Week 100: Prologue from ‘The Golden Journey To Samarkand’, by James Elroy Flecker

When I first met this poem at the age of fourteen I thought that along with Yeats’s ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ it was the most magical thing I had ever read, and I walked the local woods in a dream muttering it to myself over and over. And now… well, tastes do change with age, usually in the direction of the spare and essential, and Flecker is too romantic for me to rate the lines as highly now as I did then, but even if we are not true to our first attachments we should still be grateful to them. And it does even now bring back the taste of that time, an April evening, the sweet confused melancholy of young love, a world of boundless hope and romance waiting beyond the horizon…

Prologue from ‘The Golden Journey To Samarkand’

We who with songs beguile your pilgrimage
And swear that Beauty lives though lilies die
We poets of the proud old lineage
Who sing to find your hearts, we know not why.

What shall we tell you? Tales, marvellous tales
Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest,
Where nevermore the rose of sunset pales,
And winds and shadows fall towards the west,

And there the world’s first huge white-bearded kings
In dim glades sleeping, murmur in their sleep,
And closer round their breasts the ivy clings
Cutting its pathway slow and red and deep.

And how beguile you? Death has no repose
Warmer and deeper than that Orient sand
Which hides the beauty and bright faith of those
Who made the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

And now they wait and whiten peaceably,
Those conquerors, those poets, those so fair:
They know time comes, not only you and I,
But the whole world shall whiten here and there;

When the long caravans that cross the plain
With dauntless feet and sound of silver bells
Put forth no more for glory or for gain,
Take no more solace from the palm-girt wells.

When the great markets by the sea shut fast
All that calm Sunday that goes on and on
When even lovers find their peace at last,
And earth is but a star, that once had shone.

James Elroy Flecker

Week 99: Provide, Provide, by Robert Frost

The American poet Randall Jarrell recounts how he was floating in a quarry with his chin on a log when he discovered that he knew Robert Frost’s ‘Provide, Provide’ by heart without having consciously learnt it. Many poets, among them W.H.Auden, Derek Walcott, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, have stressed the value of learning poems by rote. No doubt there is much in what they say, but I do find that the poems that have meant most to me have seldom waited for the invitation of rote learning; they just sort of wander in and make themselves at home.

I like the folksy pastoral side of Frost very much as long as it’s not overdone, but I have to say that I think it’s the bleaker side, as, say, in ‘Home Burial’, that makes the greater poems.

Provide, Provide

The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag,
Was once the beauty Abishag,

The picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood.

Die early and avoid the fate.
Or if predestined to die late,
Make up your mind to die in state.

Make the whole stock exchange your own!
If need be occupy a throne,
Where nobody can call you crone.

Some have relied on what they knew;
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you.

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard,
Or keeps the end from being hard.

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!

Robert Frost

Week 98: From ‘Little Gidding’, by T.S.Eliot

I confess to having had problems with the poetry of T.S.Eliot. When that pretentious farrago ‘The Waste Land’ was first served up to me in my youth my reaction was ‘Well, if that’s the best modernism has to offer they can stuff it’, and while as a critical response this may lack a certain nuance it still more or less does for me. But ‘Four Quartets’ is another matter: here it is a case of ‘’Well, I may not warm to this in the way I do to, say, the poems of Thomas Hardy, but let’s face it, this is good.’

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.’
The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
He left me, with a kind of valediction,
And faded on the blowing of the horn.

Week 97: Vine, by Vernon Watkins

This poem by the Welsh poet Vernon Watkins(1906-1967) finely images that core of patience that lies at the heart of the poetic process, and is perhaps, especially for the young poet, the hardest of its disciplines to learn.


Deep-rooted vine, delay your fruit
Beyond youth’s rashness. I have seen
Rich promise wither to the root
Before its time had been.

Drain all the darkness of the soil
And stand there shrivelled, crisp and dry,
Too lifeless in your parchment coil
To open one green eye.

Some watch the March winds animate
Those early bulbs in Winter’s bed.
Envy them not, but keep your state.
Let others think you dead.

Contain in secrecy that balm
Strengthening the sap before it move,
That the broad leaves from wells of calm
One day grow dark with love.

I know a tree as dry as yours.
The patient leaf is put forth late.
Its life is anchored in the hours
For which the heart must wait.

Vernon Watkins