Week 270: Puck’s Song, by Rudyard Kipling

Kipling is such a many-sided writer: some sides I don’t much like, some I like very much, and the side I like best of all is the English mythopoet you find in the poems and stories that make up ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’ and ‘Rewards and Fairies’, and in certain other of his poems, where he taps into some deep vein of our national psyche. Tolkien may have set out deliberately to create ‘a myth for England’; Kipling found one already there, a worn and patchwork thing maybe, but still potent in his times. And is it still potent in our times – is there gramarye still to be found in Merlin’s isle? Surprisingly, more than you might think would be my answer, for those prepared to leave the beaten track and wander, preferably on foot. I have heard the bubbling of nightjars at twilight under ancient beeches in the New Forest; I have come over Dragon Hill at sunset and seen Middle England before me in a haze of gold; I have listened to nightingales in Suffolk woods; I have sailed the puffin-crowded waters off Skomer on a May morning that might have been the morning of the world; I have walked unpeopled hills and valleys in the beautiful Cheviots, quiet now after centuries of border strife…. Yes, there is still gramarye enough to be found in this isle of ours.

Puck’s Song

See you the ferny ride that steals
Into the oak-woods far?
O that was whence they hewed the keels
That rolled to Trafalgar.

And mark you where the ivy clings
To Bayham’s mouldering walls?
O there we cast the stout railings
That stand around St. Paul’s.

See you the dimpled track that runs
All hollow through the wheat?
O that was where they hauled the guns
That smote King Philip’s fleet.

(Out of the Weald, the secret Weald,
Men sent in ancient years,
The horse-shoes red at Flodden Field,
The arrows at Poitiers!)

See you our little mill that clacks,
So busy by the brook?
She has ground her corn and paid her tax
Ever since Domesday Book.

See you our stilly woods of oak,
And the dread ditch beside?
O that was where the Saxons broke,
On the day that Harold died.

See you the windy levels spread
About the gates of Rye?
O that was where the Northmen fled,
When Alfred’s ships came by.

See you our pastures wide and lone,
Where the red oxen browse?
O there was a City thronged and known,
Ere London boasted a house.

And see you  after rain, the trace
Of mound and ditch and wall?
O that was a Legion’s camping-place,
When Caesar sailed from Gaul.

And see you marks that show and fade,
Like shadows on the Downs?
O they are the lines the Flint Men made,
To guard their wondrous towns.

Trackway and Camp and City lost,
Salt Marsh where now is corn –
Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,
And so was England born.

She is not any common Earth,
Water or wood or air,
But Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye,
Where you and I will fare! 

Rudyard Kipling

Week 269: A Ballad for Katherine of Aragon, by Charles Causley

Time for another by that modern master of the ballad, Charles Causley. Here he hauntingly interweaves two elegies, one for Henry VIII’s first queen Katherine of Aragon, transplanted from her sunny clime in Spain to end up intombed in cold Peterborough cathedral, the other for a schoolmate killed in Italy in the Second World War.

Note: The route of the Flying Scot ran through Peterborough on its way from London to Scotland. A ‘party’, as in Spanish party, was naval slang for a girl. And I’m sure that, unlike me, you won’t need to read the poem half a dozen times before it dawns on you that Causley’s friend Cross probably wasn’t actually christened Jumper.

A Ballad for Katherine of Aragon

As I walked down by the river
Down by the frozen fen
I saw the grey cathedral
With the eyes of a child of ten.

O the railway arch is smoky
As the Flying Scot goes by
And but for the Education Act
Go Jumper Cross and I.

But war is a bitter bugle
That all must learn to blow
And it didn’t take long to stop the song
In the dirty Italian snow.

O war is a casual mistress
And the world is her double bed
She has a few charms in her mechanized arms
But you wake up and find yourself dead.

The olive tree in winter
Casts her banner down
And the priest in white and scarlet
Comes up from the muddy town.

O never more will Jumper
Watch the Flying Scot go by.
His funeral knell was a six-inch shell
Singing across the sky.

