Week 391: Album, by R.S.Thomas

The other day my wife and I were looking at our wedding photos from fifty-four years ago, and reflecting on the fact that most of the people in them are now dead. (So important to stay cheerful during lockdown…) Well, I suppose it is obvious that for most of us, if we live long enough, there comes a point at which, of all the people we have known in our lives, more are now dead than are still living – it just takes a photograph album to bring it home to one. And this in turn reminded me of this rueful poem by R.S.Thomas.

Note the scrupulously truthful ‘bandaged’ in the last stanza. Not a glib ‘healed’ – anyone who has lost a child or partner may tell you that not all wounds are healed by time. Just bandaged, covered, the way a smile may cover grief.

Album

My father is dead.
I who am look at him
who is not, as once he
went looking for me
in the woman who was.

There are pictures
of the two of them, no
need of a third, hand
in hand, hearts willing
to be one but not three.

What does it mean
life? I am here I am
there. Look! Suddenly
the young tool in their hands
for hurting one another.

And the camera says:
Smile; there is no wound
time gives that is not bandaged
by time. And so they do the
three of them at me who weep.

R.S.Thomas

Week 390: ‘The corn was orient and immortal wheat’ by Thomas Traherne

This passage from ‘Centuries of Meditation’ by the English poet and mystic Thomas Traherne (1637-1674) has become famous, though Traherne’s work didn’t attract much notice till the twentieth century. I like it, but I think there is a temptation for writers to project back on to themselves as children more poetic sensibility than they actually had at the time, and wonder if this is not such a case. In my experience small children tend to be of a fairly practical turn of mind, and Hardy comes nearer the mark when he says, in a poem recalling his own childhood, ‘Everything glowed with a gleam/Yet we were looking away!’. I well remember a walk in a spring wood with my own small daughter when she was two. ‘I know’, I said, taking out my notebook and pencil. ‘Let’s sit on this log and you tell Daddy what interesting things you can see and he’ll write them down in his book’. She obligingly sat down and thought. I waited expectantly, trying to imagine myself into her world of unsullied perception. What would it be? Something about the dance of the light on the leaves, the bluebells stretching away all round us under the beech trees? Eventually she delivered. ‘Beth can see pencil!’, she said.

‘The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things: The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die; But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds, nor divisions: but all proprieties* and divisions were mine: all treasures and the possessors of them. So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God’.

Thomas Traherne

* ‘proprieties’ here has its older meaning of ‘properties’.

Week 389: The Echoing Green, by William Blake

This seemingly naïve pastoral is not perhaps in the visionary vein one usually associates with Blake, yet I feel it has acquired a peculiar poignancy in these days of social isolation – certainly my own local Echoing Green is eerily deserted these days – no sport, no teenagers in convivial huddles on the benches, even a lock on the children’s playground in the corner.

I wonder, incidentally, what a village green would have looked like in Blake’s time. Probably rather different from our own mowed and manicured areas with their cricket squares, football pitches, swings and climbing frames. Was football even played on a pitch then? – I have an idea that it was more a mob-handed affair ranging over open fields between two sides intent on doing as much damage to each other as possible and never mind the ball (OK, not much change there then). Certainly I know my own local green is all that remains of a great wild common, a favourite haunt of early botanists, stretching right up to the edge of the woods over acres long gone under housing estates.

The Echoing Green

The Sun does arise,
And make happy the skies;
The merry bells ring
To welcome the Spring;
The skylark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around
To the bells’ cheerful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the Echoing Green.

Old John, with white hair,
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Among the old folk.
They laugh at our play,
And soon they all say:
‘Such, such were the joys
When we all, girls and boys,
In our youth time were seen
On the Echoing Green.’

Till the little ones, weary,
No more can be merry;
The sun does descend,
And our sports have an end.
Round the laps of their mothers
Many sisters and brothers,
Like birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest,
And sport no more seen
On the darkening Green.

William Blake

Week 388: The Oracles, by A.E.Housman

A.E.Housman’s philosophy of stoic defiance in the face of adversity found perfect expression in the closing stanza of this poem with its celebration of the Spartan resistance at Thermopylae to the invading Persian army of Xerxes. It is, of course, not without irony that these warriors of a grim, unlovely and anything but democratic society should have come to stand as the ultimate symbol of democratic resistance to tyranny, but still, courage is courage, and it stirs and inspires us. Just as, in a more humane form, it stirs and inspires us today as our doctors, nurses and a volunteer army make their Spartan stand against another enemy out of the East.

Dodona, in a remote region of Greece, was the site of one of the main Greek oracles, second only to the one at Delphi. Rulers and heroes would make their way there to consult with the priestess before major enterprises, though the answers they got tended to be so unhelpfully ambiguous that one wonders why they bothered.

Why ‘benight the air’? The story in Herodotus goes that the Spartans were told how the archers of the Persian host discharged enough arrows to blot out the sun, to which their laconic reply was ‘Good, then we shall be fighting in the shade’.

The Oracles

‘Tis mute, the word they went to hear on high Dodona mountain.
When winds were in oakenshaws the and all the cauldrons tolled.
And mute’s the midland navel-stone beside the singing fountain.
And echoes list to silence now where gods told lies of old.

I took my question to the shrine that has not ceased from speaking,
The heart within, that tells the truth and tells it twice as plain;
And from the cave of oracles I heard the priestess shrieking
That she and I should surely die and never live again.

Oh priestess, what you cry is clear, and sound good sense I think it;
But let the screaming echoes rest, and froth your mouth no more.
‘Tis true there’s better boose than brine, but he that dies must drink it;
And oh, my lass the news is news that men have heard before.

The King with half the East at heel is marched from lands of morning;
Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air.
And he that stands will die for nought, and home there’s no returning.
The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.

A.E.Housman