Week 531: The Gay Goshawk, by Carole Pegg

It should be said first that this week’s poem has nothing to do with the Child ballad of the same name, instead it is an original song to be found on the 1970’s folk-rock album ‘Mr Fox’, by a group of the same name formed by Bob and Carole Pegg. The group was short-lived, producing only two albums, and never enjoyed the repute and commercial success of their contemporary folk-rock bands Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, yet they had a very original style that drew on a mix of traditional sources and in particular the musical culture of the Yorkshire Dales. I think this eerie magical ballad is one of their best efforts.

The goshawk’s threat to use supernatural powers, which could be seen as a touch coercive, brings to mind legends attached to mediaeval wizards like Michael Scot, who was reputed to have defeated an indefatigable demon by challenging it to weave a rope out of flying sea-salt.

Note: the first word in line 15 is hard to make out: ‘jasmine’ seems odd but seems to be what people hear.

The Gay Goshawk

The gay goshawk came to my window-sill.
The snow it fell fast and the stars stood still.
‘O won’t you take me in from the storm,
Won’t you take me between your sheets so warm?’

Gold was the colour of his wings so fair,
His eyes they were bold and of silver so rare
And I laid his brown body upon the pillow.
He became a man, lithe as a willow.

‘Don’t breathe a word, don’t scream, don’t shout.
I can turn the whole world round about,
Lay the moon flat on the land,
Twist a rope out of flying sand’.

Whispering women, so happy beguiled,
Now that he’s gone she must care for the child.
Jasmine’s the colour of his hair,
A nut-brown boy with a silvery stare.

The nights have grown cold and the seasons slip by
And knowing seducers still give me the eye,
But on cold winter’s evenings alone I walk,
I watch and pray for my gay goshawk.

Carole Pegg

Week 530: BC:AD, by U.A.Fanthorpe

‘And is it true, and is it true,/This most tremendous tale of all…’ run lines from a John Betjeman poem on the Nativity. To which I suspect that many these days will, like me, answer well, no, probably not, at least not in the sense that it did actually happen and happen in that way, which is our preferred definition of ‘true’. Yet we will be happy to concede ‘true’ in the sense of being a good story, reflecting some of humanity’s deepest hopes and desires, and powerful enough to have resonated down the ages.

I’m not sure how far in this week’s poem by U.A.Fanthorpe the author means to go along with the more literal aspects of the Christmas story, but it’s an entertaining take on the tale and it does for me go some way to capturing the true wonder at the heart of the Nativity which remains even when one strips away such mythic accretions as shepherds and angels, stars and wise men, and which should surely be something that those of all faiths and none can celebrate equally: I mean the sheer miracle of any human birth, this fragile chance to be alive on a green planet orbiting a vast ball of fire in the void.

My thanks to my followers for all their comments and encouragement over the year, and may they feel in whatever way seems right to them the warmth of this ancient glow at the heart of midwinter.


This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect

Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of Heaven.


Week 529: A Christmas Childhood, by Patrick Kavanagh

This week’s seasonal offering is one of Patrick Kavanagh’s best-loved poems, full of frost and glitter and childhood wonder, and wistful for that wonder. I don’t actually think it’s one of his very best poems – to me it rambles a bit and could do with tightening up – but it certainly has its moments, and even flawed Kavanagh is still better than most poets’ best.

Note: water-hen. A name used here and there for various water-birds, but here I take it to be the moorhen.

A Christmas Childhood


One side of the potato–pits was white with frost –
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.

The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me

To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again

The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch
Or any common sight the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.


My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Mass-going feet
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.

My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.

Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon – the Three Wise Kings.

An old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodion’. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.

Patrick Kavanagh

Week 528: Office Party, by Alan Brownjohn

This week a very funny seasonal poem. Well, I say funny – really it’s a bit sad and possibly I shouldn’t laugh, but it does capture rather brilliantly the horrors that we inflict on ourselves in the name of jollification, in this case the annual office party. Ah, Alan, did you learn nothing from Larkin’s ‘Vers de Sociėtė’?

Office Party

We were throwing out small talk
On the smoke-weary air,
When the girl with the squeaker
Came passing each chair.

