Week 178: The Streets of Laredo, by Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice was in London during the Blitz and this poem captures the spirit of that time in masterly fashion as it shifts between the real and the semi-mythic, the defiant and the despairing, its cast of characters moving to the ballad tune in a brilliantly choreographed danse macabre.

Agag was a bibilical king referred in the book of Samuel as coming ‘delicately’ to his execution.

The Streets of Laredo

O early one morning I walked out like Agag,
Early one morning to walk through the fire
Dodging the pythons that leaked on the pavements
With tinkle of glasses and tangle of wire;

When grimed to the eyebrows I met an old fireman
Who looked at me wryly and thus did he say:
‘The streets of Laredo are closed to all traffic,
We won’t never master this joker to-day.

‘O hold the branch tightly and wield the axe brightly,
The bank is in powder, the banker’s in hell,
But loot is still free on the streets of Laredo
And when we drive home we drive home on the bell.’

Then out from a doorway there sidled a cockney,
A rocking-chair rocking on top of his head:
‘O fifty-five years I been feathering my love-nest
And look at it now —
why, you’d sooner be dead.’

At which there arose from a wound in the asphalt,
His big wig a-smoulder, Sir Christopher Wren
Saying: ‘Let them make hay of the streets of Laredo;
When your ground-rents expire I will build them again.’

Then twangling their bibles with wrath in their nostrils
From Bunhill Fields came Bunyan and Blake:
‘Laredo the golden is fallen, is fallen;
Your flame shall not quench nor your thirst shall not slake.’

‘I come to Laredo to find me asylum’,
Says Tom Dick and Harry the Wandering Jew;
‘They tell me report at the first police station
But the station is pancaked —
so what can I do?’

Thus eavesdropping sadly I strolled through Laredo
Perplexed by the dicta misfortunes inspire
Till one low last whisper inveigled my earhole —
The voice of the Angel, the voice of the fire:

O late, very late, have I come to Laredo
A whimsical bride in my new scarlet dress
But at last I took pity on those who were waiting
To see my regalia and feel my caress.  

Now ring the bells gaily and play the hose daily,
Put splints on your legs, put a gag on your breath;
O you streets of Laredo, you streets of Laredo,
Lay down the red carpet —
My dowry is death.

Louis MacNeice

Week 177: From ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’, by Louis de Bernières

I struggled a bit with the opening chapters of ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ until I got orientated, and I found the closing chapters a little unsatisfactory, though maybe only in the same way that life itself can be unsatisfactory, but I fell deeply in love with everything between: so much that is tender, so much that is humorous, so much that is unbearably sad. Here is an excerpt from Dr Iannis’s funeral valediction for Carlo Guercio, who died trying to save his friend Corelli from the bullets of their executioners. The high style may be unfashionable now, but in the context of the book it seems just right, and Dr Iannis’ words are surely in the best traditions of Greek oratory: one senses the ghost of Pericles looking on approvingly.

P.S. don’t judge the book on the film, which even more than most films fails entirely to render the quality of the book.

‘Our friend’, he said, ‘who arrived as an enemy, has passed over the meadows of asphodel. We found him fuller of the knowledge of goodness than any other mortal man. We remember that his many decorations were for saving lives, not destroying them. We remember that he died as nobly as he lived, valiant and strong. We are creatures of a day, but his spirit will not dim. He made an eager grace of life and was arrested mid-path by blood-boltered men, whose name will live in infamy down the passage of years. These also will pass away, but unlamented and unforgiven; the meed of death is common to us all. When death comes to these men they shall become spirits drifting uselessly in the dark, for man’s day is very short before the end, and the cruel man, whose ways are cruel, lies accursed and is a by-word after death. But the spirit of Carlo Guercio shall live in the light as long as we have tongues to speak of him and tales to tell our friends.

…. Sleep long and well. You will not be curbed by age, you will not grow weak, you will not know sorrows nor infirmity. As long as we remember you, you will be remembered fair and young. Cephallonia has no greater honour than to count itself the guardian of your bones.’

Louis de Bernières

Week 176: The Wife A-Lost, by William Barnes

This can be viewed as a companion piece to Barnes’s ‘Woak Hill’ (see week 31), and in my view takes its place alongside that as one of the most moving poems of marital bereavement in the language. Again, it is important not to be put off by Barnes’s attempts at dialect spelling: if you listen to the poem in your head, hearing perhaps just the ghost of a Dorset accent, I think any problems melt away.

The Wife A-Lost

Since I noo mwore do zee your feäce,
Up steäirs or down below,
I’ll zit me in the lwonesome pleäce,
Where flat-bough’d beech do grow;
Below the beeches’ bough, my love,
Where you did never come,
An’ I don’t look to meet ye now,
As I do look at hwome.

Since you noo mwore be at my zide,
In walks in zummer het,
I’ll goo alwone where mist do ride,
Drough trees a-drippèn wet;
Below the rain-wet bough, my love,
Where you did never come,
An’ I don’t grieve to miss ye now,
As I do grieve at hwome.

Since now bezide my dinner-bwoard
Your vaïce do never sound,
I’ll eat the bit I can avvword,
A-yield upon the ground;
Below the darksome bough, my love,
Where you did never dine,
An’ I don’t grieve to miss ye now,
As I at hwome do pine.

Since I do miss your vaïce an’ feäce
In praÿer at eventide,
I’ll praÿ wi’ woone sad vaïce vor greäce
To goo where you do bide;
Above the tree an’ bough, my love,
Where you be gone avore,
An’ be a-waïtèn vor me now,
To come vor evermwore.

William Barnes

Week 175: Mama and Daughter, by Langston Hughes

I much admire this poem by the American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967) for its spare evocative dialogue that conveys so well the wistful singing sweetness of memory.

Mama and Daughter

Mama, please brush off my coat.
I’m going down the street.

Where’re you going, daughter?

To see my sugar-sweet.

Who is your sugar, honey?
Turn around – I’ll brush behind.

He is that young man, mama,
I can’t get off my mind.

Daughter, once upon a time –
Let me brush your hem –
Your father, yes he was the one!
I felt like that about him.

But it was a long time ago
He up and went his way.
I hope that wild young son-of-a-gun
Rots in hell today!

Mama, dad couldn’t still be young.

He was young yesterday.
He was young when he –
Turn around!
So I can brush your back, I say!

Langston Hughes