Week 61: The Thocht, by William Soutar

I think the meaning of the Scots words in this poem should be fairly obvious, but just in case: thocht = thought, jizzen-bed = childbed, deed = died, aye = always, owrecome = refrain, gin = if, hinny = honey, ghaist = ghost and I take ‘or’ in the second line of the third stanza to mean ‘before’.

The Thocht

Young Janie was a strappan lass
Wha deed in jizzen-bed;
And monie a thocht her lover thocht
Lang eftir she was dead:

But aye, wi a’ he brocht to mind
O’ misery and wrang,
There was a gledness gether’d in
Like the owrecome o’ a sang:

And, gin the deid are naethingness
Or they be minded on,
As hinny to a hungry ghaist
Maun be a thocht like yon.

William Soutar

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Week 60: Vernon (1920 – 1996), by Phoebe Hesketh

I find this short spare poem of loss and grief more moving than many less restrained elegies.

Vernon (1920 – 1996)

I talk to you
and listen…
Silence.

I run to meet you;
the distance exceeds miles.
A faraway church
rises from the trees
to spire the sky.

Impossible to live without you;
I will live on
in the great spaces
till the sun
burns down around us
in a ring of light.

Phoebe Hesketh

Week 59: Street Performers, 1881 by Terence Tiller

An evocative poem that takes me back to the urban, late Victorian childhood of my grandparents and the stories I was told, of lamplighters and muffin-men and sellers of hot chestnuts, and the hooves of horses clopping along the streets. Fantoccini are puppets operated by moving wires or mechanical means; Chinese shades seem to have been part of a galanty show, a play or pantomime produced by throwing shadows of puppets on to a wall; a ‘Chinese shades’ man is interviewed by Henry Mayhew in ‘London Labour and the London Poor’.

Street Performers, 1881

London is painted round them: burly railings
and grey rich inaccessible houses; squares –
laurelled and priveted, flowered, and fast in palings –
where the grave children move and are not theirs
and are more bright and distant than the sun
whose wan dry wine shines in the windows – squares
and heavy curtains, curtains and steps of stone:
these are their coloured cards, their theatres.

Hooked nose and hump, the Black Man, the police,
the hangman’s shadow by the prison wall,
the wandering misery in the courts of peace:
the mad voice like a wire will draw them all –
the puppets and the puppet-masters. Watch:
who is to tell, seeing no showman’s hands,
which are the audience, penny-foolish, which
the fantoccini and the Chinese shades?

Now (scarlet plush and gilt) the lights go on;
cold smoky curtains fold the stage away;
and all but shadows, penny plain, are gone.
Flare-cast from vehement oil, great blurs of grey
upon the gold and indigo, their dole
habit’s iniquity and ungiven bread,
they drift before the rainy street; they roll
on sad wheels rags to be inherited.

The salamander and the swordsman, and
the maypole-ribboned bear; from dark they pass
to dark, through blazing islands – as if stained
in mockery upon hot slips of glass; the fingers are withdrawn,
the puppets tumble, there are no more slides,
the paints are in their boxes: they have gone,
the fantoccini and the Chinese shades.

Terence Tiller

Week 58: Forefathers, by Edmund Blunden

A deep-rooted pastoral elegy that achieves a fusion of romantic and classical all its own: the poem clearly owes much to Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ but the diction has touches of a Keatsian richness, especially in the last stanza.

Forefathers

Here they went with smock and crook,
Toiled in the sun, lolled in the shade,
Here they mudded out the brook
And here their hatchet cleared the glade:
Harvest-supper woke their wit,
Huntsman’s moon their wooings lit.

From this church they led their brides,
From this church themselves were led
Shoulder-high; on these waysides
Sat to take their beer and bread.
Names are gone—what men they were
These their cottages declare.

Names are vanished, save the few
In the old brown Bible scrawled;
These were men of pith and thew
Whom the city never called;
Scarce could read or hold a quill,
Built the barn, the forge, the mill.

On the green they watched their sons
Playing till too dark to see,
As their fathers watched them once,
As my father once watched me;
While the bat and beetle flew
On the warm air webbed with dew.

Unrecorded, unrenowned,
Men from whom my ways begin,
Here I know you by your ground
But I know you not within—
There is silence, there survives
Not a moment of your lives.

Like the bee that now is blown
Honey-heavy on my hand,
From his toppling tansy-throne
In the green tempestuous land—
I’m in clover now, nor know
Who made honey long ago.

Edmund Blunden