Week 35: The Thespians at Thermopylae, by Norman Cameron

The Thespians at Thermopylae

The honours that the people give always
Pass to those use-besotted gentlemen
Whose numskull courage is a kind of fear,
A fear of thought and of the oafish mothers
(‘Or with your shield or on it’) in their rear.
Spartans cannot retreat. Why, then, their praise
For going forward should be less than others.

But we, actors and critics of one play,
Of sober-witted judgment, who could see
So many roads, and chose the Spartan way,
What has the popular report to say
Of us, the Thespians at Thermopylae?

Norman Cameron

A poem finely balanced on a knife-edge of irony. The answer to the question in the last two lines seems to be ‘Not a lot!’, so I take Cameron’s meaning to be that a rational man should view the martial virtues with deep distrust; that sometimes, nonetheless, one must suspend one’s own judgment in a greater cause and follow the Spartan path, as Cameron did by serving in World War II; and that one should expect in return little recognition for this sacrifice of principle and life. The poem makes an interesting comparison with Keith Douglas’s ‘Aristocrats’, that great elegy for a ‘gentle/Obsolescent breed of heroes’.

Week 34: Sandpiper, by Elizabeth Bishop


The roaring alongside he takes for granted
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them,
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
Minute and vast and clear. The tide
Is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focused; he is preoccupied,

Looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray,
Mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

Elizabeth Bishop

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke speaks of ‘that blissful precision at the core of art’, and there is certainly a blissful precision at the core of Elizabeth Bishop’s art: having watched sandpipers on a beach behave in exactly the fashion described I can vouch for the exquisite detail underpinning the metaphysics here.

Week 33: Rising Damp, by U.A.Fanthorpe

Rising Damp

At our feet they lie low,
The little fervent underground
Rivers of London

Effra, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy,
Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn, Fleet

Whose names are disfigured,
Frayed, effaced.

These are the Magogs that chewed the clay
To the basin that London nestles in.
These are the currents that chiselled the city,
That washed the clothes and turned the mills,
Where children drank and salmon swam
And wells were holy.

They have gone under.
Boxed, like the magician’s assistant.
Buried alive in earth.
Forgotten, like the dead.

They return spectrally after heavy rain,
Confounding suburban gardens. They infiltrate
Chronic bronchitis statistics. A silken
Slur haunts dwellings by shrouded
Watercourses, and is taken
For the footing of the dead.

Being of our world, they will return
(Westbourne, caged at Sloane Square,
Will jack from his box),
Will deluge cellars, detonate manholes,
Plant effluent on our faces,
Sink the city.

Effra, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy,
Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn, Fleet

It is the other rivers that lie
Lower, that touch us only in dreams
That never surface. We feel their tug
As a dowser’s rod bends to the source below

Phlegethon, Acheron, Lethe, Styx.

U.A. Fanthorpe

Ursula Fanthorpe once said that using rhyme and strict form in poetry was like writing in corsets, to which I say fine, so long as the lack of corsets doesn’t result in flab everywhere. Well, no flab on this one: a brilliant idea for a poem brilliantly executed.

Week 32: Birkett’s Eagle, by Dorothy S. Howard

Birkett’s Eagle

Adam Birkett took his gun
And climbed from Wasdale Head;
He swore he could spare no more lambs
To keep an eagle fed.

So Birkett went along the Trod
That climbs by Gavel Neese
Till on his right stood Gavel Crag
And leftward fell the screes.

The mist whirled up from Ennerdale
And Gavel Crag grew dim,
And from the rocks on Birkett’s right
The eagle spoke to him.

‘What ails you, Adam Birkett,
That you have climbed so far
To make an end of Lucifer
That was the Morning Star?

If there’s a heaven, Birkett,
There’s certainly a hell;
And he who would kill Lucifer
Destroys himself as well.’

The mist whirled off from Gavel Crag,
And swept towards Beck Head,
And Adam Birkett took his aim
And shot the eagle dead.

He looked down into Ennerdale
To where its body fell
And at his back stood Gavel Crag,
And at his feet lay Hell.

Birkett scrambled off the rocks,
And back onto the Trod,
And on his right lay Ennerdale,
And on his left stood God.

‘What was it, Adam Birkett,
That fell onto the scree?
For I feared it might be Lucifer
That once was dear to me.

‘And from Carlisle to Ravenglass,
From Shap to St Bees Head,
There’s nobody worth vanquishing
If Lucifer is dead.’

Birkett’s dogs leapt all about
As he came off the fell,
But he said ‘I have killed Lucifer
And I am dead as well.’

But Lucifer the Morning Star
Walked thoughtfully away
From the screes beyond the Gavel
Where the eagle’s body lay.

And as he went by Black Sail Pass
And round below Kirk Fell,
He looked like young Tom Ritson
Who knew the Birketts well.

And he came down to Wasdale Head,
Young Ritson to the life,
With an apple in his pocket
Which he gave to Birkett’s wife.

Dorothy S. Howard

I have been quite unable to find out anything about Dorothy S. Howard nor whether she wrote anything else, but if this enigmatic ballad is a one-off it strikes me as remarkably accomplished. The place-names belong to the English Lake District.

Week 31: Woak Hill, by William Barnes

Woak Hill

When sycamore leaves wer a-spreadèn
    Green-ruddy, in hedges,
Bezide the red doust o’ the ridges,
    A-dried at Woak Hill;

I packed up my goods all a-sheenèn
    Wi’ long years o’ handlèn,
On dousty red wheels ov a waggon,
    To ride at Woak Hill.

The brown thatchen ruf o’ the dwellèn,
    I then wer a-leävèn,
Had shelter’d the sleek head o’ Meäry,
    My bride at Woak Hill.

But now vor zome years, her light voot-vall
    ‘S a-lost vrom the vloorèn.
Too soon vor my jäy an’ my childern,
    She died at Woak Hill.

But still I do think that, in soul,
    She do hover about us;
To ho vor her motherless childern,
    Her pride at Woak Hill.

Zoo–lest she should tell me hereafter
    I stole off ‘ithout her,
An’ left her, uncall’d at house-riddèn,
    To bide at Woak Hill–

I call’d her so fondly, wi’ lippèns
    All soundless to others,
An’ took her wi’ aïr-reachèn hand,
    To my zide at Woak Hill.

On the road I did look round, a-talkèn
    To light at my shoulder,
An’ then led her in at the door-way,
    Miles wide vrom Woak Hill.

An’ that’s why vo’k thought, vor a season,
    My mind wer a-wandrèn
Wi’ sorrow, when I wer so sorely
    A-tried at Woak Hill.

But no; that my Meäry mid never
    Behold herzelf slighted,
I wanted to think that I guided
    My guide vrom Woak Hill.

William Barnes

The beloved wife of the Dorset poet William Barnes died in early middle age, leaving him with several young children. The Dorset dialect may make it look odd at first, but I think that in its aching purity of loss this poem along with his ‘The Wife A-lost’ are two of the great poems of grief in our language.