Week 109: The Tryst, by William Soutar

I was glad to be reminded of this beautiful lyric by hearing it on a poetry program on Radio 4 last Monday, ‘The Still Life Poet’, in which Liz Lochhead discussed the life and work of the Scots poet William Soutar (1898-1943). Though given particular poignancy by Soutar’s situation – he was for years bedridden with a painful spinal condition – the poem also stands in an ancient Celtic tradition: an early Irish saga, Aislinge Óengus (The Dream of Óengus), tells the story of how Aengus Og, the Irish god of love, was visited in dream by ‘the most beautiful woman in Eriu’ and fell sick with the ‘sercc ecmaise’, the ‘love of absence’.

I don’t think the Scots words should give much trouble. ‘Caller’ means fresh, ‘smool’d’ means slipped away, ‘waukrife’ means wakeful.

The Tryst

Sae luely luely cam she in,
And luely she lay doun;
I kent her by her caller lips
And her breists sae sma’ and roun’.

A’ thru the nicht we spak nae word
Nor sinder’d bane frae bane.
A’ thru the nicht I heard her hert
Gang soundin wi’ my ain.

It was aboot the waukrife hour
Whan cocks begin tae craw
That she smool’d saftly thru the mirk
Afore the day wud daw

Sae luely luely cam she in
Sae luely was she gaen
And wi’ her a’ my simmer days
Like they had never been.

William Soutar

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Week 108: I Remember, by Stevie Smith

The poems of Stevie Smith (1902-1971) remind me of those optical tricks like the witch illusion, that shifts as you look at it between hag and young girl. This poem, for example – is it eccentric to the point of daftness, or is it a very original, tender love lyric? I never quite make up my mind, but one way or another it has put a hook into my memory.

I Remember

It was my bridal night I remember,
An old man of seventy-three
I lay with my young bride in my arms,
A girl with t.b.
It was wartime, and overhead
The Germans were making a particularly heavy raid on Hampstead.
Harry, do they ever collide?
I do not think it has ever happened,
Oh my bride, my bride.

Stevie Smith

Week 107: Exposure, by Seamus Heaney

A comet has been much in the news this week as the remarkable Rosetta probe makes its successful landing. Maybe those immemorial loners from the outer dark don’t figure in poetry as much as they should, but here’s a poem where one does make a beautiful (and deeply resonant) appearance. I have wondered if Heaney had a specific comet in mind: maybe comet Kohoutek that brightened our skies for a while in 1973. For those who missed it, the good news is that it will be back in about 75000 years.

Exposure

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

A comet that was lost
Should be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,

And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conducive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;

Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.

Seamus Heaney

Week 106: From ‘Canu Heledd’

Remembrance Sunday this weekend, which invites something by Owen or Sassoon, but instead let’s go back to a poem from a much older time about a much older war, yet one that speaks no less powerfully of loss and desolation. The following lines are from a cycle of early Welsh poems known as Canu Heledd, the Song of Heledd, probably composed some time in the ninth century though relating to events from a couple of centuries before. Heledd was the sister of Cynddylan, a seventh-century prince of Powys, and here she laments the loss of her brother and all his royal household, fallen in some forgotten battle against the English, leaving her as the last of her line.

The plain translation that follows is my own; it would take a better man than me to reproduce the intricate verbal music of the Welsh englynion.

From ‘Canu Heledd’

stauell gyndylan ys tywyll heno,
heb dan, heb wely.
wylaf wers; tawaf wedy.

stauell gyndylan ys tywyll heno,
heb dan, heb gannwyll.
Namyn duw, pwy a’m dyry pwyll?

stauell gyndylan ys tywyll heno,
heb dan, heb oleuat.
Etlit a’m daw amdanat.

……..

tywarchen ercal ar erdywal wyr,
o etiued moryal:
a gwedy rys, mac rys mal.

Cynddylan’s hall is dark tonight
Without fire, without bed.
I will weep a while, then be silent.

Cynddylan’s hall is dark tonight
Without fire, without candle.
Unless to God, where shall I turn for counsel?

Cynddylan’s hall is dark tonight
Without fire, without light.
Grief for you comes upon me.

….

The grass of Ercal covers up brave men,
Moryal’s lineage:
It bred them, then it broke them.