Week 222: Field Day, by W.R.Rodgers

This poem by the Irish poet W.R.Rodgers (1909-1969), about how landscapes, or just odd scraps of landscape, can be numinous for us makes an interesting comparison with Patrick Kavanagh’s poem ‘Innocence’ and his love for ‘The triangular hill that hung/Under the Big Forth’ – see week 10. My own numinous field, the wheatfield that started at the bottom of my garden when I was a child, was not triangular but a great rectangle that dipped and then curved up to a line of woodland. Last time I went back they were building a new housing estate on it. Well, people need places to live, but they also need places to live.

Field Day

The old farmer, nearing death, asked
To be carried outside and set down
Where he could see a certain field
‘And then I will cry my heart out’, he said.

It troubles me, thinking about that man;
What shape was the field of his crying In Donegal?

I remember a small field in Down, a field
Within fields, shaped like a triangle.
I could have stood there and looked at it
All day long.

And I remember crossing the frontier between
France and Spain at a forbidden point, and seeing
A small triangular field in Spain,
And stopping

Or walking in Ireland down any rutted by-road
To where it hit the high-way, there was always
At this turning point and abutment
A still centre, a V-shape of grass
Untouched by cornering traffic.
Where country lads larked at night.

I think I know what the shape of the field was
That made the old man weep.


Week 221: Die Erblindende, by Rainer Maria Rilke

Another of my favourite poems by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a small masterpiece of delicate, compassionate observation. The translation that follows is my own.

Die Erblindende

Sie saß so wie die anderen beim Tee.
Mir war zuerst, als ob sie ihre Tasse
ein wenig anders als die andern fasse.
Sie lächelte einmal. Es tat fast weh.

Und als man schließlich sich erhob und sprach
und langsam und wie es der Zufall brachte
durch viele Zimmer ging (man sprach und lachte),
da sah ich sie. Sie ging den andern nach,

verhalten, so wie eine, welche gleich
wird singen müssen und vor vielen Leuten;
auf ihren hellen Augen die sich freuten war
Licht von außen wie auf einem Teich.

Sie folgte langsam und sie brauchte lang
als wäre etwas noch nicht überstiegen;
und doch: als ob, nach einem Übergang,
sie nich mehr gehen würde, sondern fliegen.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Going Blind

She sat just like the rest of them at tea.
What struck me first was how she held her cup
Not quite the same as others in the group.
She sometimes smiled. It almost hurt to see.

And when the others rose at last and went
From room to room, taking their random way,
Laughing and talking, with so much to say,
I saw her. She was following, intent

On some thought of her own, like one aware
She soon would have to sing for many people,
While light on her bright eyes, as on a pool,
Gleamed from beyond, reflecting gladness there.

She followed slowly, so long passing by
As if there were still something to surmount;
And yet, once she had mastered that ascent,
She would no more be walking, but would fly.

Week 220: Danny Deever, by Rudyard Kipling

I think my father only ever read one poem in his life, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’, which he carried about with him as a cutting in his wallet. All credit to it for seeing him through some difficult times of war and ill-health, though I had my own reservations about the poem. ‘If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew/To serve your turn long after they are gone….’ – what did that even mean? There are strict physiological limits, and the toughest athletes in the world, though their limits may be very different from ours, will still come up against them. No, I felt that if you wanted to represent Kipling as a poet there were better things to be had, prime among them being the powerful and disturbing ‘Danny Deever’. I don’t read it that Kipling is necessarily opposed to the ultimate penalty being enforced in capital cases, but there is no relish about it, such as Kipling’s detractors might have looked for, just a grim recognition that the administration of such justice exacts its toll on the humanity of all concerned.

Danny Deever

‘What are the bugles blowin’ for?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘To turn you out, to turn you out,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
‘What makes you look so white, so white?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘I’m dreadin’ what I’ve got to watch,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
For they’re hangin’ Danny Deever, you can hear the Dead March play,
The regiment’s in ‘ollow square–they’re hangin’ him to-day;
They’ve taken of his buttons off an’ cut his stripes away,
An’ they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

‘What makes the rear-rank breathe so ‘ard?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘It’s bitter cold, it’s bitter cold,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
‘What makes that front-rank man fall down?’ says Files-on-Parade.
‘A touch o’ sun, a touch o’ sun,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
They are hangin’ Danny Deever, they are marchin’ of ‘im round,
They ‘ave ‘alted Danny Deever by ‘is coffin on the ground;
An’ e’ll swing in ‘arf a minute for a sneakin’ shootin’ hound–
O they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’!

‘Is cot was right-‘and cot to mine,’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘E’s sleepin’ out an’ far tonight,’ the Colour Sergeant said.
‘I’ve drunk ‘is beer a score o’ times,’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘E’s drinkin bitter beer alone,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
They are hangin’ Danny Deever, you must mark ‘im to ‘is place,
For ‘e shot a comrade sleepin’–you must look ‘im in the face;
Nine ‘undred of ‘is county an’ the regiment’s disgrace,
While they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

‘What’s that so black agin the sun?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘It’s Danny fightin’ ‘ard for life,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
‘What’s that that whimpers over’ead?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘It’s Danny’s soul that’s passin’ now,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
For they’re done with Danny Deever, you can ‘ear the quickstep play,
The regiment’s in column, an’ they’re marchin’ us away;
Ho! the young recruits are shakin’, an’ they’ll want their beer today,
After hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

Rudyard Kipling

Week 219: Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries, by A.E.Housman

I do have a strong preference for poems that seem to me to be not just eloquent but true, by which I mean, I suppose, in accordance with the facts of life as I perceive them. Because of this these two poems taken in combination give me an acute case of cognitive dissonance, since both are eloquent and I feel that both have something to be said for them, yet their viewpoints could hardly be more diametrically opposed. As a peace-loving child of risk-adverse times, I count it one of the blessings of my life that my country has allowed me to get to a fairly advanced age without requiring me to get myself killed or, a prospect I view with an almost equal lack of enthusiasm, to kill anybody else. To that extent, I am with MacDiarmid. But then I am minded of the quote (often attributed to Orwell, though it appears he never used these exact words) ‘We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us’. One also has to consider that while Housman may have been somewhat given to the romanticisation of things military, in a way that became rather more difficult after World War I and the reports of poets who had actually seen the face of modern warfare, this possible flaw in his moral stance is surely far outweighed by MacDiarmid’s adulation of totalitarian Russia: the proposition that Stalin’s regime was a better bet than Housman’s ‘Old Contemptibles’ when it came to preserving ‘elements of worth’, seems, to put it mildly, dubious. So, in the end, Housman for me.

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

A.E. Housman

Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

It is a God-damned lie to say that these
Saved, or knew, anything worth any man’s pride,
They were professional murderers and they took
Their blood money and their impious risks and died.
In spite of all their kind some elements of worth
With difficulty persist here and there on earth.

Hugh MacDiarmid