Week 396: Birthday Poem for Thomas Hardy, by C. Day-Lewis

It is Thomas Hardy’s birthday next Tuesday (June 2nd) so this tribute seems a fitting choice. It is cleverly couched in Hardy’s own idiom, and has a generosity of spirit not always apparent among poets. But Hardy does appear to have this knack of inspiring an unusual level of affection in his readers, and if, reading his biography, one sometimes suspects that he poured the best wine of his spirit into his work and had only the lees left for the other people in his life, well, he’s not the first artist of whom this could be said. What did Yeats say? ‘The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life or of the work’. (It is entirely possible, of course, to fall well short of perfection in both…)

Birthday Poem for Thomas Hardy

Is it birthday weather for you, dear soul?
Is it fine your way,
With tall moon-daisies alight, and the mole
Busy, and elegant hares at play
By meadow paths where once you would stroll
In the flush of day?

I fancy the beasts and flowers there beguiled
By a visitation
That casts no shadow, a friend whose mild
Inquisitive glance lights with compassion,
Beyond the tomb, on all of this wild
And humbled creation.

It’s hard to believe a spirit could die
Of such generous glow,
Or to doubt that somewhere a bird-sharp eye
Still broods on the capers of men below,
A stern voice asks the Immortals why
They should plague us so.

Dear poet, wherever you are, I greet you.
Much irony, wrong,
Innocence you’d find here to tease or entreat you,
And many the fate-fires have tempered strong,
But none that in ripeness of soul could meet you
Or magic of song.

Great brow, frail form—gone.  Yet you abide
In the shadow and sheen,
All the mellowing traits of a countryside
That nursed your tragi-comical scene;
And in us, warmer-hearted and brisker-eyed
Since you have been.

C. Day-Lewis

Week 395: Tall Nettles, by Edward Thomas

I imagine that those brought up to think that a poem must always mean something beyond itself may find this little piece, together with why I find it so satisfying, somewhat puzzling. ‘Yes, but what do the nettles represent?’, they may ask. Nothing, so far as I know: they are just nettles in their own right, a humble and easily overlooked part of the creation, but this time they have been seen, and the poetry is in the seeing. It is as Thomas himself observed of his hero Richard Jefferies: ‘To see… as clearly as he saw the sun-painted yellowhammer in Stewart’s Mash is an office of the imagination’. And when it results in observation as affectionately meticulous as that in the last three lines of this poem, it is no mean office either.

Tall Nettles

Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.

This corner of the farmyard I like most:
As well as any bloom upon a flower
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.

Edward Thomas

Week 394: Appeals, by David Sutton

It’s a bad time for charities, this lockdown, and there seem to be even more good causes than usual needing help. One feels one should be doing something, and of course many people are. My daughter recently finished a sponsored ascent of her stairs 3204 times in 22 hours to equal the height of Everest, my son-in-law has done a sponsored half-marathon in his back garden. All a bit energetic for me now. I wondered if I could perhaps get people to sponsor me to write a poem, but it was put to me that I would probably have more luck getting people to sponsor me not to write a poem. So I have contented myself with at least digging out this one that I wrote years ago, but which now has sadly gained fresh relevance.

Note: I am aware that the term ‘spastics’ is no longer considered correct, but back when I wrote the poem it was simply the normal word for the condition: one made out cheques to The Spastics Society, which did not change its name to Scope until 1994. I don’t know how far poets can reasonably be expected to revise their work when the rug of language is pulled from under them – it’s a tricky one!


Almost daily the world
Bleeds through my letter-box. On the mat each morning
I find fresh gouts: blind babies, orphans, spastics,
The deaf, the lonely old, ill-treated pets,
Blue whales, otters, donkeys. . . Donkeys? Well,
Why not; in indiscriminate despair
I scribble out the breakfast cheques, each careful
Conscience-minimum. Now world, will you
Leave me alone today? Will someone else
Apply these scraps of dressing? But the blood
Seeps through, it stains my fingers, sometimes at night
Becomes a bright unlaunderable flood.
Can’t someone tell them I’ve a life to lead?
Just so, they murmur, drawing off, and bleed.

