Week 426: The Oxen, by Thomas Hardy

I’m posting a day early this week, and if it’s Christmas Eve it has to be that perennial Hardy favourite, ‘The Oxen’, and even though I imagine few of my readers will need reminding of it, for me its wistful poignancy still works every time. I do wonder, though, about the line ‘So fair a fancy few would weave/In these years!’. I would have thought that in Hardy’s day the weaving of fair fancies was still going strong. True, it was already some years since Darwin had presented his challenge to religious orthodoxy, and since Matthew Arnold had stood on Dover beach and heard the sea of faith receding, but had these intellectual currents really impinged that much as yet on popular belief?

Not that fair fancy is entirely dead even now. A year or two back, one frosty Christmas Eve with a moon rising, I met a neighbour’s small child who informed very earnestly that if I waited and watched the sky with her I might see Father Christmas and his reindeer flying across the face of the moon on their way to making their deliveries. What could I do but stand with her and look up, hoping it might be so…

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock,
‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come; see the oxen kneel

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy

Week 425: From ‘The Almond Tree’, by Jon Stallworthy

This is the last section of a longer poem, ‘The Almond Tree’, by Jon Stallworthy (1935-2014). The poem deals with the birth of a child who turns out to have Down Syndrome. Its inclusion here is a little problematic because, although it appears in the poem as first published, the poet then removed it on the grounds that he no longer felt comfortable with it, seeing it as ‘making explicit things that should have remained implicit’. I think that this is a pity – I feel that this section makes a touching coda to a poem that is diminished without it. A proper reticence is admirable, in poetry as in life, and yet it can be very moving when a poet steps out from behind a screen of symbol and metaphor and simply tells it straight. And if we are to concede a poet’s right to amend a poem after publication, then maybe we should also concede a reader’s right to prefer the original.

Note that the poet’s use of the now jarring term ‘mongol’ in the last stanza merely reflects standard nomenclature at the time the poem was written.

From ‘The Almond Tree’

You turn to the window for the first time.
I am called to the cot
To see your focus shift,
Take tendril-hold on a shaft
Of sun, explore its dusty surface. Climb
To an eye you cannot

meet. You have a sickness they cannot heal,
the doctors say: locked in
your body you will remain.
Well, I have been locked in mine.
We will tunnel each other out. You seal
the covenant with a grin.

In the days we have known one another,
my little mongol love,
I have learnt more from your lips
than you will from mine, perhaps.
I have learnt that to live is to suffer,
to suffer is to live.

Jon Stallworthy

Week 424: Years Ago, by Elizabeth Jennings

One more on the theme of lost love, this time from the quietly effective Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001), who favoured a poetry of plain statement charged with deep emotion that, when it works, I often find more appealing than much showier stuff.

Years Ago

It was what we did not do that I remember,
Places with no markers left by us,
All of a summer, meeting every day,
A memorable summer of hot days,
Day after day of them, evening after evening.
Sometimes we would laze

Upon the river-bank, just touching hands
Or stroking one another’s hands with grasses.
Swans floated by seeming to assert
Their dignity. But we too had our own
Decorum in the small-change of first love.

Nothing was elegiac or nostalgic,
We threw time in the river as we threw
Breadcrumbs to an inquisitive duck, and so
Day entered evening with a sweeping gesture,
Idly we talked of food and where to go.

This is the love that I knew long ago.
Before possession, passion and betrayal.

Elizabeth Jennings

Week 423: Summer Sun, by George Barker

Continuing last week’s theme of lost love, this week something in a very different style by George Barker (1913-1991), a colourful character who was associated with a neo-romantic 1940s movement known as the New Apocalyptics. It’s not a group whose poetry I feel much affinity for, its diction too strained and artificial for my taste, and even this poem seems to me very uneven: I can’t be doing with fishlipped lovers kissing catastrophes, but I feel the fourth stanza in particular does achieve a memorable lyric quality. An influence on the group was Dylan Thomas, and one Dylan Thomas is, well, I won’t say more than enough, but I will say enough. And yet, despite the fact that the movement was supposedly in reaction against the poetry of the thirties, it seems to me that the echoes I detect here are much more those of Auden than of Dylan Thomas.

Summer Sun

I looked into my heart to write
And found a desert there.
But when I looked again I heard
Howling and proud in every word
The hyena despair.

Great summer sun, great summer sun,
All loss burns in trophies;
And in the cold sheet of the sky
Lifelong the fishlipped lovers lie
Kissing catastrophes.

