Week 87: Good, by R.S.Thomas

Time for another of my favourite R.S.Thomas poems: here is a poet who no longer has to strain for any kind of ornamentation, achieving his effects by apparently plain statement coupled with a mastery of cadence.


The old man comes out on the hill
and looks down to recall earlier days
in the valley. He sees the stream shine,
the church stand, hears the litter of
children’s voices. A chill in the flesh
tells him that death is not far off
now: it is the shadow under the great boughs
of life. His garden has herbs growing.
The kestrel goes by with fresh prey
in its claws. The wind scatters the scent
of wild beans. The tractor operates
on the earth’s body. His grandson is there
ploughing; his young wife fetches him
cakes and tea and a dark smile. It is well.


Week 86: Threshing Morning, by Patrick Kavanagh

Another of my favourite Patrick Kavanagh poems, that combines his sensuous delight in the physical world with a vision of some secret, immortal country parallel to it that haunts the Irish mind.

May I just mention that a selection of sixty of my own poems is now available from the Amazon Kindle store; see News page for more details. 

Threshing Morning

On an apple-ripe September morning
Through the mist-chill fields I went
With a pitchfork on my shoulder
Less for use than for devilment.

The threshing mill was set-up, I knew,
In Cassidy’s haggard last night,
And we owed them a day at the threshing
Since last year. O it was delight

To be paying bills of laughter
And chaffy gossip in kind
With work thrown in to ballast
The fantasy-soaring mind.

As I crossed the wooden bridge I wondered
As I looked into the drain
If ever a summer morning should find me
Shovelling up eels again.

And I thought of the wasps’ nest in the bank
And how I got chased one day
Leaving the drag and the scraw-knife behind,
How I covered my face with hay.

The wet leaves of the cocksfoot
Polished my boots as I
Went round by the glistening bog-holes
Lost in unthinking joy.

I’ll be carrying bags today, I mused,
The best job at the mill
With plenty of time to talk of our loves
As we wait for the bags to fill…

Maybe Mary might call round…
And then I came to the haggard gate,
And I knew as I entered that I had come
Through fields that were part of no earthly estate.

Patrick Kavanagh

Week 85: In Morte Del Fratello Giovanni, by Ugo Foscolo

The Italian romantic poet Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827) spent the last eleven years of his life in a voluntary exile in England, where he was initially lionised but fell out of favour and died at Turnham Green after a spell in debtor’s prison. This poem clearly owes much to Catullus’s famous elegy ‘Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus’, but Foscolo adds a measure of Italian pathos to Roman gravity: Catullus, for example, makes no mention of his mother.

The translation that follows, which makes no attempt to imitate Foscolo’s rich rhyme scheme, is my own.

In Morte Del Fratello Giovanni

Un dí, s’io non andrò sempre fuggendo
Di gente in gente, me vedrai seduto
Su la tua pietra, o fratel mio, gemendo
Il fior de’ tuoi gentili anni caduto.

La madre or sol, suo dí tardo traendo,
Parla di me col tuo cenere muto,
Ma io deluse a voi le palme tendo;
E se da lunge i miei tetti saluto.

Sento gli avversi Numi, e le secrete
Cure che al viver tuo furon tempesta,
E prego anch’io nel tuo porto quïete.

Questo di tanta speme oggi mi resta!
Straniere genti, almen le ossa rendete
Allora al petto della madre mesta.

On The Death of His Brother Giovanni

One day, brother, when I’m done with this
Wandering from tribe to tribe, you’ll find me
Seated by your stone at last, lamenting
The fallen flower of your gentle years.

Our mother, left alone now, drawing out
Her late days, speaks of me to your mute ashes,
While I reach out vain hands to both of you
Greeting my homeland from afar, and yet

I feel the adverse Fates, the secret cares
That were a tempest to you while you lived,
And I would share with you your quiet haven.

That much of so much hope is left to me!
Strangers, when that day comes, give my bones
Back to the bosom of my grieving mother.

Week 84: Now I tell what I knew in Texas, by Walt Whitman

This extract from Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ is surely one of the great set pieces dealing with ‘war and the pity of war’. It seems to be a substantially accurate account of the massacre of Texians that was carried out by the Mexican army at Goliad in 1836, acting under the order of President Santa Anna, except that modern sources put the number killed at three hundred and three rather than four hundred and twelve. I think this is Whitman at his best, with none of that swaggering loquacity G.K.Chesterton affectionately parodies in his Whitmanesque verison of ‘Old King Cole’ (‘I salute your three violinists, endlessly making vibrations/Rigid, relentless, capable of going on forever….’)

Now I tell what I knew in Texas

Now I tell what I knew in Texas in my early youth,
(I tell not the fall of Alamo,
Not one escaped to tell the fall of Alamo,
The hundred and fifty are dumb yet at Alamo,)
‘Tis the tale of the murder in cold blood of four hundred and twelve young men.

Retreating they had form’d in a hollow square with their baggage for breastworks,
Nine hundred lives out of the surrounding enemy’s, nine times their number, was the price they took in advance,
Their colonel was wounded and their ammunition gone,
They treated for an honorable capitulation, receiv’d writing and seal, gave up their arms and march’d back prisoners of war.

They were the glory of the race of rangers,
Matchless with horse, rifle, song, supper, courtship,
Large, turbulent, generous, handsome, proud, and affectionate,
Bearded, sunburnt, drest in the free costume of hunters,
Not a single one over thirty years of age.

The second First-day morning they were brought out in squads and massacred, it was beautiful early summer,
The work commenced about five o’clock and was over by eight.

None obey’d the command to kneel,
Some made a mad and helpless rush, some stood stark and straight,
A few fell at once, shot in the temple or heart, the living and dead lay together,
The maim’d and mangled dug in the dirt, the new-comers saw them there,
Some half-kill’d attempted to crawl away,
These were despatch’d with bayonets or batter’d with the blunts of muskets,
A youth not seventeen years old seiz’d his assassin till two more came to release him,
The three were all torn and cover’d with the boy’s blood.

At eleven o’clock began the burning of the bodies;
That is the tale of the murder of the four hundred and twelve young men.

Walt Whitman