Week 200: Ardglass Town, by Richard Rowley

The anonymity of great cities naturally inspires poems of exile, and London has produced its fair share of them – one thinks of Housman’s desolate lines ‘Here I lie down in London/And turn to rest alone’, and Patrick Kavanagh, exiled in Ealing Broadway, naming the pieces of a harness for comfort in ‘Kerr’s Ass’. Here is another of them, a simple but effective lament by the Irish poet Richard Rowley (1877-1947); Richard Rowley was actually a penname of Richard Valentine Williams.

A loaning is a lane, or in particular an open space for passage between fields.

Ardglass Town

The sun is hid in heaven,
The fog floats thick and brown,
I walk the streets of London,
And think of Ardglass town.

About the point of Fennick,
The snowy breakers roll,
And green they shine in patterned squares,
The fields above Ardtole.

Oh, there by many a loaning,
Past farms that I could name
Thro’ Sheeplands to Gun Island,
The whins are all aflame.

And my heart bleeds within me
To think of times I had,
Walking with my sweetheart
The green road to Ringfad.

Richard Rowley

Week 199: To An Athlete Dying Young, by A.E.Housman

The Olympic Games are with us again, and as a one time runner myself of rather modest accomplishment – as many a poet must come sadly to accept, it is quite possible to be passionately devoted to a pursuit while having no great talent for it – I take as much pleasure as anyone in watching the world’s young strut their hour upon the global stage, bringing to mind those lines of Marlowe’s: ‘Is it not passing brave to be a king/And ride in triumph through Persepolis’ (or, as the case may be, Rio de Janeiro). And yet, how brief that hour really is, and how quickly our heroes and heroines must come to terms with physical decline and the anonymity of oblivion. For which of those golden lads and lasses, I wonder, will be remembered in a hundred years’ time, or even fifty? The mighty Bolt, maybe, in the way that some fabled racehorse is remembered. But all those others, now for a short while instantly recognisable by forename alone, Jess and Mo, Laura and Jason, Max and Adam, Alistair and Johnny? Almost certainly not. Well, as usual A.E.Housman has the words to match a mood tinged with rue.

To An Athlete Dying Young

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.


Week 198: Confessions, by Robert Browning

Robert Browning is a mixed bag if ever there was one, his work ranging from the masterly to the unreadable, the best of his poems showing a gift for the vivid and concrete hardly to be matched in English poetry, but too many others prosy or populist or just too damn long. If I had to choose one poem to attest to his stature, it would have to be ‘My Last Duchess’, but that’s surely too well known to need my espousal, and I suspect the same goes for the fine monologues ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ and ‘Andrea del Sarto’, the poignant ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s’, and the grimly enigmatic ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’. So here’s a lighter yet touching piece in which an old man on his deathbed remembers with a joyous lack of repentance a romantic escapade of his youth, which I take from the mention of an attic to be with the servant-girl of a grand house.


What is he buzzing in my ears?
‘Now that I come to die,
Do I view the world as a vale of tears?’
Ah, reverend sir, not I!

What I viewed there once, what I view again
Where the physic bottles stand
On the table’s edge,—is a suburb lane,
With a wall to my bedside hand.

That lane sloped, much as the bottles do,
From a house you could descry
O’er the garden-wall; is the curtain blue
Or green to a healthy eye?

To mine, it serves for the old June weather
Blue above lane and wall;
And that farthest bottle labelled ‘Ether’
Is the house o’ertopping all.

At a terrace, somewhere near the stopper,
There watched for me, one June,
A girl: I know, sir, it’s improper,
My poor mind’s out of tune.

Only, there was a way… you crept
Close by the side, to dodge
Eyes in the house, two eyes except:
They styled their house ‘The Lodge.’

What right had a lounger up their lane?
But, by creeping very close,
With the good wall’s help,—their eyes might strain
And stretch themselves to Oes,

Yet never catch her and me together,
As she left the attic, there,
By the rim of the bottle labelled ‘Ether,’
And stole from stair to stair,

And stood by the rose-wreathed gate. Alas,
We loved, sir—used to meet:
How sad and bad and mad it was—
But then, how it was sweet!

Robert Browning

Week 197: Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard

This great ballad, Child 81, is probably best known these days in the version belted out by Sandy Denny on the seminal folk album ‘Liege and Lief’ under the alternative title ‘Matty Groves’, but I’ve slightly reluctantly gone back to the primary Child version, confining myself to a little modernisation of the spelling (a bolder soul than I might be tempted to make a composite text from the best the numerous versions have to offer, but at least this version includes the lady’s beautiful injunction to her lover to ‘huggle me from the cold’).

