Week 105: The Children of Stare, by Walter de la Mare

The poetry of Walter de la Mare was once much in vogue, a vogue that lasted into my childhood, but then his reputation seemed to get swept away on a tide of modernism, meaning that the best he could hope for was a grudging ‘good of its kind, but we don’t want that kind any more, thank you very much’. Yet really the good of any kind in poetry is not so common that we can afford to throw it away. It is true that de la Mare’s work is perhaps best described as fey, and a little feyness goes a long way, but at his best he can be quite haunting. I don’t entirely understand what this poem is about, but I like the wintry atmosphere it evokes, which conjures up for me that hour of frosty dusk between coming home from school and teatime when I would play outside with my companions, not, it is true, in the grounds of a grand ancestral house, but in a scruffy but much-loved bit of waste land we called The Hedge.

The Children of Stare

Winter is fallen early
On the house of Stare;
Birds in reverberating flocks
Haunt its ancestral box;
Bright are the plenteous berries
In clusters on the air.

Still is the fountain’s music,
The dark pool icy still,
Whereupon a small and sanguine sun
Floats in a mirror on,
Into a West of crimson,
From a South of daffodil.

’Tis strange to see young children
In such a wintry house;
Like rabbits’ on the frozen snow
Their tell-tale footprints go;
Their laughter rings like timbrels
’Neath evening ominous:

Their small and heightened faces
Like wine-red winter buds;
Their frolic bodies gentle as
Flakes in the air that pass,
Frail as the twirling petal
From the briar of the woods.

Above them silence lours,
Still as an arctic sea;
Light fails; night falls; the wintry moon
Glitters; the crocus soon
Will open grey and distracted
On earth’s austerity:

Thick mystery, wild peril,
Law like an iron rod:-
Yet sport they on in Spring’s attire,
Each with his tiny fire
Blown to a core of ardour
By the awful breath of God.

Walter De La Mare

Week 104: Football at Slack, by Ted Hughes

One of the more startling aspects of Philip Larkin’s literary judgment is his dismissal of Ted Hughes as (I quote from a recently published letter) ‘no good at all’. Now, I can see why some of Ted’s wilder vatic utterances might lead one to the view that he was a bit bonkers, but surely scattered through his perhaps over-generous oeuvre are enough fine pieces to make Larkin’s judgment inexplicable. Here’s one that I particularly admire, a Breughelesque view of a football match that one feels only Ted could have written.

Football at Slack

Between plunging valleys, on a bareback of hill
Men in bunting colours
Bounced, and their blown ball bounced.

The blown ball jumped, and the merry-coloured men
Spouted like water to head it.
The ball blew away downwind –

The rubbery men bounced after it.
The ball jumped up and out and hung on the wind
Over a gulf of treetops.
Then they all shouted together, and the ball blew back.

Winds from fiery holes in heaven
Piled the hills darkening around them
To awe them. The glare light
Mixed its mad oils and threw glooms.
Then the rain lowered a steel press.

Hair plastered, they all just trod water
To puddle glitter. And their shouts bobbed up
Coming fine and thin, washed and happy

While the humped world sank foundering
And the valleys blued unthinkable
Under the depth of Atlantic depression

– But the wingers leapt, they bicycled in air
And the goalie flew horizontal

And once again a golden holocaust
Lifted the cloud’s edge, to watch them.

Ted Hughes

Week 103: Two Poems by Li Ho

The following two poems by the Chinese poet Li Ho (791-817) are taken from ‘Poems of the Late T’ang’, a wonderful collection of translations by A.C.Graham. Not knowing Chinese myself, I cannot judge how much may be lost from the originals, but one thing that shines out is their vivid, lyrical joy in natural phenomena, that reminds me somewhat of early Celtic nature poetry – no question of influence of course, just spiritual coincidence.

The Northern Cold

The sky glows one side black, three sides purple.
The Yellow River’s ice closes, fish and dragons die.
Bark three inches thick cracks across the grain.
Carts of a hundred piculs mount the river’s water.
Flowers of frost on the grass are big as coins,
Brandished swords will not pierce the foggy sky,
Crashing ice flies in the swirling seas,
And cascades hang noiseless in the mountains, rainbows of jade.

On and on for ever

The white glare recedes to the western hills,
High in the distance sapphire blossoms rise.
Where shall there be an end of old and new?
A thousand years have whirled away in the wind.
The sands of the ocean change to stone,
Fishes puff bubbles at the bridge of Ch’in,
The empty stream shines on into the distance.
The bronze pillars melt away with the years.

Li Ho (tr. A.C.Graham)

Week 102: Thirty Bob A Week, by John Davidson

As a young man, suffering from the unfortunate combination of extreme pride and a desperate shortage of money, I identified rather strongly with this poem, though I also couldn’t help feeling that Davidson’s protagonist had had it a bit cushy – taking inflation into account, thirty shillings a week didn’t actually sound too bad a wage for 1894 when the poem was published. And the guy could afford to smoke a pipe! Did he, I wondered, go all day at work on a spam sandwich because if a mortgage deposit was to be scraped together every penny counted? Even now I cannot look a tin of spam in the face. Things did become better for me, though sadly not for Davidson who, ground down by poverty and ill-health, committed suicide by drowning in 1909. I think this is his best poem, but in others too he shows himself to be an interesting original.

Thirty Bob A Week

I couldn’t touch a stop and turn a screw,
And set the blooming world a-work for me,
Like such as cut their teeth — I hope, like you —
On the handle of a skeleton gold key;
I cut mine on a leek, which I eat it every week:
I’m a clerk at thirty bob as you can see.