O loving garden where I lay
When under the breasted tree
My son stood up behind my eyes
And groaned: Remember that the price
Is vinegar for me.

Great summer sun, great summer sun,
Turn back to the designer:
I would not be the one to start
The breaking day and the breaking heart
For all the grief in China.

My one, my one, my only love,
Hide, hide your face in a leaf,
And let the hot tear falling burn
The stupid heart that will not learn
The everywhere of grief.

Great summer sun, great summer sun,
Turn back to the never-never
Cloud-cuckoo, happy, far-off land
Where all the love is true love, and
True love goes on for ever.

George Barker

Week 422: Ae Fond Kiss, by Robert Burns

I imagine that this is one of the best-known and best-loved of all Burns’s poems, and certainly one of my own favourites, combining as it does the anonymous purity of folksong with a deeply personal note. True, one may feel that it rather transcends the circumstances of its composition, but it wouldn’t be the first poem to do that. I had always assumed, as I think many readers must, that the ‘first’ of ‘first and fairest’ meant that this was Burns’s first love affair, and that the poem was a paean to a youthful ardour never quite recaptured, but actually it seems that ‘first’ here merely signified pre-eminence in his affections, and Burns had already had a good number of amorous liaisons before meeting this particular lady, one Agnes ‘Nancy’ McLehose, in Edinburgh in 1787. Also, Agnes, a married woman though at the time separated from her lawyer husband, seems to have been anxious to observe the proprieties and it appears that the passion in their relationship remained confined to their letters. Given Burns’s ardent temperament, he must have found this rather trying, but the resourceful bard did at least manage to get her domestic servant pregnant. After which Agnes went off to join her estranged husband in the West Indies and Burns went back to his old love Jean Armour. Still, none of this circumstantial detail gets in the way of this being one of the great poems of loss and heartbreak.

Ae Fond Kiss

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae farewell, and then forever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee. 

Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerful twinkle lights me,
Dark despair around benights me. 

I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy:
Naething could resist my Nancy!
But to see her was to love her
Love but her, and love for ever. 

Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met — or never parted —
We had ne’er been broken-hearted. 

Fare-thee-weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare-thee-weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure! 

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae farewell, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.

Robert Burns

Week 421: The Queen’s Marie, by Anon

This ballad, also entitled ‘Mary Hamilton’ or ‘The Four Marys’, is Child 173 and is thought to date from the sixteenth century. If it has a historical basis, this has proved difficult to pin down: various Stuart kings have been proposed as the guilty parties, and a Russian connection has also been suggested. Needless to say it exists in many versions: this one, as part recited and part sung by the great Scots ballad-singer Jean Redpath, is my favourite, and the only regret I have is that in some other versions Mary knows quite well that she is going not to a wedding but to her execution, but nonetheless puts on her best clothes, her gown of white, as an act of defiance to the queen. In this version, she is apparently oblivious of her journey’s end. Or is she, given her weariness and reluctance? It is a little unclear, which could be a device to add to the pathos, or it could just be a result of the patchwork way ballad-singers tended to operate, stitching together favourite stanzas from here and there in a way that resulted in the occasional inconsistency.

In any event, one of the things I admire most about the old ballads is their sheer narrative drive, how nothing is wasted as they plunge you straight into the action and then never let up on it. You see it in the border ballads: ‘Now Liddesdale has ridden a raid/And I wot they had better stayed at hame/For Michael o’Winfield he is dead/And Jock o’ the Side is a prisoner taen’. And you see the same drive here: the King’s head turned by the pretty young serving-maid, pregnancy, a failed attempt at abortion, infanticide, gossip making its way to the queen, all in a handful of stanzas.

A note on the Abbey tree: I don’t know what kind of tree this was, but it was traditionally believed that certain abortifacient plants, notably birthwort (Aristolochia) were planted close to religious buildings for the convenience of nuns who had inadvertently become pregnant. See Richard Mabey’s ‘Flora Britannica’. But birthwort of course is a flower; my guess for the tree would be juniper.

The Queen’s Marie

Marie Hamilton’s to the kirk gane,
   Wi’ ribbons in her hair;
The king thought mair o’ Marie Hamilton
   Than ony that were there.

Marie Hamilton’s to the kirk gane
   Wi’ ribbons on her breast;
The King thought mair o’ Marie Hamilton
   Than he listen’d to the priest.