She was wearing a white dress,
Her paper-hat was a blue
Crown with a red tassel
And to every man who

Glanced up at her, she leant over
And blew down the hole,
So the squeaker inflated
And began to unroll.

She stopped them all talking
With this trickery,
And she didn’t leave out anyone
Until she came to me.

I looked up and she met me
With a half-teasing eye
And she took a mild breath and
Went carefully by,

And with cold concentration
To the next man she went,
And squawked out the instrument
To its fullest extent.

And whether she passed me
Thinking that it would show
Too much favour to mock me
I never did know –

Or whether her withholding
Was her cruelty,
And it was that she despised me,
I couldn’t quite see –

So it could have been discretion
And it could have been disgust
But it was quite unequivocal,
And suffer it I must:

All I know was: she passed me,
Which I did not expect
– And I’d never so craved for
Some crude disrespect.

Alan Brownjohn

Postscript: So why did the young woman pass him by? When I first read the poem, my initial theory was that she instinctively felt it would be wrong to violate the aura of quiet dignity that I liked to think surrounded poets. This theory did not survive contact with poets.

Week 527: ‘Late Came The God’, by Rudyard Kipling

Can a poem be powerful yet also, viewed rationally, a bit daft? If so, then I think this one by Rudyard Kipling certainly manages it. It is intimately associated with Kipling’s short story ‘The Wish House’, which it prefixes in his 1926 collection ‘Debits and Credits’, and that story itself is very odd, yet also quite masterful in its way. It concerns a woman Grace Ashcroft, who, after various affairs in which she received affection that she did not return, late in life falls deeply in love with a man called Harry Mockler. He becomes ill and she goes to a ‘wish house’ that is inhabited by a ‘Token’, some kind of wraith or supernatural being who can, or so she believes, grant her the power to take on herself another’s suffering. Which she does, saying ‘Let me take everythin’ bad that’s in store for my man, ’Arry Mockler, for love’s sake’. Subsequently she injures her ankle and then develops an ulcer on her leg that turns cancerous, causing her great pain.

It is a moving tale and the poem is harrowing in its uncompromising evocation of disease and pain, but the problem I have with it is that the world simply does not work like that. Empathy is a fine thing, but it has its practical limits. I knew a little girl who died of childhood leukaemia after a short and suffering life: I am sure that if there had been any way for her loving parents to take pain away from her and into themselves they would have done so. The truth, I fear, lies much more in the direction of Robert Frost’s bleak assessment: ‘The nearest friends can go/With anyone to death, comes so far short/They might as well not try to go at all.’

Nonetheless, the poem and story bear witness to what a strange and powerful writer, quite unlike anyone else, Kipling at his best could be. As for their psychology, given that the story first appeared, in magazine form, in 1924 it is hard not to see in them a wish-fulfilment fantasy on Kipling’s part, a vicarious projection of himself into the narrative. He was racked with guilt over the death of his son John in the Great War, having pulled strings to get him a commission in the army after he had initially been rejected due to poor eyesight. Maybe one can hear in that ‘for love’s sake’ Kipling’s own sublimated version of David’s great cry in the Bible: ‘Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!’

Note: ‘the God’ – I take this to refer to Eros, the god of love, feeling scorned because of Grace Ashcroft’s earlier behaviour in affairs of the heart, and now exacting vengeance. Those averse to divinities, vengeful or otherwise, can simply take it as karma.

‘Late Came The God’ (from ‘The Wish House’)

Late came the God, having sent his forerunners who were not regarded –
Late, but in wrath;
Saying: ‘The wrong shall be paid, the contempt be rewarded
On all that she hath.’
He poisoned the blade and struck home, the full bosom receiving
The wound and the venom in one, past cure or relieving.

He made treaty with Time to stand still that the grief might be fresh –
Daily renewed and nightly pursued through her soul to her flesh –
Mornings of memory, noontides of agony, midnights unslaked for her,
Till the stones of the street of her Hells and her Paradise ached for her.

So she lived while her body corrupted upon her.
And she called on the Night for a sign, and a Sign was allowed,
And she builded an Altar and served by the light of her Vision –
Alone, without hope of regard or reward, but uncowed,
Resolute, selfless, divine.
These things she did in Love’s honour…
What is a God beside Woman? Dust and derision!

Rudyard Kipling