me.

       Another man,
       another horse,
       another time
would have let nature claim her,
graze until gravity pulled her down
some frosty night
       to be licked and chewed,
       melt away,
       forgotten carrion.

The ridgeline of her spine is hard
to look at
       this close to the house
       in this only spot of green.

She trains us –
       rattles her bucket
       earlier each dawn
       as if she could
       bring the sun.


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Poster poems


This month, building blocks: highlighting not a subject or form, but the oldest device used to organise poetry in English

Anglo Saxon zoomorphic mount fromn the Staffordshire hoard

Imagination’s inspiration … An Anglo-Saxon zoomorphic mount from the Staffordshire hoard

Generally speaking, these Poster poem challenges are either topic-based or call on you to work in a set form. This month, we’re going to try something a bit different; the focus is on a technique, but not a form as such.

Alliteration is, perhaps, the oldest device used to organise poetry in English, dating, as it does, from the very earliest appearance of verse in the vernacular. It lies at the very heart of Anglo-Saxon poem making, and lends a kind of solemn movement to the language of a poem such as Beowulf. However, this use of alliteration is not limited to Old English; it’s a technique that is used in many more modern epic poems. For example, lines such as “Behemoth, biggest born of earth, upheaved His vastness” display Milton’s mastery of alliterative pomp.
Of course, Anglo-Saxon poetry wasn’t all gloom and grandeur; the riddles may not be side-splittingly slapstick, but they do display the more playful part of the poet’s palette. This more light-hearted aspect of alliteration is a fine feature of many tongue-twisters, such as She sells sea shells by the sea shore. It is also frequently found in the efforts of Emily Dickinson and the genuinely brilliant Gwendolyn Brooks.
In the wake of the Norman conquest, the native alliterative tradition faced stiff competition from French and Italian rhyming verse forms, but it never fully disappeared. Indeed, the 14th century saw a fine flowering of poetry that drew heavily on the old order of things; poems such as Pearl, Cleanness, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Vision of Piers Ploughman echoed the earlier English poets, while introducing a new variety and freshness to the alliterative line.
One of the more striking aspects of Langland’s Vision is the way in which he uses alliteration to produce instantly memorable phrases; his world is a “fair feeld ful of folk“, of himself he declares “I have lyved in londe … my name is Longe Wille” and at the heart of the poem is the insight that “Whan alle tresors arn tried, Truthe is the beste“. This characteristic of being memorable has long attracted poets to alliteration, and allowed, for instance, Tennyson to turn out one of the most easily recalled opening lines in English “He clasps the crag with crooked hands“.
A lot of poets have used alliteration to introduce a mellifluous mode to their lyric lines; think, for instance, of Byron’s She Walks in Beauty or Hopkins’s Binsey Poplars, poems in which alliteration is amalgamated with all the artifice of Latinate rhyme to form a music that melds the best of both traditions. One result of this rapprochement is that the alliterative line of the Anglo-Saxon scop has been developed to the point where it runs across lines, weaving its way into the fabric of the entire stanza. It’s a development that drives the syntax of a poem such as On Seeing the Wind at Hope Mansell by Geoffrey Hill.
And so, this month I invite you to invent alliterative odes. Be they sombre or singalong, epic or epigrammatic, riddles or – oh, enough, you get the point – your poems are welcome here, as ever.


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Poem of the week

What the Mountain Saw by Philip Gross

A walker in Clair National Park

A walker in Clair National Park.

There’s a lot of short-story-telling in contemporary poetry, perhaps partly reflecting the influence of cinema. Irish poet Matthew Sweeney, for example, describes his poems as “imagistic narrative”. The poet can do everything a good independent film director does, working with strange, quirky, uncompromising characters and bizarre events, tracking the psychological hinterland. For the reader, there is the satisfaction of cutting straight to the emotional core, to the moments of revelation and epiphany. As in a short story, but even more rigorously, every detail has to earn its narrative place.

This week’s choice, “What the Mountain Saw” by Philip Gross, is an exemplary story-poem that demonstrates the art of saying enough but no more than enough. It seems to encapsulate the entire emotional story of a family – and, as a few politicians have recently twigged, the family story also tells society’s story, or one of its stories.

The poem has an omniscient narrator, and this helps to give it both the authority and distance of a piece of 19th-century fiction. The father is introduced in line three in a phrase which defines his character: “The father is first awake.” He is, we note, “the father”: the other players are similarly identified by their familial roles, “wife and child”, “the child”. None of the characters is ever named. All are in some way archetypal – like the mountain, which is the first thing paterfamilias sees, alone, having wakened the exhausted family, no doubt, with that explosive “clack” of the shutters.

That the father is orchestrating the holiday is immediately clear. It’s not until the fourth stanza that we see his retinue, trudging along patiently and passively. The mountain is important because of the challenge it represents for dad. Is it ugly, is it beautiful? It “squats square in the window” but it also twirls a scarf of cloud like a femme fatale. Either way, it is uncompromising and unreliable, and the father is determined that he and his family should conquer it.

The poem cuts from the first “shots” of the mountain to the family’s attempt to grapple with it. Despite the generous line-length and the discipline of the four-lined stanza structure, the sentence rhythms convey a strong sense of forward pace, and the reader is completely drawn into this relentless, hopeless hike. We feel a sense of impending danger early on, one which is steadily intensified. The north face, we’re told, is “a killer”. When the father “brings the family, breathless, to its knees” it’s only to show them an “icicle-white wild crocus”, but the colloquial meaning of the phrase lingers.

While the merciless trek goes on, we’re shown things of remarkable beauty: not only the startlingly described crocus, and other flowers, but the lake and the waterfall, also associated with whiteness and ice. That these things seem gifts within the father’s power, while they are actually the mountain’s, enhances the atmosphere of hubris. The drama climaxes when, hair-raisingly, the child “teeters/ on a plank beneath the water-fall”. Now, for the first time, the pronoun tells us her gender. And this, as the father will later say, is “their furthest point”.

And yet it isn’t the climax, after all. The poem creates for the reader an experience similar to that of the climbers, slogging up the mountain and always thinking that the summit is near. The next narrative peak occurs at the very moment the reader might be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief – at the breakfast table, and mid-stanza. It is here that the child, valiantly obedient till now, “has one of her turns”. The colloquialism emphasises a hopeless effort to tame the frightening condition with vague, meaningless words.

The narrator freeze-frames the different stages of the “turn” with great dramatic effect, catching perfectly that strange psychological phenomenon in which accidents seem to slow time for those experiencing or watching them. This new event is revelatory. We now begin to understand the desperate draw of the mountain for the father, and realise how powerless he really is. Despite his drive to escape, resolve, transform the tragedy and its consequent embarrassments, he will “never reach” the child.

We are not told the name of the mountain, the location, nor the time in which the poem is set. Whatever their historical period, the family-of-three is bound in a set of destructive conventions. The rigid patriarchy by which they operate seems reflected in the etiquette of starched table-linen and hushed breakfasts.

A successful short story is a journey, and however much or little happens in terms of event, the reader, in the company of the protagonist, should reach a different mental place at the story’s end. For me, the transformation was that I now understood, and even sympathised with, the father. In fact, he has his own “turn” – into a kind of artist, whose raw material is his family. When he imagines how small the breakfast episode would look to the mountain, it’s as if we’re seeing a director’s cut. The isolation of the last line is a symbol of the cold, aesthetic isolation the artist-father truly craves.

Philip Gross’s latest collection The Water Table recently received the TS Eliot prize. “What the Mountain Saw” is an early poem, but it displays all Gross’s understated mastery of pace and rhythm, his acute descriptive skills and his emotional tact. It appears in Changes of Address: Poems 1980-1998 (Bloodaxe Books, 2001). Grateful thanks to the author and publisher for permission to reprint it here.

What the Mountain Saw 

They arrive by night, travel-stunned, and see nothing.
They sleep wrapped in pine-tang and the rush of waters.
The father is first awake. He clacks the shutters back
and a mountain squats square in the window, looking in. 
It never leaves them, though it changes hour by hour,
twisting a scarf of cloud, or turning a hard profile
to the morning sun, or dissembling a sugar-pink haze.
However far they walk – and they walk, walk every day – 
it’s above them, a bit of beyond. Some snow hangs on
in shreds. This is a famous north face, and a killer.
Each day the father scans it with his old binoculars
for any hint of tracks, and never finds them. 
So the holiday proceeds, in a series of snapshots.
Here, in mid-stride, he crests a rise, wife and child
at his boot-heels, tranced by their thud and the heat
and the insect hum. But the snow-face is no nearer. 
Here, through veils of spruce, he breaks into a glade
possessed by pallid green-veined hellebores.
Or here, he brings the family, breathless, to its knees
before one icicle-white wild crocus. Here is the lake
he finds them, like a souvenir, round and still
enough to hold the mountain, till a fish jumps.
In between, there are the hours he drives them on
for health. Stop too long, the sweat begins to chill. 
Breathe deep!‘ he cries, and strikes out higher
up a wide white stony stream-bed, tumbled and scoured
by the spring-melt, strewn with tree-trunks, torn
and bleached, and a few tiny tough mauve flowers 
he can’t name. He grips the child’s hand as she teeters
on a plank beneath a waterfall. Its ice-breath touches them.
Their hair goes white with spray. Afterwards he will say
This was our furthest point,’ and sigh. As they drag home  
footsore, the mountain shows itself again behind them,
in its pure dream of itself, untouched … Just as now
it looks in through the breakfast-room window when the child,
as if the strings that controlled her had fouled 
and were jerked tight, has one of her turns. An egg
tips from its silver cup, a glass pirouettes to the edge
but has not yet smashed, the other guests have not
yet turned to stare, the father reaches for her but 
is frozen. He will never reach her. Any moment now
the yolk will burst on crisply laundered linen. Soon
there will be splinters and tears. Behind it all he sees
the mountain at the window. If one could stand there 
looking down
, he thinks, this would all be very small.


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O camel! my camel!

Why the Arab world is re-embracing the poetry of the desert

She is the dream that scatters with the sun, Absorbed into flame and flame absorbing, Eternal motion one with endless peace, The camel has no was or will be, only being.

The above lines are the final stanza of a poem I recently completed, a rousing work titled “Spirit of the Sand.” The poem contains 24 lines in all, each expressing a mystical appreciation for the Arabian camel. To be honest, I’m not sure I really believe that the dromedary’s heart beats in every chest, nor that it carries on its back the thirst of generations. In fact, I don’t really like the animal that much. I do, however, like the idea of winning a brand new Range Rover.

As I write this, there’s a festival underway in a remote corner of the United Arab Emirates, where I live, to celebrate traditional local culture. The centerpiece of the event – along with (no kidding) a camel beauty contest – is a camel-themed poetry competition, the winner of which will drive away in a luxury SUV. “Hey, you write poetry,” said my wife when she saw the announcement for the competition. “Write one.” For the past few months, we’ve been driving around in a Toyota Yaris. I started writing.

The winners of the competition are due to be announced the first week of February, but I don’t hold out much hope. The problem isn’t so much that I’m not a camel person – I can wing that – but that you are required to write your poem in the Nabati style. Nabati is an ancient form of Arabic folk poetry passed down through generations of Bedouin tribesmen. In order to write a Nabati camel poem properly, you need to have not only seen one of the animals, but to have milked one, scrubbed one, maybe had one spit in your face. This dusty traditionalism is the whole point of the contest.

It’s an odd thing, but you could say that camel spit has been making a comeback in the United Arab Emirates recently. The proud home of the world’s tallest building, the world’s largest man-made island, and the world’s highest Swarovski-crystal-per-capita ratio is currently in the throes of a full-fledged Nabati craze. People in the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi zoom home in their BMWs to watch “Million’s Poet,” a televised Nabati talent show whose ultimate winner gets a $1,362,000 cash prize, along with the kind of rock-star celebrity that poets elsewhere in the world can only dream about. Since it launched a few years back, “Million’s Poet” has become the Arab world’s answer to “American Idol.” Across the region, tens of millions of people tune in each week to vote for their favorite versifier via text message. Even the kids are hooked: Internet message boards ring with heated debate over who’s the best (or cutest) poet in the land. Nabati action figures cannot be far behind.

“Millions Poet,” as frivolous as it may seem, is taken very seriously by the United Arab Emirates’ rulers. The government funds and promotes the show as part of a broader effort to reestablish Nabati as the cultural cornerstone of the country. This effort, in turn, is born of a much larger concern. As satellite dishes and skyscrapers proliferate, there is a growing sense here that local traditions are being swept away. In some Arabic nations – the ones you tend to read about in the papers – this concern has led to a pervasive and restrictive form of Islam: The rise of ultra-conservative Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia represents an emphatic example. The United Arab Emirates, characteristically, has opted for a more moderate approach. Putting Nabati poetry under lights is seen here as a perfect way to stave off a collective identity crisis, to remind nationals who they are – or at least who they once were.

Nabati poetry is so old, nobody really knows how old it is. We do know that the form dates back at least 1,000 years, and was first practiced by the Bedouins who roamed the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. For centuries, it was the only way for these people to record their victories in battle, their humiliations in love, the weaseliness of their enemies, and the munificence of their leaders. It’s a form of social history for people who didn’t have pens, but who loved a singsong around the campfire.

The Arab world has a classical, bookish poetry tradition that is renowned for its litany of migraine-inducing formalities. Nabati is to this tradition what break dancing is to the minuet. It’s meant to be loose-limbed and spontaneous, recited in everyday language, expressing common concerns. Its rules are negotiable; if it sounds good over a plate of al harees, you’re in. And while Nabati themes do occasionally tend toward the lyrical – “My Heart Is Set Ablaze By Anxieties” by Si’dun Al Waji comes to mind – you’re just as likely to hear a poem about whose goats have been encroaching on whose territory. “Nabati,” says Ghassan Al Hassan, a Nabati scholar and a “Million’s Poet” judge, “speaks the language of the common people.”

The language of the people has changed over the last millennium, as have their concerns. Ancient Bedouin tribesmen were a notoriously bellicose bunch; titles like “By God, How Often Have I Raided” and “So What, Ibn Slem, If You Attack?” were commonplace. Today, while Nabati’s macho tendencies endure, poets tend to focus less on the power of their horses than the horsepower of their pickups. Tribalism has given way to nationalism. And where a traditional Nabati poet might have sung about his ability to use his fists, today’s will more likely talk up the goal-scoring abilities of his favorite soccer team.

The United Arab Emirates’ ruling classes, again, are spearheading the drive to shoehorn Nabati into contemporary contexts. The pop-culture glam of the “Million’s Poet” show is no accident: It represents a concerted effort to present the Nabati tradition in a format that the iPhone-owning masses will appreciate and understand. On the academic front, the government last year set up the Abu Dhabi-based Poetry Academy to help foster new Nabati poets and to establish a formal critical apparatus, something that old-school Nabati poets would likely have found mind-boggling.

There has also been a concurrent effort to preserve the tradition in written form, and even to translate it into English – a task akin to translating Italian into fish. Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai and a prolific Nabati poet, last year published a book of English translations of his work, which includes the poem “Oh Victorious Arrow” (“Congratulations Hamdan, heartfelt congratulations/ Your horse for you is happy, strutting proudly”). The fact that the guy who’s currently in charge of running this modern megalopolis should spend his time penning odes to horses is an indication of how important Nabati has become to the emirates’ sense of self.

“Globalization is wreaking havoc on many aspects of local life,” says Sultan Al Amimi, another “Million’s Poet” judge. Nabati, he says, “is a way of preserving this way of life from cultural erosion.”

Cultural erosion is a hot topic in the Middle East right now. The fear of regional identities and values being overrun – by hedonism, materialism, moral relativism, and all the other isms generally associated with the West – lies at the heart of much of the hard-core religious revivalism you see here. In America, there’s talk of the Clash of Civilizations; here, people see themselves as taking a Last Stand, with Mecca as a kind of Alamo.

Few countries in the Middle East have more of a stake in this issue than the United Arab Emirates. In recent decades, the country has seen wave after wave of immigration; Dubai’s expat population is now said to be about 80 percent of its total. And these immigrants have brought with them everything from Tagalog karaoke to Bollywood blockbusters to happy hour cocktails. There are times when it’s easy to forget you’re even in an Arabic country, an extremely worrying fact for people who were born and bred here.

Partly because the United Arab Emirates values its tradition of welcoming outsiders, and partly because people here understand that their economy relies on an inflow of foreign labor, the country has not resorted to the kind of knee-jerk religiosity that some of its neighbors have. Instead, it has embarked on a kinder, gentler form of revival. You can hardly turn around these days without bumping into a heritage village. Faux-traditional architecture is cropping up in every corner of the country. And youngsters who a decade ago might have worn jeans and T-shirts now don the dishdashas and abayas of their forebears. Sure, they’ll wear these garments at shopping malls and go home afterwards to watch the latest episode of “Dexter” – the point is that the country is attempting to incorporate its traditions into the modern world, rather than trying to keep the modern world at bay.

This will not be an easy trick to pull off. Efforts to drag the past into the present will always involve an element of nostalgia, and nostalgia will always involve its own cultural conflicts – as you can already see in the Nabati revival. One contemporary female poet, for instance, writes about “My longing for a tent/ After an adobe house.” We don’t really believe that this woman longs to live in a tent, simply that she likes the idea of it. Her poem is a kind of fib. It also lacks the immediacy of traditional Nabati poetry. Then again, Nabati’s themes have always revolved around traditional desert life. Is a Nabati poem about breaking the heel of your Jimmy Choo still a Nabati poem? And if it is, why shouldn’t a guy who grew up in London write a moving eulogy to the Arabian camel?

It might just be that my own longing – For a brand new Range Rover/ After a Toyota Yaris – isn’t so far-fetched after all.

Chris Wright is an editor and writer living in Dubai.


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Poem of the week

Poem of the week: La Gioconda by Michael Field

An intriguing bit of ekphrastic poetry from a very intriguing pseudonymous pair

La Gioconda

‘Historic, side-long, implicating eyes’ … La Gioconda

Leonardo Da Vinci’s portrait of La Gioconda, more familiarly known as the Mona Lisa has fascinated many writers, her famously inscrutable half-smile a powerful stimulus for imaginative interpretation, ranging from the lyrical to the licentious. Almost as well-known as the mischievous re-touchings of the surrealist painters, the heady prose description by Walter Pater was considered by WB Yeats to be so original and poetic that he lineated it himself so as to form the opening “poem” of his 1936 anthology, The Oxford Book of Modern Verse: “She is older than the rocks among which she sits;/ Like the Vampire/ She has been dead many times …”

“Only by printing it in vers libre can one show its revolutionary importance,” Yeats claimed, rather suggesting that Pater’s splendid phrase-making was better poetry than art criticism: better, perhaps, though possibly not quite good enough.

This week’s poem, “La Gioconda”, is also, I think, a mixed success, but interesting enough to whet the appetite for reading more of its authors’ work. They called themselves “Michael Field”: in real life they were Katharine Bradley (1846-1914) and Edith Cooper (1862-1913), an aunt and niece who lived together in a lesbian relationship from 1878 until the death of Edith in 1913. l

The couple, known to friends as “the Michael Fields”, kept the details of their collaboration to themselves. Whether this was always as total as they claimed it to be seems questionable. There are richly sensuous, seductive love poems that might suggest the authorship of a single individual: others, such as the translations and the ekphrastic poems, of which “La Gioconda” is an example, may well be fully shared projects – although exactly how the division of labour worked out remains a mystery.

“La Gioconda” is from their second published collection Sight and Song
(1892). All the poems are about pictures, the stated purpose of the authors being “to translate into verse what the lines and colours of certain chosen pictures sing in themselves; to express not so much what these pictures are to the poet, but rather what poetry they objectively incarnate”. The use of “song” and “sing” is suggestive of a synaesthetic approach, and there are poems in the volume whose lineation seems to attempt rhythmic reflections of visual effects. “La Gioconda” is not one of these: like its subject, it is focused and formal. It might almost have been a sonnet.

Its freedom lies in its syntax, an impressionistic list that picks out the picture’s attributes over the 11 lines of a single sentence – a single sighting, as it were. It begins powerfully with the portrait’s eyes, the three adjectives combining to announce a period (“historic” suggests both antiquity and historical significance) and a manner. At once we are conscious of a certain treachery, partly personal, but also part of the cloak-and-dagger rivalries of Renaissance Florence. The woman is both vividly depicted and brilliantly placed in her society.

The poem, like the portrait, is cleverly lit. Words such as “lustre” and “glowing” leave us in no doubt of the subject’s beauty, but at the same time her character is pervaded by darkness and mystery. The “patience” detected in the woman’s hand results from the fact that it is at rest after “cruelty”, a sado-masochistic kind of cruelty, it seems, since the victim will make the necessary first move.

In Leonardo’s portrait, the landscape stretching behind the sitter is somehow in harmony with her. More than the retreating backdrop that emphasises the intimacy of her presence, it is complicated with the curving lines of rivers, paths and valleys, which might symbolise landed wealth as part of the complexity and fullness of the sitter’s married life. For the poets, this exquisite, rather ethereal landscape hides a potentially malignant force although, like the sitter, it temporarily withholds its energies.

After the crystalline consonants of lines eight and nince, the repeated hissing sibilance of the last two lines brings to mind the snake in the Garden of Eden and the moments leading up to Eve’s temptation. The notion that the landscape itself has a “zest” for “the vicissitudes by which men die” is curious. It’s as if the poem has shifted to a less realistic register: the evocation of malignant capability in mere scenery verges on the surreal. Does that odd word “zest” earn its place or is it a convenient rhyme-word?

Convenient or not, it intensifies the suggestion of pleasurable cruelty. The Mona Lisa herself might be the source of one such vicissitude, a woman of tricks and treachery whose grand house should be avoided and for whom unwary men might certainly die. Today, we know her likely identity: she was Lisa del Giocondo, a rich silk-merchant’s wife, and the portrait had been commissioned to celebrate the birth of her second child. But in the Michael Fields poem she becomes even more menacing a figure than the Paterian Femme Fatale who has “trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants”. This Gioconda is a smiling spider: her web awaits you.
La Gioconda
(Leonardo da Vinci, The Louvre)

Historic, side-long, implicating eyes;
A smile of velvet’s lustre on the cheek;
Calm lips the smile leads upward; hand that lies
Glowing and soft, the patience in its rest
Of cruelty that waits and does not seek
For prey; a dusky forehead and a breast
Where twilight touches ripeness amorously:
Behind her, crystal rocks, a sea and skies
Of evanescent blue on cloud and creek;
Landscape that shines suppressive of its zest
For those vicissitudes by which men die.


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Poem of the week

Waiting by WE Henley

WE Henley’s “Waiting”, from his “In Hospital” sequence of poems far outshines his better known “Invictus”

Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in the film Invictus

Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in the film Invictus, which takes its name from WE Henley’s stirring poem.

Slightly misquoted, two lines of a well-known poem headlined an interview with Gordon Brown in Sunday’s News of the World: “My head is bloody, but unbowed…I am (the) master of my fate.”) The poem, “Invictus” by WE Henley, was also printed in full.

Mr Brown told the newspaper’s head of politics, David Wooding, that he had looked up the poem after watching the movie of the same name. In the film, Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) passes the verses on to the captain of the Springboks, spurring the rugby team, a symbol of apartheid for many South Africans, to victory in the 1995 world cup. Mandela is indeed on record as saying that “Invictus” inspired him during his long imprisonment on Robben Island: he recited it and taught it to other prisoners. “It is about determination,” Mr Brown told his interviewer, “It summarises my view.” Mind you, Mr Brown is not in entirely good company: the last verse of “Invictus” was chosen by the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, to console his final moments.

The critic John Ciardi described “Invictus” as “perhaps the most widely-known bad poem in English”. “Bad” is a shade strong. It’s not the kind of poem that appeals to the imagination, that’s for sure, but, as a series of declarations to rally the inner troops, it might well be the kind of poem that you would take into battle, spiritual or physical – especially if you were in danger of losing your footing.

The poem was first published under the title “I. M. R. T. Hamilton Bruce”. “Invictus” (meaning “invincible”) was substituted at a later date, probably by Arthur Quiller-Couch when anthologising the poem. The Hamilton Bruce thus commemorated was a flour merchant and patron of the arts. We don’t know why Henley initially dedicated the poem to his memory. What we do know is that the heroic sentiments in the poem are genuinely connected to Henley’s own life.

The poet suffered from tuberculosis of the leg, and early on required a partial amputation. Later on, it was thought that his healthy foot would also need to be amputated. He firmly resisted this drastic intervention, but, in 1873, he spent a prolonged period of treatment in the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, an experience he commemorated in a remarkably vivid sequence of poems, “In Hospital”.

Henley later went on to become a successful journalist and editor: he helped other, younger writers, and attracted considerable attention himself as a poet. He was much admired by Robert Louis Stevenson (and apparently provided the model for Long John Silver). The two writers went on to collaborate on several plays.

“Invictus” does not form part of the “Hospital” sequence. These poems are vastly superior. Descriptive rather than declamatory, they record with a crisp, unflinching but not unsympathetic realism, the ordinary lives and deaths amid the “corridors and stairs of stone and iron.” Henley sketches brilliant, kindly little sonnet-portraits of the various nurses, surgeons and patients. He also expands into free verse for the more impressionistic material, finding rhythms to suggest the dazzling derangement as consciousness succumbs to chloroform, or, during nights of insomnia, to make us feel how “the mattress…glows like a kiln” and the bedclothes “ramble and roll.” There is no trace of self-pity, not even when he presents “Case Number One” (clearly himself), “Stripped up and showing his foot/ (Alas for God’s Image!)/ Swaddled in wet, white lint/ Brilliantly hideous with red.” Happily, the work ends with the patient’s discharge, and a cry of joy: “Carry me out/ into the wind and the sunshine,/ into the beautiful world.”

I’ve selected “Waiting” from the sequence as this week’s poem. It wastes no words (Henley was the least over-blown of Victorian poets). But the three unrhymed quatrains show a complete and detailed scene, conveying both the foreboding mood and the varied activity of the hospital waiting-room. The faintly sinister equipment; the patients, forlorn or garrulous; the insouciant dressers: all are sketched with Hogarthian sharpness. It might have been a depressing poem, and some of those end-of-line nouns weigh heavily, especially in the last stanza. At the same time, it seems enlivened by the reporter’s quick eye and hurried, skilful note-taking. There are glimmers of wry humour. Even the despondency of the last line is mitigated by the parenthesis (“I think”).

The tone of “Waiting” expresses bravery in a homelier manner than “Invictus,” while reminding us how necessary every ounce of courage must have been to the patients of Henley’s days. Hospitals were places of great suffering and limited prophylaxis, and “determination” was indeed a virtue to be encouraged.

Whether “Invictus” has an entirely useful message for the prime minister, I wonder. “Waiting” might be a melancholy read for the country’s leader in this tense pre-election period, but at least it could be a reminder that others share the harshness of the human condition. The will to alleviate a little of life’s “blunder” and “shame” (not to mention the queues in the hospital waiting-room) is what Labour party politics really ought to be about.


A square, squat room (a cellar on promotion),
Drab to the soul, drab to the very daylight;
Plasters astray in unnatural-looking tinware;
Scissors and lint and apothecary’s jars.

Here, on a bench a skeleton would writhe from,
Angry and sore, I wait to be admitted:
Wait till my heart is lead upon my stomach,
While at their ease two dressers do their chores.

One has a probe – it feels to me a crowbar.
A small boy sniffs and shudders after bluestone.
A poor old tramp explains his poor old ulcers.
Life is (I think) a blunder and a shame. 


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Poem of the week

Medea in Athens by Augusta Webster

This week, an intense but nuanced dramatic monologue

Medea, as played by Fiona Shaw

Medea, as played by Fiona Shaw in 2002 on Broadway.

This week’s poem is an extract from “Medea in Athens”, one of a number of psychologically complex dramatic monologues by the remarkable Victorian poet, Augusta Webster. The poem is from her 1879 collection, Portraits, and you can read the full text here.

Webster was well-qualified to write about Medea. As a girl, she had studied classical Greek, ostensibly to help her brother, but no doubt also driven by her own considerable literary ambitions. Her translation of the Medea of Euripides was published in 1868. (See here for a more recent translation of the play).

Medea was the barbarian princess and sorceress from Colchis, who had fallen passionately in love with Jason, and helped him and his fellow Argonauts obtain the Golden Fleece. When Jason abandoned her for a politically expedient marriage to Glauce, daughter of King Creon of Corinth, Medea sent her two young sons to present the bride with a robe and diadem. Smeared with a lethal poison, the gifts killed both Glauce and her father. According to Euripides’s version of the story, Medea took further revenge on her unfaithful lover by killing the two boys, after which she escaped in a flying chariot provided by her grandfather, Helios.

Webster’s monologue begins when Medea has just learnt of Jason’s death. She is now married to Aegeus, King of Athens. Her response to the messenger is sarcastic: “Good news for us, but ill news for the dead,/ When the gods sweep a villain down to them.” But as she reflects further, she realises that this was a trivial response, and begins to examine her (lack of) feelings more candidly: “… through all the day/ The news seemed neither good nor ill to me.”

Her denial, as we would now call it, mutates into a nightmarish vision. She sees Jason, lost and embittered beside the rotting remains of his great ship, imagines him imagining her (“where by great Aegeus she sits queening it,/ belike a joyful mother of two sons”). Fatally wounded by a spar from the now-rotting ship which he has kicked at in his rage, Jason calls out before he dies, “Where is Medea? Let her bind my head.” The monologue is an extraordinary weave of vengeful self-satisfaction and suppressed anguish. It evolves into a final admission that she once loved him – at which point, she is confronted by Jason’s ghost. In the rest of the monologue, Medea addresses him directly, and now Webster draws increasingly on the energy and simplicity of direct speech – although the psychological portrayal is never simple. Medea’s inner “journey” takes contrary directions: consciously, she resists the understanding and penitence that a reader – especially a Victorian reader – would expect, but the subtext of regret for the murder of her sons is poignantly evoked. Her hatred of Jason remains unwavering.

Webster uses the rhetorical device, anaphora, with a skill that reaches its apogee in the compacted repetitions of the lines: “What if I moan in tossing fever-thirsts/ Crying for them whom I shall have no more,/ Here nor among the dead, who never more,/ Here nor among the dead, will smile to me … ” At such moments, Medea’s speech comes burningly off the page. The tempo of Webster’s blank-verse line, with its carefully plotted exclamations and other caesurae, ensures that, internally, we voice what we read. Admittedly, though, this kind of dramatic writing needs to be performed for full effect.

Webster seems to have been a natural playwright, but only one of her plays was produced: this was In a Day, with her daughter, Margaret Davies Webster, in the heroine’s role. She is best known for her monologues, always following her own advice to poets to write not about “causes” but about people. Her personae are often socially isolated figures: a prostitute and single mother, a painter, an atheist, Joan of Arc and Circe are among those with whom her powerful imagination grapples. Her originality is evident in all her work, and it’s sad that it was out of favour for so much of the 20th century. Of course, the length of the monologues may have been a problem for the mainstream anthologists. They tend to favour extracts from her sonnet sequence, “Mother and Daughter”, poems which can seem sweetly sentimental, read singly, but which are interestingly varied, and threaded into a meditation on time and change that deserves reading in full.

While Webster’s reputation is now rising, perhaps what would serve her best would be that some enterprising publisher create an audiobook from the best of the monologues and closet dramas. Meanwhile, here are the concluding strophes of “Medea in Athens”, in which Medea screws her loathing of Jason to the point of no return – well, perhaps.

                                                     Man, man,
Wilt thou accuse my guilt? Whose is my guilt?
Mine or thine, Jason? Oh, soul of my crimes,
How shall I pardon thee for what I am? 
   Never. And if, with the poor womanish heart
That for the loving’s sake will still love on,
I could let such a past wane as a dream
And turn to thee at waking – turn to thee!
I, put aside like some slight purchased slave
Who pleased thee and then tired thee, turn to thee!
Yet never, not if thou and I could live
Thousands of years, and all thy years were pain
And all my years were to behold thy pain,
Never could I forgive thee for my boys;
Never could I look on this hand of mine
That slew them and not hate thee. Childless, thou,
What is thy childlessness to mine? Go, go,
Thou foolish angry ghost, what wrongs hast thou?
Would I could wrong thee more. Come thou sometimes
And see me happy.
                                Dost thou mock at me
With thy cold smiling? Aye, can I not love?
What then? am I not folded round with love,
With a life’s whole of love? There doth no thought
Come near to Aegeus save what is of me:
Am I no happy wife? And I go proud,
And treasure him for noblest of the world:
Am I no happy wife?
                                Dost mock me still?
My children, is it? Are the dead so wise?
Why, who told thee my transport of despair
When from the Sun, who willed me not to die
Nor creep away, sudden and too late came
The winged swift car that could have saved them, mine,
From thee and from all foes? Tush, ’twas best so.
If they had lived, sometimes thou hadst had hope:
For thou wouldst still have said ‘I have two sons’
And dreamed perchance they’d bring thee use at last
And build thy greatness higher: but, now, now,
Thou has died shamed and childess, none to keep
Thy name and memory fresh upon the earth,
None to make boast of thee, ‘My father did it.’ 
     Yes, ’twas best so: my sons, we are avenged.
Thou, mock me not. What if I have ill dreams,
Seeing them loathe me, fly from me in dread,
When I would feed my hungry mouth with kisses?
What if I moan in tossing fever-thirsts,
Crying for them whom I shall have no more,
Here nor among the dead, who never more,
Here nor among the dead, will smile to me
With young lips prattling ‘Mother, mother dear’?
What if I turn sick when the women pass
That lead their boys; and hate a child’s young face?
What if —
                     Go, go; thou mind’st me of our sons;
And then I hate thee worse; go to thy grave
By which none weeps. I have forgotten thee.


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Poem of the week

The Darkling Thrush, by Thomas Hardy

The hymn-like metre combines with the Romantic, Keatsian image of the thrush to produce one of Hardy’s most lyrical poems

A song thrush

“At once a voice arose among/ The bleak twigs overhead/ In a full-hearted evensong/ Of joy illimited … ” – Hardy’s Darkling Thrush

Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” was originally called “The Century’s End, 1900” and was first printed in The Graphic on 29 December of that year. “A deleted 1899 on the manuscript suggested he had written it a year before,” Claire Tomalin tells us in her biography, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man. Earlier in the same book, Tomalin memorably describes Hardy as a child, waiting each evening for the setting sun to light up the red-painted staircase in the family house, at which point he would recite an “evening hymn” by Sir Isaac Watts, beginning “And now another day is gone,/ I’ll sing my maker’s praise”. “The Darkling Thrush” seems oddly to recall that scene.

It is one of Hardy’s most lyrical poems, musical in execution, metaphor, theme, and even title. The Keatsian word “darkling” simply means “in the dark”, but it has the sound of a preludial shimmer of birdsong. Visually, too, it prepares us for the image of the “aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,/ In blast-beruffled plume … ” Another use of the -ling suffix is to produce a diminutive of a noun (as in gosling, duckling, sapling, etc.) and though this isn’t what is happening etymologically, in “darkling” we pick up a distant sense of it, and therefore of the bird’s littleness and exposedness in his bare tree.

The plain, steady rhythm and rhyme-scheme of Hardy’s hymn-like metre provide a kind of aural blank canvas, allowing individual words to sound out with particular clarity. Sibilance in the first three lines creates a whispery atmosphere, a touch of wind among the stiffened branches which then fall still with the alliteration-free neutrality of “The weakening eye of day”. Then there are the hard ‘C’ sounds in stanza two: “corpse”, “crypt”, “cloudy canopy” – which evoke, perhaps, the tread of a funeral march, the dislodged clods of earth, the entombment of the personified century.

In the grey scenery of the first two stanzas, the narrator, barely visible, sees only the stasis of deepest winter. That resonating pair of words “leant” and “outleant” impresses on the eye images of disablement, the laying-out of the dead, and, of course, leanness. As in the title, there is a Keatsian echo, this time from “The Eve of St Agnes”. Hardy’s scene is even more deathly still: it is not only the winter of the year but of a whole century. And then the solo-singer appears, and subtly the music of the diction changes. The beautifully unexpected word, “illimited”, is the first we hear, inside the poem, of the singing thrush, the flowing double ‘l’ conveying the sense and sound of a joy which spills out and cannot be circumscribed or halted. There are further “liquid siftings” in the many l’ and ‘r’ sounds that ensue. It’s as if the broken lyre-strings that the tangled stems suggested in stanza one had been mended.

Hardy’s thrush of course belongs to the Romantic tradition, in which birds seem to express emotion in “songs” that have human significance. Modern readers interpret bird-song differently: we know the “ecstatic carolings” to be territorially possessive; as mundane as estate agents’ ‘Sold’ signs. Today’s ornithologically-minded poets content themselves with more descriptive responses, though birds have never yet gone out of poetic fashion.

