Week 170: From ‘Pearl’ (author unknown)

‘Pearl’ is a long narrative poem in Middle English from the late 14th century in which a father, apparently mourning the loss of his daughter, falls asleep in a garden and has a vision of a maid in a strange landscape on the other side of a stream: she reproves him for his grief according to Christian doctrine, with a good deal of homily and the usual spiel about submitting to God’s will, and these elements of the poem are maybe not likely to appeal much to our more secular age. But there is one verse that I do find haunting, where the man’s natural humanity is allowed to cry out against the maid’s celestial complacency, while at the same time he remains, in a most pathetic way, desperate not to quarrel with the lost daughter.

I think the English is mostly intelligible to the modern reader, but I append my own attempt at a somewhat modernised rendering.

My blysse, my bale, ye han ben bothe,
But much the bygger yet watz my mone,
Fro thou watz wroken from vch a wothe,
I wyste neuer quere my perle watz gon.
Now I hit see, now lethez my lothe,
And, quen we departed, we wern at on;
God forbede we be now wrothe,
We meten so selden by stok other ston…

My joy, my grief, you have been both,
But much the more has been my moan,
Since you went free from woes of earth,
I knew not where my pearl had gone.
Now that I see, I am less loth,
And when you left, we were as one;
Now God forbid that we be wrath
Who meet no more by stick or stone.

Week 169: One Evening, by Molly Holden

There are many poets that I take pleasure in for their prowess, but relatively few that I return to over and over because I find them important to me in a way that transcends mere prowess: call it spiritual resonance. Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, A.E.Housman, R.S.Thomas – and Molly Holden. So I make no apology for featuring another of Molly’s poems here, particularly as she seems to me never to have had anything like the notice she deserves, perhaps partly because her concerns were not overtly feminist but simply and unfashionably human. I see in this poem a powerful image of her conflicted life, its storms of illness contrasting with a vision of serenity beyond, glimpsed through those closing gates of light.

One Evening

I came on to waste land
at evening, at the edge of the town,
where the hill drops away to meadow,
lane, and different distances of trees.
The wind was wild and the clouds

As I looked ahead
my eye’s vision seemed halved
for the earth was dark and the horizon
just as dark with clouds, but above
a sudden space of clear sky captured
breath. For above was the last
light and the first stars, edged
by the insane tumbling of black clouds,
brought up from tremendous distances
of night, framing sudden serenity.

All seemed so close, so furious
that I shrank, and then stared through
that lessening space at space itself,
withdrawn and permanent,
the gates of light now closing
on a stormy night.

Molly Holden

Week 168: Roman Wall Blues, by W.H.Auden

This may not be Auden’s greatest poem, but I certainly find it one of his most engagingly offbeat, and I have a particular fondness for it since it brings back vividly a day spent visiting Hadrian’s Wall with my small daughter and smaller grandson (there are seventeen years between our first and last child – don’t ask).

We picnicked just north of the wall and I sat propped against it with legs outstretched, watching white clouds go by and grass shimmer in the wind, and thinking of those who once patrolled here, Tungrian or Frisian or German auxiliary. I discovered that I knew ‘Roman Wall Blues’ by heart, and somehow at that moment Auden’s brief poem managed to conjure up their past for me better than any history book. In fact I was just feeling myself to be on the edge of some pretty profound insight when small grandson announced that he needed a wee, so I never quite got there. I think it was something about how little time for private reflection those poor blokes must have had in their hard anonymous lives…

Roman Wall Blues

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging round her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish,
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.


Week 167: The Garden of Ithilien, from ‘The Two Towers’ by J.R.R.Tolkien

How good a poet was J.R.R.Tolkien? Reluctantly, I have to go along with his great admirer W.H.Auden in saying ‘not very’, but with the caveat that this may be the wrong question. Tolkien did not belong, or wish to belong, to any modern tradition: his is a much older lineage, of scop and skald and bard, poets who were judged on their skill in making complex sound patterns in somewhat arcane language rather than, necessarily, on their success in the quest for inner truth and meaning that one likes to think is the business of poetry today. I do not think that line can be profitably resurrected, so I have to reckon Tolkien as a very skilled versifier rather than as a poet as I understand it. The prose is another matter: always clear and serviceable, at best it can have haunting rhythms and an evocative precision, as in this description of the garden of Ithilien from ‘The Two Towers’. It often seems to me that the real hero of ‘Lord of the Rings’ is Middle Earth itself, that ‘mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day’. Certainly I find its weathers and landscapes one of the great joys of the trilogy, and one that lifts it well clear of most other works in the fantasy genre. This particular passage reminds me of D.H.Lawrence’s loving depictions of the Mediterranean flora, though somehow I don’t imagine that Tolkien was much of a Lawrence reader.

