You don’t go to R.S.Thomas’s poems for consolation, but you do go to them for the quiet satisfaction of their craftsmanship, for their flow of images and metaphors, never imposed on the poem but coming from some deep well of devotion within it. The ‘bough of country’ here is the Lleyn peninsula in Wales, Thomas’s final home. ‘Subsong’ is birdsong that is softer and less well defined than the usual territorial song, a ‘quiet warbling’ used by some birds especially in courtship: wryly appropriate here given Thomas’s passion for birdwatching.
I have crawled out at last
far as I dare on to a bough
of country that is suspended
between sky and sea.
From what was I escaping?
There is a rare peace here
though the aeroplanes buzz me,
reminders of that abyss,
deeper than sea or sky, civilisation
could fall into. Strangers
advance, inching their way
out, so that the branch bends
further away from the scent
of the cloud blossom. Must
I console myself
with reflections? There are
times even the mirror
is misted as by one breathing
over my shoulder. Clinging
to my position, witnessing
the seasonal migrations,
I must try to content
myself with the perception
that love and truth have
no wings, but are resident
like me here, practising
their subsong quietly in the face
of the bitterest of winters.
Just this once, one of my own efforts, with the excuse that it does at least have a seasonal theme…
My winter treat, the pantomime at Christmas:
To go out after tea, in frosty dark,
Down by the railway bridge, past the allotments
To the lit hall in the village.
I was four.
What was time to me? I thought that Jesus
Lived in the air-raid shelter, I thought that a train
Out of the unmapped dark might bring the Wise Men.
I thought that the whole silent valley brimmed with a secret
That the stars might spell out with their shining.
They are gone,
The lit hall, and the laughter; I recall
Nothing of those. Strange then, to see so clearly
That journey down, the glint of moonlit rails,
The frost-furred brick, the snow-capped cabbages,
And all the starry secret, still untold.
There seems to be a general view that the work of the later, postwar Auden is marked by a decline in poetic power. I can see that it has its wobbles, but I think there were also gains: a move towards greater lucidity, towards writing less for a coterie audience and more for the only audience really worth having, the company of free spirits throughout time. I like, for example, this poem, written in 1950, in which Auden characteristically combines a light touch with a serious thought.
As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.
A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.
Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.
Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.
It is easy to become mesmerised by the eloquence and technical accomplishment of Shakespeare’s Sonnets at the expense of paying sufficient attention to what is actually being said. For these are not comfortable poems. In some cases they are hardly love poems at all, less a celebration of that emotion than a forensic dissection of it, and if human affection is there it often seems to ride on dark undercurrents of doubt, despair, jealousy and even revulsion. This sonnet, for example, is masterly as a poem, but what it actually says seems rather odd. How exactly are we to take the closing couplet? ‘When I’m dead, just forget about me: you know what people are like and I don’t want them making fun of you on account of some playwright chap having written poems about you’. If so, this sentiment sits strangely with the more rhetorical assertions in other of the sonnets about the loved one being forever celebrated in the poet’s eternal lines. Yet maybe this one comes closer to expressing the fundamental insecurity at the heart of the sonnets, that does much to give them their tantalising power. [The next sonnet in the sequence, 72, does develop the theme of this one but hardly elucidates it, losing itself in the verbal quibbling that the Bard so often defaults to, a kind of idling mode while he waits to get into gear again].
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that write it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.
Robert Frost’s reputation might have been built initially on his admirable longer poems like ‘Home Burial’ and ‘Death of the Hired Man’, but how easily his shorter lyrics too can slip into the memory. Like this beautifully oblique meditation on ageing and decline.
The Oven Bird
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.