Week 431: From ‘The Island’, by Francis Brett Young

My recent offering of Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Merlin’ prompted me to dig out this one, on a similar theme but in a very different vein. It is from a long epic poem called ‘The Island’, chronicling the history of Britain from the Bronze Age to modern times. Published in 1944, it was very successful in its time and sold out its sizeable first edition very quickly, clearly having tapped something in the national psyche. I don’t imagine that many people read or remember it now, but when I came across a copy while browsing in a secondhand bookshop and lighted on this particular passage I thought, OK, so in form and style this might be about as unfashionable as you can get, but as a distillation of the historical truth that might or might not underlie the vast Arthurian legendarium it’s really quite potent, especially these last seven stanzas.

Hic Jacet Arthurus Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus

…. And all that coloured tale a tapestry
Woven by poets. As the spider’s skeins
Are spun of its own substance, so have they
Embroidered empty legend – What remains?

This: That when Rome fell, like a writhen oak
That age had sapped and cankered at the root,
Resistant, from her topmost bough there broke
The miracle of one unwithering shoot.

Which was the spirit of Britain – that certain men
Uncouth, untutored, of our island brood
Loved freedom better than their lives; and when
The tempest crashed around them, rose and stood

And charged into the storm’s black heart, with sword
Lifted, or lance in rest, and rode there, helmed
With a strange majesty that the heathen horde
Remembered when all were overwhelmed;

And made of them a legend, to their chief,
Arthur, Ambrosius – no man knows his name –
Granting a gallantry beyond belief,
And to his knights imperishable fame.

They were so few . . . We know not in what manner
Or where they fell – whether they went
Riding into the dark under Christ’s banner
Or died beneath the blood-red dragon of Gwent.

But this we know; that when the Saxon rout
Swept over them, the sun no longer shone
On Britain, and the last lights flickered out;
And men in darkness muttered: Arthur is gone . . .

Francis Brett Young

Notes: Roman rule in Britain came to an end around 410 C.E. Gwent was a post-Roman Welsh kingdom. The Welsh flag features a red dragon. Arthur, of course, is conceived of as a leader of the Celtic resistance against the incoming tide of Saxon invaders who arrived in increasing numbers during the fifth century. The Celts at that time were Christians, the Saxons still pagan. The great battle that Arthur is said to have fought, which stemmed that tide for a while, was at Mons Badonicus, or Mount Badon, some time around the end of the fifth century.

The Latin title translates as ‘Here lies Arthur, the once and future king’. In actual fact the grave of Arthur, if indeed he ever existed, is unknown, though it has been claimed by many places. As it says in the ‘Englynion y Beddau’ (Stanzas of the Graves) in the Black Book of Carmarthen: ‘A grave for March, a grave for Gwythur/a grave for Gwgawn Red-sword/a wonder to the world is the grave of Arthur’.

Week 430: Glanmore Sonnets, VII, by Seamus Heaney

I have been thinking about exactly why this poem gives me such a frisson of pleasure every time I read it. Partly, I think, it is that it evokes for me that curious feeling of comfort I had as a child, lying snug in bed on a winter night listening to the wolf wind outside huffing and puffing round our house on the hill. Also because it conjures for me the words of that 9th century Irish monk whose ghost haunts the poem, who liked winter nights, and the wilder the better, because it meant that the seas would be too rough even for the hardy Vikings who were terrorising the coasts of Ireland at that time: ‘Bitter is the wind tonight/It tosses the ocean’s white hair./Tonight I do not fear the fierce warriors of Norway/Coursing on the Irish sea’. Then there is the nod to these same Norsemen in the skaldic kennings, the compound names that it uses for the sea: ‘eel-road, seal-road, keel-road’.

But perhaps most of all I like it because, like so many of Heaney’s poems, it is part of his program to recognise and celebrate the ‘marvellous and actual’, being what I call a primary poem, one that faces outwards to life as much as it faces inwards to literature, matching the resonances of the past with the music of a unique present.

Glanmore Sonnets, VII

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L’Étoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, ‘A haven’,
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.

Seamus Heaney

Week 429: Merlin, by Geoffrey Hill

Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016) enjoys a high reputation in academic circles and as a ‘poets’ poet’, an accolade which has always seemed to me a bit suspect: certainly it is good to have the approval of one’s fellow poets, but a better trick, it seems to me, is to combine that with an equal gift for giving satisfaction to the general intelligent reader with no professional axe to grind, and Geoffrey Hill does not appear to have achieved that in the same way as such contemporaries as Heaney, Larkin, Hughes and R.S.Thomas. It is not hard to see why: his poems are uncompromisingly difficult, and concessions to the reader who may be less informed or have less arcane preoccupations are few or non-existent, meaning that he seems to me likely to remain popular mainly among those who have most reason to be grateful for the exegetic possibilities that he offers them.

For example, in his well-known sequence ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’, I find the language intriguing, but the meaning a little elusive (oh, come on, let’s be honest here: I haven’t the faintest idea what the guy is on about). So it is that in the end I have filed this poet under ‘Come back to when I’m a bit cleverer’. Sadly time is running out for any sudden access of increased mental powers on my part. It’s a pity, because now and then, as in this short piece, I get a glimmer of what I might be missing.


“I will consider the outnumbering dead,
For they are the husks of what was rich seed.
Now should they come together to be fed,
They would outstrip the locust’s covering tide.

“Arthur, Elaine, Mordred – they are all gone
Beneath the raftered galleries of bone.
Under the long barrows of Logres they are made one,
And over their city stands the pinnacled corn.”

