Week 387: From ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’ by Anthony Trollope

Minimal going out and no social contact, and now the libraries have closed – what does one do in this time of plague? Well, for one thing it’s a chance to reread some favourite novels rather than always having something new on the go. So… not ‘Middlemarch’, I listened to that as an audio book only a few weeks ago. ‘Anna Karenina’? Perhaps something a little more upbeat: things do not (spoiler alert!) end well for poor Anna. ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’? – well that at least, quite uncharacteristically for Hardy, has a happy ending, but let’s face it, Hardy completely loses interest in Gabriel and Bathsheba once their troubles are over, and so do we. ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’? Great until John Fowles goes all modernist and plays silly b’s with the ending. ‘Sunset Song’? Wonderful, but now I recall I foolishly lent it to someone and never got it back. ‘Kim’? A possible, but I feel I need something nearer to home. No, I think the man for these times is Trollope, in particular his ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’, which means that I shall be starting with ‘The Warden’ and so arriving in a week or two at that most naively touching of literary valedictions, the closing paragraph of ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’:

‘And now, if the reader will allow me to seize him affectionately by the arm, we will together take our last farewell of Barset and the towers of Barchester. I may not venture to say to him that, in this country, he and I together have wandered often through the country lanes, and have ridden together in the too well-wooded fields, or have stood together in the cathedral nave listening to the peals of the organ, or have together sat at good men’s table, or have confronted together the angry pride of men who were not good. I may not boast that any beside myself have so realised the place, and the people, and the facts, as to make such reminiscences possible as those which I should attempt to evoke by an appeal to perfect fellowship. But to me Barset has been a real county, and its city a real city, and the spires and towers have been before my eyes, and the voices of the people are known to my ears, and the pavements of the city ways are familiar to my footsteps. To them all I now say farewell. That I have been induced to wander among them too long by my love of old friendships, and by the sweetness of old faces, is a fault for which I may perhaps be more readily forgiven, when I repeat, with some solemnity of assurance, the promise made in my title, that this shall be the last chronicle of Barset.’

Anthony Trollope

Week 386: They Flee From Me That Sometime Did Me Seek, by Sir Thomas Wyatt

I was surprised to find that I hadn’t featured this week’s poem before: I must have thought it was too well known, but really it’s one of those poems that can’t be too well known, so it’s time to make amends. When so much of what passes for poetry is merely an exercise in the conventions of the age, to come across the true living voice is always startling.

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1593-1542) figures as a character in Hilary Mantel’s excellent ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy.

They Flee From Me That Sometime Did Me Seek

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, ‘Dear heart, how like you this’.

It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

Week 385: Rondeau de Printemps, by René Charles d’Orléans

A slight improvement this week in the miserable weather we have been having here of late, so I thought I would celebrate with this charming rondeau by the French duke-cum-poet René Charles d’Orléans (1394-1465). It captures some of the joy that people in the Middle Ages must have felt at the return of spring. And of course, for those of us who grew up in homes without central heating, the Middle Ages lasted well into the nineteen-fifties.

The translation that follows is my own.

Rondeau de printemps

Le temps a laissé son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluie,
Et s’est vêtu de broderie,
De soleil luisant, clair et beau.

Il n’y a bête ni oiseau
Qu’en son jargon ne chante ou crie:
Le temps a laissé son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluie.

Rivière, fontaine et ruisseau
Portent en livrée jolie
Gouttes d’argent, d’orfèvrerie;
Chacun s’habille de nouveau:
Le temps a laissé son manteau.

René Charles d’Orléans

Spring Rondeau

The season has put off its wear
Of wind and cold and rain
And robed itself in sunlight now,
All’s radiance again.

There’s not a bird and not a beast
But echoes the refrain:
The season has put off its wear
Of wind and cold and rain

While river, brook and fountain bear
A liquid livery
Of silver and gold filigree;
So one and all, new clad, declare
The season has put off its wear.

Week 384: Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain, by Louis Simpson

This poem by the American poet Louis Simpson (1923-2012) seems to be primarily about disillusionment with the American way of life, though it ends on a note of apparent hope. I really like it for its lyricism, but am aware that as an English reader I am almost certainly missing some of its cultural nuances. For one thing, I am not even sure exactly what the ‘American dream’ is. Opening your own fast-food joint? Getting a cameo role in The Simpsons? Coming over here, marrying one of our princes and carting him off to Canada? Whatever it is, the poet clearly feels that it has led his people down the wrong road, and that the nation they were promised has become lost in a rising tide of uncaring consumerism: ‘The Open Road goes to the used-car lot’, and only poets stop to read inscriptions. But then there is a change of mood that seems to stem from a feeling of being released from the burden of expectation: ‘All that grave weight of America/Cancelled’. The last line, ‘Dances like Italy, imagining red’, is a resounding one but I have to confess I don’t understand it. Why Italy? Why red? Sorry, Louis Simpson, but I need a bit of help with this one. Still think it’s a fine poem though.

Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain

Neither on horseback nor seated,
But like himself, squarely on two feet,
The poet of death and lilacs
Loafs by the footpath. Even the bronze looks alive
Where it is folded like cloth. And he seems friendly.

‘Where is the Mississippi panorama
And the girl who played the piano?
Where are you, Walt?
The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.

‘Where is the nation you promised?
These houses built of wood sustain
Colossal snows,
And the light above the street is sick to death.

‘As for the people – see how they neglect you!
Only a poet pauses to read the inscription.’

‘I am here’, he answered.
‘It seems you have found me out.
Yet, did I not warn you that it was Myself
I advertised? Were my words not sufficiently plain?

I gave no prescriptions,
And those who have taken my moods for prophecies
Mistake the matter.’
Then, vastly amused – ‘Why do you reproach me?
I freely confess I am wholly disreputable.
Yet I am happy, because you have found me out.’
A crocodile in wrinkled metal loafing …

Then all the realtors,
Pickpockets, salesmen, and the actors performing
Official scenarios,
Turned a deaf ear, for they had contracted
American dreams.

But the man who keeps a store on a lonely road,
And the housewife who knows she’s dumb,
And the earth, are relieved.

All that grave weight of America
Cancelled! Like Greece and Rome.
The future in ruins!
The castles, the prisons, the cathedrals
Unbuilding, and the roses
Blossoming from the stones that are not there…

The clouds are lifting from the high Sierras,
The Bay mists clearing;
And the angel in the gate, the flowering plum,
Dances like Italy, imagining red.

Louis Simpson