Week 543: Shepherdess, by Norman Cameron

This week an unusual love poem by Norman Cameron (1905-1953, see also weeks 35 and 204), skilfully constructed around one extended metaphor, that captures the first excitement and wonder of a relationship when two people are exploring each other’s back lives as one might explore a new country, their thoughts and experiences mingling like two flocks of sheep. The last verse must rank as one of English literature’s more delicate chat-up lines.


All day my sheep have mingled with yours. They strayed
Into your valley seeking a change of ground.
Held and bemused with what they and I had found,
Pastures and wonders, heedless I delayed.

Now it is late. The tracks leading home are steep.
The stars and landmarks in your country are strange
How can I take my sheep back over the range?
Shepherdess, show me now where I may sleep.

Norman Cameron

Week 542: L’Infinito, by Giacomo Leopardi

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is generally regarded as the greatest of nineteenth century Italian poets, and this sonnet, written probably in the autmn of 1819, is one of his most celebrated pieces. There are obvious comparisons to be made with our own romantic poet, John Keats. Although from very different social backgrounds, they had a great deal in common: both destined to die relatively young, and very conscious while they lived of impending death, both much attracted to the myths of classical antiquity, both distrustful of scientific reason, both empathetic towards human misery, both espousing what at first sight may seem to be a kind of romantic nihilism, but is really a cosmicism, a desire to become one with what Wordsworth calls the ‘Wisdom and Spirit of the universe’. It is easy to imagine Leopardi identifying strongly with Keats’s lines from ‘Hyperion’; ‘None can usurp this height…/But those to whom the miseries of the world/Are misery and will not let them rest’, and conversely it is easy to imagine Keats seeing in this poem echoes of his own sonnet beginning ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’ and ending with the poet consoling himself with the thought of the same kind of cosmic union that Leopardi projects: ‘then on the shore/Of the wide world I stand alone, and think/Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

Various symbolic readings of the poem are available: for example, that the hill represents human though, and the hedge around it the limitations of that thought, which cannot be transcended by pure rationality, only by a sublimation of one’s own identity into the eternal. Well, maybe. Or it could just be about cherishing those moments of insight and connectedness that are occasionally gifted to us.

The translation that follows is my own.


Sempre caro mi fu quest’ermo colle,
e questa siepe, che da tanta parte
dell’ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.
Ma sedendo e mirando, interminati
spazi di là da quella, e sovrumani
silenzi, e profondissima quiete
io nel pensier mi fingo; ove per poco
il cor non si spaura. E come il vento
odo stormir tra queste piante, io quello
infinito silenzio a questa voce
vo comparando: e mi sovvien l’eterno,
e le morte stagioni, e la presente
e viva, e il suon di lei. Così tra questa
immensità s’annega il pensier mio:
e il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare.

Giacomo Leopardi

The Infinite

This lonely hill was always dear to me,
Likewise this hedge, that on so many sides
Shuts out the far horizon. But sat here,
Gazing, I can conjure up in thought
Infinite space, a more than human silence,
And deepest quietude, until my heart
Is all but daunted. Then I hear the wind
Stirring in the branches, and begin
To draw comparisons: that sound with this
Infinite stillness, and there comes to mind
Eternity, the seasons past, the voice
Of this still living present. So my thought
Founders, engulfed by that immensity,
Yet finds it sweet to drown in such a sea.

Week 541: Apples and Water, by Robert Graves

This is a relatively early poem by Robert Graves, but one that shows his particular gifts to great advantage, skilfully combining a traditional ballad form with an individual lyricism. At their best, Graves’s poems have that rare and unfashionable quality, beauty. Of course, there are many kinds of beauty in poetry: the beauty of precision, of the verbal arrow quivering in the centre of its target; the beauty of musicality, of rhythm and cadence; the beauty of evocation, of a few words on the page conjuring up whole vistas of lived experience. And sometimes if we are lucky they come together, as I find in this poem, and particularly in its penultimate stanza.

Note: the version I give differs in several places from others that may be found online, but mine is the version printed in ‘Collected Poems 1965’ that I am familiar with, so I have stuck with that.

drouth: a Scots word for drought, thirst.

Apples and Water

Dust in a cloud, blinding weather,
Drums that rattle and roar!
A mother and daughter stood together
By their cottage door.

‘Mother, the heavens are bright like brass,
The dust is shaken high,
With labouring breath the soldiers pass,
Their lips are cracked and dry.’

‘Mother, I’ll throw them apples down,
I’ll fetch them cups of water.’
The mother turned with an angry frown
Holding back her daughter.

‘But mother, see, they faint with thirst,
They march away to war,’
‘Ay, daughter, these are not the first
And there will come yet more.’

‘There is no water can supply them
In western streams that flow,
There is no fruit can satisfy them
On orchard-trees that grow.’

‘Once in my youth I gave, poor fool,
A soldier apples and water,
And may I die before you cool
Such drouth as his, my daughter.’

Robert Graves

Week 540: To An Infant Grandchild, by E.J.Scovell

This little poem by Edith Scovell (1907-1999; see also weeks 97 and 503) is perhaps most likely to appeal most to those of a certain age, like myself, who see their family, friends and ex-colleagues dying off at a rather alarming rate around them, but who are consequently all the more inclined to find a wistful consolation in the continual arrival of new faces on the stage. In the words of the Old Shepherd in ‘The Winter’s Tale’: ‘Heavy matters, heavy matters. But look thee here, boy. Now bless thyself: thou met’st with things dying, I with things new-born’.

To An Infant Grandchild

Dear Katherine, your future
Can never meet my past.
So short our common frontier,
Our hinterlands so vast.

Yet at the customs post
Light airs pass freely over
And all we need to know
We know of one another.

Though day will wake your country
As dark flows over mine
Your outback sleeps in shadow now,
Your smile is cloudless dawn.