Week 322: From ‘The Woodlanders’, by Thomas Hardy

‘Now there is clarity. There is the harvest of having written twenty novels first’, said Ezra Pound in praise of Thomas Hardy’s poetry when it first appeared. Certainly it is tempting to find in the novels passages that with their mastery of cadence and rhythm seem to be moving in the direction of poetry, like the following from ‘The Woodlanders’. To set the context: the woodsman Giles Winterborne is loved by the peasant girl Marty South, but has eyes only for his childhood sweetheart Grace Melbury, who has however become better educated and at her father’s urging makes a match instead with the handsome young doctor Edred Fitzpiers. Fitzpiers proves unfaithful and the marriage does not turn out well; he goes off to the Continent with another woman but quarrels with her and returns to resume his marriage. The distraught Grace flees to Giles for help. On a foul night of storm, he gives her refuge in his woodland cottage but mindful of her reputation insists on staying outside all night in a very inadequate shelter made of a few branches. He is already unwell, and the exposure finishes him off. Grace returns to Fitzpiers and only Marty is left to mourn Giles: her touching elegy for him closes the book.

‘Now, my own, own love’, she whispered, ‘you are mine, and only mine; for she has forgot ’ee at last, although for her you died! But I – whenever I get up I’ll think of ’ee, and whenever I lie down I’ll think of ’ee again. Whenever I plant the young larches I’ll think that none can plant as you planted; and whenever I split a gad, and whenever I turn the cider wring, I’ll say that none could do it like you. If ever I forget your name let me forget home and heaven!… But no, no, my love, I never can forget ’ee; for you was a good man, and did good things.’

Thomas Hardy

Week 321: Mid-winter Waking, by Robert Graves

I thought this poem, one of my favourite Graves love lyrics, would make a suitable piece for the winter solstice.

Mid-Winter Waking

Stirring suddenly from long hibernation,
I knew myself once more a poet
Guarded by timeless principalities
Against the worm of death, this hillside haunting;
And presently dared open both my eyes.

O gracious, lofty, shone against from under,
Back-of-the-mind-far clouds like towers;
And you, sudden warm airs that blow
Before the expected season of new blossom,
While sheep still gnaw at roots and lambless go –

Be witness that on waking, this mid-winter,
I found her hand in mine laid closely
Who shall watch out the Spring with me.
We stared in silence all around us
But found no winter anywhere to see.

Robert Graves

Week 320: Mrs. Arbuthnot, by Stevie Smith

This week another poem by the wonderfully eccentric Stevie Smith, who sometimes comes across to me as the improbable love-child of Emily Dickinson and William McGonagall, yet at other times, as in the last stanza here, achieves a lyricism all of her own. Are the last two lines actually true, that creativity requires, if not actual unhappiness, at least some kind of spiritual unrest? Looking at the lives of poets, it would seem so: no grit in the oyster, no pearl. 

Mrs. Arbuthnot

Mrs. Arbuthnot was a poet
A poet of high degree,
But her talent left her;
Now she lives at home by the sea.

In the morning she washes up,
In the afternoon she sleeps,
Only in the evenings sometimes
For her lost talent she weeps,

Crying: I should write a poem,
Can I look a wave in the face
If I do not write a poem about a sea-wave,
Putting the words in place.

Mrs. Arbuthnot has died,
She has gone to heaven,
She is one with the heavenly combers now
And need not write about them.

Cry: she is a heavenly comber,
She runs with a comb of fire,
Nobody writes or wishes to
Who is one with their desire.

Stevie Smith

Week 319: Jimmy Newman, by Tom Paxton

The singer/songwriter Thomas Richard (‘Tom’) Paxton was born in 1937. For full effect you really need to hear this as sung by Tom, with its urgent driving rhythms an accompaniment to the increasing pathos and desperation of the soldier who cannot or will not see what we realise early on about his buddy. But I think that even on the printed page it makes a very effective antiwar poem: it may not be Wilfred Owen, but it’s not that far removed from the saeva indignatio of Sassoon.

Jimmy Newman

Get up, Jimmy Newman, the morning is come
The engines are rumbling, the coffee’s all brewed
Get up, Jimmy Newman, there’s work to be done
And why do you lie there still sleeping?

There’s a waiting line forming to use the latrine
And the sun is just opening the sky
Ah the breakfast they’re serving just has to be seen
And you’ve only to open your eyes

Get up, Jimmy Newman, my radio’s on
The news is all bad, but it’s good for a laugh
The tent flap is loose and the peg must be gone
And why do you lie there still sleeping?

The night nurse is gone and the sexy one’s here
And she tells us such beautiful lies
Her uniform’s tight on her marvellous rear
And you’ve only to open your eyes

Get up, Jimmy Newman, you’re missing the fun
They’re loading the planes, Jim, it’s time to go home
It’s over for us; there’s no more to be done
And why do you lie there still sleeping?

It’s stateside for us, Jim, the folks may not know
We’ll let it be such a surprise
They’re loading us next, Jim, we’re ready to go
And you’ve only to open your eyes

Get up, Jimmy Newman! They won’t take my word
I said you sleep hard, but they’re shaking their heads
Get up, Jimmy Newman, and show them you heard
Ah, Jimmy just show them you’re sleeping

A joke is a joke, but there’s nothing to gain
Jim, I’d slap you, but I’m too weak to rise
Get up, damn it, Jimmy! You’re missing the plane
And you’ve only to open your eyes

Tom Paxton