Week 52: From ‘Remembrances’ by John Clare

In this great lament Clare mourns a countryside transfigured by the Enclosure Acts of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that enclosed much of what had previously been open fields or common land and removed the rights of local people to carry out their accustomed activities on these. Jay Griffiths in her book ‘Kith’, which has a fine section on Clare, blames the Enclosure Acts for beginning that exile from the natural world that she sees as the tragedy of modern childhood, but I am not so sure: in the nineteen-fifties my friends and I still roamed the countryside of small fields and hedgerows that the Acts had created, making no great distinction in our minds between private and public land except when it came to people’s gardens, and if we were the last generation to do so I think television, computers and parental paranoia are more immediate causes than an ancient legislation. But there is no arguing with Clare’s rush of passionate regret for what he had known, and if his verse can sometimes seem a little gauche it is the gaucheness of a transcendent integrity.

From ‘Remembrances’

O I never call to mind
These pleasant names of places but I leave a sigh behind
While I see the little mouldiwarps hang sweeing to the wind
On the only aged willow that in all the field remains
And nature hides her face where they’re sweeing in their chains
And in a silent murmuring complains

Here was commons for their hills where they seek for freedom still
Though every common’s gone and though traps are set to kill
The little homeless miners – O it turns my bosom chill
When I think of old Sneap Green, Puddocks Nook and Hilly Snow
Where bramble bushes grew and the daisy gemmed in dew
And the hills of silken grass like to cushions to the view
When we threw the pismire crumbs when we’d nothing else to do
All levelled like a desert by the never weary plough
All vanished like the sun where that cloud is passing now
All settled here for ever on its brow

I never thought that joys would run away from boys
Or that boys would change their minds and forsake such summer joys
But alack I never dreamed that the world had other toys
To petrify first feelings like the fable into stone
Till I found the pleasure past and a winter come at last
Then the fields were sudden bare and the sky got overcast
And boyhood’s pleasing haunt like a blossom in the blast
Was shrivelled to a withered weed and trampled down and done
Till vanished was the morning spring and set that summer sun
And winter fought her battle strife and won

By Langley Bush I roam but the bush hath left its hill
On Cowper Green I stray tis a desert strange and chill
And Spreading Lea, Close Oak ere decay had penned its will
To the axe of the spoiler and self interest fell a prey
And Crossberry Way and old Round Oak’s narrow lane
With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again
Enclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still
It runs a naked brook cold and chill.

John Clare

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Week 51: Stone, by D.M.Thomas

Stone

The first book of a poet should be called Stone
Or Evening, expressing in a single word
The modesty of being part of the earth,
The goodness of evening and stone, beyond the poet.

The second book should have a name blushing
With a great generality, such as My Sister Life,
Shocking in its pride, even more in its modesty:
Exasperated, warm, teasing, observant, tender.

Later books should withdraw into a mysterious
Privacy such as we all make for ourselves:
The White Stag or Plantain. Or include the name
Of the place at which his book falls open.

There is also the seventh book, perhaps, the seventh,
And called The Seventh Book because it is not published,
The one that a child thinks he could have written,
Made of the firmest stone and clearest leaves,

That a people keep alive by, keep alive.

D.M.Thomas

A fine tribute to the indomitable spirit of Russian poetry and the poets who kept faith with it during the Stalinist era while undergoing the kind of persecution that makes at least one English poet reflect that being of no interest whatsoever to the state or media may not be so bad after all…

 It is perhaps unnecessary to explain that ‘Stone’ was the title of Osip Mandelstam’s first collection, ‘Evening’ was the title of Anna Akhmatova’s first collection, ‘My Sister Life’ was the title of Boris Pasternak’s second collection, ‘Plantain’ and ‘Seventh Book’ were further collections by Akhmatova; the last named was never separately published.

Week 50: Dead Boy, by John Crowe Ransom

The American poet John Crowe Ransom wrote in a fastidious, ornate style that may sometimes seem to put too much distance between poem and reader but at its best produces work that combines great formal elegance with a uniquely bittersweet, elegiac flavour. I was torn between this one, ‘Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter’ and ‘Vision By Sweetwater’. But we can always come back…

Dead Boy

The little cousin is dead, by foul subtraction,
A green bough from Virginia’s aged tree,
And none of the county kin like the transaction,
Nor some of the world of outer dark, like me.

A boy not beautiful, nor good, nor clever,
A black cloud full of storms too hot for keeping,
A sword beneath his mother’s heart — yet never
Woman bewept her babe as this is weeping.

A pig with a pasty face, so I had said,
Squealing for cookies, kinned by poor pretense
With a noble house. But the little man quite dead,
I see the forbears’ antique lineaments.

The elder men have strode by the box of death
To the wide flag porch, and muttering low send round
The bruit of the day. O friendly waste of breath!
Their hearts are hurt with a deep dynastic wound.

He was pale and little, the foolish neighbors say;
The first-fruits, saith the Preacher, the Lord hath taken;
But this was the old tree’s late branch wrenched away,
Grieving the sapless limbs, the shorn and shaken.

 John Crowe Ransom

Week 49: The Folly Of Being Comforted, by W.B.Yeats

As a young man I was a bit disconcerted on meeting Robert Graves to discover that he had no regard at all for W.B.Yeats, either as man or poet. Given my admirations at the time, it was a bit like getting to heaven and finding that Michael couldn’t stand Gabriel. I can see now that Yeats might be a poet from whom one withholds some degree of trust, but I find it impossible to withhold admiration, especially for what seem to be truly heartfelt lyrics like the following…

The Folly Of Being Comforted

One that is ever kind said yesterday:
‘Your well-belovèd’s hair has threads of grey,
And little shadows come about her eyes;
Time can but make it easier to be wise
Though now it seems impossible, and so
All that you need is patience.’
Heart cries, ‘No,
I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.
Time can but make her beauty over again:
Because of that great nobleness of hers
The fire that stirs about her, when she stirs,
Burns but more clearly. O she had not these ways
When all the wild Summer was in her gaze.’

O heart! O heart! if she’d but turn her head,
You’d know the folly of being comforted.

W.B.Yeats