Week 357: Was It Not Curious? by Stevie Smith

In this age of relativism it can be quite refreshing to come across a poem where one is left in no doubt about the poet’s moral opinion. Here the feyly idiosyncratic Stevie Smith gives both barrels to St Augustin and Pope Gregory. 

Was It Not Curious?

Stevie Smith … Upon seeing English children in the slave market, Aúgustin asked who they were. Being told they were ‘Angli’, that is, English, he said ‘Non Angli sed angeli’, that is, Not English but angels, and Pope Gregory I, hearing the story, promptly sent Aúgustin to England to convert the English.

Was it not curious of Aúgustin
Saint Aúgustin, Saint Aúgustin,
When he saw the beautiful British children
To say such a curious thing?

He said he must send the gospel, the gospel,
At once to them over the waves
He never said he thought it was wicked
To steal them away for slaves

To steal the children away
To buy and have slavery at all
Oh no, oh no, it was not a thing
That caused him any appal.

Was it not curious of Gregory
Rather more than of Aúgustin?
It was not curious so much
As it was wicked of them.

Stevie Smith

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Week 356: Adonis Blue, Yoesden Bank, by David Sutton

I don’t like to peddle my own wares in this weekly slot, but every so often I feel a twinge of guilt at doing nothing to assist the publisher who has so gallantly but imprudently invested in my work, so here is a fairly recent effort that just made it into my ‘Collected Poems’, for details of which see the ‘News’ page. Just in case anyone feels like ordering it through their library…

Yoesden Bank is a nature reserve in Buckinghamshire, not far from my home.

Adonis Blue, Yoesden Bank

Yes, I have loved them, just the way one loves
Unknowingly, until a thing is lost:
Peacocks, tortoiseshells, red admirals
Browsing buddleia’s sweet purple pastures;
Brimstones, woken by the year’s first warmth,
Dancing over bank and brambled ditch;
Once on a beach a fall of painted ladies
Like leaves from some fabulous autumn; orange-tips
And clouded yellows, but never till today
This one, with its wings like summer sky
Bordered with white cloud. It makes the day
Perfect: it distils, it gathers in
The whole of this chalk hillside hazed with flowers,
The hum of sun-warmed grass, the church below
Lost among trees – you’d say that some great artist
Had added to his canvas, Turner-wise,
One drop of purest colour, then stood back
Satisfied at last, his work complete.

David Sutton

 

Week 355: The Pardon, by Richard Wilbur

Another of the American poet Richard Wilbur’s elegant, compassionate poems.

The Pardon

My dog lay dead five days without a grave
In the thick of summer, hid in a clump of pine
And a jungle of grass and honey-suckle vine.
I who had loved him while he kept alive

Went only close enough to where he was
To sniff the heavy honeysuckle-smell
Twined with another odor heavier still
And hear the flies’ intolerable buzz.

Well, I was ten and very much afraid.
In my kind world the dead were out of range
And I could not forgive the sad or strange
In beast or man. My father took the spade

And buried him. Last night I saw the grass
Slowly divide (it was the same scene
But now it glowed a fierce and mortal green)
And saw the dog emerging. I confess

I felt afraid again, but still he came
In the carnal sun, clothed in a hymn of flies,
And death was breeding in his lively eyes.
I started in to cry and call his name,

Asking forgiveness of his tongueless head.
… I dreamt the past was never past redeeming:
But whether this was false or honest dreaming
I beg death’s pardon now. And mourn the dead.

Richard Wilbur

Week 354: The President Sang Amazing Grace, by Zoe Mulford

In the week following yet another all too common event in the United States, the words of this song by Zoe Mulford, written after the Charleston church shootings in 2015, seem to go to the heart of the matter without fuss or frills. The song has been covered by, among others, Joan Baez and can be found on her album ‘Whistle Down The Wind’. The President in this case is Barack Obama, not to be confused with the present incumbent.

The President Sang Amazing Grace

A young man came to a house of prayer
They did not ask what brought him there
He was not friend, he was not kin
But they opened the door and let him in

And for an hour the stranger stayed
He sat with them and seemed to pray
But then the young man drew a gun
And killed nine people, old and young

In Charleston in the month of June
The mourners gathered in a room
The President came to speak some words
And the cameras rolled and the nation heard

But no words could say what must be said
For all the living and the dead
So on that day and in that place
The President sang Amazing Grace
The President sang Amazing Grace

We argued where to lay the blame
On one man’s hate or our nation’s shame
Some sickness of the mind or soul
And how the wounds might be made whole

But no words could say what must be said
For all the living and the dead
So on that day and in that place
The President sang Amazing Grace
My President sang Amazing Grace

Zoe Mulford

Week 353: Indifference, by G.A. Studdert Kennedy

Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929) was an Anglican priest who served in the trenches as a chaplain during the First World War, and was known as Woodbine Willie from his practice of distributing cigarettes along with spiritual comfort to the troops. I suppose you would call Studdert Kennedy a skilled versifier rather than a poet, and yet it seems to me that this poem makes a point that you don’t need to be a believer to find interesting, and makes it quite clearly and movingly.

Indifference

When Jesus came to Golgotha they hanged Him on a tree,
They drave great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Birmingham they simply passed Him by,
They never hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.

Still Jesus cried, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,”
And still it rained the winter rain that drenched Him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall and cried for Calvary.

G.A. Studdert Kennedy