The Bright Field
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
One does not have to share R.S.Thomas’s sometimes slightly enigmatic theological preoccupations to find the best of his poems intensely moving in their grave reflectiveness. This one for me says so much about choice and sacrifice, and how difficult it can be for priest, poet or indeed anyone to live undistracted in the vision of the moment.
Never be disenchanted of
That place you sometimes dream yourself into,
Lying at large remove beyond all dream,
Or those you find there, though but seldom
In their company seated –
The untameable, the live, the gentle.
Have you not known them? Whom? They carry
Time looped so river-wise about their house
There’s no way in by history’s road
To name or number them.
In your sleepy eyes I read the journey
Of which disjointedly you tell; which stirs
My loving admiration, that you should travel
Through nightmare to a lost and moated land
Who are timorous by nature.
Back in nineteen sixty-nine I met Robert Graves in London, and we were leafing through his newly published ‘Poems About Love’ together. I remember lighting on ‘Through Nightmare’, long a favourite of mine for the haunting otherworldly quality of that second stanza, and saying, with the cheerful patronage of the young, ‘This is very good, you know’. He smiled a pleased but slightly ironic smile; coming to think of it, he probably did know…
Charles Harpur in his journals long ago
(written in hope and love, and never printed)
recorded the birds of his time’s forest –
birds long vanished with the fallen forest –
described in copperplate on unread pages.
The scarlet satin-bird, swung like a lamp in berries,
he watched in love, and then in hope described it.
There was bird blue, small, spangled like dew.
All now are vanished with the fallen forest.
And he, unloved, past hope, was buried.
who helped with proud stained hands to fell the forest,
and set those birds in love on unread pages;
yet thought himself immortal, being a poet.
And is he not immortal, where I found him,
in love and hope along his careful pages? –
the poet vanished, in the vanished forest,
among his brightly tincted extinct birds?
We all write in hope and love, and while the immortality or otherwise of a poet may be thought a small thing to set against the deaths of whole species, the Australian poet Judith Wright manages here to balance and commemorate both most beautifully.
Posts will be weekly now I’ve got things off the ground.
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here’;
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.
I can’t claim to have any notion of divine love myself, but there is something about this poem that transcends and disarms mere unbelief; I think it is one of the great poems of the language.
When Summer’s End Is Nighing
When summer’s end is nighing
And skies at evening cloud,
I muse on change and fortune
And all the feats I vowed
When I was young and proud.
The weathercock at sunset
Would lose the slanted ray,
And I would climb the beacon
That looked to Wales away
And saw the last of day.
From hill and cloud and heaven
The hues of evening died;
Night welled through lane and hollow
And hushed the countryside,
But I had youth and pride.
And I with earth and nightfall
In converse high would stand,
Late, till the west was ashen
And darkness hard at hand,
And the eye lost the land.
The year might age, and cloudy
The lessening day might close,
But air of other summers
Breathed from beyond the snows,
And I had hope of those.
They came and were and are not
And come no more anew;
And all the years and seasons
That ever can ensue
Must now be worse and few.
So here’s an end of roaming
On eves when autumn nighs:
The ear too fondly listens
For summer’s parting sighs,
And then the heart replies.
In my youth I had an equal passion for poetry and running, and this poem by Housman (one of the first poets I ever loved, and one I still love) has come to have a particular poignancy for me, the time having long gone when each new ‘season’ could be looked forward to with expectations of new personal bests on road or track. I doubt if Housman ever intended such a literal interpretation, but it is in the nature of poetry that poets cannot always foresee the resonances their words may take on for others.
Now You Have To Push
Lumpish roots of earth cunning
So wrinkle-scarred, such tomes
Of what has been collecting centuries
At the bottom of so many lanes
Where roofs huddle smoking, and cattle
Trample the ripeness.
Now you have to push your face
So tool-worn, so land-weathered,
This patch of ancient, familiar locale,
Your careful little moustache,
Your gangly long broad Masai figure
Which you decked so dapperly to dances,
Your hawser and lever strength
Which you used, so recklessly,
Like a tractor, guaranteed unbreakable,
Now you have to push it all –
Just as you loved to push the piled live hedge-boughs –
Into a gathering blaze
And as you loved to linger late into the twilight,
Coaxing the last knuckle embers,
Now you have to stay
Right on, into total darkness.
I see Ted Hughes’s oeuvre as a sort of marvellous midden; some of it lies beyond the range of my sympathy, or perhaps I should say comprehension, but every so often you come across a poem like this heartfelt elegy for his father-in-law Jack Orchard that simply stuns you with its power.
Since we agreed to let the road between us
Fall to disuse,
And bricked our gates up, planted trees to screen us,
And turned all time’s eroding agents loose,
Silence, and space, and strangers – our neglect
Has not had much effect.
Leaves drift unswept, perhaps; grass creeps unmown;
No other change.
So clear it stands, so little overgrown,
Walking that way tonight would not seem strange,
And still would be allowed. A little longer,
And time would be the stronger,
Drafting a world where no such road will run
From you to me;
To watch that world come up like a cold sun,
Rewarding others, is my liberty,
Not to prevent it is my will’s fulfilment,
Willing it, my ailment.
This was the first Philip Larkin poem I ever read, and I was immediately taken by its elegiac, autumnal quality and the beautiful balance of the closing lines. More than that, the poem was like a kind of homecoming: the modernists much in vogue in my youth had done some interesting things but I felt something had got lost along the way, some connection with the ordinary intelligent free-spirited reader, and it seemed to me that here was someone capable of restoring that connection.
Molly Holden is one of my favourite poets of recent times. She suffered for many years from multiple sclerosis, and blends a sharp loving observation of the natural world with a kind of wry valour that perhaps finds its finest expression in this poem of wistful acceptance.
After The Requested Cremation
A steady north-north-west wind preferably
though an east wind would do as second best
and so my bones’ smoke and innocent ashes
would carry into Wessex or the west.
I’d like my dust to be deposited
in the dry ditches, among the fine grass of home,
on hills I’ve walked, in furrows I’ve watched making
in Wiltshire’s chalk-bright loam.
If not that then Wolverhampton’s chimneys
might send me Severnward: that would do instead.
Those rose-red farms, those orchards, have been precious.
I’d like to fertilize them when I’m dead.
Make no mistake, though, it’ll not come to choosing.
There’ll be a west wind in the week I go.
Or else my southern dust will fall on hated highways
and be for ever swirling to and fro.
Well, as I’ll never know, it doesn’t matter.
I’m not, in truth, romantic about death.
Only I’d like the right wind to be blowing
that takes the place of breath.
Over the Hills
Often and often it came back again
To mind, the day I passed the horizon ridge
To a new country, the path I had to find
By half-gaps that were stiles once in the hedge,
The pack of scarlet clouds running across
The harvest evening that seemed endless then
And after, and the inn where all were kind,
All were strangers. I did not know my loss
Till one day twelve months later suddenly
I leaned upon my spade and saw it all,
Though far beyond the sky-line. It became
Almost a habit through the year for me
To lean and see it and think to do the same
Again for two days and a night. Recall
Was vain: no more could the restless brook
Ever turn back and climb the waterfall
To the lake that rests and stirs not in its nook,
As in the hollow of the collar-bone
Under the mountain’s head of rush and stone.
This seems to be one of Edward Thomas’s less anthologised poems, but is one of my personal favourites. I love the harvest evening with its pack of scarlet clouds, and that wonderful image in the closing lines, even though I would be hard put to explain the exact depth of its resonance.