Week 552: My Youngest Son Came Home Today, by Eric Bogle

More evidence that it is still possible to write powerful contemporary folksongs, and like ‘There Were Roses’ (see week 521) this one too, by the Scottish singer-songwriter Eric Bogle (born 1944) has its genesis in the Irish Troubles. Note how the young man is not identified in sectarian terms; I suppose the reference to sainthood in the second stanza might lead one to assume that he is Catholic, since I have a vague idea that Protestants aren’t so much into the saint thing, but that would be to miss the point.

The song, with its stately dirgelike tune, has been covered by various artists: I know it best through the performance of the Irish singer Mary Black.

My Youngest Son Came Home Today

My youngest son came home today.
His friends marched with him all the way.
The pipes and drums beat out the time
As in his box of polished pine
Like dead meat on a butcher’s tray
My youngest son came home today.

My youngest son was a fine young man
With a wife, a daughter and two sons.
A man he would have lived and died
Till by a bullet sanctified
Now he’s a saint, or so they say.
They brought their saint home today.

Above the narrow Belfast streets
An Irish sky looks down and weeps
On children’s blood in gutters spilled
In dreams of freedom unfulfilled
As part of freedom’s price to pay
My youngest son came home today.

My youngest son came home today.
His friends marched with him all the way.
The pipes and drums beat out the time
As in his box of polished pine
Like dead meat on a butcher’s tray
My youngest son came home today.

And this time he’s home to stay.

Eric Bogle

Week 551: From ‘The Knight’s Tale’, by Geoffrey Chaucer

I tend not to think of Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340-1400) as a lyric poet, but more as a kind of story-teller in verse whose strengths lay in narrative and characterisation but who rarely achieved, or even tried for, that concentrated essence of language one looks for in lyric poetry. Yet there is this passage from the end of ‘The Knight’s Tale’, where the dying Arcite speaks a farewell to his love Emily. I suppose it is standard enough stuff for the time, but there are two lines in it that I find quite haunting: ‘But I biquethe the servyce of my ghost/To yow aboven every creature.’ Possibly this too was a standard conceit, as a better mediaeval scholar than I might know, and yet, asking myself why I should find them so affecting, I realise it is because they express for me something quintessential about the craft we practise, about that state of grace that poets, who tend by nature to be selfish or at least  self-preoccupied creatures, may nonetheless enter when, desiring nothing except to be of use, they offer the service of their spirit to something beloved, something beyond themselves.

I don’t know how much ‘The Canterbury Tales’ are read for pleasure these days. A pity if not: the language, once you get accustomed to the antique spelling, is far more straightforward than, say, a good deal of Shakespeare. You do need to do a bit of cherry picking though – some of the tales, like Chaucer’s own, are definite duds; others, like ‘The Franklin’s Tale’, have a bit too much mediaeval baggage. I think ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ makes a good sampling point: this is the one where three men, having heard that one of their comrades has died, set out to kill that ‘privee theef men clepeth Deeth/That in this contree al the people sleeth’. It does not end well for them.

From ‘The Knight’s Tale’

Thanne seyde he thus, as ye shal after heere:
‘Naught may the woful spirit in myn herte
Declare o point of alle my sorwes smerte
To yow, my lady, that I love moost.
But I biquethe the servyce of my ghost
To yow aboven every creature.
Syn that my lyf may no lenger dure,
Allas, the wo! Allas, the peynes stronge,
That I for yow have suffred, and so longe!
Allas, the deeth! Allas, myn Emelye!
Allas, departynge of our compaignye!
Allas, myn hertes queene! allas, my wyf!
Myn hertes lady, endere of my lyf!
What is this world? What asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave,
Allone, withouten any compaignye.
Fare-wel, my swete foo, myn Emelye!’

