Week 174: The Secret People, by G.K.Chesterton

Maybe I really should not like G.K. Chesterton as much as I do. Wilfred Owen said of Tennyson, ‘He was always a great child, and so should I have been but for the battle of Beaumont Hamel’, and it has always seemed to me that these words could equally be applied to Chesterton, with his cloak and his swordstick and his rather romantic view of human violence bred, as Orwell noted, from a long age of civilian peace. Yes, a great child, and yet he could be such a wise and eloquent child…. And he was on our side, where by ‘our’ I mean the ordinary working man or woman whose greatest desire is to be left in peace to live their lives, raise their children and pursue their own interests, and who will forgive politicians most things out of gratitude that anyone should be prepared to take on the boring business of actually running the country but who do not like lies and broken promises. It will be fascinating to see what the ‘secret people’ do in the forthcoming European Union referendum. Personally I am all in favour of trade and cultural exchange as far as it goes, but those of us who can’t help feeling that history took a bit of a wrong turn in 1066 may like to recall that the battle-cry of King Harold’s house-carls on that fateful day at Senlac Hill was ‘Ut! Ut!’ – ‘Out! Out!’

The Secret People

Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.
There is many a fat farmer that drinks less cheerfully,
There is many a free French peasant who is richer and sadder than we.
There are no folk in the whole world so helpless or so wise.
There is hunger in our bellies, there is laughter in our eyes;
You laugh at us and love us, both mugs and eyes are wet:
Only you do not know us. For we have not spoken yet.

The fine French kings came over in a flutter of flags and dames.
We liked their smiles and battles, but we never could say their names.
The blood ran red to Bosworth and the high French lords went down;
There was naught but a naked people under a naked crown.
And the eyes of the King’s Servants turned terribly every way,
And the gold of the King’s Servants rose higher every day.
They burnt the homes of the shaven men, that had been quaint and kind,
Till there was no bed in a monk’s house, nor food that man could find.
The inns of God where no man paid, that were the wall of the weak.
The King’s Servants ate them all. And still we did not speak.

And the face of the King’s Servants grew greater than the King:
He tricked them, and they trapped him, and stood round him in a ring.
The new grave lords closed round him, that had eaten the abbey’s fruits,
And the men of the new religion, with their bibles in their boots,
We saw their shoulders moving, to menace or discuss,
And some were pure and some were vile; but none took heed of us.
We saw the King as they killed him, and his face was proud and pale;
And a few men talked of freedom, while England talked of ale.

A war that we understood not came over the world and woke
Americans, Frenchmen, Irish; but we knew not the things they spoke.
They talked about rights and nature and peace and the people’s reign:
And the squires, our masters, bade us fight; and scorned us never again.
Weak if we be for ever, could none condemn us then;
Men called us serfs and drudges; men knew that we were men.
In foam and flame at Trafalgar, on Albuera plains,
We did and died like lions, to keep ourselves in chains
We lay in living ruins; firing and fearing not
The strange fierce face of the Frenchmen who knew for what they fought,
And the man who seemed to be more than man we strained against and broke;
And we broke our own rights with him. And still we never spoke.

Our patch of glory ended; we never heard guns again.
But the squire seemed struck in the saddle; he was foolish, as if in pain,
He leaned on a staggering lawyer, he clutched a cringing Jew,
He was stricken; it may be, after all, he was stricken at Waterloo.
Or perhaps the shades of the shaven men, whose spoil is in his house,
Come back in shining shapes at last to spoil his last carouse:
We only know the last sad squires rode slowly towards the sea,
And a new people takes the land: and still it is not we.

They have given us into the hand of new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger or honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
And the load of their loveless pity is worse than the ancient wrongs,
Their doors are shut in the evening; and they know no songs.

We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia’s wrath and our wrath be the worst.
It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest
God’s scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.
But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.


Week 173: A Lyke-wake Dirge

I think one can respect the sombre power of this poem even if, like me, you have reservations about the belief system that inspired it and feel that the moral progress of humanity is and should be away from the notion of doing good to others in the hope of reward or for the avoidance of punishment in the next world and towards the notion of doing good to others simply because it makes a better place of this world.

Some versions amend ‘fleet’ in the third line to ‘sleet’, and in his ‘English and Scottish Ballads’ Robert Graves amends it to ‘salt’ but I am reluctant to lose the alliteration and anyway there is a perfectly good explanation that ‘fleet’ in Yorkshire dialect means floor or house-room, and so the third line is summarising the comforts of the house which the soul must then leave to go out in the dark and cold.

A Lyke-Wake Dirge

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past,
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Whinny-muir when thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Brig o’ Dread thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest meat or drink,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If meat or drink thou ne’er gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.


Week 172: At My Father’s Grave, by Hugh MacDiarmid

I first read Hugh MacDiarmid’s poems before knowing anything at all about MacDiarmid the man. There are many poets for whom this state of innocence has much to recommend it, but perhaps for few more than the pugnacious anglophobe Hugh MacDiarmid (aka Christopher Murray Grieve, 1892-1978), who brings to mind Auden’s lines about Time that ‘worships language and forgives/Everyone by whom it lives’. I am aware that for many MacDiarmid’s political views – he managed to espouse both fascism and communism – are not in the least forgivable, and I sympathise, but I feel that when it comes to poetry one has to make some effort to play the ball and not the man, and it does seem to me that among all the rant of his work there are, like it or not, some memorable fine lyrics.

At My Father’s Grave

The sunlicht still on me, you row’d in clood,
We look upon ilk other noo like hills,
Athort a valley. I’m nae mair your son.
It is my mind, nae son o’ yours, that looks,
And the great darkness o’ your death comes up
And equals it across the way.
A livin’ man upon a dead man thinks
And ony sma’er thocht’s impossible.

Hugh MacDiarmid

Week 171: Piano, by D.H.Lawrence

I suppose that in most hands a poem like this would come across as outrageously, even clumsily sentimental, but genius can get away with things that others had better not try, and if we ask ourselves how exactly, it could be something to do with the specificity of memory – those tingling strings – or something to do with technique – that bold rhyme of clamour and glamour – but mostly, I think, with the disarming sincerity of the piece, the poet’s willingness to keep faith with what he truly feels at whatever cost in vulnerability.


Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.