Marie Hamilton’s to the kirk gane,
   Wi’ gloves upon her hands;
The King thought mair o’ Marie Hamilton
   Than the Queen and a’ her lands.

She hadna been about the King’s court
   A month, but barely one,
Till she was beloved by a’ the King’s court
   And the King the only man.

She hadna been about the King’s court
   A month, but barely three,
Till frae the King’s court Marie Hamilton,
   Marie Hamilton durstna be.

The King is to the Abbey gane,
   To pu’ the Abbey tree,
To scale the babe frae Marie’s heart;
   But the thing it wadna be.

O she has row’d it in her apron,
   And set it on the sea—
‘Gae sink ye or swim ye, bonny babe,
   Ye’se get nae mair o’ me.’

Word is to the kitchen gane,
   And word is to the ha’,
And word is to the noble room
   Amang the ladies a’,
That Marie Hamilton’s brought to bed,
   And the bonny babe’s miss’d and awa’.

Scarcely had she lain down again,
   And scarcely fa’en asleep,
When up and started our gude Queen
   Just at her bed-feet;
Saying—‘Marie Hamilton, where’s your babe?
   For I am sure I heard it greet.’

‘O no, O no, my noble Queen!
   Think no sic thing to be;
’Twas but a stitch into my side,
   And sair it troubles me!’

‘Get up, get up, Marie Hamilton:
   Get up and follow me;
For I am going to Edinburgh town,
   A rich wedding for to see.’

O slowly, slowly rase she up,
   And slowly put she on;
And slowly rade she out the way
   Wi’ mony a weary groan.

The Queen was clad in scarlet,
   Her merry maids all in green;
And every town that they cam to,
   They took Marie for the Queen.

‘Ride hooly, hooly, gentlemen,
   Ride hooly now wi’ me!
For never, I am sure, a wearier burd
   Rade in your companie.’—

But little wist Marie Hamilton,
   When she rade on the brown,
That she was gaen to Edinburgh,
   And a’ to be put down.

‘Why weep ye so, ye burgess wives,
   Why look ye so on me?
O I am going to Edinburgh town,
   A rich wedding to see.’

When she gaed up the Tolbooth stairs,
   The corks frae her heels did flee;
And lang or e’er she cam down again,
   She was condemn’d to die.

When she cam to the Netherbow port,
   She laugh’d loud laughters three;
But when she cam to the gallows foot
   The tears blinded her e’e.

‘Yestreen the Queen had four Maries,
   The night she’ll hae but three;
There was Marie Seaton, and Marie Beaton,
   And Marie Carmichael, and me.

‘O often have I dress’d my Queen
   And put gowd upon her hair;
But now I’ve gotten for my reward
   The gallows to be my share.

‘Often have I dress’d my Queen
   And often made her bed;
But now I’ve gotten for my reward
   The gallows tree to tread.

‘I charge ye all, ye mariners,
   When ye sail owre the faem,
Let neither my father nor mother get wit
   But that I’m coming hame.

‘I charge ye all, ye mariners,
   That sail upon the sea,
That neither my father nor mother get wit
   But I this death did dee.


Week 420: Photograph of Haymaker, 1890, by Molly Holden

I realise that I have already featured several poems by the excellent Molly Holden over the years, but as Auden says, when poets die they become their admirers, and it is then up to those admirers to do what they can to keep the memory alive of those they have shaken hands with in their hearts. This, then, was the opening poem of Molly’s fine first collection, ‘To Make Me Grieve’, published in 1968, characteristically combining her elegiac feeling for the passage of time with an acutely sensuous perception of the natural world.

Photograph of Haymaker, 1890

It is not so much the image of the man
that’s moving — he pausing from his work
to whet his scythe, trousers tied
below the knee, white shirt lit by
another summer’s sun, another century’s —

as the sight of the grasses beyond
his last laid swathe, so living yet
upon the moment previous to death;
for as the man stooping straightened up
and bent again they died before his blade.

Sweet hay and gone some seventy years ago
and yet they stand before me in the sun,
stems damp still where their neighbours’ fall
uncovered them, succulent and straight,
immediate with moon-daisies.

Molly Holden

Week 419: From ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’, by John Bunyan

Back in the early fifties, when I was at primary school, our headmistress, who was pretty old, at least thirty, used to take the top class once a week for a special lesson known as Literature. This was proper stuff too, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, Dickens, all from the original texts, not the kind of pap the kids get served nowadays, and one of the things I remember her reading was long extracts from John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. Now there was an awful lot of religion in schools back then, and generally I didn’t much take to it: even then I had a dimly formulated preference for objective language, for words that were alive with meaning in their own right rather than words that required some complicity of belief on the reader’s part to animate them. Yet it couldn’t be denied that some religious texts had considerable power whether or not you were a believer, and I remember being much moved by this account of the death of Mr Valiant-for-truth.