But I don’t allow it’s luck and all a toss;
There’s no such thing as being starred and crossed;
It’s just the power of some to be a boss,
And the bally power of others to be bossed:
I face the music, sir; you bet I ain’t a cur;
Strike me lucky if I don’t believe I’m lost!

For like a mole I journey in the dark,
A-travelling along the underground
From my Pillar’d Halls and broad Suburbean Park,
To come the daily dull official round;
And home again at night with my pipe all alight,
A-scheming how to count ten bob a pound.

And it’s often very cold and very wet,
And my misses stitches towels for a hunks;
And the Pillar’d Halls is half of it to let–
Three rooms about the size of travelling trunks.
And we cough, my wife and I, to dislocate a sigh,
When the noisy little kids are in their bunks.

But you never hear her do a growl or whine,
For she’s made of flint and roses, very odd;
And I’ve got to cut my meaning rather fine,
Or I’d blubber, for I’m made of greens and sod:
So p’r’haps we are in Hell for all that I can tell,
And lost and damn’d and served up hot to God.

I ain’t blaspheming, Mr. Silver-tongue;
I’m saying things a bit beyond your art:
Of all the rummy starts you ever sprung,
Thirty bob a week’s the rummiest start!
With your science and your books and your the’ries about spooks,
Did you ever hear of looking in your heart?

I didn’t mean your pocket, Mr., no:
I mean that having children and a wife,
With thirty bob on which to come and go,
Isn’t dancing to the tabor and the fife:
When it doesn’t make you drink, by Heaven! it makes you think,
And notice curious items about life.

I step into my heart and there I meet
A god-almighty devil singing small,
Who would like to shout and whistle in the street,
And squelch the passers flat against the wall;
If the whole world was a cake he had the power to take,
He would take it, ask for more, and eat them all.

And I meet a sort of simpleton beside,
The kind that life is always giving beans;
With thirty bob a week to keep a bride
He fell in love and married in his teens:
At thirty bob he stuck; but he knows it isn’t luck:
He knows the seas are deeper than tureens.

And the god-almighty devil and the fool
That meet me in the High Street on the strike,
When I walk about my heart a-gathering wool,
Are my good and evil angels if you like.
And both of them together in every kind of weather
Ride me like a double-seated bike.

That’s rough a bit and needs its meaning curled.
But I have a high old hot un in my mind
— A most engrugious notion of the world,
That leaves your lightning ‘rithmetic behind:
I give it at a glance when I say ‘There ain’t no chance,
Nor nothing of the lucky-lottery kind.’

And it’s this way that I make it out to be:
No fathers, mothers, countries, climates — none;
Not Adam was responsible for me,
Nor society, nor systems, nary one:
A little sleeping seed, I woke — I did, indeed —
A million years before the blooming sun.

I woke because I thought the time had come;
Beyond my will there was no other cause;
And everywhere I found myself at home,
Because I chose to be the thing I was;
And in whatever shape of mollusc or of ape
I always went according to the laws.

I was the love that chose my mother out;
I joined two lives and from the union burst;
My weakness and my strength without a doubt
Are mine alone for ever from the first:
It’s just the very same with a difference in the name
As ‘Thy will be done.’ You say it if you durst!

They say it daily up and down the land
As easy as you take a drink, it’s true;
But the difficultest go to understand,
And the difficultest job a man can do,
Is to come it brave and meek with thirty bob a week,
And feel that that’s the proper thing for you.

It’s a naked child against a hungry wolf;
It’s playing bowls upon a splitting wreck;
It’s walking on a string across a gulf
With millstones fore-and-aft about your neck;
But the thing is daily done by many and many a one;
And we fall, face forward, fighting, on the deck.

John Davidson

Week 101: The Death Of Queen Jane, by Anon

I first met this ballad on one of Joan Baez’s first albums, back in the early sixties – and thank you, Joan, for opening up to me a world of music I never knew existed – and though I have heard it in many versions since, it’s Joan’s economical lyrics I give here, even though they don’t quite match any of the official Child versions. It has long been one of my favourite folksongs, though my wife, who has undergone four births and two caesareans, has at times been less enamoured of it – ‘Do you have to keep playing that awful song when I’m nine months pregnant?’

The historical details seem to be a little awry – Jane Seymour did not die giving birth to Prince Edward, but twelve days later, King Henry was not there with her, and it is doubtful that she had a caesarean section at all, probably dying of a puerperal infection.

Bob Dylan used this song to criticise Joan Baez’s choice of material, saying that ‘Queen Jane’ was not ‘where it was at’. With all respect to the great Dylan, I think he was quite wrong: for me, songs like this are always and forever where it’s at.

The Death Of Queen Jane

Queen Jane lay in labour
For six weeks or more
The women grew weary
And the midwife gave o’er.

King Henry he was sent for
On horseback and speed.
King Henry came to her
In the time of her need.

O Henry, good King Henry,
If that you do be,
Come pierce my side open
And save my baby.

O no Jane, good Queen Jane,
That never could be.
I’d lose my sweet flower
To save my baby.

Queen Jane she turned over
She fell all in a swoon.
Her side was pierced open
And the baby was found.

How bright was the morning
How yellow was the moon,
How costly the white robe
Queen Jane was wrapped in.

King Henry he weeped,
He wrung his hands till they’re sore.
The flower of England
Will never be no more.