It would no doubt have satisfied the deep pessimist in Hardy to have known this, and one can imagine the negating final stanza he might have added to cancel the magic with gloomy thoughts of territorialism and warfare. But he is still close enough to the 19th century to be able to treat the bird, however warily, as a symbol of hope for the new epoch. And, indeed, to give the word a capital letter, which it shares only with Frost, Winter and Century itself. Later on, Hardy became more, not less, despairing: his philosophy of the “Immanent Will” is laid out in The Dynasts (which I haven’t yet read, and really should get round to – New Year Resolutions, how are ye?). The heartlessness of this “Will” is more accessibly expressed in the great poem of 1912 about the sinking of the Titanic, “The Convergence of the Twain.”

In 1899, however. Hardy was more optimistic. Commentators who consider the thrush to represent the poet himself surely have a good point. He was frail and bird-like in appearance, and he had discovered an abundant poetic inspiration towards the end of his life that must have seemed at times miraculously “illimited”.

Let the poet-thrush’s “happy good night air” sing us out of 2009, with all my thanks and good wishes to friends old and new, on (and behind the scenes of), Poem of the Week.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
    Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
    Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
    The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
    The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
    Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
    Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
    The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
    Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
    In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
    Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.


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The Case Against the New Year

Midnight revelry amounts to sheer malarkey; in praise of a sober morning celebration

A 19th century scene of a Japanese New Year’s festival.

The islands of the Kingdom of Tonga, the only surviving monarchy in the Pacific, are tropical, but not quite a paradise. The largest people in the world live there, and they eat a lot of Spam.

Tafahi is a tiny outpost of this chain that is famous for two things: the quality of the vanilla grown there and the fact that it is the nearest inhabited land to the western side of the International Date Line. (The Republic of Kiribati tried to shift the line to make itself the closest in 1999, but the attempt was widely seen as illegal.)


A few years back, I was on Tafahi and bent on uncovering the first man in the world to wake up and greet the New Year. All was black until a few moments after five a.m., when slowly the eastern sky turned an ashen gray color and the outlines of the grass huts were slowly coming into view. A door creaked open and a figure—rather slighter than expected—stepped out into the dim light. “Gruss Gott!” he exclaimed.

The first man in the world to see in that New Year turned out not to be Tongan at all. He was a balding German engineer in cargo pants. He worked at the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg and he had come the 10,000 miles to Tonga to get away from home and all the New Year madness.

New Year madness is a thing of quite modern making, and hardly an improvement on the tradition that long preceded it, which called for a somewhat sober, respectful and reflective morning celebration. I blame the Scots for the worldwide embrace of midnight debauchery. And, of course, whoever it was that, some little while beforehand, went and invented public clocks.

Clocks are the real key. The whole notion of bidding formal and raucous farewell to the Old and offering optimistic greeting to the New was something that could really only occur once we in the public square knew when the exact moment of midnight was. Until the manufacture of proper clock escapements, and until Galileo exhibited the marvels of the pendulum, the slow appearance of dawn just had to do. First light was the only clue anyone had as to the start of a new year.

But then came clocks, at first great clanking iron engines equipped with enormous hanging bells that could inform us of the passing of time. Clocks that could perform this magic were first placed on top of specially-built church towers—initially to wake the villagers from slumber, to bring the harvest-workers home from the fields, or to sound the Angelus and bring in the pious to pray.


New Year’s fireworks in Berlin.

These devices first began to peal their chimes in the 15th century, and they had become popular and quite widely dispersed by the 17th. All towns had them by then, as did most villages—and it was about this time that the Scots, armed with timepieces of their own, enthusiastically got into the act.

They adopted in short order their peculiar twin customs of Hogmanay and First Footing, designed to mark the sliding of one year into another, and by the 1680s they started organizing celebrations around them that eventually had us all getting off on this whole present-day New-Year-begins-at-midnight malarkey. Then a century later Robert Burns wrote the words to “Auld Lang Syne” and set it to a jaunty Scottish dance tune—and with that, and the provision on the last evening of December of copious draughts of whisky, so these normally dour and repressed northern peoples oversaw the beginning of the long decline of the old habit of marking New Year with ceremonies of dignified moderation and temporal respect.

I lived in Scotland for a while, and there was no escaping it. The precise nature of the partying varied from town to town: In one they would manufacture and dress up a gigantic herring and parade it through the streets, in another set ablaze huge smoking bonfires of juniper bushes, and in one fishing village on the North Sea coast, local lads well on in drink would set to swinging dangerous-looking chicken-wire fireballs around their heads, usually until someone got arrested or killed.

All Scotland thus wakes to the New Year in a state of catatonic incapacity, aching of head and foul of temper. All are said to pity them. And there in Scotland would the madness have happily remained—except for that bounder of an English poet, Alfred Tennyson, who got into the act one full century after Robert Burns, by declaiming on a lover’s whim his most famous poem, entitled “Ring Out, Wild Bells.”

And that, quite frankly, did it. Come the year of 1860, wildness on New Year’s Eve anywhere was now and for evermore officially sanctioned. “The year is dying in the night / Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.” The Celtic infection began swiftly to spread south, granted formal permission by a Tennyson who had just been royally-appointed the Poet Laureate, no less—the man who had already given us Nature red in tooth and claw, Theirs not to reason why, ‘Tis better to have loved and lost and a score of other poetic aphorisms.


‘Ring Out, Wild Bells’

By Alfred Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.


And so, wherever thereafter there was in Victorian England a public clock, or time-ball, or a semaphore system capable of informing mobs of the moment of truth, so now great gadding crowds formed to cheer and holler, and good cheer and wild disorder was all around.

The new custom went still further afield: Given the spread of Scotsmen about the Empire, old and new, so the habits born of Hogmanay soon achieved the status of diaspora, fetching up in Hong Kong and Melbourne, Quebec and Singapore, and for the last century or so, in New York City and her American sibling-cities too. In Manhattan in the early days, the clock was still king: The crowds formed usually outside Trinity Church, and waited for the chimes. But then came the subway, and the dropping of the glowing time-ball on what used to be Longacre Square—and so in 1904 was born the most famous New Year custom of them all, for which the good burghers of the Times Square Alliance are doubtless already fully prepared.

But some peoples around the world remain puzzled. My Japanese wife likes to note an inconsistency: We don’t celebrate the equally important holiday of Christmas Day at the stroke of midnight, but try to wait until a decent hour (though most children tend to have other ideas). Much the same, she and her kinfolk insist, should surely apply to New Year also. In Japan they have no interest in staying awake for the Tokyo station clock to chime the hours. Instead they sleep soundly, get up early, give a respectful nod to their rising sun (for which their land is named, after all), then prepare a mighty feast for the day itself, give one another gifts, do their level best to forget the travails and bad debts of the year past, and put on sunny faces for the year to come.

[CovJump2]Late-night fireworks in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Gentler lands elsewhere also try hard to stick to the celebration of dawn and daylight—in places like Thailand, and India, and in the villages of Uganda and in the more traditional corners of Scandinavia, morning is still what means most. In some parts of Greece they eat a special lunchtime cake, usually with a gold coin hidden inside, all in the name of St. Basil the Great. In Croatia there are ceremonies involving either the shoulder-bones or the snouts of a pig, and which tell young Balkan women if they are to get married that year: Should the girl fix her intended with a glare through the snout’s opening on New Year’s morning, he will promptly go insane with love for her.

Mercifully not all of the Balkans are quite so dramatic. In remote villages of Serbia they just eat a tiny oatmeal cake with cream, wash it down with raki and leave it at that. In China they have their own New Year, some weeks later than ours, and then take at least a week off all semblance of work. And in Russia many still cling to the old-style Christian calendar, and will be holding their fire and their vodka for a few more days yet. The bars in New York’s Russian enclave of Brighton Beach will be doing a roaring trade in mid-January, while most other Americans will have long since sobered up.

Despite all these alternative daylight festivities, Western customs are fast easing their way into the fabric everywhere. The crowds will gather in Shinjuku before midnight next Thursday, and one can be sure the Japanese will rage in Tokyo and Osaka and Sapporo when the digital clocks click up to that row of neon zeroes, just as if they were in Trafalgar Square, or on Eighth Avenue or on Princes Street in Edinburgh, where it all began.

But at midnight Tokyo time, remember, it will already be dawn on New Year’s Day in the Kingdom of Tonga. And up north, on the tiny vanilla island of Tafahi, the sky will be lightening, it will once again be time to get up. Germans and Tongans all will be ready to begin another year, with all of them, unlike all too many of the rest of us, well rested and quite sober. Perhaps we should remember the calm wisdom and good fortune of the people in the South Pacific, and take note, and make a resolution. Some hope.

Simon Winchester’s new book, “Atlantic: A Biography of the Ocean,” will be published next year.


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Poem of the week

The Autumn Outings by Maurice Rutherford

References to Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings infuse this week’s poem, a quietly angry look at unemployment and managerial greed by a poet who deserves to be far better known

Closed gate

‘I locked the premises and motored out’.

This week’s poem, “The Autumn Outings”, is by the Hull-born poet Maurice Rutherford, and comes from his 1994 collection Love is a Four-Letter World, published by the (sadly) no longer trading Peterloo Poets. Rutherford’s work is attractively down to earth in tone, soft-spoken in a dry, faintly melancholy English way. His themes, whether historical or personal, are handled with warmth and common sense, and an easily overlooked formal fluency. A political edge is often present, though not usually as plainly declared as in his 1992 tour de force, “The Autumn Outings”.

A near-contemporary of Philip Larkin, Rutherford sometimes uses Larkinesque forms or turns of phrase for his own poetic purposes. He usually does so in a good-humoured, non-parodic way, as if he simply found that Larkin liberated his own ideas. “The Autumn Outings” is perhaps a step closer to satire, being a poem about the joyless catastrophe of unemployment composed in the expansive, optimistic stanza of “The Whitsun Weddings”.

In Larkin’s poem, you’ll remember, a detached narrator describes almost novelistically the train-travelling wedding parties: he makes them comic, even a shade rustic, yet allows them to inhabit a landscape which, however mundane, is lit with a vague sense of possibility. The poem culminates in that famous, mysterious epiphany: “And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled/ A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.”

The journey in “The Autumn Outings” is a lonely, silent, often-repeated one. The narrator, whose own company has gone bust, begins by remembering how he drove away from the closed down plant in pouring rain. The large stanza is utilised not only for a discursive narrative but for impassioned complaint. This is an angry poem, quietly but pointedly bitter about managerial greed and exploitation, and it remains a stringent comment on the grubby and grabby little year of 2009.

For all the references to “The Whitsun Weddings”, it has more serious aims than parody. The references are partly structural, and pathos rather than comedy emerges from the grammatical parallels. But the most important hinge between the two poems is the notion of “wedding”, which Rutherford plays with to considerable effect. His poem certainly does not deny the wedding couples of Larkin’s epithalamium their right to fun and happiness, but it exposes a different, darker dimension of working-class life. The harsh reality is that a man must be “wedded” to his work – until, of course, his work decides to divorce him.

The speaker, unlike Larkin’s narrator, is very much part of his community. He has been a good boss, as the second stanza reveals, and, even in extremis, he thinks compassionately of his employees. Time moves on with the poem, and the fifth stanza unfurls a complaint against Heseltine’s infamous pit closures in the early 1990s.

It turns out that the speaker has remained jobless for years. Now he muses on the general effects of unemployment, including the deterioration of his own high principles in favour of “quick back-pocket jobs”. The “fat cats” are the most culpable, but they are not the only fallible people in this poem.

“The Autumn Outings” rises to a trenchant climax. As at the beginning of the poem, the rhyme sounds insist we hear a commentary on Larkin. The transcendental conclusion of his poem helps underline the stingingly political implications of Rutherford’s, in which he imagines “the spores of loss, somewhere becoming gain”.

Rutherford is a master craftsman. His work should be far better known, but it belongs to a seam of English poetry which recent critics have neglected to mine – post-Movement, perhaps, rather than post-modern, working class but not wearing its class on its sleeve in the more showy “them and uz” manner of Tony Harrison. Let’s hope some enterprising publisher decides to reissue all his collections soon.

The Autumn Outings by Maurice Rutherford

That autumn I was quick getting away:
        only about
one-twenty on the rain-drenched Wednesday
I locked the premises and motored out,
all staff sent home, all workshop plant closed down,
all sense of any kind of business gone,
and not until I’d driven fifteen miles
along fast-flooding roads back into town,
past rival complexes just clinging on,
did rain let up and vision clear: those files

I’d never see again; that desk, the phone
        that shrilled all day
when first it was installed; not hear the moan
compressors made, be soothed by lathes, nor say
‘Good morning George, alright?’, or ‘Nice one, Bert’,
the human touch, no more, not to distract
them too long from their work, but just enough
to let them see I cared, and not to hurt
old feelings as I tried to breast the fact
of cancelled orders, creditors turned rough.

The friendly bank soon bared its teeth – drew blood;
        and then that bane,
the Tax Man, claimed his pound. And so, the flood.
(fine detail dims again as, too, the pain
recedes three autumns on; yet loss stays true.)
The rain comes vicious now – wipers full speed,
dipped headlights on, rear fogs – the journey seems
to lengthen every time I live it through,
involuntarily, as when the need
for sleep is scuppered by recurring dreams.

My crowd was breast-fed clichés, meal on meal:
        to pull its weight,
nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel,
and, once it stepped inside the factory gate,
was wedded to its work; slapped all the time
by Newbolt’s hand: Play up, and play the game.
Well, this sounds fine; but what about the bloke
who’s anorexic, short-nosed, cannot climb
to reach the wheel, and never makes the team?
For him such wedding tales are guffs of smoke.

Again the morning paper hits the floor –
        banner headlined
PIT CLOSURES SHOCK – and umpteen thousand more
are facing broken marriages to mines.
A few, lured by that bit-of-fresh, fool’s gold,
pin hopes on boarding-houses, market-stalls;
one man sits out his protest down the pit,
while lefties call for strikes with all the old
clenched-fist salutes, and aerosol the walls:

Their first few days of idleness will see
        in those it hits
undreamed-of traits in personality:
some will get by and others go to bits;
the strong become the weak, the weak make good
as quickly as it’s said. Then, as the days
stack up to months or, as in my case, years,
high principles get trampled in the mud
where guile and self-survival point new ways
to quick back-pocket jobs, fiddles and fears

of being caught. But fears will yield, in time,
        a sort of pride,
though not the social pride that saw men climb
from old-world swamps: a sense that one’s defied
the odds, the system; finger-licked the crème,
nose-thumbed some top brass, bested those who made
the rules and all the running. What survives?
Of Us: too early yet to tell. Of Them:
‘Indifferents and Incapables’; their trade
in UB40s and P45s.

In brass-lined boardrooms up and down the land
        deep in regret
a million more redundancies get planned,
while chairmen’s hiked-up salaries are set,
and Urban Councils chase arrears in rents.
Wide-boys, insider-dealers, some M.P.s
grow richer by a second home in Spain,
a custom-plated white Mercedes Benz,
that new portfolio. True-blue disease.
The spores of loss, somewhere becoming gain.


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Poem of the week

Accident & Emergency by Nessa O’Mahony

An unforgiving look this week at the devaluation of old age in modern society

Ambulances outside A&E

Landing with a bump in A&E.

Time travelling merrily across the centuries like Old Nick, as we do on Poem of the week, it’s easy to notice how concepts of poetry have radically changed. Poets used to be issued with a standard set of prosodic tools and inheritance of topics, attitudes, tropes and metaphors. Of course, these borrowed clothes, it was agreed, should be restitched and worn as if new for the poetry to be admired and remembered. However, there was a classically guaranteed foundation on which to build the originality, and a basic aesthetic contract between the poet and his (mostly, his) similarly educated society of readers and listeners. The contract begins to alter some time before the 20th century, but that’s a long story, and a different blog. Here in 2009, there are as many poets as there are beliefs, and rows, about poetry. Call it diversity or democracy – it makes for a rich aesthetic brew, but one that confuses audiences, or splits them into consumer groups so tiny that poets sometimes feel, to borrow Simon Armitage’s apt analogy, as if they’re shouting down a toilet bowl.

But there are unchanging themes. Time’s passing is one of the major human obsessions, and poetry can’t let it alone, despite the fact that there is little intrinsically new to say. The discovery that the grim reaper comes not only for grandma and grandpa, he comes for your parents and he’s coming for you, provides our sharpest moments of maturation. Poetry clings to what matters most to us, and cruel death and time’s rapid passing matter most of all. The art of verse is time-obsessed in its very structure. The rhythmic line ticks along, stops and starts, breathes in and out and finally breathes its last, at which point the poet feels more cheerful. Every poet secretly hopes what Shakespeare dared write: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see/ So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

Art is better than Botox when it comes to arguing with the crass old philistine, time. Simply to write or read a poem puts time on hold, or at least temporarily controls it. The poem may not outlive the poet, but it always outlives the moment of its conception, delicately hammering passing thoughts into what Yeats called in Sailing to Byzantium “the artifice of eternity”.

This week’s poem by Dublin-born writer Nessa O’Mahony begins appropriately with a nod to Yeats’s magnificent poem. We come down with a bump in A&E – and even here, the self-indulgent young are in favour. The voice of the poem begins angry. As the narrative develops, it seems more detached, and begins to resemble the voice we expect from someone old – the voice of patience and wry humour. Little jokes (“Eighth on the list”, “You’d need a calendar in here” ) poignantly reinforce the sense of resignation.

Yet, the poem is unforgiving. It deplores the hospital’s implied hierarchy of care. The devaluation of old age isn’t simply a matter of an overworked or inefficient health service, though: the young do actually “forget” that for the old, the calendar might not contain many years or even many months. O’Mahony’s A&E department is a microcosm of western society. Ageing brings fear and fixed attitudes – not only to those in wheelchairs. The liturgical diction here and there (“moveable feast”, “ordained”) hints at an imprisoning dogma.

In the last two lines, to “forget/ how time passes” means, perhaps, to forget how quickly time passes. It could also mean to forget in what way time passes for the old. Above all, the final generalisation bears a message to the forgetful, a quiet memo to say “it’s your time that’s passing, too”.

The carpe diem tradition is touched on. The old aren’t, of course, being urged to make use of their time. But, between the lines, the poem asks society to make time for the old. A set of observations rooted in our modern, urban world, in which individuals are often lost in the institutions set up to protect them. It shows how poetry’s most traditional theme can be revalidated and subtly challenged in the light of our own contemporary values – or lack of them.

O’Mahony is currently artist in residence at the John Hume Institute for Global Irish Studies at University College Dublin, and writing a novel on a 19th-century Irishman who exhibited himself at Fairgrounds on the Pacific Rim. Her verse-novel, In Sight of Home, has recently been published by Salmon. Bar Talk, her first collection, can be read here. Trapping a Ghost, her second, can be seen here. Other work is online here.

Accident & Emergency

That is no country for old men;
the youth get sloshed
and stagger through double doors,
tattoos on their arms,
eyes stoned.

The old men wait,
knowing their turn
is a moveable feast,
despite the bluecoat’s promises
they are eighth on the list.

And still they wait,
observe the to and fro,
the quick dispatch
of those who arrived
much later than they,
assess whose recovery
would seem the better bet.

Day crawls into night,
the digital clock
a silent mockery,
(you’d need a calendar in here)
names called,
anyone’s but theirs.

Glued to wheelchairs,
their motions
are at the whim
of orderlies.

The old men wait;
they know they have no choice.
It has been ordained
by those who perhaps forget
how time passes.


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Poster poems


The festive season has produced a great deal of mushy doggerel, but plenty of beautiful poetry, too. Please write some more of the latter

Michael Landy's Christmas tree

Michael Landy’s interpretation of the Christmas tree at the Tate Gallery in 1997.

Well, it’s that time of year again. Last year I dodged the Christmas bullet somewhat by calling for your poems on the subject of food, but this time around I’ve decided to embrace the season wholeheartedly. Yes, I’m after your Yuletide verses.

There are, of course, lots of Christmas poems; having conducted a rigorous poll of one person, I’ve found that the most famous of them all is Twas the Night before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore. The little fat man with the white beard; the reindeer; the sleigh full of toys; the snow: this poem contains all the elements of what we have come to think of as the traditional Christmas scene, even though we actually know that this version of the festival is a Victorian invention.

However, the feast of Christmas is far older than Prince Albert, a fact that we are reminded of most forcibly by two rather wonderful 17th-century poems, Robert Herrick’s Ceremonies for Christmas, with its images of food, drink and the Yule fire, and A Christmas Carol by George Wither, which adds the age-old tradition of bringing winter greenery indoors for the mid-winter festival. The vision of Christmas that is represented in these poems was remarkably resilient and enduring; there is a strong thread that links them to Wordsworth’s Minstrels, a poem that dates from the very cusp of the Victorian era.

These three poems also serve to remind us that Christmastide has long been associated with music and song, and most of us will have a much-loved carol or two we like to sing along with. My own favourite is The Holly and the Ivy, with its echoes of older, pre-Christian December celebrations.

The 19th century also appears to have been the time when Christmas became associated with hearth, home and the family, as so many things did under Victoria, and this resulted in a good deal of very sentimental versification. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Christmas at Sea is as maudlin as you could ask for, but, as you might expect from Stevenson, it’s rather better written than most poems of its ilk. It would be all too easy to mock this slushy view of the festive season, but before you give in to cynicism, I feel I should remind you of the fate of the hero of Ogden Nash’s The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus.

Many 20th century poets, including some of those who are considered difficult or elitist, wrote excellent Christmas poems. TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi is extremely well-known; perhaps less popular, but no less enjoyable, is EE Cummings’s little tree, a poem that seems, to me at least, to combine Victorian sentiment with rousing singability.

Of course, the songwriters of the last century also found inspiration, and a decent source of income, in marking Christmas. Many of their songs are emblematic of the modern Yuletide, some are unbearably mawkish, others are just unbearable. But there are gems amongst them, and my personal favourite is the little-played River by Joni Mitchell.

And so I invite your seasonal poems. You may be cynical, wide-eyed, sentimental, disgusted by the rampant commercialism you see all around you, or simply exhausted from shopping. One way or another, I hope you’ll feel inspired. And so it just remains for me to say, in the words of the poet, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”


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Dannie Abse’s top 10 20th century poetry collections

Dannie Abse is a doctor and poet who is inspired by both vocations, as well as his Welsh and Jewish ancestry. He has written fifteen books of poetry and his latest work is his autobiography, Goodbye, Twentieth Century.

1. Collected Poems by TS Eliot (Faber)
Because this book contains The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock as well as the grand major sweep of The Waste Land and The Four Quartets.

2. Poems from the Book of Hours by RM Rilke, translated from the German by Babette Deutsch (Vision Press)
Because their excitements teach me how to silence the clamour made by my own senses.

3. Poems by George Seferis, translated from the Greek by Rex Warner (The Bodley Head)
Because Seferis’s work makes my hair stand on end.

4. Collected Poems by Edward Thomas (Faber)
Because I love his country verse and because he is the best poet of the first world war.

5. Collected Poems by WH Auden (Faber)
Because I took this book to Roy Plomley’s desert island and found the poems not merely brilliant but also durable.

6. Collected Poems by Dylan Thomas (Dent)
Because the music of his words resonates in my mind and will as long as forever is.

7. Collected Poems by Bernard Spencer (Oxford University Press)
Because he was a fine pleasure-giving poet too much neglected.

8. Life Studies by Robert Lowell (Faber)
Because the poem’s confessional nakedness is compelling.

9. Collected Poems by Philip Larkin (Faber)

Because his poems with their sharp-eyed images portray the feelings of the man next door.

10. View with a Grain of Sand by Wislawa Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Baranczak and Cavanagh (Faber)

Because Szymborska is the best woman poet of our time and offers us accessible, ironically humorous poems underpinned by her life experience of her country’s marked vicissitudes in the 20th century.


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Poem of the week

Weeping Woman by Grace Nichols

This time, a distinctly ‘cubist’ attempt to reclaim one of Picasso’s muses as her own woman

Portrait of Yugoslav-born photographer and artist Dora Maar

Portrait of Yugoslav-born photographer and artist Dora Maar (born Markovich, 1907 – 1997) posing beside one of her paintings.

The surrealist photographer Dora Maar was the subject of many paintings by her lover, Pablo Picasso. Tate Modern’s Weeping Woman is one of an eponymous series of jagged, vibrant, howlingly anguished portraits. It was during a residency at the gallery that Grace Nichols was inspired to find a voice to express the feelings behind, and within, the painted face. The resulting sequence, 20 interlocked monologues of varying shapes, is itself somehow Cubist, in that it depicts many angles and sides of the subject’s emotional life. Also called “Weeping Woman”, it opens Nichols’s latest Bloodaxe collection, the title of which title borrows a repeated, key line from the sequence, “Picasso, I want my face back”.

The voice Nichols gives to her “Weeping Woman” is as many-coloured as the painting itself. Often enraged, it can also be sardonic, self-mocking, resigned, and even reluctantly admiring: “this is the closest / anyone has got to the pain,” the portrait admits in the first poem of the sequence.

The direct, moody frankness with which “Dora Maar” speaks – to us the spectators, to herself and to Picasso – is a particularly attractive quality of the sequence. Without any suggestion that the poet is putting explanatory words into her mouth, the narrator talks about herself in her own vernacular, creating her own fragmented biographical portrait within the frame of Picasso’s painting. Maar’s story is the portrait of a woman who is an artist as well as a “Muse-mistress”: the psychological plot of the sequence is the loss and recovery of autonomy, and a change of vocation from photography to religious faith.

Nichols employs ekphrasis not only to present Picasso’s painting but to evoke some of Maar’s photographs, such as her portrait of “a blind man sitting / with his white cane in the sun – / his remming eyes / dreaming their inner visions.” The speaker refers to her “Guernica witness” (Maar photographed this painting at various stages of its composition) and to the “floating foetuses” – a reference to one of her most surreal and celebrated photos, Père Ubu, (suggested by the eponymous “hero” of Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play), which is said to show the foetus of an armadillo.

With Nichols’s help, I’ve picked four poems from the sequence: 2, 3, 14 and 15. Poem 2 gives us a picture of mutilation and self-mutilation, as the abandoned mistress remembers her first meeting with Picasso, when she cut her fingers in a game-of-chance with a penknife: apparently, Picasso was entranced by this, and always kept her bloodstained gloves. The sardonic note enters in poem 3, as the muse ironically registers her secondhand celebrity, hinting at the inflated financial worth of the painting as her tears become “big rolling diamonds”. Other aspects of Maar’s life, and the imagined life of the portrait, are dealt with in the intervening poems: her regretted sterility; her dread of the staring gallery-crowds (“Children, they’re the worst:/ Their candid eyes and carrying voices … “). Poems 14 and 15 conduct an unresolved dialogue with herself: the angry voice wins this particular argument, with furious rhymes studding the ends of the lines in stanza 2 of poem 15.

The sequence takes us through a psychological narrative. Maar survives her “unrooting” and her goring by the “grappling bull” Picasso, learns to delight in the vibrant colours he has given her, and is finally able to separate herself from the distorting vision that so cruelly exposed her pain: “Picasso’s art is Picasso’s art. / Not one is Dora Maar.” Although “there will always be a weeping woman”, this particular one, intact, walks out of the frame and into freedom.
From Weeping Woman
(Dora Maar)
Pablo Picasso (1937)


Even my hat mocks me
on the inside of my grief –

My twisted mouth
and gnashing teeth,
my fingers fat and clumsy
as if they were still wearing
those gloves –
the bloodstained ones you keep.

What has happened
to the pupils
of my eyes, Picasso?

Why do I deserve
such deformity?

What am I now
if not a cross between
a clown and a broken
piece of crockery?


But I am famous.
People recognise me
despite my fractures.

I’m no Mona Lisa
(how I’d like to wipe
the smugness from her face
that still captivates.)

Doesn’t she know that art, great art,
needn’t be an oil-painting?

I am a magnet
not devoid of beauty.

I am an icon
of twentieth-century grief.

A symbol
of compositional possibilities

My tears are tears of happiness –
big rolling diamonds.


Picasso, I want my face back
the unbroken photography of it

Once I lived to be stroked
by the fingers of your brushes

Now I see I was more an accomplice
to my own unrooting

Watching the pundits gaze
open-mouthed at your masterpieces

While I hovered like a battered muse
my private grief made public.


Dora, Theodora, be reasonable, if it weren’t for Picasso
you’d hardly be remembered at all.
He’s given you an unbelievable shelf-life.
Yes, but who will remember the fruits of my own life?

I am no moth flitting around his wick.
He might be a genius but he’s also a prick –
Medusa, Cleopatra, help me find my inner bitch,
wasn’t I christened Henriette Theodora Markovitch?

Picasso, I want my face back
the unbroken geography of it.


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Poem of the week

Living by Harold Monro

Poetry Bookshop founder Harold Monro’s work strikes a balance between the ‘dark Scot’ and the life-hungry idealist

Fog in the countryside

‘The sun tries to break through the trees’ …

Where does your muse of literary nostalgia like to roam? 1920s Montmartre, perhaps, or 12th-century Provence? To the Anglo-Saxon mead hall, the Mermaid Tavern or  the “local” where you and a few young hopefuls once swapped photocopies of your latest masterpieces?  One time-travel destination I rather fancy is the Poetry Bookshop, c 1913.  Ruth Tomalin evokes it memorably in her preface to Harold Monro’s Collected Poems (ed. Alida Monro, Duckworth, 1970). We see Ezra Pound, blazing-eyed, preaching the laws of Imagism, while Ralph Hodgson changes the subject to boxing, and Charlotte Mew quietly purchases some children’s rhyme-sheets to colour in at home. In a nearby coffee shop, a young Wilfred Owen broods over his rejection slip from the Poetry Review.

The Poetry Bookshop, Tomalin tells us, was housed in an 18th-century building at 35 Devonshire Street – a working street in those days, mainly occupied by gold-beaters. It offered publication and readings as well as books for sale and fireside hospitality: it even gave temporary accommodation in its attic rooms to wandering poets (Robert Frost was one).

The bookshop owed its existence to the passion and the modest private income of Monro (and later, of course, to the indefatigable Alida Klemantaski, the young Polish assistant who became Monro’s second wife). Monro wanted new poetry to reach a bigger audience. He was at heart a Shelleyan romantic who nevertheless responded excitedly to the radical poetics of his age. He saw criticism as vital to the art, and was the founding editor of the Poetry Review. In its first issue, he wrote a stirring manifesto calling for a new, unsentimental but non-realist poetry “springing from the roots of life”.

Although he was never a thorough-going Imagist, Monro was no insipid Georgian, either. This week’s poem, Living, is a psychological meditation that is as fluid as Monro’s personality, and gives voice both to the death-haunted depressive and the ardent, life-hungry idealist. Its startling range of imagery includes a sketch of the functions of the nervous system, a builder’s crane, a drab interior with clothes-peg and clock, and a gloriously expansive outdoors.

Today, Monro is probably best known for a curious little dialogue-poem, Overheard On a Saltmarsh, an inconclusive contest between a nymph and a goblin who covets her green glass beads. The poem became a schools anthology favourite – to Monro’s surprise. It wasn’t intended for children. Yet there is undoubtedly a childlike quality flitting through some of Monro’s poems – not connected to the thought itself, but to those moments of sing-song repetition. Living, for instance, has the repeated use of “I” as a rhyme-word, and “Why?” occurs three times, as if spoken by a plaintive child.

Critics suggest his work is not always entirely his own, but that impression may, ironically, result from the fact that other writers picked up its original note. TS Eliot, for example, who thought very highly of the senior poet, and published him in The Criterion, undoubtedly echoes Monro’s style at times in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.

Monro pushes at the edges of thematic and formal conventions without drawing attention to the fact. There are not many gestures or efforts at fancy footwork. The “dark Scot” (as his friend, the imagist poet FS Flint, called him) is nearly always present, and guarantees an absolute seriousness of tone, even when the rhythms seem playful.

At times, the writer he seems to resemble most is Virginia Woolf: he, too, travelled on a slow, meandering stream-of-consciousness, interested as much by things seen as by thought-processes and the passage of time. He believed that, for contemporary poets “the spirit of Darwin” was inescapable, and simultaneously suffered anguish as he forced himself to accept the absence of individual immortality. “Living” takes us into that anguish, and out again into hard-won affirmation.


Slow bleak awakening from the morning dream 
Brings me in contact with the sudden day. 
I am alive – this I. 
I let my fingers move along my body. 
Realization warns them, and my nerves 
Prepare their rapid messages and signals. 
While Memory begins recording, coding, 
Repeating; all the time Imagination 
Mutters: You’ll only die. 

Here’s a new day. O Pendulum move slowly! 
My usual clothes are waiting on their peg. 
I am alive – this I. 
And in a moment Habit, like a crane, 
Will bow its neck and dip its pulleyed cable, 
Gathering me, my body, and our garment, 
And swing me forth, oblivious of my question, 
Into the daylight – why? 

I think of all the others who awaken, 
And wonder if they go to meet the morning 
More valiantly than I; 
Nor asking of this Day they will be living:  
What have I done that I should be alive? 
O, can I not forget that I am living?  
How shall I reconcile the two conditions: 
Living, and yet – to die? 
Between the curtains the autumnal sunlight 
With lean and yellow finger points me out; 
The clock moans: Why? Why? Why? 
But suddenly, as if without a reason, 
Heart, Brain, and Body, and Imagination 
All gather in tumultuous joy together, 
Running like children down the path of morning 
To fields where they can play without a quarrel: 
A country I’d forgotten, but remember, 
And welcome with a cry. 
O cool glad pasture; living tree, tall corn, 
Great cliff, or languid sloping sand, cold sea, 
Waves; rivers curving; you, eternal flowers, 
Give me content, while I can think of you: 
Give me your living breath! 
Back to your rampart, Death.


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Poem of the week

Gascoigne’s Lullaby by George Gascoigne

The Elizabethan writer manages to fuse a geriatric lullaby and a love poem

Woman singing to a baby

Woman singing to a baby.

As novelists and readers blush at fictional failures to rise to the challenge of writing sexily about sex, let us celebrate on Poem of the Week the wit, lyricism and, yes, subtle eroticism of Gascoigne’s Lullaby.

At once, that personalising title issues a warning. The Elizabethan memento mori (of which George Gascoigne’s poem is a species) is as unlikely to be autobiographical as the average Petrarchan sonnet of that period. Still, when a poem’s perspective seems especially distinctive, it’s tempting, and perhaps justified, to look for personal reference in it, as we do when we seek the identity of Shakespeare’s “master-mistress” or read Wyatt’s poignant lyrics in the light of his relationship with Anne Boleyn. However, it’s worth remembering that in 1572 when the poem was collected in A Hundred Sundry Flowers, George Gascoigne was most probably not yet 50. He could have been syphilitic, or otherwise infirm, of course. On the other hand, his narrator may be as unreliable as his erection.

Gascoigne was a restlessly innovative writer. Here, he has spliced genres and produced something new, amusing and beautiful – a geriatric lullaby which is also, virtually, a love-poem. Assonance is revelled in, but perfectly controlled. The frequent repetition of the word “lullaby” is a master-stroke and ensures that the poem has all the onomatopoeic lilt of a true lullaby. The liquid consonant, L, infiltrates the sound-scape. We frequently meet with “still” and “stilled”: “will” is three times a rhyme-word, picked up twice by “still” and once by “skill”. And we also have “beguile/ beguiled”, that lovely old word meaning “deceive (d)”. Further alliterative effects include the repeated “w” sounds in the first and final stanzas. These sound effects are often delicately humorous, but more than that, they act as gentle brakes, pulling the poem back a little from the swift on-rush of its metre. And, of course, that braking motion reminds us of the theme: renunciation.

The lulling of sexual energies leads the poet to suggest that he has become womanly as well as babyish (and old). But, whatever the state of his hormones, the speaker draws on other sources of creative energy. Gascoigne’s line, despite the consonantal brake pads, never loses its robustness. There is no flaccidity, even if “little Robin” has gone to sleep.

Sensual joy is not only present in the sounds; its recollection glimmers in such lines as, “Full many wanton babes have I/ Which must be stilled by lullaby” – a couplet which conjures both a scattering of illegitimate offspring, and a posse of grown-up “babes” who couldn’t keep their hands off the speaker. From this moment on, it seems as if the word “lullaby” becomes, as a verb, a mischievous synonym for “make-love-to”. As a noun, it hints at self-pleasuring. Whenever it occurs, it creates a motion of playful fondling.

As far as I know, the poem has not been set to music, but it evokes the melodies of many traditional cradle-songs. Such tunes are often in a minor key. Is this because the genre is linked to the nativity, and Mary’s premonition of the death of the Christ-child? Or is it because all child-birth was once a potent reminder of mortality? This poem’s cadences carry mournful echoes, but the touch is like a skilled lutenist’s, light and charming.

Gascoigne’s farewell to sex, after all, may not be final. Sleepers awake – sometimes with an erection. “And when you rise with waking eye, /Remember Gascoigne’s lullaby.” There is perhaps a suspicion here that the writer’s warning to give himself a well-earned break may not be heeded.

