Week 461: ‘Here comes Sir George’, by Jon Stallworthy

I imagine that many may find the rather Kiplingesque sentiment of this poem challenging in these post-colonial times when the whole concept of empire has long been called into question. I do myself, but I think that we should, within reason, always be prepared to listen to an unfashionable viewpoint, rather than simply denying a speaker the right to hold it, and should try to be open to the possibilities of nuance, the nuance in this case being that some servants of the British Empire may have done their best to carry out their roles in a humane and beneficial way, even if the existence of those roles in the first place may be contentious.

I suppose the fact is that morality and poetry have always been imperfect bedfellows, but cohabit they must. I cannot see, for example, how a poem that extolled the virtues of cruelty or celebrated the Holocaust could be other than detestable, however technically accomplished. Yet at the same time it would be a pity to have a generation of poets grow up thinking that poetry is simply a matter of saying right things, and forgetting that it is also a matter of saying things right.

‘Here comes Sir George’

The boys wink at the boys: ‘Here comes Sir George.’
Yes, here he comes, punctual as nine o’clock
with bad jokes buzzing at his ramrod back –
‘Victoria’s Uncle,’ ‘Rearguard of the Raj’.

They do not know or, if they know, forget
the old fool held a province down larger
than England; not as a Maharaja
prodigal with silver and bayonet;

but with cool sense, authority and charm
that still attend him, crossing a room
with The Odes of Horace under his arm
and in his button-hole a fresh-cut bloom.

Honour the rearguard, you half-men, for it
was, in retreat, the post of honour. He –
last of The Titans – is worth your study.
You are not worth the unsheathing of his wit.

Jon Stallworthy

Week 460: Hommage à la Vie, by Jules Supervielle

This week one of my favourite French poems, in which the ageing poet looks back over his life, in language that is simple yet idiosyncratic, lucid yet profound.

The translation that follows is my own. I offer it merely as a crib – I decided that any attempt to force a match with Supervielle’s rhyme scheme would sacrifice too much of the original’s simplicity, or at least must wait for a better talent than mine.

Hommage à la vie

C’est beau d’avoir élu
Domicile vivant
Et de loger le temps
Dans un cœur continu,
Et d’avoir vu ses mains
Se poser sur le monde
Comme sur une pomme
Dans un petit jardin,
D’avoir aimé la terre,
La lune et le soleil
Comme des familiers
Qui n’ont pas leurs pareils,
Et d’avoir confié
Le monde à sa mémoire
Comme un clair cavalier
À sa monture noire,
D’avoir donné visage
À ces mots: femme, enfants,
Et servi de rivage
À d’errants continents,
Et d’avoir atteint l’âme
À petits coups de rame
Pour ne l’effaroucher
D’une brusque approchée.
C’est beau d’avoir connu
L’ombre sous le feuillage
Et d’avoir senti l’âge
Ramper sur le corps nu,
Accompagné la peine
Du sang noir dans les veines
Et doré son silence
De l’étoile Patience,
Et d’avoir tous ces mots
Qui bougent dans la tête
De choisir les moins beaux
Pour leur faire un peu fête,
D’avoir senti la vie
Hâtive et mal aimée
De l’avoir enfermée
Dans cette poésie.

Jules Supervielle

Homage to Life

A fine thing, to have lived
In a house of flesh,
And given time a home
In a steadfast heart,
To have looked on as one’s hands
Take hold of the world
Cupping it like an apple
In a little garden,

A fine thing, to have loved
The earth, the moon and sun
As familiar friends
Whose like you have not known,
And to have entrusted
The world to memory
Like a bright cavalier
Riding his black steed,

To have given a human face
To these words: children, wife,
And to have served as shore
To wandering continents,
To have come upon the soul
With small strokes of the oars
Lest it be scared away
By an approach too brusque.

A fine thing, to have known
The shade beneath the boughs
And to have felt old age
Creep on the naked body,
Kept company with pain
Like black blood in the veins
And to have gilded silence
With the star, Patience.

And to have all these words
Bustling in one’s head,
To choose the least beautiful
To let them live a little,
To have felt this life
So hurried, so ill loved,
And to have secured it
In this poetry.

Week 459: The Relique, by John Donne

Some poems, like runners, set off at a cracking pace but end up limping to the finishing line. I think, for example, of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet ‘The Windhover’, with its stunning evocation of a kestrel in the first eight lines followed by the disappointment of the contorted last six: ‘Oh, so it was just an excuse for a bit of religion’. And I think this poem by John Donne (1572-1631) is another example. It has a great opening stanza, passionate, direct and mordantly witty, and ‘a bracelet of bright hair about the bone’ surely has to be one of English poetry’s most memorable images. But then in the next two stanzas for me the passion and directness peter out, becoming lost in a mere play of ideas, and the poem ends with a tired conventional hyperbole. Still fluent verse, yes, but Donne, like other of the Metaphysicals, sometimes reminds me of a footballer so enamoured of his skill at dribbling the ball as to forget that the point of the game is to score goals.

The Relique

When my grave is broke up again
       Some second guest to entertain,
       (For graves have learn’d that woman head,
       To be to more than one a bed)
                And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,
                Will he not let’us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies,
Who thought that this device might be some way
To make their souls, at the last busy day,
Meet at this grave, and make a little stay?

         If this fall in a time, or land,
         Where mis-devotion doth command,
         Then he, that digs us up, will bring
         Us to the bishop, and the king,
                To make us relics; then
Thou shalt be a Mary Magdalen, and I
                A something else thereby;
All women shall adore us, and some men;
And since at such time miracles are sought,
I would have that age by this paper taught
What miracles we harmless lovers wrought.

         First, we lov’d well and faithfully,
         Yet knew not what we lov’d, nor why;
         Difference of sex no more we knew
         Than our guardian angels do;
                Coming and going, we
Perchance might kiss, but not between those meals;
                Our hands ne’er touch’d the seals
Which nature, injur’d by late law, sets free;
These miracles we did, but now alas,
All measure, and all language, I should pass,
Should I tell what a miracle she was.

John Donne

Week 458: Scorpion, by Stevie Smith

This week another of Stevie Smith’s highly original poems, in which she masks a serious intent by adopting the persona of a garrulous and slightly nutty aunt. It is like a conjuror’s distraction technique, but watch carefully and don’t be fooled. (‘Are you Mrs. Briggs, dear?’/No, I am Scorpion.) And scorpions carry a sting in the tail…


‘This night shall thy soul be required of thee’
My Soul is never required of me
It always has to be somebody else of course
Will my soul be required of me tonight perhaps?

(I often wonder what it will be like
To have one’s soul required of one
But all I can think of is the Out-Patients’ Department –
‘Are you Mrs. Briggs, dear?’
No, I am Scorpion.)

I should like my soul to be required of me, so as
To waft over grass till it comes to the blue sea
I am very fond of grass, I always have been, but there must
Be no cow, person or house to be seen.

Sea and grass must be quite empty
Other souls can find somewhere else.

O Lord God please come
And require the soul of thy Scorpion

Scorpion so wishes to be gone.

Stevie Smith