Week 157: From ‘Gabriel Péri’, by Paul Éluard

Gabriel Péri was a member of the French Resistance executed during World War II. These lines are from a poem written in his memory by the French poet Paul Éluard (1895-1952). The translation that follows is my own.

Gabriel Péri

Il y a des mots qui font vivre
et ce sont des mots innocents
le mot chaleur le mot confiance
amour justice et le mot liberté –
le mot enfant et le mot gentillesse
et certains noms de fleurs et certains noms de fruits
le mot courage et le mot découvrir
et le mot frère et le mot camarade
et certains noms de pays de villages
et certains noms de femmes et d’amis
ajoutons-y Péri
Péri est mort pour ce qui nous fait vivre

Paul Éluard

There are words that give us life
and they are innocent words
the word warmth the word trust
love justice and the word freedom
the word child and the word kindness
and the names of certain flowers certain fruits
the word courage and the word discover
the word brother and the word comrade
and certain country names of villages
and certain names of women and of friends
let’s add to them Péri
Péri who died for these that give us life.

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Week 156: The Bereavement of the Lion-Keeper, by Sheenah Pugh

One of the things I like about Sheenah Pugh’s poems is the unexpectedness of their subject matter. I enjoy the usual domestic themes as much as anyone, but it is equally a delight to come across a poem about, say, Roerek the Blinded, ‘king and cosmic nuisance’, or a road with a mind of its own, its tarry skin ‘like a long supple bolt of cloth’, or, in the case of my choice this week, a keeper of lions. And I particularly admire the way this poem unites the political with the personal: yes, it is about the problems of living in a war-torn country, but it also poses a question that anyone may have to answer: what do you do when a role that you have given your life to ceases to exist for you? Think, for example, parents whose children have emigrated, runners whom renown has outrun, Larkin in his last years, the poetry gone….

The Bereavement of the Lion-Keeper
(for Sheraq Omar)

Who stayed, long after his pay stopped,
in the zoo with no visitors,
just keepers and captives, moth-eaten,
growing old together.

Who begged for meat in the market-place
as times grew hungrier,
and cut it up small to feed him,
since his teeth were gone.

Who could stroke his head, who knew
how it felt to plunge fingers,
into rough glowing fur, who has heard
the deepest purr in the world.

Who curled close to him, wrapped in his warmth,
his pungent scent, as the bombs fell,
who has seen him asleep so often,
but never like this.

Who knew that elderly lions
were not immortal, that it was bound
to happen, that he died peacefully,
in the course of nature.

but who knows no way to let go
of love, to walk out of sunlight,
to be an old man in a city,
without a lion.

Sheenagh Pugh

Week 155: Saints Have Adored The Lofty Soul Of You, by Charles Hamilton Sorley

Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895-1915) was only twenty when he was shot through the head by a sniper at the Battle of Loos. He was regarded by some, including Robert Graves and John Masefield, as one of the great poetic losses of the war. I think this poem has a bit of a shaky start – you think oh, just the usual diction of a young man aping the rhetoric of his time – but then it shifts into something quite different with an individual native strength, a strength which may derive in part from Sorley’s passion for cross-country running in wild weather, exercised on the downs near Marlborough where he was at school. I guess that is why this poem has a particular resonance for me: I know that country and that weather, and have shared that passion, such has been my luck, for many more years than were granted to Charles Sorley.

Saints Have Adored The Lofty Soul Of You

Saints have adored the lofty soul of you.
Poets have whitened at your high renown.
We stand among the many millions who
Do hourly wait to pass your pathway down.
You, so familiar, once were strange: we tried
To live as of your presence unaware.
But now in every road on every side
We see your straight and steadfast signpost there.

I think it like that signpost in my land
Hoary and tall, which pointed me to go
Upward, into the hills, on the right hand,
Where the mists swim and the winds shriek and blow,
A homeless land and friendless, but a land
I did not know and that I wished to know.

Charles Hamilton Sorley

Week 154: The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes

Is this a good poem? Well, I doubt if it would have made Dr Leavis’s canon of great works, but I do know that when my teacher first read it to us at primary school, it held a whole motley class of nine year olds spellbound with its wild romance. Forty years on I happened to stay with my wife and small daughter in a holiday cottage at Ventnor in grounds that turned out to be the onetime home of its author Alfred Noyes (1880-1958), just yards from the beach where, old and blind, he still used to take his daily dip in the sea, watched over by his wife and guided by her voice. No, I did not stand on the shore and recite the poem to the valiant shade, having a suspicion that he might not be too pleased to think that these lines that had electrified my class of small ruffians were all that most people now remembered of his considerable oeuvre. But it must say something for the poem that forty years on I could have done. 

The Highwayman

PART ONE

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding –
Riding – riding –
The highwayman came riding up to the old inn-door.

He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin.
They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh.
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
And he tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred.
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim, the ostler, listened; his face was white and peaked,
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay;
But he loved the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s red-lipped daughter:
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say –

‘One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize tonight,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light.
Yet if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by the moonlight,
Watch for me by moonlight:
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though Hell should bar the way.’

He rose upright in the stirrups, he scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair in the casement. His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
(O, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.

PART TWO

He did not come at the dawning. He did not come at noon;
And out of the tawny sunset, before the rise of the moon;
When the road was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red-coat troop came marching –
Marching – marching –
King George’s men came marching, up to the old inn-door.

They said no word to the landlord, they drank his ale instead,
But they gagged his daughter and bound her to the foot of her narrow bed.
Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!
There was death at every window;
And hell at one dark window;
For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.

They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest:
They had bound a musket beside her, with the barrel beneath her breast!
‘Now keep good watch!’ and they kissed her. She heard the dead man say –
Look for me by moonlight;
Watch for me by moonlight,
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though Hell should bar the way!

She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years;
Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!

The tip of one finger touched it. She strove no more for the rest!
Up, she stood up to attention, with the barrel beneath her breast,
She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;
For the road lay bare in the moonlight,
Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins, in the moonlight, throbbed to her love’s refrain.

Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horses hoofs ring clear –
Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
The highwayman came riding –
Riding – riding!
The red-coats looked to their priming! She stood up straight and still!

Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!
Nearer he came and nearer! Her face was like a light!
Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him – with her death.

He turned. He spurred to the west; he did not know who stood
Bowed with her head o’er the musket, drenched with her own red blood!
Not till the dawn he heard it, and slowly blanched to hear
How Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight; and died in the darkness there.

Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him, and his rapier brandished high.
Blood-red were his spurs in the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat;
When they shot him down on the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.

.   .   .   .

And still of a winter’s night they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding –
Riding – riding
A highwayman comes riding up to the old inn-door 

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard;
And he taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred.
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

Alfred Noyes

Week 153: A Time of Waiting, by Robert Graves

There are perhaps too many poems written by poets about the process of writing poems, but I think this is one of the better ones. I like the image of the slowly filling pool, though I tend myself to think more in terms of electricity, a static of observation and emotion slowly building till it finds its discharge. 

A Time of Waiting

The moment comes when my sound senses
Warn me to keep the pot at a quiet simmer,
Conclude no rash decisions, enter into
No random friendships, check the runaway tongue
And fix my mind in a close caul of doubt –
Which is more difficult, maybe, than to face
Night-long assaults of lurking furies.

The pool lies almost empty; I watch it nursed
By a thin stream. Such idle intervals
Are from waning moon to the new – a moon always
Holds the cords of my heart. Then patience, hands;
Dabble your nerveless fingers in the shallows;
A time shall come when she has need of them.

Robert Graves