Before them, as they turned west, gentle slopes ran down into dim hazes far below. All about them were small woods of resinous trees, fir and cedar and cypress, and other kinds unknown in the Shire, with wide glades among them; and everywhere there was a wealth of sweet-smelling herbs and shrubs. The long journey from Rivendell had brought them far south of their own land, but not until now in this more sheltered region had the hobbits felt the change of clime. Here Spring was already busy about them: fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.

South and west it looked towards the warm lower vales of Anduin, shielded from the east by the Ephel Duath and yet not under the mountain-shadow, protected from the north by the Emyn Muil, open to the southern airs and the moist winds from the Sea far away. Many great trees grew there, planted long ago, falling into untended age amid a riot of careless descendants, and groves and thickets there were of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay; and there were junipers and myrtles; and thymes that grew in bushes, or with their creeping woody stems mantling in deep tapestries the hidden stones; sages of many kinds putting forth blue flowers, or red, or pale green; and marjorams and new-sprouting parsleys, and many herbs of forms and scents beyond the garden-lore of Sam. The grots and rocky walls were already starred with saxifrages and stonecrops. Primeroles and anemones were awake in the filbert-brakes; and asphodel and many lily-flowers nodded their half-opened heads in the grass: deep green grass beside the pools, where falling streams halted in cool hollows on their journey down to Anduin.

Week 166: Old Furniture, by Thomas Hardy


I like this poem very much, even though it inspires in me considerable pangs of guilt concerning my father’s writing-desk. This was made of some dark wood, with a flap that let down on brass lopers, and many pigeonholes at the top where he kept his papers; these were of no interest to me, but below the flap were two shelves behind leaded lights which held the books from his own childhood, and tucked away behind them was a full set of Arthur Mee’s ‘The Children’s Encyclopaedia’. So it was that I cut my reading teeth on a combination of sturdy Victorian fare – Captain Marryat, G.A.Henty, R.M.Ballantyne, Rider Haggard, Thomas Hughes, Charles Kingsley, Talbot Baines Reed – together with a science that had no notion of relativity, DNA and continental drift, a history innocent of the Second World War and a geography in which most of the world was still coloured red. I am still trying to catch up.

The desk could have been mine when my mother died, but we had little room, and even I, not known for my sensitivity in matters of décor, could see that it did not ‘go with’ our other furniture, so I passed on it, and consequently don’t see as often as I might the man who spent so many hours seated there and the small boy sprawled on his stomach on the carpet nearby. We don’t have much time for ghosts in our lives these days; fortunately for us, Hardy did.

Old Furniture

I know not how it may be with others
Who sit amid relics of householdry
That date from the days of their mothers’ mothers.
But well I know how it is with me

I see the hands of the generations
That owned each shiny familiar thing
In play on its knobs and indentations,
And with its ancient fashioning
Still dallying:

Hands behind hands, growing paler and paler,
As in a mirror a candle-flame
Shows images of itself, each frailer
As it recedes, though the eye may frame
Its shape the same.

On the clock’s dull dial a foggy finger,
Moving to set the minutes right
With tentative touches that lift and linger
In the wont of a moth on a summer night,
Creeps to my sight.

On this old viol, too, fingers are dancing –
As whilom – just over the strings by the nut,
The tip of a bow receding, advancing
In airy quivers, as if it would cut
The plaintive gut.

And I see a face by that box for tinder,
Glowing forth in fits from the dark,
And fading again, as the linten cinder
Kindles to red at the flinty spark,
Or goes out stark.

Well, well. It is best to be up and doing,
The world has no use for one today
Who eyes things thus – no aim pursuing!
He should not continue in this stay,
But sink away.

Thomas Hardy