So shall we posthumously offer Gascoigne’s Lullaby the No Sex Award? Or the Good Sex Award, even? And which poem would you nominate for the Bad Sex prize?

Gascoigne’s Lullaby

Sing lullaby, as women do,
Wherewith they bring their babes to rest;
And lullaby can I sing too,
As womanly as can the best.
With lullaby they still the child,
And if I be not much beguiled,
Full many wanton babes have I
Which must be stilled with lullaby.

First, lullaby my youthful years,
It is now time to go to bed;
For crooked age and hoary hairs
Have won the haven within my head.
With lullaby, then, youth, be still,
With lullaby content thy will,
Since courage quails and comes behind,
Go sleep, and so beguile thy mind.

Next, lullaby my gazing eyes
Which wonted were to glance apace.
For every glass may now suffice
To show the furrows in my face.
With lullaby, then, wink awhile,
With lullaby your looks beguile.
Let no fair face, nor beauty bright
Entice you eft with vain delight.

And lullaby, my wanton will:
Let reason’s rule now reign thy thought,
Since all too late I find by skill
How dear I have thy fancies bought.
With lullaby now take thine ease,
With lullaby thy doubts appease
For trust to this, if thou be still,
My body shall obey thy will.

Eke lullaby my loving boy,
My little Robin, take thy rest.
Since age is cold and nothing coy,
Keep close thy coin, for so is best.
With lullaby be thou content,
With lullaby thy lusts relent.
Let others pay which hath mo pence;
Thou art too poor for such expense.

Thus, lullaby my youth, mine eyes,
My will, my ware and all that was.
I can no mo delays devise,
But welcome pain, let pleasure pass.
With lullaby now take your leave,
With lullaby your dreams deceive,
And when you rise with waking eye,
Remember Gascoigne’s lullaby.


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Poem of the week

Reconstruction by Zoë Skoulding

This week, an inventive exploration of the forgetting built in to remembering

Warsaw's reconstructed Old Town

‘As if nothing had happened’ … Warsaw’s reconstructed Old Town.

This week’s poem was first published in Skoulding’s third full-length collection Remains of a Future City (Seren 2008). As the paradoxical title of that volume suggests, many of the poems are concerned with cities as psychological and linguistic spaces. Their open forms allow mysterious echoes and passageways to disturb and enchant the physical locations they describe.

“Reconstruction” is more traditionally structured. Like the surrounding poems, it resists a single, fixed location; however, its focus is partly the post-war renovation of Warsaw’s Old Town, an area completely razed by the Nazis in retaliatory fury over the attempted uprising. The new buildings, completed in 1963, perfectly replicate those of the pre-war city.

The poem, while not in an open form, is innovatively shaped. It seems to combine elements both from that safe-as-houses mediaeval form, the sestina, and from the intricate pantoum: its accumulative structure also suggests folk-tales such as The House That Jack Built. The invented form is solidly put together, with its dense packing of repeated lines and end-words. But, as the poem literally builds itself, adding an extra line stanza by stanza, it lures the reader constantly to the invisible and illusory. The buildings look “as if nothing had happened”, yet something stupendous clearly has. Trying to imagine “the places that bricks were not the edges of” induces a kind of vertigo, with no hand-rail of reassuring images, simply a sense of open space. In plain but strangely transparent language, the poem reaches towards the metaphysical. We’re reminded that the rebuilding of the city depended on memory and language, and that therefore forgetfulness and loss of language are also in-built.

“Reconstruction” is a reminder of the lost spaces and faded memories into which the robustly renovated city may almost disappear. Perhaps the physical re-building has replaced memory, or has displaced the mental rebuilding that memory is? Subtly, the poem seems to revise the old saying, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It whispers, delicately and disturbingly, that the more things stay the same, the more they change.


These days you forget how the bricks
were piled up all over again,
their edges just where they were before
as if nothing had happened.
As if nothing had happened
they hold the shop-fronts up, the bricks
under stucco and paint again
making a surface as they did before
the words fell down.
The words fell down
and nobody knew what had happened
to the places that bricks
were not the edges of. Making them again
meant bricking up the way things were before,
so that nothing could ever be different.
Although it is different
you forget it, looking down
the street where if you happened
not to know you’d never see where new bricks
are mortared to the old. The walls are here again
but the air between them changed before
it could be sealed inside a memory,
for if you build around a memory
words come first and walls follow. It’s no different
from how it was, the plaster smoothed down
over the gap of what might never have happened.
The sky glows on an outline of bricks.
You open the window wordlessly. You shut it. Again
the room shifts another breath from what it was before
whatever it was that these days you forget.


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Poem of the week

Stone Poems by Douglas Skrief

Skrief’s nature poems sidestep the ‘egotistical sublime’ by allowing nature to speak

Antrophomorphic stones in the Andes

Antrophomorphic stones in the Andes.

Some poems enrol us as respectful admirers: others walk straight in through an open door in our minds and make themselves at home, admired no less, but also intimate friends. I felt this about Douglas Skrief’s new book-length sequence, Stone Poems, and I have chosen a handful of separate poems from different sections to give you a glimpse of its pleasures.

One way in which contemporary nature poets subvert the Wordsworthian “egotistical sublime” is by giving the natural world its own ego and voice. Ted Hughes and Alice Oswald employ this technique: the poet’s thoughts “too deep for tears” are transferred to “the meanest flower” itself. Such dramatisation allows the writer unostentatiously to be present, while accessing unconventional or more powerful forms of utterance.

The ancient boulder which talks to the poet in Stone Poems inhabits the south shore of Rainy Lake, in the US/Canadian border region of the Upper Midwest. “Court records,” Skrief writes, “say that for over half a century my family has owned the Northern Minnesota bedrock on which the stone sits. The records do not mention the stone.” Skrief has rectified this: the stone has become its own vivid historian, and the poet owns it in the sense that he has fully imagined it.

Describing his educational background, Skrief lists Harvard and Oxford and “the sweat lodges of the Ojibway”. So it seems he may owe his vision not only to the Romantic poets but to the animistic beliefs of this Native American people. His ease with a natural world infused with consciousness permeates all his observations.

Skrief’s imagination is nonetheless soundly scientific: all the elements in his universe cohere as a vast family-unit, whether they are gases, glaciers, coyote or human beings. Time often seems compressed, as if, as some physicists believe, events are simultaneous. The inevitability of evolution and change also comes across strongly in the later poems. When the boulder describes how its lichens are learning to break down “the latest particulates” emitted by nearby industrial workings, we are reminded of nature’s prodigious adaptability. Whatever its terrors, progress is seen as inevitable, already implicit when the lichens “first saw a two-leggèd skip a flat stone”.

There are five sections in the sequence: Origins, Visitors, Awakenings, Words to the Word-Giver and Change. The boulder begins by recalling its originary “time amid stars” and “the crush/ before upheavals of deep horizons”. It remembers how “A she-mastodon’s single tusk dislodged iced lichens” and then evokes its human visitors: the priestess and the shaman, the fur-traders and “frost-bit men culling pine”. In sections 3 and 4, the poet’s personal relationship with the boulder is considered, and its own “character” emerges as it talks with the poet more intimately, and absorbs and reflects a more complex consciousness. The tone is authoritative, calm, amused, occasionally cranky or challenging, but un-judgmental. This stone values language, and sometimes addresses the human “Tongue of Creation” in a prayer-like chant. Whether rocks or pebbles, canticles, stories or haiku-like snapshots, the poems combine melody and harmony, clean outline and dense texture.

Together they form the portrait of a man and a boulder; they are also the celebration and song of a particular region, its wildlife, its history, its native and immigrant cultures. But these Stone Poems are good travellers: they talk to any reader willingly, as if they shared our own profoundest memories, too.


For a moon, round an ash-wood fire,
seven warriors counselled, content
this point was theirs. One dragged his leg.
Another, with oak-bark skin, picked at scars
on his left shin. A boy, with the voice
of a brook, assented to every plan.
They laughed. They called him
On their last day, they re-lashed spears,
ochred faces and launched their craft.
That evening a white-tailed coyote sniffed,
then lifted his leg – his scent a mix
of juniper berries and dead mice.
(from Visitors)


Words can’t reattach a weasel paw left in a trap
or replant spruce seedlings uprooted when stags rut.
Moose shed their racks, and mice feast.
If I cracked in half, part of you would die –
your words careening like fireflies in a jar.
Be a grizzly. Swat open the anthill.
Release your needles to the squalls.
Let storm-washed gravel fret your banks
before frost sets the clay.
(from Words to the Word-Giver)


A shot. An elk avalanched, antlers
balanced even as it collapsed.
I’ll be here in the morning.
It may not look like courage.
(from Awakenings)


They flamed unwavering, long into the night.
Not stars washed up on the far beach.
Not lightning bolts persisting on singed retinas.
Not campfires diminishing to coals
as old storytellers lost momentum. No.
Streetlights. Houselights. Car lights. Approaching
till we could see up close how brashly they vied
with the splendid humility of the auroras.
(from Change)


Ants build mounds with my castoffs.
Bears splinter wild plum bows.
Frost heaves fox holes as easily
as fire sears dry yarrow. Their dreams –
all memory. You pile stones, yank up
the reed bed, mow the poplar volunteers.
Promise if you ever choose to move me,
Word-Giver, you’ll start with a prayer.
(from Change)


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Poem of the week

Our Be’thplace by William Barnes

This pastoral vision of a country childhood shows how dialect can imbue language with fresh vitality

Family walking

‘Wi? little tooes, we wore / The paths our fathers trod avore’ …

Any “literary” poet who chooses to write in dialect must have what we would call today “a political agenda”. William Barnes (1801-1886), poet and philologist, certainly had. His efforts to formalise the grammar of the dialect spoken by the “land-folk” of his native Blackmore Vale were aimed at their political inclusion. In an otherwise scholarly Grammar of Dorset Dialect, he illustrates his claim that “homely speech” is perfectly adequate to the grandest occasion with what he claims to be a translation of “Her Majesty’s Speech to the Houses on the Opening of Parliament, 1863”. It begins: “My Lords an’ Gentlemen! We be a-bid to tell you, that, vor-all the hwome war in North America is a-holdèn on, the common treäde o’ the land, vor the last year, don’t seem to be a-vell off.”

Surprisingly, for a man who was a schoolmaster and priest as well as a poet, he opposed the use of Latin, Greek and French vocabulary. Just as he wanted an Anglo-Saxon-based dialect to be at home in the most formal company, he wanted his poems to be enjoyed by ordinary working men and women. And, in his devoted regionalism, he was undoubtedly motivated by the wider concern of preserving the social and agricultural traditions which were already under threat from such developments as the enclosure of common land.

The very word, “enclosure”, invokes John Clare for most readers, and I wonder why Barnes is so much less-regarded in England today. The English like their poets tragic, of course: mental breakdown is recommended for anyone in search of a reputation. Perhaps his work is perceived as difficult, but in fact the Dorset dialect is easy to understand. And Barnes was always kind and campaigning enough to include a glossary in his collections.

Thomas Hardy, a greater poet, but, I would guess, one deeply indebted to Barnes, edited a fine selection of the older writer’s work, and makes a salient point in his introduction. “For some reason, or none, many persons suppose that when anything is penned in the tongue of the country-side, the primary intent is burlesque or ridicule.” Hardy knew what he was talking about. Even today, the spoof west country accent is found comic and thought inoffensive to those who speak it. But you need only read a little way into Barnes to forget all the bad parodies of The Archers and find freshness and colour, and an emotional range that is far from limited to the comic or sentimental.

The poetic gains of Barnes’s dialect-writing are clear: it’s as if the English language had been dipped in fresh paint. Even when the spelling simply indicates a different pronunciation, the effect can be magical. He writes “zun” instead of “sun” and that perfectly comprehensible word seems to gain a heightened meaning and produce a different sort of sun: brassier, harder, hotter. The “worold” is earthier than the mere “world”, the “woak” tree is more gnarled, somehow, than a simple oak tree, and the “elem” broader and shadier than the elm.

This week’s poem, “Our Be’thplace”, is interesting in its use of characteristic Dorset structures – the frequent use of the verbal affix, “a”, for example. Numerous elisions create a softer and more fluid effect than found in the usual iambic tetrameter written in Standard English. But there is conscious, even self-conscious, craft in it. That beautifully easy folk-melody is stippled with the internal rhymes whose potential Barnes had discovered in studying Welsh poetry.

It is one of the most accessible of the dialect poems: any moments of puzzlement are easily resolved by saying it aloud. You don’t need the Dorset glossary – except perhaps for “hatch” in the second line – meaning “a little gate”.

Our Be’thplace

How dear’s the door a latch do shut,
An’ geärden that a hatch do shut,
Where vu’st our bloomèn cheaks ha’ prest
The pillor ov our childhood’s rest;
Or where, wi’ little tooes, we wore
The paths our fathers trod avore,
Or climb’d the timber’s bark aloft,
Below the singèn lark aloft,
The while we heard the echo sound
Drough all the ringèn valley round.
A lwonsome grove o’ woak did rise
To screen our house, where smoke did rise
A-twistèn blue, while yeet the zun
Did langthen on our childhood’s fun;
An’ there, wi’ all the sheäpes an’ sounds
O’ life, among the timbered grounds,
The birds upon their boughs did zing,
An’ milkmaids by their cows did zing,
Wi’ merry sounds that softly died
A-ringèn down the valley zide.
By river banks wi’ reeds a-bound,
An’ sheenèn pools wi’ weeds a-bound,
The long-necked gander’s ruddy bill
To snow-white geese did cackle sh’ill
An’ stridèn peewits heästen’d by
O’ tiptoes wi’ their screamèn cry;
An’ stalkèn cows a-lowèn loud,
An’ struttèn cocks a-crowèn loud,
Did rouse the echoes up to mock
Their mingled sounds by hill an’ rock.
The stars that climb’d our skies all dark,
Above our sleepèn eyes all dark,
An’ zuns a-rollèn round to bring
The seasons on from spring to spring,
Ha’ vled, wi’ never-restèn flight,
Drough green-boughed day, an’ dark-tree’d night;
Till now our childhood’s pleäces there
Be gay wi’ other feäces there,
An’ we ourselves do follow on
Our own vorelivers dead an’ gone.


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Poem of the week

The Korean Memorial at Hiroshima by Andrew Motion

Motion’s matter-of-fact tone sums up perfectly the mixed emotions and disappointments when confronted with a psychologically demanding ‘site of signficance’

Paper lanterns are floating in Hiroshima, western Japan

A personal dimension to our mourning … Paper lanterns floating on the Motoyasu river at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.

This week, a new poem by former poet laureate Andrew Motion takes us to Japan, with a series of snapshots centring on a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Visits to such significant sites are psychologically demanding, especially if we are personally connected to the events they memorialise. Some fail to deliver the intensity we expect; others add a personal dimension to our mourning and extend our historical knowledge, painfully but cathartically. Both kinds of experience are recorded in The Korean Memorial at Hiroshima.

“Travel poems” sometimes show off: the writer displays the rich, quirky details and splashes of local colour that make his or her experience unique, and hopes they add up to some kind of epiphany. This poem is different. Its tone is matter-of-fact. It is not concerned with fine language, exotic minutiae or with making its perceptions add up. The enormity of the experience at its core, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, cannot be intensified: poetic artifice is already redundant.

So, deliberately, the poem adopts a casual, low-key tone, and immediately catches us up in a mundane rush against the clock, typical of the modern traveller’s schedule: “There was hardly time …” Throughout, it contrasts patterns of movement and rest, and makes specific references to different modes and paces of transportation: the ever-reliable bullet train, the shuffling of feet in the Peace Museum, the “sputtering” taxi. Part of the struggle to find a personal meaning concordant with the civic space is the struggle to make time for it.

Although the poem isn’t framed as a letter, it has an intimate tone – and an addressee. Perhaps the modern equivalent of a conversation-poem, it weaves into its texture another eye, another response. The relationship of speaker and addressee is always obliquely present, and sometimes sharply focused: “You, being Korean, had to see it.” It’s as if one voice held that other, imaginatively conjured consciousness, like two singers in unison. The modern love-poem is often like this: a “couple poem” in which one writes the poem but the other is invited imaginatively into the act of describing, as part of, as well as sharer in, the experience described.

Narrative anticipation is established in the first stanza. But first we back-track. The second stanza takes us to an earlier focal point, inside the Peace Museum. Its diction is utterly simple. The word “crying” becomes onomatopoeic with repetition. The whole stanza evokes helplessness. A few dreadful details, and tears: these are all that’s necessary. While no memorial and no response can be “adequate” to the destruction, there is a sense in this episode that the visitors have accomplished a needed obsequy: they have imagined and they have felt. Nothing further is possible.

A historical note may be relevant. Much of the war-time Korean population had been brought to Japan as conscripted labour – as slave-labour, in effect. The Koreans were uniquely innocent among the myriads of innocent victims of the Hiroshima bombing. So it’s important that “a fitting emblem of adversity” be found.

The memorial disappoints, perhaps insults, the visitors. The tokens they find, for all their pathos, seem to suggest tokenism. The pink and yellow colours, considered propitious in Korean culture, are felt by the speaker to be particularly inappropriate. The Korean visitor is appalled: “You could hardly leave soon enough.” That line echoes the poem’s first, but this time the hasty movement implies repulsion.

Finally, by focusing on the evanescence of the view of Mount Fuji, and its propensity to disappear as if by magic, the poem lets go and shifts register. It’s possible we’re being asked, indirectly, to remember those who disappeared so quickly, in some cases becoming instantly printed shadows of themselves, when the atom bomb was dropped. Or is the poem retreating from tragedy altogether, by reiterating gently that promised moments of revelation often fail us? Though there are atrocities which defy our wish to make sense of them, we can still be lifted by a change of mood, a touch of humour, a sense of imagination renewed and the journey continuing.

The Korean Memorial at Hiroshima

There was hardly time
between the Peace Museum
and the bullet train to Tokyo,
but our hosts instructed the taxi
to find the memorial to the Koreans.
Ten thousand Koreans, killed that morning.
You, being Korean, had to see it.


We had been crying in the Museum:
the charred school uniforms;
the lunch-box with its meal of charcoal,
the shadow of a seated woman
printed on the steps of a bank.
Everyone else was crying, too.
We shuffled round in a queue,
crying and saying nothing.

Then we stood in the rain
squaring up to the Memorial.
A spike of rusty flowers
and a tide-scum of dead cherry blossom.
Five or six miniature ceremonial costumes
made of folded paper and left to moulder.
Pink. Pink and custard yellow.
You could hardly leave soon enough.


The taxi was on its last legs,
sputtering among black cherries
then stalling by the skeleton
of the one dome to survive the blast.

No need to worry about the train, though.
The trains in Japan run on time.
In two hours and fifteen minutes
we would see Mount Fuji,
cloud-cover permitting,
and the snow-cap like a table-cloth
stretched over a tumbler of water
in the moment of surprise
before a magician taps his wand
and the tumbler disappears.


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Poem of the week

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

No matter how many times you’ve read it, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner still retains its hypnotic power

The Rime of The Ancient Mariner

Detail from Gustave Doré’s engraving of The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, c 1850.

In our recent National Poetry Day poll, Coleridge’s ballad,”The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was enthusiastically mentioned by several posters. It’s a poem most people read when young, quickly falling under the powerful spell of its simple ballad metre, its dramatic storytelling and ever-shifting imagery. We’re revisiting it this week as All Souls’ Night approaches, and autumnal shades are not entirely banished by the commercialised pumpkin-orange and matt-black masquerade of Halloween.

Astonishingly, the poem’s spell doesn’t seem to weaken over the years. You might criticise the sometimes over-blown declamatory style, the archaic words, or the ghastly invocation of Christian belief at its most judgmental. Certainly, it’s easy to agree wholeheartedly with Coleridge’s own self-criticism, that there is altogether too much of a pious moral. But the poem exerts its potency every time. The scenery remains thrillingly hellish, while laced with photographically realistic meteorological effects, and the narrative drive is irresistible. Not least of its innovations is that filmic device of cutting, now and again, between the Mariner’s urgent button-holing of the wedding-guest, and the tantalising merriment and minstrelsy of the wedding. Like the impatient guest, the reader may want to escape, but is held by the almost deranged insistency of the Mariner’s tone.

Coleridge’s theme of crime and punishment is so elemental and passionately forged that it seems irrelevant to object that the sin of albatross-shooting is, actually, rather minor, and the horrific punishments disproportionate. The power of the story may well be founded on its symbolic relation to the poet’s own sense of worthlessness and impotence, as expressed in a letter to his friend, John Morgan:

“What Crime is there scarcely which has not been included in or followed from the one guilt of taking opium? Not to speak of ingratitude to my maker for the wasted Talents; of ingratitude to so many friends who have loved me I know not why; of barbarous neglect of my family … I have in this one dirty business of Laudanum an hundred times deceived, tricked, nay, actually & consciously LIED. – And yet all these vices are so opposite to my nature, that but for the free-agency-annihilating Poison, I verily believe that I should have suffered myself to be cut in pieces rather than have committed any one of them.”

If addiction is the poem’s subtext, it helps explain the oddly un-theological plot-strand, in which Death and Life-in-Death throw dice on the spectral ship to decide the fates of the Mariner and his crew. The story Coleridge told of the origins of his addiction in using laudanum as an analgesic for rheumatic pains, points to his own sense of the cruel power of the random. The addiction wasn’t chosen: it was a fate visited on him. The poison, once ingested, is “free-agency-annihilating”.

The most convincing reading of the poem as “personal allegory” is George Whalley’s essay The Mariner and the Albatross. The Mariner, Whalley suggests, is the poet. The albatross is the bringer of the benign south wind that Coleridge associates, in his Anima Poetae, with Genius. In killing the albatross, he has destroyed his gift.

The albatross might equally symbolise social connection. At the start of the poem, the bird visits the ship regularly and is fed by the sailors. We are not told why the Mariner idly decides to kill the bird. Again, the hint is that the random act is the root of the evil. The moment at which the Mariner begins to climb out of his slough of despond is the moment he overcomes his revulsion from the foul sea-snakes and unknowingly, involuntarily, blesses them. These snakes may be associated with the imagery of opium-induced nightmare. Perhaps, in fact, it is by owning up to the imaginative power of the opium vision that the Mariner-Poet redeems his failure.

The following extract comes from Part IV. It includes the glosses which Coleridge added to the 1817 edition of the poem, usually printed as marginalia. This commentary is sometimes merely explanatory (and now seems unnecessary) but it may also shed further psychological light, as in the famous “moon gloss”, with which my extract begins.

“In his loneliness and fixedness he yearneth towards the journeying Moon, and the stars that still sojourn, yet still move onward; and every where the blue sky belongs to them, and is their appointed rest, and their native country and their own natural homes, which they enter unannounced, as lords that are certainly expected and yet there is a silent joy at their arrival.”

The moving Moon went up the sky,
And no where did abide:
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside –
Her beams bemocked the sultry main,
Like April hoar-frost spread;
But where the ship’s huge shadow lay,
The charméd water burnt alway
A still and awful red.
“By the light of the Moon he beholdeth God’s creatures of the great calm.”
Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.
Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.
“Their beauty and their happiness.
He blesseth them in his heart.”

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
“The spell begins to break.”
The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.


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Poem of the week

The Waste Land by TS Eliot

In a first-past-the-post contest, Eliot’s mighty fragments are the ‘readers’ favourite’. But in truth, your opinions are incorrigibly plural

TS Eliot sets out one of his plays in the form of a diagram

Somewhat meaningless maths … TS Eliot sets out one of his plays in the form of a diagram.

Is it possible to have one favourite poem? Responding to the National Poetry Day blog (“What’s Your Favourite Poem?), most of you thought not. “So patronising it hurts,” was the reaction of one poster, who went on to ask whether the topic would promote “critical engagement with poetry” or even “enjoyment of poetry”. Another, ofile, versified the argument for diversity: “Poems suit moods, occasions, age,/ even a certain time of day,/ are howls, histories, sighs, / even entertainment … ” Many nominations came with the caveat that tomorrow the favourite could well be different.

Others kindly played along with the idea that it might not be entirely philistine to select a particular poem as best able to satisfy all seasons and moods. Having read the work in question at an early, formative age was for many a deciding factor. For a couple of the posters, what mattered was the companionship around the discovery of the poem – the parent or child who shared the reader’s enjoyment.

My aim had been for posters to assemble a kind of agenda-free, ad hoc anthology; an online variant of the classic Heaney-Hughes collection, The Rattle-Bag. Judged by that goal, the blog was a success. The choices were refreshingly independent-minded: duplications were unusual. The “winning” poems received a mere three votes apiece. There was a notable absence of the old-fashioned, didactic poem, exemplified by Kipling’s “If” (once voted the Nation’s Favourite).

At the same time, there were sufficient votes for the kind of poem that offers, however subtly, some kind of moral guidance or comfort, to suggest that this is not a redundant function – and perhaps one to which poets might pay more attention. Cavafy’s “The God Abandons Anthony” is such a poem, and it received two votes.

An online anthology is limitlessly capacious, luckily, so there was room for the 20th-century classics you nominated, such as Basil Bunting’s “Briggflatts”, TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Louis Zukofsky’s objectivist epic, “A”, as well as for Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Milton’s “Lycidas”, Pope’s “The Dunicad” and a generous selection by WS Graham.

There was no consensus about Larkin, represented by “The Whitsun Weddings” , “An Arundel Tomb” and “Churchgoing”. Auden, however, received two editorial votes for a single work, “The Shield of Achilles”. From today’s younger generation of writers, you nominated Alice Oswald (“Dart”) and Matthew Francis (“Poem Without Words”).

Familiar figures such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Oppen, RS Thomas, John Betjeman, Charles Simic and Mark Strand jostled with the lesser known, like Violet Szabo, Sorley MacClean, John M Ford and Charles Mungoshi. Fernando Pessoa, the remarkable Portugese poet famous for his multiple personae or “eponyms”, was introduced with eloquent enthusiasm by gavinscottw, whose first choice was “Tobacconist’s”.

We also met some Italians (Dante and Ariosto) and a bigger sprinkling of French poets than expected (Éluard, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Prévert and Apollinaire – who was Polish, admittedly, but wrote in French). We heaved romantic sighs with Lord Byron (“When we two parted”) and slipped “Outside the Narrative” with Tom Leonard. We travelled to Nineveh with John Masefield’s “Cargoes” and to Hollywood with John Ashbery’s Daffy Duck.

Women poets were popular: Stevie Smith, Liz Lochhead, Carol Ann Duffy, Helen Dunmore, Wislawa Symborska, Mary Oliver. Your favourite Americans (after Eliot) were Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens: you also found room for Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” and Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song”.

As for the Irish, I was glad to see the nomination for Derek Mahon’s magnificent “A Disused Shed in Co Wexford”. John Montague received a vote for “All Legendary Obstacles”, Patrick Kavanagh, for “Epic”, and Paula Meehan, for “My Father Perceived as a Vision of St Francis”. Louis MacNeice had two nominations – for “Snow” and “The Wiper”.

Around half-a-dozen nominations were amassed by a solid trio of 20th-century “greats”: TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas and WB Yeats – plus William Shakespeare. Yeats and Shakespeare were represented by a greater variety of poems than Eliot and even Dylan Thomas. From Yeats you liked “The Cloths of Heaven”, “The Wild Swans at Coole”, “Lapis Lazuli”, “Easter 1916”, and “The Second Coming” – all fine choices, and suggestive of the potency of the singing line.

Shakespeare took a bow both as sonneteer and playwright. One poster, deadgod, chose King Lear and wrote that “to read Lear is ‘to do’ as much with the heart and mind as words can provoke”. Perhaps there are grounds for arguing with the reassignment of genre – but if the multi-vocal “Waste Land” is a poem, why not ‘Lear’?

Your favourite poems, each receiving three nominations, were “The Waste Land”, Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. I think I’ll leave it to you to find a common thread in these poems!

Since other works by Eliot also received nominations, on the basis of your choices last week it seems that this week’s Poem has to be “The Waste Land”. It’s in copyright, of course, but you can listen to it here.

Leaving aside the “critical engagement” issue (a valuable by-product, but not the primary aim) I hope everyone enjoyed the “anthology” as much as I did. This enjoyment, for me, not only took the form of meeting new work, but of re-reading a poem through the prism of someone else’s enthusiasm, and feeling it come differently alive. The collection you made is there in the archive for all to visit. I have only skimmed the surface in this little round-up, and apologise for the many omissions. All your suggestions and comments were much appreciated.

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Poem of the week

Childhood by Anne Bradstreet

America’s first published poet turns a still-startling eye on life’s first stage

Baby girl and a bottle

‘I ‘gan to sin, as soon as act’ … a baby girl and a bottle.

When their family home burned down in 1666, Anne Bradstreet and her husband Simon, later governor of Massachusetts, lost a library containing 800 volumes. Bradstreet had faced many setbacks and difficulties since leaving her luxurious estate in Northamptonshire for New England – not least her chronic ill-health and frequent pregnancies – but true to their traditions of Puritan fortitude, the couple rebuilt their lives yet again. And Bradstreet continued to write: she even wrote about the fire, countering despair with faith in the “hope and treasure” of the life to come.

This highly educated Englishwoman is usually considered to be the first published American poet. Her collection, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America (1659) was in fact printed in London, at the instigation of her brother-in-law, initially without her knowledge. She revised the book extensively for a later, posthumous edition.

I first came across her name in John Berryman’s 1971 masterpiece, “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”. This monologue cast a shadow over Bradstreet’s work when I started to sample it. The various small anthologised selections always included at least one apology for her writing, love poems to her husband, and pious thoughts about her children – tame stuff after Berryman’s vigorous “homage”. To enter her world via the longer poems was a more rewarding experience. At last her own plain, brave voice became audible.

This week’s poem, “Childhood”, is the second section from her five-part sequence, “Of The Four Ages of Man”. “Lo now, four other acts upon the stage, / Childhood and Youth, the Manly and Old Age,”‘ the prologue begins. Whether Bradstreet was familiar with Shakespeare’s First Folio or had seen As You Like It performed, there’s little doubt that she is issuing a conscious challenge to Jacques’s famous speech, “All the world’s a stage”. Instead of “seven ages”, Bradstreet posits a cleanly-defined four. Her brisk couplets have a confident air, and her independent manipulation of the “stage” metaphor suggests that, while she knows she is no Shakespeare, she amply trusts the human knowledge she has, and the Puritan ethics by which she navigates.

Inventively, Bradstreet bases her “Four Stages” on the four Humours: phlegm, blood, choler and black bile. The case for seeing the child as phlegmatic is unsentimentally put: “Unstable, subtle, moist and cold’s his Nature.” Crowned with spring flowers and dressed in white, the child is imagined astride a hobby-horse and holding “an hour-glass new begun”.

Despite the props, the child is no more a real child chattering in his natural idiom than a shepherd in an Elizabethan pastoral speaks in rural dialect. Yet there is a realist note in much of his self-description, and the behind-the-scenes observation of a woman who knows small children all too well enlivens the moralising: “With weary arms she danc’d, and By, By, sung, /When wretched I (ungrate) had done her wrong.”

Carefree innocence is touchingly evoked by contrast with the machinations of political careerism. But, of course, thanks to Original Sin, the child himself is hardly guiltless: “A serpent’s sting in pleasing face lay hid.” From listing infantile sins, Bradstreet moves swiftly to the sufferings, the “vomits, worms, and flux … breaches, knocks and falls.” By the end, we can sense a palpable maternal anxiety: “At home, abroad, my danger’s manifold/ That wonder ’tis, my glass till now doth hold.”

That a 17th-century woman writer should have dared give such personal and realist “turns” to the literary and spiritual conventions is impressive. Bradstreet had survived the difficulties of her colonial exile, and learned that poetry was nourished not only by books, but from painful lived experience.


Ah me! conceiv’d in sin, and born in sorrow,
A nothing, here to day, but gone to morrow,
Whose mean beginning, blushing can’t reveal,
But night and darkness must with shame conceal.
My mother’s breeding sickness, I will spare,
Her nine months’ weary burden not declare.
To shew her bearing pangs, I should do wrong,
To tell that pain, which can’t be told by tongue.
With tears into this world I did arrive;
My mother still did waste, as I did thrive,
Who yet with love and all alacrity,
Spending was willing to be spent for me.
With wayward cries, I did disturb her rest,
Who sought still to appease me with her breast;
With weary arms, she danc’d, and By, By, sung,
When wretched I (ungrate) had done the wrong.
When Infancy was past, my Childishness
Did act all folly that it could express.
My silliness did only take delight
In that which riper age did scorn and slight,
In Rattles, Bables, and such toyish stuff.
My then ambitious thoughts were low enough.
My high-born soul so straitly was confin’d
That its own worth it did not know nor mind.
This little house of flesh did spacious count,
Through ignorance, all troubles did surmount,
Yet this advantage had mine ignorance,
Freedom from Envy and from Arrogance.
How to be rich, or great, I did not cark,
A Baron or a Duke ne’r made my mark,
Nor studious was, Kings favours how to buy,
With costly presents, or base flattery;
No office coveted, wherein I might
Make strong my self and turn aside weak right.
No malice bare to this or that great Peer,
Nor unto buzzing whisperers gave ear.
I gave no hand, nor vote, for death, or life.
I’d nought to do, ‘twixt Prince, and peoples’ strife.
No Statist I: nor Marti’list i’ th’ field.
Where e’re I went, mine innocence was shield.
My quarrels, not for Diadems, did rise,
But for an Apple, Plumb, or some such prize.
My strokes did cause no death, nor wounds, nor scars.
My little wrath did cease soon as my wars.
My duel was no challenge, nor did seek.
My foe should weltering, with his bowels reek.
I had no Suits at law, neighbours to vex,
Nor evidence for land did me perplex.
I fear’d no storms, nor all the winds that blows.
I had no ships at Sea, no fraughts to loose.
I fear’d no drought, nor wet; I had no crop,
Nor yet on future things did place my hope.
This was mine innocence, but oh the seeds
Lay raked up of all the cursed weeds,
Which sprouted forth in my insuing age,
As he can tell, that next comes on the stage.
But let me yet relate, before I go,
The sins and dangers I am subject to:
From birth stained, with Adam’s sinful fact,
From thence I ‘gan to sin, as soon as act;
A perverse will, a love to what’s forbid;
A serpent’s sting in pleasing face lay hid;
A lying tongue as soon as it could speak
And fifth Commandment do daily break;
Oft stubborn, peevish, sullen, pout, and cry;
Then nought can please, and yet I know not why.
As many was my sins, so dangers too,
For sin brings sorrow, sickness, death, and woe,
And though I miss the tossings of the mind,
Yet griefs in my frail flesh I still do find.
What gripes of wind, mine infancy did pain?
What tortures I, in breeding teeth sustain?
What crudities my cold stomach hath bred?
Whence vomits, worms, and flux have issued?
What breaches, knocks, and falls I daily have?
And some perhaps, I carry to my grave.
Sometimes in fire, sometimes in water fall:
Strangely preserv’d, yet mind it not at all.
At home, abroad, my danger’s manifold
That wonder ’tis, my glass till now doth hold.
I’ve done: unto my elders I give way,
For ’tis but little that a child can say.


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Poem of the week

What’s your favourite poem?

Let’s celebrate National Poetry Day by confessing to our fondest poetical loves. But here’s the tricky part – just one poem each

Fountain pen signature

Favourite lines … writing with a fountain pen.

The discussions on Poem of the week often veer towards the what-is-a-poem question. Of course the answer changes, to some extent, as times change. There are small aesthetic shifts that ultimately add up, and language itself changes over the ages. And yet, I am convinced that some criteria are timeless. A poem can do whatever words can do, but is driven more intensely than other verbal forms by a desire for interlocking patterns. It’s a beautifully coherent brokenness, if you like, since line-breaks are at the heart of the structure. Whether a 16th-century sonnet, or an irregularly shaped 21st-century “list poem”, the real thing is always uniquely itself and nothing other. Today, poetry in English is a poetry of truly magnificent diversity, but the different idioms often conceal shared aims.

We may like a poem very much indeed before being at all certain what it means. Something appeals to us subliminally: the colours and textures, the music, the whole tone of a voice. As with people, we fall in love with poems at first sight. Something makes us starry-eyed, a little weak at the knees. We stop and stare. It may be a misjudgment on our part – the poem’s attractions may fade on a second or third “date” – but surprisingly often it’s the start of a life-long relationship.

The Poem of the week blogs provoke many great suggestions concerning poems you’d especially like to see, or simply poems you especially like. So to mark National Poetry Day, I’d like to hear about your favourite poems – not necessarily from past blogs, but the poems that are all-time perfect gems, or even wonderfully rough diamonds. I want only the titles, please – not whole poems – and maybe a sentence or two about why you like them.

