Week 383: On Teaching The Young, by Yvor Winters

I think it is possible to admire a poem for its clarity and eloquence while remaining sceptical of its assertions. This is certainly the case for me with this week’s offering by the American poet and critic Yvor Winters (1900-1968). ‘The poet’s only bliss/Is in cold certitude’ – now I would have thought that may be true of mathematicians, but that poets, like physicists and historians, have to rub along taking what satisfaction they can from the partial view and the provisional truth. And the tone jars a bit… Winters taught English at American universities and there is always the danger in that profession that a laudable desire to maintain standards will edge over into a joyless puritanical exclusiveness. At Cambridge I chose not to read English as a formal subject; if I had done so it would have been under the tutelage of the critic F.R.Leavis, then holding court at Downing College. Leavis was a man of considerable critical gifts, and his pronouncements were certainly worth attention as far as they went, but I don’t know, somehow he didn’t seem to have much fun. I have never felt qualified to teach anyone anything, but if I did I would say ‘There it is before you, the great ocean of world literature, just plunge in like a dolphin and follow your delight…’

On Teaching The Young

The young are quick of speech.
Grown middle-aged, I teach
Corrosion and distrust,
Exacting what I must.

A poem is what stands
When imperceptive hands,
Feeling, have gone astray.
It is what one should say.

Few minds will come to this.
The poet’s only bliss
Is in cold certitude –
Laurel, archaic, rude.

Yvor Winters

Week 382: Mill O’Tifty’s Annie, by Anon

This week a Scots ballad, Child 233, that takes us back into a dark mediaeval time, scarcely imaginable now, when a woman was the chattel of her family, to be disposed of in marriage for their profit and convenience, and if she stepped out of line could be brutalised and even subject to a so-called ‘honour killing’. This girl’s crime was to love one below her station; in the similarly themed ‘Bonnie Susie Cleland’ (Child 65) the crime is even worse: Susie falls in love with an Englishman. Along with the tragedy here there is a bit of perhaps unintentional Jane-Austenish social comedy: Lord Fyvie is struck by Annie’s beauty, and rather regrets that of course there could no question of a mere miller’s daughter becoming Lady Fyvie, while at the same time Annie’s father is equally dismissive of the idea of Annie marrying a mere trumpeter, even one in Lord Fyvie’s retinue. Doesn’t say much for the social standing of musicians…

The ballad has been covered by, among others, Jean Redpath on ‘Song of the Seals’ and Martin Simpson.

Mill O’Tifty’s Annie

At Mill O’ Tifty there lived a man
In the neighbourhood of Fyvie
He had a bonnie dochter dear
Whose name was Bonnie Annie.

Her bloom was like the springing flower
That hails the rosy morning,
With innocence and graceful mien
Her beauteous form adorning.

Lord Fyvie had a trumpeter
By the name o’ Andrew Lammie
He had the art tae win the heart
O’ Mill o’ Tifty’s Annie.

Proper he was, both young and gay,
His like was not in Fyvie,
Nor was ane there that could compare
With this same Andrew Lammie.

Lord Fyvie he rade by the mill
Whaur lived Tifty’s Annie
And his trumpeter rade him before
Even this same Andrew Lammie

Her mother cried her tae the door
Saying, ‘Come here tae me, my Annie
Did e’er ye see a bonnier man
Than the trumpeter o’ Fyvie?’

Nae thing she said, but sighing sore
‘Alas for Bonnie Annie’.
Love so oppressed her tender breast
Thinking on Andrew Lammie

‘Love comes in at my bedside
And love lies doon aside me
Love has possessed my tender breast
And love will waste my body

‘The first time me and my love met
‘Twas in the woods o’ Fyvie
His lovely form and speech so soft
Soon gained the heart of Annie.

He ca’d me ‘Mistress’, I said ‘No
I was Tifty’s Bonnie Annie’
With apples sweet he did me treat
And kisses soft and mony.

