Week 187: Mr Flood’s Party, by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Could anything express the isolation and desolation of old age better than the closing four lines of this poem? It makes an interesting comparison with Robert Frost’s ‘An Old Man’s Winter Night’, and indeed Robinson may be counted as one of Frost’s influences. Robinson’s diction may be more consciously literary, but there is the same awareness that sometimes the more simply things are said the better they are said.

I remember when I first read the poem at school my literal mind was puzzled by the phrase ‘with only two moons listening’. I felt we could rule out the possibility that the action was taking place on Mars. So did this mean Eben was seeing double because he was drunk? Didn’t seem very poetic. In the end I decided that the second moon must be the remembered harvest moon of other days. For ‘Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past.’

Mr Flood’s Party

Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night
 Over the hill between the town below
And the forsaken upland hermitage
That held as much as he should ever know
On earth again of home, paused warily.
The road was his with not a native near;
And Eben, having leisure, said aloud,
For no man else in Tilbury Town to hear:

 ‘Well, Mr. Flood, we have the harvest moon
Again, and we may not have many more;
The bird is on the wing, the poet says,
And you and I have said it here before.
Drink to the bird.’ He raised up to the light
The jug that he had gone so far to fill,
And answered huskily: ‘Well, Mr. Flood,
Since you propose it, I believe I will.’

Alone, as if enduring to the end
A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn,
He stood there in the middle of the road
Like Roland’s ghost winding a silent horn.
Below him, in the town among the trees,
Where friends of other days had honored him,
A phantom salutation of the dead
Rang thinly till old Eben’s eyes were dim.

Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child
Down tenderly, fearing it may awake,
He set the jug down slowly at his feet
With trembling care, knowing that most things break;
And only when assured that on firm earth
It stood, as the uncertain lives of men
Assuredly did not, he paced away,
And with his hand extended paused again:

‘Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
In a long time; and many a change has come
To both of us, I fear, since last it was
We had a drop together. Welcome home!’
Convivially returning with himself,
Again he raised the jug up to the light;
And with an acquiescent quaver said:
‘Well, Mr. Flood, if you insist, I might.

‘Only a very little, Mr. Flood —
For auld lang syne. No more, sir; that will do.’
So, for the time, apparently it did,
And Eben evidently thought so too;
For soon amid the silver loneliness
Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
Secure, with only two moons listening,
Until the whole harmonious landscape rang —

‘For auld lang syne.’ The weary throat gave out,
The last word wavered; and the song being done,
He raised again the jug regretfully
And shook his head, and was again alone.
There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below —
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

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Week 186: August, 1914, by Isaac Rosenberg

These lines by the First World War poet Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918) seem to me a good example of a poem that is flawed yet still memorable, of inspiration triumphing over imperfection. For the most part the compact imagery works well: the symbol of war as a consuming fire, destroying affection and memory, ‘the heart’s dear granary’, is underpinned at the literal level by the fact that war can indeed lead to the burning of actual crops in ‘ripe fields’; the symbol of war as hard cold iron, ousting all that is rich and sweet in life, is similarly underpinned by the actual dominance of iron as a battlefield material. The problem I have is with the last line. Yes, this too may work well enough at the symbolic level: war as disfigurer, maiming the mouth, the very source of utterance, in the way it perverts human speech for the purposes of hate and propaganda. But at the literal level a broken tooth, on the scale of what war can do to the human body, strikes a rather bathetic note, and one can’t help wondering if Rosenberg got into difficulties having to find a rhyme for ‘youth’ and didn’t quite manage to extricate himself.

Still, worth it for that middle quatrain alone.

August 1914

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

Three lives hath one life –
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone –
Left is the hard and cold.

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields,
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

Isaac Rosenberg

Week 185: Spancil Hill, from words by Michael Considine

The beautiful folksong ‘Spancil Hill’ began life as a poem by Michael Considine (1850-1873), an Irish emigrant to the USA who went there in 1870 with the hope of earning enough money to pay passage for his sweetheart Mary MacNamara to come over and join him so that they could be married. But, dogged by ill health, he never managed to do this, and knowing that he had not long to live sent the poem home in remembrance of his love.

Now, in theory I feel that an author’s intentions ought to be respected and it is really not right to go around hijacking original poems and rewriting them. But when the folk tradition gets hold of something, what can you do? And the fact is that the version that has evolved seems to me a good deal better than the original, which is a bit prolix and religiose in places. Indeed, it is fascinating to watch the tradition at work, like a flowing stream smoothing and shaping a stone: here substituting a full rhyme for a clumsy half-rhyme, there quietly dropping lines about a golden stair to heaven and having the sense to dump the last pious stanza altogether and end with that poignant crowing of the cock, yet still preserving all that is essential about the poem, the fine specificity of its longing and heartache.

So, with apologies to Michael Considine, here is the folk version that I know best. For those interested, the original version, and a great deal of discussion about the song, can be found on the Mudcat site.

Spancil Hill

Last night as I lay dreaming of pleasant days gone by
My mind being bent on rambling to Ireland I did fly.
I stepped on board a vision and I followed with a will
And I shortly came to anchor at the cross of Spancil Hill.

It being the 23rd June the day before the fair
When Ireland’s sons and daughters in crowds assembled there,
The young and the old, the brave and the bold their duty to fulfill.
There were jovial conversations at the fair of Spancil Hill.

I went to see my neighbors to hear what they might say
The old ones were all dead and gone and the young ones turning grey.
I met with the tailor Quigley, he’s as bold as ever still
Sure he used to make my britches when I lived in Spancil Hill.

I paid a flying visit to my first and only love
She’s white as any lily and as gentle as a dove
She threw her arms around me saying ‘Johnny I love you still’.
Oh she’s Mack the Ranger’s daughter and the flower of Spancil Hill.

I dreamt I held and kissed her as in the days of yore.
She said, ‘Johnny you’re only joking as many’s the time before’.
The cock crew in the morning, he crew both loud and shrill.
I awoke in Californi-ay, many miles from Spancil Hill.

Week 184: The usual subject, by Simon Darragh

A brief but poignant look at bereavement, that rings very true; I remember how my mother’s fortitude after the death of my father finally broke down when she opened the wardrobe on his old brown jacket smelling of tobacco.

The usual subject

One grows used to the loss itself;
it is the details catch, and scourge:
the extra tea-cup on the shelf;
the kitchen table, grown too large.

Not in sorrow for wasted days
of love unspoken,
but by trivia such as these
the heart is broken

Simon Darragh