Week 457: Mich locken nicht die Himmelsauen, by Heinrich Heine

In response to correspondent Chris’s request last week, here is the Heine poem mentioned, with my own attempt at a translation. It’s an untitled section of a sequence in ‘Gedichte 1853-1854’, written when Heine was in failing health, a few years before his death in 1856.

Heine is a very accessible poet, but also quite tricky. He has a technique of laying on the sentiment rather too thickly, then scraping off some but not all of it with an ironic flick of his verbal trowel, and it can be hard for a non-native speaker to gauge his exact tone. In this poem, for example, in which he is constantly undercutting his own real pathos, I suspect that the verb ‘schwätzen’, with its suggestion of artless prattle, would not now be complimentary if used of a woman, and probably wasn’t then. Which need not make it less fond, of course. Though it’s fairly typical of Heine that at the same time as making these uxorious declarations he was managing in his closing years to have a love affair with a young woman. His wife Mathilde survived him, dying in 1883. 

Mich locken nicht die Himmelsauen

Mich locken nicht die Himmelsauen
Im Paradies, im sel’gen Land;
Dort find ich keine schönre Frauen,
Als ich bereits auf Erden fand.

Kein Engel mit den feinsten Schwingen
Könnt mir ersetzen dort mein Weib;
Auf Wolken sitzend Psalmen singen,
Wär auch nicht just mein Zeitvertreib.

O Herr! ich glaub, es wär das beste,
Du ließest mich in dieser Welt;
Heil nur zuvor mein Leibgebreste,
Und sorge auch für etwas Geld.

Ich weiß, es ist voll Sünd’ und Laster
Die Welt; jedoch ich bin einmal
Gewöhnt, auf diesem Erdpechpflaster
Zu schlendern durch das Jammertal.

Genieren wird das Weltgetreibe
Mich nie, denn selten geh ich aus;
In Schlafrock und Pantoffeln bleibe
Ich gern bei meiner Frau zu Haus.

Laß mich bei ihr! Hör ich sie schwätzen,
Trinkt meine Seele die Musik
Der holden Stimme mit Ergötzen.
So treu und ehrlich ist ihr Blick!

Gesundheit nur und Geldzulage
Verlang ich, Herr! O laß mich froh
Hinleben noch viel schöne Tage
Bei meiner Frau im statu quo!

Heinrich Heine

They’re not for me, the fields divine
Of Paradise, that holy ground.
I’ll find no women there more fine
Than those on earth already found.

No angel there with splendid wing
Could take the place of my own wife;
And sitting on a cloud to sing
Is not quite my idea of life.

O Lord! I think it best for me
To let this world below suffice,
Just heal first my infirmity.
Also, some money would be nice.

It’s full of vice and sin, I know,
This world of ours, and yet the years
Have long accustomed me to go
Down mean streets through this vale of tears.

The bustle of the world around
Won’t bother one who does not roam,
Content in slippers, dressing-gowned,
To be beside his wife at home.

O let me stay to hear again
Her prattle that delights my days,
My soul drink up her sweet refrain.
So true and honest is her gaze.

Just health and money then, o Lord,
I ask, that I may live to know
The fair days time may yet afford
With my wife and the status quo!

Week 456: Family Fortunes, by C.H.Sisson

C.H.Sisson (1914-2003) worked in a modernist, imagist tradition very different from any that I would see myself as belonging to, and for the most part his values and admirations are not mine, yet there is something about his own poems, especially the ruefully elegiac later ones, that I find intriguing: a kind of cerebral music, a bittersweet scent on the page, like rosemary. Here he looks back trying to find meaning in a life and ancestry characterised by a puzzling arbitrariness of fate and fortune.

Family Fortunes
                                    1

I was born in Bristol, and it is possible
To live harshly in that city

Quiet voices possess it, but the boy
Torn from the womb, cowers

Under a ceiling of cloud. Tramcars
Crash by or enter the mind

A barred room bore him, the backyard
Smooth as a snake-skin, yielded nothing

In the fringes of the town parsley and honeysuckle
Drenched the hedges.

