Week 213: For My Newborn Son, by Sydney Goodsir Smith

I guess some may find this poem by the Scots poet Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915-1975) a touch sentimental, but if you can’t be sentimental about a newborn baby what can you be sentimental about, and I speak as one who has, with some assistance from my wife, had four of them.

I think the Scots words shouldn’t present much of a problem. Schire-bleezan: blazing brightly; causey: road (causeway); kist: chest; lap: leapt; dirlin: beating; downa: do not; maikless: matchless (cf. the beautiful Middle English lyric ‘I sing of a maiden/That is makeless’)

For My Newborn Son

Blythe was yir comin,
Hert never dreamt it,
A new man bydan
In warld whan I’ve left it.

Bricht was yon morn,
Cauld in September,
Wi sun aa the causey
Glentered wi glamer,
Sclate roofs like siller
Schire-bleezan yon morn.

Hert in my kist lap,
Joyrife its dirlin,
Bairn, whan oor lips met
Yir mither’s were burnan,
Weet were oor een then,
Puir words downa tell it.

As hert never dreamt on
Was joy in yir comin,
Maikless wee nesslin
Ma sleepan reid Robin.

Sydney Goodsir Smith

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Week 212: Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers, by Harry Pynn/Hamish Henderson

This poem is perhaps best known for having entered the folk tradition, where it is sung to the tune of ‘Lili Marlene’, but it is well able to stand on its own as a masterpiece of ironic invective. The background is that the Conservative MP Lady Astor is alleged to have referred to soldiers of the 8th Army, who were fighting in Italy, as ‘D-Day Dodgers’, since they were not to be involved in the action in Normandy (to be fair, she denied having said any such thing, but let’s not give her the benefit of the doubt…). Unfortunately for her this came to the notice of a certain Lance-Sergeant Harry Pynn of the Tank Rescue Section, 19 Army Fire Brigade, who was out in Italy with the 78th Infantry Division, and penned this response. The poem is also attributed to the Scots writer Hamish Henderson, but it may be that he merely collected various versions of it; I suspect, however, that Henderson, himself a notable poet of whom more one day, may well have honed the original somewhat. 

There are many variants on the words, and I have not been able to pin down the original text, so present what I think is the most trenchant version. In this we get four stanzas of withering sarcasm chronicling the bitter campaign fought by the Eighth Army as it made its way northward up Italy, followed by one stanza of good old-fashioned flyting, before the poem suddenly changes tone completely to finally demolish the lady’s assertion with a hauntingly elegiac last stanza. 

I am no social historian, but it is tempting to see in this poem much of the mood of that remarkable year, 1945, in which a public weary of patronage, deference and rhetoric unceremoniously dumped Churchill and his Tory government in favour of a new order. 

Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers

We’re the D-Day Dodgers, way off in Italy
Always on the vino, always on the spree;
Eighth Army scroungers and their tanks,
We live in Rome, among the Yanks.
We are the D-Day Dodgers, way out in Italy.

We landed in Salerno, a holiday with pay,
The Jerries brought the bands out to greet us on the way.
Showed us the sights and gave us tea,
We all sang songs, the beer was free
To welcome D-Day Dodgers to sunny Italy.

Naples and Cassino were taken in our stride,
We didn’t go to fight there, we went just for the ride.
Anzio and Sangro were just names,
We only went to look for dames,
The artful D-Day Dodgers, way out in Italy.

On our way to Florence we had a lovely time.
We ran a bus to Rimini right through the Gothic Line.
On to  Bologna we did go,
Then we all had a paddle in the Po.
For we are the D-Day Dodgers, out here in Italy.

Dear Lady Astor, you think you know a lot,
Standing on a platform, talking tommyrot.
You’re England’s sweetheart and her pride.
We think your mouth’s too bleeding wide.
That’s from your D-Day Dodgers, in sunny Italy.

Look around the mountains, in the mud and rain,
You’ll find the scattered crosses, there’s some that have no name.
Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone,
The boys beneath them slumber on.
They are the D-Day Dodgers who stay in Italy.

Harry Pynn/Hamish Henderson/folk tradition

Week 211: The Long Small Room, by Edward Thomas

The beautiful particularity of this poem should not blind us to the fact that its closing stanzas are bleak as anything Edward Thomas ever wrote. Thomas’s long-running battle with literary hackwork and depression is well-chronicled, and probably the reaction of many will be ‘Join the club, mate’ – after all, most of us, unless we are unusually lucky in our vocation, are doomed to spend the best part of our lives in a place we don’t particularly want to be doing things we don’t particularly want to do. But Thomas, through a combination of temperament and domestic circumstances, did perhaps genuinely suffer more than most. The poem makes an interesting comparison with Philip Larkin’s famous anti-work diatribe ‘Toads’, but set beside Thomas’s existential angst Larkin’s seems no more than a cheery grumble: as a librarian he was after all doing something he clearly took some pride in and which presumably offered a measure of financial security, and by all accounts he seems to have got on rather well with his secretaries. Thomas worked alone for a pittance, and knew himself wasted.

The Long Small Room

The long small room that showed willows in the west
Narrowed up to the end the fireplace filled,
Although not wide. I liked it. No one guessed
What need or accident made them so build.

Only the moon, the mouse and the sparrow peeped
In from the ivy round the casement thick.
Of all they saw and heard there they shall keep
The tale for the old ivy and older brick.

When I look back I am like moon, sparrow, and mouse
That witnessed what they could never understand
Or alter or prevent in the dark house.
One thing remains the same – this my right hand

Crawling crab-like over the clean white page,
Resting awhile each morning on the pillow,
Then once more starting to crawl on towards age.
The hundred last leaves stream upon the willow.

Edward Thomas

Week 210: There’s a certain Slant of light, by Emily Dickinson

I find this piece haunting, the more so because it is one of those poems that seem to give up their full meaning only slowly over the course of a lifetime. For me it is about those mysterious moments of alertness that we probably all have, those intimations of some platonic parallel world that trouble us with a sense of lost chances, of a realm where not only do things go better for us but we ourselves are better. It is linked in my mind, and not just by reason of the ‘cathedral tunes’ simile, with one of my all-time favourite pieces of music, Vaughan Williams’s ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’. When I listen to that I know exactly what ‘heavenly hurt’ is, and what ‘imperial affliction’ can be sent us of the air. And yet, while the poem may speak of hurt, and of a despair for the fading of the vision which is like a small death, there is a kind of uplift about it as well. For it is no small part of our humanity, that at least we are vulnerable to these intimations of the better, that we have our place in that landscape that listens, among those silent shadows.

There’s a certain Slant of light

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

Emily Dickinson