Your choice can be old or new, famous or unknown. Because you might not be able to resist a small quote or two, it’s worth reminding you about copyright law. If the author has been dead for fewer than 70 years, their poem is not in the public domain and should not be reproduced without permission from the copyright-holder. If you do decide to quote a poem that’s out of copyright, please limit yourself to a few lines. It will be easier for everyone to read and sift your responses if you simply give the title and a weblink, if you can, or brief publication details.

The difficult bit is that to avoid having several anthologies-worth of titles, I’m asking for just one nomination each. Think carefully – if you nominate more than one, I’ll take the first title as your choice. We’ll take a look at them in our regular Poem of the week slot on Monday 18 October, with a round-up and discussion of the most popular titles, and as many of the others as possible.

So let us in on the secrets of your poetic love-life – I can’t wait to meet your paramours.


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Poem of the week

John Donne’s The Sun Rising

Not for Donne a sad parting at dawn: here he places himself and his lover at the centre of the universe, with the sun as their servant. It’s one of the most joyous love poems ever written

A sunrise (in Texas)

Erotic cosmology … sunrise.

Almost 30 years before John Donne’s birth in 1572, Copernicus had published his revolutionary theory of a heliocentric universe. Although it made little impact at the time, later on, when Galileo was basing his own astronomical research on the work of his predecessor, the theory scandalised the Church of Rome. In 1616, heliocentrism was officially pronounced “false and contrary to scripture”.

Donne must have been well aware of these developments when he wrote “The Sun Rising”, this week’s poem. Perhaps they are even reflected in that little unexpected epithet, “unruly” – suggesting the sun himself had challenged the Roman inquisition. The unimpressed invocation, “Busy old fool, unruly Sun”, sets the scene for Donne’s own lyrical revisionism. While plenty of other poets before him had ranked the sun secondary to their mistresses’ eyes, Donne is far more original. He creates his own erotic cosmology, and places himself and his lover at the centre. Metaphorically, in fact, he restores the medieval concept of the heavens, in which the Earth rules supreme (though this Earth is far from static: this Earth moves).

“The Sun Rising” must be one of the most joyous love poems ever written. It interrogates the troubadour genre, the “Alba” or dawn song, in which the lovers lament their obligation to separate at daybreak. Donne’s speaker greets the sunrise undismayed. Right away, he establishes a teasing, boastful tone. He’s talking to the sun man-to-man, you might say, except he’s a marvellously cocky youth and the sun is a fussy old dotard. The “rising” the poem advertises is not, in fact, primarily the sun’s: it is the firing and blazing of male sexual energy. Go and bother ordinary working folk, the poet seems to say; we’re not getting up. Love rules, OK?

The story is emotionally richer than that, of course. As it progresses, the thought does not merely “rise” but orbits outwards, away from self-centred desire: the building sense of relationship is reflected in the pronouns “I” and “she”, which join as “we” in the last stanza. The poem finally basks in the mutuality of the lovers’ exaltation.

But first the pitch of good-humoured braggadocio must be raised. The second stanza has an ocular theme. The lover declares he could eclipse the sun with a mere wink – and would do so, if only that moment of losing sight of his beloved would not have lasted longer than he could bear. The sun’s own eyes are at risk of being blinded by a look from the speaker’s mistress – Apollo to Cupid’s victim in an eyelash flutter. Whatever glories “he” may see from his elevated position, nothing could be comparable to the view of the magnificent “Indias” embodied by the lovers.

That the beloved is “all states” suggests a possible pun: she is not merely all the rich countries of the Earth, but she is in transports of amorous feeling. It’s now, in the final stanza, that the excitement seems to spill over and expand into a new mood of generosity. Even the sun is forgiven; at least, he’s offered early retirement. He may now simply revolve around the lovers’ bedroom, with the consolation that he is still shining on the world – since they are the world. Lucky old sun.

A sublime yet jokey impudence imbues the poem. The diction is that of the vigorous dialogue so characteristic of Donne, whether he is addressing his mistress in the earlier poems, or God in the later work. But there is also a maturity and breadth of vision. The bed curtains remain open. Donne recreates the teeming life around the lovers, placing them both, if by default, in ordinary time, with his references to schoolboys, apprentices, courtiers and farm-workers, and in a wider geography of exotic exports and foreign kings. These hints of “scenery” are like windows in the hyperbole: they are glimpses of reality.

The performance may be erotically boastful, but it is heartfelt. The poem’s design has an impressive simplicity. Its rhetorical tropes are never so complex that they distract us with fancy intellectual footwork This earthiest of dawn songs glows, in fact, with the warm, straightforward, life-giving energy of that unruly sun.

The Sun Rising

        Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
        Why dost thou thus,
Through windows and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
        Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
        Late schoolboys and sour ‘prentices,
    Go tell court huntsmen that the King will ride,
    Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

        Thy beams, so reverend and strong
        Why shoulds’t thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
        If her eyes have not blinded thine,
        Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
    Whether both th’Indias of spice and mine
    Be where thou left’st them, or lie here with me?
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, ‘All here in one bed lay.’

        She’s all states, and all princes, I;
        Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
        Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
        In that the world’s contracted thus;
    Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
    To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here, to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.


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Poem of the week

Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Born to former slaves, the African-American poet who coined the phrase ‘I know why the caged bird sings’ deserves to be better known in the UK

Sculpture by Bernard Jackson

Painful tradition … a detail of bronze sculptures of chained slaves by US sculptor Bernard Jackson.

The African-American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar was an enormously popular and respected poet in his day. He was born in Ohio in 1872, an era beginning to tune into diversity and gear up for modernism. Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens were born in the same decade, and, although Dunbar did not live to see the poetic revolution they would be part of, his work displays an interesting talent, alive to an interesting moment. It deserves to be better known in the UK.

No single piece of writing can give the entire flavour of any poet’s achievement, and this is especially true of Dunbar. His poetry, broadly speaking, is of two distinct kinds: dialect and standard-English. At one extreme stands the restrained classicism of his eulogy for the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass; at the other, the folksy patois of A Negro Love-Song (“Seen my lady home las’ night,/ Jump back, honey, jump back.”)

Dunbar was angry when the well-intentioned William Dean Howells reviewed his second collection, Majors and Minors, and singled out the “minors” (the dialect verse) for special praise: he compared Dunbar to Burns, “least himself when writing literary English”. Critics today are more likely to take the reverse position, and accuse Dunbar of playing to the white gallery by inventing jolly stereotypes of deep-south African-Americans, with no basis of first-hand experience.

But Dunbar could be considered bilingual in his two idioms. His parents had been born into slavery. His mother, Matilda, raised him on remembered songs and stories from her childhood. Dunbar’s dialect poems are often playful dramatic monologues, and, interestingly, the speaker is frequently a woman. They are performances, yes, but that does not mean they are fakes.

Some of his most engaging work comes out of his fresh response to the English lyric. Formal fluency combines with a personal tone that the Muse of Dialect might have helped engender. Such poems could, I think, be said to amount to a third style in Dunbar’s writing: they are in standard English, but their directness and general un-stuffiness, despite the odd Victorian flourish, get closer than most work of that time to natural speech.

This week’s poem, Sympathy – a line of which gave Maya Angelou the title for her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – is an almost unbearably painful lyric. The diction is occasionally over-literary (“opes” for “opens”). But Dunbar also uses this literary voice to his advantage. The exclamations “Alas” and “Ah me” sound arch on a first reading; later, we realise they are there to extend the lines emotionally and metrically. The poem is a lament, and the sad, onomatopoeic “ah” vowel-sounds dominate the first two verses. Its poignancy owes a lot, too, to the way the anapaestic rhythms take over in each stanza after the more regular rhythm of the opening line, seeming to exult in the free, swooping flight denied the bird. Much is left unsaid, and really ought not to need saying, as each foreshortened last refrain-line reminds us. Dunbar’s parents had known the agony of being slaves; Dunbar understands that there are other kinds of cages for their children.


I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
      When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
      When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
      When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals –
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
      Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
      For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
      And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting –
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
      When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, –
      When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
      But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings!

• The above poem was published in Lyrics of the Hearthside by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1899.


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Poem of the week

Antiquities by Veronica Forrest-Thomson

Veronica Forrest-Thomson is in autumnal mode as she reflects on perception and artifice in Antiquities

Autumn leaves

‘Walks through sharpening air and clamant colour … from typewriter to Library’ … A man walks past autumn leaves reading a book.

Veronica Forrest-Thomson, (1947-1975) brought her interests in critical theory to bear on arrestingly subtle and original poetry. This week’s poem, “Antiquities,” is from her penultimate, 1971, collection, Language-Games. The title declares her debt to, and discourse with, Wittgenstein, the linguistic philosopher whose “notion of language games,” she wrote, “suggests that basically what we do with our words is what we do with our experience of living.”

Reprinted in the Collected Poems, Language-Games is a tightly woven collection. Like chess-pieces, various “key-words” move across the poems, gathering significance as they go. Nevertheless, “Antiquities” stands on its own, a richly-layered and witty “game within a game,” played in an increasingly autumnal atmosphere.

The narrow shape, perhaps intended to suggest a sarcophagus or museum-case, opens up wide vistas. Its first game seems a simple poetic one of easy-to-follow metaphor: “A gesture is adjective”, “Emotion is a parenthesis”. But tenor and vehicle may change places, and nouns zig-zag between abstract and concrete: “Aesthetic approbation is glass/ … /Glance is the copula …” The copula dominates the syntax of the first stanza, in fact, perhaps as a grammar-book parody.

Perhaps, too, the poem is showing us how fluid perceptions harden into arts and antiquities, just as narratives of personal time are fixed in publicly shared calendars, museums, etc. If so, it also shows how a poem can mysteriously unfix them.

In the first stanza, places and dates suggest notebook jottings about a visit to Paris: Notre Dame, Bastille Day, the Louvre, etc. Visual excitement is recorded in the glowing imagery of “her faience eyes/ and gilded skin.” You can see here the delicate turquoise colours the poet might have wanted to conjure in “faience eyes.”

In his 1976 memoir of the poet, JH Prynne comments, “The powerful feelings which forced themselves through the lines … seemed often excessive within her own poetry.” And that, as he also suggests, is part of the point. The maker challenges the making, here, with homelier lyric and descriptive notes. Punning on “turn” and the shared etymology of page/leaf, the poet finds the “green and gold” leaves of Cambridge “parenthetical”. Parenthesis now suggests a sensuous life curtailed.

Definitions are one of the poet’s favourite language-games. “Grammar,” we learn, is an un-dusty word derived from “glamour”. On checking the etymological dictionary (don’t play a language-game without one!) we find “gramarie” begets “glomerie”, and that the “gramarie” or “grammarye” is an “occult grammar”, a book of magic – so, perhaps, the transubstantiation of the first stanza comes again to mind. It’s also interesting to discover that “magister glomeria was the title of a former official of the University of Cambridge.” This detail is omitted, understandably; but the history of the word “museum” is given, since “learning and the arts” are the poem’s own spheres. Language, of course, can pull meaning out of an empty hat: “a monograph on non-/ existent plates”. Mock-ups and mockery may lead to irony, and so to the “two hands” which were “irony” when they performed religious “magic” in the first stanza.

Irony is not only a rhetorical device. The phrase “Such synne is called yronye” originates in The Ordynarye of Crystyanyte or of Crysten Men (1503), whose anonymous author chastises the man “who speaks about his weaknesses first to get a reputation for humility.” Forrest-Thomson delights in irony, but she is alert to the potential danger. Irony doesn’t believe in magic; poets sometimes almost do. Through the glamour and grammar of her linguistic imagination, we read Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s work not with “ironia” but with “laudatio”.

• “Antiquities” is from Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Collected Poems, ed. Anthony Barnett (Shearsman Books in assoc. with Allardyce Book, 2008), Copyright © Jonathan Culler and The Estate of Veronica Forrest-Thomson 2008. It is used by kind permission of Allardyce, Barnett, Publisher


A gesture is adjective,
two hands, granite
when they turn bread to flesh
(Notre Dame, July 14th)
A mirror is a museum-case,
two hands, priestesses’
when she mummifies her face.
Emotion is a parenthesis,
two hands, irony
when I light the candle
and cross myself.
Aesthetic approbation is glass
when it encloses her faience eyes
and gilded skin.
(Musée du Louvre, July 18th)
Glance is the copula
that petrifies our several identities,
syntactic superficies.


My cardboard daisies are in bloom
The city’s silhouette stands out
just like real, from a child’s
pop-up book, “a castle cut in
paper” (Gawain & the Grene Knight
c.1400). Autumn leaves turn like
pages, black on white. For green
and gold must be as parenthetical
as walks through sharpening air
and clamant colour, smoky light
along the Backs, from typewriter
to Library. “Grammar” derives from
“glamour”; ecology may show the two
still cognate: Museum, Gk. mouseion,
a seat of the Muses, a building
dedicated to the pursuit of learning
or the arts. (OED)
The glamorous grammatical frames
captions for a monograph on non-
existent plates. Glue, paper,
scissors, and the library together
paste a mock-up of an individual
history. The art of English Poesie?
“Such synne is called yronye.”


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Poem of the week

Gnothi Seauton by Samuel Johnson

Three centuries on, his words still glisten with life

Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds

Detail from portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds, dated 1756-1757.

Recently visiting Dr Johnson’s London house I was interested to see his quill pen. The rusty, red-brown colour of the plume was a striking reminder that such primitive-seeming pens used to be an extension of the musculature and bloodstream of the writer – a mind-to-medium connection we, in the digital age, still need to keep imaginatively alive, if we want lively writing.

Three hundred years old this week, on September 18th, Johnson lives today not simply because of Boswell’s great biography, and not only because he displays technical virtuosity in all the genres he tries, but because his writings blaze with authentic individual personality. This doesn’t mean he writes confessionally, of course. Our Poem of the Week, “Gnothi Seauton” (the English title transliterates the famous Greek admonition, Know Yourself), is unusual: its rhetorical flourishes scarcely veil a plaintive autobiography.

Its immediate occasion, in 1772, was the drudgery of preparing a new, expanded edition of the hugely successful Dictionary of the English Language. The Dictionary is famous for its illustrative quotations, and, in some cases, the number of definitions per word. There are (only!) 10 definitions of “Dull”, one of which reads “not exhilarating; not delightful; as to make dictionaries is dull work”. No doubt, in “Gnothi Seauton” he protests a little too much: it was an 18th-century habit to deprecate one’s achievements. But the darker self-doubt that emerges from the poem is no pose. The black dog of melancholy was the writer’s life-long companion. Famous for his strange nervous tics, Johnson has been posthumously diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome: the condition was then unknown, and his fear of madness must have exacerbated his depression. He once considered writing a “history” of his melancholy, but worried that he’d find such a project disturbing. This poem is perhaps the closest he gets.

Johnson wrote it in Latin, the language often used by 18th-century poets to versify their more private emotions. The text here is a translation by his friend, the Irish playwright Arthur Murphy. Murphy wrote a fine memoir of Johnson which became the preface to the Collected Works. It quotes the full translated “portrait”, perhaps as a tribute to Johnson’s own searchingly honest biographical methods.

Imitation was, then, the favoured method of translation: it was Johnson’s, when translating Horace’s Odes, and it’s Murphy’s, when translating Johnson. If you find Murphy’s footwork a little heavy, try the modern English version by John Wain in Samuel Johnson: The Major Works (Oxford World Classics), a useful introductory compendium of poems and prose.

“Gnothi Seauton” is not merely introspective. The title invokes Pope (“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan”), and perhaps the poem has a revisionist agenda: Johnson was no great admirer of the “Essay on Man”. The “hero” of the piece is Scaliger, the speaker purporting to find him “the better maker”. There were two great scholars named Scaliger, father and son: Scaliger fils was well-known for his textual scholarship, so the younger man (Joseph Justus) seems the likelier model. The praise of Scaliger facilitates the self-excoriation, but also serves to define Johnson’s own achievements.

Happily, Johnson was not terminally downcast by the poem. He finished several great projects before his death in 1784, including the inimitable Lives of the Poets. He was a marvel of a writer: almost any sentence of his is memorable. Whatever his demons, and maybe because of them, his work exemplifies the sanest balance between the “large expanded mind” and “the flame of genius”. The quill pen may be under glass in a museum: the words still glisten with life. Many Happy Returns, Dr Johnson.

KNOW YOURSELF (after revising and enlarging the English lexicon, or dictionary)

When Scaliger, whole years of labour past,

Beheld his lexicon complete at last

And weary of his task, with wond’ring eyes,

Saw, from words pil’d on words, a fabric rise,

He curs’d the industry, inertly strong,

In creeping toil that could persist so long;

And if, enrag’d he cried, heav’n meant to shed

Its keenest vengeance on the guilty head,

The drudgery of words the damn’d would know,

Doom’d to write lexicons in endless woe.

Yes, you had cause, great genius, to repent;

“You lost good days, that might be better spent;”

You well might grudge the hours of ling’ring pain,

And view your learned labours with disdain.

To you were given the large expanded mind,

The flame of genius, and the taste refin’d.

‘Twas yours, on eagle wings, aloft to soar,

And, amidst rolling worlds, the great first cause explore,

To fix the aeras of recorded time,

And live in ev’ry age and ev’ry clime;

Record the chiefs, who propt their country’s cause;

Who founded empires, and establish’d laws;

To learn whate’er the sage, with virtue fraught,

Whate’er the muse of moral wisdom taught.

These were your quarry; these to you were known,

And the world’s ample volume was your own.

    Yet, warn’d by me, ye pigmy wits, beware,

Nor with immortal Scaliger compare.

For me, though his example strike my view,

Oh! not for me his footsteps to pursue.

Whether first nature, unpropitious, cold,

This clay compounded in a ruder mould;

Or the slow current, loit’ring at my heart,

No gleam of wit or fancy can impart;

Whate’er the cause, from me no numbers flow,

No visions warm me, and no raptures glow.

A mind like Scaliger’s, superior still,

No grief could conquer, no misfortune chill.

Though, for the maze of words, his native skies

He seem’d to quit, ’twas but again to rise;

To mount, once more, to the bright source of day,

And view the wonders of th’ ethereal way.

The love of fame his gen’rous bosom fir’d;

Each science hail’d him, and each muse inspir’d.

For him the sons of learning trimm’d the bays,

And nations grew harmonious in his praise.

    My task perform’d, and all my labours o’er,

For me what lot has fortune now in store?

The listless will succeeds, that worst disease,

The rack of indolence, the sluggish ease.

Care grows on care, and o’er my aching brain

Black melancholy pours her morbid train.

No kind relief, no lenitive at hand,

I seek, at midnight clubs, the social band;

But midnight clubs, where wit with noise conspires,

Where Comus revels, and where wine inspires,

Delight no more: I seek my lonely bed,

And call on sleep to sooth my languid head.

But sleep from these sad lids flies far away;

I mourn all night, and dread the coming day.

Exhausted, tir’d, I throw my eyes around,

To find some vacant spot on classic ground;

And soon, vain hope! I form a grand design;

Languor succeeds, and all my pow’rs decline.

If science open not her richest vein,

Without materials all our toil is vain.

A form to rugged stone when Phidias gives–

Beneath his touch a new creation lives.

Remove his marble, and his genius dies:

With nature then no breathing statue vies.

Whate’er I plan, I feel my pow’rs confin’d

By fortune’s frown, and penury of mind.

I boast no knowledge, glean’d with toil and strife,

That bright reward of a well acted life.

I view myself, while reason’s feeble light

Shoots a pale glimmer through the gloom of night;

While passions, error, phantoms of the brain,

And vain opinions, fill the dark domain;

A dreary void, where fears, with grief combin’d,

Waste all within, and desolate the mind.

    What then remains? Must I, in slow decline,

To mute inglorious ease old age resign?

Or, bold ambition kindling in my breast,

Attempt some arduous task? Or, were it best,

Brooding o’er lexicons to pass the day,

And in that labour drudge my life away?


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Poem of the week

To his Mistress, Objecting … by Robert Herrick

There’s no flashiness in this week’s choice – just the charming candour and sexual coyness of a 17th-century Devon clergyman

Casks of wine

‘Full Casques give but little sound’ … the wine cellar of Chateau Baron Philippe De Rothschild in Bordeaux, France.

I sing of brookes, of blossomes, birds and Bowers:
Of April, May, of June and July-flowers.
I sing of May-poles, Hock-carts, Wassails, Wakes,
Of Bride-grooms, Brides, and of their Bridall-cakes.

Thus Robert Herrick proclaimed in the “Argument of his Book”. The book, Hesperides (1648), was his life’s work: a picture in poetry of the years he spent as a clergyman in Dean priory, in that garden of the west, Devon. The goldsmith’s son from Cheapside may not have been entirely happy with rustic life, but he was its tirelessly keen observer. The inventory in this opening poem shows him to some degree conventional in his poetic subjects, but also suggests his responsiveness to specific and down-to-earth detail, the quality that allows him endlessly to refresh convention.

Herrick lived in turbulent times, but the smoothness of his music and temper seem to rest undisturbed. The knotted, tortuous intellectual intricacies of the metaphysical poets are absent from his lines. These poets were in the ascendant at the time, and Herrick would have seemed a shade reactionary to his mid-17th-century readers. But his work endures to this day, and his absence from any canonical anthology of English verse would be as unthinkable as the omission of Herbert, Donne or Marvell. And if modern heads still contain remembered lines of poetry, I rather think these are likely to be lines of Herrick. At least, I fondly remember a Dublin taxi driver, who claimed to be an ex-Provie, reciting To Daffodils to me on the way to the airport.

Herrick has little ambition to be intellectually profound, or display his effortlessly worn classical learning. The best poems are songlike and short – but not as short as all that. His numerous two-line epigrams are unremarkable, and rarely generate a memorable turn of phrase; “Nothing hard or harsh can prove/ unto those that truly love” is fairly typical. His curses and comic squibs (the smelly and the toothless are favourite butts) are not much better: “Of four teeth only Bridget was possess’t; /Two she spat out; a cough forc’t out the rest.”

The lack of technical ambition may be one of the very reasons Herrick excels as a love-poet. His simplicity implies candour. The voice is fluent and persuasive, but not self-admiring. These poems are different from the enthusiastic exhortations to matrimony that the unmarried clergyman often addressed to friends’ girlfriends, and, of course, his encouragements “to Virgins, to make much of Time”. His skill is to write conversationally, and to seem to address one particular woman. Such poems, of course, belong to a particular genre: they are classical imitations (or imitations of classical imitations) and designed to be overheard. But they charm us and convince us of their psychological authenticity because they are so rarely the occasion of any technical bravura.

Many of Herrick’s works name their addressee, but the recipient of this week’s choice – To his Mistress, Objecting to him neither Toying or Talking – is unidentified. I have no proof that it’s Julia, rather than Corinna, Anthea or any of his other “mistresses”, but somehow it has what I think of as his “Julia” voice.

Julia, moth-like, flickers in and out of Herrick’s work, providing a tenuous narrative subtext. She has not been identified, but it seems likely that a real woman lurks behind the name. There is a poem called Julia’s Churching, which suggests she had a child (churching was the purification ceremony that women underwent a month after confinement). At other times, like the conventional mistress, she is warm and frosty, accessible and inaccessible by turn.

Sometimes, Julia also seems to play a spiritual role. In another poem set in a church, she and the speaker entwine their rosaries, as if, while symbolically coupling, they are helping each other heavenwards. She becomes, almost, a homelier version of Laura or Beatrice in her role in her poet-lover’s spiritual quest.

It’s interesting that Herrick personifies Love in this week’s poem as female. See also the following epigram: “When words we want, Love teacheth to endite;/ And what we blush to speake, she bids us write.”

To his Mistress, Objecting … is a masculine apologia of the sort heard more often in everyday life than poetry. That’s why it’s tempting to read it autobiographically. At the same time, it involves Herrick in a little exercise in the kind of conceit that rarely interested him. He makes the most of it, with his various aquatic metaphors, only the first of which is accurate (full casks make no sound, but deep water may be just as noisy as shallow). As for the “chiding streams”, this could be read as a rebuke to the woman who has accused him of not loving her – a harsh one, if so.

The poem concludes with a declaration of love so plain it seems flat-footed. Does this imply sincerity or its opposite? Whatever is or is not happening in the poem, sexual anxiety is present, signalled most obviously in the repetition of the suffix “-less”.

The poem’s most memorable image is “those Babies in your eyes” – an endearing picture of merry innocence, complicated by the notion that the speaker might also be seeing his own reflection(s). Possibly, of course, an (unshared?) desire for babies might also be suggested. The poem perhaps never achieves anything quite so hauntingly expressive again. But it is surely redeemed because of that achievement.

To his Mistress, Objecting to him neither Toying or Talking

You say I love not, ’cause I doe not play
Still with your curles, and kisse the time away.
You blame me too, because I cann’t devise
Some sport, to please those Babies in your eyes:
By Loves Religion, I must here confesse it,
The most I love, when I the least expresse it.
Small griefs find tongues: Full Casques are ever found
To give (if any, yet) but little sound.
Deep waters noyse-less are; And this we know,
That chiding streams betray small depth below.
So when Love speechless is, she doth expresse
A depth in love, and that depth bottomlesse.
Now since my love is tongue-less, know me such,
Who speak but little, ’cause I love so much.


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Poem of the week

The One Hundred Years of Solitude of Chinese Poetry by Zang Di

This time, a glimpse of an unfamiliar but appetisingly fresh tradition

A child reads a book in a pile of corn in China's Guizhou province

A boy reading in a pile of corn in China’s Guizhou province.

As I wander in the supermarket aisles of contemporary poetry, I am dazzled and confused – until the equivalent of a pleasant shop assistant with a tray of delicacies approaches, and I pluck out something called “The One Hundred Years of Solitude of Chinese Poetry”. Different, yes, but tasty and fresh: I’ll buy it.

In fact, of course, I came across it in PN Review, not Tesco’s. The poet is the leading Beijing writer and scholar, Zang Di; the translators, Ao Wang and Eleanor Goodman. Outlining their approach to translation, Goodman writes: “We are looking to keep as close as possible to the original poem in voice, tone, meaning, structure and emotional import, while simultaneously producing something readable in English. In fact, our ultimate goal is much more ambitious: an accurate translation that reads like an original poem.”

That’s just as it should be. Any new poem involves foreign travel, after all, but a poem properly at home with its language, native or not, will usually let you map-read. At first, as I read Zang Di’s poem, I was not sure where I’d be going, but I knew there was an authoritative mind directing the journey – and the voice in the poem quickly established a conversation with my own inner voice.

In fact, the dialogue is a little more complicated than I’ve suggested, because the speaker in the poem remains outside it, playfully addressing its author. Classical Chinese poets were fond of the epistolary form, and this is perhaps a contemporary equivalent. Someone is writing a letter to, or having a quiet word with, the poet. His muse? His native country? His poetry, in crafty disguise? His ordinary, daily self? I would opt for the latter. I like this interpretation because I can relate it to my own experience of being caught in the middle of a conversation between different selves. And it is culturally familiar, because of Freud and other diviners of the divided self.

So the poem seems wise, as perhaps the western stereotype of Chinese poetry decrees, but also, in its irony and finesse, streetwise. The ordinary self who is able to talk empathetically and intelligently to the poet self, who listens without comment, is an earthy soul who shops and cooks and finds homely, irreverent similes. The author’s Poetry itself is the subject of the conversation. The speaker presents it through a variety of metamorphoses. In human form, Poetry becomes unpredictable, roguish, a bit of a clown. In that key third stanza I love the opening pun on “fires” and the theatrical verbs: “It slaps the customer. It pulls off/ the condom of prosody.” I suspect we have a political as well as an aesthetic rebel on our hands.

To the Sinologist, “The One Hundred Years of Solitude of Chinese Poetry” probably says many specific things about the CPR and poetry. The reference to Gabriel García Márquez reinforces the likelihood of that bigger context. Perhaps the Colombian novelist’s Nobel lecture holds a clue when he speaks of “that boundless realm of haunted men and historic women, whose unending obstinacy blurs into legend”, and adds, “We have not had a moment’s rest”. Perhaps that is as true of modern China as of Latin America? The poem’s concentration and modesty suggests its refusal to sing the propagandist’s “main melody”. However, a cultural outsider must stick to the smaller meanings and rely on limited, personal recognition.

Which means that, for me, it makes haunting and funny analogies for the familiar mysteries of creation. And then, after all its dancing informality and domestic slapstick, half impudent and half respectful it suddenly places a finger-tip on the crux of the matter, and we reach, at the right moment, the point where there is nothing more to be said. “This poem is yours./Yes, for a moment, it almost seemed not your writing.” This makes me think of Pushkin’s love-poem, “I remember a wonderful moment.” If you write you will know just how that feels and how mysterious it feels. You’ve finished the poem and it seems to work – but it’s not yours any more. Whose is it? “If I could tell you I would let you know.” All I know is that, as I browse the supermarket aisles of contemporary poetry, too few of the poems seem to bear the mark of that humbling moment.

If you’re interested in knowing more about avant garde Chinese poetry, Michael Day writes interestingly here, and you can read more of Zang Di and other Chinese poets in PN Review 187. Thanks to the editor for permission to reproduce this poem.

The One Hundred Years of Solitude of Chinese Poetry

About your poetry –
I’m guessing it adapts to the environment
better than you do.
It’s avoided the problem of inheritance.

Digesting its food, it’s like swaying corn,
asleep, it’s like a pregnant wild dog.
Out for a stroll, it’s a stream flowing
past the plaque-like railroad bridge.

It fires language
because language takes work too seriously.
It slaps the customer. It pulls off
The condom of prosody. It reveals impossibility.

It’s like a wooden spoon in a non-stick pan
commanding the peas’ undeclared war.
These peas are round and plump
but still aren’t words.

About the relationship between you and me,
your poetry is an unrented house.
Right now the scene is so empty
it’s like a ring picked out somewhere else.

Along the wall, at least it brings out sponge gourds
like those I bought at the morning market, fresh and tender,
clever enough for erotic stories.
It is the life inside of life.

It’s astonished by the number of times you’ve returned.
I try my best not to ask where you’ve been.
This poem is yours.
Yes, for a moment, it almost seemed not your writing.


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Poem of the week

The Other Side of a Mirror by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge

This week, an unsettling vision of Victorian femininity

Inverse Reverse Peverse (1996) by Cerith Wyn Evans

More than macabre … A woman looks at Inverse Reverse Peverse (1996) by Cerith Wyn Evans at the Royal Academy’s Sensation exhibition.

Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, great grand-niece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, felt overshadowed by her illustrious ancestor, but hers was nonetheless a talent to reckon with. Her best-known poem is “Unwelcome”. It’s not my favourite, though it has a brilliant first stanza:

We were young, we were merry, we were very very wise,
     And the door stood open at our feast,
When there passed us a woman with the West in her eyes,
     And a man with his back to the East.

Subsequently, it loses some of that rhythmic panache, and takes a disappointing turn into Gothic cloak-and-dagger-el. We find ourselves in a medieval scene (“The hound forgot the hand of her lord”) and the universality of the allegory seems compromised, a dimension lost. It remains a good, gloomy old tale, but falls short of its potential as a parable drawn from specific, lived experience. I prefer the subtler, tougher writing of “The Other Side of a Mirror”.

This is no mere tale of the macabre. The protagonist’s eye is fixed in a ruthless, painterly way on the shocking mirror-image that she recognises as herself. We are almost in the presence of the anti-Christ in stanza two, as the ghastly face stares out of its anti-halo of hair “which formed the thorny aureole/ Round hard unsanctified despair”. We can imagine the Gorgon, too, with her thatch of hissing snakes. But the speaker is, of course, confronting her own banished identity. It is the other self of the Victorian ideal woman, falsely sanctified as wife and mother and carer – “the angel in the house”. A society that fears and silences the more truthful version of femininity turns it into a monster. The acceptable but false woman hides outlawed emotions and despised talents, just as she may literally hide behind her hair, but she knows, as a writer, that the force and presence of her authentic self cannot be escaped. This poem records the terrifying, if briefly exhilarating, encounter.

The use of the word “envy” (stanza two, line three) is strange and arresting, as if it had been a synonym for “wish” or “desire”. It’s not, grammatically, the envy that is no longer hidden; and the poet doesn’t tell us “what once no man on earth can guess”. And yet, envy must be part of that un-guessable thing – envy of men, perhaps? The later stanza with its references to “the leaping fire/ of jealousy and fierce revenge” confirms the suspicion.

That little detail about the lips (“parted lines of red”) is extraordinarily effective. It suggests an ugly wound, and at the same time, a mouth that has been painted in order to please men and win love. Horror, so perfectly understated, is no mere Gothic fantasy: it’s simple and real and full of pathos.

The poem is tightly structured, and builds in power as it moves from stanza to stanza. The moment of self-recognition at the end might seem predictable to the psychologically astute modern reader, but it has a subtle “frame”, which is denial, set up earlier in that final stanza. This wish to turn away from the revelation once again undercuts the Gothic turn with a sad and powerful realism. Let this “real me” be unreal, let her be merely a ghost, the speaker seems to say.

Although a successful novelist, Coleridge was never sure of herself as a poet, and wrote under the melancholy pseudonym “Anodos”, meaning “on no road”. But she was, of course, firmly on the road to what we would now understand as a modern feminist poetics. The breakthrough to a self-image that is neither angel nor monster remains for most women, writers or not, a difficult work-in-progress.

The Other Side of a Mirror

I sat before my glass one day,
     And conjured up a vision bare,
Unlike the aspects glad and gay,
     That erst were found reflected there –
The vision of a woman, wild
     With more than womanly despair.

Her hair stood back on either side
     A face bereft of loveliness.
It had no envy now to hide
     What once no man on earth could guess.
It formed the thorny aureole
     Of hard unsanctified distress.

Her lips were open – not a sound
     Came through the parted lines of red.
Whate’er it was, the hideous wound
     In silence and in secret bled.
No sigh relieved her speechless woe,
     She had no voice to speak her dread.

And in her lurid eyes there shone
     The dying flame of life’s desire,
Made mad because its hope was gone,
     And kindled at the leaping fire
Of jealousy, and fierce revenge,
     And strength that could not change nor tire.

Shade of a shadow in the glass,
     O set the crystal surface free!
Pass – as the fairer visions pass –
     Nor ever more return, to be
The ghost of a distracted hour,
     That heard me whisper, “I am she!”


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Poem of the week

Ibant Obscuri by Robert Bridges

Here’s an earthy and evocative extract from Virgil’s Aeneid, translated by a past poet laureate

Robert Bridges

No dull metrist … Robert Bridges.

Speaking of poets laureate, one of the more interesting holders of the post in the not-so-distant past is Robert Bridges (1844-1930). His appointment ran from 1913 until his death. He disliked publicity and went into retreat immediately after accepting the honour, leaving, it is said, a maid who was completely deaf to answer the front door to the paparazzi. The Georgian species (pap. georgianus?), clearly better mannered or less determined than today’s breed, quickly dispersed.

Bridges’s poetry soon fell out of favour. It was overshadowed by TS Eliot’s achievement and, a little later, by that of Auden and his circle. Today, Bridges is most likely to be remembered for championing his friend Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose work would have remained unpublished without that intervention. But the tone of his prescient and imaginative championship also attracted criticism. Admiring as he was, Bridges in his Introduction scolded Hopkins for oddity and obscurity. Later generations, better attuned to maverick genius, have looked down on Bridges all the more.

Is this altogether fair? Bridges, independently, made experiments in prosody and the use of speech rhythms – innovations less arresting than those of Hopkins but still significant. He worked in a variety of genres, from the epic The Testament of Beauty (still readable and interesting as argument, if lacking poetic colour) to short lyrics inspired by the work of Heine. These romantic small poems may seem dated, but they are beautifully made. Bridges was a master of traditional versification. No dull metrist, he understood how to pace the sentence against the line and vary its rhythms. His poems are less emotional than AE Housman’s – and more subtle.

Perhaps the most impressive work he did was his “Englishing” of the classical metres. He produced original poems in hexameter and translations that are the earliest attempts to recreate the rhythms of Virgil and Homer. An extract from Ibant Obscuri (Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid) is this week’s poem.

Bridges described it as a “line for line paraphrase”. He conveys the Latin rhythms very effectively, but, English being what it is, there is a thick, knotty sort of texture, unlike Virgil’s lucidity.

The swelling sail of the hexameter may be too word-laden for some tastes, but any padding is made from a lustrous fabric beautifully stitched into the essential narrative. A phrase such as “blood-shotten eyeballs”, for example, seems to me stronger and more hideously evocative than mere “blood-shot eyes”. Sometimes an archaism or elision, adopted no doubt mainly for rhythmical purpose, enhances the diction, giving it an earthy, vernacular quality: “a-down”, “drown i’the swift wake-water”, “where wer’ an end their names to relate?” Bridges thought that the “e” on the end of words such as “were” or “nature” affected the pronunciation. Perhaps it did – for him. As a man of Kent, albeit schooled at Eton and Oxford, perhaps he was that rare Englishman who pronounced his “r”s.

