There is a paradox about this best and best-known of Byron’s lyrics, which is that it is really not very Byronic, that it bears so little imprint of the entertainingly dodgy character who pervades poems like ‘Don Juan’. Instead, it attains to the kind of anonymous purity and freshness one normally associates with folksong, in the way that Burns or chameleonic Shakespeare sometimes managed.
So, We’ll Go No More a-Roving
So, we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart still be as loving,
And the moon still be as bright.
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.
Lord Byron (George Gordon)
Some years ago one of the fields round the South Oxfordshire village where I live, normally given over to corn, turned a most amazing shade of blue, as if a patch of heaven had fallen to earth, though it appears that a more mundane explanation had to do with EU subsidies at the time. At first I was completely puzzled as to what the crop could be, until I remembered a passage from John Moore’s ‘Brensham Trilogy’: ‘an azure mist upon the field, like smoke from a squitch-fire’. Of course: this was flax or linseed, the ‘blue field’ that had given the third of the trilogy its title. After due contemplation I went on my way with a definite feeling that here was something I would one day write a poem about. Now, you can’t rush these things: a poem will come when it’s ready, but there can be a small problem with this relaxed attitude, as I discovered when some time later I came across this piece by Alison Brackenbury and found, slightly to my annoyance, that she had very definitely scooped me. Fair play to Alison though: it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have made a better job of it.
It is not tall enough, it will not make a crop –
it has changed its name. It used to be flax,
maker of sheets for fine ladies’ beds.
Now it is linseed; feeds cattle.
It is high as a knee, blown with threads of leaf,
scattered with flower. What corn is blue?
They are mouths, they are stars, they gleam
sweet as those pictures of children under dark leaf
in frames of dark gilt. It knows nothing;
the sky is bitterer. Last night’s sun
was icy lemon, with drifts fog grey;
the morning’s blaze is for storm. The flax flowers
begin to shimmer, with a metal edge,
to reflect ripe cloud, race a colder sea.
The flies still whirl in hot air, and I
rise quick up the ridge, through the brief, starred fields.
It is not every day you can run through the sky.
The French poet Jules Supervielle (1884-1960) wrote many tender love poems to his wife Pilar, whom he married in Montevideo in 1907, Uruguay (the country ‘fort au sud’ referred to in the poem) being the country of his birth. This is one of them.
The translation that follows is my own. I confess to not quite understanding the words in the fourth line ‘lui donne son nom’ – did Supervielle think that the French words ‘coeur’ and ‘carrefour’ were etymologically connected? This does not in fact seem to be the case.
Je me souviens
Je me souviens – lorsque je parle ainsi
Ah saura-t-on jamais qui se souvient
Dans tout ce chaud murmurant carrefour
Qui fait le coeur et lui donne son nom –
Je me souviens, c’était dans un pays
Qu’on aperçoit fort au sud sur les cartes,
Le ciel mouillait à tort et à travers
Le grand matin noir et plein d’innocence.
Je me souviens – cette fois je suis sûr
Qu c’est bien moi qui hume ce temps-là –
Je vous trouvai durant une accalmie
Vous qui deviez devenir mon amie
Pendant vingt ans, et c’est encor vrai.
I remember – ah, but when I speak this way
Can we ever know for sure what memories
Meet at that warm murmuring crossroads within
We call the heart, which gives it its name? –
I remember, it was in another country
You see on maps a long way to the south.
It rained as if the rain would never cease
That great dark morning full of innocence.
I remember – and for once I am quite sure
That it is I who breathe in that time’s air –
I found you as the sky began to clear
You who would become my wife, my friend
These twenty years gone by, and are still here.
I promised we’d come back to John Crowe Ransom so here is another of his elegies for dead children (cf. week 50), and again it is something of a puzzle to me, not because of any difficulty with the meaning, but because one feels that Ransom’s slightly archaic style, fastidious to the point of preciousness, like a man handling words with white gloves, simply should not work as well as it does, especially for a subject of such pathos. Yet somehow those cadences mesmerise.
Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter
There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder her brown study
Astonishes us all.
Her wars were bruited in our high window.
We looked among orchard trees and beyond
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond
The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,
For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!
But now go the bells, and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.
John Crowe Ransom