Week 509: A Prospect of Death, by Andrew Young

This week an uncharacteristically self-revealing piece by the Scots poet Andrew Young (1885-1971), who is best known for his keen-eyed and idiosyncratic celebrations of the natural world – see, for example, week 19’s ‘The Sheaf’. But here he opens up emotionally in a way that may remind one of the later Hardy, except that the wife being ruefully addressed is still alive. It appears from Young’s biography (written jointly by his daughter and his son–in-law, the poet Edward Lowbury) that he was a complex man, subject to depressions, who could be warm and witty but could also be domineering and capable of unkindness. Well, maybe we all approach the end of our lives knowing that there have been times when we have failed of our charity, and hearing that ‘voice from the green-grained sticks of the fire’ that Hardy speaks of in his poem ‘Surview’:

You taught not that which you set about,’
Said my own voice talking to me;
‘That the greatest of things is Charity…’

And while a poem like this may not be much of an amends, one likes to think that it is something.

A Prospect of Death

If it should come to this
You cannot wake me with a kiss,
Think I but sleep too late
Or once again keep a cold angry state.

So now you have been told; —
I or my breakfast may grow cold,
But you must only say
‘Why does he miss the best part of the day?’

Even then you may be wrong;
Through woods torn by a blackbird’s song
My thoughts may often roam
While graver business make me stay at home.

There will be time enough
To go back to the earth I love
Some other day that week,
Perhaps to find what all my life I seek.

So do not dream of danger;
Forgive my lateness or my anger;
You have so much forgiven,
Forgive me this or that, or Hell or Heaven.

Andrew Young

Week 508: Her Strong Enchantments Failing, by A.E.Housman

The A.E. Housman psychodrama, featuring a somewhat romanticised stoicism or defiance of a hostile or at best uncaring universe, may not be to everyone’s taste, but I think it has to be admitted that it finds a perfect expression in poems like this where he is able to harness the power of myth in the service of his own inner conflict.

I say ‘myth’, but there is a bit of a puzzle here. I had always assumed that the title of the mysterious and sinister ‘Queen of air and darkness’ was a traditional one – that Housman, renowned for his classical scholarship, was drawing on some appellation of, for example, Hecate, the goddess of the witches. The Wikipedia entry, however, identifies her with Morgause, the enchantress of Arthurian legend who is (unknown to him) Arthur’s half-sister and the mother of the ‘Orkney faction’, comprising Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth. But this identification, I suspect, may be based purely on the work of T.H.White, who used it as the title of one of the books in his Arthurian quartet, and White may simply have taken the title from the Housman poem.

In short, I have been unable to find the phrase ‘queen of air and darkness’ existing before Housman, so suspect it is his own resonant invention, though no doubt inspired by traditional lore in some form. Do let me know if you can cast any further light on the matter.

‘limbecks’: a variant of ‘alembic’,  a kind of alchemist’s still, consisting of two vessels connected by a tube, used for the distillation of liquids.

‘towers of fear’: possibly an echo here of the Dark Tower in Browning’s poem, to which Childe Roland came. The poem, of course, predates Tolkien and his version of the Dark Tower, Barad-dûr.

Her strong enchantments failing

Her strong enchantments failing,
  Her towers of fear in wreck,
Her limbecks dried of poisons
  And the knife at her neck,

The Queen of air and darkness
  Begins to shrill and cry,
‘O young man, O my slayer,
  To-morrow you shall die.’

O Queen of air and darkness,
  I think ’tis truth you say,
And I shall die to-morrow;
  But you will die to-day.

A.E. Housman

Week 507: My Mother Saw A Dancing Bear, by Charles Causley

Do not be deceived by the simplicity of the language and metric: this is a poem raw with anger and pity, that puts one somewhat in mind of Blake in his more lucid moments.

My Mother Saw A Dancing Bear

My mother saw a dancing bear
By the schoolyard, a day in June.
The keeper stood with chain and bar
And whistle-pipe, and played a tune.

And bruin lifted up its head
And lifted up its dusty feet,
And all the children laughed to see
It caper in the summer heat.

They watched as for the Queen it died
They watched it march. They watched it halt.
They heard the keeper as he cried,
‘Now, roly-poly!’ ‘Somersault!’

And then, my mother said, there came
The keeper with a begging-cup,
The bear with burning coat of fur,
Shaming the laughter to a stop.

They paid a penny for the dance,
But what they saw was not the show;
Only, in bruin’s aching eyes,
Far-distant forests, and the snow.

Charles Causley

Week 506: Shancoduff, by Patrick Kavanagh

Another poem of Patrick Kavanagh’s showing his deep attachment to his native patch, an attachment that combines the spiritual, almost mystical, with the concrete and practical (see also, for example, week 86’s ‘Threshing Morning’).

The puzzle in this poem is how to read the last line: ‘I hear and is my heart not badly shaken?’. Does one take it at face value: ‘I hear what you are saying, and yes, it is pretty depressing to think that this meagre patch is all I have to show for a life of devotion to my land and my craft’. Or does one hear a mocking, ‘am I bothered’ note: ‘I hear what you are saying, but why should I need a greater domain than these small hills that for me are as good as any Alps, or more wealth than the bright shillings of March sunlight that they offer me?’. Not surprisingly I favour the latter reading, but of course the two could coexist: many poets must have viewed their material poverty with a slight degree of rue while accepting it as the price of their spiritual plenty.

Shancoduff is a townland in Co. Monaghan, Ireland


My black hills have never seen the sun rising,
Eternally they look north towards Armagh.
Lot’s wife would not be salt if she had been
Incurious as my black hills that are happy
When dawn whitens Glassdrummond chapel.

My hills hoard the bright shillings of March
While the sun searches in every pocket.
They are my Alps and I have climbed the Matterhorn
With a sheaf of hay for three perishing calves
In the field under the Big Forth of Rocksavage.

The sleety winds fondle the rushy beards of Shancoduff
While the cattle-drovers sheltering in the Featherna Bush
Look up and say: ‘Who owns them hungry hills
That the water-hen and snipe must have forsaken?
A poet? Then by heavens he must be poor.’
I hear and is my heart not badly shaken?

Patrick Kavanagh

Week 505: At Lord’s, by Francis Thompson

I am not sure why I should find this piece of cricketing nostalgia by the Victorian poet Francis Thompson (1859-1907) so evocative, given that I have never really got on with ball games in general and cricket in particular. I mean, so many rules to remember, compared with running where ‘don’t start before the gun goes’ pretty much covers it. I was playing football recently against my two young grandsons, and while I admit that my understanding of the offside rule has always been tenuous at best, I wish someone would explain to me how I could have constantly been ruled offside when I was the only player on my team. I did in fact presume to query this, but was told very firmly ‘my ball, my rules’, so that was the end of that.

Still, it’s good to think of the tubercular, angst-ridden, opium-addicted Thompson finding solace in such an innocent pastime.

I take Hornby to be Albert Neilsen Hornby (1847-1925), a famous Victorian sportsman who captained the country at both rugby and cricket, and Barlow to be Richard Gorton Barlow (1851-1919), a well-known all-rounder. Readers may wish to update the references to something more modern like, say, Hutton and Bedser (note: my knowledge of the game’s heroes may not be entirely up to date).

‘repair’ in the sense of ‘to go to’, nothing to do with mending.

‘red roses’: presumably referring to the emblem of Thompson’s home county Lancashire; Thompson was born in Preston.

‘Southron’ an old or Scots word for ‘southern’.

At Lord’s

It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though my own red roses there may blow;
It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though the red roses crest the caps, I know.
For the field is full of shades as I near the shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro:–
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!

Francis Thompson