                                    2

My mother was born in West Kington
Where ford and bridge cross the river together

John Worlock farmed there, my grandfather
Within sight of the square church-tower

The rounded cart-horses shone like metal
My mother remembered their fine ribbons.

She lies in the north now where the hills
Are pale green, and I

Whose hand never steadied a plough
Wish I had finished my long journey.

                                    3

South of the march parts my father
Lies also, and the fell town

That cradles him now sheltered also
His first unconsciousness.

He walked from farm to farm with a kit of tools
From clock to clock, and at the end

Only they spoke to him, he
Having tuned his youth to their hammers.

                                    4

I had two sisters, one I cannot speak of
For she died a child, and the sky was blue that day

The other lived to meet blindness
Groping on the stairs, not admitting she could not see

Felled at last under a surgeon’s hammer
Then left to rot, surgically

And I have a brother who, being alive,
Does not need to be put in a poem.

C.H.Sisson

Week 455: She played the strumpet in my bed, by Freda Downie

The Reverend Thomas Bowdler was a nineteenth-century physician and literary enthusiast who took it on himself to purge Shakespeare’s plays of ‘those words and expressions which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family’. This evidently led him to have Othello strangling Desdemona because she played the trumpet, rather than the strumpet of the original, in his bed. I suspect that this story is apocryphal and designed to poke fun at the good doctor – does anyone have a copy of Bowdler’s ‘The Family Shakespeare’ to check? – but anyway the poet Freda Downie (1929-1993) takes the idea and runs with it, having a good deal of fun herself in the process. I’m not sure that I catch all the playful subtext here, and the last four lines in particular seem a bit elusive: I take them to mean something like ‘I was afraid the unfettered exuberance of our lovemaking would attract the attention of my handsome neighbour who would then follow suit? cuckold me?, and that indeed is what happened’. Still, a poem that I find highly original and quirkily memorable.

She played the strumpet in my bed
(for Dr Bowdler)

She played the trumpet in my bed
And never failed to raise my head
Her low notes in a minor key
Were studies in intimacy
And preludes to that highest note
I urged her on to every night.

And yet, that note I feared the most.
I feared the ornaments were lost –
I feared the stars would be blown out –
I feared my neighbour roundabout
Would lift his own dark handsome head
Divining brass in my low bed.

And that is what my neighbour did.

Freda Downie

Week 454: Old Man, by Edward Thomas

One of Edward Thomas’s best and best-loved poems, characterised by his brooding, wistful intelligence, that always seems to be trying to bring into focus something half-glimpsed at the corner of the eye, that would give him a completeness he felt he lacked.

The child in the poem is Myfanwy, Thomas’s younger daughter. Born in 1910, Myfanwy survived into her nineties, dying in 2005. In 2000 I was asked by the Edward Thomas Fellowship to write a poem for her ninetieth birthday. Normally I don’t, or can’t, write to order, but as luck would have it I had a little earlier that year happened to call in at the Hampshire village of Steep, Edward’s onetime home, on the way back from a day out with my wife and daughter, and a poem on the subject had begun to form in my mind. The request gave me the jolt to finish and send it off, and in due course I received a letter from Myfanwy herself, expressing her appreciation. I remain moved to have had that living link with the poet I love most, one whom Ted Hughes called ‘the father of us all’, and I hope I may be indulged if I append my own poem as a sort of follow-on to Edward’s.

Old Man

Old Man, or Lad’s-love, – in the name there’s nothing
To one that knows not Lad’s-love, or Old Man,
The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree,
Growing with rosemary and lavender.
Even to one that knows it well, the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.

The herb itself I like not, but for certain
I love it, as some day the child will love it
Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush
Whenever she goes in or out of the house.
Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling
The shreds at last on to the path, perhaps
Thinking, perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs
Her fingers and runs off. The bush is still
But half as tall as she, though it is as old;
So well she clips it. Not a word she says;
And I can only wonder how much hereafter
She will remember, with that bitter scent,
Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees
Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door,
A low thick bush beside the door, and me
Forbidding her to pick.