One of his hobbies as a contented senior laureate was tapestry work. In a tapestry, the medium is too complex for absolute clarity. That is the metaphor Bridges’s Virgil brings to my mind. At the same time, the meaning is clear, helped along by the music. The sound of the verse is rarely sweetly lyrical: it is punchy and sometimes packs in some internal rhyme or Anglo-Saxon-ish alliteration: “These floods one ferryman serveth, most awful of aspect …” The control of sound and syntax, and the vividness of imagery are not too far short of Bridges’s admired master, Milton.

In the passage below, Aeneas, having procured the magical golden bough, has persuaded the Cumaean Sybil to lead him down to the underworld, where he will meet with the shade of his father, Anchises. As it begins, the Sybil and Aeneas have reached the threshold of “the void and vasty dominion of Ades”.

From Ibant Obscuri

Midway of all this tract, with secular arms an immense elm,
Reareth a crowd of branches, aneath whose leafy protection
Vain dreams thickly nestle, clinging unto the foliage on high:
And many strange creatures of monstrous form and features
Stable about th’entrance, Centaur and Scylla’s abortion,
And hundred-handed Briareus, and Lerna’s wildbeast
Roaring amain, and clothed in frightful flame the Chimaera,
Gorgons and Harpies and Pluto’s three-bodied ogre.
  In terror, Aeneas upheld his sword to defend him,
With ready naked point confronting their dreaded onset:
And had not the Sybil warn’d how these lively spirits were
All incorporeal, flitting in thin maskery of form,
He had assailed their host, and wounded vainly the void air.
  Hence is a road that led them a-down to the Tartarean streams,
Where Acheron’s whirlpool impetuous, into the reeky
Deep of Cokytos disgorgeth, with muddy burden.
These floods one ferryman serveth, most awful of aspect,
Of squalor infernal, Chāron: all filthily unkempt
That woolly white cheek-fleece, and fiery the blood-shotten eyeballs:
On one shoulder a cloak knotted up his nudity vaunteth.
He himself plieth oar or pole, manageth tiller and sheet,
And the relics of men in his ash-grey barge ferries over;
Already old, but green to a god and hearty will age be.
  Now hitherward to the bank much folk were crowding, a medley
Of men and matrons; nor did death’s injury conceal
Bravespirited heroes, young maidens beauteous unwed,
And boys borne to the grave in sight of their sorrowing sires.
  Countless as in the forest, at a first white frosting of autumn
Sere leaves fall to the ground; or like whenas over the ocean
Myriad birds come thickly flocking, when wintry December
Drives them afar southward for shelter upon sunnier shores,
So thronged they; and each his watery journey demanded,
All to the further bank stretching-out their arms impatient:
But the sullen boatman took now one now other at will,
While some from the river forbade he, an’ drave to a distance.
  Aeneas in wonder alike and deep pity then spake …


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Poem of the week

The Mangel-Bury by Ivor Gurney

This week, a lyrical pastoral haunted by memories of the first world war

Ivor Gurney

No self-pity or recrimination … Ivor Gurney.

At the Royal College of Music in 1911, the tousled, bespectacled composition scholar Ivor Gurney was nicknamed “Schubert”. He was later declared by his tutor, Charles Stanford, to have been the most highly promising of all the gifted students he had ever taught, but also the least teachable. Despite his tormented, chaotic life, Gurney went on to become a composer of distinction, writing more than 300 songs and a variety of instrumental works.

His interest in poetry grew from his admiration for the Elizabethan poets he’d set to music, and was nurtured (if that’s the right word) by active service in the first world war; his experiences in the trenches provided a life-time’s subject-matter. The horror is not evaded, still less poeticised, but Gurney also sees the ordinary and human side of soldiering. His war is a rich, idiomatic, all-round narrative, very different from the stricken outcry of Wilfred Owen.

Some of Gurney’s poems reflect the Elizabethan influence in their diction and melodic cadence. Others take a more modernist turn, often clotted and complex, quirky in their syntax, still musical but with muscular rather than gracefully fluid rhythms. His fondness for the use of alliteration and internal rhyme suggests Hopkins, whom he read as young man but found pretentious. Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Walt Whitman and Edward Thomas were the poets he particularly admired.

After demobilisation in 1918, Gurney tried to resume his music studies, but mental ill-health intervened. He worked sporadically at all kinds of odd jobs, continued to compose and write, and set himself punishing regimes of long walks and sleep deprivation. He spent his last 15 years in the City of London Mental Hospital, Dartford, where he wrote some of his best poems – including this week’s choice, “The Mangel-Bury”.

A mangel-bury is a thatch used to cover the mangelwurzels being stored for cattle-food. For the recently demobbed Gurney, its shape recalls a trench, or, possibly, a grave. Haunted by the war, he was nevertheless hoping at that stage to make a fresh start. His evocation of the breath of an early “West spring” which “none foreign divines” demonstrates how sharply and personally present his beloved native Gloucester seemed, compared with the battlefields he had recently left. It’s still only February, but the air is redolent of spring’s promise, and future hope.

The rhythm and diction of the poem are appropriately heavy: the cart, the curiously animated mangelwurzels themselves, the thick-set farmer – all have weight and presence, intensified by the odd syntax, which also heightens the sense of the young man’s awkwardness and shyness. Many lines end on verbs in the past tense (sounded, waited, hefted, willed, called), slowing the pace, and adding to the sonic load. We see, as the poet sees, his uncertain younger self, waiting for the chance to help the farmer, convincing himself it’s only right that he should; and, around that silent encounter, we sense a host of inarticulate longings. A lovely, sinewy movement briefly liberates the rhythm in line 15, marked by one of those characteristic internal rhymes (“swinging … singing”.)

In his “asylum” poems, Gurney sometimes hurls himself into a desperate argument with God and fate, but not here. Here, like his remembered self, he quietly shoulders the final disappointment. The farmer has other business to attend to, and the poet is driven on by his clamouring private demons. There is no self-pity or recrimination. The end of the poem is wonderfully matter-of-fact, with the precise measurement of the field (“fifteen acres”) a peculiarly haunting detail, almost an acknowledgement that something apparently trifling has imprinted itself on the poet’s mind, intense and unforgettable.

The Mangel-Bury

It was after war; Edward Thomas had fallen at Arras –
I was walking by Gloucester musing on such things
As fill his verse with goodness; it was February; the long house
Straw-thatched of the mangels stretched two wide wings;
And looked as part of the earth heaped up by dead soldiers
In the most fitting place – along the hedge’s yet-bare lines.
West spring breathed there early, that none foreign divines.
Across the flat country the rattling of the cart sounded;
Heavy of wood, jingling of iron; as he neared me I waited
For the chance perhaps of heaving at those great rounded
Ruddy or orange things – and right to be rolled and hefted
By a body like mine, soldier still, and clean from water.
Silent he assented; till the cart was drifted
High with those creatures, so right in size and matter.
We threw with our bodies swinging, blood in my ears singing;
His was the thick-set sort of farmer, but well-built –
Perhaps, long before, his blood’s name ruled all,
Watched all things for his own. If my luck had so willed
Many questions of lordship I had heard him tell – old
Names, rumours. But my pain to more moving called
And him to some barn business far in the fifteen acre field.


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Poem of the week

The Language School

Tim Liardet’s vibrant, painterly verse gives a voice to a young offender alienated by authority

Young offender

Numbness and silence … an inmate at Norwich Young Offenders’ Institution.

This week’s poem, The Language School, comes from Tim Liardet’s fifth collection, The Blood Choir. Much of the collection is set in the unnamed young offenders’ institution where Liardet was a tutor. It focuses on the man-made human hell of the jail, with the animal hell of the “foot-and-mouth” epidemic, also largely man-made, as a backdrop, but works the language with such vibrancy and inventiveness that transformation seems possible. Although Liardet’s poetry is richly painterly in its love of the body’s drama, and his critique of “society” rarely spelled out, reform must be where the arrow-shower of such committed creative ambition ultimately falls.

Most of us think about, and visualise, young violent males in terms of a few bleak stereotypes. Liardet’s poems allow us our flashes of instant recognition (“Sol, so loud in a perpetual lather;/ Hodgkin’s sly, intelligent, furtive way…”). But they push and skew those portraits, and confront us with previously unimagined forms of human organism. What imprisonment effects psychologically – the identity-stripping, the brutalisation, the deformation – is rendered visually and kinetically, often in terms of the prisoners’ body language.

One of the poems presents the poet in his classroom role, teaching the “Martian” poetic technique, which he succinctly describes as looking at the world “like a visitor/ on his first visit to the planet”. Of course, the essential Martian is an aesthete, and his defamiliarisation tactics sharpen our delight in things (more often things than people) as they are. However, the technique is enabling for Liardet. It helps him map his terrifying new planet and its semi-familiar aliens, and to recognise his own estrangedness. Craig Raine’s original “Martian” postcards were organised in a series of teasing pictorial couplets, like tiny jigsaw puzzles. The jump-cut technique often suits Liardet’s purpose, too.

The Language School shows us the young prisoner in the courtroom, his displacement mimed with abrupt, hand-held shots that jerk the eye unsettlingly up and down. This time, the alienation to be examined is verbal. The irony is that in this particular language school, there is not even a stumbling effort at communication. It is not, primarily, that the prisoner is inarticulate but that the language he speaks is not the one spoken by authority (and vice versa). Authority’s language forces the victim’s language into meaninglessness. The one simple word that the poem records is a marker of this estrangement. The prisoner’s “no”, we’re told, is “the plural of no”. It seems freighted with meanings that have nothing to do with the expected, considered response after the weighing up of alternatives. Robbed of speech-marks, it is a blanket no, with unfathomable depths of cynicism, no free will and no alternative.

As always, Liardet is able to conjure physical presence in strong, brief strokes: the posture of the boy, hands pressed under armpits, the “platypus-nose” of the left trainer, which symbolises the deeper deformation. It is a stiller poem than many, but somehow more frightening, in its sullen concentration, than those that relish forceful brutal movement, in which bodies enjoy at least some level of release. The Language School drops into the pit of numbness and silence. The reader knows that the trap has been dug long before the prisoner reached the courtroom.

The Language School


The charges might as well be read out
in Chinese, Bantu or Dravidian

or not be read at all – they drift, they loop
like light that cannot turn a corner

or soundwaves that bend in and out
of some fidelity to the original. To whom

do they cling? Another dumbstruck boy
who does not speak the English they speak

or even hear it – all nape and haircut, sat
folded up in a Jesuit clasp

with hands in his armpits, perusing
with a sort of thick-lipped composure

the platypus-nose of his left trainer, as if it had
evolved out of kilter with the rest.


No is the blank, the zero, the lumpy zilch,
the bijou fuck-all the question solicits

and wishes-for: the litany, the plural of no.
It is the answer the question anticipates

before asking itself, surrounding no.
Do you have anything to say in your own defence?

The hiatus, the answer-in-minus scans
the many milliseconds of a second

that hang like a threat, scaring it
way up into the corner of articulation

where it ceases to exist.
Without fuss, or noise, or anything,

without changing expression or looking up
the only yes there is nods to a no.


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Poem of the week

Spring songs

To celebrate the end of winter, a double helping of reasons to be cheerful

An Italian Maple tree coming into flower at Kew Gardens

An Italian Maple tree icumen into flower at Kew Gardens.

“Happiness writes white,” said novelist Henri de Montherlant. “It does not show up on the page.” Any piece of sustained narrative demands the presence of worms in the bud, of course – if there’s no pain, there’s no plot, and no true reflection of our wormily wonderful, if wonderfully wormy, lives.

But the lyric poem is not in thrall to blow-by-blow mimesis: poems can be pure moment, and lift us, like music, into time-stopping delight. Modern poets and their readers are deeply addicted to misery: emotional cooling, global warming, and death, death, death. I’m no exception. But I also love going back in time, into the opening pages of anthologies, where the poems are still songs (and possibly dances) and no one dwells obsessively on the fact that the daffodils will be wasting away so soon. Since it’s spring (cold, grey, sunless, but still spring) as I write, here are two poems for the price of one to brighten your post-Easter week: the 13th-century Cuckoo Song, “Sumer is icumen in”, and the 19th-century “Rondeau” by Leigh Hunt. Compare and contrast, or, if that’s too much chocolate, savour separately.

“Sumer is Icumen In” is sometimes known as the Reading rota, because the manuscript was first discovered in Reading Abbey, and because the song was designated to be performed as a round – a six-part round, no less. Even flat on the page, the repetitions create a contrapuntal effect, and a jostle of activity and noise surrounds that dominating cuckoo call (a faintly mournful minor third, A to F sharp, in real life). Cuckoos are increasingly rare these days, so, if this is all getting a bit too Polly Anna-ish, you can add fashionable eco-pathos to your reading of the last line, which is addressed to the cuckoo and roughly translates as “now don’t ever stop”. The full translation – and Ezra Pound’s enjoyable parody besides – can be sampled here.

Sumer is icumen in

      Sing, cuccu, nu. Sing, cuccu.
      Sing cuccu. Sing, cuccu, nu.

Sumer is icumen in –
Lhude sing cuccu.
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springeth the wude nu –
Sing cuccu.

Awe bleateth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu,
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing cuccu.
Cuccu, cuccu,
Well singes thu, cuccu –
Ne swik thu naver nu!

The Leigh Hunt poem (actually, a miniaturised rondeau, since the form traditionally has 15 lines and three stanzas) perfectly matches construct to content. The trickiest rule of the rondeau is that the first half of the first line should return as a refrain at the end. In Hunt’s poem this return has a glorious inevitability. We can’t imagine anything else would have worked, other than “Jenny kissed me”, now transformed from statement of fact to triumphant proclamation. The story goes that Hunt had been suffering from severe influenza, and it was when announcing his recovery to Jane Carlyle
that the uncharacteristically demonstrative gesture occurred

The tone of the poem is a wonderful mixture of irony and sincerity, with lines three and four leaving us in no doubt of the latter, though the light touch is never lost. I particularly like the way the rhythm of line four is organised so as to place the heaviest stress on “that”, producing a little additional jab of resilient scorn. Take that, Time.


Jenny kissed me when we met,
   Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who loves to get
   Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
   Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add
   Jenny kissed me.


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Poem of the week

Lament for the Poets: 1916

The neglected war poet Francis Ledwidge’s pastoral work reflects on Irish nationalism after the Easter Rising

A blackbird

Singing throughout Irish poetry … the blackbird.

I wonder if many English readers had heard of an Irish poet named Francis Ledwidge before they read Seamus Heaney’s elegy, published in his superlative 1979 collection Field Work.

I hadn’t, and the epigraph, as well as the title of Heaney’s poem, kindled my curiosity: “In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge, killed in France, 31 July 1917.” In realising that there were war-poets the anthologies left out, I began to understand that there was probably a whole underground network of poets who, for reasons sometimes more connected to politics than literary judgment, had been missed by the canon-makers – and one of my interests ever since has been to hunt out work by these poets, men as well as women. The period just before the modernist revolution of the early 20th century is one of the best archaeological sites: roads not taken by the strongly marching avant garde can still be discerned in the undergrowth, and occasional treasures as well as mere curiosities may be found. Ledwidge’s poems are among the treasures.

Heaney’s elegy weaves in the agonised remarks Ledwidge made after learning of the British executions of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: “To be called a British soldier while my country/ Has no place among nations … ” But, of course, Ledwidge was originally a volunteer. One of the motives for his surprising enlistment in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers may have been his failed romance with Ellie Vaughey. And at that stage he no doubt believed he was fighting, ultimately, for Irish freedom as well as British: there was no insoluble conflict for him, as a moderate Nationalist, in military action against Germany. All that changed after the Easter Rising, and he wanted only to return home to County Meath. He survived the battle of Arras (which had cost the life of the great English poet Edward Thomas), only to be killed in the slaughter at the third battle of Ypres.

Heaney’s elegy is more than factual: it evokes a potent sense of his subject’s style of feeling and imagination. Ledwidge had written of his mother, Anne, that “there was not a grief she deemed strange,/ For there is that in her which always mourns.” He might have been describing himself. His intensely melodic language creates a soundscape awash with haunting, tender melancholy. The timbre is that of a small woodwind ensemble – clarinet, oboe and cor anglais (the latter neither a horn, nor English, as my music teacher used to insist). The marvellous ear is complemented by an eye for the natural world, which is sketched in bold, quick, clear-lit strokes reminiscent of the early Irish poets. In real life, Ledwidge was apparently energetic and sociable. But the poems for which he is remembered, and treasured, are the elegies, such as For One Dead, written in memory of Ellie Vaughey, and this week’s choice, Lament for the Poets: 1916.

Ledwidge here seems to take a back seat, like an accompanist: his poem’s singer and chief mourner is the allegorical spéirbhean (sky-woman), in her incarnation as the sean bhean bhocht (the poor old woman). Internal rhyme suggests that Ledwidge is consciously echoing Gaelic versification techniques.

The imagery, like the allegory, is deeply traditional. The blackbird sings throughout Irish poetry, north and south, from medieval times to the present. Its symbolism is infinitely malleable: the trope is used by Protestant and Catholic poets alike, and mostly without narrowly political intent. Here, though, the blackbirds represent the Nationalist activists, in particular Ledwidge’s friend, Thomas MacDonagh. They have been destroyed by the fowler, England, and their loss is lamented by Ireland in her lowliest guise. Is Ledwidge also regretting the fact that they were led by their sense of injustice from poetry and scholarship towards violence? That interpretation seems perfectly feasible.

The title echoes the Scottish poet William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makers. That poem’s famous refrain, “timor mortis conturbat me” (“fear of death confounds me”), turns Dunbar’s grief for the lost poets with poignant candour towards himself. Ledwidge, in the poem to his mother quoted earlier, had described himself as “this poor, bird-hearted singer of a day”. It is tempting to imagine that the elegy was written in some kind of foreknowledge of the untimely silencing of his own sweet blackbird song.

Lament for the Poets: 1916

I heard the Poor Old Woman say:
“At break of day the fowler came,
And took my blackbirds from their songs
Who loved me well thro’ shame and blame.

‘No more from lovely distances
Their songs shall bless me, mile by mile,
Nor to white Ashbourne call me down
To wear my crown another while.

“With bended flowers the angels mark
For the skylark the place they lie;
From there its little family
Shall dip their wings first in the sky.

“And when the first surprise of flight
Sweet songs excite, from the far dawn
Shall there come blackbirds loud with love,
Sweet echoes of the singers gone.

“But in the lovely hush of eve,
Weeping I grieve the silent bills,”
I heard the Poor Old Woman say
In Derry of the little hills.


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Poem of the week


The cool wit of Elinor Morton Wylie’s work has been unfairly eclipsed

A house gable end with red brick chimney

Do hold your breath … a house gable end.

Born into a prominent New Jersey family in 1885, she was a society beauty, poetry editor of Vanity Fair (1923-1925), a passionate admirer of Shelley, and a novelist and painter as well as poet. In fact, the publication of her first novel was celebrated by a torch-lit procession through the streets of Manhattan. Married three times, she lived in England with her second husband, the lawyer Horace Wylie, from 1910 to the outbreak of the first world war. She died of a stroke in 1928, at the age of 43, to be buried with a laurel wreath crowning her head, placed there by Edna St Vincent Millay.

The poet was Elinor Morton Wylie, and this week’s poem, “The Sanctuary”, demonstrates the vivid, punchy and refreshingly unexpected quality of her writing.

Her work is better known in the US than the UK, but she is one of those writers whose fatally colourful biography outshines her literary reputation. Nor does she seem to have reaped many benefits from recent feminist revisions of the canon, despite the fact that she’s represented by a poem or two in most of the substantial anthologies of 20th century women poets. This is a great pity. She may be minor in scope, but she certainly has her place in the starry line-up of 20th century female wits, from Dorothy Parker to Wendy Cope and Sophie Hannah. I admit that, until a chance encounter a few days ago, I’d completely neglected to read her poems, possibly because of subconsciously confusing her with Ella Wheeler Wilcox. I’ve enormously enjoyed discovering her work, and I hope, if you’re a new reader, you will, too.

In “Pretty Words” she wrote: “I love words opalescent, cool and pearly,/ Like midsummer moths, and honied words, like bees,/ Gilded and sticky, with a little sting.” It’s the sting that makes her memorable, as in “Love Song”: “The serpent’s knowledge of the world/ Learn, and the dove’s more naïve charm;/ Whether your ringlets should be curled,/ why he likes his claret warm.” The concluding verse of “Death and the Maiden” is more risqué, and the trimeter rhythm bouncier, as the maiden coquettishly reminds “Sir Death”, “But do not forget to array/Your terror in juvenile charms; /I shall deeply regret my delay /If I sleep in a skeleton’s arms.” Wylie’s characteristic last-minute swerve to avoid sentimentality when dealing with sentimental subjects is bracing.

Despite her love of Shelley, Shelleyan rhetoric is not her line; neither (despite the proclaimed love of “honied” words) is Keatsian lushness. I feel sure she must have read Emily Dickinson: this is apparent not only in her confident skill with rhymed quatrains, but in her reaching towards a daring, extra-poetic vocabulary. In “The Sanctuary”, for example, there are bricks and mortar as well as crystal cups.

Another poet she may have drawn on is William Blake. I’m reminded of his “Song” when she evokes the trapped bird of the female imagination in “The Falcon”. Blake describes how the Prince of Love teases the captive bird, “Then stretches out my golden wing,/ And mocks my loss of liberty”. Wylie’s poem ends: “Weave her a chain of silver twist/ And a little hood of scarlet wool,/ And let her perch upon your wrist,/ And tell her she is beautiful.” No, it’s not as dramatic as Blake, but the pathos is still resonant.

She can be fanciful and mannerist: “This Pekingese, that makes the sand-grains spin, /Is digging little tunnels to Pekin: /Dream him emerging in a porcelain cave/ Where wounded dragons stain a pearly wave” (“The Pekingese”). Sometimes she simply enjoys word-painting, as in “Incantation”, a rather pointless study in black and white, dark and light. But she usually has something interesting to say. The imaginative intelligence behind “Bronze Trumpets and Sea Water”, a meditation on the difficulty of translating Latin into English, is striking: “Alembics turn to stranger things/ Strange things, but never while we live/ Shall magic turn this bronze that sings/ To singing water in a sieve.” I wonder if any of her translations from the Latin poets survive? I imagine she’d have done a capable job.

The longing to preserve her imaginative freedom in a society where women, if they managed to escape its conventions, did not escape its censure, is apparent in many of the poems. But, however bitterly she confronts personal conflict, Wylie retains her sharp-edged poise. This week’s poem epitomises her ability to make a bold, hard metaphorical shell for difficult emotion. She packed her poems in salt, as Yeats advised, and they have lasted well. They deserve to be much better known.

This is the bricklayer; hear the thud
Of his heavy load dumped down on stone.
His lustrous bricks are brighter than blood,
His smoking mortar whiter than bone.

Set each sharp-edged, fire-bitten brick
Straight by the plumb-line’s shivering length;
Make my marvellous wall so thick
Dead nor living may shake its strength.

Full as a crystal cup with drink
Is my cell with dreams, and quiet, and cool. . .
Stop, old man! You must leave a chink;
How can I breathe? You can’t, you fool!


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Poem of the week

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

This week’s choice is Oscar Wilde’s indictment of the Victorian penal system, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Prison cell

No way out … A prison cell.

Oscar Wilde begins his prison meditation, De Profundis, with an aphorism, not the light and witty kind for which his plays are famous, but one which resonates with bleak experience: “Suffering is one very long moment.” Having reached the turning point in his despair, the disgraced writer goes on to set out his plan for transforming that experience into a different kind of art and a new kind of life, borrowing Dante’s title La Vita Nuova for his own projected resurrection. The Ballad of Reading Gaol, this week’s choice, is the fulfilment of that plan.

Wilde wrote the poem in 1898. He was now free, but a broken man, and a broke one. Besides two letters, he produced nothing else of literary significance before his death. It was first published simply under his prisoner identification number, C.3-3.

The poem is dedicated to the memory of the “sometime” Royal Horse Guards trooper, Charles Thomas Wooldridge, and the central incident is Wooldridge’s execution for the murder of his wife. Around this narrative core, whose genre might be described as gothic realism, Wilde builds a meditation on the paradoxes of morality. The Ballad is an indictment of the death penalty and the whole penal system, but it is much more than a protest poem. It is a revelation, and its structure is part of that revelation.

Everyone can quote the refrain: “For each man kills the thing he loves.” Poetically, it’s unquestionably powerful, and, intellectually, it’s powerfully questionable. What does Wilde mean? Perhaps he is saying that love itself corrupts or alters its object. That would certainly seem to have been true of his relationship with “Bosie”, Lord Alfred Douglas, seemingly a spoiled brat further spoiled by Wilde’s adulation. Judas, of course, is on his mind: the poem refers to the kiss of Caiaphas, the latter being the priest who participated in Christ’s betrayal.

Wilde loved paradox, and he found some essential symbol of it in the man who murdered his wife. Perhaps he found another in the hypocrisy of the prison system itself, destroying the souls and bodies of those it would reform. The ballad form, as he adapts it, encases paradox and story in a tight, encircling ring. It is both a Dante-esque circle of hell and the deadly routine of prison life. It represents the whole cycle of crime and punishment. It is inescapable, like the “iron gin” mentioned in line 173, a symbol of confinement and possibly also an actual machine.

In the plodding iambic tetrameter and the extensive use of refrain and parallelism, we can feel at a physical level the grinding relentlessness of prison work. The tasks Victorian prisoners were set were part of their punishment. They would pedal a treadmill with their feet, for example, and though some prison treadmills were geared to grind corn or raise water, others had no use but to enslave. Then there was the nasty business of oakum picking, a task of unravelling the twine of old tarred ropes salvaged from ships. Wilde had worked at this until his fingers bled.

In De Profundis he depicts Christ as a poet, with “an intense and flame-like imagination”, and describes Christian morality as “all sympathy”. The sincerity of Wilde’s drama of self-regeneration has sometimes been questioned and there is no doubt a certain posturing: if Christ is poet-like, this suffering poet, he seems to hint, is Christ-like. But the central charge of the Ballad is sympathy, sympathy with the condemned man and his fellow inmates. One tiny revision tells us a lot. The last two lines of stanza 41 originally read: “And I trembled as I groped my way/ Into my numbered tomb.” In the second version, the shift from first to third person indicates that effort of sympathy.

Sympathy enables Wilde to remember vivid details and evoke collective feelings. The poem’s hellish truthfulness raises it beyond its occasional rhetorical flaws, its purple passages. Suffering is not guaranteed to produce great art, or great humanity. However, there is no doubt that Wilde, the self-dubbed “lord of language”, turns his awful humiliation to triumph in the Ballad, and attains a new poetic and moral stature.

There’s only room for a short extract:

With slouch and swing around the ring
We trod the Fools’ Parade!
We did not care: we knew we were
The Devils’ Own Brigade:
And shaven head and feet of lead
Make a merry masquerade.

We tore the tarry rope to shreds
With blunt and bleeding nails;
We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,
And cleaned the shining rails:
And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank,
And clattered with the pails.

We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
We turned the dusty drill:
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
And sweated on the mill:
But in the heart of every man
Terror was lying still.

So still it lay that every day
Crawled like a weed-clogged wave:
And we forgot the bitter lot
That waits for fool and knave,
Till once, as we tramped in from work,
We passed an open grave.

With yawning mouth the horrid hole
Gaped for a living thing;
The very mud cried out for blood
To the thirsty asphalt ring:
And we knew that ere one dawn grew fair
Some prisoner had to swing.

Right in we went, with soul intent
On Death and Dread and Doom:
The hangman, with his little bag,
Went shuffling through the gloom:
And each man trembled as he crept
Into his numbered tomb.


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Poem of the week


This week, Michael Longley’s Persephone, a poem about spring that is also a parable of creativity

A barn swallow feeds its hatch of young with a fly

‘The swallows turn above their broken home’: a barn swallow feeds its hatch of young.

The vernal equinox is a wintry, northern affair in Michael Longley’s youthful poem Persephone (1966). One of those poems occurring in the dawn of a writer’s career that, in retrospect, seem almost to have encapsulated it, Persephone exemplifies the transitional states Longley’s work often explores, and his use of classical sources to double-expose, and even explode, views of the local and topical. So the goddess surfacing here is a long way from the isles of Greece: the setting suggests the west of Ireland, where the northern poet’s imagination has a permanent anchorage.

The rhymed and para-rhymed couplets are themselves neatly paired. They are in fairly regular iambic pentameter – the meter of measured walking. Visually, they resemble streaks of thaw-water or soil in the snow of the page. The poem denotes a tentative, reluctant opening in a landscape of dereliction.

Psychic chaos may accompany transformation. The word “delirium” suggests madness (from the Latin “delirare” – to swerve from a furrow.) Is the delirium that of the swallows as well as the acres? The strange mixture of feverish activity (that of the birds above their “broken homes”) and the disorderly trance of the wintering landscape presents the vernal equinox as psychological crisis.

Tiny and vast spaces alternate giddily. The hibernating creatures are contained in a world beyond their little barriers and roosts. We glimpse its vistas in the word “skylight” and then in the reference to “acres” in line four (I like the way Persephone claims them as hers, as a proud farmer might) and in the very word “equinox”.

The faint voice of an English poet, Tennyson, is audible in line six, with its echo of “Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white”. Tennyson’s “song” too is about sleeping and waking. But Persephone has none of Tennyson’s erotic languor. Rather, it displays an unexpected wittiness. It begins with rain, and ends with snow. It imports a surprising bit of modern psychobabble in “welladjusted” and “skilled”. These terms are actually precise descriptions of the animals in their element: it’s us humans they mock. Perhaps they also mock our capabilities as earth’s custodians.

The first line of the last couplet contains a cautionary stumble in the rhythm. You learn to walk differently in snow. For the animals, there is still every necessity for lying low. The crafty survivors who are out and about move “hand in glove” like conspirators, sharers of the same eco-system, dividers of the spoils. They are not yet out of the woods. The last couplet attaches romantic mystery to the silence of the snow, but implies a practical benefit – the hunters’ stealth.

Though the poem asserts the separateness of its sections, and moves in deliberate fits and starts, it conveys interconnection, indeed, interdependence, through its rhyme, rhythm and tone. The voice is Persephone’s, talking about what she knows intimately, knows almost by divination. No fewer then eight species are named: each seems to have its private space, while sharing the same suspended moment. Persephone is reading the inventory of herself, and we merely eavesdrop.

Michael Longley has said that he considers his nature writing to be his most political. Such writing doesn’t colonise the landscape with opinion or ideology. It leaves it open for the reader. Persephone is a poem about spring. Perhaps it’s also a parable about creativity, and the creator’s need to lie fallow and be “numskulled” at times.

Etymology, of course, links hibernation and Hibernia (the Latin name for Ireland). One should be wary of opening too many skylights in a poem’s delicate brain. But, in the shadow of recent events in Northern Ireland, Persephone seems to whisper to us that, although untimely snow and murderous frosts beset the northern spring, the promise of summer has not been abandoned.



I see as through a skylight in my brain
The mole strew its buildings in the rain,

The swallows turn above their broken home
And all my acres in delirium.

Straitjacketed by cold and numskulled
Now sleep the welladjusted and the skilled –

The bat folds its wing like a winter leaf,
The squirrel in its hollow holds aloof.

The weasel and ferret, the stoat and fox
Move hand in glove across the equinox.

I can tell how softly their footsteps go –
Their footsteps borrow silence from the snow.


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Poem of the week


This week, Rupert Brooke’s Heaven, a piece of fishy satire that supersedes the Edwardian poet’s military pretensions

School of red snappers

‘A purpose in liquidity’ … a school of red snappers.

Rupert Brooke was still an apprentice poet in 1915 when he died, aged 28, of blood poisoning, having never seen the military action he had romanticised in the five sonnets that culminate in The Soldier. He had worked devotedly to perfect his writing since his schooldays, but the various strands of his talent were never brought together, and his self-dramatising tendencies remained like a lingering adolescence. He was an above-average Edwardian poet who might have travelled farther towards modernism had he lived, though it’s perhaps more likely that he would have turned to the novel.

His prosodic instincts are conventional, but his imaginative world is richer than the anthology favourites suggest. More than once he risked unglamorous and even grotesque poetic subjects (A Channel Passage describes seasickness, for example), and he might have made an excellent war poet, instead of a vacuously patriotic one, had he written not from the position of innocence but from experience. In this week’s poem, Heaven, he shows a rather nice line in succinct, neo-Augustan satire. Some corner of English poetry will be, forever, The Soldier – but Heaven is a more deserving and original candidate for immortality.

There’s also an earlier poem about fish (called, simply, Fish), suggesting that Brooke had a real affinity with these creatures. Fish becomes overblown when metaphor swamps observation and the fish turns into a strange symbol of oceanic youthful ecstasy (“You know the sigh, the song of love!” etc), but it contains some good if unpolished writing: “In a cool curving world he lies/ and ripples with dark ecstasies./ The kind luxurious lapse and steal/ shapes (sic) all his universe to feel/ And know and be; the clinging stream/ Closes his memory, glooms his dream …” The fish, perfectly at one with his curving world, “fades to some dank sufficient heaven” – and perhaps this is where the idea for the later poem begins.

In Heaven, the imagination-loaded fish has been scaled, scrubbed, gutted, and picked to a clean skeleton. The earlier poem furnished the fish-mind with the exquisite sensuous experience of a young poet in love; this poem humanises the fish-mind so as to mock pious silliness. It couldn’t accurately be called a revision, because it’s a completely different poem. However, the earlier poem surely laid the foundation of Brooke’s technical assurance here. There is no struggle: he says what he wants to say wittily and memorably.

In fact, he mocks the literary excesses that he himself too often enjoyed. There are numerous bathetic exclamations and near-oxymoronic phrases such as “paradisal grubs”, “unfading moths” and “the worm that never dies,” exposing the shoddier rhetorical sides of both piety and poetry. The vocabulary is rich, but simple enough, with the tendency to use fancy verbiage outgrown, or at least wisely channelled. “Squamous” is both exact and unexpected, and beautifully placed in the list of deific adjectives.

The poem about seasickness (and, of course, love), A Channel Passage, ends with the awkwardly comical, even comically awkward, couplet:
“And still the sick ship rolls. It’s hard, I tell ye,/ To choose ‘twixt love and nausea, heart and belly.” Brooke’s risky, and badly handled, honesty to experience is a mature virtue in the making. It’s a quality worlds away from sentimentality and jingoism, and would have made him into a different and far more considerable writer than the one we remember.


Fish (fly-replete, in depth of June,
Dawdling away their wat’ry noon)
Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,
Each secret fishy hope or fear.
Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond;
But is there anything Beyond?
This life cannot be All, they swear,
For how unpleasant if it were!
One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;
And, sure, the reverent eye must see
A Purpose in Liquidity.
We darkly know, by Faith we cry,
The future is not Wholly Dry.
Mud unto mud! – Death eddies near –
Not here the appointed End, not here!
But somewhere, beyond Space and Time,
Is wetter water, slimier slime!
And there (they trust) there swimmeth One
Who swam ere rivers were begun,
Immense, of fishy form and mind,
Squamous, omnipotent and kind;
And under that Almighty Fin,
The littlest fish may enter in.
Oh! Never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,
But more than mundane weeds are there,
And mud, celestially fair;
Fat caterpillars drift around,
And Paradisal grubs are found;
Unfading moths, immortal flies,
And the worm that never dies.
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish.

• The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke, with an introduction by Gavin Ewart, and including Edward Marsh’s valedictory Memoir, were published by Macmillan in 1992.


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Poem of the week


Poet George Herbert

George Herbert, circa 1625. Engraving by S Allen.

In the context of our current wrangles about banks, fat cats and payouts, this week’s poem, George Herbert’s “Humilitie”, seems to acquire additional edge. Although he ended up a rector, Herbert (1593-1633) had first, unsuccessfully, sought a career at court, and there are times in his work when he rather enjoys mocking venial courtly ways.

In this curious combination of fable, allegory and vision-poem, his target may be both the Jacobean court and the classical, pre-Christian concept of virtue. But there’s something extremely familiar about the moral economics and squabbling indulged in by “the great and good”, here depicted “hand-in-hand” on a complicatedly hierarchical throne, and it’s certainly easy to think of modern public equivalents for the various beasts. The Virtues may be harder to cast, and Humilitie the most difficult of all.

Herbert’s 160 poems, collected into a single, posthumously published collection, The Temple, are all devotional, yet their variety is extraordinary. In form, they range from shaped poems, such as Easter Wings, to simple hymn-like quatrains and sonnets. Many are in structures of the poet’s own devising. Those beautiful symmetrical stanzas, composed of lines of varying metrical length, move across the mind like faint echoes of madrigals, and must be the closest English formal verse has ever come to music. In imagery they draw heavily on the Bible, of course, but also on science, architecture, music, law, sports such as falconry and bowls, and even card games. For all his artistry and learning, Herbert has a plain-speaking quality, and perhaps that is why, in a secular age, his poetry remains compelling. He must have had a great gift, and a great ear, for conversation. We’re still gripped when that intense but unaffected voice utters a personal prayer.

