Week 496: At Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal

This is one of the first poems I ever remember liking, met in some nineteen-fifties collection of verse for primary school children compiled by an anthologist who clearly still regarded the Georgians as rather too racily modern. Somehow it stood out for me among the pages of R.L. Stevenson, Sir Henry Newbolt, Walter de la Mare & co. as giving me that frisson of the mysterious that I was later to encounter again in the early chapters of Alain-Fournier’s ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’, where the hero searches for his lost domain, the château that he had stumbled across in one of his escapades. I still find it an evocative little poem, perhaps because it takes me back to a time when I had no clear mental map of the world beyond my own woods and fields and anything seemed possible.

William Allingham (1824-1889) was an Irish poet and diarist, born in Ballyshannon in County Donegal, and probably now best remembered, if at all, for one poem ‘The Faeries’ (‘Up the airy mountain,/Down the rushy glen,/We daren’t go a-hunting/For fear of little men’). Some may consider this unfortunate.

At Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal

The Boy from his bedroom window
Looked over the little town
And away to the bleak black upland
Under a clouded moon.

The moon came forth from her cavern;
He saw the sudden gleam
Of a tarn in the swarthy moorland;
Or perhaps it was all a dream.

For I never could find that water
In all my walks and rides:
Far off in the Land of Memory
That midnight pool abides.

Many fine things had I glimpse of
And said ‘I shall find them one day.’
Whether within or without me
They were, I cannot say.

William Allingham

Week 495: Siste Smerte, by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

The Norwegian poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910) wrote this poignant lyric towards the end of his long life. I don’t know what kind of reputation Bjørnson enjoys now, but when I was in Norway some sixty years ago I got the impression that while Norwegian readers were proud of Ibsen for having gained an international reputation, they reserved their actual affection much more for Bjørnson, whom they regarded as their national poet. Be that as it may, he did not figure in my Cambridge syllabus, which concerned itself with more modern figures like Ibsen and Knut Hamsun, and my Cambridge tutor was slightly dismissive of him as ‘a Grand Old Man’ of literature. I rather liked him, but what do I know…

The translation that follows is my own.

Siste Smerte

Å, nu har jeg lært det
hva jeg fryktet først,
at den siste smerte,
den er også størst.

Kan ei mer arbeide,
har ei krefter nok,
kan ei lenger veide
mine tankers flokk.

De er over fjellet,
samles aldri mer.
Og jeg selv på hellet
imot graven ner.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

Last Pain

Ah, now I have learned it,
What I feared at first:
That the pain we suffer last,
That one is the worst.

Can no longer labour,
All my powers wane,
Cannot herd together
My flock of thoughts again.

Far across the mountain
Forever more they stray,
While upon the nether slope
I take a downward way.

Week 494: To A Young Poet, by R.S.Thomas

Like many of R.S.Thomas’s poems, this one is somewhat bleak and perhaps a little extreme, in, for example, the idea that nothing written in a poet’s twenties will cause the poet anything but shame later on. Keats and Wilfred Owen died at twenty-five, Keith Douglas at twenty-four, and while I am all for standards, to suggest that they, had they lived, would of necessity come to disown even their better efforts seems to me to be setting the bar a little high. But of course, the poem could be intended to be read as a soliloquy in which the poet is specifically addressing his younger self, in which case fair enough.

Either way, from a professional point of view I find it a very interesting poem, and I much admire its reticent and self-critical spirit, and its implied willingness to destroy work that does not come up to scratch. I know that some poets keep everything they ever write: drafts, variants, even rejects. I find this slightly horrifying. We have no duty to supply grist to the academic mills. Squeeze, scrap, burn, kill, say I. Did any poet ever regret destroying a poem? I doubt it. If there’s really something wanting to be said it will come back sooner or later in another and perhaps truer form. But did any poet ever regret not destroying a poem? I suspect that the Elysian fields are full of poets wandering about, oblivious of the asphodel, and muttering to themselves: ‘Crass incompetence… what on earth was I thinking of…’ My personal practice from time to time is to burn my accumulated rejects in the garden at midnight under a full moon, then cover the ashes with three spadefuls of earth. My wife says she sometimes wonders what she married. I don’t understand this at all. Some people turn into werewolves; I just like to be thorough.

