Week 74: In My Craft or Sullen Art, by Dylan Thomas

I have to confess that the poetry of Dylan Thomas is for the most part not to my taste, its art too artful, its verbal richness cloyingly contrived. But the case is not a simple one: here and there a genuinely inspired phrase will flash out, and in this wistful, tender lyric, for example, I think we see the poet he had it in him to be.

In My Craft or Sullen Art

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labor by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Dylan Thomas

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Week 73: Far in a western brookland, by A.E.Housman

At seventeen, away from home for the first time, I walked by a river at night reciting this poem to myself. I don’t know why lines of such profound desolation, such hiraeth, should have been a comfort to me, but they were. 

Far in a western brookland
That bred me long ago
The poplars stand and tremble
By pools I used to know.

There, in the windless night-time,
The wanderer, marvelling why,
Halts on the bridge to hearken
How soft the poplars sigh.

He hears: no more remembered
In fields where I was known,
Here I lie down in London
And turn to rest alone.

There, by the starlit fences,
The wanderer halts and hears
My soul that lingers sighing
About the glimmering weirs.

A.E.Housman

Week 72: Emer’s Lament for Cuchulain, translated by Lady Gregory

One of the more valued though probably not valuable items on my shelves is a rather battered copy of Lady Gregory’s retelling of the Irish Ulster cycle, ‘Cuchulain of Muirthemne’, that I picked up long ago in a second-hand bookshop. W.B.Yeats called this ‘the best book that has ever come out of Ireland’. This would be a little worrying if true: they are great stories, but the Celtic love of repetition, ornamentation and exaggeration can grow tiresome, and to pass from the wild flights of Irish legend to the sober chronicling of the great Icelandic sagas is to go from the childlike to the adult. Be that as it may, the cadences of Lady Gregory’s prose do have a hypnotic and often moving quality, as here in Emer’s lament over the dead Cuchulain, even if one may feel in the end that its rhetoric compares unfavourably with the terse words of Bergthora choosing to die with her husband in the burning house: ‘I was given young in marriage to Njal, and I made him my promise that we should share the same end’.

‘And oh! my love’, she said, ‘we were often in one another’s company, and it was happy for us; for if the world had been searched from the rising of the sun to sunset the like would never have been found in one place, of the Black Sainglain and the Grey of Macha, and Laeg the chariot-driver, and myself and Cuchulain’….. And after that Emer bade Conall to make a wide, very deep grave for Cuchulain; and she laid herself down beside her gentle comrade, and she put her mouth to his mouth and said: ‘Love of my life, my friend, my sweetheart, many is the woman, wed or unwed, envied me till today: and now I will not stay living after you’.

Week 71: Illness, by Molly Holden

I thought this one might make an interesting comparison with last week’s poem on the theme of illness by Heinrich Heine. A very different sensibility is at work here, one that takes its bearings from the natural rather than the social world, and that seems to me fully to justify that overworked epithet ‘exquisite’.

Illness

Poetic justice is imperfectly exemplified in me
who, as a child, as a girl, was persuaded that
I felt as earth feels, the furrows in my flesh,

buttercups curdling from my shoulder blades,
was what I saw. The rain would fall as pertinent on me
as on the lichens on the flint-embedded wall.

I had always a skin too few, identified
with sun-hot blossom on the far side of the road,
felt beneath my own warm envelope of flesh

the foreign winter that calcined the delicate
bones of the organ-grinder’s shuddering monkey.
A ploughed field poniarded my chest.

So now it seems a wry desert that youthful
ecstasies, my earthly husks of joy,
should be so turned about by this disease

that feels like mist upon my fingers, like
a cold wind for ever against my body, and
air and chill earth eternally about my bones.

Molly Holden

Week 70: ‘Der Scheidende’ and ‘Morphine’, by Heinrich Heine

The German poet Heinrich Heine fell ill in 1848, with what was eventually diagnosed as chronic lead poisoning, and spent the last eight years of his life confined to what he called his ‘mattress grave’ (Matratzengruft), from where he wrote a series of poems chronicling his situation with a lacerating blend of candour and irony. Here are two of them. The translations that follow are my own.

Der Scheidende

Erstorben ist in meiner Brust
Jedwede weltlich eitle Lust,
Schier is mir auch erstorben drin
Der Hass des Schlechten, sogar der Sinn
Für eigne wie für fremde Not –
Und in mir lebt noch nur der Tod!

Der Vorhang fällt, das Stück ist aus,
Und gahnend wandelt jetzt nach Haus
Mein liebes deutsches Publikum,
Die guten Leutechen sind nicht dumm;
Das speist jetzt ganz vergnügt zu Nacht,
Und trinkt sein Schõppchen, singt und lacht –
Er hatte rechte, der edle Heros,
Der weiland sprach im Buch Homeros’:
Der kleinste lebendige Philister
Zu Stukkert am Neckar, viel glücklicher ist er
Als ich, der Pelide, der tote Held,
Der Schattenfürst in der Unterwelt.

Departure

Now in my breast has died the fire
Of every earthly vain desire,
My hate for wrong has vanished clean,
Likewise as if it had not been
Care for my own and others’ ill.
Now only death lives in me still.

The curtain falls, the play is done,
And my dear German public’s gone
Yawning on their way back home.
Those little folk are not so dumb:
They’ll eat, drink, laugh and sing tonight,
And take full pleasure. He was right,
That noble hero, he who said
In Homer’s book, as I once read,
The meanest Philistine alive
In Stuttgart town may better thrive
Than I, Achilles, in this bed,
A prince of shades among the dead.

Morphine

Gross ist die Ähnlichkeit der beiden schönen
Jünglingsgestalten, ob der eine gleich
Viel blässer als der andre, auch viel strenger,
Fast möchte ich sagen viel vornehmer aussieht
Als jener andre, welcher mich vertraulich
In seine Arme schloss – Wie lieblich sanft
War dann sein Lächeln, und sein Blick wie selig!
Dann mocht es wohl geschehn, dass seines Hauptes
Mohnblumenkranz auch meine Stirn berührte
Und seltsam duftend allen Schmerz verscheuchte
Aus meiner Seel – Doch solche Linderung,
Sie dauert kurze Zeit; genesen ganzlich
Kann ich nur dann, wenn seine Fackel senkt
Der andre Bruder, der so ernst und bleich. –
Gut ist der Schlaf, der Tod ist besser – freilich
Das beste wäre, nie geboren sein.

How alike they are, two beautiful
Forms of young men, though at the same time one
Much paler than the other, more severe,
I might even say, much more distinguished-looking
Than this, the other, who took me in his arms
So trustingly. How soft his smile, how loving
That gaze of his. Almost one might say
That poppy-wreath he wears around his head
Touched my own temples too, and drove out pain
With that strange scent it brings. But such relief
Lasts little time: now I can be quite well
Only when the other dips his torch,
The older brother, serious and pale.
Sleep is good, death better, but indeed
The best of all, never to have been born.