David Sutton

Week 393: Ten Types of Hospital Visitor, by Charles Causley

I thought this week’s piece might be appropriate at a time when with any luck patients in hospital will soon be allowed visitors again, though if Charles Causley’s wryly observed poem is anything to go by, this can be a mixed blessing…

Ten Types of Hospital Visitor


The first enters wearing the neon armour
Of virtue.
Ceaselessly firing all-purpose smiles
At everyone present
She destroys hope
In the breasts of the sick,
Who realize instantly
That they are incapable of surmounting
Her ferocious goodwill.

Such courage she displays
In the face of human disaster!

Fortunately, she does not stay long.
After a speedy trip round the ward
In the manner of a nineteen-thirties destroyer
Showing the flag in the Mediterranean,
She returns home for a week
– With luck, longer –
Scorched by the heat of her own worthiness.


The second appears, a melancholy splurge
Of theological colours;
Taps heavily about like a healthy vulture
Distributing deep-frozen hope.

The patients gaze at him cautiously.
Most of them, as yet uncertain of the realities
Of heaven, hell-fire, or eternal emptiness,
Play for safety
By accepting his attentions
With just-concealed apathy,
Except one old man, who cries
With newly sharpened hatred,
‘Shove off! Shove off!
‘Shove … shove … shove … shove
Just you


The third skilfully deflates his weakly smiling victim
By telling him
How the lobelias are doing,
How many kittens the cat had,
How the slate came off the scullery roof,
And how no one has visited the patient for a fortnight
Because everybody
Had colds and feared to bring the jumpy germ
Into hospital.
The patient’s eyes
Ice over. He is uninterested
In lobelias, the cat, the slate, the germ.
Flat on his back, drip-fed, his face
The shade of a newly dug-up Pharaoh,
Wearing his skeleton outside his skin,
Yet his wits as bright as a lighted candle,
He is concerned only with the here, the now,
And requires to speak
Of nothing but his present predicament.

It is not permitted.


The fourth attempts to cheer
His aged mother with light jokes
Menacing as shell-splinters.
‘They’ll soon have you jumping round
Like a gazelle,’ he says.
‘Playing in the football team.’
Quite undeterred by the sight of kilos
Of plaster, chains, lifting-gear,
A pair of lethally designed crutches,
‘You’ll be leap-frogging soon,’ he says.
‘Swimming ten lengths of the baths.’
At these unlikely prophecies
The old lady stares fearfully
At her sick, sick offspring
Thinking he has lost his reason –

Which, alas, seems to be the case.


The fifth, a giant from the fields
With suit smelling of milk and hay,
Shifts uneasily from one bullock foot
To the other, as though to avoid
Settling permanently in the antiseptic landscape.
Occasionally he looses a scared glance
Sideways, as though fearful of what intimacy
He may blunder on, or that the walls
Might suddenly close in on him.

He carries flowers, held lightly in fingers
The size and shape of plantains,
Tenderly kisses his wife’s cheek
– The brush of a child’s lips –
Then balances, motionless, for thirty minutes
On the thin chair.

At the end of visiting time
He emerges breathless,
Blinking with relief, into the safe light.

He does not appear to notice
The dusk.


The sixth visitor says little,
Breathes reassurance,
Smiles securely.
Carries no black passport of grapes
And visa of chocolate. Has a clutch
Of clean washing.
Unobtrusively stows it
In the locker; searches out more.
Talks quietly to the Sister
Out of sight, out of earshot, of the patient.
Arrives punctually as a tide.
Does not stay the whole hour.

Even when she has gone
The patient seems to sense her there:
An upholding


The seventh visitor
Smells of bar-room after-shave.
Often finds his friend
Sound asleep: whether real or feigned
Is never determined.