The Queen of Castile has a daughter
Who won’t come home again
She lies in the grey cathedral
Under the arms of Spain.

O the Queen of Castile has a daughter
Torn out by the roots
Her lovely breast in a cold stone chest
Under the farmers’ boots.

Now I like a Spanish party
And many O many’s the day
I have watched them swim as the night came dim
In Algeciras Bay.

O the high sierra was thunder
And the seven-branched river of Spain
Came down to the sea to plunder
The heart of the sailor again.

O shall I leap in the river
And knock upon paradise door
For a gunner of twenty-seven and a half
And a queen of twenty-four?

From the almond tree by the river
I watch the sky with a groan,
For Jumper and Kate are always out late
And I lie here alone.

Charles Causley

Week 268: When Tommy Cooper died on Stage, by John Mole

John Mole (born 1941 and happily still with us) is a prolific writer of verse for both adults and children. John plays the jazz clarinet, but let’s not hold that against him too much – he does also write entertaining and sharply observed poems of which this piece on the death during performance of the English comedian Tommy Cooper is a good example. If you haven’t seen Tommy Cooper in action, rest assured that this captures his particular style beautifully.

When Tommy Cooper Died on Stage

All he’d ever had to do was stand up there
with that pillar-box grin, gauche heavyweight
of legerdemain, his manic stare
a bewildered glaze, his two left feet
tripping the board, so that when he died
it seemed the perfection of his act
in exquisite slow-motion, a long slide
into himself, such absolute control, the exact
moment recognised for what it offered
as the risk to take, a chance to bow out
on the wave of the applause he heard
from stalls and balcony, ignore the shout
of panic in the wings, his last breath
taken just like that. It was a poet’s death.

John Mole

Week 267: Directive, by Robert Frost

I think this is a wonderful poem, and one of Frost’s greatest, and yet I find it also one of his most elusive: I feel that from long acqaintance with and admiration for his work I ought to be as attuned to Frost’s thought as anyone, yet every time I think I have this one sussed out I come back to it and realise there is another resonance I have missed, another seemingly random detail whose significance I have overlooked. This is a journey poem and as such suitably full of signposts, but you have to be careful with signposts in a Frost poem: they may be like the ones in wartime, turned to point in a wrong direction to confuse those who he feels have no business in the country. And as the poet himslef confesses at the start of this one, he is a guide who ‘only has at heart your getting lost’. Getting lost seems indeed to be a key theme: lost, that is, in the sense of escaping from the confusion of our present, and perhaps from the prison of our own too burdensome identity, and presenting ourselves in a state of nameless innocence, like children entering what may not be the kingdom of heaven but is at least a time and place of greater spiritual clarity, back up the line and so nearer to the mysterious spring of our existence here on earth. ‘Weep for what little things could make them glad’ – surely this is one of the most touching lines any poet ever wrote, and yet be careful with that signpost: it is easy to forget that the children in their simplicity were glad, and it is us that are doing the weeping. A journey poem and a spell poem: in another place Frost speaks of a poem as being a ‘momentary stay against confusion’, but this one, like many others of his, offers a stay that some will surely find much more than momentary.


Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry–
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretence of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods’ excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Robert Frost

Week 266: The Price, by Stuart Henson

Back to modern times: Stuart Henson has published several books of well-received poetry and has a site at http://www.stuarthenson.co.uk/ I think this poem exemplifies his lucid, evocative style.

The Price

Sometimes it catches when the fumes rise up
among the throbbing lights of cars, or as
you look away to dodge eye-contact with
your own reflection in the carriage-glass;
or in a waiting-room a face reminds you
that the colour supplements have lied
and some have pleasure and some pay the price.

Then all the small securities you built
about your house, your desk, your calendar
are blown like straws; and momentarily,
as if a scent of ivy or the earth
had opened up a childhood door, you pause,
to take the measure of what might have been
against the kind of life you settled for.

Stuart Henson