The noble horse with courage in his eye,
clean in the bone, looks up at a shellburst:
away fly the images of the shires
but he puts the pipe back in his mouth.
Peter was unfortunately killed by an 88:
it took his leg away, he died in the ambulance.
I saw him crawling on the sand, he said
it’s most unfair, they’ve shot my foot off.
How can I live among this gentle
Obsolescent breed of heroes and not weep?
for they are falling into two legends
in which their stupidity and chivalry
are celebrated. Each, fool and hero, will be an immortal.
The plains were their cricket pitch
and in the mountains the tremendous drop fences
brought down some of the runners. Here then
under the stones and earth they dispose themselves.
I think with their famous unconcern.
It is not gunfire I hear but a hunting horn.
In this poem Keith Douglas, who was killed in action in the Second World War, manages to combine the perception of the modern intellectual that the martial virtues are outmoded and even faintly ridiculous with an acknowledgment that they remain nonetheless heroic: the result is a beautifully balanced elegy for the men he fought beside.
A Church Romance
(Mellstock: circa 1835)
She turned in the high pew, until her sight
Swept the west gallery, and caught its row
Of music-men with viol, book and bow
Against the sinking sad tower-window light.
She turned again; and in her pride’s despite
One strenuous viol’s inspirer seemed to throw
A message from his string to her below,
Which said: ‘I claim thee as my own forthright!’
Thus their hearts’ bond began, in due time signed.
And long years thence, when Age had scared Romance,
At some old attitude of his or glance
That gallery-scene would break upon her mind,
With him as minstrel, ardent, young, and trim,
Bowing ‘New Sabbath’ or ‘Mount Ephraim’.
You can see why Philip Larkin admired Hardy so much: could there be a more perfect example than this poem of those ‘long perspectives’ that Larkin speaks of in ‘Reference Back’, that ‘link us to our losses’. Yet somehow ‘A Church Romance’ for all its regret for time past seems more committed to the possibility of real human love than Larkin’s own cautious almost-true almost-instinct: this bond was signed, and endured.
A Youth Mowing
There are four men mowing down by the Isar;
I can hear the swish of the scythe-strokes, four
Sharp breaths taken: yea, and I
Am sorry for what’s in store.
The first man out of the four that’s mowing
Is mine, I claim him once and for all;
Though it’s sorry I am, on his young feet, knowing
None of the trouble he’s led to stall.
As he sees me bringing the dinner he lifts
His head as proud as a deer that looks
Shoulder-deep out of the corn; and wipes
His scythe-blade bright, unhooks
The scythe-stone and over the stubble to me.
Lad, thou hast gotten a child in me,
Laddie, a man thou’lt ha’e to be,
Yea, though I’m sorry for thee.
Not one of Lawrence’s more anthologised poems, but I love how its spare ballad-like quality combines with the lyricism of the third stanza to give a wryly beautiful take on the male-female dynamic.
They laughed at one I loved –
The triangular hill that hung
Under the Big Forth. They said
That I was bounded by the whitethorn hedges
Of the little farm and did not know the world.
But I knew that love’s doorway to life
Is the same doorway everywhere.
Ashamed of what I loved
I flung her from me and called her a ditch
Although she was smiling at me with violets.
But now I am back in her arms
The dew of an Indian summer morning lies
On bleached potato-stalks –
What age am I?
I do not know what age I am,
I am no mortal age;
I know nothing of women,
Nothing of cities,
I cannot die
Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges.
I know of no poet who can combine the visionary with the concrete, even the mundane, to the extent of the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. He even managed to make a wonderful poem about the ward of a chest hospital. Here it is the factuality of those potato-stalks that balances the more obvious lyricism of violets and dew, and gives expression to the poet’s credo that ‘nothing whatever is by love debarred’.