Week 300: A Litany in Time of Plague, by Thomas Nashe

This poem originally appeared as part of a play called ‘Summer’s Last Will and Testament’, published in 1600. In this masque, which features personifications of the four seasons, Summer is old and declining, and requests at one point ‘Sing me some doleful ditty to the Lute/That may complain my near approaching death’, and his request is duly granted. The play itself is pretty much forgotten now except among Elizabethan specialists, and so, one feels, might the poem be, as no more than a string of competent commonplaces, but for its startlingly beautiful third stanza.

A Litany in Time of Plague

Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave;
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
‘Come, come!’ the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.

Haste, therefore, each degree,
To welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.

Thomas Nashe

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Week 299: An Epitaph, by Walter De La Mare

Recently my wife observed rather sadly. ‘Nan’s birthday today. Just think, when I die there’ll be no one left who remembers that, and no one left who remembers her’. As her grandmother died fifty-five years ago, and had she lived would now be one hundred and twenty-six, it was hard to think of anything useful to say, but I did recite this poem to her. It didn’t help.

An Epitaph

Here lies a most beautiful lady,
Light of step and heart was she;
I think she was the most beautiful lady
That ever was in the West Country.

But beauty vanishes, beauty passes;
However rare — rare it be;
And when I crumble, who will remember
This lady of the West Country?

Walter De La Mare

Week 298: At His Father’s Grave, by John Ormond

The Welsh poet John Ormond (1923-1990) was also a film-maker, whose documentaries included studies of Dylan Thomas, Alun Lewis, R.S.Thomas and the artist Kyffin Williams. This poems is from his 1969 collection ‘Requiem and Celebration’.

At His Father’s Grave

Here lies a shoemaker whose knife and hammer
Fell idle at the height of summer,
Who was not missed so much as when the rain
Of winter brought him back to mind.

He was no preacher but his working text
Was ‘See all dry this winter and the next’.
Stand still. Remember his two hands, his laugh,
His craftsmanship. They are his epitaph.

John Ormond

Week 297: Heatwave, by David Sutton

Sorry, it’s been too hot here this week for much in the way of inspiration, so I’m making do with one of my own, written during another such summer, though not, I think, the legendary summer of 1976; it seems to have been during a hot spell in 1989.

Heatwave

The world’s less real on summer afternoons.
We walk in dazzle, wan as daylit ghosts.
The streets are white and foreign: in dim shops
Assistants idle, sheened like melting wax.
In offices, in schools, in hospitals
The hours are burning dunes, and far off yet
Oasis evening with its water-dreams,
Its shadows and its cool solidities.

The countryside’s no better: mirages
Sizzle on the surfaces of lanes;
The larks vibrate in poplared distances;
Crops swelter in the fields, on crumbling banks
The soil lips back from blue-white teeth of flint.
All roads are longer: air lies honey-thick
Round farmyard gates; a solitary child
Puddles its naked foot in pavement tar.

Truth is, this is no season for us now:
Untalking and untouching, we endure
Like cattle on the hillside, till day’s ebb
Sucks at the round-pooled shadows of the trees.
‘For the young’ we say, disturbed at light
So riotous and squandered, suited now
To cooler, more reflective husbandries:
Night, and the moonlight’s pure economy.

David Sutton