Geoffrey Chaucer

Week 550: Will Ye Go Lassie Go, by Robert Tannahill/Francis McPeake

I had always thought of ‘Will Ye Go Lassie Go’, aka ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, as a quintessential folksong, possessed of anonymous purity, a little mysterious, a little magical, never dating but instead, as it recedes into the mists of time, accruing to itself an ever-increasing charge of power from all those who have performed it, listened to it and loved it over the years. It seems, however, that this particular song has a definite origin: the lyrics and melody are based on the song ‘The Braes of Balquhither’ by the Scottish poet Robert Tannahill (1774–1810) and Scottish composer Robert Archibald Smith (1780–1829), but in their present form, as covered by countless folk artists, were adapted by the Irish musician Francis McPeake (1885–1971) and first recorded by his family in the 1950s.

Anonymous or not, I feel that the second stanza in particular manages to tap into some resonant stratum of Celtic myth, having for me faint echoes of the Fourth Branch of the Welsh ‘Mabinogion’ where the wizard Gwydion and Math fab Mathonwy conjure up a wife for Lleu Llaw Gyffes: ‘and they took the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and made from them the fairest maiden that was ever seen by man’. It seems possible that Alan Garner made the same association when he chose it as an epigraph to his fine contemporary reworking of that story, ‘The Owl Service’, though he has a slightly different version of the words e.g. ‘tower’ for ‘bower’, and ascribes it to ‘Traditional’.

Of those countless performances, I might make special mention of one from the Transatlantic Sessions featuring Dick Gaughan, Emmylou Harris and the McGarrigle family. Now that’s what you call a line-up.

Will Ye Go Lassie Go

Oh, the summer time is coming,
And the leaves are sweetly blooming,
And the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the purple heather.

   Will you go, lassie, go?
   And we’ll all go together
   To pull wild mountain thyme
   All around the blooming heather,
   Will you go lassie, go?

I will build my love a bower
By yon clear crystal fountain,
And around it I will pile
All the flowers of the mountain.

   Will you go, lassie, go?
   And we’ll all go together
   To pull wild mountain thyme
   All around the blooming heather,
   Will you go lassie, go?

If my true love will not go,   
I will surely find another
To pull wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather.

   Will you go, lassie, go?
   And we’ll all go together
   To pull wild mountain thyme
   All around the blooming heather,
   Will you go lassie, go?

Oh, the summer time is coming
And the trees are sweetly blooming
And the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather.

Robert Tannahill/Francis McPeake

Week 549: Le Dernier Poème, by Robert Desnos

Robert Desnos (1900-1945) was a French poet who began his poetic career as a surrealist, associated with such poets as Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, but in his later work evolved a plainer, more direct style. In the Second World War he was much involved with the French Resistance, and was eventually arrested by the Gestapo and sent first to Auschwitz, and then transferred to a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. He survived long enough to be liberated, but had contracted typhoid and died shortly afterwards.

This poem, though one of his most famous and best-loved, is a bit of an oddity in that it never actually existed as such. It began life as the last stanza of a longer poem, ‘A La Mystérieuse’, written about the singer Yvonne George, for whom he nursed an unrequited passion. When he died, the lines were quoted in a Czech obituary, which was then mistranslated back into French in a way that gave rise to the belief that this was a poem in its own right, and the last one Desnos wrote as a farewell to his wife Youki.

I am not sure how proper it is to override authorial intent, but the fact is that these detached lines work better for me as a poem without the more florid preceding stanzas of the original, so I present them here without too much compunction.

The translation that follows is my own.

Le Dernier Poème

J’ai rêvé tellement fort de toi,
J’ai tellement marché, tellement parlé,
Tellement aimé ton ombre,
Qu’il ne me reste plus rien de toi.

Il me reste d’être l’ombre parmi les ombres,
D’être cent fois plus ombre que l’ombre,
D’être l’ombre qui viendra et reviendra
Dans ta vie ensoleillée.

Robert Desnos

The Last Poem

I have so dreamed of you,
I have so walked, so talked with you,
So greatly loved your shadow,
That there is nothing left to me of you.

And what is left to me
Is to be a shadow among shades,
A hundred times more shadow than the shade,
To be the shadow that will come and come
Into your sunlit life.