Week 522: From ‘Sunset Song’, by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

One of my all-time favourite prose works is ‘Sunset Song’ by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1901-1935), a novel set in the north-east of Scotland in the early 20th century.

It has a lyrical style, and an unforgettable cast of characters, including the free-spirited Chris herself, her mother, her brother Will, her vile bully of a father, her husband Ewan, broken by the Great War, her kindly neighbour Chae Strachan and, eventually and briefly, her soulmate Long Rob the miller.

‘Sunset Song’ is actually the first of a trilogy entitled ‘A Scots Quair’, so the story is continued in two more parts, ‘Cloud Howe’ and ‘Grey Granite’, but I have to confess that I managed only a few chapters of the former before giving up with the words from Wordworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’ running in my head: ‘Whither is fled the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream?’, and I never got to the third book at all.

Of course, anyone’s reading journey from childhood on is likely to be littered with disappointing sequels. Many children over the years (though maybe not so many these days) have devoured Louisa M. Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ and Thomas Hughes’s ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’, but I suspect that few have ever done more than nibble at ‘Good Wives’ and ‘Tom Brown At Oxford’. As a child blissfully unaware of its allegorical designs on me I enjoyed C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ but found the rest of the Narnia books fairly forgettable. Parts two to four of T.H.White’s Arthurian epic ‘The Once and Future King’ are worthy enough, but have nothing like the magic of its first book, ‘The Sword In The Stone’. As a devoted fan of Ursula Le Guin’s first three ‘Earthsea’ novels I found the tone of the fourth book ‘Tehanu’ horribly jarring. Alan Garner’s ‘Boneland’ is intriguing in its own right, but as a sequel to ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ and ‘The Moon of Gomrath’ it is barely in the same universe. And while as a teenager I would have been happy to go along with the young Neil Gaiman’s view that ‘Lord of the Rings’ was not only the best book ever written but the best book that ever could be written, ‘The Silmarillion’ was, let’s face it, a bit of a letdown with its remote style and its claustrophobically mediaeval cosmology in which the earth is created before the sun and mankind is placed in the world ready-formed, concepts which (to the best of my understanding) are not entirely in line with modern scientific thinking.

But I am rambling. Back to ‘Sunset Song’, and two passages that I have chosen to illustrate both the book’s lyrical style and some of its main themes: of dual cultural identity, of being bound to the land and to a way of life that you both resented and loved, and of the struggle to maintain that way of life in the face of a changing world:

‘So that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d wake with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of this Scottish land and skies. You saw the faces in firelight, father’s, and mother’s, and the neighbours’, before the lamps lit up, tired and kind, faces dear and close to you, you wanted the words they’d known and used, forgotten in the far-off youngness of their lives, Scots words to tell to your heart how they wrung it and held it, the toil of their days and unendingly their fight. And the next minute that passed from you, you were English, back to the English words so sharp and clean and true — for a while, for a while, till they slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all.’


‘And then a queer thought came to her there in the drookèd fields, that nothing endured at all, nothing but the land she passed across, tossed and turned and perpetually changed below the hands of the crofter folk since the oldest of them had set the Standing Stones by the loch of Blawearie and climbed there on their holy days and saw their terraced crops ride brave in the wind and sun. Sea and sky and the folk who wrote and fought and were learnèd, teaching and saying and praying, they lasted but as a breath, a mist of fog in the hills, but the land was forever, it moved and changed below you, but was forever, you were close to it and it to you, not at a bleak remove it held you and hurted you.’

drookèd: drenched

Week 521: There Were Roses, by Tommy Sands

This week’s offering was written by the Irish folk-singer Tommy Sands (born 1941), and is based on a true story involving the deaths of two of Tommy’s friends in Northern Ireland in 1974. It seems to me a powerful evocation of those claustrophobic, fear-ridden times. It is not polished verse, with its rough rhyming and slight awkwardnesses of phrasing and scansion that a poet less intent on telling the story might have smoothed over, but I think that in this case its very rawness and awkwardness gives the poem an added authenticity: it’s a work where anger and pity are more important than literary polish.

As a song it has been covered by numerous artists. The version I am most familiar with is actually Cara Dillon’s, but I’ve gone back to what I believe to be Tommy’s original. Cara, in that slightly cavalier way folksingers have, made quite a few changes, dropping some of the verses and using different names for the protagonists, and in fact, I think, improved things somewhat by tightening up the narrative, but I wouldn’t be too happy about people taking it upon themselves to monkey with my own poems, however much it might benefit them, so let’s give Tommy his full due.

There Were Roses

My song for you this evening, it’s not to make you sad,
Nor for adding to the sorrows of this troubled northern land.
But lately I’ve been thinking and it just won’t leave my mind
I’ll tell you of two friends one time who were both good friends of mine.

Allan Bell from Banagh, he lived just across the fields,
A great man for the music and the dancing and the reels.
O’Malley came from South Armagh to court young Alice fair,
And we’d often meet on the Ryan Road and the laughter filled the air.

There were roses, roses
There were roses
And the tears of the people
Ran together

Though Allan, he was Protestant, and Sean was Catholic born,
It never made a difference for the friendship, it was strong.
And sometimes in the evening when we heard the sound of drums
We said, ‘It won’t divide us. We always will be the one.’

For the ground our fathers ploughed in, the soil, it is the same,
And the places where we say our prayers have just got different names.
We talked about the friends who died, and we hoped there’d be no more.
It’s little then we realized the tragedy in store.

There were roses, roses
There were roses
And the tears of the people
Ran together

It was on a Sunday morning when the awful news came round,
Another killing has been done just outside Newry Town.
We knew that Allan danced up there, we knew he liked the band.
But when we heard that he was dead we just could not understand.

