Week 83: The Fired Pot, by Anna Wickham

Marital fidelity, while admirable in real life, does not seem to get much of a write-up in art, and I suppose it has to be admitted that the Western canon would not be quite the same if Helen had been less accommodating to Paris, if Lancelot had been content to worship Guinevere from afar, if Paolo and Francesca had stuck to reading the book, and if Anna Karenina had told Vronsky to get lost. Still, moral restraint has at least given us ‘Brief Encounter’, and also this wry poem by Anna Wickham (1884-1947).

The Fired Pot

In our town, people live in rows.
The only irregular thing in a street is the steeple;
And where that points to, God only knows,
And not the poor disciplined people!

And I have watched the women growing old,
Passionate about pins, and pence, and soap,
Till the heart within my wedded breast grew cold,
And I lost hope.

But a young soldier came to our town,
He spoke his mind most candidly.
He asked me quickly to lie down,
And that was very good for me.

For though I gave him no embrace —
Remembering my duty —
He altered the expression of my face,
And gave me back my beauty.

Anna Wickham

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Week 82: The Soul selects, by Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson, as this poem testifies, was a proud spirit in a humble situation. Nothing new in that, of course: there’s many a maker who has passed unnoticed during life, or received no more than a few crumbs of recognition from those who cut the literary cake. Those who do not belong must create their own belonging – in a way that’s much of what being a poet is about – and this Emily most powerfully did. I admire this poem’s uncompromising rejection of populism, its insistence on the essential privacy of the poetic act and the incorruptibility of its individual truth. Of course, to trust the soul’s selection while keeping the valves of one’s attention not entirely petrified would be an even better trick.

Am I alone, though, in finding Emily’s eccentric punctuation – the proliferation of dashes, the arbitrary capitalisations – something of an irritation? But I suppose one has to respect the right of a poet to create a poem’s shape on the page, even though in the end what matters is a poem’s shape in the mind, so I have preserved her own typography.

The Soul selects

The Soul selects her own Society–
Then–shuts the Door–
To her divine Majority–
Present no more–

Unmoved–she notes the Chariots–pausing–
At her low Gate–
Unmoved–an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her mat–

I’ve known her–from an ample nation–
Choose One–
Then–close the Valves of her attention–
Like Stone– 

Emily Dickinson

Week 81: The Broken Girth, by Robert Graves

My birthday this week, and to adapt Housman slightly, now of my threescore years and ten, seventy will not come again. I’ve done the math and it doesn’t look good, nor am I entirely convinced by reassurances that seventy is the new twenty. So I thought I’d mark the occasion with one of my favourite poems by Robert Graves, which begins to take on a very personal note.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with the legend, Oisin was the son of the Irish hero Finn mac Cumhaill, leader of the Fianna. He was lured away to Tír na nÓg, the Land of the Young, by the beautiful Niamh, daughter of its king, but eventually wanted to see his own land and people again: he was given leave to do this, but warned he must on no account get down from his horse. But time passes differently in that country, and he returned to find a diminished Ireland and all the Fianna long dead.

The Broken Girth

Bravely fom Fairyland he rode, on furlough,
Astride a tall bay given him by the Queen
From whose couch he had leaped not a half-hour since,
Whose lilies-of-the-valley shone from his helm.

But alas, as he paused to assist five Ulstermen
Sweating to raise a recumbent Ogham pillar,
Breach of a saddle-girth tumbled Oisin
To common Irish earth. And at once, it is said,
Old age came on him with grief and frailty.

St Patrick asked: would he not confess the Christ? –
Which for that Lady’s sake he loathed to do,
But northward loyally turned his eyes in death.
It was Fenians bore the unshriven corpse away
For burial, keening.

Curse me all squint-eyed monks
Who misconstrue the passing of Finn’s son:
Old age, not Fairyland, was his delusion.

Robert Graves

Week 80: Rain – Birdoswald, by Frances Horovitz

Frances Horovitz died young, and left us poems crafted with a painterly precision and full of a bittersweet ache of mortality. This is one of my favourites. Birdoswald is a fort on Hadrian’s Wall.

Rain – Birdoswald

I stand under a leafless tree
more still, in this mouse-pattering
thrum of rain,
than cattle shifting in the field.
It is more dark than light.
A Chinese painter’s brush of deepening grey
moves in a subtle tide.

The beasts are darker islands now.
Wet-stained and silvered by the rain
they suffer night,
marooned as still as stone or tree.
We sense each other’s quiet.

Almost, death could come
inevitable, unstrange
as is this dusk and rain,
and I should be no more
myself, than raindrops
glimmering in last light
on black ash buds

or night beasts in a winter field.

Frances Horovitz

Week 79: From ‘Troilus and Cressida’, by William Shakespeare

I believe that others before me may have noted that a certain gentleman from Stratford was a pretty good poet, so I hardly need to add my own halfpennyworth except to comment on how, even in the lesser known plays, that infinitely flexible speaking voice of his can take on a quality of haunting immediacy. I love how Cressida’s magnificently over-the-top protestations are undercut by the proleptic irony of her faithlessness to be: was anyone ever better at doing the grand rhetorical style while at the same time subtly undermining it?

Cressida: If I be false, or swerve a hair from truth,
When time is old and hath forgot itself,
When waterdrops have worn the stones of Troy,
And blind oblivion swallow’d cities up,
And mighty states characterless are grated
To dusty nothing – yet let memory
From false to false, among false maids in love,
Upbraid my falsehood: when th’ have said ‘As false
As air, as water, wind, or sandy earth,
As fox to lamb, or wolf to heifer’s calf,
Pard to the hind, or stepdame to her son’
– Yea, let them say, to stick the heart of falsehood,
‘As false as Cressid.’