Week 444: From ‘Dr Faustus’, by Christopher Marlowe

I suspect that outside academic circles the poetry of Elizabethan playwright, wit, spy and all round bad boy Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) is now little read. Certainly he doesn’t have the broad humanity of his contemporary William Shakespeare, yet he wields a fine supple verse line and was after all someone whom Shakespeare himself seems to have viewed with considerable if possibly grudging respect: although we cannot be sure, there is a good case to made that he is the ‘rival poet’ of the Sonnets, and certainly when in Sonnet 86 Shakespeare refers to ‘the proud full sail of his great verse’, that would seem a tribute very applicable to Marlowe’s work.

Here are lines from the concluding scene of Marlowe’s play ‘Dr Faustus’, where the midnight hour is approaching at which the doctor’s soul becomes forfeit to hell. In an age when there was a belief in literal damnation this must have been pretty scary stuff and it remains powerful even today.

‘O Faustus,
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
O lente, lente currite, noctis equi! *     
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.’

Christopher Marlowe

* Run slow, run slow, ye horses of the night

Week 443: Ambulances, by Philip Larkin

Oh God, not another batch of letters. Philip Larkin’s must be well on the way to becoming the most over-documented life in the history of poetry. Perhaps when people have finished picking over everything he ever said or wrote to anyone else and everything anyone else ever said or wrote to him, not to mention hoovering up every last scrap of his doggerel, they can go back to enjoying the compassionate craftsmanship of a few dozen rare fine poems and say, in the words of Browning, ‘Well, I forget the rest’.

And one such poem is surely this one, so carefully observed and subtly formulated, with its characteristic precision of placement. Consider, for example, if the sixth line had read ‘In time all streets are visited’. For me that seemingly inconsequential shift would have lost a haunting ambiguity, making it that much less effective in opening up one of those ‘long perspectives’ Larkin was so good at evoking. And consider also what the poem gains by its use of metre and rhyme, that Larkin saw as an integral part of what in another poem he calls ‘the lost displays’. As he was wont to say when considering the less formal work of others, ‘That’s quite nice – why not make a poem of it?’. No one could ever accuse him of not making a poem of it.

Ambulances

Closed like confessionals, they thread
Loud noons of cities, giving back
None of the glances they absorb.
Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,
They come to rest at any kerb:
All streets in time are visited.

Then children strewn on steps or road,
Or women coming from the shops
Past smells of different dinners, see
A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed,

And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress;

For borne away in deadened air
May go the sudden shut of loss
Round something nearly at an end,
And what cohered in it across
The years, the unique random blend
Of families and fashions, there

At last begin to loosen. Far
From the exchange of love to lie
Unreachable inside a room
The traffic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are.

Philip Larkin

Week 442: Melin Trefin, by William Williams (‘Crwys’)

A couple of weeks back I promised my correspondent Albert that I’d have a go at translating one of his favourite Welsh poems, so here’s the result; hope it passes muster.

The poem in question is by William Williams (1875-1968), who took the bardic name ‘Crwys’. I guess bardic names are quite useful in a country like Wales that seems rather short on variety when it comes to personal nomenclature; actually given the number of David Suttons around I rather wish I’d thought of one for myself.

The Welsh text is slightly different from that found elsewhere online, but I’ve taken mine from ‘Blodeugerdd o Farddoniaeth Gymraeg Yr Ugeinfed Ganrif’, so I’m assuming that’s right.

Crwys was a preacher and archdruid as well as a poet. I came across this account of how he to came to write the poem; such accounts seem to be rare among poets but I always find them interesting where they do exist.

‘”I had been invited to preach at Trefin,” he said, “and, as was the custom of the time, I was put up by a member of the congregation, a Mrs Owen whose husband had come from North Wales to manage a quarry nearby. After supper, I walked down to the little cove nearby and saw the ruin of this old mill. I then went back to the house and I removed the cup and saucer that were still on the supper table and pushed back the tablecloth and began to write. It all came to me quite easy, except for the last four lines – they came from above!”’

Melin Trefin

Nid yw’r felin heno’n malu
Yn Nhrefin ym min y môr,
Trodd y merlyn olaf adre’
Dan ei bwn o drothwy’r ddôr,
Ac mae’r rhod fu gynt yn rhygnu
Ac yn chwyrnu drwy y fro,
Er pan farw’r hen felinydd
Wedi rhoi ei holaf dro.

Rhed y ffrwd garedig eto
Gyda thalcen noeth y tŷ,
Ond ddaw ned i’r fal ai farlys,
A’r hen olwyn fawr ni thry;
Lle dôi gwenith gwyn Llanrhiain
Derfyn haf yn llwythi cras,
Ni cheir mwy ond tres o wymon
Gydag ambell frwynen las.

Segur faen sy’n gwylio’r fangre
Yn y curlaw mawr a’r gwynt,
Dilythyren garreg goffa
O’r amseroedd difyr gynt,
Ond ’does yma neb yn malu,
Namyn amser swrth a’r hin
Wrthi’n chwalu ac yn malu,
Malu’r felin yn Nhrefin.

William Williams (‘Crwys’)

The Mill at Trefin

Tonight the mill at Trefin,
That stands beside the foam,
Grinds nothing: the last pony
Has borne its last load home.
The grating wheel whose grumbles
Once filled the country round
Stopped when the old miller died.
Tonight it makes no sound.

The kindly stream still running
Beside the mill’s bare brow
Turns the big old wheel no more.
None bring their barley now.
Where white wheat from Llanrhiain
Lay heaped at summer’s close
Now seaweed trails, and only
The scattered green rush grows.

The idle stone keeps vigil
In wind and driving rain,
Unlettered monument to days
That will not come again.
For nothing now is ground here,
Yet time and weather still
Graft on at their grim labour
And grind down Trefin mill.

Week 441: “What lips my lips have kissed” by Edna St Vincent Millay

I mostly find the sonnets of the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950; see also week 96) rather too posed and literary for my taste, being on the whole one of that school who think that poetic diction should be ‘sort of like what you talk, only better’. But I’m not dogmatic about it, and I do think this one has an appealing plangency. Yes, it’s outrageously romantic, but if you happen to be in the mood for a bit of romantic melancholy, then this may be the poem for you.

“What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Edna St Vincent Millay

Week 440: I Look into my Glass, by Thomas Hardy

This week one of the great poems of old age. It makes an interesting comparison with a quatrain of W.B.Yeats on the same theme: ‘You think it horrible that lust and rage/Should dance attention upon my old age;/They were not such a plague when I was young;/What else have I to spur me into song?’

Hardy’s poem is altogether gentler and more wistful. Yes, anger and lust may indeed be an element in those ‘throbbings of noontide’ but the predominant emotion is one of sadness and regret, coupled with a characteristic awareness of ‘life’s little ironies’ – in this case, that the frailty and general decline in vitality that comes with age should have not yet brought him any diminution of memory and desire.

Yeats’s lines achieve, as so often with Yeats, a powerful personal rhetoric, but Hardy’s come much closer to a universal human poetry.

I Look into my Glass

I look into my glass,
  And view my wasting skin,
And say, ‘Would God it came to pass
  My heart had shrunk as thin!’

For then, I, undistrest
  By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
  With equanimity.

But Time, to make me grieve,
  Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
  With throbbings of noontide.

Thomas Hardy