Week 487: August, 1968, by W.H.Auden

It’s been a while since we had a W.H.Auden poem. This one was written in response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia some fifty-four years ago.

August, 1968

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master Speech.

About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.


Week 486: From ‘Kilmeny’ by James Hogg

This is part of a longer poem by the Scots poet James Hogg (1770-1835). I give only the beginning plus one quatrain from near the end and omit a lot of allegorical stuff about sinless virgins and radiant beings that to my mind lacks the verve of the evocative opening stanzas. The whole poem is easily accessible online, but I do feel it would have been wiser of Hogg to let the mystery be and leave us to our own imaginings as to where Kilmeny had been: fairylands work better if not made too explicit, a music of horns dimly blowing at the edge of the world. This is something that J.R.R.Tolkien was well aware of when in a letter to a correspondent he expressed his fears, justifiably in my view, that ‘The Silmarillion’ would not have the same appeal as ‘Lord of the Rings’. He says ‘Part of the attraction of the L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist.’

From ‘Kilmeny’

Bonnie Kilmeny gaed up the glen;
But it wasna to meet Duneira’s men,
Nor the rosy monk of the isle to see,
For Kilmeny was pure as pure could be.
It was only to hear the yorlin sing,
And pu’ the cress-flower round the spring;
The scarlet hypp and the hindberrye,
And the nut that hung frae the hazel tree;
For Kilmeny was pure as pure could be.
But lang may her minny look o’er the wa’,
But lang may she seek i’ the green-wood shaw;
Lang the laird o’ Duneira blame,
And lang, lang greet or Kilmeny come hame!

When many a day had come and fled,
When grief grew calm, and hope was dead,
When mess for Kilmeny’s soul had been sung,
When the bedesman had pray’d and the dead bell rung,
Late, late in gloamin’ when all was still,
When the fringe was red on the westlin hill,
The wood was sere, the moon i’ the wane,
The reek o’ the cot hung over the plain,
Like a little wee cloud in the world its lane;
When the ingle low’d wi’ an eiry leme,
Late, late in the gloamin’ Kilmeny came hame!

‘Kilmeny, Kilmeny, where have you been?
Lang hae we sought baith holt and den;
By linn, by ford, and green-wood tree,
Yet you are halesome and fair to see.
Where gat you that joup o’ the lily scheen?
That bonnie snood of the birk sae green?
And these roses, the fairest that ever were seen?
Kilmeny, Kilmeny, where have you been?’

Kilmeny look’d up with a lovely grace,
But nae smile was seen on Kilmeny’s face;
As still was her look, and as still was her e’e,
As the stillness that lay on the emerant lea,
Or the mist that sleeps on a waveless sea.
For Kilmeny had been, she knew not where,
And Kilmeny had seen what she could not declare;
Kilmeny had been where the cock never crew,
Where the rain never fell, and the wind never blew…..


When seven lang years had come and fled,
When grief was calm, and hope was dead;
When scarce was remember’d Kilmeny’s name,
Late, late in a gloamin’ Kilmeny came hame!

James Hogg

its lane=alone, by itself
scheen=sheen, in the obsolete sense of rich or shining attire

Week 485: Twa Corbies, by Anon

As is frustratingly so often the case with ballads, it is not possible to know either who wrote this grim but powerful poem nor how old it is. The first mention of it occurs in a letter of 1802 from Charles Kirkpatrick to Sir Walter Scott, who said it had been collected from an old woman at Alva, and it first appeared in print in Walter Scott’s ‘Minstrelsy’ in 1812.

To me it feels much older, perhaps even having roots in mediaeval times, and indeed an English ballad with a very similar theme, ‘The Three Ravens’, is first recorded in 1611. But ‘The Three Ravens’ is much more upbeat, in that the knight’s hawk, hounds and lady stay with the knight to protect his remains rather than deserting him, and the relish with which, by contrast, the knight’s fate is related in this poem hints perhaps at a speaker for the common people, not averse to indulging in a bit of class revenge: I like to think of it being composed by some Ewan MacColl figure with a gift for the trenchant lyric and a big political chip on his shoulder. And yet the last stanza seems to rise above any rancour, recognising that there will be those who will mourn without closure for the knight in his unknown grave, and acknowledging the pathos inherent in all mortality with that haunting image of the wind blowing over bare bones forever.

The Twa Corbies

As I was walking all alane
I heard twa corbies making a mane:
The tane unto the tither did say,
‘Whar sall we gang and dine the day?’

‘—In behint yon auld fail dyke
I wot there lies a new-slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there
But his hawk, his hound, and his lady fair.

‘His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady’s ta’en anither mate,
So we may mak our dinner sweet.

‘Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I’ll pike out his bonny blue e’en:
Wi’ ae lock o’ his gowden hair
We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.

‘Mony a one for him maks mane,
But nane sall ken whar he is gane:
O’er his white banes, when they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.’


corbies=crows (or ravens)
the tane=one of them
tither= other
fail dyke=wall of turf
hause-bane=neck bone

Week 484: Train Journey, by Judith Wright

Poets and trains go well together – one need only think of Edward Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’ or Philp Larkin’s ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. Certainly I have found that in the right circumstances, which do not include sharing the train with several hundred Welsh rugby fans on their way home from a victory in Cardiff, it is a form of transport can induce a kind of dreamy tranquillity, liberating the mind from its usual cares and constraints. I remember well my first journey by train when I was nine and we went away for my childhood’s one and only holiday, my grandmother having conveniently died and left a small legacy. I spent the whole time in a trance of delight as the English countryside unrolled beside me with its fields and woods, its placid rivers, its swooping or soaring skyline, furthering in me an already latent love that was almost painful. In this piece the Australian poet Judith Wright celebrates one such visionary glimpse of her own countryside, different and much harsher than mine, yet equally one of which she could say that it ‘built my heart’: how well I understand that passionate identification with a landscape.

Train Journey

Glassed with cold sleep and dazzled by the moon,
out of the confused hammering dark of the train
I looked and saw under the moon’s cold sheet
your delicate dry breasts, country that built my heart;
and the small trees on their uncoloured slope
like poetry moved, articulate and sharp
and purposeful under the great dry flight of air,
under the crosswise currents of wind and star.

Clench down your strength, box-tree and ironbark.
Break with your violent root the virgin rock.
Draw from the flying dark its breath of dew
till the unliving come to life in you.
Be over the blind rock a skin of sense,
under the barren height a slender dance…
I woke and saw the dark small trees that burn
suddenly into flowers more lovely that the white moon.

Judith Wright