Week 426: The Oxen, by Thomas Hardy

I’m posting a day early this week, and if it’s Christmas Eve it has to be that perennial Hardy favourite, ‘The Oxen’, and even though I imagine few of my readers will need reminding of it, for me its wistful poignancy still works every time. I do wonder, though, about the line ‘So fair a fancy few would weave/In these years!’. I would have thought that in Hardy’s day the weaving of fair fancies was still going strong. True, it was already some years since Darwin had presented his challenge to religious orthodoxy, and since Matthew Arnold had stood on Dover beach and heard the sea of faith receding, but had these intellectual currents really impinged that much as yet on popular belief?

Not that fair fancy is entirely dead even now. A year or two back, one frosty Christmas Eve with a moon rising, I met a neighbour’s small child who informed very earnestly that if I waited and watched the sky with her I might see Father Christmas and his reindeer flying across the face of the moon on their way to making their deliveries. What could I do but stand with her and look up, hoping it might be so…

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock,
‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come; see the oxen kneel

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy

Week 425: From ‘The Almond Tree’, by Jon Stallworthy

This is the last section of a longer poem, ‘The Almond Tree’, by Jon Stallworthy (1935-2014). The poem deals with the birth of a child who turns out to have Down Syndrome. Its inclusion here is a little problematic because, although it appears in the poem as first published, the poet then removed it on the grounds that he no longer felt comfortable with it, seeing it as ‘making explicit things that should have remained implicit’. I think that this is a pity – I feel that this section makes a touching coda to a poem that is diminished without it. A proper reticence is admirable, in poetry as in life, and yet it can be very moving when a poet steps out from behind a screen of symbol and metaphor and simply tells it straight. And if we are to concede a poet’s right to amend a poem after publication, then maybe we should also concede a reader’s right to prefer the original.

Note that the poet’s use of the now jarring term ‘mongol’ in the last stanza merely reflects standard nomenclature at the time the poem was written.

From ‘The Almond Tree’

You turn to the window for the first time.
I am called to the cot
To see your focus shift,
Take tendril-hold on a shaft
Of sun, explore its dusty surface. Climb
To an eye you cannot

meet. You have a sickness they cannot heal,
the doctors say: locked in
your body you will remain.
Well, I have been locked in mine.
We will tunnel each other out. You seal
the covenant with a grin.

In the days we have known one another,
my little mongol love,
I have learnt more from your lips
than you will from mine, perhaps.
I have learnt that to live is to suffer,
to suffer is to live.

Jon Stallworthy

Week 424: Years Ago, by Elizabeth Jennings

One more on the theme of lost love, this time from the quietly effective Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001), who favoured a poetry of plain statement charged with deep emotion that, when it works, I often find more appealing than much showier stuff.

Years Ago

It was what we did not do that I remember,
Places with no markers left by us,
All of a summer, meeting every day,
A memorable summer of hot days,
Day after day of them, evening after evening.
Sometimes we would laze

Upon the river-bank, just touching hands
Or stroking one another’s hands with grasses.
Swans floated by seeming to assert
Their dignity. But we too had our own
Decorum in the small-change of first love.

Nothing was elegiac or nostalgic,
We threw time in the river as we threw
Breadcrumbs to an inquisitive duck, and so
Day entered evening with a sweeping gesture,
Idly we talked of food and where to go.

This is the love that I knew long ago.
Before possession, passion and betrayal.

Elizabeth Jennings

Week 423: Summer Sun, by George Barker

Continuing last week’s theme of lost love, this week something in a very different style by George Barker (1913-1991), a colourful character who was associated with a neo-romantic 1940s movement known as the New Apocalyptics. It’s not a group whose poetry I feel much affinity for, its diction too strained and artificial for my taste, and even this poem seems to me very uneven: I can’t be doing with fishlipped lovers kissing catastrophes, but I feel the fourth stanza in particular does achieve a memorable lyric quality. An influence on the group was Dylan Thomas, and one Dylan Thomas is, well, I won’t say more than enough, but I will say enough. And yet, despite the fact that the movement was supposedly in reaction against the poetry of the thirties, it seems to me that the echoes I detect here are much more those of Auden than of Dylan Thomas.

Summer Sun

I looked into my heart to write
And found a desert there.
But when I looked again I heard
Howling and proud in every word
The hyena despair.

Great summer sun, great summer sun,
All loss burns in trophies;
And in the cold sheet of the sky
Lifelong the fishlipped lovers lie
Kissing catastrophes.

O loving garden where I lay
When under the breasted tree
My son stood up behind my eyes
And groaned: Remember that the price
Is vinegar for me.

Great summer sun, great summer sun,
Turn back to the designer:
I would not be the one to start
The breaking day and the breaking heart
For all the grief in China.

My one, my one, my only love,
Hide, hide your face in a leaf,
And let the hot tear falling burn
The stupid heart that will not learn
The everywhere of grief.

Great summer sun, great summer sun,
Turn back to the never-never
Cloud-cuckoo, happy, far-off land
Where all the love is true love, and
True love goes on for ever.

George Barker