One of the things I like about these ballads is the sheer feistiness of their heroines, forever seeing what they want and going for it, which acts as a useful corrective to the demure passivity of the females in so much courtly verse of the past. Let’s face it, poor Little Musgrave never had a chance…

Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard

It fell out one holy-day,
As many be in the year,
When young men and maids together did go,
Their mattins and mass to heare,

Little Musgrave came to the church-door;
The priest was at private masse;
But he had more mind of the fair women
Then he had of our lady’s grace.

The one of them was clad in green,
Another was clad in pall,
And then came in my lord Barnard’s wife,
The fairest amongst them all.

She cast an eye on Little Musgrave,
As bright as the summer sun;
And then bethought this Little Musgrave,
This lady’s heart have I won.

Quoth she, I have loved thee, Little Musgrave,
Full long and many a day;
‘So have I loved  you, fair lady,
Yet never word durst I say.’

‘I have a bower at Bucklesfordbery,
Full daintily it is dight;
If thou wilt wend thither, thou Little Musgrave,
Thou’s lig in mine arms all night.’

Quoth he, I thank yee, faire lady,
This kindness thou showest to me;
But whether it be to my weal or woe,
This night I will lig with thee.

With that he heard, a little tiny page,
By this lady’s coach as he ran:
‘All though I am my lady’s foot-page,
Yet I am Lord Barnard’s man.

‘My lord Barnard shall know of this,
Whether I sink or swim;’
And ever where the bridges were broke
He laid him down to swim.

‘Asleep or wake, thou Lord Barnard,
As thou art a man of life,
For Little Musgrave is at Bucklesfordbery,
Abed with thy own wedded wife.’

‘If this be true, thou little tiny page,
This thing thou tellest to me,
Then all the land in Bucklesfordbery
I freely will give to thee.

‘But if it be a lie, thou little tiny page,
This thing thou tellest to me,
On the highest tree in Bucklesfordbery
Then hanged shalt thou be.’

He called up his merry men all:
‘Come saddle me my steed;
This night must I to Bucklesfordbery,
For I never had greater need.’

And some of them whistled, and some of them sung,
And some these words did say,
And ever when my lord Barnard’s horn blew,
‘Away, Musgrave, away!’

‘Methinks I hear the thresel-cock,
Methinks I hear the jay;
Methinks I hear my lord Barnard,
And I would I were away.’

‘Lie still, lie still, thou Little Musgrave,
And huggle me from the cold;
’Tis nothing but a shepherd’s boy,
A-driving his sheep to the fold.

‘Is not thy hawk upon a perch?
Thy steed eats oats and hay;
And thou a fair lady in thine arms,
And wouldst thou be away?’

With that my lord Barnard came to the door,
And lit a stone upon;
He plucked out three silver keys,
And he opened the doors each one.

He lifted up the coverlet,
He lifted up the sheet:
‘How now, how now, thou Little Musgrave,
Doest thou find my lady sweet?’

‘I find her sweet,’ quoth Little Musgrave,
‘The more ’tis to my paine;
I would gladly give three hundred pounds
That I were on yonder plain.’

‘Arise, arise, thou Little Musgrave,
And put thy clothes on;
It shall ne’er be said in my country
I have killed a naked man.

‘I have two swords in one scabbard,
Full dear they cost my purse;
And thou shalt have the best of them,
And I will have the worse.’

The first stroke that Little Musgrave struck,
He hurt Lord Barnard sore;
The next stroke that Lord Barnard struck,
Little Musgrave ne’er struck more.

With that bespake this faire lady,
In bed whereas she lay:
‘Although thou’rt dead, thou Little Musgrave,
Yet I for thee will pray.

‘And wish well to thy soul will I,
So long as I have life;
So will I not for thee, Barnard,
Although I am thy wedded wife.’

He cut her paps from off her breast;
Great pity it was to see
That some drops of this lady’s heart’s blood
Ran trickling down her knee.

‘Woe worth you, woe worth, my mery men all
You were ne’er born for my good;
Why did you not offer to stay my hand,
When you see me wax so wood?

‘For I have slain the bravest sir knight
That ever rode on steed;
So have I done the fairest lady
That ever did woman’s deed.

‘A grave, a grave,’ Lord Barnard cried,
‘To put these lovers in;
But lay my lady on the upper hand,
For she came of the better kin.’