The Welsh poet Idris Davies (1905-1953) is probably best known now for his poem ‘The Bells of Rhymney’, which was set to music by Pete Seeger and has entered the folk tradition. Davies is not the most subtle of poets: the mainspring of his work is a fine socialist anger (he worked for some years as a miner and participated in the General Strike of 1926), but it is also characterised by a poignant urban lyricism, a genuine sense of identification with his fellow men and a deep rootedness in his time and place, Wales between the wars.
Queen Street, Cardiff
When the crowds flow into Queen Street from the suburbs and the hills
And the music of the hour is the music of the tills,
I sometimes gaze and wonder at my fellows passing by
Each one with dreams and passions, each one to toil and die.
And I almost hear the voices of a throng I never knew
That passed through this same Queen Street, and under skies as blue,
And they too had their laughter, their sorrow, in their day
And they too went a journey with an unreturning way.
And other generations in distant years to be
Shall walk and crowd through Queen Street, in joy or misery,
And they shall laugh and grumble and love and hate and lust,
Their living flesh oblivious of our eternal dust.
But banish all such brooding, for May is in the air,
And Jack from Ystrad Mynach loves Jill from Aberdare,
And however Life shall use them, they shall talk in years to be
Of when they were young in Queen Street in the city by the sea.
If I were asked to rank the four languages that I studied for my degree as part of the Cambridge Anglo-Saxon Tripos – Old English, Old Norse, Old Irish and Old Welsh – according to the literary merit/interest of what survives in them, then Old Norse would come in a clear winner with Old English, I am sorry to say, limping in a somewhat distant fourth; this may, of course, simply be a reflection of how much of our native heritage has been lost. True, we have ‘Beowulf’, and ‘Beowulf’ has its moments, but not enough of them to sustain a poem of over 3000 lines, and if it was really ever meant for recitation then I like to think of some small Anglo-Saxon child, allowed to stay up late in the mead-hall, tugging at his father’s sleeve saying ‘Dad, when do we get to the bit with the monsters?’.
Still, there are other things in Old English besides ‘Beowulf’, and one of them is this rather beautiful riddle from the Exeter Book, to which the answer is generally assumed to be ‘Swan’. The slightly free translation that follows is my own.
Hrægl min swigað þōn ic hrusan trede
oþþe þa wic buge oþþe wado drefe
hwilum mec ahebbað ofer hæleþa byht
hyrste mine þeos hea lyft
mec þōn wide wolcna strengu
ofer folc byreð frætwe mine
swogað hlude swinsiað
torhte singað þōn ic getenge ne beom
flode ond foldan ferende gæst
My garb is silent when I go on earth
Where men abide, or when I stir the stream.
Sometimes, though, I harness the high air,
Men’s dwellings dwindle as I mount above
Borne on the mighty sky. What music then
My rustling raiment makes, what melodies
It sings in splendour as I soar aloft,
A faring spirit far from field and flood.
Tony Harrison (1937-) writes a bracingly acerbic poetry in which anger mingles with compassion: in this one the compassion dominates. I much admire his ability to extract poetry from what on the face of it is plain colloquial speech.
Long Distance, II
Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.
You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.
He’d put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.
He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief
though sure that very soon he’d hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.
I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there’s your name
and the disconnected number I still call.
I love this poem by Norman Nicholson (1914-1987) – such a sensuous evocation of a northern town’s back streets – those gables ‘sanded with sun’, that ‘smoke of lilac’ – combined with a startling geological perspective.
Millom Old Quarry
‘They dug ten streets from that there hole,’ he said,
‘Hard on five hundred houses.’ He nodded
Down the set of the quarry and spat in the water
Making a moorhen cock her head
As if a fish had leaped. ‘Half the new town
‘Came out of yonder – King Street, Queen Street, all
‘The houses round the Green as far as the slagbank,
‘And Market Street, too, from the Crown allotments
‘Up to the Station Yard.’ – ‘But Market Street’s
‘Brown freestone’, I said. ‘Nobbut the facings
‘We called them the Khaki Houses in the Boer War
‘But they’re Cumberland slate at the back.’
I thought of those streets still bearing their royal names
Like the coat-of-arms on a child’s Jubilee Mug –
Nonconformist gables sanded with sun
Or branded with burning creeper; a smoke of lilac
Between the blue roofs of closet and coal-house;
So much that woman’s blood gave sense and shape to
Hacked from this dynamited combe.
The rocks cracked to the pond, and hawthorns fell
In waterfalls of blossom. Shed petals
Patterned the scum like studs on the sole of a boot
And stiff-legged sparrows skid down screes of gravel.
I saw the town’s black generations
Packed in their caves of rock, as mussel or limpet
Washed by the tidal sky; then swept, shovelled
Back in the quarry again, a landslip of lintels
Blocking the gape of the tarn.
The quick turf pushed a green tarpaulin over
All that was mortal in five thousand lives.
Nor did it seem a paradox to one
Who held quarry and query, turf and town
In the small lock of a recording brain.
I find this one of Blake’s most haunting poems but also one of the most troublesome, because despite my own best efforts and the efforts of others I don’t feel that I am any closer to understanding it beyond what seems the fairly safe bet that it is about human sexuality rather than horticulture.
So just stop worrying? The trouble is that once you abandon the quest for meaning, can you be sure of being able to distinguish truly inspired utterance from manufactured gibberish? Well, I don’t think this poem is gibberish, but why not? After all, invisible flying worms seem to fall some way short of sense as we know it.
So, if I can’t figure out what was going in Blake’s head when he wrote it, can I at least figure out what is going in mine when I read it? Not really – I only know that it passes Housman’s test for poetry: that it makes the hairs stand on end.
The Sick Rose
O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.