“Humilitie” is not a prayer but a parable that might almost have been composed by Aesop. It tells how the birds and beasts were assembled to present gifts to the Virtues, gifts that were to be distributed by the most important, and most Christian virtue of them all, Humility. Symbolic of the submission of instinct to morality, the beasts rather disconcertingly offer body parts to those Virtues representing their opposite qualities: the Lion, for example, offers his paw to lamb-like Mansuetude, the Turkey’s wine-coloured wattle is to be given to Temperance. The Peacock is too proud personally to offer his plume, so the Crow appears with it, and its grace (a spiritual as well as an aesthetic value) rouses the all-too-human Virtues to a jealous wrangle. The beasts take advantage of the chaos and try to seize the throne. Humility is too humble to claim what is rightfully hers, the proud plume now spoiled by her tears, but she exhorts the Virtues to fine the beasts by demanding they bring double the number of gifts to the next meeting of the (now legislative) court.

That’s the bare and somewhat tortuous story: what it symbolises is a more complicated matter. The rich interpretative possibilities, will, I am sure be fully explored by that clever and dedicated band, the posters of Poem of the Week.


I saw the Vertues sitting hand in hand
In sev’rall ranks upon an azure throne,
Where all the beasts and fowls by their command
Presented tokens of submission.
Humilitie, who sat the lowest there
                              To execute their call,
When by the beasts their presents tendred were,
                              Gave them about to all.

The angrie Lion did present his paw,
Which by consent was given to Mansuetude.
The fearfull Hare her eares, which by their law
Humilitie did reach to Fortitude.
The jealous Turkie brought his corall-chain;
                              That went to Temperance.
On Justice was bestow’d the Foxes brain,
                              Killed in the way by chance.

At length the Crow bringing the Peacocks plume,
(For he would not) as they beheld the grace
Of that brave gift, each one began to fume,
And challenge it, as proper to his place,
Till they fell out: which when the beasts espied,
                              They leapt upon the throne
And if the Fox had liv’d to rule their side,
                              They had depos’d each one.

Humilitie, who held the plume, at this
Did weep so fast, that the tears trickling down
Spoil’d all the train: then saying, Here it is
For which ye wrangle, made them turn their frown
Against the beasts: so jointly bandying,
                              They drive them soon away;
And then amerc’d them, double gifts to bring
                              At the next Session-day.


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Poem of the week

England in 1819

This week, a furious sonnet from Shelley whose attack on the ruling classes retains its power two centuries on

A Madame Tussaud's waxwork head of King George III

Old, mad, blind, despis’d, and dying … A Madame Tussaud’s waxwork head of King George III.

That most courtly of forms, the sonnet, turns against the court, among other power structures, in this week’s choice. Shelley’s extraordinarily-shaped “England in 1819” is centaur-like, its majestic, nearly Petrarchan opening sestet fused with a heavier, rougher octet. The octet’s rhymes partly interlock, but the Petrarchan scheme dissolves with the two sets of rhyming couplets – the centaur’s hooves. You can almost hear the angry howl of an invisible people rising up against their useless royal family and treacherous government.

Grammatically, it’s all of a piece. The swelling roll-call of injustice consists of main clauses unresolved until the 13th line. It’s almost a list-poem, a piling-on of sound-bites which, for a modern writer, might not demand the syntactic resolution Shelley eventually provides, and which therefore surprises us so effectively. In microcosm, the same process occurs in the build-up of splendidly simple and exact adjectives in line one. The hapless George III (who was to die the following year) stands before us with a Lear-like pathos. He is despised and mad and blind (uncomprehending): he is old and dying. Shelley enjoys paradox throughout this sonnet and here the tone is more horrified than hating. But there is no sympathy for the heir to the throne, the dissolute Prince Regent (“a corpulent Adonis of 50”, as Shelley’s friend, Leigh Hunt, rather mercifully described him).

In the vividly alliterative line, “A people starv’d and stabb’d in the untill’d field”, we seem to hear the swords cutting through skin and tendons as troops ride in to instigate the infamous Peterloo Massacre. The trope by which this army becomes a “two-edg’d sword” consisting of “liberticide and prey” is more obscure. Paradox is the clue: the killer of liberty and his prey, liberty itself, are both destroyed. “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword”(Matthew, 52). Christ said it more concisely, but Shelley’s oddly sorted nouns forge their own hobnailed eloquence.

The princes are dregs, the royal line a muddy spring, the rulers, engorged leeches: these plain, ugly metaphors are as exact as they are obvious. But then comes further obscurity. In line 12, is the Senate (parliament) equated with “Time’s worst statute unrepeal’d” or is the “worst statute” another addition to the list of evils? Some commentators say that Shelley means the 1801 Act of Union between England and Ireland. But the metaphor of parliament itself as a rotten law, convoluted though it is, remains intriguing, and the dash suggests this should be the primary reading.

When the poem finally reaches its apogee, its main verb, what do we learn? A further metaphor is heaped on top of the rest like a truckload of earth – all the horrors are mere graves, redundant in the dreamed-of new dawn. The sonnet abruptly “turns” with the hastily-sketched millenarian image of Liberty triumphant.

“England in 1819” is a young man’s poem (as, of course, are all Shelley’s poems, including the magnificent “Mask of Anarchy”, written in the same year), and it has its awkward moments. But youth’s idealism is also its virtue. There is no shallow self-display in Shelley’s anger. Sincerity, that unfashionable emotion, gives the poem not only its splendid energy, but an authority beyond the writer’s years. The sonnet is powered by the momentum established in the sestet, and somehow maintains the intensity of its indignation through the weaker octet – because the political emotion is genuine.

How pertinent those lines about the rulers “who neither feel, nor see, nor know” are to England, 2009, with its bankers unqualified to bank and its cabinet ministers unqualified, it so often seems, to (ad)minister. Where are today’s Shelleys? Why can’t political poetry be as good as any other? Distrust anyone who says the postmodern muse should be above such things.

England in 1819

An old, mad, blind, despis’d, and dying king,
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn – mud from a muddy spring,
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,
A people starv’d and stabb’d in the untill’d field,
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edg’d sword to all who wield,
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay,
Religion Christless, Godless – a book seal’d,
A Senate – Time’s worst statute unrepeal’d,
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.


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Poem of the week

The Lyke-Wake Dirge

This 14th-century funeral chant has great, stark beauty – but offers little comfort to the living or dead

Graves in county churchyard

Saul music … graves in county churchyard.

The Lyke-Wake Dirge is arguably among Anon’s greatest achievements. This 14th-century funeral-chant originated in Cleveland, North Yorkshire, where it was sung by a woman during the traditional watch (wake) at the side of the corpse (lyke). It’s a hard, raw-boned, merciless and beautiful poem. There is nothing elegiac about it, nothing that offers gentle consolation. Impersonally, it outlines a moral law harsh as the surrounding moorland landscape. Sin invites “eye-for-an-eye” retribution: there is no suggestion that the punishment can be revoked by deathbed repentance or the prayers of the living.

The poem addresses both the corpse and the mourners, preaching the same message to both in the same uncompromising tones. If you never gave stockings and shoes to the poor, the thorns of Whinny Moor will pierce you to the bone: if you never gave them food or drink, you will be consumed by flames. Perhaps when it was sung at an actual wake, the character of the deceased had some effect on the singer’s tone and the listeners’ mood, according to whether or not he or she had lived a charitable life. If the dead person had been notably uncharitable to those present, the reception could well have been more gloating than devout.

That powerful opening line establishes an ominous beat, like two sets of three taps on the funeral drum. It’s not quite Beethoven’s Fifth, but it has a not dissimilar force. It summons our attention and creates an immense sense of the significance and dignity of death. Trochees predominate in the first stanza – which also serves as the final one. After those three heavily stressed lines, each beginning with a stress (this, every, fire) the iamb of the fourth line brings temporary relief, the relief that the soul may eventually enjoy in perpetuity: “And Christ receive they saul”. This last refrain-line is always the moment when the poem ceases to be a warning and becomes a prayer.

The third line is sometimes published with the word “sleet” substituted for “fleet”, and the explanation that “sleet” is a variant of salt. Salt and earth were traditionally placed on the corpse’s breast, to symbolise body and soul. But it appears that this is inaccurate, and that “fleet” means a dwelling, from the old English flett, which gives us “flat”. To refer to “fire and fleet” is the equivalent of referring to “hearth and home”.

So the poem is enclosed: in the first and last stanzas, the body is still surrounded by home comforts. In between, the soul is out of doors, facing its punishing journey. Whinny Moor and even the allegorical-sounding Brig o’Dread have a literal, physical quality: dialect helps them to register as actual places, and the repetition from one stanza to the next reinforces the sense of the steady hard onward tread of the journey.

The Dirge was popularised by a number of folk groups in the 1960s, notably The Young Tradition and Pentangle. There are many versions of the lyrics: mine draws on several of the more idiomatic, preserving much of the dialect spelling and re-creating the orality of the original.

A Lyke-Wake Dirge

This ae neet, this ae neet,
Every neet and all,
Fire an’ fleet an’ candleleet,
And Christ receive thy saul.

If thou from here our wake has passed,
Every neet and all,
To Whinny Moor thou comes at last,
And Christ receive thy saul.

And if ever thou gavest hosen or shoen,
Every neet and all,
Then sit ye down and put them on,
And Christ receive thy saul.

But if hosen or shoen thou ne’er gavest nane,
Every neet and all,
The whinny will prick thee to thy bare bane,
And Christ receive thy saul.

From Whinny Moor when thou mayst pass,
Every neet and all,
To Brig o’ Dread thou comest at last,
And Christ receive thy saul.

From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass,
Every neet and all,
To Purgatory thou comest at last,
And Christ receive thy saul.

And if ever thou gavest meat or drink,
Every neet and all,
The fire will never make thee shrink,
And Christ receive thy saul.

But if meat nor drink thou ne’er gav’st nane,
Every neet and all,
The fire will burn thee to thy bare bane,
And Christ receive thy saul.

This ae neet, this ae neet,
Every neet and all,
Fire an’ fleet an’ candleleet,
And Christ receive thy saul.


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Poem of the week

The Gipsy Camp

This week, two short works from England’s pre-eminent ‘peasant-poet’, John Clare

A frost-covered tree

A frost-covered tree.

Unsurprisingly, John Clare (1793-1864) disliked being called “the peasant-poet”, but it was the brand, to borrow modern corporate-speak, that was foisted on him by a literary establishment anxious to discover the English Robert Burns. Burns, though working-class, had raised himself to become his nation’s Bard. Clare never attained such status. You may blame the English class system, but the poetry itself also tells us why this is so.

Clare is a poet of nature’s network, not the social network. The human populations that teem through his poems – farm-hands, shepherds, Gypsies, children – are close to, almost part of, the land. Clare is a Darwinian (Darwin was a near-contemporary) to the extent that he sees man as one of the branches of the “tree of life”. In his observations of insects, birds, animals, weather, plants, he is stunningly precise – at least when he forgets about striving after “poesie’s power” and records in his own voice what he sees with his own eye. He doesn’t idealise nature.

He is not, however, a detached observer: his creatures are invested with human feelings. Whether it’s a “whembling” (overturned) beetle waving its legs in terror, the baited badger fighting his tormentors to his last cackling breath, or the firetail who “pipes her ‘tweet-tut’ fears the whole day long”, Clare’s creatures are as richly endowed with emotional and moral attributes as human beings. Clare is a novelist of manners – the manners of the natural world, as well as its cameraman and soundman.

He was also, of course, a kind of protest poet. He railed and lamented at the Enclosures from first-hand experience. The loss of the “right to roam” was not merely a denial of the pleasures of country rambles, but also a measure that brought severe hardship to the smaller agricultural labourers who had relied on access to common land. For Clare, enclosure was also psychological trauma.

What damaged nature, damaged him. More immediately than for Wordsworth, landscape was sentient and articulate, an extension of his being. In the elegiac “To a Fallen Elm”, the tree is not merely humanised, but judged to be worth more than many humans: “Friend not inanimate – the stocks and stones/ There are and many cloathed in flesh and bones/ Thou owned a language by which hearts are stirred/ Deeper than by the attribute of words.”

I’ve chosen two short poems this week. “The Gipsy Camp” dates from Clare’s stay in the asylum in Epping Forest (the period which culminated in his famous great trek back to Northborough). It’s an unusual, almost unrhymed, sonnet. Clare is not judgmental about the Gypsies (“pilfering” here simply means gathering food from the hedgerows and fields), though he doesn’t romanticise them. “A picture to the place” must, in the context, be ironic. The “sestet” has a brilliant, amusing, sympathetic portrait of the Gypsies’ dog. Clare’s powers of observation and his compassion are beautifully balanced in this poem.

The image of the Gypsy knocking his hands to warm them is possibly picked up from the lovely little “Hoar Frost” poem. This is an earlier piece of writing, its lighter mood conveyed in the skipping anapaestic rhythm. Clare’s sensitivity to sound is particularly apparent. “Kop kop,” sung by the ploughman to his horses, could be an abbreviation of “Come up, come up”. It is certainly a striking use of onomatopoeia, echoing the clop of hooves on frozen ground. After that, there is only the silence of cold, steady labour – until the sun comes out. This inspires brief lark-song (again, the birds seem no less significant than the busy humans) and the ploughman is moved to hum a couple of love songs. Spring is on the way.

Biography often concentrates on the tragedy of John Clare, but his work is full of sound and sunlight, vigorous movement, delicious relaxation. During his final asylum years he wrote a short poem called “The Peasant Poet” (perhaps, after all, the title didn’t displease him retrospectively). The little self-portrait that concludes it is the one I like to think best captures him. No, he is not a bard, but “A silent man in life’s affairs/ A thinker from a Boy/ A Peasant in his daily cares -/ The Poet in his joy.”

The Gipsy Camp

The snow falls deep; the Forest lies alone:
The boy goes hasty for his load of brakes,
Then thinks upon the fire and hurries back;
The Gipsy knocks his hands and tucks them up,
And seeks his squalid camp, half hid in snow,
Beneath the oak, which breaks away the wind,
And bushes close, with snow like hovel warm:
There stinking mutton roasts upon the coals,
And the half roasted dog squats close and rubs,
Then feels the heat too strong and goes aloof;
He watches well, but none a bit can spare,
And vainly waits the morsel thrown away:
‘Tis thus they live – a picture to the place;
A quiet, pilfering, unprotected race.

The Hoar Frost Lodges on Every Tree

The hoar frost lodges on every tree
On the round hay stack and the rushy lea
And the boy ere he fothers behind the stack stands
A stamping his feet and a knocking his hands
The shepherd goes tucking his hook in his arm
And makes the dog bark up the sheep to the farm
The ploughman though noisey goes silently now
And rubs off the ryhme with his arm from the plough
Kop kop to his horses he sings and no more
For winter grins keenly and singing is oer
Save just now and then in the midst of the day
When hoar feathered frost is all melted away
Then larks from the thurrows takes sunshine for spring
And mounts oer his head just a minute to sing
And cleaning his plough at the end of the land
He’ll hum lovely Jessey and sweet Peggy Band.

(Note: both texts are from the paperback edition of John Clare: Major Works, eds. Eric Robinson and David Powell, Oxford World’s Classics, 1984. “The Gipsy Camp” was presumably copied by the editors from a printed edition, which is why, unusually for Clare’s poetry, it is fully punctuated.)


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Poem of the week

The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse

This week, Chaucer confronts his medieval financial crisis with a light-hearted but earnest plea to his patron

Anglo-Saxon Pennies

Chaucer feels the pinch … Medieval pennies.

How’s your Middle English? Here’s an opportunity to brush it up as we dip into an empty purse belonging to Geoffrey Chaucer.

“Fortunately,” says Kathryn L Lynch, the editor of Dream Visions and Other Poems (Norton, 2007), my source for the text, “Middle English can be understood without comprehensive grammatical instruction.” Chaucer used the London dialect, she explains, which evolved into and became, after c1500, Modern English, so it’s really not too difficult, even without the glossary that our kindly editor adds, and which I have abridged below.

The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse is probably the last poem Chaucer wrote. Framed initially as a love-poem to the purse in question, its purpose is to persuade King Henry IV (1367-1413) to renew the poet’s annuity. The highly unified rhyme-scheme lends an appropriately sing-song insistence to the beseeching voice.

Chaucer was in fact the first English poet known to have worked in Rime Royal, and he did so widely, in his longer poems as well as his lyrics. The form is probably Italian in origin. The interlocked version of the rhyme-scheme, as used here, is not easy to sustain in English, even with the flexibility poets of Chaucer’s time allowed themselves. Each stanza of the Complaint picks up the same rhyme-sounds, allowing for what are, one may guess, eye-rhymes:- companye and curtesye. The form also demands a refrain-line, woven in syntactically to create the last line of each stanza. Here, it’s the repeated plea, “Beth (be) hevy ageyn or elles mot (must) I dye.”

Chaucer’s touch is light and so, in part, is his tone. The witty word-play and enjoyment of paradox prefigure the Metaphysicals. Even the refrain-line asks to be read as hyperbole – after all, the addressee is merely a purse, who has no agency at all to become heavy by itself and save its owner from starvation.

It’s in the envoi (“Lenvoy de Chaucer”) that the poem acquires a more solid, earnest tone. Chaucer seems to want to display his learning, perhaps as a sound basis for his flattery. Directly addressing the King, he praises him as the descendent of Brutus (legendary founder of Britain), and rightful and true (“verray”) occupant of the throne. “Have minde upon (consider) my supplicacioun” is the humble final plea. It’s as if the poet had dropped to his knee and bowed his head. The joke’s over, he really needs the dosh. Most of us can sympathise with that at the present time, can’t we? Happily for Chaucer, his Complaint did the trick.

Of course, this is a minor, occasional poem, for all its dexterity and grace. We need to go to the long poems, The Canterbury Tales, in particular, to appreciate the full multi-coloured, poly-vocal glory of Chaucer’s genius. It’s many years since I read the whole Tales from cover to cover. The fact that it’s an A-level set text, I am sure, has something to do with this, though, let’s be honest, linguistic laziness might also be involved. So, if you’re in the same boat, limber up for the epic marathon by reading aloud the short poems like the Complaint. The Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Creseide and The Book of the Duchess, are great medieval works of fiction.

The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse

To yow, my purse, and to noon other wight
Complaine I, for ye be my lady dere.
I am so sory now that ye be light,
For certes but if ye make me hevy chere,
Me were as leef be leyd upon my bere,
For which unto your mercy thus I crye
Beth hevy ageyn or elles mot I dye.

Now voucheth-sauf this day er it be night
That I of yow the blisful soun may here,
Or see your colour lyke the sonne bright
That of yelownesse hadde never pere.
Ye be my lyf, ye be myn hertes stere,
Quene of comfort and of good companye,
Beth hevy ageyn or elles mot I dye.

Now purse that been to me my lyves lyght
And saveour as doun in this worlde here
Out of this toune help me thurgh your might
Sin that ye wole nat been my tresorere
For I am shave as nye as any frere;
But yet I prey unto your curtesye,
Beth hevy ageyn or elles mot I dye.

Lenvoy de Chaucer

O conquerour of Brutes Albyoun
Which that by line and free eleccioun
Been verray king, this song to yow I sende,
And ye that mowen alle oure harmes amende
Have minde upon my supplicacioun.

Abridged glossary
“Me were as leef” = “I’d just as soon”
Pere = peer, equal
Stere = rudder
Toune = town, “probably Westminster, where Chaucer had taken refuge (perhaps from his creditors) in a house in the abbey grounds.” (KLL).
Tresorere = treasurer
Frere = friar (Chaucer is saying that he has as little money as a tonsured friar has hair).
Mowen = May


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Poem of the week

The Movement of Bodies

Sheenagh Pugh’s poem throws light on Sir Isaac Newton in a moment of emotional intensity, but goes beyond the individual

Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton … piercing insight, but there’s more than science on his mind.

This week’s choice is the title-poem from Sheenagh Pugh’s 2005 collection, The Movement of Bodies. Although the protagonist remains unidentified, most readers will likely know that the man who “fractured white light into seven colours” is Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727). But the poem does not primarily focus on Newton the scientist, although it mentions some of his most extraordinary discoveries, and, fittingly, pleases the eye with its flow of images, its varied play of light and colour. The aim is to create, or recreate, a moment of intense personal feeling. This universalises him, and reveals the human side of intellectual genius – which may be the reason he is never named.

We meet the scientist at a crisis point. He has fallen in love, and certainty has vanished. Empirical facts are mischievously tweaked into erotic innuendo with “A body at rest remains so/ unless some force act on it” and “to each action/ an equal and opposite reaction”. Newton’s boundaries are dissolving in tides of emotion. The orbit of his affection is “locked” inescapably to its object. Light and colour suggest emotional, bodily, rather inappropriate things – that insolent “pink tongue-tip”, a blushing cheek. Newton’s effort to “think straight” drifts into a kind of stream-of-consciousness, leading him to imagine “kissing in moonlight” and “a knife in my eye”, the latter image explained by the reference to an actual, horrifyingly bold experiment in which the scientist probed the back of his own eye with a bodkin. He didn’t flinch then, such was his desire for knowledge, but, the poem implies, his “lacerating” desire for “the young mathematician” will be more knife than bodkin: it will blind him.

The dislocation he is suffering (and relishing) is suggested by the way the couplets proceed in short sentences, with many caesurae and several idiomatic jolts. Though this is a third-person narrative, the speaker is close to the subject, and often inside his head. Each time the phrase “the movement of bodies” occurs, it is split up, first by a line break, later by a stanza break. Whenever the poem takes Newton’s point of view, the rhythm roughens.

The Movement of Bodies interweaves fact and fiction. It is well-documented that Newton suffered a nervous breakdown, and that one of the precipitating factors was the rupture in his friendship with the Swiss-born mathematician, Nicolas Fatio de Duillier. But the love affair is purely conjectural. The closing couplet implies, playfully, of course, that the speaker knows the facts and has the authority to refute the popular legends. In fact, she is speculating imaginatively on a distant life, of which much remains unknown and probably unknowable, and constructing a “human interest story” that might, after all, contain a seed-pearl of truth.

When I first read the poem it reminded me a famous painting – one of those paintings so famous you can’t remember the name of the artist, let alone the title. The picture conjured in my mind’s eye turned out to be A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun, by Joseph Wright.

The Movement of Bodies is not a description of the painting. However, Wright is known to have based his Philosopher on Godfrey Kneller’s portrait of Sir Isaac Newton, and the way Newton gazes at the figure to his right in the picture might just suggest the way he stares at “the young mathematician” in the poem, dreamily distracted from his rational preoccupations, suspended in that state of blind attraction and gravitational upset which is said to make the world go round.

The Movement of Bodies

He fractured white light into seven colours,
reckoned the distance to the moon,

wrote laws for the movement
of bodies: no mystery to him,

until now. Planets in their orbit,
the sea’s tides, his eyes

locked to the lit face
of the young mathematician.

A body at rest remains so
unless some force act on it.

So many years, no joy
but in numbers, no troubling

of the flesh. The pink tongue-tip
idly licking a finger

constricts his heart. His edges
flicker, scintillate, like a heat-haze.

A hand brushes his cheek
and it colours: to each action
He tries to think straight:

an equal and opposite reaction.

the moon. I worked out its mass. Moonlight,
kissing in moonlight. The movement

Once, probing for truth,
he nearly blinded himself.

of bodies. The moon draws
the tides. A knife in my eye.

This time he will flinch
from the lacerating light.

Legend will say he died a virgin,
and never saw the sea.


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Poem of the week

The Unaccommodated

Cader Idris, north Wales.

Cader Idris, north Wales.

Compression is lyric poetry’s greatest gift to the arts of language, and Anne Stevenson, like her friend and early mentor, Elizabeth Bishop, is its master. In this week’s poem, “The Unaccommodated”, the narrative travels from Neolithic past to dim-lit future (when perhaps the fossil-fuel has finally run out) in a mere 24 lines – a poetic day, perhaps.

The opening narrative favours nouns over verbs: weighty, textured, breathily audible nouns: “heft”, “uprush”, “heaps”. We feel safely settled – until, all at once, the foreshortened fifth line whisks us across millennia to a new generation of farmers, raising hard-won dwellings from the “haunted” rock-spills of the Stone Age.

The highlighting in the next stanza reminds me of Dutch genre painting. But, while the fire-lit cheekbones and foreheads are aesthetically pleasing, death is hardly far away. The stanza begins with a reference to “sickness”. The hand at work all night is probably stitching a shroud.

Again, the third stanza reveals privation and hard discipline. We begin with the constant cold, and further numbing is provided by a relentless Calvinist religion with a somewhat capitalistic moral agenda: sins demand recompense, salvation must be earned, “each minute paid down on an open bible”.

The poem has been urging us quietly closer to these ancestors, so much nearer in time than the prehistoric, but almost equally remote. Its punning title indicates our difficulty in accommodating the past. We estrange it, play games of us and them. The poet’s imagination refuses to play the game, insisting on shared identity. We sense the presence of the unaccommodated particularly vividly in the reference to “table talk” – that warm, good thing which unites human communities whenever they have a moment of leisure, and whether the table they sit at is a rocky slab or polished wood.

Technically, as well as historically, the poem connects back. The ebb and flow of long and short lines, the variation of masculine and feminine endings, are reminiscent of George Herbert and, earlier, the Elizabethan madrigal-singers. That subtle little scrap of refrain, “they lived in”, unobtrusively echoes through the stanzas, holds them to their home key. The music of rich half-rhymes is especially noticeable at the end, where there is a master-stroke of repeated “m” sounds, suggestive of the murmur of conversation. Though the diction is informal and modern, the rhyme, rhythm and refrain underpinning it seem to me a little like those ancient stones that have endured so long, and may still make strong and beautiful 21st-century walls.

“The Unaccommodated” is from Anne Stevenson’s Poems, 1955-2005. She has also published with Bloodaxe a critical book, Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop. Her most recent poetry collection is Stone Milk.

The Unaccommodated

Like winter in the hills, the heft of their
lingering, still unburied shadows
in the wind’s hoarse uprush
out of heaps of rock they lived in.
       Millennia later,
houses rise stone by stone, neighbour
by aching neighbour, impenitent webs of wall
       from the haunted spills.

Sickness in the dark they lived in.
Candlelight hoarding sweet secrets
       in the mice’s corners.
Girls giving birth by rush light.
The same fires set by the dead
in a theatre of cheekbones and foreheads;
a hand through the night, stitching cloth
       with a stiff thread.

Just as constant, the cold they lived in,
each minute paid down on an open Bible
        one by one by one
in hard brass grudged by the pendulum.
Firelight is the lurch of a hummed,
        lambent, discontinuous meditation,
nimbus of their voices and table talk.
Flick off the mains and you’ll be them.

(North Wales, 1995)


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Poem of the week

Wishes to his (Supposed) Mistress

Richard Crashaw’s message to his imagined lover was my first ever ‘favourite’ poem

Poem of the week: Wishes to his (Supposed) Mistress

A detail from Venus (1532) by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

This week’s poem, Richard Crashaw’s “Wishes to his (Supposed) Mistress”, was my first ever “favourite poem”. Possibly this had something to do with the endless flow of oddly-named muses, the Altheas and Phyllidas and Lucastas, that passed before my glazing eyes whenever I dipped into my gift copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. I loved that anthology, and, although an 11-year-old aspiring “poetess”, I wasn’t alarmed that women were more often the subjects than the authors (what’s so bad about being a rarity?) but, yes, it was refreshing suddenly to be presented with this notion that the poet’s desired woman might not exist at all; that she might be a figment of his imagination. It opened a space in my mind, and told me that poems could be shyly self-revealing as well as gloriously rhetorical and assertive.

One of the lesser-known metaphysical poets, Crashaw (c.1612-49) writes with unselfconscious tenderness and charm. His work often fuses the erotic with the maternal, and it may not be irrelevant to note a couple of biographical facts. He lost his natural mother while still a baby. His father, the puritan preacher William Crashaw, remarried, but, before Richard was six years old, his stepmother had died. While still a young man, he rejected his father’s religion: after a fellowship in Cambridge (he was a gifted linguist) he fled first to Paris, and then Rome. He died, a Catholic convert, at the Loretto Cathedral of Santa Casa, where Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria, had secured him a minor post.

Crashaw’s poetry certainly notices children. There is humour as well as devotion in his “Hymn to Sainte Theresa”, addressed to St Theresa of Avila, who, at six years old, attempted to gain martyrdom by preaching to the Moors: “Farewell all pleasures, sports and joys/ (Never till now esteemed Toyes),/ Farewell whatever deare may bee,/ Mother’s arms or father’s knee,/ Farewell house and farewell home,/ She’s for the Moors and Martyrdome.// Sweet, not so fast!” In “An Hymne to the Nativity, as sung by Shepheards”, one of the rustics sings of the infant Jesus: “See, see, how soon his new-bloom’d cheeke/ Twixt mother’s brests is gone to bed,/ sweet choice (said I) no way but so/ Not to lye cold, yet sleep in snow.” The Petrarchan tradition emerges in the antithesis here of warmth and chill, an inheritance that reached him perhaps via the Italian poet he translated, Giambattista Marino.

“Wishes to his (Supposed) Mistress” is speculative, or discreetly posed as speculative. That is part of its originality; another is its structure. Each of the daintily shaped tercets presents a little drama as it builds from two to four beats, almost a miniature portrait of modestly blossoming hope. The “she” in question is an adult, of course, but it seems likely that the poem has been a model for later male poets expressing their hopes for the future happiness of female children, for instance, Yeats’s wonderful “Prayer for my Daughter” or the rather more understated but gently hopeful lyric Larkin wrote for Sally Amis, “Born Yesterday”. In both there is the same sense of restraint, of not wishing too much, but valuing simplicity and mildness. Of course, a feminist reading of such poems might see them as patronising, and their idealisation of women as self-servingly limited and stereotypical.

The version below has modernised spelling and is taken from a 1975 edition of Palgrave, omitting several stanzas present in Crashaw’s original text. The shortened version was published during the poet’s lifetime, so quite possibly had his approval, and I think the tactful editing allows the shape of the poem to emerge with greater effect. However, if you prefer, the full text is available online.

To his (Supposed) Mistress

Whoe’er she be,
The not impossible She
That shall command my heart and me;

Where’er she lie,
Locked up from mortal eye
In shady leaves of destiny:

Till that ripe birth
Of studied fate stand forth,
And teach her fair steps tread our earth;

Till that divine
Idea take a shrine
Of crystal flesh, through which to shine:

Meet you her, my wishes,
Bespeak her to my blisses,
And be ye called, my absent kisses.

I wish her beauty
That owes not all its duty
To gaudy tire, or glist’ring shoe-tie:

Something more than
Taffeta or tissue can,
Or rampant feather, or rich fan.

A face that’s best
By its own beauty drest,
And can alone commend the rest:

A face made up
Out of no other shop
Than what Nature’s white hand set ope.

Sydnaean showers
Of sweet discourse, whose powers
Can crown old Winter’s head with flowers.

Whate’er delight
Can make day’s forehead bright
Or give down to the wings of night.

Soft silken hours,
Open suns, shady bowers;
‘Bove all, nothing within that lowers.

Days, that need borrow
No part of their good morrow
From a fore-spent night of sorrow:

Days, that in spite
Of darkness, by the light
Of a clear mind are day all night.

Life, that dares send
A challenge to his end,
And when it comes, say, ‘Welcome, friend.’

I wish her store
Of worth may leave her poor
Of wishes; and I wish – No more.

Now, if time knows
That Her, whose radiant brows
Weave them a Garland of my vows;

Her that dares be
What these lines wish to see:
I seek no further, it is She.

‘Tis She, and here
Lo! I unclothe and clear
My wishes’ cloudy character.

Such worth as this is
Shall fix my flying wishes,
And determine them to kisses.

Let her full glory,
My fancies, fly before ye;
Be ye my fictions; but her story.


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Poem of the week



Kevin Brophy is an Australian poet, critic and novelist, whose name will probably be new to many readers in the UK. It was new to me until a few weeks ago, when by chance I met him during his visit to Bangor University.

The experience of reading his latest collection, Mr Wittgenstein’s Lion, turned into a delightful adventure. I knew where I was, linguistically, but felt happily “abroad” in a new sensibility, kept in a state of surprise and anticipation. Discovering this witty, friendly but also unexpected and sometimes dark-edged new voice has inspired a new year’s resolution to become better informed about what contemporary Australian poets are up to.

It would be rash to generalise on the basis of having read a handful of a country’s poets, particularly when the country is as vast as Australia, but I suspect there is less of a sense of being “divided by a common language” for UK readers than when we read new American poetry. The feeling for place that informs so much of British poetry is certainly strong in Brophy’s work. Family life is a frequent topic, quizzed wryly and affectionately, de-familiarised and not quite put back together again. There is a compelling mix of the local and the strange, the scientific and fantastical, the philosophical and the domestic, all adding up to a homely surrealism which may owe something to Lewis Carroll as well as the great prose-poet Russell Edson.

That sense of a heightened definition of the world, which should occur whether we’re reading a poem for the first time, or the 101st, seems to be embodied in the piece I’ve chosen for this week, “Painters”. It would certainly be tempting to say that the painters here are really artists with a capital A – poets, in fact. But perhaps that’s too easy. Possibly they represent any devotee – manual labourer or scientist, surgeon or prophet – anyone who is hooked on their work, and changes reality, or our perception of it, in the process.

The detached clarity of the description somehow suggests that the painters are being seen by the speaker for the first time, or even that he is reporting back on an interesting new species. They are solid, almost ordinary: we’ve all met them. But their ladders are folded above them like wings. They are compared to elves. They wield their paintbrushes on the world around them as magical characters in children’s stories sometimes do.

They are portrayed with whimsical charm, but their role is not innocent or childlike. We, the readers, are implicated. By making the world “deeply real” for us, the painters pay a heavy price. The substance that brings transformation is highly toxic, and its users are making a godlike sacrifice, in thrall to a world with unstable values, where certain colours may suddenly fall out of favour. The poem explains this unjudgmentally, then moves on. The painters return to their passion, as if they had no choice.

This is, I believe, a metaphysical poem. It wears its metaphysics lightly – but it is still concerned with ultimate values and the flawed intersection of worldly and unworldly things. The ebb and flow of its rhythms at times suggests the music of a contemporary psalm.


It is as if each one had been sent to colour in the world,
and to do it between the showers of rain
so that colours will have time to fix themselves
on walls and pipes and window ledges.
When it rains the painters in their speckled overalls and spotty shoes
sit quietly in vans
with ladders like folded wings above them.
They drink white coffee with two sugars
and treat themselves to doughnuts from the local bakery,
sugared cinnamon.
At night they dream of edges of immaculate neatness.
They admire leaves and what autumn does to them.
Their lives are short, for each painted colour releases
a poisonous fume like a sigh
as it spreads and dries and makes our lives feel
deeply real.
The painters speak less and less
as the fumes take hold.
Their wives and children watch the painters going
like elves to another kind of existence.
You ask them what to do with leftover cans of paint
and they tell you it’s not easy,
for paint would stain the sea and kill the fish if you let it go.
There are places, deep and foul, where paint must go
when its colour is no longer favoured, they will say,
and you will feel they are the enemies
of the paint they love. Their elf hearts move inside them
at each slap of colour on a wall or fence or seedy chair.


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Poem of the week

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

If only we could all learn the spirit of Edward FitzGerald’s wonderfully unfaithful translation

Omar Khayyam reads some rubiyatAn early-20th-century illustration of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.

The coming year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edward FitzGerald; so, as the year turns, what better celebration than some stanzas from his free translation of that great meditation on life’s transience, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám?

FitzGerald was a friend of Thackeray and Tennyson, but initially had few writerly ambitions of his own. Scruffy, eccentric, a bit of recluse and very rich, he was drawn to younger men, and it was from one of these, Edward Cowell, he began learning Persian in 1853. Cowell also passed on his discovery in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, of verses written by Khayyám, a Persian polymath whose life spanned the 11th and 12th centuries. FitzGerald was enthralled and declared that the poems had “the ring of true metal”.

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics quotes the tradition that the Persian quatrain-form, the ruba’i, originated in the gleeful shouts of a child, overheard and imitated by a passing poet. “Succinctness, spontaneity and wit” are its essence, the encyclopaedist writes, coolly noting FitzGerald’s “venial infidelity to his Persian model”. FitzGerald got the rhyme-scheme right but missed the rhythmic subtlety of the original prosodic pattern; some of the quatrains are paraphrased, some mashed together, others invented. Furthermore, Khayyám’s 750-plus quatrains certainly did not constitute one long poem.

The 101-verse semi-narrative FitzGerald finally assembled is the product of a ruthless editorial job – but how much poorer English poetry would be without it. His endeavour might more generously be termed “transcreation”. Khayyám, an agnostic famed during his lifetime as a mathematician and astronomer rather than a poet, and his mediator, a nineteenth-century English sceptic who believed that “science unrolls a greater epic than the Iliad”, may not meet in a true linguistic union, but there seems to be a “marriage of true minds” nevertheless (and, yes, you’ll note a passing trace of Shakespeare in FitzGerald’s diction).