Geoffrey Hill

Week 428: The Ballet of the Fifth Year, by Delmore Schwartz

I was reminded of this poem when I caught the end of a TV documentary last week about the ice-dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, that showed the pair skating on a frozen lake in Alaska. ‘Such grace, so self-contained’ indeed. The poem is by the American poet Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966). I think that unlike our ice-skating pair it stumbles a bit early on but does weave its way towards a beautiful conclusion. The meaning of the poem is a little hard to unravel, but I think it turns on the contrast between the angst-ridden intensity of the metropolitan intellectual, whose life is full of problems that must be solved by an effort of thought and will, and the effortless unthinking grace of the gulls, who inhabit ‘a place of different traffic’, a place that was known to the child the poet once was, but is now lost to him.

The Ballet of the Fifth Year

Where the sea gulls sleep or indeed where they fly
Is a place of different traffic. Although I
Consider the fishing bay (where I see them dip and curve
And purely glide) a place that weakens the nerve
Of will, and closes my eyes, as they should not be
(They should burn like the street-light all night quietly,
So that whatever is present will be known to me),
Nevertheless the gulls and the imagination
Of where they sleep, which comes to creation
In strict shape and color, from their dallying
Their wings slowly, and suddenly rallying
Over, up, down the arabesque of descent,
Is an old act enacted, my fabulous intent
When I skated, afraid of policemen, five years old,
In the winter sunset, sorrowful and cold,
Hardly attained to thought, but old enough to know
Such grace, so self-contained, was the best escape to know.

Delmore Schwartz

Week 427: From ‘Reynard The Fox’, by John Masefield

Another piece that my primary school headmistress, God rest her formidable but caring soul, read to us in those far off Literature lessons (see week 419) was extracts from John Masefield’s long narrative poem ‘Reynard The Fox’, in which she, or someone of her acquaintance, had cleverly substituted names from our local Hertfordshire countryside for many of place-names in the poem, such that we small children could follow the great hunt in our minds by woods and fields that we ourelves roamed over. I have had an affection for the poem ever since, and while the more cerebral fashions that followed may have seemed to sweep Masefield’s verse away, I think that at its best it had a vigour and clarity that was and remains admirable. And whatever one thinks of fox-hunting, the poem is very even-handed in its treatment: those who feel that there is something not quite right about taking pleasure in pursuing a small animal to exhaustion then watching it being torn to pieces by dogs can find some consolation in the fact that the actual hunt is written very much from the point of view of the fox, while those who see hunting as a fine old tradition inextricably woven into the fabric of British country life can enjoy the long Chaucerian prologue with its basically sympathetic description of the various human characters involved, and the loving celebration of the English countryside that forms its backdrop.

So here are three extracts from the poem: the first from the prologue, a portrayal of Tom Dansey, the hunt whip; the second from mid-hunt when the fox is still fresh and has hopes of going to earth; the third from towards the end.

….His chief delight
Was hunting fox from noon to night.
His pleasure lay in hounds and horses;
He loved the Seven Springs water-courses,
Those flashing brooks (in good sound grass,
Where scent would hang like breath on glass).
He loved the English countryside:
The wine-leaved bramble in the ride,
The lichen on the apple-trees,
The poultry ranging on the lees,
The farms, the moist earth-smelling cover,
His wife’s green grave at Mitcheldover,
Where snowdrops pushed at the first thaw.
Under his hide his heart was raw
With joy and pity of these things.

… the hunt gets underway….

The pure clean air came sweet to his lungs,
Till he thought foul scorn of those crying tongues,
In a three mile more he would reach the haven
In the Wan Dyke croaked on by the raven,
In a three mile more he would make his berth
On the hard cool floor of a Wan Dyke earth,
Too deep for spade, too curved for terrier,
With the pride of the race to make rest the merrier.
In a three mile more he would reach his dream,
So his game heart gulped and he put on steam.
Like a rocket shot to a ship ashore,
The lean red bolt of his body tore,
Like a ripple of wind running swift on grass,
Like a shadow on wheat when a cloud blows past,
Like a turn at the buoy in a cutter sailing,
When the bright green gleam lips white at the railing,
Like the April snake whipping back to sheath,
Like the gannet’s hurtle on fish beneath,
Like a kestrel chasing, like a sickle reaping,
Like all things swooping, like all things sweeping,
Like a hound for stay, like a stag for swift,
With his shadow beside like spinning drift.
Past the gibbet-stock all stuck with nails,
Where they hanged in chains what had hung at jails,
Past Ashmundshowe where Ashmund sleeps,
And none but the tumbling peewit weeps,
Past Curlew Calling, the gaunt grey corner
Where the curlew comes as a summer mourner,
Past Blowbury Beacon shaking his fleece,
Where all winds hurry and none brings peace,
Then down, on the mile-long green decline
Where the turf’s like spring and the air’s like wine,
Where the sweeping spurs of the downland spill
Into Wan Brook Valley and Wan Dyke Hill.

… alas for the tox, he finds the entrance to his earth has been barred. I still remember vividly the gasps of shock and howls of outrage from the class of rapt ten year olds when the headmistress delivered the line ‘The earth was stopped. It was barred with stakes’. But the fox runs on and if you don’t know or have forgotten what happens in the end, I won’t spoil it for you….

He thought as he ran of his old delight
In the wood in the moon in an April night,
His happy hunting, his winter loving,
The smells of things in the midnight roving;
The look of his dainty-nosing, red
Clean-felled dam with her footpad’s tread,
Of his sire, so swift, so game, so cunning
With craft in his brain and power of running,
Their fights of old when his teeth drew blood.
Now he was sick, with his coat all mud.

John Masefield