He does not mind; prowls the ward
In search of second-class, lost-face patients
With no visitors
And who are pretending to doze
Or read paperbacks.

He probes relentlessly the nature
Of each complaint, and is swift with such
Dilutions of confidence as,
`Ah! You’ll be worse
Before you’re better.’

Five minutes before the bell punctuates
Visiting time, his friend opens an alarm-clock eye.
The visitor checks his watch.
Market day. The Duck and Pheasant will be still open.

Courage must be refuelled.


The eight visitor looks infinitely
More decayed, ill and infirm than any patient.
His face is an expensive grey.

He peers about with antediluvian eyes
As though from the other end
Of time.
He appears to have risen from the grave
To make this appearance.
There is a whiff of white flowers about him;
The crumpled look of a slightly used shroud.
Slowly he passes the patient
A bag of bullet-proof
Home-made biscuits,
A strong, death-dealing cake –
‘To have with your tea,’
Or a bowl of fruit so weighty
It threatens to break
His glass fingers.

The patient, encouraged beyond measure,
Thanks him with enthusiasm, not for
The oranges, the biscuits, the cake,
But for the healing sight
Of someone patently worse
Than himself. He rounds the crisis-corner;
Begins a recovery.


The ninth visitor is life.


The tenth visitor
Is not usually named.

Charles Causley

Week 392: An Eala Bhàn, by Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna

These are verses from a longer poem in Scots Gaelic, written by Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna (Donald Macdonald) (1887-1967) during the Battle of the Somme. It is addressed to the sweetheart he had left at home, Magaidh NicLeòid (Maggie MacLeod), the ‘white swan’ of the title. The poem has none of the righteous anger of Owen and Sassoon, just resignation and the ache of longing for a life left behind, sentiments that must have been much more typical of the common soldier in the trenches.

It has been set to music and was sung, very beautifully, by Julie Fowlis, at the Thiepval Memorial Service on July 1st, 2016: you can hear this on YouTube, as you can another haunting version by Karen Matheson. We owe so much to singers like this who are doing their best to keep alive the Gaelic language with all its rich heritage of song and poetry.

The translation that follows is my own.

An Eala Bhàn

Gur duilich leam mar tha mi
‘S mo chridhe ‘n sàs aig bròn
Bhon an uair a dh’fhàg mi
Beanntan àrd a’cheò
Gleanntannan a’mhànrain
Nan loch, nam bàgh, ‘s nan stròm
‘S an eala bhàn ‘tha tamh ann
Gach là air ‘m bheil mi’n tòir

A Mhagaidh na bi tùrsach
A rùin, ged gheibhinn bàs
Cò am fear am measg an t-sluaigh
A mhaireas buan gu bràth?
Chan eil sinn uileadh ach air chuairt
Mar dhìthein buaile fàs
Bheir siantannan na bhliadhna sìos
‘S nach tog a’ghrian an àird.


Oidhche mhath leat fhéin, a rùin
Nad leabaidh chùbhraidh bhlàth
Cadal sàmhach air a chùl
Do dhùsgadh sunndach slàn
Tha mise ‘seo ‘san truinnsidh fhuair
Nam chluaisean fuaim a bhàis
Gun dùil ri faighinn às le buaidh
Tha’n cuan cho buan ri shnàmh

Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna

The White Swan

There is a sadness in my state
My heart cannot resist,
Not since the very hour I left
The high peaks in the mist,
Not since I left the little glens,
The lochs and bays behind,
And you, the white swan living there,
Who’s never from my mind.

O Maggie, don’t be sorrowful
If I should not survive.
We journey on: what man can stay
Eternally alive?
Like flowers in a deserted fold
We flourish, till the rain
Beats down our little span of life.
We do not bloom again.


And now goodnight to you, my love,
In your warm scented bed.
May you sleep peacefully and wake
In health and clear of head,
While I am here in this cold trench,
No quiet rest for me,
Nor hope of home, for who can swim
Across so wide a sea.