The speaker that emerges with such authority and panache, despite the stiffish western dress of iambic pentameter, has a voice unlike any other in Victorian poetry, and a philosophical sensibility which, while it has been compared to that of Epicurus and Lucretius, is new and distinct. A whole culture must have suddenly seemed within the imaginative reach of the poem’s first audience.

Though initially published as an anonymous pamphlet, once the Rubáiyát was discovered by Rossetti, Swinburne and others, it swiftly became famous. It is said that its effect on Victorian England was no less considerable than that of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in the same year, 1859.

Everyone will have their favourite stanzas. My selection – from the fifth and final edition of the poem – begins with one of the most majestic and is followed by a less familiar episode, the Potter and his pots, a sustained narrative that literalises the creation myth and exudes a strong sense of Fitz-Omar’s humour and his almost magic-realist imagination. The Rubáiyát’s two concluding stanzas round it off. I hope you’ll be enticed to read, or re-read, the whole poem and savour its homely yet memorable rhetoric, its vivid images, gloriously yearning sighs, twinkling jokes and keen-edged rational arguments. Meanwhile, let’s raise a glass to a new year in which the spirit of translation – the spirit, in fact, of the luminous conversation between Edward FitzGerald and Omar Khayyám – presides over public affairs, especially those in the Middle East. “Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,/ Before we too into the Dust descend;/ Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,/ Sans wine, sans Song, sans Singer and – sans End!”

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
     Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

As under cover of departing Day
Slunk hunger-stricken Ramazán away
     Once more within the Potter’s house alone
I stood, surrounded by the Shapes of Clay.

Shapes of all Sorts and Sizes, great and small,
That stood along the floor and by the wall;
     And some loquacious Vessels were; and some
Listen’d perhaps, but never talk’d at all.

Said one among them – “Surely not in vain
My substance of the common Earth was ta’en
     And to this Figure molded, to be broke,
Or trampled back to shapeless Earth again.”

Then said a Second –”Ne’er a peevish Boy
Would break the Bowl from which he drank in joy;
     And He that with his hand the Vessel made
Will surely not in after Wrath destroy.”

After a momentary silence spake
Some Vessel of a more ungainly Make;
     “They sneer at me for leaning all awry:
What! did the hand then of the Potter shake?”

Whereat some one of the loquacious Lot –
I think a Súfi pipkin – waxing hot –
     “All this of Pot and Potter – Tell me then,
Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”

“Why,” said another, “Some there are who tell
Of one who threatens he will toss to Hell
     The luckless Pots he marr’d in making – Pish!
He’s a Good Fellow, and ’twill all be well.”

“Well,” murmured one, “Let whoso make or buy,
My Clay with long Oblivion is gone dry:
     But fill me with the old familiar Juice,
Methinks I might recover by and by.”


Yon rising Moon that looks for us again –
How oft hereafter will she wax and wane;
     How oft hereafter rising look for us
Through this same Garden – and for one in vain!

And when like her, oh Sáki, you shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter’d on the Grass,
     And in your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made One – turn down an empty Glass!

Tamám [It is ended].

Notes: Ramazán – Ramadan.
Sáki – a maid or manservant who pours wine.


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Poem of the week



An Egremont Russell apple.

For Christmas week, when any financial windfalls we might have enjoyed will soon be spent, and the toys we spend them on may all too quickly break, “Windfall” by Angela Leighton ushers in a tentative mood of hope. The word “Windfall” has, of course, mildly negative as well as positive connotations in popular usage. The poem seems to denote a search for the links in a chain of images and impressions that would connect the lucky and unluckier kinds of “fall”.

The Genesis story and its visual and moral drama are not far away. The word “fall” echoes through the poem, and attracts associated terms with similar sounds, such as “flaw” and “foiled”. Line eight, where an apple has “fallen in the way of things”, suggests both inevitability (that’s how things are) and an obstruction, as was the Biblical apple that altered the divine plan for human happiness. The concept of fundamental damage references not only Genesis but genetics. In line three, the consonants “st” (“boy’s autistic stare” and “stood”) evoke developmental stasis. The damage has been done, and too far back to be undone, fixed into the DNA. Old folklore comes to mind, particularly those lingering ideas of “madness in the family” which can act to block reinterpretation and hope.

The child’s bafflement at the broken toy, and his desperate wish that it might magically be restored, are movingly captured. Intriguingly, the exact nature of the toy is kept from us, and this implies that the poem’s aim is no merely realist narrative. The child might himself be allegorical: perhaps he represents mankind, and the toy, the world (“the greenery foiled”) which we are carelessly breaking. There is a childlike longing to right old wrongs, but an insistent adult pessimism working against it (those glum word-lists in lines one and 15).

A sense of redemption begins to work its way into the poem: windfalls, however weak or misshapen, nourish the soil, a child can be distracted from his loss with new human connections – touch and rhyme. The speaker explains that the hand she takes is “not my own”, presumably meaning that there’s no genetic affinity: the child is not kin and must remain, in a way, separate. Nevertheless, the fall turns into a game of falling down, with the line from Ring o’roses that invariably causes merriment when children act it out. It’s not an overly optimistic conclusion; rather, it implies a shared fate.

There is also, perhaps, a sense of “make do and mend”. The rhyme repairs the divided couplet, not with an exact join but with one pleasing to both ear and eye (“own”/ “down”). “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good,” says the old nautical proverb summoned partially in the poem’s first words.

Angela Leighton has published various books of criticism on 19th and 20th-century literature, and two volumes of poetry: A Cold Spell (Shoestring, 2000) and Sea Level (Shoestring, 2007). A second edition of Sea Level is due in early spring 2009.

Warm Christmas wishes and thanks to all Poem of the Week readers and contributors, old and new. May all your windfalls be merry ones. (NB: You can always cut out the bruised parts and make an apple-pie.)


An ill wind, misprint or flaw,
a fault in the workings, trouble on a face,

like the boy’s autistic stare as he stood,
that hurt wonder breaking his logic –

back, he begged. Put it back, and showed
how easily the break might join –

a snapped toy, the greenery foiled,
an apple fallen in the way of things.

And I, turning, saw a garden of windfalls –
root and branch, graft and stock,

from too far back to know the cause –
smashed on the grass, sweetening the soil.

So that, at a loss for all the world,
for damage done at the heart of it,

the knot, the quirk, reverse and fall,
I reached for what I could not mend:

that small hand, not mine, in my own,
and sang, for the rhyme’s sake, ‘We all fall down.’


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Poem of the week

Darling, Would You Please Pick Up Those Books?

In this modern, vernacular sestina, an ‘un-pedestalized’ wife rages at her poet husband for writing about her predecessor

Stack of books

A stack of books.

The sestina is a poetic form that immediately declares itself to the eye. In the days when it was sung, it must have taken a while longer (say six lines?) for that “aha” moment to dawn on the audience. But the print-poets still like writing sestinas and finding ways of disrupting expectations. Despite an inclination to diversify into an over-literary, pun-juggling, postmodern exercise, there have been some great 20th-century examples by, among others, John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, Marilyn Hacker and Miller Williams. As a collector of contemporary examples, I was delighted to discover Darling, Would You Please Pick Up Those Books? by Kathryn Maris. It returns to the sestina its original qualities of voice and performance.

Many sestinas seem rather end-stopped, as those six repetends march by in their regulation obverse cruciform pattern. This is true of the old sestinas, too, which I’ve struggled to read on the basis of little French and less Occitan. Occitan, as even I can tell, is aurally and grammatically very different from English. But take a look at the sestinas by Arnaut Daniel, said to be the originator of the form. The lines are surely designed to pause a little, and let the audience take the measure of the troubadour’s industrious artistry.

Maris’s poem, by contrast, seems to fly. It got its start, she says, from a statement in an essay by Kate Clanchy: “the muse is silent”. She decided to write a poem “narrated by a very loud non-muse who, because she’s the wife, is un-pedestalized, unlike the her predecessor who was unattainable and idealized”. The angry voice is surprisingly sestina-friendly: it makes the artifice appear artless, the repetitions unavoidable, and the overall effect brilliantly naturalistic.

Poets, at least when not writing sestinas, generally try to avoid repetition: insistent speakers revel in it. The speaker here is so insistent that she barely gasps for breath at the stanza-breaks. There’s no punctuation, only the typography of emphasis (ie italics), but the overlapping syntax causes no obscurity and, again, enhances naturalism. The tirade loops and spools as if the speaker were circling a cage. Shouting is useless: the addressee doesn’t listen to a word, and never will. He probably thinks her mad or at least hysterical, as the reference to “medication” implies. While a modern sestina can be about anything, this one keeps its connection with the traditional focus of romantic love and it frustrations and mad obsessions. For all its anger, this is a reluctant love poem.

There is a sense here that the repetends are insistently concealing something. As it spirals endlessly around its theme, and plays out its finite stock of words, the poem gets near, but not quite to, the point. It’s not until the penultimate line that the real emotional climax arrives (“can’t you say I’m better than that woman … “).

This poem is painfully funny at times. There is comedy in the exaggerated tone and perhaps in the claim that the books have been on the man’s floor for three years. The narrator may be unreliable. She says she can write a book, but we suspect she can’t. Still worse, by her own self-estimation, she’s “non muse material”. This is a neat phrase, because it encapsulates the idea that the muse, actually, is not a person, just material – the material of poems by male poets. When the repetend “man” turns to “woman” in the envoi, though, we glimpse why it might be a happier fate not to be a muse, wrapped up in, or by, a man – if the speaker could only see it.

This sestina, in all its muscular, subversive energy, reminds me of what Arnaut Daniel said of himself, in terms remarkably fresh and un-courtly (like the voice of this poem): “I am Arnaut who gathers up the wind, / And chases the hare with the ox, / And swims against the torrent.”

Kathryn Maris is a young poet originally from Long Island, New York, currently living in London. She has published one collection, The Book of Jobs (Four Way Books, 2006) and has received several fellowships and awards. Darling, Would You Please Pick Up Those Books was a runner-up in the 2008 Troubadour Poetry Competition judged by Jo Shapcott and Stephen Knight. Grateful thanks to Anne Marie-Fyfe for permission to reproduce the poem here.

Darling, Would You Please Pick Up Those Books?

How many times do I have to say
get rid of the books off the goddamn floor
do you have any idea how it feels
to step over books you wrote about her
bloody hell you sadist what kind of man
are you all day long those fecking books

in my way for 3 years your acclaimed books
tell me now what do you have to say
for yourself you think you’re such a man
silent brooding pondering at the floor
pretending you’re bored when I mention her
fine change the subject ask “Do I feel

like I need more medication” NO I don’t feel
like I need more medication
it’s the books
don’t you see don’t you see it’s her
why don’t you listen to anything I say
and for god’s sake books on the floor
are a safety hazard remember that man

from Cork who nearly died fine that man
fell over a hurley not a book but I don’t feel
you’re getting the point the point is that a floor
is not an intelligent place for books
books I have to see and books that say
exactly where and how you shagged her

what shirt she wore before you shagged her
I can write a book too about some man
better still about you I can say
something to demonize you how would you feel
about that ha ha why don’t I write a book
about how I hoover your sodding floor

and how you’ve never once hoovered your floor
why can’t I be a muse why can’t I be a “her”
what does one have to do to be in a book
around here do I have to be dead for a man
to write me a poem how do you think it feels
to be non muse material can’t you say

you feel for me what you felt for her
can’t you say I’m better than that woman
can’t you get those books off the floor?


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Poem of the week


In this section from John Gay’s mock-epic, a sewer goddess helps an orphan and gives rise to an enjoyable flight of fancy

A bootblack on London's streets

A bootblack on London’s streets.

A handful of lyrics from The Beggar’s Opera is all that many people know of John Gay’s poetry. Compared with his fellow Scriblerians, Gay receives short shrift from most anthologists. Yet his longer poems are not hard to excerpt and, without begrudging the central achievement of that much-loved and evergreen “ballad opera”, it would be good to see a revaluation of Gay, and more acknowledgment of his poetic originality.

Gay (1685-1732) modelled his poem, Trivia: or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London, on Virgil’s Georgics, transporting the celebratory poetic handbook of farming practice to the rougher occupations and teeming, miry streets of Hanoverian London.

Mock heroics may strike modern readers as leaden in their humour, but Gay’s poem moves vigorously and un-stiltedly on the page. According to his friend Jonathan Swift, the portly Gay preferred to ride in a coach-and-six, but his early stint as a draper’s apprentice must have given the young man from Devon plenty of opportunities for walking and observing London’s streets. His persona, the Walker, is breezily convincing.

The poem packs in a wealth of vivid description, often organised around pieces of genuinely astute and friendly advice to fellow pedestrians: concerning, for example, seasonal clothes to wear, places to avoid, and the numerous “inconveniences that attend those who are unacquainted with the town”. Pickpockets, whores and runaway carts are among the many dangers to be avoided, as are “the Furies of the football war”, ie apprentices hurling snowballs.

Gay manages the combination of irony and sympathetic social comment nowhere better than in this digression from Book II, in which he tells the story of a young bootblack. In classical style, the boy is conceived when the goddess Cloacina (identified with that noxious open sewer, the Fleet Ditch) falls in love with a mortal, described merely as a “Scavenger”.

The boy grows up an orphan (Gay himself had been orphaned at the age of 10), but the goddess offers him protection, and in this part of the tale she guides him to the trade that will allow him to survive, cleaning the grime from the fashionable boots of a city thriving on wastefulness and grubby politics. Gay’s descriptive art is never in doubt, but here, in the second section, Cloacina’s materialisation allows the poet to take off on a particularly enjoyable flight of fantasy.

Trivia, from Book II: Of Walking the Streets by Day

Now dawns the Morn, the sturdy Lad awakes,
Leaps from his Stall, his tangled Hair he shakes,
Then leaning o’er the Rails, he musing stood,
And view’d below the black Canal of Mud,
Where common Sewers a lulling murmur keep,
Whose Torrents rush from Holborn’s fatal Steep:
Pensive through Idleness, Tears flow’d apace,
Which eas’d his loaded Heart, and wash’d his Face;
At length he sighing cry’d; That Boy was blest,
Whose Infant Lips have drain’d a Mother’s Breast;
But happier far are those, (if such be known)
Whom both a Father and a Mother own:
But I, alas! hard Fortune’s utmost Scorn,
Who ne’er knew Parent, was an Orphan born!
Some Boys are rich by Birth beyond all Wants,
Belov’d by Uncles, and kind good old Aunts;
When Time comes round, a Christmas-box they bear,
And one Day makes them rich for all the Year.
Had I the Precepts of a Father learn’d,
Perhaps I then the Coachman’s Fare had earn’d,
For lesser Boys can drive; I thirsty stand
And see the double Flaggon charge their Hand,
See them puff off the Froth, and gulp amain,
While with dry Tongue I lick my lips in vain.
While thus he fervent prays, the heaving Tide
In widen’d Circles beats on either Side;
The Goddess rose amid the inmost Round,
With wither’d Turnip Tops her Temples crown’d;
Low reach’d her dripping Tresses, lank, and black
As the smooth Jet, or glossy Raven’s back;
Around her Waste a circling Eel was twin’d,
Which bound her Robe that hung in Rags behind.
Now beck’ning to the Boy; she thus begun,
Thy Prayers are granted; weep no more, my Son:
Go thrive. At some frequented Corner stand,
This Brush I give thee, grasp it in thy Hand,
Temper the Soot within this Vase of Oil,
And let the little Tripod aid thy Toil;
On this methinks I see the walking Crew
At thy Request support the miry Shoe,
The Foot grows black that was with Dirt imbrown’d,
And in thy Pocket gingling Half-pence sound.
The Goddess plunges swift beneath the Flood,
And dashes all around her Show’rs of Mud:
The Youth strait chose his Post; the Labour ply’d
Where branching Streets from Charing-cross divide;
His treble Voice resounds along the Meuse,
And White-hall echoes – Clean your Honour’s Shoes.


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Poem of the week


This week, Jean Bleakney, sets ideas of inspiration and ratiocination spinning

Skimming stones

Setting ideas bounching … a man competes in a stone-skimming competition.

Was your weekend a matter of too much lucubration, and not enough lubrication? Or the reverse, perhaps? Either way, today’s poem will restore your spirits, especially if, like me, you have a soft spot for poems that confront the tactics of writing.

Jean Bleakney is a Northern Irish writer who trained as a biochemist, and has since worked in various horticultural roles, from selling plants to designing gardens. (She designed the beautiful garden of the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University Belfast). Typically, her work draws metaphorical and verbal energy from the languages of these sciences. (A great example being “The Fairytale Land of Um”.)

Interviewed by John Brown in his collection of conversations with Irish poets, In the Chair, Bleakney quotes one of her own favourite poets, Elizabeth Bishop: “It’s a mystery, then a surprise, then a lot of hard work.” Her point is that this is also true of science.

“Mystery, surprise, hard work” might be the formula that underlies all mental exploration, though not necessarily in that order. This poem wears its scientific learning lightly, but the scientist is visible in the curiosity about the why and how of poems, and in the classifiable (or certifiable?) ways in which Homo Poeticus adopts strategies and fictions to sustain the “mystery” and “surprise” elements of the craft.

“Improvisation” is from a new sequence (working title, Ionisation) whose titles, arranged in alphabetical order, end in the suffix “-ion” and are therefore abstract nouns. The poet compares them to flat stones that the poem skims and sets bouncing. Whether this poem quickly got its bounce, or whether it underwent many drafts, I don’t know, but that rap-like accumulation of rhymes creates a sense of happy spontaneity.

At a rough count, there are 47 “-ate” rhymes here, made up of verbs (transitive and intransitive) and nouns, from roots Latinate and Germanic. Rhyme works excitingly in the English language, when it works at all, because distinct etymologies so often resonate in the chime. When “straight” meets “circumambulate” the compass needle spins, not only because opposite meanings are implied, but because the Old English word has travelled so different a route from that of the Latin to be here. Each word is like a merchant, strangely-dressed, suffused by otherness of climate, custom, style, but ready to trade.

The poem reminds us of the sheer number of poets in Ireland, and, sometimes, the propensity of poets anywhere to be occasionally over-impressed with themselves. There are moments of satire as well as celebration, and creative downs as well as ups. The river in spate (a Louis MacNeice reference) and the “silvery salmon” remind us of the magically eloquent moments, and form a climax, after which the rhythm slows and stasis threatens. The salmon has leapt and now there is that sinking feeling every writer dreads, when everything that seemed so right suddenly seems so wrong.

I like the final ambiguity, and the metaphor implied in “coagulate”. A poem has to settle into shape, it can’t be in spate for ever. Coagulation, then, is essential. “The blood jet is poetry,” wrote Sylvia Plath, but this poem finally, I think, settles in favour of that stabilising Factor VIII.


For the lucky few, it arrives on a plate.
Some go at it like a bull at a gate;
get it all down then re-evaluate,
or not. Others sit and wait.
(Sadly, some
don’t know the meaning of momentum.)
Some cast a phrase like bait
or a seed that might germinate.
Some procrastinate
and some translate.
Some, like Pope in a weaker moment, beat their pate.
Some self-flagellate
in other ways. Some need a drink to lubricate
(some need a crate)
and some need chocolate.
Some gorge on other poetry and ruminate
productively: some interrogate
the canon. Some regurgitate.
Some over-lucubrate
with dictionaries.
Some wax Latinate.
Some like to tell it straight.
Some circumambulate.
Some need a template.
Some set out to obfuscate.
(The critics reciprocate
sensing the need to speculate
to accumulate.)
Some self-deprecate
(inadvisable in an aspiring poet laureate).
Some fear they punch beneath their weight.
Some think their poems vindicate
their otherwise profitless and profligate
existences. Some successfully amalgamate
mercurial thought-processes, a job and a mate.
Some are easier to domesticate
than others, though few are home by eight.
Some rarely stray beyond the garden gate.
Some emigrate.
But all aspire to that river in spate
and its silvery salmon counterweight.
All desire its bottle-able light-concentrating distillate.
And yet, how often that fizzing urge to create,
unscrewed, is destined to decarbonate.
Similarly, should the muse deflate…
the flow
for some,
the would-be-poem is become
a sluggish vein the poet must ligate,
often when the hour is late
whereupon (some neurogenic Factor VIII,
let’s say) the words coagulate.


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Poem of the week

Your Summer Arm

This love poem explores separateness through visual and rhythmic segmentation, and the vulnerability of an insect

Emerald shield bug

Naomi Foyle uses the fragility of the emerald shield bug in Your Summer Arm.

Women have written love poems for centuries. When does the exploration of complicated and gender-conscious states of mind take over from declaration or lament? Is the representation of double-sided couple instead of lone-lyricist-and-distant-muse a particularly female preoccupation?

This week’s poem by young poet Naomi Foyle belongs to relatively new literary territory. It is from The Night Pavilion, a lively first collection recently published by Waterloo Press, and comes from the third, title section of the book. It concludes a series of love poems influenced by Dickinson-esque hymn forms, creating – in the writer’s words – “incantations or ‘failed’ hymns” that seek “to re-forge the connection between sexuality and the sacred”.

Your Summer Arm might be described as a love poem that explores the separateness of lovers. The speaker’s interior world is only partly shared or shareable with the addressee, and seems haunted by the notion of dismemberment. There is the title itself (not arms, but “arm”, singular) and the three-part structure, which conveys visual and rhythmic segmentation. In the first part, it is the emerald shield bug that suffers damage to its foot: in the second, an unidentified “husk” has been dismembered, off-stage.

If there is physical vulnerability there is also intellectual puzzlement: what is the insect called, and how best to remove it? The addressee knows the name, but can’t help practically. The speaker, for all her finesse, damages the insect while trying to rescue it. These tiny events gain powerful significance in such a context. The lovers remain tentative and demonstrably at risk. They tread very carefully and find points of cohesion along the way, near-resolutions echoed in the far-apart para-rhymes linking the last lines of each pair of quatrains.

It will be obvious by now that the natural world that frames the lovers in this poem is not the conventional one. The insect that is out of place on the oak dresser is also quite a “foreign body” in poetry. It makes an effective symbol for poetry itself (fine structures and surprising movements) and audibly connects us to the processes of thinking and writing, with the “whirring of thoughts” and “rustle of pages”.

The poem both takes things apart and looks for salves and solutions. It becomes a love poem the moment we learn that the couple, whatever they may not share, share the emotion over the hurt bug. But the speaker’s pained rhetorical question, “Where is grass to comfort that green?”, is privately uttered and the childhood memory of vulnerable milk teeth and sweet-tasting grass is another question rather than an answer.

Finally, the lovers’ separateness and segmentation are reconciled. The visually suggestive image of one’s “glowing limb” buried in the other’s hair announces that the pair are united, perhaps genitally, perhaps only by the sun-warmed arm, but, in whatever way, physically connected. So oneness is almost attained – but not quite. “Limb” and “hair” have utterly different functions and textures, almost as different as those of the oak dresser and the fragile, crooked-legged insect. And only one of the couple is peacefully asleep. The other is awake, and observing – eternally vigilant, as the writer has to be, looking in, looking out, trying to name the world and make sense without loss of mystery. The unnameable is present in the poem, too.

Your Summer Arm

Was it an odd sort of cricket
climbing my oak dresser? No –
an emerald shield bug, you said,
watching as I tried to slide

a piece of A4 paper
beneath its crooked legs.
When a foot caught, and tore,
I thought we both might cry.


Where is grass to comfort that green?
Those sweet, young shoots
I slipped from their sheaths
and chewed with wobbly teeth?

Now, as we curl into bed,
outside in the whistling damp
the husk I dismembered today
begins to decay in the leaves.


This whirring of thoughts,
rustle of pages,
mean nothing to you

Your breathing is so quiet
I’d hardly know you were there
if it wasn’t for the glowing limb
buried in my hair.


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Poem of the week

To His Coy Mistress

Marvell’s great poem manages to be serious and light, epic and personal, as aware of the pleasures of the flesh as the transience of life

Andrew Marvell

Andrew Marvell

The male poet strides through European literature, eloquently pleading with his mistress to seize the day, ie come to bed. We don’t hear much from the mistress – unless of course we look into the subterranean streams of ballads and folk songs, which are perennially filled with the anonymous laments of those women who let themselves be seized (by jolly sailors and soldiers more often than poets, it must be said) and were left holding the baby.

In this week’s poem, To His Coy Mistress, Andrew Marvell takes the conventional plea to new heights of imaginative wit. “Had we but world enough, and time …” the speaker muses, and almost at once the reader is conducted into a utopia in which this happy condition literally exists. Like a novelist, it seems, Marvell has embarked on the pursuit of that seminal question, “What if?” The metaphysical conceit has become an ingeniously extended fantasy.

Commending the poet’s prose satires, Hugh MacDonald, editor of The Poems of Andrew Marvell (1952), writes: “In the place of the fierce attack in several of his satires he used banter or ‘drolling’, as it was then called, against his adversaries.” Let’s reinstate that verb in the context of the poem, because it suggests the lightly teasing tone, the easy fluidity of the argument, and presumably the whole cast of Marvell’s exemplary mind. The Yorkshire poet is talking to his astute and desirable mistress, not, of course, to a political opponent, but, to some degree, he is drolling.

All the same, those flourishes of comic exaggeration issue from grave and impassioned depths. Marvell is not joking about his sense of urgency; he reminds us that mortality is no joke. When he traces bodily the expansive, tender courtship, he reflects the earnest dream of every lover: timelessness. As Louis MacNeice would imagine centuries later, “Time was away, and somewhere else.”

How cleverly Marvell encompasses a sense of vastness in his compact four-beat couplets. It’s done by imagery and by assonance (the fortuitous river-names with their clustered consonants are helpful), by polysyllabic words (“vegetable”, that inspired adjective) and reference to specific quantities, but above all by the close-knit logical coherence within each section and across the whole poem. In this respect, his art seems comparable to that of his great friend and colleague, John Milton. This lyric poem has a touch of the miniature epic.

The poem darkens as it proceeds, and the time-fantasy moves into the unsavoury reaches of decay and annihilation. Worms, ie maggots, are not the only guilty parties. Interestingly, frighteningly, the lovers themselves are exhorted to imitate birds of prey, which guzzle their food immediately, unlike “slow-chapped” (slow-jawed) time. The image of the ball is ambiguous: not only does it suggest the happy enclosed sphere of copulation, but a cannonball, embodying the ruthless determination to succeed. Pleasure costs: it must be torn from “the iron gates of life”, an image that obviously has little to do with jokes about virginity and much more to do with the life-threatening, as well as life-giving, realities of labour and birth. And that darker understanding is also what makes this a great poem. Its wit is underpinned by an almost-Darwinian awareness of the struggle for survival, and its tenuousness and brevity when achieved.

To His Coy Mistress

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love would grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vaults, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball,
And tear our pleasure with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.


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Poem of the week

In the Trenches

This week, two trench poems from Isaac Rosenberg that are as dazzling as they are imperfect

Isaac Rosenberg

A photograph of Isaac Rosenberg, possibly dating from October 1917.

“Here’s a little poem a bit commonplace I’m afraid,” Isaac Rosenberg wrote to his friend, Sonia Rodker in the autumn of 1916. The poem, In the Trenches, was written by Rosenberg while serving with the British Expeditionary Force in France. A year and a half later, in April 1918, the poet was killed during a wiring patrol near Arras.

In the Trenches turned out to be one of those poems a poet in a hurry considers finished, only later to discover, it was actually draft. It’s still worth reading in its own right, and for the illumination it lends to the better-known and more achieved Break of Day in the Trenches.

Born in Bristol in 1890, of Lithuanian-Jewish descent, Rosenberg had been raised in considerable poverty in London’s East End. Out of work in 1915, he enlisted chiefly to provide his mother with the “separation allowance”. As a mere private soldier, he would be subject to the most harsh and dismal conditions of any war poet. But he was determined nothing would stop his “poeting”. In another letter (to Laurence Binyon) he declared: “I will not leave a corner of my consciousness covered up, but saturate myself with the strange and extraordinary conditions of this life, and it will all refine itself into poetry later on.”

It’s possible that In the Trenches was suggested by John McCrae’s patriotic poem In Flanders Fields. McCrae’s poem was first published in Punch in 1915, and attracted a great deal of attention. (It’s said to have been the inspiration for the first Poppy Day, in 1919.)

Corn poppies grew abundantly in Flanders, and sprang up quickly from battle-devastated fields. They were not mere symbols to either poet. But of course the poppy’s association with death goes back ages farther than the Great War. Opium poppies were found in Egyptian tombs. The Sumerians called it “the flower of joy” and the Greeks associated it with fertility. These other symbolic meanings inform Rosenberg’s final version.

Written in the rondeau form, McCrae’s is not a poem that challenges the imagination. Rosenberg’s also starts with an attempt at formality, but it is altogether more twitchy and vivid. As the shell explodes, the poem erupts, structurally and emotionally. Its last two quatrains are compacted, the metre jolts, and the rhyme-word at the end is stammered out, as the speaker seems narrowly to escape decimation: “I am choked … safe … dust blind, I”.

Break of Day in the Trenches is a richer, cannier poem: it doesn’t explode in chaos but makes a virtue of its snatched, note-bookish quality. It opens, now, with day-break (a favourite device of courtly poetry), and a gesture at personified time (another poeticism) – but this dawn is merely a crumbling of the night, and time with his conjuring tricks is quickly sent off-stage. The verb, “crumbles”, is a brilliant stroke. It immediately sets the devastated scene for us and prepares the way for the scattering of dust in the last line.

Humanity and humour are snatched like rations. The joke is shared with a rat and a (now) single wild flower, both flourishing in grim surroundings. If the rat is “droll” and “sardonic”, the poet is equally so, grinning at death with the mock-carnivalesque poppy tucked behind his ear. (There are some cultures in which young men wear a flower behind the ear as a display of virility.) The doomed companion who displayed the poppy on his ‘breast’ in the earlier poem has disappeared.

The poem’s rough edges show: “sleeping green between” sounds awkward, “strong eyes” is puzzling, and there is rather a lot of end-stopping. But the poem has verbal ingenuity and terrific presence. The notion of being “chanced” for life is wonderful, and the mayhem of the exploding shell is summoned this time with simple, almost Biblical imagery.

Rosenberg came of age when artistic wars were brewing. Poetry, like his other passion, painting, was in crisis. Though a sturdy individualist, he found variously useful mentors in both traditional and modernist camps. The traditionalist Edward Marsh was his major patron and critic; Ezra Pound, initially unimpressed, finally urged Harriet Monroe to find space in her magazine, Poetry, for “the poor devil” to be “given a show”. Rosenberg was still exploring the artistic no man’s land when he stumbled on his own way of seeing: he stumbled on himself. All the same, there seems to be a detectable imagist influence in both these poems. The poet’s thoughts are led by what he sees.

The Armistice has its 90th anniversary this November. The poppy-wearing ritual regularly attracts controversy, but how effectively it reminds us to remember. When I buy a poppy, I listen across the years to someone else’s painful memories (my grandmother’s) of someone who was killed 23 years before I was born (her young brother). What we remember after so many years depends increasingly on the power of words and images – which are themselves formed of memories. In a week when we also remember the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Isaac Rosenberg’s words, tougher than poppies, ask to be worn close to the heart, and closer still to the brain.

In the Trenches

I snatched two poppies
From the parapet’s edge,
Two bright red poppies
That winked on the ledge.

Behind my ear
I stuck one through,
One blood red poppy
I gave to you.

The sandbags narrowed
And screwed out our jest,
And tore the poppy
You had on your breast…
Dawn – a shell – O! Christ
I am choked … safe … dust blind, I
See trench floor poppies
Strewn. Smashed, you lie.

Break of Day in the Trenches

The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver – what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe –
Just a little white with the dust.


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Poem of the week


A sunrise (in Texas)

Rising again …

Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) was an influential teacher, essayist, hymn-writer, political pamphleteer, children’s author, and fiction editor – preoccupations that inform her wide-ranging poetry. Although the poetry fell into neglect some years before her death, and only in the later 20th century began again to be taken seriously, in the early 19th century it was highly acclaimed. Contemporaries praised her for her “masculine head” and “feminine heart”- not, of course, the terms we would use today, but it’s not hard to see what was meant. A cool balance of objectivity and subjectivity is characteristic of her work.

Five editions of her collection, Poems, were printed in a single year (1777) and an American edition appeared in 1820. Her admirers included Wordsworth, and, until they fell out over “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Coleridge. A line from the controversial anti-war masterpiece, “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven”, in which she envisioned the fall of London, is thought to have inspired Shelley’s “Ozymandias”. Barbauld’s work, arguably, initiates English Romanticism. But it was this movement that ultimately marginalised her.

One of my favourite Barbauld poems is Washing-Day a vividly observant account of the rigours of those relentless pre-Laundromat Mondays (wet ones especially). Despite the topic, the poem avoids any hint of bathos in its 85 lines. It’s too long to reproduce in full and its sections seem too inter-connected for excerpt, though I can’t resist a quotation from the extraordinary conclusion. Inspired by a recent visit to a display of hot-air ballooning, Barbauld transforms the heavy soakage into bubbles of imagination: “Earth, air, and sky, and ocean, hath its bubbles,/ And verse is one of them – this most of all.”

This lightness of touch and modesty of tone are also evident in this week’s poem, the anthology favourite, “Life”. Barbauld dares to express herself simply. If there’s is a hint of the metaphysical poets, it’s Herbert rather than Donne. (Her verse layout, with shorter lines indented in the original, also evokes Herbert and his beautifully un-hymn-like rhythmic patterning.) There are no metaphysical conceits, no empty rhetorical gestures.

At first, it appears almost agnostic in tone. The epigraph is the opening line of a poem purportedly composed by the dying Emperor Hadrian, translated literally as “Charming little soul, hastening away”. Hadrian was influenced by Stoic philosophy and Barbauld’s initial questioning seems to echo that pre-Christian sensibility, in both its acceptance of mortality and its avoidance of doctrinal assurance.

Barbauld, of course, was no agnostic. The concluding stanza takes two alternative Christian interpretations of the post-mortem possibilities. Either the soul separates from the body, or the body and soul die together and are both resurrected (as a “compound I”) into eternity. But, even here, theology poses as uncertainty, rather than wholly comfortable reassurance.

The light touch of the piece is deceptive. “Ah tell where I must seek this compound I?” and “O say what art thou when no more thou’rt thee?” are heartfelt questions. They resonate still, not only because consciousness has not yet been fully explained. Childlike though they seem, such questions are intrinsically connected to the intuitive, analogue ways post-digital man still perceives himself. Psychologically, the poem is a piercing portrait of the human “soul”, with its rational fear of death and its irrational dream of a future “Good morning”, if not “in some brighter clime”, at least amid the whirling atoms.


(Animula, vagula, blandula)

    Life! I know not what thou art,
But know that thou and I must part;
And when, or how, or where we met,
I own to me’s a secret yet.
But this I know, when thou art fled,
Where’er they lay these limbs, this head,
No clod so valueless shall be
As all that then remains of me.
O whither, whither dost thou fly,
Where bend unseen thy trackless course,
        And in this strange divorce,
Ah tell where I must seek this compound I?

To the vast ocean of empyreal flame,
        From whence thy essence came,
        Dost thou thy flight pursue, when freed
        From matter’s base encumbering weed?
        Or dost thou, hid from sight,
        Wait, like some spell-bound knight,
Through blank oblivious years th’appointed hour,
To break thy trance and reassume thy power?
Yet cans’t thou without thought or feeling be?
O say what art thou, when no more thou’rt thee?

Life! we’ve been long together
Through pleasant and through cloudy weather;
‘Tis hard to part when friends are dear;
Perhaps ’twill cost a sigh, a tear;
Then steal away, give little warning,
                Choose thine own time;
Say not Good night, but in some brighter clime
                Bid me Good morning.


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Poem of the week


Mark Roper’s lightness of touch captures the poise and beauty of this peculiar bird

A hummingbird

A hummingbird hovers over a flower in Montevideo.

Poise is the essence of this week’s poem, Mark Roper’s Hummingbird. It shows in its technique – and perhaps it is the poem’s fundamental subject. Poise, a lovely word, is related to the Old French pois, meaning weight, and originally from the Latin, pendere. The bird is dizzyingly poised between rapid movement and stillness, and the poet weighs his words to create a language light and suggestive enough to encapsulate that quality of suspension, while tough enough to convey a miniature story.

One of the great strokes of combined luck and misfortune for contemporary poets (and the most perilous and interesting challenge to technical poise) is that poetic structure has expanded to include the representational. The 20th century form-quakes have left us with a vacant building site. If you want to write about a motorway, you can still build a sonnet around it. But you could also invent a poem that resembled a motorway (well, a very small stretch of one). The third possibility: you may negotiate an area between the two – which is what I think Mark Roper does, to some degree, in Hummingbird.

