Week 274: On Wenlock Edge, by A.E.Housman

I walked along Wenlock Edge once. Still plenty of trees to be seen, but this was on a quiet evening of silver sun, far removed from Housman’s inner and outer weather. I suppose that Housman’s landscapes, compared with, say, those of Edward Thomas, may lack solidity and particularity, but for me they make up for it, as in this poem, with a luminous, time-layered, mythical quality.

On Wenlock Edge

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.


Week 273: Ithaka, by C.P.Cavafy

This is one of the best known poems of the Greek poet Constantine Peter Cavafy (1863-1933), and I think even in translation it has a kind of morning freshness, a harking back to a Homeric age of heroes, while managing at the same time to be perfectly modern. 


As you set out for Ithaka
hope the journey is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbours seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

C.P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sharrard)

Week 272: The Seventh Angel, by Zbigniew Herbert

We last met Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert in week 124 with his offbeat, practically-minded take on ‘Hamlet’; here he turns his attention to angels and neatly undermines the glamour of sanctity in much the same way as he undermined the glamour of the tragic hero.

The Seventh Angel

The seventh angel
is completely different
even his name is different

he is no Gabriel
the aureate
upholder of the throne
and baldachin

and he’s no Raphael
tuner of choirs

and he’s also no
surveyor of infinity
perfect exponent of theoretical physics

is black and nervous
and has been fined many times
for illegal import of sinners

between the abyss
and the heavens
without a rest his feet go pit-a-pat

his sense of dignity is non-existent
and they only keep him in the squad
out of consideration for the number seven
but he is not like the others

not like the hetman of the hosts
all scales and feathery plumes

nor like Azrafael
interior decorator of the universe
warden of its luxuriant vegetation
his wings shimmering like two oak trees

not even like
apologist and cabalist

Shemkel Shemkel
– the angels complain
why are you not perfect

the byzantine artists
when they paint all seven
reproduce Shemkel
just like the rest

because they suppose
they might lapse into heresy
if they were to portray him
just as he is
black nervous
in his old threadbare nimbus

Zbigniew Herbert (tr. Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott)

Week 271: Elegy for Isabelle le Despenser, by D.M.Thomas

The poet prefixes this poem with the noteAt Tewkesbury Abbey is a lock of red-brown hair, belonging to Isabelle, Countess of Warwick, and dated 1429’

That is probably all you need to know to enjoy the poem, but to give a bit more background, Isabel le Despenser (1400-1439) was the posthumous daughter and eventually the sole heiress of Thomas le Despenser, 1st Earl of Gloucester, who was beheaded in 1399 for his part in a plot against Henry IV. Her mother was Constance of York, the daughter of Edmund of Langley, a son of King Edward III.

Elegy for Isabelle le Despenser

Better than stones and castles were my bones.
Better than spears and battles were my tears.
Better than towers and rafters was my laughter.
Better than light and stained glass was my sight.
Better than grate and boar-spit was my hate.
Better than rush and tapestry was my flush.
Better than gold and silver was my shiver.
Better than gloves and falcons was my love.
Better than crests and banners were my breasts.
Better than tombs and effigies was my womb.
Better than art and ikons was my hurt.
Better than crypts and candles were my friendships.
Better than leaf and parchment was my grief.
Better than mass and matins was my chatter.
Better than swans and bridges were my yawns.
Better than wool and weaving was my breathing.
Remember Isabelle le Despenser,
Who was as light and vivid as this hair.
We are all one.
She sees the clouds scud by, she breathes your air,
Pities the past and those who settled there.