Week 118: From ‘Ghost Voice’, by Roy Fuller

These honest, rueful lines by the English poet Roy Fuller (1912-1991) turn on the idea that the natural condition of human love is one of an unquestioning domestic familiarity, that what the dead would like to come home to is not fanfares and celebrations, but simply their old state of being taken for granted. If they only could come home….

From ‘Ghost Voice’

Why do we return? Not in the darkened rooms
Of rattling tambourines and butter muslin,
But as you boil an egg or make the bed
You hear us and answer: ‘Darling?’.

Yes, that’s our wish, after all, whatever ancient
Boredom or intervening cause of unwelcome
Would face us, for our presence once again
To be taken all for granted.

We don’t come in actuality, alas!
For we’re in a place that even cosmologists,
Speculating on collapsed stars and anti-matter
Couldn’t find more alien.

Roy Fuller

Week 117: From ‘King Lear’, Act V, Scene 3, by William Shakespeare

I once attended an open-air performance of ‘King Lear’, and very good it was too on a darkening summer evening against a backdrop of ruins. The only problem was that this being a small company there was some doubling up of roles, and the same female actor played both Cordelia and the Fool. This clearly confused two old ladies sitting in front of me, who, going along with the Shakespearean convention that any change of costume serves as an impenetrable disguise, not unnaturally assumed that the Fool actually was Cordelia, come back to keep an eye on her old dad just as Kent had come back in disguise to serve his master and Edgar to assist Gloucester. I don’t think this is quite what Shakespeare intended – let’s face it, most ideas about Shakespeare are probably not what Shakespeare intended – but there is certainly a case to be made for the Fool as Cordelia’s alter ego, both radiating the same dangerous innocence. It seemed particularly appropriate that these final lines of reconciliation between Lear and his daughter should have coincided with the last light from the west, before the play ended in death and darkness.

  • Edmund. Some officers take them away. Good guard
    Until their greater pleasures first be known
    That are to censure them.
  • Cordelia. We are not the first
    Who with best meaning have incurr’d the worst.
    For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down;
    Myself could else outfrown false Fortune’s frown.
    Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?
  • Lear. No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
    We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
    When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
    And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
    And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
    At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
    Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too
    Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out
    And take upon ‘s the mystery of things,
    As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out,
    In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones
    That ebb and flow by th’ moon.

Week 116: Bilberries, by Eric Millward

This tender poem brings back fond memories of picking berries (blackberries rather than bilberries) with my own small daughter. (I particularly remember how she would put one rather squashed berry into the bowl, take out half a dozen and eat them, then say proudly ‘I are being a helpy girl, aren’t I?’). It is one of those poems that snatch a precious and perhaps never-to be-repeated moment out of time and preserve it in an amber of loving observation.


We have been picking bilberries over an hour.
Your small hand opens, closes: a preying flower.
Warm shadows deepen into greys and blues,
hiding in caches those we didn’t choose
or didn’t see. All of the world is still
except ourselves, upon this glowing hill.
Whatever moved here earlier lies low,
waiting for us to pick our fill and go,
when, watched by them, the patient, the bright-eyed,
we shall go down the bountiful hillside.
But for an hour we lord it over eyes
that watch us covertly, with some surprise,
for hills hold nothing quite like me and you,
stooping and picking till our hands are blue.

Eric Millward

Week 115: On A Poet, by James Reeves

I think the E.B. of this poem must be Edmund Blunden, as the initials fit, the dates fit (except that Blunden actually died in January 1974, not 1973) and Blunden was a friend of Reeves. The only problem is that Blunden was actually quite well recognised as a poet in his lifetime, assuming that the award of the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry, election to the Oxford Professorship of Poetry, and commemoration on a stone in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey count as recognition.‘By most neglected’, therefore, may be a bit of an overstatement and one can’t help wondering if the poem is more an expression of Reeves’s own relatively unrewarded devotion to his craft.

The Queen of Elfland’s sometimes inconvenient gift to Thomas was, of course, a tongue that was incapable of lying: see ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, Child Ballad no. 37.

On a Poet

E.B. 1896 – 1973

Having no Celtic bombast in his blood,
Nor dipsomaniac rage, nor very much
To give his time of what his time expected,
He saw his Muse, slight thing, by most neglected.

She was no exhibitionist, and he,
With only the Queen of Elfland’s gift to Thomas,
Could not afford to school her in the taste
For stolen gauds and ornaments of paste.

When he is dead and his best phrases stored
With Clare’s and Hardy’s in the book of gold,
She with her unpresuming Saxon grace
In the Queen’s retinue will take her place.

James Reeves

Week 114: Vision By Sweetwater, by John Crowe Ransom

I have long found this poem enchanting but also just a little annoying. I like to understand a poem as thoroughly as I can, and get frustrated when that understanding seems to require some private key that I don’t have. And this one, after its beautiful opening stanzas, appears to tail off into a slightly wilful irresolution. ‘Where have I seen before, against the wind, These bright virgins…?’. I don’t know, mate, where have you seen them before? And what’s with the scream?

I have seen it suggested that the allusion is to the story of Susannah and the Elders in the apocryphal addition to the Book of Daniel, but if that’s really what Ransom had in mind, I can only say that the parallel between two voyeuristic old men hiding in the bushes to watch a woman bathing and the awakening of a young boy to his first romantic perception of womanhood does not seem a particularly happy one. But I’ll forgive all for the willows, clouds, deep meadowgrass and the steep turn of Sweetwater.

Later: one suggestion I have had is that the boy is startled out of his daydreaming by one of the girls, who has ‘been adventuring with delicate paces’, falling into the steep-banked stream, hence the sudden cry.

Vision By Sweetwater

Go and ask Robin to bring the girls over
To Sweetwater, said my Aunt; and that was why
It was like a dream of ladies, sweeping by
The willows, clouds, deep meadowgrass and river.

Robin’s sisters and my Aunt’s lily daughter
Laughed and talked and tinkled light as wrens
If there were a little colony all hens
To go walking by the steep turn of Sweetwater.

Let them alone, dear Aunt, just for one minute
While I go fishing in the dark of my mind:
Where have I seen before, against the wind,
These bright virgins, robed and bare of bonnet,

Flowing with music of their strange quick tongue
And adventuring with delicate paces by the stream,
Myself a child, old suddenly at the scream
From one of the white throats which it hid among?

John Crowe Ransom