Week 148: The Good Man in Hell, by Edwin Muir

I think that this poem by the Scots poet Edwin Muir (1887-1959) is in its way a fine, eloquent piece; the problem I have with it is that in the world as we observe it, more’s the pity, things don’t really work like that. The evil of the concentration camps, for example, was ended not by the patient, passive virtue of those who found themselves in those manmade versions of Hell, but by the application of superior lethal force from outside. But maybe Muir would have said that he was concerned with more than the world as we observe it.

The Good Man in Hell

If a good man were ever housed in Hell
By needful error of the qualities,
Perhaps to prove the rule or shame the devil,
Or speak the truth only a stranger sees,

Would he, surrendering quick to obvious hate,
Fill half eternity with cries and tears,
Or watch beside Hell’s little wicket gate
In patience for the first ten thousand years,

Feeling the curse climb slowly to his throat
That, uttered, dooms him to rescindless ill,
Forcing his praying tongue to run by rote,
Eternity entire before him still?

Would he at last, grown faithful in his station,
Kindle a little hope in hopeless Hell,
And sow among the damned doubts of damnation,
Since here someone could live, and live well?

One doubt of evil would bring down such a grace,
Open such a gate, and Eden could enter in,
Hell be a place like any other place,
And love and hate and life and death begin.

Edwin Muir

Week 147: When I watch the living meet, by A.E.Housman

There was a catchphrase in my childhood ‘It’s being so cheerful keeps him going’, applied ironically to any particularly lugubrious utterance, and this can certainly seem the case with A.E.Housman, though it’s far from the whole picture. I found this little poem eerily disturbing when I first read it, since it seemed to suggest an afterlife with a kind of robotic sentience but not volition, and I have wondered if its closing lines provided part of the inspiration for the vision of the dry land of death that Ged and Arren cross in what for me is the most profound and satisfying of Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Earthsea’ books, ‘The Farthest Shore’. I believe, however, that Le Guin herself has said that the debt is to a line in Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’.

When I watch the living meet,
And the moving pageant file
Warm and breathing through the street
Where I lodge a little while,

If the heats of hate and lust
In the house of flesh are strong,
Let me mind the house of dust
Where my sojourn shall be long.

In the nation that is not
Nothing stands that stood before;
There revenges are forgot,
And the hater hates no more;

Lovers lying two and two
Ask not whom they sleep beside,
And the bridegroom all night through
Never turns him to the bride.


Week 146: Canoe, by Keith Douglas

This was the first Keith Douglas poem I came across, and I was struck by its air of almost throwaway accomplishment masking a deep emotional lyricism.


Well, I am thinking this may be my last
summer, but cannot lose even a part
of pleasure in the old-fashioned art
of idleness. I cannot stand aghast

at whatever doom hovers in the background
while grass and buildings and the somnolent river
who know they are allowed to last for ever
exchange between them the whole subdued sound

of this hot time. What sudden fearful fate
can deter my shade wandering next year
from a return? Whistle, and I will hear
and come another evening when this boat

travels with you alone towards Iffley:
as you lie looking up for thunder again,
this cool touch does not betoken rain;
it is my spirit that kisses your mouth lightly.

Keith Douglas

Week 145: From ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’, by G.K.Chesterton

At twelve years old I thought ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’ the best poem ever written, though even then I suspected it had little to do with the historical Alfred, and indeed Chesterton himself disowned any claim to historical veracity. Yet when I came to learn more about that remarkable monarch, I became less sure: the incidents of the poem may be fictitious, but its spirit seems not so far from Alfred’s own, and Chesterton would not be the first poet to arrive at a deep truth from the dodgiest of premises.

This excerpt is taken from Book VII: Ethandune, The Last Charge.

Away in the waste of White Horse Down
An idle child alone
Played some small game through hours that pass,
And patiently would pluck the grass,
Patiently push the stone.

On the lean, green edge for ever,
Where the blank chalk touched the turf,
The child played on, alone, divine,
As a child plays on the last line
That sunders sand and surf.

For he dwelleth in high divisions
Too simple to understand,
Seeing on what morn of mystery
The Uncreated rent the sea
With roarings, from the land.

Through the long infant hours like days
He built one tower in vain–
Piled up small stones to make a town,
And evermore the stones fell down,
And he piled them up again.

And crimson kings on battle-towers,
And saints on Gothic spires,
And hermits on their peaks of snow,
And heroes on their pyres,

And patriots riding royally,
That rush the rocking town,
Stretch hands, and hunger and aspire,
Seeking to mount where high and higher,
The child whom Time can never tire,
Sings over White Horse Down.

And this was the might of Alfred,
At the ending of the way;
That of such smiters, wise or wild,
He was least distant from the child,
Piling the stones all day.

For Eldred fought like a frank hunter
That killeth and goeth home;
And Mark had fought because all arms
Rang like the name of Rome.

And Colan fought with a double mind,
Moody and madly gay;
But Alfred fought as gravely
As a good child at play.

He saw wheels break and work run back
And all things as they were;
And his heart was orbed like victory
And simple like despair.

Therefore is Mark forgotten,
That was wise with his tongue and brave;
And the cairn over Colan crumbled,
And the cross on Eldred’s grave.

Their great souls went on a wind away,
And they have not tale or tomb;
And Alfred born in Wantage
Rules England till the doom.