Of course, the poem isn’t bird-shaped. But it seems to contain hummingbird construction principles at its core. There is economy (many of the words are monosyllables) and focus. As the bird goes “from shelf/ to shelf of air,” so the poem moves purposefully from stanza to stanza. The structure is secured by firm syntax, arranged according to the trope, parison. “Not just” is repeated at the opening of four consecutive stanzas, forming moments of grammatical stasis, which are also launching pads from which the narrative pushes forward.

So the poem in its larger movements rhythmically mimes those of the bird as it hunts for nectar. And then in stanza five, as the poem-long sentence enters its inevitable new phase (“but also”), the hummingbird rests, no longer humming but “quiet as moss” and rather ordinarily bird-like as it peacefully digests its nectar feast. There is a final transformation as the now motionless bird begins (or “might begin”) to glow, a glow related not only to the consumption of calories or the rays of (evening?) sunlight, but connected to the observer’s ardent imagination. And the sentence at last finds its somewhat unexpected point of rest.

The cigarette comparison is a bold one. It functions descriptively, of course. And it evokes sensations of pleasure and satisfaction, as a well-earned cigarette once did. But the image is complicated by current associations, too: the nicotine-fix used to restore poise after unbearable tension, the poison of such ersatz poise. To smoke is to deceive yourself. The world’s face only seems to be “composed.”

Mark Roper was born in England in 1951. He moved to Ireland in 1980 and lives in Tobernabrone, County Kilkenny. His poetic achievement is perhaps built on the poise he has attained between the different traditions of Irish and English nature poetry. Even So is his latest collection, published by Dedalus Press. I know it’s a wonderfully wrought collection, having read it from cover to cover so as to write its introduction. Grateful thanks to Pat Boran at Dedalus and Mark Roper for their permission to reproduce Hummingbird here.


Not just how
it hung so still
in the quick of its wings,
all gem and temper
anchored in air;

not just the way
it moved from shelf
to shelf of air,
up down, here there,
without moving;

not just how it flicked
its tongue’s thread
through each butter-yellow
foxglove flower
for its fix of sugar;

not just the vest’s
electric emerald,
the scarf’s scarlet,
not just the fury
of its berry-sized heart,

but also how the bird
would soon be found
in a tree nearby,
quiet as moss at the end
of a bare branch,

wings closed around
its sweetening being,
and then how light
might touch its throat
and make it glow,

as if it were the tip
of a cigarette
on the lip of a world,
whose face,

in the lake’s hush
and the stir of leaves,
might appear
for a moment


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Britain’s equivalent of the haiku is your challenge this time, with a number of fiendish variations available

Ancient stone tablet on Caldey Island in Pembrokeshire

Ancient stone tablet on Caldey Island in Pembrokeshire.

It’s short, based on strict rules of syllable count, and British; in fact the englyn (plural form englynion) is among the oldest indigenous verse forms in the Welsh tongue, dating back at least as far as the 9th century Juvencus Englynion, a verse paraphrase of the Gospels.

So, why aren’t englynion as popular with contemporary poets as the haiku? Well, the first problem that faces the would-be englynist is that it isn’t a single fixed form. The earliest englynion, for instance, are written in three-line stanzas, each line of seven syllables, with a single end rhyme, thus:

_ _ _ _ _ _ a
_ _ _ _ _ _ a
_ _ _ _ _ _ a

This is the form known as the englyn milwr.

Straightforward enough, you might think. There is, however, another three-line version, the englyn penfyr, with a more elaborate rhyme scheme. In this form, the first line is 10 syllables long, and the second and third are seven syllables each. The final word of the first line must be polysyllabic and must rhyme with the first word of the second line. The second and third lines have end rhyme:

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ a
a _ _ _ _ _ b
_ _ _ _ _ _ b

The rhymes can be full or you can use assonance or alliteration. Easy, isn’t it?

The three-line englyn soon evolved into a four-line stanza, an evolution that can be seen in the well-known Englyn on Padarn’s Staff. Of course, these quatrains wouldn’t be englynion if they didn’t come in all kinds of shapes and forms. Perhaps the most common is the englyn cyrch, four seven-syllable lines of which lines one, two and four rhyme and the end of line three has an internal rhyme in line four:

_ _ _ _ _ _ a
_ _ _ _ _ _ a
_ _ _ _ _ _ b
_ _ _ b _ _ a

The englyn lleddfbroest also has four seven-syllable lines, rhyming a-a-a-a. Naturally, this is far too easy, so the rhymes have to be on dipthongs (in Welsh, ae, oe, wy, ei). The englyn proest dalgron follows an almost identical pattern, except that the syllables with the dipthongs are consonant rather than rhyming. The englyn proest gadwynog seeks to combine these two forms, dropping the dipthong requirement and having lines one and three rhyming and lines two and four consonant. There are two further four-line englynion, the englyn unodle crwca and the englyn unodle union, but please don’t ask me to explain them!

If the englyn is the British equivalent of the haiku, then the great Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym is its Basho. However, it would be a mistake to imagine that the form is dead, a relic of some distant medieval past. It is very much alive and current in Welsh poetry and a number of English-language poets have tried their hands at it. For example, Richard Caddel’s Nine Englynion is clearly based on the Juvencus form, with the syllable count retained but the rhyme pattern dropped.

And so this month’s challenge is to add to the body of English englynion. You may want to stick rigidly to one or more of the traditional variants, or you may, like many western haiku writers, take a more flexible approach. The choice is yours, but one way or another let the englynion roll.


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A perennially popular subject for poetry, this time I want your flights of fancy about butterflies

Butterfly in tall grass

Spread your wings … a butterfly in tall grass.

Having written about rock in the last Poster Poems, I thought it might be interesting to move on to something a little less permanent this time around, and so I lit on the idea of poems about butterflies.

These fragile insects have always been popular with poets, and given the widespread adoption in popular culture of quantum theory’s much-misunderstood butterfly effect, it seems likely that they will continue to feature in poems into the foreseeable future. Mind you, if Edward Lorenz was right, the butterfly effect means that the future isn’t particularly foreseeable.

According to Lorenz, small changes in the initial conditions of a system make it difficult to predict the system’s final state. In James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”, a sleeping butterfly is the initial condition for a poem that leads to the conclusion that the poet has wasted his life; it’s a poem of deceptive simplicity and when you read the last line you are inclined to go back and read it again to find out quite how you got to that particular final state.

In Hilda Morley’s “The Dust Covers My Shoes”, the butterfly does not appear until the end of the poem, where it stands as a symbol of all those frail individuals who are voiceless and powerless in the face of the loss of humanity in societies in which the rule of law has broken down. It is a victim of chaos, not its agent.

If Morley’s butterflies are ground down by life, Emily Dickinson, in a poem called “The butterfly obtains”, prefers to see them as dissolute idlers, lacking the reputation for industriousness that might make them seem more worthy of “Immortality”. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Dickinson is with the butterflies.

A blue butterfly is the object of a kind of quest in “The Search for Lost Lives” by James Tate, even though the poet acknowledges that he does not want to catch his quarry. If Tate’s blue butterfly is more symbol than insect, those that inhabit Robert Frost’s “Blue-butterfly Day” are as real, colourful and frail as you could ask for. And yet they sing, all but.

The butterflies in Ezra Pound’s (or should that be Li Po’s) “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” are not blue, but an autumnal yellow. Colour, season, and the butterfly’s brief life expectancy cluster around the image of “paired butterflies” to remind the wife both of her separation from her husband and of her own mortality.

Li Po’s well-known poem “Chuang Tzu and the Butterfly” more or less brings me full circle. The blurring of the boundaries between dream and waking, butterfly and philosopher, returns us to a world in which the future is never certain: “who can tell the end of the endless changes of things?”

And yet I cannot but hope that you will “toil and toil” to produce poems as delicate and powerful as butterflies this month, and when you do that you don’t pin them in some glass case in your private collection, but bring them here to share with your fellow lepidoperists of verse. Get those nets out, time to go hunting across the fields of your imaginations and bring back fleeting treasures.


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The literal foundation of our civilisation, stone is your suitably heavy subject this time

Richard Long: A Line in Scotland

Richard Long’s A Line in Scotland, 1981.

There are many beautiful areas in Ireland, but I’m particularly fond of Connemara. It’s quite a place, what with the lakes, the sharply indented coastline, the rich pattern of muted hues that constitute the bogs, and the ubiquitous presence of stone. Stone is everywhere, be it the granite boulders carefully mortised into the drystone walls that are characteristic of most of the west of Ireland, the green marble souvenirs sold in the numerous craft shops in the area or the glinting silicate tips of the Twelve Bens mountain range. You just can’t escape the thought of rock. Why would you want to?

I suppose that many readers of poetry will now be thinking of Yeats’s “Fisherman” who went “To a gray place on a hill/In gray Connemara clothes” – clothes the colour of the rock that juts out here and there – or Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”, a poem that could well have been written by a Galway farmer. These two poems reflect the two poles of the role of stone in human culture: on the one hand, stone is the bedrock on which our world rests; on the other it becomes an artefact and indicator of civilisation.

Gary Snyder’s “Riprap” inhabits a similar world to “Mending Wall”. Once again, stones are used to make a human mark on the natural world. There is something provisional about this arrangement of small rocks to make a forest trail that reminds me of Richard Long’s sculptures; despite their apparent solidity, there is something impermanent about these structures that makes their beauty even more startling.

It isn’t often that you come across a poet who is also a professional stoneworker; in fact, I think Bob Arnold is the only one I know of. His poem “Rhythm” is a clear statement of the pleasure of handling rock when he writes “It isn’t confusing/It’s stone”.

There is a kind of Gothic romance to be found in stone ruins, many poets have been inspired to write about them. Frequently such poems are variants on a “this too shall pass” memento mori theme. Not so “The Sheep in the Ruins” by Archibald MacLeish. In this poem the transforming power of human imagination can bring the ruins back to life and recreate the world they represent.

Perhaps the lure of romantic gloom is harder to resist when the stones are ancient megaliths with supposed Druidical connections. Certainly Thomas Hardy made no attempt to lighten the gloom in his “The Shadow on the Stone”, a poem that reads like it could easily be the lyrics for a dirge by some up-and-coming emo band.

Robinson Jeffers, in a poem called “Oh Lovely Rock”, prefers to focus on stone’s permanence and endurance and its ability to seem to be, in its own slow way, a living thing. This is an attitude that finds its ultimate expression in what is probably my favourite rock poem of all, “On a Raised Beach” by Hugh MacDiarmid. This is a long poem and is not fully available on the internet, but you can read an extract here. At the poem’s core are the lines “We must reconcile ourselves to the stones,/Not the stones to us”, a simple but elegant statement of the central ecological dilemma of our time in a poem that was written long before these matters became fashionable.

And so, this month’s invitation is to write a rock poem. Whether your stones are found in nature or hewn by human hands, be they great slabs of bedrock or tiny pebbles, the challenge is to turn them to song. Get carving.


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The dawn breaks, lovers part … and a poem is born. Send in your efforts inspired by the rising sun

Horses at sunrise

Sleepers awaken … horses at sunrise.

One of the small consolations of these shortening, post-midsummer days is that soon we’ll get to see the dawn again. Sunrise is one of nature’s more uplifting experiences, and it has inspired lots of poems, many of which fall into the category of aubade.

The aubade is, quite simply, a song or poem about lovers parting at dawn. The precise nature of its relationship to the alba, a type of troubadour poem, has been rumoured, on occasion, to have brought medievalists to blows – but fortunately these abstruse considerations need not bother us here. Suffice it to say that this is originally a French form that first appears in English in book three of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, and is probably best known to modern readers through Larkin’s last published poem.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Larkin’s Aubade has no lovers in it, and his dawn is a dull, sunless affair. If you want more representative examples of the form, you’re better off going to Sir William Davenant or William Shakespeare, both of whom wrote aubades that are nearer to the clear, sunlight world of the Provençal bard.

However, there can be little question that the benchmark against which English aubades must be measured is Donne’s Break of Day. This poem neatly balances love against the quotidian world of business, and comes down against the latter. Mind you, writing aubades is not just for metaphysical poets; a good number of folk songs fit the bill nicely. My favourite is the traditional tune The Lark in the Morning; it’s fascinating to see how the conventions are adapted to reflect the lives of ordinary people. It’s not so much Phoebus Apollo that parts the lovers as the need to go out and do a day’s work. The shepherd cannot afford Donne’s scornful view of the serious business of earning a living. Love must wait its turn.

The aubade has been surprisingly popular among modern poets. In contrast with Larkin’s effort, there is Kenneth Patchen’s joyous As We Are So Wonderfully Done with Each Other or Louise Bogan’s bittersweet Leave-Taking, both of which manage to use the conventions of the genre but in a modern, less idealised context.

Edith Sitwell marries the aubade with the nursery rhyme[x] to produce idiosyncratic results; read her Aubade aloud and you can almost hear her voice come alive. John Heath-Stubbs, in The Unpredicted, contrives to write an aubade that is both traditional and perfectly of his own moment. But perhaps the most striking of all 20th-century aubades is William Empson’s poem dated 1937; it is not the sun that parts the lovers, one Japanese, the other English, but the shadow of impending war. Here the personal and the political intersect in one of those rare poems that bring us inside a moment in history.

And so, sleepers awaken: this month I’m looking for dawn poems. You may decide to adhere to the conventions of the aubade, to adapt them or to ignore them entirely. One way or another, the crucial thing is that your poems should reflect that moment when the great daily miracle occurs; night passes and day returns. It’s morning again; get writing.


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A grand theme this time, though your perspective can be as humble as you like

Detail from Friedrich Bouterwerk's Henry VIII's arrival at the Field of the Cloth of Gold

Detail from Friedrich Bouterwerk’s painting of Henry VIII’s arrival at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

An epic, wrote Ezra Pound, is “a poem containing history”. It’s a neat enough definition – and, as such, open to argument. For one thing, you don’t have to set out to write an epic if you want your poems to “contain” history; plenty of poets have contrived to handle historical subject matter on a more modest scale.

Some poets turn to primary historical sources as material for their works. Charles Reznikoff was a frequent miner of the records to make poems that showed history from the viewpoint of the common people: his poem “New Nation” is a typically ground-level view of the emergence of the United States.

New Nation makes me think of Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”, another poem in which history is viewed from the bottom up. Indeed, in Lowell’s poem, the lives of the whalers are not only a map of history, they take on almost mythic status.

Not all poets are on the side of the little people; some are even more conventional history-makers themselves. It is, for instance, tempting to read Elizabeth I’s “The Doubt of Future Foes” as an almost unique blend of historical commentary and personal lyric by the prime mover of the events alluded to. I say “almost unique” because many poets who held less exalted public positions also wrote meditations on the historic times they found themselves living through. For all their differences of style, this is equally true of a poem like Yeats’s “Easter 1916” and “A Dialogue between Old England and New” by Anne Bradstreet.

Both Yeats and Elizabeth I blur the lines between the personal and the historic to the point where it is not really possible to distinguish them clearly. This is taken even further by Diane Wakoski in her poem “The Father of My Country”. Here the history is personal, and the personal is historic.

Of course, poets have been quick to point out the lessons of history, even if they do not always agree what those lessons are. In his long, meditative poem, “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”, Hugh MacDiarmid seems to be saying that his beloved, infuriating Scotland is trapped in a cycle of repeated mistakes; the lesson of history is that people fail to learn from it. In “Love Among the Ruins”, Robert Browning reminds us that history is the story of the rise and fall of civilisations; not even the most powerful can expect to endure. Unsurprisingly, these pessimistic views of the march of time are not shared by the Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah, William McGonagall, whose “The Battle of Omdurman” is a paean to the British army on their historic mission “to establish what’s right wherever they go”.

And so, this month’s challenge is to write a poem on the theme of history. You may choose to write from the perspective of the most ordinary woman in the street or the most powerful leader, on events from history ancient or modern, or none of the above. The one stipulation is to produce a poem containing history, however you may wish to define it. Footnotes and lists of sources are strictly optional.


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A shot at immortality, or proof of time’s dominion over all? Poets have often reflected on the meaning of renown


‘It has a sting’ … fame, in the words of Emily Dickinson.

So, Poster poems is back, this time as a monthly feature, and much as I’ve enjoyed the break, it’s great to be calling for your verses again. And with the imminent publication of the Poster poems anthology in print, it seems only natural that our thoughts should turn to fame.

On the whole, poets seem to be very chary of fame and ambiguous when it comes to the benefits of renown. Think, for instance, of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, with its “youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown”. The clear message is that fame means nothing, as we all end up equal in the grave. It’s a common enough theme, and you’ll find it again and again in poems as different as Byron’s “All Is Vanity,” Saith the Preacher and Pope’s Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady.

Shakespeare’s image of glory as a ripple in water that expands until “by broad spreading it disperse to nought” is a warning of another sort, and somewhat akin to Warhol’s “famous for 15 minutes” slogan. In a poem called On Reading Crowds and Power, Geoffrey Hill looks at how celebrity enables the rise of the demagogue and reminds us that “image of the common man” is of far greater value than the icon of the famous one.

These are, I suppose, fairly generalised views on the price of fame. In his The Strife between the Poet and Ambition, Thomas James Merton ponders the implications of fame for the poet and comes to no particularly happy conclusion. Marianne Moore is characteristically more nuanced in her great poem The Paper Nautilus, but the message is clear enough: fame is dangerous for a writer because it removes them from that direct apprehension of the fragile beauty of the world that makes poetry possible.

Of course, not all poets view fame in such terms. There is a counter-tendency that sees poetry as being one way of ensuring the enduring renown of the worthy. Herrick, for instance, raises a visible Pillar of Fame that he sees as “Out-during marble, brass or jet”. Spenser’s sonnet One Day I Wrote Her Name is a fine example of another tradition, one in which the beloved’s fame is guaranteed by virtue of her celebration in the poem.

Another approach is seen in Stephen Spender’s I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great; the role of the poet is not so much to celebrate the famous as to remember those who deserve to be feted. It’s a stance that requires more modesty from the poet than either Herrick or Spenser display.

All of these approaches, and more, come together in what is probably the ultimate English-language exploration of our theme, Chaucer’s The House of Fame. Chaucer recognises the poet’s ability to confer fame on those they write about, but, with Plato, he seems to consider poetry an unreliable form of testimony. It would seem that there’s nothing new in celebrity culture.

And so, this month I invite your poetic reflections on fame. You may delight in the idea, or you might just be an old cynic like me, but the likelihood is that the truth about fame lies somewhere in Emily Dickinson’s

Fame is a bee.
It has a song—
It has a sting—
Ah, too, it has a wing.


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Poem of the week

Dover Beach

Waves crash onto a beach

Waves crash onto a beach.

Dover Beach is a ‘honeymoon’ poem. Written in 1851, shortly after Matthew Arnold’s marriage to Frances Lucy Wightman, it evokes quite literally the “sweetness and light” which Arnold famously found in the classical world, in whose image he formed his ideals of English culture. In fact, those public values are privatised in the very word the poem conjures for us: honeymoon. Dover Beach fundamentally seems to be about a withdrawal into personal values. Historical pessimism moves in swiftly as a tide.

Arnold’s description of the noise of the waves is superbly accurate. Even when he ventures into Miltonic (and Greek) mode, with that “tremulous cadence slow,” he maintains a certain realism. “Tremulous” may be emotive, but it also brilliantly evokes the soft rattling of the millions of pebbles and grits as the waves redistribute them.

Arnold’s classical learning is unpretentiously apparent. The verse-movement, with its fluid alternation of three, four and five-beat lines, suggests the rhythmic flexibility of Greek choral poetry. Stanza two, with its reference to Sophocles, brings home a sense of tragic fatedness. The following lines from Antigone may be relevant: “Blest are they whose days have not tasted of evil. For when a house hath once been shaken from heaven, there the curse fails nevermore, passing from life to life of the race; even as, when the surge is driven over the darkness of the deep by the fierce breath of Thracian sea-winds, it rolls up the black sands front the depths, and there is sullen roar from wind-vexed headlands that from the blows of the storm.”

While Sophocles can invoke the Greek ideal of the ‘thinking Warrior’, Arnold sees order and sanity destroyed in the antithesis of “ignorant armies”. Religion (“The Sea of Faith”) might have once provided protection to the Christian world, but is now feared to be in recession.

Though, for the ancient Greeks, Desire “sits enthroned among the mighty laws”, romantic love has no supreme virtue. Arnold, on the other hand, seems to suggest that the lovers’ vow is the only value left with which to counter history. The speaker realises that, out there in the world, there is “neither joy, nor love, nor light…”. The two newlyweds, standing at the window looking across the moonlit sea, have become, in a sense, the whole of love. It’s quite a jolt to contrast the modernity of this view with the poem’s actual date.

Arnold was not wholly comfortable with the idea of himself as a poet. He wrote: “… It is not so light a matter, when you have other grave claims on your powers, to submit voluntarily to the exhaustion of the best poetical production in a time like this … It is only in the best poetical epochs … that you can descend into yourself and produce the best of your thought and feeling naturally, and without an overwhelming and to some degree morbid effort.” In Dover Beach, the poet in Arnold has insisted that the descent be made, however painful.

His most anthologised poem is, formally, his most radical. If he had written more in this vein, he would have been canonised as a great poet. Instead, until relatively recently, he was regarded as a great thinker. Works like Culture and Anarchy have been an enormous influence on twentieth-century literary criticism. Perhaps they deserve to be revisited. Of course, the idea of culture Arnold presents would be utterly alien to us now – but have we better replacements? Creative Britain, perhaps, instead of classical “sweetness and light”? Progress indeed.

Dover Beach

The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back and fling
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


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Poem of the week

To a Louse

Robert Burns Bob Dylan's biggest inspiration

More than a figurehead … Robert Burns.

Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796) has in common with Russia’s Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) something other than immense popularity and iconic status as his country’s national bard. Both Burns and Pushkin were pioneering writers in the vernacular. While the young Pushkin’s latent genius was nourished on the folk tales and songs told him by his nanny, Arina Rodionovna, Burns as a child listened to the songs and stories of a widowed relative, Betty Davidson, who lived with the family in their Alloway cottage.

Of course, Pushkin’s Russian was in the dawn of its existence, while Scots was an ancient language that had fallen into disrepute after the Reformation. And Burns, if less widely-educated than Pushkin, still read plentifully, learning much from the Augustans. But the qualities the two poets have in common – fresh, modern diction, rhythmic vigour, mastery of narrative pace and an infallible ear – surely owe much to their early immersion in a spoken language handed down by “uneducated” old women who confidently owned their mother tongue.

For the non-native, the Scots language of Burns’s greatest work is a glittering lure and a stony chastisement. Said aloud, a Burns poem will reveal much, but sometimes a vital bit of it remains murky. So for any Sassenach like me, needing elucidation, here’s an excellent glossary by William Michaelian with which to venture boldly beyond the Songs and Airs, lovely and unendingly fresh as they are, and tackle the longer works.

Actually, it’s probably no bad thing to be a non-Scottish Burnsophile, after all. Piety isn’t required: we’ve no stake in what professor emeritus Alastair Fowler, in a review of Christopher Whyte’s Modern Scottish Poetry, memorably called “the nationalists’ sweet dreams of tartan poetry made in Scotland from girders”. There’s no obligation to rebel against him (or the heritage industry), no political motivation for getting into arguments about the extent of his radicalism. And no need, I hope, to feel obliged to unravel his sexual exploits (it’s not that I disapprove – I simply find them totally confusing). The poetry is radically fresh in its language, and as alive emotionally as it is intellectually, and that’s what matters.

The verse form known as the Standard Habbie was not Burns’s invention, but his numerous bravura performances in the form led to its re-naming as the Burns Stanza. His mastery is exhibited in this week’s poem, “To a Louse”, chosen in preference to the equally delightful but extremely well-known “To a Mouse”. The speaker’s tone here is understandably less tender to the object of his address. The movement of the verse is wonderfully tetchy and jumpy. But as the argument develops, we see that Jeanie’s airs and graces are mocked by her unsavoury guest. And of course, Burns sneaks in a neat touch of anti-clericalism for good measure. Readers wishing to enjoy more of the bard in Calvinist-baiting vein may like to sample Holy Willie’s Prayer – with the help of Michaelian’s Glossary, of course.

To A Louse
On Seeing One On A Lady’s Bonnet, At Church

Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly;
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’, faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her-
Sae fine a lady?
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.

Swith! in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle,
Wi’ ither kindred, jumping cattle,
In shoals and nations;
Whaur horn nor bane ne’er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.

Now haud you there, ye’re out o’ sight,
Below the fatt’rels, snug and tight;
Na, faith ye yet! ye’ll no be right,
Till ye’ve got on it-
The verra tapmost, tow’rin height
O’ Miss’ bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an’ grey as ony groset:
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I’d gie you sic a hearty dose o’t,
Wad dress your droddum.

I wad na been surpris’d to spy
You on an auld wife’s flainen toy;
Or aiblins some bit dubbie boy,
On’s wyliecoat;
But Miss’ fine Lunardi! fye!
How daur ye do’t?

O Jeany, dinna toss your head,
An’ set your beauties a’ abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie’s makin:
Thae winks an’ finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

Notes: ferlie= a wonder or marvel
wonner=a wonder (contemptuous)
haffet=lock of hair at the temple
breech, aiblins=perhaps
toy=woman’s old-fashioned cap with ear-flaps
wyliecoat=flannel vest.


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Poem of the week

The Owl Describing her Young Ones

Today, a cautionary tale of maternal pride from the underrated Anne Finch

Barn owl chicks at a sanctuary in Leiferde, Germany

‘What are these Things, and of what Sex?’ … Barn owl chicks at a sanctuary in Leiferde, Germany.

Anne Finch, née Kingsmill (1661-1720), brings to the armoury of the Augustan poets her own fluent technique, crisp wit, moderation and common sense. Her satirical writing may be gentle, but it is politically astute. That she is perfectly able to stand up to Pope is demonstrated in “An Answer”, her contribution to a not-too-acrimonious poetic debate concerning the capabilities of women poets and the value of “female wit”.

Anne Kingsmill met her future husband, Heneage Finch, at the court of Mary of Modena, and married him in 1684, so becoming the Countess of Winchilsea. Their marriage was a contented one, and Finch wrote a number of love-poems to Heneage, styling herself as Ardelia and him as Dafnis. When they refused to swear an oath of loyalty to William III, they were forced to retire from public life to their estate at Eastwell, Kent. The escape from the restrictions of court was not altogether unwelcome.

Finch was both a poet and a playwright. Her work is still not as well-known as it should be, though her most famous poem, “The Spleen”, is sometimes anthologised, as is her remarkably cool little statement of independence, “On Myself”. She is substantially represented online, and you can find a comprehensive range of poems here.

Whether she’s engaged in satire, fable, dialogue or observation, Finch writes with narrative clarity, absence of bombast, and the deft deployment of classical or biblical allusion. Humour and political realism combine in this week’s poem, a fable of a Mother Owl whose glowing account of her children’s charms persuades an Eagle to enter into an agreement not to attack them. Oddly, she sums up the gist of her story before the narrative gets going: yet the preview hardly spoils our enjoyment. The descriptive comedy is what holds our interest.

While Anne Finch wrote serious nature poetry, admired by Wordsworth for the freshness of its imagery, her owls no less than her meadows and nightingales declare her powers of observation. As for the moral, proud parents and media-people alike, take heed!

The Owl Describing her Young Ones

Why was that baleful Creature made,
Which seeks our Quiet to invade,
And screams ill Omens through the Shade?

‘Twas, sure, for every Mortals good,
When, by wrong painting of her Brood,
She doom’d them for the Eagle’s Food:

Who proffer’d Safety to her Tribe,
Wou’d she but shew them or describe,
And serving him, his Favour bribe.

When thus she did his Highness tell;
In Looks my Young do all excel,
Nor Nightingales can sing so well.

You’d joy to see the pretty Souls,
With wadling Steps and frowzy Poles,
Come creeping from their secret Holes.

But I ne’er let them take the Air,
The Fortune-hunters do so stare;
And Heiresses indeed they are.

This ancient Yew three hundred Years,
Has been possess’d by Lineal Heirs:
The Males extinct, now All is Theirs.

I hope I’ve done their Beauties right,
Whose Eyes outshine the Stars by Night;
Their Muffs and Tippets too are White.

The King of Cedars wav’d his Power,
And swore he’d fast ev’n from that Hour,
Ere he’d such Lady Birds devour.

Th’ Agreement seal’d, on either part,
The Owl now promis’d, from her Heart,
All his Night-Dangers to divert;

As Centinel to stand and whoop,
If single Fowl, or Shoal, or Troop
Should at his Palace aim or stoop.

But home, one Evening without Meat,
The Eagle comes, and takes his Seat,
Where they did these Conditions treat.

The Mother-Owl was prol’d away,
To seek abroad for needful Prey,
And forth the Misses came to play.

What’s here ! the hungry Monarch cry’d,
When near him living Flesh he spy’d,
With which he hop’d to be supply’d.

But recollecting, ’twas the Place,
Where he’d so lately promis’d Grace
To an enchanting, beauteous Race;

He paus’d a while, and kept his Maw,
With sober Temperance, in awe,
Till all their Lineaments he saw.

What are these Things, and of what Sex,
At length he cry’d, with Vultur’s Becks,
And Shoulders higher than their Necks?

These wear no Palatines, nor Muffs,
Italian Silks, or Doyley Stuffs,
But motley Callicoes, and Ruffs.

Nor Brightness in their Eyes is seen,
But through the Film a dusky Green,
And like old Margery is their Mien.

Then for my Supper they’re design’d,
Nor can be of that lovely Kind,
To whom my Pity was inclin’d.

No more Delays; as soon as spoke,
The Plumes are stripped, the Grisles broke,
And near the Feeder was to choak.

When now return’d the grizly Dame,
(Whose Family was out of Frame)
Against League-Breakers does exclaim.

How! quoth the Lord of soaring Fowls,
(Whilst horribly she wails and howls)
Were then your Progeny but Owls?

I thought some Phoenix was their Sire,
Who did those charming Looks inspire,
That you’d prepar’d me to admire.

Upon your self the Blame be laid;
My Talons you’ve to Blood betray’d,
And ly’d in every Word you said.

Faces or Books, beyond their Worth extoll’d,
Are censur’d most, and thus to pieces pulled.


Full article and photo:

Poster poems

An update

Plans for the book are advancing apace, and the final contents are almost ready. Speak now, or forever read these pieces

Alison Strachan, traditional craft bookbinder, at work at Shepherd's Bookbinder, London

A craft bookbinder at work.

And so you have spoken; lots of you gave permission, one or two said no; a number, sadly, didn’t respond. Just as importantly, lots of new suggestions were made and sifted through. Here, then, is the final list; remember that if there are additional poems on here that you haven’t given permission for, you need to mail Sarah again to give the go-ahead for these extra pieces.

Assuming that there are no further objections, or that none of the missing poets from the original list get in touch now (it’s still not too late), the contents of the anthology will be:

* alarming: “A poem is like an iceberg”, “We are the family who wave at the train”, “The words froze”, and “I love you best”
* anytimefrances: “Gift”, “you are your house” and “a failed housewife deserts the property”
* artpepper/ arsenelupin: “Unlucky At Cards”, “On My Sleeping Wife”, “Who Makes Men Clumsy”, “Sleeping In the Black Mountains” and “A Sestina for Wallace Stevens”
* BaronCharlus/ SirTopaz: “As I walked out one morning”, “Not Everyone Gets a Sequel”, “An Innocent Child Discovers the Irrevocable Fact of Death, c1980”, “To my grandmother it was just a hairnet” and “Dunwich”
* CaptainNed: “change lobsters” and “An Alien Remembers Its Birth”
* CarolRumens: “Sunset for the Under-Fives”
* cynicalsteve: “These are the wanderings of the poet Wordsworth”, “ever since those ur-poeting days” and “The question is: why write in sonnet style?”
* degrus: “A true gardener is a man”
* dickensdesk: “Walking down this lane” and “Everyone’s view of the world is invaluable”
* elcalifornio: “Virginia Dare”
* Flarf: “LROVSE”, “Underneath it all” and “Samhain Eve”
* freepoland: “City Wind”, “Wm Wordsworth leaves Grasmere to Find a Supermarket”, “Facade with Milk Bottles”, “An Aged Man Waits for the Morning” and “Opus Dei”
*floribunda: “Cornelius (“He would throw off his donkey jacket”)”
* graceandreacci: “Porthcurno”, “Spring comes to the city”, and “Invulnerable Children”
* HenryLloydMoon: “Lottery”, “april showers in borrowdale” and “Saturn V”
* herdwicktup: “After The Funeral Party”
* Ishouldapologize: “The Forest of Voices”, “Swear off nostalgia” and “Approaching Belfast”
* JulianGough: “Dromineer, December 2007”
* MeltonMowbray: “the Is this the autumn of our love? trilogy”, Untitled (“At Tintern Abbey we sat in the café”), “Dove Cottage”, “Utamaro’s Beauties”, and “Union Street, Saturday night and Sunday morning”.
* norwegianwood: “Houses”
* obooki: “Our office is very wide” (2 versions)
* ofile: “Sun Salutation” and “Knocking on the Hull
(a submariners tale)”
* parallaxview: “The Dashing Good Soldier” and “Laced”
* Parisa: “Quiet as Snow in the City”, “To The Memory Of My Mother”, and “Dear ant”
* Pinkerbell: “Dreaming…”
* pinkroom: “Fibonacci snowfalls” and “The last pfenning”
* RobertLock: “Home thoughts from another planet” and “Celsius reaches double figures”
* stoneofsilence: “Tango”, “Sleep tightly in bed” and “for my dear beloved niece”
* suzanabrams: “Hanging the Laundry” and “Gossip”
* thebookofsand: “Inward bound”, “The Hunter (Villanelle)”, “Belle de Jour” and “Salary”
* 3potato4: “i love the way the sun” and “can i write something”
* UnPublishedWriter: “Sonnet without a cause”
* zephirine: “Does madam prefer still or sparkling water?” “Postcard from the Azure Coast”, “Memory obstinately keeps” and “I wish that money liked me more”

Not a bad bunch, don’t you think? Thanks again for all the suggestions; this is your book, not mine. It’s going to be a good one.


Full article and photo:

Poster poems

The book of the blog is on its way

Our humble series will soon be going into print, but first I need our poets to get in touch and our readers to point out any omissions

Johann Gutenberg taking the first ever proof of the printing press he invented

It’s a big moment … Johann Gutenberg taking the first proof from his printing press.

Poster poems: the blog that just won’t go away. When we put together the online anthology a few weeks ago, there was a lot of enthusiasm for the idea of a print anthology to match.

Well, the good news is that the fine folk in the Guardian shared that enthusiasm, and are planning to publish a Poster poems anthology as a print-on-demand book. I’ve been pondering what should go in it; for the most part, the poems I’ve earmarked for inclusion are taken from the anthology thread as picked by you, and here’s the full list:

AdrianHula: New Order
alarming: “A poem is like an iceberg” and “I love you best”
anytimefrances: you are your house and a failed housewife deserts the property
arsenelupin: Unlucky At Cards
artpepper: On My Sleeping Wife, Who Makes Men Clumsy and A Sestina for Wallace Stevens
BaronCharlus: Not Everyone Gets a Sequel and Dunwich
CaptainNed: change lobsters and An Alien Remembers Its Birth
CarolRumens: Sunset for the Under-Fives
Cherryfranklin: “You who were born”
creel: “Dance implies a symmetry”
Crikfan: Then call it a love letter
crisosto: My modest world
cynicalsteve: “These are the wanderings of the poet Wordsworth” and “The question is: why write in sonnet style?”
deadgod: Endorphins: A Gamble on Gambol
degrus: “A true gardener is a man”
dickensdesk: “Walking down this lane”
drewd1: “I love the year’s decline, and love to see”
elcalifornio: Virginia Dare
Flarf: together
freepoland: An Aged Man Waits for the Morning and Opus Dei
floribunda: “He would throw off his donkey jacket”
fourfoot: “You do not see clocks in shops anymore”
graceandreacci: Porthcurno and Invulnerable Children
HamishSweeney: “You’ll die before your time they said”
HenryLloydMoon: april showers in borrowdale and Saturn V
herdwicktup: After The Funeral Party
Iamnothere: Next time you view the white
Ishouldapologize: “Swear off nostalgia” and Approaching Belfast
Jantar: And on the roofs
JulianGough: Dromineer, December 2007
LaxativeFunction: “Was it me who left”
MeltonMowbray: the Is this the autumn of our love? trilogy and Union Street, Saturday night and Sunday morning.
MrStevenAugustine: the fine arts in berlin
motherofgod: Saint Davids
mvide: “I am ever disappointed in Bucharest.”
norwegianwood: Houses
obooki: “Our office is very wide.”
ofile: Sun Salutation
parallaxview: The Dashing Good Soldier
Parisa: Quiet as Snow in the City and “Dear ant”
Pinkerbell: Dreaming…