Week 248: Vergissmeinnicht, by Keith Douglas

I think that of all the poems of the Second World War this one comes closest to the spirit of Wilfred Owen in expressing ‘war, and the pity of war’. Of course, in many ways Douglas is nothing like Owen. There is none of the exalted, quasi-religious diction of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, none of the dreamlike imagery of ‘Strange Meeting’. Just a warrior’s grim acceptance of the necessity of combat and the facts of combat, yet at the end, as in ‘Strange Meeting’, that same redeeming recognition of the enemy’s humanity, captured in the perfectly balanced, metaphysical neatness of the last stanza.

Vergissmeinnicht

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone,
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked by at by his own equipment
that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

Keith Douglas

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Week 247: Thalassa, by Louis MacNeice

This may seem an unusually upbeat poem for MacNeice – at times you feel all it needs is a mention of the happy isles and the great Achilles to segue into Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ – but of course there is a good deal of tension here between the apparent negativity of the remembered past and the positivity of aspiration for the future. Did MacNeice see himself as one of Auden’s ‘ruined boys’, forced to seek redemption? But I am drawn to its valiant spirit, even if that spirit is undercut by a slight desperation.

Thalassa

Run out the boat, my broken comrades;
Let the old seaweed crack, the surge
Burgeon oblivious of the last
Embarkation of feckless men,
Let every adverse force converge –
Here we must needs embark again.

Run up the sail, my heartsick comrades;
Let each horizon tilt and lurch –
You know the worst: your wills are fickle,
Your values blurred, your hearts impure
And your past life a ruined church –
But let your poison be your cure.

Put out to sea, ignoble comrades,
Whose records shall be noble yet;
Butting through scarps of moving marble
The narwhal dares us to be free;
By a high star our course is set,
Our end is Life. Put out to sea.

Louis MacNeice

Week 246: Sally In Our Alley, by Henry Carey

Henry Carey (1687-1743) was a prolific balladeer, playwright and satirist credited, among other things, with giving us the expression namby pamby, which he coined as a nickname for unfortunate fellow writer Ambrose Phillips. 

Robert Graves once cited ‘Sally In Our Alley’ to me as an example of that very rare thing in our language, a poem of pure happiness. Well, yes, though it could be argued that for all the jaunty defiance of its rhythms the poem has some dark social undertones, and the truth is that I had always worried about the young apprentice and his Sally. What, after all, was the most likely prognosis for their love? Poverty, toil, infant mortality, disease, premature ageing, the workhouse… I suspect that the poem’s enduring appeal has had much to do with how well it has accorded with the slightly desperate cheerfulness of the working classes still very much in evidence in my childhood – that philosophy of making the best of things and having a lot to be thankful for, sitting uneasily alongside dreams of a better life, and above all that heroic faith in the power of human love to redeem the misery of circumstance. 

Sally In Our Alley

Of all the girls that are so smart
There’s none like pretty Sally;
She is the darling of my heart,
And she lives in our alley.
There is no lady in the land
Is half so sweet as Sally;
She is the darling of my heart,
And she lives in our alley.

Her father he makes cabbage-nets,
And through the streets does cry ‘em;
Her mother she sells laces long
To such as please to buy ‘em:
But sure such folks could ne’er beget
So sweet a girl as Sally!
She is the darling of my heart,
And she lives in my alley.

When she is by, I leave my work,
I love her so sincerely;
My master comes like any Turk,
And bangs me most severely:
But let him bang his bellyful,
I’ll bear it all for Sally;
She is the darling of my heart,
And she lives in our alley.

Of all the days that’s in the week
I dearly love but one day–
And that’s the day that comes betwixt
A Saturday and Monday;
For then I’m drest all in my best
To walk abroad with Sally;
She is the darling of my heart,
And she lives in our alley.

My master carries me to church,
And often am I blamed
Because I leave him in the lurch
As soon as text is namèd;
I leave the church in sermon-time
And slink away to Sally;
She is the darling of my heart,
And she lives in our alley.

My master and the neighbours all
Make game of me and Sally,
And, but for her, I’d better be
A slave and row a galley;
But when my seven long years are out,
O, then I’ll marry Sally;
O, then we’ll wed, and then we’ll bed–
But not in our alley! 

Henry Carey

Week 245: The Shy Man, by Theodore Roethke

I have never quite made my mind up about the work of the American poet Theodore Roethke (1908-1963). I find the musicality of his verse captivating, but when it comes to tone and substance somehow I don’t quite ‘get’ him: the poems come across to me as a bit fey, as not quite earthed. But I do like the way his lines move. See what you think.  

The Shy Man

The full moon was shining upon the broad sea;
I sang to the one star that looked down at me;
I sang to the white house that grazed on the quay, –
As I walked by the high sea-wall.
But my lips they,
My lips they,
Said never a word,
As I moped by the high sea-wall.

The curlew’s slow night song came on the water.
That tremble of sweet notes set my heart astir,
As I walked beside her, the O’Connell’s daughter,
I knew that I did love her.
But my lips they,
My lips they
Said never a word,
As we walked by the high sea-wall.

The full moon has fallen, the night wind is down
And I lie here thinking in bleak Bofin town,
I lie here and thinking, ‘I am not alone’
For here close beside me is O’Connell’s daughter,
And my lips they, my lips they,
Say many a word,
As we embrace by the high sea-wall.
O! my lips they, my lips they
Say many a word,
As we kiss by the high sea-wall.

Theodore Roethke