Anyway, over to R.S.Thomas…

To A Young Poet

For the first twenty years you are still growing,
Bodily, that is: as a poet, of course,
You are not born yet. It’s the next ten
You cut your teeth on to emerge smirking
For your brash courtship of the muse.
You will take seriously those first affairs
With young poems, but no attachments
Formed then but come to shame you,
When love has changed to a grave service
Of a cold queen.

From forty on
You learn from the sharp cuts and jags
Of poems that have come to pieces
In your crude hands how to assemble
With more skill the arbitrary parts
Of ode or sonnet, while time fosters
A new impulse to conceal your wounds
From her and from a bold public,
Given to pry.

You are old now
As years reckon, but in that slower
World of the poet you are just coming
To sad manhood, knowing the smile
On her proud face is not for you.


Week 493: An tè dhan tug mi …, by Sorley Maclean

If you think that Scots Gaelic poetry is all about misty corries and wild sea-voyages and laments for fallen chieftains – and of course it is, in part, all those things – then the poetry of Sorley Maclean (or to give him his proper Gaelic name, Somhairle MacGillEain) may come as a bit of a surprise, being quite edgy and modern, concerned with his difficulties in love and experiences in war. In a way Sorley (1911-1996) is an odd case, since he managed to acquire an international reputation as a poet despite writing in what is now, sadly, very much a minority language, and one little known outside Scotland, or indeed even within it: a tongue that for most is enchantingly but irredeemably alien. So, given the relatively small number of readers able to engage properly with the original texts, I think that a good deal of that reputation has had to be taken on trust. True, Sorley provided his own English translations of his poems, which are functional but to my mind read a little awkwardly. Really it would be surprising if this were not the case: there are of course many examples of poets able to write competent verse in more than one language, but real poetry? Offhand I can’t think of any: the head may speak many languages; the heart, only one.

Anyway, here is one of Sorley’s poignant lyrics of despairing love, and, for the reasons given, I have ventured to offer my own translation rather than his. Hm, what’s the Gaelic for chutzpah: perhaps ‘dànachd’ comes close…

An tè dhan tug mi . . .

An tè dhan tug mi uile ghaol,
cha tug i gaol dhomh air a shon;
ged a chiùrradh mise air a sàillibh,
cha do thuig i ’n tàmailt idir.

Ach tric an smuaintean na h-oidhch’
an uair bhios m’ aigne ’na coille chiair,
thig osag chuimhne ’gluasad duillich,
a’ cur a furtachd gu luasgan.

Agus bho dhoimhne coille chuim,
o fhreumhach snodhaich ’s meangach meanbh,
bidh ’n eubha throm: carson bha h-àille
mar fhosgladh fàire ri latha?

Somhairle MacGillEain

She to whom I gave

I gave to her all love; she gave to me
No love in return.
Although I suffered for her sake
She never saw the shame of it at all.

But often when I lie awake
Memory like a night-breeze
Stirs the dim wood of my mind,
Turning my peace to unrest.

And from the heart of that wood,
From sap-filled root and slender bough,
Will come the heavy cry: why was her beauty
Like a door that opened for me on to day?

Week 492: Empty Vessel, by Hugh MacDiarmid

As I noted in week 172, Hugh MacDiarmid is perhaps, along with Ezra Pound, the most politically problematic, or at least confusing, of 20th century English-language poets: at various times, and sometimes at the same time, he gave his allegiance to fascism, communism and Scottish nationalism, all of which may have stemmed from his loathing for the English political class leading him to subscribe to the dubious proposition that my enemy’s enemy is of necessity my friend. Be that as it may, it seems to me that he wrote some very memorable stuff, and I think that this poem, for example, shows him at his best, a pure compassionate lyric about a woman whom I take to have lost a child, either by miscarriage or from infant mortality

Ayont: beyond
Cairney: small stony hill? (not sure about this – related to Gaelic carnan, small cairn?)
Tousie: dishevelled, tousled
Bairnie: small child
Wunds: winds
Warlds: worlds
Licht: light
Aa: all

Empty Vessel

I met ayont the cairney
A lass wi tousie hair
Singin till a bairnie
That was nae langer there.

Wunds wi warlds to swing
Dinna sing sae sweet,
The licht that bends owre aa thing
Is less ta’en up wi’it.

Hugh MacDiarmid