Week 57: The Dream About Our Master, William Shakespeare, by Hyam Plutzik

Dream poems don’t normally do much for me, but I find this one by the American poet Hyam Plutzik (1911-1962) quite haunting, perhaps the more so for its tropes that seem familiar and yet, just as in a dream, I feel I never quite grasp: I suppose the gate referred to may be the gate of horn through which true dreams come, as opposed to the gate of ivory, but what is the hound of air, what are the ropes of shade?

The Dream About Our Master, William Shakespeare

This midnight dream whispered to me:
Be swift as a runner, take the lane
Into the green mystery
Beyond the farm and haystack at Stone.
You leave tomorrow, not to return.

Hands that were fastened in a vise,
A useless body, rooted feet,
While time like a bell thundered the loss,
Witnessed the closing of the gate.
Thus sleep and waking both betrayed.

I had one glimpse: In a close of shadow
There rose the form of a manor-house,
And in a corner a curtained window.
All was lost in a well of trees,
Yet I knew for certain this was the place.

If the hound of air, the ropes of shade,
And the gate between that is no gate,
Had not so held me and delayed
These cowardly limbs of bone and blood,
I would have met him as he lived.

Hyam Plutzik

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Week 56: Clara d’Ellébeuse, by Francis Jammes

I love this poem’s wistful sensuality coupled with its autumnal regret for long gone summers. I have never quite figured out, though, why a shipwreck off Newfoundland makes an appearance in the fourth verse: is this just offered as a random memory of the period or does it have some deeper significance for the poem as a whole that eludes me?

There are many translations of this poem into English, but I don’t find any of them satisfactory, so append an unsatisfactory one of my own.

Clara d’Ellébeuse

J’aime dans le temps Clara d’Ellébeuse,
l’ecolière des anciens pensionnats,
qui allait, les soirs chauds, sous les tilleuls
lire les magazines d’autrefois.

Je n’aime qu’elle, et je sens sur mon coeur
la lumière bleue de sa gorge blanche.
Où est-elle? Où etait donc ce bonheur?
Dans sa chambre claire il entrait des branches.

Elle n’est peut-être pas encore morte
– ou peut-être que nous l’étions tous deux.
La grande cour avait des feuilles mortes
dans le vent froid des fins d’Etés tres vieux.

Te souviens-tu de ces plumes de paon,
dans un grand vase, auprès de coquillages?
On apprenait qu’on avait fait naufrage,
on appelait Terre-Neuve: le Banc.

Viens, viens, ma chère Clara d’Ellébeuse:
aimons-nous encore si tu existes.
Le vieux jardin a de vieilles tulipes.
Viens toute nue, ô Clara d’Ellébeuse.

Francis Jammes

I loved long ago Clara d’Ellébeuse,
The pupil of old boarding-schools, who came
To sit beneath the lime trees on warm evenings
Reading the magazines of other days.

I love her still, and only her. I feel
The blue light of her white throat on my heart.
Where is she now? Where was that happiness?
Branches would come into her bright room.

Perhaps she is not yet dead, or perhaps we both were.
Dead leaves used to blow about the great courtyard
In the cold wind at the end of long-lost summers.

Do you remember the peacock feathers in the vase
Next to the shells… we heard there had been a shipwreck.
They spoke of Newfoundland: The Banks.

Come to me now, Clara d’Ellébeuse.
Let us love each other still, if you still live.
Old tulips may yet bloom in the old garden.
Come quite naked, Clara d’Ellébeuse.

Week 55: Aspens, by Edward Thomas

I have been reading Matthew Hollis’s fine account of Edward Thomas’s last four years, ‘Now All Roads Lead To France’, and this seems a good time to feature another piece by the man who is perhaps not the greatest of twentieth-century English poets, but is certainly now among the most loved. Which might have surprised him: the biography paints a picture of a difficult, overburdened man whose capacity to inspire love was sometimes greater than his capacity to return it. I think that what we respond to is the core of absolute integrity in his life and work, that finally found its expression in poems like this that combine hauntingly precise observation of the natural world with wry self-analysis.


