Week 413: On A Return From Egypt, by Keith Douglas

This appears to have been the last poem that Keith Douglas wrote, before his death at the age of 24 during the Normandy campaign on June 1944, a loss to English poetry that was great if little recognised at the time. I do not think it is quite as perfectly realised as some others of his poems, like ‘Vergissmeinnicht’, ‘Canoe’ or ‘Aristocrats’ that I have already featured, but I do find the third stanza in particular very moving. One might speak of pathos, but really there is nothing pathetic about Douglas: this is not an invitation to sympathy but more like a great howl of frustration from a poet who knows he has so much more to give but also has a growing sense that he has little time left in which to give it. ‘Time, time is all I lacked…’. Indeed.

On A Return From Egypt

To stand here in the wings of Europe
disheartened, I have come away
from the sick land where in the sun lay
the gentle sloe-eyed murderers
of themselves, exquisites under a curse;
here to exercise my depleted fury.

For the heart is a coal, growing colder
when jewelled caerulean seas change
into grey rocks, grey water-fringe,
sea and sky altering like a cloth
till colour and sheen are gone both:
cold is an opiate of the soldier.

And all my endeavours are unlucky explorers
come back, abandoning the expedition;
the specimens, the lilies of ambition
still spring in their climate, still unpicked:
but time, time is all I lacked
to find them, as the great collectors before me.

The next month, then, is a window
and with a crash I’ll split the glass.
Behind it stands one I must kiss,
person of love or death,
a person or a wraith,
I fear what I shall find.

Keith Douglas

Week 412: Die Spitze, by Rainer Maria Rilke

A favourite theme in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke is the sacrifices that the artist must make for the sake of his/her art. In his poem ‘Der Dichter’ (‘The Poet’) he bemoans these: ‘Ich habe keine Geliebte, kein Haus,/keine Stelle auf der ich lebe’ (I have no beloved, no house, nowhere I can live’). Actually one feels he didn’t do too badly: people lent him their castles to compose in; a poet nowadays would be lucky to get the offer of a garden shed.

This poem exemplifies that theme of sacrifice: it is about a lace-maker who goes blind from all the close work involved in the practice of her craft but lives on, Rilke imagines, in one artefact. The poem is actually in two parts: this is just the first part, which I feel is self-sufficient.

The translation that follows is my own.

Die Spitze

Menschlichkeit: Namen schwankender Besitze,
noch unbestätigter Bestand von Glück:
ist das unmenschlich, daß zu dieser Spitze,
zu diesem kleinen dichten Spitzenstück
zwei Augen wurden? — Willst du sie zurück?

Du Langvergangene und schließlich Blinde,
ist deine Seligkeit in diesem Ding,
zu welcher hin, wie zwischen Stamm und Rinde,
dein großes Fühlen, kleinverwandelt, ging?

Durch einen Riß im Schicksal, eine Lücke
entzogst du deine Seele deiner Zeit;
und sie ist so in diesem lichten Stücke,
daß es mich lächeln macht vor Nützlichkeit.

The Lace

What is it to be human? To possess
Nothing for certain, no sure happiness.
Was it inhuman then, that you who made
This thing, this small close-woven piece of lace,
Gave two eyes for it? Do you rue that trade?

You, long departed one, whose end was dark,
Is this the thing wherein you left your bliss,
Great feeling, in the width of trunk to bark,
Diminished as by magic into this?

You found a rift in destiny, a space
To draw your soul out of its time, set free,
And it’s so here, in this light piece of lace,
It makes me smile at the utility.

Week 411: My Father’s People, by Stanley Cook

The poems of the Yorkshire poet and schoolteacher Stanley Cook (1922-1991) are infused with a strong sense both of place and of a vanished way of life whose fading years he caught and celebrated. Of course, it has always been part of a poet’s role to be a bridge between present and past, but perhaps never more so than in the case of Cook’s generation and my own that followed it, which saw a time of unprecedented social and technological change. We may tend to forget, in this age obsessed with the immediate, just how far back into the past knowledge from personal acquaintance can reach, and how much of that past it can preserve if only we think to ask the right questions at the right time. When I was small a great-great aunt of some kind came to visit us: she was a centenarian, born around 1850. We walked down the garden path together. Sadly at that age I had no appreciation of the fact that I was in the presence of someone who had been a child at the time of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, and who might in her turn have walked with people who stood with other mourners in the streets of London to watch Nelson’s coffin pass on its way to St Paul’s. I just thought she looked like a small brown wizened monkey, and I do not recall that we had anything to say to one another. At least it was different with my mother, born in 1908, whose anecdotes gave me a window on to a world of lamplighters, muffin-men and hopscotch played in leafy suburban roads where the only traffic was horse-drawn. Stanley Cook’s poems give me the same sense of vicarious, elegiac knowledge. This poem is from his collection ‘Signs of Life’ (Peterloo Poets, 1972).

My Father’s People

In Gainsborough, South Kelsey, Morton and Scotter
The apple trees print a forgotten alphabet
On parchment of ground beside the inherited
Rosy brick of cottages and farms;
Streets made to measure horse and cart still serve
The shabby numbered gates of once busy works,
The unemployed that no longer dress up to sign on:
And I could panic that all my uncles and cousins
Wh once worked here are dead, only alive
In flashes of anecdote from aging widows.
For a family supposed to be fond of its stomach
That killed and hung its pigs and made one mouthful
Of cheesecakes and tarts they had indifferent health
Those connoisseurs of chitterlings and chines
Living on one lung or dying of ulcers.
Failing a poem, what else would they do but eat
The beautiful land I too find fascinating?
Poor writers, who gathered only at funerals
Or added to a Christmas card
’Mother died this June’.

Stanley Cook

Week 410: The Death of Falstaff, by William Shakespeare

I sometimes wonder how much Shakespeare really intended Falstaff. One imagines it all starting with a ‘note to self: how about comic fat character to give the groundlings a laugh?’, and then Falstaff turns up, marches in, and takes over the place. I first met this larger-than-life character at a fairly young age and found him very entertaining but a bit confusing. I could not help comparing him with English literature’s other great subversive antihero, William Brown, who like Falstaff had a band of faithful acolytes, a fine line in rhetorical self-justification and a sturdy disdain for the values and conventions of his time. I’m afraid that morally the comparison did Falsaff no favours. William might have had his faults, but he was essentially honourable, and you wouldn’t have caught him going round stabbing corpses and trying to take the credit for killing them. Still, I felt keenly the increasing pathos of the old rogue’s rejection by the cold-hearted Prince Hal, and was glad that Shakespeare, a third of the way through ‘Henry IV Part 2’, at least gave him a fine sendoff, in a scene that manages to be both funny – the Hostess trying to reassure the dying Knight that he need not to be thinking about God just yet – and yet do justice to the mystery and solemnity of death.

ACT II SCENE III

London. Before a tavern.

Enter PISTOL, Hostess, NYM, BARDOLPH, and Boy

PISTOL

Boy, bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff he is dead,
And we must yearn therefore.

BARDOLPH

Would I were with him, wheresome’er he is, either in heaven or in hell!

HOSTESS

Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields. ‘How now, sir John!’ quoth I ‘what, man! be o’ good cheer.’ So a’ cried out ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’ should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.

William Shakespeare