‘It’s up and doon in Tifty’s den
Where the burn runs clear and bonnie
I’ve often gane tae meet my love
My bonnie Andrew Lammie’

Her faither cam’ tae hear o’ this
And a letter wrote tae Fyvie
Tae say his dochter was bewitched
By his servant Andrew Lammie.

Then up the stair his trumpeter
He called soon and shortly:
‘Pray tell me soon what’s this you’ve done
To Tifty’s bonny Annie.’

‘Woe be to Mill of Tifty’s pride,
For it has ruined many;
They’ll not have ’t said that she should wed
The trumpeter of Fyvie.

‘In wicked art I had no part,
Nor therein am I canny;
True love alone the heart has won
Of Tifty’s bonnie Annie.

Lord Fyvie he rade by the mill
‘What ails ye, Bonnie Annie?’
‘It’s a’ for love that I maun die
For bonnie Andrew Lammie’

‘Oh Tifty, Tifty gie consent                     [Lord Fyvie speaks]
And let your dochter marry.’
’It’ll be tae ane o’ higher degree            [Annie’s father speaks]
Than the trumpeter o’ Fyvie.’

‘Had she been born o’ richer kin           [Lord Fyvie speaks]
As she is rich in beauty
I was hae ta’en the lass mysel’
And made her my ain lady’

‘Oh, Fyvie’s lands are far and wide       [Annie speaks]
An’ they are wondrous bonnie
But I wadnae gie my ain true love
No’ for a’ your lands o’ Fyvie’

At this her faither struck her sore
And likewise did her mother
Her sisters a’ they did her scorn
But wae’s me for her brother

Her brother struck her wondrous sore
Wi’ cruel strokes and many
He broke her back on the high hall-door
A’ for likin’ Andrew Lammie

‘Oh faither, mother, sisters a’
Why sae cruel tae your Annie?
My heart was broken first by love
Noo my brother’s broke my body

‘Oh mother, mother mak’ my bed
An’ lay my face tae Fyvie
Thus will I lie and will I die
For my ain dear Andrew Lammie’


Week 381: The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost

This is a famous and in my view somewhat misunderstood poem, the misunderstanding being entirely the fault of the poet. Robert Frost liked to put it about that this was a playful poem written to tease his friend Edward Thomas, who was, it seems, given to reflecting ruefully on the choice of path after one of their country walks together and saying now if only they’d gone the other way… In particular the last line, Frost claimed, was an ironic joke at Thomas’s expense and not to be taken literally. Thomas did indeed take the tease seriously and was apparently quite perturbed by the poem, but to me all this was just Frost putting up a smokescreen: clearly the poem is about him and not Thomas, the road less taken is the path of poetry, and there is no reason not to take the last line at face value: our life choices do indeed make a difference. I’m afraid Frost liked to play these games, maybe from a wish to disguise the act of self-revelation, or from a fear of committing himself too deeply to his own truth, or just from a mischievous sense of fun. Which doesn’t make it any less of a fine poem.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

Week 380: The Cool Web, by Robert Graves

I think this is the kind of poem that shows Robert Graves at his best as a lucid yet profound explorer of the human psyche. This one is always associated in my mind with the time my small son, then not quite two, was toddling down the garden path when he suddenly started crying inconsolably, shaking and pointing at something in the border. I hurried to him thinking he must have been stung by a bee, but then saw a small yellow frog hopping away into the undergrowth. ‘It’s just a little frog, it won’t hurt you’, I reassured him. He relaxed visibly. ‘Fwog’, he said, and I thought this is it, the cool web at work, another piece of the world’s strangeness and otherness named, tamed, pigeonholed, filed away. And paradoxically, it is part of the role of poetry to undo that naming and taming, to make us see again that disconcerting otherness and strangeness. Not that I want us to be terrified of frogs, you understand…

The Cool Web

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

Robert Graves