‘After this it was noised abroad that Mr. Valiant-for-truth was taken with a summons, by the same post as the other; and had this for a token that the summons was true, “That his pitcher was broken at the fountain.” When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it. Then, said he, I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I have got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who will now be my rewarder. When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which as he went, he said, “Death, where is thy sting?” And as he went down deeper, he said, “Grave, where is thy victory?” So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.’

Week 418: From ‘L’Enfant de la Haute Mer’, by Jules Supervielle

This is the concluding paragraph of a very strange, visionary short story by the French poet Jules Supervielle, about a sailor who one night, by the intensity of his longing to see his dead daughter again, conjures her into a kind of being, out on the ocean. The idea itself is not entirely original – in Tibetan Buddhism, for example, we find the concept of the tulpa, a being created by the exercise of spiritual or mental powers, capable of feeling and some autonomy of action. What is original is Supervielle’s imaginative empathy for such a creature. Generally I am not a great fan of literary work that can be characterised as fey, or, less kindly, as a bit daft, but I do find that there is something haunting about this particular story. Supervielle suffered for much of his life from poor health and a consequent fear of death – this was someone who speaks of holding his hand over a candle flame to reassure himself that he was still alive – so it may be that he projected some of his own state on to this creature poised between life and death, and it is this, along with the hypnotic cadences of its prose, that gives the story its power.

The translation that follows is my own.

‘Marins qui rêvez en haute mer, les coudes appuyés sur la lisse, craignez de penser longtemps dans le noir de la nuit à un visage aimé. Vous risqueriez de donner naissance, dans des lieux essentiellement désertiques, à un être doué de toute la sensibilité humaine et qui ne peut pas vivre ni mourir, ni aimer, et souffre pourtant comme s’il vivait, aimait et se trouvait toujours sur le point de mourir, un être infiniment déshérité dans les solitudes aquatiques, comme cette enfant de l’Océan, née un jour du cerveau de Charles Liévens, de Steenvoorde, matelot de pont du quatre-mâts Le Hardi, qui avait perdu sa fille âgée de douze ans, pendant un de ses voyages, et, une nuit, par 55 degrés de latitude Nord et 35 de longitude Ouest, pensa longuement à elle, avec une force terrible, pour le grand malheur de cette enfant’.

‘Sailors who dream out on the wide ocean, your elbows propped on the rail, beware of thinking too long in the dark of the night of a face beloved. You will risk giving birth, in these wholly desert places, to a being endowed with all human feeling that can neither live nor die, but suffers as if it lived, loved and found itself always on the point of death, a being infinitely disinherited in the watery solitudes, like this child of the Ocean, born one day from the brain of Charles Lievens, of Steenvorde, sailor on the bridge of the four-masted Le Hardi, who had during one of his voyages lost his daughter of twelve years old, and one night, at latitude 55 degrees north and longitude 35 degrees west, thought long of her, with a terrible strength, to this child’s great misfortune’.

Week 417: Advice to a Prophet, by Richard Wilbur

This poem was written when the dominant fear for mankind was the threat of nuclear war: that threat may have receded a little, in our consciousness if not necessarily in reality, but only to be replaced by the realisation that when it comes to inflicting irreparable harm on our natural environment, attrition in the end works just as well as Armageddon. It’s a fine poem, but the problem I have with it now is a feeling that this may be one occasion where Wilbur’s restraint, his cool elegance of diction, work against him: that the time for the courtly elegiac is past and what we need now are words of fire and rage.

Advice to a Prophet

When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city,
Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,
Not proclaiming our fall but begging us
In God’s name to have self-pity,

Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,
Unable to fear what is too strange.

Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.
How should we dream of this place without us?
The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,
A stone look on the stone’s face?

Speak of the world’s own change. Though we cannot conceive
Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost
How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost,
How the view alters. We could believe,

If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip
Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy,
The lark avoid the reaches of our eye,
The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip

On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn
As Xanthus once, its gliding trout
Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without
The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,

These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is all
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken

In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld
The singing locust of the soul unshelled,
And all we mean or wish to mean.

Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.

Richard Wilbur