Week 548: The Good Morrow, by John Donne

It is entirely reasonable that when it comes to poetic taste the circle of admiration should be far more encompassing than the circle of love, and while for me John Donne (1572-1631) certainly falls well within the former circle, I cannot quite bring myself to place him in the latter. This week’s poem has so much going for it: wit, dexterity, a lively conversational idiom, and for some a pleasing element of intellectual challenge in its references and conceits, though others may feel that in the last verse in particular Donne loses his way in a maze of metaphors. So what does it lack? For me, I suppose, the conviction that Donne is concerned with real love for another human being, rather than using a slightly simulated extravagance of passion as a vehicle for a bit of poetry. This is poetry that stimulates the intellect but does not engage the emotions, and I want a poem to do both.

I compare it with poems like William Barnes’s ‘Woak Hill’ (see week 31) and ‘The Wife A-lost’ (see week 176). Now these for me hit you in the solar plexus and knock the wind out of you, and with Donne’s poem I feel no such impact. I am not saying that Barnes is a greater poet than Donne – there are other factors to be considered, like influence and centrality. And anyway who cares about labels and precedences, there are just poems, and maybe our reactions to them are, and indeed should be, far more personal and circumstantial than any attempt to impose a formal discipline of ‘poetry appreciation’ on the matter can allow for.

Note: The Seven Sleepers: in mediaeval legend, The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus were Christian youths who hid in a cave to escape the persecution of the Roman emperor Decius (250 CE) and fell into a miraculous sleep. There is an implicit comparison between their wonder on waking and Donne’s own as he progresses from mere carnal love to the ‘agapic’ or spiritual love felt by their ‘waking souls’.

The Good Morrow

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snored we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
‘Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be:
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ‘twas but a dream of thee.

And now good morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone;
Let maps to others, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears.
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our twoloves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.

John Donne

Week 547: Into my heart an air that kills, by A.E.Housman

Much as I have always admired George Orwell’s lucid prose, I have the feeling that he didn’t really ‘get’ poetry. There is evidence for this in his novel ‘Keep The Aspidistra Flying’, where he tries to get inside the head of his poet character Gordon Comstock (unlike the more prudent P.D.James who, as far as I recall, never made any attempt to demonstrate her detective poet Adam Dalgliesh’s prowess in his alternative occupation). It is clear that Orwell thought of poetry as some trick of thinking rather than a way of being – definitely a case of ‘Don’t give up the day job, Gordon’.

Orwell was, it seems to me, particularly wrong-headed about A.E.Housman in one of his essays in ‘Inside The Whale’. To quote: ‘In 1920, when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of the Shropshire Lad by heart. I wonder how much impression the Shropshire Lad makes at this moment on a boy of the same age and more or less the same cast of mind? No doubt he has heard of it and even glanced into it; it might strike him as cheaply clever — probably that would be about all…. It just tinkles’.

Well, I was about seventeen in 1961 when I first read that essay, and also about seventeen when I first read Housman, and it struck me even at the time that it was a pity Orwell couldn’t have asked me – did he really think that seventeen year olds, as least those uncorrupted by any literary ideology, differed so much from generation to generation? No, it didn’t just tinkle then, and it doesn’t now, and I am pleased to observe that Housman has continued to occupy a high place in the regard not only of the public but also of many of my fellow-poets, so sucks to you, Orwell.

All of which is a preamble to presenting one of his best-loved lyrics, a perfect distillation of that emotion which the Welsh call ‘hiraeth’, a little more than mere nostalgia, an intense love and longing for a lost place, a lost culture, a lost past.


Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.


Week 546: Pied Beauty, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Some years ago I stayed with my family on holiday at Arthog in North Wales, just across the Mawddach estuary from Barmouth, and one of the walks we took was along the old railway track, now converted to a footpath, to Penmaenpool. The railway was opened in 1865, but fell victim to Dr Beeching in the sixties. In the old days it was evidently a treat in the area to take a picnic on the round trip: up to Harlech, then to Minfford, by the Ffestiniog line to Blaenau Ffestiniog, to Bala and back to Dolgellau. Bonneted ladies, men in light suits, excited children, picnic baskets, glimpses of the sea, seeds of willowherb drifting in through the open windows, turning and twinkling in the sun… But all the track long taken up now, grass and moss encroaching on the limestone chippings, willows leaning over, a tangle of soapwort and goldenrod and everlasting pea, and the evening quiet under cloud, only the oystercatchers calling as darkness falls.

Anyway, on a placard in the old signal-box at Penmaenpool, now converted to a bird-hide, I came across a verse which Gerard Manley Hopkins inscribed in the hotel guest book after a stay here:

 ‘Then come who pine for peace and pleasure
Away from counter, court and school,
Spend here your measure of time and treasure
And taste the joys of Penmaenpool.’

O G.M.H, I thought, what a totally undistinguished quatrain! That’s what comes of feeling obligated to say something, or being tempted by a slight vanity – because you always knew what you were worth, didn’t you, even if this particular verse doesn’t show it, and even if no one else at the time knew. So, I thought, you stood here too and watched the light change on the wooded slopes opposite, and the quiet water brimming up the estuary. I didn’t know what to say to your ghost, except glory be to God for you too, and thanks for poems as original and beautiful as this one.

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things – 
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
  And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
  Praise him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Week 545: Adjustment, by Molly Holden

I suspect that although they may been far more fortunate than Molly Holden in the matter of health, many people will still identify with the sentiments of this poem in one way or another. Personally it is a long time since I had any vanity about my appearance, but I confess to resenting bitterly the inevitable decline in my physical powers, such as they were. This was brought sharply into focus last month when I was laid low by an amazingly incapacitating attack of what turned out to be polymyalgia rheumatica, fortunately soon treated once properly diagnosed. I could myself manage nothing more dignified in response than an existential howl: ‘So only a month ago I could still do thirty pushups and run a decent 5K, and now I can’t even get up out of a f—king armchair!?’. Molly handles the subject with rather more grace and wit, though certainly with no less rue.


I thought my bones would last. Good bones I’d read,
preserve the beauty of an aged head,
and so I hoped my structure might remain
shapely, whatever age I might attain.

Skulls do not change but I’d not gauged the force
of time correctly, reckoned without the coarse
deposit of disease and grief – the double chin,
the softer jowls of middle-age, the cobwebbed skin,
that now have overlaid the thirtied grace
of what was once a pleasing enough face.

What the mirror tells me must be true. Shoulder,
breast, and sight confirm I’m getting older.

Now my portrait of myself must change, truth
forgo the bright advantages of youth.
My children see me comfortable and kind –
so there’s my present image right to mind.
Shape’s hoped endurance must be laid aside
and any slighter beauty that was cause for pride.

Now only I shall ever see
the fine-boned crone I’d thought to be.

Molly Holden