All day and all night, save winter, every weather,
Above the inn, the smithy, and the shop,
The aspens at the cross-roads talk together
Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top.

Out of the blacksmith’s cavern comes the ringing
Of hammer, shoe, and anvil; out of the inn
The clink, the hum, the roar, the random singing –
The sounds that for these fifty years have been.

The whisper of the aspens is not drowned,
And over lightless pane and footless road,
Empty as sky, with every other sound
Not ceasing, calls their ghosts from their abode,

A silent smithy, a silent inn, nor fails
In the bare moonlight or the thick-furred gloom,
In tempest or the night of nightingales,
To turn the cross-roads to a ghostly room.

And it would be the same were no house near.
Over all sorts of weather, men, and times,
Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear
But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.

Whatever wind blows while they and I have leaves
We cannot other than an aspen be
That ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves,
Or so men think who like a different tree.

Edward Thomas

Week 54: From ‘Guðrúnarkviða’

Old Norse skaldic poetry, with its convoluted syntax and formulaic use of ‘kennings’, is likely to seem too contrived to appeal much nowadays, but the far more straightforward eddic poetry is another matter, and with due concession to the sensibilities of a more heroic age the modern reader can feel quite at home in it. Here is a section from the Guðrúnarkviða, the lament of Gudrun for her dead husband, the dragon-slaying Sigurd, after his death at the hands of Gjuki’s sons. I love the way the rhetoric shifts suddenly at the end into the simple pathos of a woman missing her ‘málvinr’, literally her ‘talk-friend’. I append my own translation, but even if you may not know the language try to hear the alliterative beat of the original. 

By the way, Tolkien enthusiasts will rejoice to meet here the original of the Arkenstone, that lies on the breast of Thorin under Lonely Mountain. 

Svá var minn Sigurðr hjá sonum Gjúka
sem væri geirlaukr ór grasi vaxinn,
eða hjörtr hábeinn um hvössum dyrum,
eða gull glód-rautt af grá silfri,
eða væri bjartr steinn á band dreginn,
jarknasteinn yfir öðlingum.
Ek þótta ok þjóðans rekkum
hverri hæri Herjans dísi;
nú em ek svá lítil sem lauf séi
oft í jölstrum at jöfur dauðan.
Sakna ek i sessa ok i saeingu
Mins málvinar… 

My Sigurd stood above the sons of Gjuki
As the tall spear-leek stands above the grass
Or the long-legged hart above the lesser beasts
Or the red gold above grey silver
Or as if he were the bright stone on a bracelet,
The arkenstone, precious among princes.
And I myself seemed to the leader of men
A maid of Odin’s hosts, higher than any.
Now I am nothing, like a leafless tree
Laid low by my king’s death, at board and bed
Missing my good gossip…

Week 53: The Wilderness, by Kathleen Raine

Here Kathleen Raine captures as well as in any poem I know that sense of the lost numinous that haunts so many twentieth-century poets: I think, for example, of Edwin Muir whose childhood in Orkney infused him with a lifelong sense of a departed Eden. Kathleen Raine herself grew up in Northumberland; I know this area only as an occasional visitor but it has always seemed to me a strange magical county, and though not much given to romantic fancy I find it easy to understand how the beautiful deserted hills and valleys of the Cheviots can work powerfully on the imagination.

The Wilderness

I came too late to the hills: they were swept bare
Winters before I was born of song and story,
Of spell or speech with power of oracle or invocation,

The great ash long dead by a roofless house, its branches rotten,
The voice of the crows an inarticulate cry,
And from the wells and springs the holy water ebbed away.

A child I ran in the wind on a withered moor
Crying out after those great presences who were not there,
Long lost in the forgetfulness of the forgotten.

Only the archaic forms themselves could tell!
In sacred speech of hoodie on gray stone, or hawk in air,
Of Eden where the lonely rowan bends over the dark pool.

Yet I have glimpsed the bright mountain behind the mountain,
Knowledge under the leaves, tasted the bitter berries red,
Drunk water cold and clear from an inexhaustible hidden fountain.

Kathleen Raine