As for myself,
Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.
I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain. I cannot like the scent,
Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,
With no meaning, than this bitter one.

I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember:
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

Edward Thomas

At Steep (for Myfanwy Thomas on her 90th birthday)

Driving home through Hampshire with my daughter
I see a sign that beckons like a legend
Though on plain earth, and so it is we come
In April twilight, clearing after rain,
Like pilgrim ghosts your childhood might have seen
Out of its unimaginable future,
Up Stoner Hill and round by Cockshott Lane,
To find, through trees and down a root-stepped path,
Your father’s boulder, set there on the slope.

My daughter runs ahead of me, downhill
Past dim white cherries, cowslips, violets,
Mildly curious, but wanting tea.

‘Who was Edward Thomas anyway?’
I say ‘A poet.’ ‘Oh.’ My daughter’s twelve,
Likes judo, dancing, being with her friends.
Poems are the things that daft Dads write
Light-years away from coolness.
                                                            ‘Was he good?’
So short a question. And so long an answer
If truth were served: as long, say, as long years
Of looking, loving, waiting.
                                                           ‘He was good.’

I take her photograph beside the stone.
‘Can we go back now?’ Yes, my love, we can.
To keep the covenant was all I wanted.
You see, this is our obscure faith, our trust,
Whether we live or die too soon, unknowing,
That somewhere in the private rooms of time
Others will read for love alone the words
We wrote for love, alone.
                                                        And deeper still
There is another covenant we keep:
Let our words be forgotten, let our lives
Fade utterly, but not these: let there be
Always an April evening, woods, a thrush
Singing and a child, always a child,
A daughter, maybe, finding violets
Or standing in the twilight by a path,
Plucking a bush, with one to see her there
Apart, in all a child’s grave otherness,
And love her.
                           ‘Can we get chips?’ We get chips.

David Sutton

Note: ‘Your father’s boulder…’ On the hillside above Steep called Mutton Hill there is set in memory of Edward a sarsen boulder bearing a simple plaque, the best of poet’s memorials, and here you can stand looking out over fields and coppices whose names he would have known, hearing as he once heard the wind in the trees and watching the sunlight come and go on the rim of the downs.

Week 453: ‘To fight aloud is very brave’ by Emily Dickinson

It can be difficult to know precisely what Emily Dickinson means in her poems. It is not that her language is obscure, though it can be quirky, more that it is oblique, that she comes at things from an unexpected angle. But this one seems fairly clear: she is saying that there are two kinds of courage: there is the extrovert martial courage of, say, soldiers fighting for their country, and this is good in its way, but still greater is the quiet unsung courage of those who deal privately with life’s trials, with isolation, illness, bereavement, who face down their inner demons alone.

Some years back my three-year old grandson started nursery school. When asked how he got on on his first day, he said ‘I was a bit sad, but Big Connor said don’t whinge, so I didn’t’. If I read this poem right, I think Emily Dickinson would have approved four-year old Connor’s sturdy philosophy of life. Which need not mean that she lacked a proper compassion for the suffering and disadvantaged – the best stoics ask of themselves more than they ask of others.

Textual note: versions of the poem can be found online in which ‘cavalry’ in the fourth line is replaced by ‘Calvary’, the place of the Crucifixion, enabling the expositor to link the idea to the suffering of Jesus. As far as I know there is no warrant for this dyslexic reading, and to me charging an enemy cavalry makes more sense than charging a place, so the commoner version of the line is what I’ve stuck with.

To fight aloud is very brave,
But gallanter, I know,
Who charge within the bosom,
The cavalry of woe.

Who win, and nations do not see,
Who fall, and none observe,
Whose dying eyes no country
Regards with patriot love.

We trust, in plumed procession,
For such the angels go,
Rank after rank, with even feet
And uniforms of snow.

Emily Dickinson