We gathered at the graveside on that cold and rainy day,
And the minister he closed his eyes and he prayed for no revenge.
And all the ones who knew him from along the Ryan Road,
They bowed our heads and they said a prayer for the resting of his soul.

There were roses, roses
There were roses
And the tears of the people
Ran together

Well fear, it filled the countryside.  There was fear in every home
When a car of death came prowling round the lonely Ryan Road.
A Catholic would be killed tonight to even up the score,
‘Oh, Christ!  It’s young O’Malley that they’ve taken from the door.’

‘Allan was my friend,’ he cried.  He begged them with his fear,
But centuries of hatred have ears that cannot hear.
An eye for an eye was all that filled their minds
And another eye for another eye till everyone is blind.

There were roses, roses
There were roses
And the tears of the people
Ran together

So my song for you this evening, it’s not to make you sad
Nor for adding to the sorrows of our troubled northern land,
But lately I’ve been thinking and it just won’t leave my mind.
I’ll tell you of two friends one time who were both good friends of mine.

I don’t know where the moral is or where this song should end,
But I wonder just how many wars are fought between good friends.
And those who give the orders are not the ones to die,
It’s Bell and O’Malley and the likes of you and I.

There were roses, roses
There were roses
And the tears of the people
Ran together

Tommy Sands

Week 520: The Voice, by Thomas Hardy

This week another of those poems that I have not featured before on the assumption that everyone at all interested in poetry must already be familiar with them, but maybe with the modern educational curriculum this assumption is no longer justified, so just in case…

This is one of a sequence of poems that Hardy wrote in memory of his dead wife Emma, expressing a grief sharpened by regret for their long estrangement, and it is a poem that champions of Hardy’s verse like to point to as evidence of his greatness. I don’t know how helpful labels like ‘great’ really are when it comes to poetry: personally I tend to think of poems more in terms of being alive or not, as having or lacking that rare electric pulse of truth and urgency. But greatness – I suppose I would say that it is something to do with a unique voice, gifted with the power to create a new verbal landscape and through an intense fusion of thought and emotion expressing a truth both personal and universal. And I certainly wouldn’t deny it to Hardy at his best. Curiously, or perhaps significantly, T.S.Eliot loathed Hardy. Huh.

mead:             meadow
wistlessness:     this appears to be a Hardy coinage, that for me fuses the idea of ‘no longer knowing or being known’ (from the pseudo-archaic verb wist, to know) with the idea of no longer feeling desire (by analogy with wistful, that means ‘longing, yearning with little hope’)
norward:         the direction of the north

The Voice

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

Thomas Hardy

Week 519: Caged Rats, by Ebenezer Elliott

In the wake of the Government’s not entirely successful attempt to sell the idea that one way of helping poor people is by giving tax cuts and bonuses to rich people, I thought this week might be a good time to dig out this rather spirited piece of class warfare by the Victorian poet Ebenezer Elliott (1781-1849). Of course, as a poem it’s a bit of a blunt instrument, and belongs more properly to a time when we had a government that was actively and malevolently repressive towards the working classes rather than a government that is, let us charitably assume, doing its possibly inadequate best to deal with a complex spiral of demands and expectations while weathering an economic tempest. I was brought up on tales of Victorian ancestors extracting their own rotten teeth and attempting to perform their own abortions, of hungry children waiting behind their father’s chair to get the kipper skins when he had finished eating the fish (this was practical, not cruel: the breadwinner must be given the energy for his labour or there would simply be no bread), and of old couples being kept apart as they lived out their pensionless days in the workhouse.

In our times we have somewhat different concepts of ‘hardship’ and ‘poverty’, and while it may no longer be true that we have never had it so good, it is perhaps salutary to remember that we have certainly had it worse. Not that that is much consolation to young people in my area faced with starter home property prices at least fifteen times the average starting salary (my first house cost four times mine), and that after emerging from further education saddled with huge debts even after an injection of parental help (in my days a student grant didn’t exactly allow one to lead the high life, but it came without strings and was just enough to give a measure of financial independence). Were my generation truly the lucky ones, living through the last good times of our country? I don’t know, but I worry for my grandchildren.

Elliott had a difficult early life, at one point going bankrupt, and though he eventually became a successful iron merchant and steel manufacturer, the experience of being homeless and out of work gave him a deep and lasting sympathy for the poor. He was a notable opponent of the Corn Laws, basically restrictions on the import of cheap grain in force from 1815 to 1846, which operated to enhance the profits and political power of the landowning class but caused hardship and starvation among the workers. This did not make him popular with his fellow entrepreneurs, and the workers were too busy starving to have much time for poetry, but at least he tried.

Caged Rats

Ye coop us up, and tax our bread,
And wonder why we pine:
But ye are fat, and round, and red,
And fill’d with tax-bought wine.
Thus, twelve rats starve while three rats thrive,
(Like you on mine and me),
When fifteen rats are caged alive,
With food for nine and three.

Haste! Havoc’s torch begins to glow –
The ending is begun;
Make haste! Destruction thinks ye slow;
Make haste to be undone!
Why are ye call’d ‘My Lord’ and ‘Squire’,
While fed by mine and me,
And wringing food, and clothes and fire,
From bread-tax’d misery?

Make haste, slow rogues! prohibit trade,
Prohibit honest gain;
Turn all the good that God hath made
To fear, and hate, and pain;
Till beggars all, assassins all,
All cannibals we be,
And death shall have no funeral,
From shipless sea to sea.

Ebenezer Elliott