Week 161: Louis MacNeice, by Geoffrey Grigson

I think this is a fine elegy for a poet I much admire; the only problem I have with it is that I cannot figure out the significance of the word ‘sorrel’ in the second line. I looked up both sorrel and the quite different plant wood-sorrel in Grigson’s magisterial ‘Englishman’s Flora’, hoping for a clue, but that didn’t help; I knew sorrel can also mean a reddish-brown hue or a horse of that colour, but that doesn’t seem to fit either, and looking up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary added a now obsolete meaning ‘a buck in its third year’, which also got me no further. It really nags at me when I don’t understand something in a poem that I otherwise find perfectly lucid, a bit like having a last unfinished clue in a crossword, so any explanation will be most gratefully received!

Louis MacNeice
(September 2, 1963)

I turned on the transistor
By luck, for your sorrel,
Your Vol de Nuit,
It was Haydn.

Black and diffident man
Of the bog and stoa
Whose rush of love
Was rejected,

Whose wolfhound
Bent round my table,
Who are no longer around
In your Chinese

Garden of poems.
Where one is of water,
On which tea-yellow
Leaves of another

Are falling, always
Are falling, this one
Is a stone by itself,
On which you inscribe

With invisible legible letters
That unrest of the soul
Which you found
So wryly appalling.

You have gone: will
No longer arrange
In sunlight with wit
Your aloneness.

But, classical quizzical
One, whose scent is
Sharp in the centre,
Your garden is open.

Geoffrey Grigson

Week 160: The Hero, by Roger Woddis

Roger Woddis (1917-1993) published this adaptation of the ‘Song of Wandering Aengus’ at the height of the IRA bombing campaign, when there was fear on the streets. Sad, maybe, to see Yeats’s beautiful poem subverted to a political end, but such was the logic of the times.

The Hero

I went out to the city streets,
Because a fire was in my head,
And saw the people passing by,
And wished the youngest of them dead,
And twisted by a bitter past,
And poisoned by a cold despair,
I found at last a resting-place
And left my hatred ticking there.

When I was fleeing from the night
And sweating in my room again,
I heard the old futilities
Exploding like a cry of pain;
But horror, should it touch the heart,
Would freeze my hand upon the fuse,
And I must shed no tears for those
Who merely have a life to lose.

Though I am sick with murdering,
Though killing is my native land,
I will find out where death has gone,
And kiss his lips and take his hand;
And hide among the withered grass,
And pluck, till love and life are done,
The shrivelled apples of the moon,
The cankered apples of the sun.

Roger Woddis

Week 159: BY The Effigy Of St Cecilia, by David Wright

David Wright (1920-1994) became deaf at the age of seven as a result of scarlet fever. I find this quietly controlled poem about his condition very moving: clearly he was one of those who, in the words of one of his contemporaries, ‘heard because they were condemned to silence/And learned to see because they had no light’.

By the Effigy of St Cecilia

Having peculiar reverence for this creature
Of the numinous imagination, I am come
To visit her church and stand before the altar
Where her image, hewn in pathetic stone,
Exhibits the handiwork of her executioner.

There are the axemarks. Outside, in the courtyard,
In shabby habit, an Italian nun
Came up and spoke: I had to answer, ‘Sordo’.
She said she was a teacher of deaf children
And had experience of my disorder.

And I have had experience of her order,
Interpenetrating chords and marshalled sound;
Often I loved to listen to the organ’s
Harmonious and concordant interpretation
Of what is due to us from the creation.

But it was taken from me in my childhood
And those graduated pipes turned into stone.
Now, having travelled a long way through silence,
Within the church in Trastevere I stand
A pilgrim to the patron saint of music

And am abashed by the presence of this nun
Beside the embodiment of that legendary
Virgin whose music and whose martyrdom
Is special to this place: by her reality.
She is a reminder of practical kindness,

The care it takes to draw speech from the dumb
Or pierce with sense the carapace of deafness;
And so, of the plain humility of the ethos
That constructed, also, this elaborate room
To pray for bread in; they are not contradictory.

David Wright

Week 158: Never Forget, by D.R.Merryfield

Remembrance Sunday this weekend, which invites something by Owen or Sassoon, but let’s have the great ones stand aside for once. I came across this poem in the ‘Letters’ column of the ‘Daily Mail’ some years back. I never heard of D.R.Merryfield before or since, and I daresay the first eight lines offer no more than the usual awkward sincerity of newspaper verse. But the last four lines, hm…

Never Forget

Horseguards is where we always meet
Ten thousand pairs of trudging feet
Assembling there in cold November
Just to prove we still remember.
‘Lest we forget’ the epitaph
That draws us to the Cenotaph,
The ghosts of an army of slaughtered souls
Are there with us as the drum rolls.
‘Come back Peter, come back Paul’
Said the childhood rhyme on the nursery wall,
But Peter and Paul, with a million more
Never came back from that bloody war.


(in ‘Letters’ column of Daily Mail, first week of November 2000)