Week 96: Hearing your words, and not a word among them, by Edna St Vincent Millay

The work of the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950) is on the whole a bit too unabashedly romantic for my taste, but I do much admire this sonnet, which combines her usual sensuousness with a solidity not always present in her work. I would like to know more about the context of the poem – it’s clear that she is pretty cross with someone but whom, when and why I have never been able to establish – anyone know? Not that the whom, when and why really matter.

Hearing your Words

Hearing your words and not a word among them
Tuned to my liking, on a salty day
When inland woods were pushed by winds that flung them
Hissing to leeward like a ton of spray,
I thought how off Matinicus the tide
Came pounding in, came running through the Gut,
While from the Rock the warning whistle cried,
And children whimpered, and the doors blew shut;
There in the autumn when the men go forth,
With slapping skirts the island women stand
In gardens stripped and scattered, peering north,
With dahlia tubers dripping from the hand:
The wind of their endurance, driving south,
Flattened your words against your speaking mouth.

Edna St Vincent Millay

Week 95: For A Dead Lady, by Edwin Arlington Robinson

The American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) is probably best remembered today for that fine poem of old age, ‘Mr Flood’s Party’, but I like this one too, for all its datedness. Yes, the diction is dodgy in places: a line like ‘Whereof no language may requite’ creaks now and probably creaked when it was written. And yes, it may seem not quite the thing now to speak of women in that tone of courtly adulation that always carries a hint of patronage. But if you can accept the poem on its own terms, you may find it a moving enough indictment of ‘Time that is intolerant/Of the brave and innocent’.

For a Dead Lady

No more with overflowing light
Shall fill the eyes that now are faded,
Nor shall another’s fringe with night
Their woman-hidden world as they did.
No more shall quiver down the days
The flowing wonder of her ways,
Whereof no language may requite
The shifting and the many-shaded.

The grace, divine, definitive,
Clings only as a faint forestalling;
The laugh that love could not forgive
Is hushed, and answers to no calling;
The forehead and the little ears
Have gone where Saturn keeps the years;
The breast where roses could not live
Has done with rising and with falling.

The beauty, shattered by the laws
That have creation in their keeping,
No longer trembles at applause,
Or over children that are sleeping;
And we who delve in beauty’s lore
Know all that we have known before
Of what inexorable cause
Makes Time so vicious in his reaping.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Week 94: At Castle Boterel, by Thomas Hardy

I once tried to make a list of my ten favourite Hardy poems, but ended up with nearer to a hundred and a great reluctance to discard any of them. But I think in any shortlist I made ‘Castle Boterel’ would have to figure high, with its honest solipsism, its vision of human love pitted against the vastness of geological time, and its achingly sad last stanza.

At Castle Boterel

As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
And the drizzle bedrenches the waggonette,
I look behind at the fading byway,
And see on its slope, now glistening wet,
Distinctly yet

Myself and a girlish form benighted
In dry March weather. We climb the road
Beside a chaise. We had just alighted
To ease the sturdy pony’s load
When he sighed and slowed.

What we did as we climbed, and what we talked of
Matters not much, nor to what it led, —
Something that life will not be balked of
Without rude reason till hope is dead,
And feeling fled.

It filled but a minute. But was there ever
A time of such quality, since or before,
In that hill’s story? To one mind never,
Though it has been climbed, foot-swift, foot-sore,
By thousands more.

Primaeval rocks form the road’s steep border,
And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth’s long order;
But what they record in colour and cast
Is — that we two passed.

And to me, though Time’s unflinching rigour,
In mindless rote, has ruled from sight
The substance now, one phantom figure
Remains on the slope, as when that night
Saw us alight.

I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
I look back at it amid the rain
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking,
And I shall traverse old love’s domain
Never again.

Thomas Hardy, March 1913

Week 93: From ‘Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan’ by Vachel Lindsay

Vachel Lindsay’s ‘Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan’, a long poem chronicling Democrat William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 election campaign and ultimate defeat by the Republican candidate William McKinley, is a strange beast, part political rant, part lyrical evocation of youthful idealism, part elegy for lost love and lost dreams. The politics may be a bit dated now – most outside the US will remember Lindsay’s hero William Jennings Bryan, if at all, as an opponent of Darwinism in the Scopes trial – but the lyrical and elegiac parts seem as fresh as ever, and I give here two extracts that seem to me to represent those best.

From ‘Bryan, Bryan, Bryan Bryan’

The long parade rolled on. I stood by my best girl.
She was a cool young citizen, with wise and laughing eyes.
With my necktie by my ear, I was stepping on my dear,
But she kept like a pattern without a shaken curl.
She wore in her hair a brave prairie rose.
Her gold chums cut her, for that was not the pose.
No Gibson Girl would wear it in that fresh way.
But we were fairy Democrats, and this was our day.


Where is McKinley, Mark Hanna’s McKinley,
His slave, his echo, his suit of clothes?
Gone to join the shadows, with the pomps of that time,
And the flames of that summer’s prairie rose.

Where is Cleveland whom the Democratic platform
Read from the party in a glorious hour?
Gone to join the shadows with pitchfork Tillman,
And sledge-hammer Altgeld who wrecked his power.

Where is Hanna, bulldog Hanna,
Low-browed Hanna, who said: ‘Stand pat’?
Gone to his place with old Pierpont Morgan.
Gone somewhere…with lean rat Platt.

Where is Roosevelt, the young dude cowboy,
Who hated Bryan, then aped his way?
Gone to join the shadows with mighty Cromwell
And tall King Saul, till the Judgement Day.

Where is Altgeld, brave as the truth,
Whose name the few still say with tears?
Gone to join the ironies with Old John Brown,
Whose fame rings loud for a thousand years.

Where is that boy, that Heaven-born Bryan,
That Homer Bryan, who sang from the West?
Gone to join the shadows with Altgeld the Eagle,
Where the kings and the slaves and the troubadours rest.

Vachel Lindsay

Week 92: An Die Entfernte, by Nikolaus Lenau

This lyric by the Austrian Romantic poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850) was one of the first German poems I ever got by heart; it seemed to me to have the plangent sweetness of a folksong .

The translation that follows is my own.

An Die Entfernte

Diese Rose pflück ich hier,
In der fremden Ferne;
Liebes Mädchen, dir, ach dir
Brächt ich sie so gerne!

Doch bis ich zu dir mag ziehn
Viele weite Meilen,
Ist die Rose längst dahin,
Denn die Rosen eilen.

Nie soll weiter sich ins Land
Lieb von Liebe wagen,
Als sich blühend in der Hand
Lässt die Rose tragen,

Oder als die Nachtigall
Halme bringt zum Neste,
Oder als ihr süsser Schall
Wandert mit dem Weste.

To One Far Away

See the rose that I pluck here
In foreign land afar –
Oh, could I but bring it, dear,
To you, to where you are.

Yet, before we met, before
I crossed so wide a way,
Long the rose would be no more
For roses do not stay.

Nevermore must love from love
Adventure in the land
Further than a rose may live
Borne blooming in the hand,

Further than the nightingale
Can bring straws to the nest,
Further than its sweet song fill
The wind out of the west.