Week 400: The Collar-bone of a Hare, by W.B.Yeats

This may seem a strange little poem, though memorable by virtue of being suffused with the inimitable Yeats music. What’s all this about making a hole in the collar-bone of a hare? I believe that here Yeats is using, or adapting, a folktale motif: there are old Highland stories in which finding a stone with a hole in it and looking through it grants the finder the ability to pierce any disguise and see things as they truly are. And I think the poem is inspired by Yeats’s longing for an older, different order of things, for the Ireland of legend or, as he puts in his preface to Lady Gregory’s ‘Cuchulain of Muirthemne’, for ‘that Cruachan of the enchantments that lay behind those long, blue, ragged hills’.

The Collar-bone of a Hare

Would I could cast a sail on the water
Where many a king has gone
And many a king’s daughter,
And alight at the comely trees and the lawn,
The playing upon pipes and the dancing,
And learn that the best thing is
To change my loves while dancing
And pay but a kiss for a kiss.
I would find by the edge of that water

The collar-bone of a hare
Worn thin by the lapping of water,
And pierce it through with a gimlet and stare
At the old bitter world where they marry in churches,
And laugh over the untroubled water
At all who marry in churches,
Through the white thin bone of a hare.


Week 399: The Bonny Earl of Moray, by Anon

This popular ballad, Child 181, probably dates from the 17th century and is based on a historical incident. James Stewart, Earl of Moray (Lord Doune) was suspected by James VI of Scotland of having been involved with the Earl of Bothwell in an attempt on the king’s life. He issued a warrant for Moray’s arrest in 1592, charging George Gordon, the Earl of Huntly, with carrying it out. Huntly had a long-standing feud with Moray and took the opportunity, rather than arrest Moray, to kill him outside Moray’s castle in Fife. According to the ballad, James felt that Huntly had exceeded his brief, though he took no action against him.

The song is incidentally famous for having given rise to the term ‘mondegreen’ for a misheard song lyric. This was coined by the American writer Sylvia Wright, who described how, as a young girl, she misheard the final two lines of the first verse as ‘they have slain the Earl o’ Moray, and Lady Mondegreen.’ She said that she always imagined the Earl dying beside his faithful lover ‘Lady Mondegreen’, and refused to hear the real words, because they were less romantic than her misheard version.

I have often wished that there could be a comparable term based not a mishearing but on a possible misunderstanding or over-interpretation of a line that goes beyond anything intended by the poet. For example, when I first read A.E.Housman’s ‘Bredon Hill’ and came to the lines ‘They tolled the one bell only/Groom was there none to see’ I read it with an emphasis on the ‘see’, which gave me a shiver as I imagined an invisible figure of Death stalking beside the coffin like a bridegroom. But it seems quite possible that this conceit never entered Housman’s mind. Ah well, another one for the Elysian fields. ‘Hey, Alfred, you know that poem of yours…’

Like all ballads it is best heard with its tune: there is a good version by the Ian Campbell Folk Group.

The Bonny Earl of Moray

Ye Hielands an ye Lowlands
O, whaur hae ye been
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
And lain him on the green.

Now wae betide thee, Huntly
And whaurfor did ye sae?
I hae bade ye bring him wi ye
But forbade ye him tae slay.

He was a braw gallant,
And he rid at the ring;
And the bonny Earl o’ Moray,
O he might hae been a king!

He was a braw gallant,
And he play’d at the ba’;
And the bonny Earl o’ Moray
Was the flower amang them a’!

He was a braw gallant,
And he play’d at the gluve;
And the bonny Earl o’ Moray,
O he was the Queen’s luve!

O lang will his Lady
Look owre the Castle Downe,
Ere she see the Earl o’ Moray
Come sounding through the town!


Week 398: She Moved Through The Fair, by Anon/Padraic Colum

This is in my view one of the most beautiful of all folksongs. It began life as a traditional Irish air of some antiquity, and at least the words of the last verse are traditional; the first three verses are said to have been composed by the Irish poet Padraic Colum, though again based to some extent on traditional lyrics. Colum definitely added the third verse, though, to make it clear, he said, that the bride had died before her wedding-day: this verse seems a bit redundant and is often omitted in performance.

It has been covered by countless professional folk singers, usually with an instrumental accompaniment. Yet one of the most moving versions I have ever heard was an a cappella performance by an unnamed young woman in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, part of a remembrance service for victims of the Omagh bombing, as featured in the BBC’s ‘Soul Music’ series which devotes a whole program to the song.

She Moved Through The Fair

My young love said to me, ‘My mother won’t mind
And my father won’t slight you for your lack of kind’
And she stepped away from me and this she did say:
‘It will not be long, love, till our wedding day’

She stepped away from me and she moved through the fair
And fondly I watched her move here and move there
Until she turned homeward with one star awake
As the swan in the evening moves over the lake

All of the people were saying, ‘No two ever wed,
But one had a sorrow that never was said’,
But she smiled as she passed me with her goods and her gear
And that was the last time that I saw my dear.

Last night she came to me, my young love came in,
So softly she entered her feet made no din
And she laid her hand on me and this she did say
‘It will not be long, love, ’til our wedding day’

Anon/Padraic Colum

Week 397: ‘I often pulled my hat over my eyes…’ by John Clare

This week’s offering is from the writings of the peasant poet John Clare (1793-1864). Edward Thomas famously said of Robert Frost’s work ‘It is poetry because it is better than prose’; I suppose one might say of this passage that it is prose because it is not quite as good as poetry, yet surely it runs it pretty close, and I am not sure that the distinction is even a useful one in cases like this. It is interesting to set it against the famous passage from Thomas Traherne (see week 390), and to consider how much more (literally) down to earth Clare is. Personally I prefer the Clare.

‘I often pulled my hat over my eyes to watch the rising of the lark, or to see the hawk hang in the summer sky and the kite take its circles round the wood. I often lingered a minute on the woodland stile to hear the woodpigeons clapping their wings among the dark oaks.  I hunted curious flowers in rapture and muttered thoughts in their praise. I loved the pasture with its rushes and thistles and sheep-tracks. I adored the wild, marshy fen with its solitary heronshaw sweeing along in its melancholy sky. I wandered the heath in raptures among the rabbit burrows and golden-blossomed firze. I dropt down on a thymy mole-hill or mossy eminence to survey the summer landscape….I marked the various colours in flat, spreading fields, checkered into closes of different-tinctured grain like the colours of a map; the copper-tinted clover in blossom; the sun-tanned green of the ripening hay; the lighter charlock and the sunset imitation of the scarlet headaches; the blue corn-bottles crowding their splendid colours in large sheets over the land and troubling the cornfields with destroying beauty; the different greens of the woodland trees, the dark oak, the paler ash, the mellow lime, the white poplars peeping above the rest like leafy steeples, the grey willow shining in the sun, as if the morning mist still lingered on its cool green.  .  . I observed all this with the same rapture as l have done since. But I knew nothing of poetry. It was felt and not uttered.’

John Clare