Week 305: Cradle Song for Eleanor, by Louis MacNeice

This poem actually forms part of a collection published in 1941, but for me it evokes, in the way that MacNeice does better than anyone, even Auden, the claustrophobic, angst-laden feel of the nineteen-thirties, that uneasy sense of impending doom, like a shadow waiting at the end of the corridor. Which does not stop it also being a beautiful love lyric.

Cradle Song for Eleanor

Sleep, my darling, sleep;
The pity of it all
Is all we compass if
We watch disaster fall.
Put off your twenty-odd
Encumbered years and creep
Into the only heaven
The robbers’ cave of sleep.

The wild grass will whisper,
Lights of passing cars
Will streak across your dreams
And fumble at the stars;
Life will tap on the window
Only too soon again,
Life will have her answer –
Do not ask her when.

When the winsome bubble
Shivers, when the bough
Breaks, will be the moment
But not here or now.
Sleep and, asleep, forget
The watchers on the wall
Awake all night who know
The pity of it all.

Louis MacNeice

Week 304: Dolor, by Theodore Roethke

A poem that may strike a chord with anyone who has spent their working life in an office, though inevitably it could with a bit of updating to reflect the more modern joys of open plan, computer crashes, hot desking and so on. 


I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper-weight,
All the misery of manila folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplication of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.

Theodore Roethke

Week 303: Woman’s Song, by Judith Wright

A lyrical celebration of late pregnancy and the unique closeness it embodies. I imagine there must be other ways for women to feel about the imminent prospect of giving birth, like if you’ve been carrying an extra couple of stone around for months it must be quite a relief to get rid of it, but what do I know…

Woman’s Song

O move in me, my darling,
for now the sun must rise:
the sun that will draw open
the lids upon your eyes.

O wake in me, my darling,
the knife of day is bright
to cut the thread that binds you
within the flesh of night.

Today I love and find you
whom yet my blood would keep –
would weave and sing around you
the spells and songs of sleep.

None but I shall know you
as none but I have known;
yet there’s a death and a maiden
who wait for you alone;

So move in me, my darling,
whose debt I cannot pay.
Pain and the dark must claim you
and passion and the day.

Judith Wright


Week 302: The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry

Last Friday I happened to catch the end of one of this year’s Proms concerts which was showcasing British folksong, and the closing piece was a mass singing of the beautiful ballad ‘The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry’. I confess that I wasn’t much taken with this rendering – not as bad as those wince-making drawing-room arrangements of folksong beloved of early twentieth century British composers, but still far too orchestrated and ornamented for my taste. Give me an a cappella version, or at best a very modest instrumental accompaniment: the words of great folksongs are words of power and magic, and they should be allowed to speak for themselves.

A ‘silkie’ (or selkie) was one of the seafolk, enchanted creatures who lived in the sea as seals but could come ashore, take on human form and even take a human husband or wife.

As usual with ballads, there are several versions of the text: what I give here is a shorter version from the Shetlands (Child ballad 113), made popular in the sixties by Joan Baez; there is a much longer Orcadian version favoured by the great Scots ballad singers Jean Redpath and Archie Fisher, and sung to a tune that may be more authentic, but I rather like the more compact Shetland version and like its tune too.

The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry

An earthly nourris sits and sings,
And aye, she sings ‘Ba lily wean,
Little ken I my bairn’s father,
Far less the land that he staps in’.

Then ane arose at her bed fit.
And a grumly guest I’m sure was he,
Saying ‘Here am I, thy bairn’s father,
Although I be not comely.’

‘I am a man upon the land,
I am a silkie on the sea,
And when I’m far and far frae land,
My dwelling is in Sule Skerrie.’

And he has ta’en a purse of gold
And he has placed it upon her knee,
Saying, ‘Give to me my little young son,
And take thee up thy nurse’s fee.

‘It shall come to pass on a summer’s day,
When the sun shines het on every stane,
That I shall fetch my little young son,
And teach him for to swim the faem.

‘And thu shall marry a proud gunner,
And a proud gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
And the very first shot that e’er he shoots
He’ll shoot both my young son and me.’


Week 301: Hospital, by Molly Holden

I was at a bit of a loss when asked my religion the only time I was ever admitted to hospital. ‘Well, I like churches, but I don’t know that I actually believe anything’. ‘I’ll put you down as C. of E. then, love’. ‘Oh, OK’. This had the advantage that I was left alone, while poor Molly Holden, more positive in her reply, was plagued by a whole string of visitations, which gives this valiant sad poem her characteristic edging of wry humour.

A note on the last line: ‘against great odds in a narrow place’. This is a quote from the work of the scholar W.P.Ker, who uses the phrase to characterise the classic final situation of the doomed protagonist in Norse heroic literature: Gunnar defending his home at Hlitharend, for example, or Hrolf Kraki and his twelve berserkers taking on a whole army, though it might equally apply to the Spartans at Thermopylae or Roland at Roncesvalles. Molly Holden was well acquainted with Icelandic saga literature, and would surely have known Ker’s seminal works ‘Epic and Romance’ and ‘The Dark Ages’.


They sought me out, the ancient consolations,
now that I lay helpless in their reach,
with well-greased shoes and oily conversation,
hoping to net me on that painful beach;

helpless indeed I lay, in that white bed, hands outspread,
legs useless down the length before my eyes,
and could not care a deal for anything they said,
kind though they thought themselves and wise.

Jamaican nurses spoke of Christ, wheelchair conversions,
souls brought to God who’d never seen the light;
quietly I nodded when I could, without aspersions,
was grateful that they cared to help me fight.

Catholic nurses said they’d pray for me, raising
their rosaries, promising aves every day;
a priest put up a meaningless blessing, praising
a courage I did not have, and went away.

The Church of England would have liked discussion,
seeing I’d admitted myself: ‘religion none’.
I held my own a while but without passion
and asked to be excused a dialectic run.

And all the while I lay, under the words and attempted curing,
seeking inside not out for a human grace
that would give me a strength and a courage for enduring
against great odds in a narrow place.

Molly Holden