Week 283: The Owl, by Edward Thomas

I guess we all have our poetic touchstones, poems that we measure other poems against, talismans against the tritely sentimental, the strained or strident, the artily pretentious. This week’s poem is one of my touchstones. Not a lot happens in it – a man comes to an inn after a long day’s walk, looking forward to rest and refreshment, and as he goes in hears an owl calling from the hill. Yet somehow, like a clearing sky at twilight, it opens up whole vistas of time and imagination. A lot turns on that ‘salted’ in the last stanza. No easy sentiment here – the poet is honest enough to admit that the thought of others less fortunate than himself adds relish to his situation. And yet, after all, what clinches the poem is the compassion of its last two lines.

The Owl

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

Edward Thomas

Week 282: O Wha’s The Bride, by Hugh MacDiarmid

At first sight, the idea behind this poem seems a bit daft. The poet imagines a bridegroom on his wedding night apparently about to be shocked by the realisation that his virgin bride is actually the product of a long process of genetic mingling. Well, unless he had thought up till then that the human race had survived throughout the millennia by parthenogenesis, it shouldn’t really have come as a surprise. Nor is it clear why he should view the process as malevolent and despoiling: it’s just the way things are, and after all his bride wouldn’t be there without these contributions from his predecessors. And yet, viewing the matter from another angle, perhaps MacDiarmid is right: just because things are the way they are doesn’t mean that there is not an intangible and disturbing mystery about them, and if we normally shut our eyes to that mystery, then it is all the more the poet’s job to open them. Still not quite sure I grasp his thought, and yet it seems to me a remarkable poem.

O Wha’s The Bride

O wha’s the bride that carries the bunch
O’ thistles blinterin’ white?
Her cuckold bridegroom little dreids
What he sall ken this nicht.

For closer than gudeman can come
And closer to’r than hersel’,
Wha didna need her maidenheid
Has wrocht his purpose fell.

O wha’s been here afore me, lass,
And hoo did he get in?
– A man that deed or I was born
This evil thing has din.

And left, as it were on a corpse,
Your maidenheid to me?
– Nae lass, gudeman, sin’ Time began
’S hed ony mair to gie.

But I can gie ye kindness, lad,
And a pair o’ willin’ hands,
And you sall hae my breists like stars,
My limbs like willow wands.

And on my lips ye’ll heed nae mair,
And in my hair forget,
The seed o’ a’ the men that in
My virgin womb ha’e met.

Hugh MacDiarmid

Week 281: The Curse of Cromwell, by W.B.Yeats

The Yeatsian rhetoric and Yeatsian rhythms are very seductive, so seductive that it may be some time before one begins to look askance at what is actually being said. This poem is a case in point, expressing the poet’s nostalgia for an unchanging, hierarchical society that comprises an aristocratic elite, a sturdy but deferential peasantry, and a few well-rewarded poets between. ‘His fathers served their fathers before Christ was crucified’. Not, you note, the other way round, and one may reflect that it is much easier to be in favour of an unchanging social order when others are doing the serving and you’re the one being served. And yet, whatever my egalitarian reservations, I find the poem compellingly memorable.

The Curse Of Cromwell

You ask what I have found, and far and wide I go:
Nothing but Cromwell’s house and Cromwell’s murderous crew,
The lovers and the dancers are beaten into the clay,
And the tall men and the swordsmen and the horsemen, where are they?
And there is an old beggar wandering in his pride –
His fathers served their fathers before Christ was crucified.
O what of that, O what of that,
What is there left to say?

All neighbourly content and easy talk are gone,
But there’s no good complaining, for money’s rant is on.
He that’s mounting up must on his neighbour mount,
And we and all the Muses are things of no account.
They have schooling of their own, but I pass their schooling by,
What can they know that we know that know the time to die?
O what of that, O what of that,
What is there left to say?

But there’s another knowledge that my heart destroys,
As the fox in the old fable destroyed the Spartan boy’s
Because it proves that things both can and cannot be;
That the swordsmen and the ladies can still keep company,
Can pay the poet for a verse and hear the fiddle sound,
That I am still their servant though all are underground.
O what of that, O what of that,
What is there left to say?

I came on a great house in the middle of the night,
Its open lighted doorway and its windows all alight,
And all my friends were there and made me welcome too;
But I woke in an old ruin that the winds howled through;
And when I pay attention I must out and walk
Among the dogs and horses that understand my talk.
O what of that, O what of that,
What is there left to say?


Week 280: In The Small Hours, by Thomas Hardy

Philip Larkin said he would not have wanted Hardy’s ‘Collected Poems’ one page shorter. I wouldn’t go that far, but I could happily fill a couple of years of this blog simply with Hardy poems. Here’s another, that captures with aching precision one of those wistful moments between dream and waking that seem to become more frequent as one goes older.

In The Small Hours

I lay in my bed and fiddled
With a dreamland viol and bow,
And the tunes flew back to my fingers
I had melodied years ago
It was two or three in the morning
When I fancy-fiddled so
Long reels and country-dances,
And hornpipes swift and slow.

And soon anon came crossing
The chamber in the gray
Figures of jigging fieldfolk –
Saviours of corn and hay –
To the air of ‘Haste to the Wedding.’
As after a wedding-day;
Yea, up and down the middle
In windless whirls went they!

There danced the bride and bridegroom,
And couples in a train,
Gay partners time and travail
Had longwhiles stilled amain!….
It seemed a thing for weeping
To find, at slumber’s wane
And morning’s sly increeping,
That Now, not Then, held reign.

Thomas Hardy

Week 279: Naming of Parts, by Henry Reed

This is part of a sequence called ‘Lessons of the War’, written in 1942 by the Second World War poet Henry Reed (1914-1986). It seems to be the only poem he is remembered by, but at least it is remembered: indeed, it was quoted, albeit somewhat inappositely, in last Sunday’s episode of the police drama ‘Endeavour’, by an army colonel who seemed to think it was a poem in praise of military routine and pride in regimental tradition, similar to Sir Henry Newbolt’s ‘Vitaī Lampada’ which had been quoted a little earlier. Polite cough from me: ‘Er, excuse me, script-writers, but I don’t think that was quite what Henry Reed had in mind.’

Naming of Parts

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.

Henry Reed