Week 334: Grove Hill, by Seamus Heaney

This poem, which is part of a longer sequence, is a good illustration of Seamus Heaney’s gift for moving from the private and particular memory or observation to a moving statement of the universal. The unnamed ‘them’ in the third line are, of course, his parents, who are brought to the mind of a convalescent Heaney by the sound of a boiler starting up – I guess we all have particular sounds that trigger memories of childhood, we lived on a hill and mine would be the sound of the wind on autumn nights, hooting and snuffling outside the house like an invisible animal trying to find a way in.

Grove Hill

Now the oil-fired heating boiler comes to life
Abruptly, drowsily, like the timed collapse
Of a sawn down tree, I imagine them

In summer season, as it must have been,
And the place, it dawns on me,
Could have been Grove Hill before the oaks were cut,

Where I’d often stand with them on airy Sundays
Shin-deep in hilltop bluebells, looking out
At Magherafelt’s four spires in the distance.

Too late, alas, now for the apt quotation
About a love that’s proved by steady gazing
Not at each other but in the same direction.

Seamus Heaney


Week 333: The Last Word, by Matthew Arnold

I don’t know whether Matthew Arnold had any particular debate or personage in mind when he wrote this spirited poem. It is very Victorian in its moral certainty and absolutism. Maybe there were issues and principles in his day that didn’t get lost in a maze of amendments to amendments. But Arnold (1822-1888), son of the Rugby headmaster, poet, critic and inspector of schools, is a bit of a contradiction. His best known poem ‘Dover Beach’ is much more about the loss of moral certitude, yet he had the breezy self-confidence, not to mention cultural arrogance, to suggest that it really was time Welsh people were persuaded or constrained to abandon their language, looking forward to a future in which ‘the difference in language between England and Wales should be effaced, an event which is socially and politically so desirable.’ Yet at the same time he was one the first English writers to take an interest in that marvellous collection of early Welsh prose tales, the ‘Mabinogion’, even if he went a bit far in seeing it as a ‘ruin of antiquity’. As with many Victorians, definitely a bit of cultural dissonance going on.

The Last Word

Creep into thy narrow bed,
Creep, and let no more be said!
Vain thy onset! all stands fast.
Thou thyself must break at last.

Let the long contention cease!
Geese are swans, and swans are geese.
Let them have it how they will!
Thou art tired: best be still.

They out-talked thee, hissed thee, tore thee?
Better men fared thus before thee;
Fired their ringing shot and passed,
Hotly charged – and sank at last.

Charge once more, then, and be dumb!
Let the victors, when they come,
When the forts of folly fall,
Find thy body by the wall! 

Matthew Arnold


Week 332: By The Exeter River, by Donald Hall

A grimly memorable little poem by the American poet Donald Hall (1928-2018). I particularly admire the skill with which it replicates the traditional ballad technique, found in e.g. ‘Edward’ (Child 13), of allowing a shocking narrative to unfold simply through dialogue.

By The Exeter River

‘What is it you’re mumbling, old Father, my Dad?
Come drink up your soup and I’ll put you to bed.’

‘By the Exeter River, by the river, I said.’

‘Stop dreaming of rivers, old Father, my Dad,
Or save all your dreaming till you’re tucked up in bed.’

‘It was cold by the river. We came in a sled.’

It’s colder to think of, old Father, my Dad,
Than the blankets and bolsters and pillows of bed.’

‘We took off his dress and the cap from his head.’

‘Undressed in the winter, old Father, my Dad?
What could you be thinking? let’s get off to bed.’

‘And Sally, poor Sally, I reckon is dead.’

‘Was she an old sweetheart, old Father, my Dad?
Now lean on my shoulder and come up to bed.’

‘We drowned your half-brother. I remember we did.’

Donald Hall

Week 331: Women He Liked, by Edward Thomas

Another of those Edward Thomas poems that may seem to be about nothing much – a clump of nettles in a corner of a farmyard, a bundle of faggots, or in this case a lost path under trees – but which root themselves in the mind because they themselves are rooted in a world half-forgotten yet still obscurely important to us.

I am not sure about the gnomic line ‘To name a thing beloved man sometimes fails’. It’s a good line, but is it actually true? It seems to me that naming a thing is an essential part of the love act, and what we don’t name we don’t notice, let alone love. But if one is moved now and then to query a poet’s assertion, that is merely another way of engaging in that ongoing dialogue between the living and the dead that we call reading.

Stormcock is another name for the missel-thrush.

Women He Liked

Women he liked, did shovel-bearded Bob,
Old Farmer Hayward of the Heath, but he
Love horses. He himself was like a cob,
And leather-coloured. Also he loved a tree.

For the life in them he loved most living things,
But a tree chiefly. All along the lane
He planted elms where now the stormcock sings
That travellers hear from the slow-climbing train.

Till then the track had never had a name
For all its thicket and the nightingales
That should have earned it. No one was to blame.
To name a thing beloved man sometimes fails.

Many years since, Bob Hayward died, and now
None passes there because the mist and rain
Out of the elms have turned the lane to slough
And gloom, the name alone survives, Bob’s Lane.

Edward Thomas