Week 446: In A Disused Graveyard, by Robert Frost

So it seems that the tide of the coronavirus epidemic may finally be ebbing from our British shores at least, leaving us with a lot of life to catch up on and a lot of death to remember. Some cause for cautious euphoria, but of course, I reflect, it’s not as if we are now going to stop dying of this and that: it just won’t be in such an obsessively media-monitored way. Which brings to mind this poem by Robert Frost. I like it, even if I feel the sentiment of the last stanza doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny: I don’t see any sense in which can stones be said to believe or not believe anything. And yet how seductive is the pathetic fallacy, especially in the hands of such a master of cadence.

In a Disused Graveyard

The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never any more the dead.
 
The verses in it say and say:
‘The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.’
 
So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?
 
It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones: Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.

Robert Frost

Week 444: From ‘Dr Faustus’, by Christopher Marlowe

I suspect that outside academic circles the poetry of Elizabethan playwright, wit, spy and all round bad boy Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) is now little read. Certainly he doesn’t have the broad humanity of his contemporary William Shakespeare, yet he wields a fine supple verse line and was after all someone whom Shakespeare himself seems to have viewed with considerable if possibly grudging respect: although we cannot be sure, there is a good case to made that he is the ‘rival poet’ of the Sonnets, and certainly when in Sonnet 86 Shakespeare refers to ‘the proud full sail of his great verse’, that would seem a tribute very applicable to Marlowe’s work.

Here are lines from the concluding scene of Marlowe’s play ‘Dr Faustus’, where the midnight hour is approaching at which the doctor’s soul becomes forfeit to hell. In an age when there was a belief in literal damnation this must have been pretty scary stuff and it remains powerful even today.

‘O Faustus,
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
O lente, lente currite, noctis equi! *     
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.’

Christopher Marlowe

* Run slow, run slow, ye horses of the night

Week 443: Ambulances, by Philip Larkin

Oh God, not another batch of letters. Philip Larkin’s must be well on the way to becoming the most over-documented life in the history of poetry. Perhaps when people have finished picking over everything he ever said or wrote to anyone else and everything anyone else ever said or wrote to him, not to mention hoovering up every last scrap of his doggerel, they can go back to enjoying the compassionate craftsmanship of a few dozen rare fine poems and say, in the words of Browning, ‘Well, I forget the rest’.

And one such poem is surely this one, so carefully observed and subtly formulated, with its characteristic precision of placement. Consider, for example, if the sixth line had read ‘In time all streets are visited’. For me that seemingly inconsequential shift would have lost a haunting ambiguity, making it that much less effective in opening up one of those ‘long perspectives’ Larkin was so good at evoking. And consider also what the poem gains by its use of metre and rhyme, that Larkin saw as an integral part of what in another poem he calls ‘the lost displays’. As he was wont to say when considering the less formal work of others, ‘That’s quite nice – why not make a poem of it?’. No one could ever accuse him of not making a poem of it.

Ambulances

Closed like confessionals, they thread
Loud noons of cities, giving back
None of the glances they absorb.
Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,
They come to rest at any kerb:
All streets in time are visited.

Then children strewn on steps or road,
Or women coming from the shops
Past smells of different dinners, see
A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed,

And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress;

For borne away in deadened air
May go the sudden shut of loss
Round something nearly at an end,
And what cohered in it across
The years, the unique random blend
Of families and fashions, there

At last begin to loosen. Far
From the exchange of love to lie
Unreachable inside a room
The traffic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are.

Philip Larkin

Week 439: Ty’r Ysgol, by T.H.Parry-Williams

Some Welsh poetry can seem a bit strained, as can of course some English poetry, but this sonnet by T.H. Parry-Williams (1887-1975; see also week 284) has a very natural feel to it. In it he describes how, perhaps against all reason, he still keeps on his parents’ house, the schoolhouse in the village of Rhyd-Ddu in Caernarfonshire, long after the death of those parents.

It’s a poem that makes me feel slightly guilty. Before she died I took my sister on a drive to see the bungalow we had grown up in, but we wouldn’t have recognised the place: garage at the side, new porch, new windows, the front garden paved over, the trees at the back cut down. I remembered my father entertaining the rather unrealistic hope that one day after his death one of his children would live there. ‘Dad, let’s face it, it’s not exactly a stately home’. I should have been kinder: coming from a poor background, to own his own home had been the great dream of his life. And maybe, with its damp walls and worm-eaten furniture, my parents’ 1920s bungalow may have had more in common with a stately home than I thought. This poem is about an attempt to keep the past unchanged, in a spirit of more deference to the dead than I am afraid my siblings and I could manage.

The translation that follows is my own.

Ty’r Ysgol

Mae’r cyrn yn mygu er pob awel groes,
A rhywun yno weithiau’n‘sgubo’r llawr
Ac agor y ffenestri, er nad oes
Neb yno’n byw ar ôl y chwalfa fawr;
Dim ond am fis o wyliau, mwy neu lai,
Yn Awst, er mwyn cael seibiant bach o’r dre
A throi o gwmpas dipyn, nes bod rhai
Yn synnu’n gweld yn symud hyd y lle;
A phawb yn holi beth sy’n peri o hyd
I ni, sydd wedi colli tad a mam,
Gadw’r hen le, a ninnau hyd y byd,-
Ond felly y mae-hi, ac ni wn pam,
Onid rhag ofn i’r ddau sydd yn y gro
Synhwyro rywsut fod y drws ynghlo.

T.H. Parry-Willliams

Schoolhouse

The chimneys smoke in spite of adverse winds,
And someone now and then will sweep the floor
And open windows, although no one since
The great dispersal lives there any more;
Only in August, for a month or so,
We come back for a break from life in town,
And stroll about, till those who see us stare
As in surprise that we should still come down,
Wondering what brings us back, and why
We who lost both our parents long ago
Should keep the old place on, a world away,
But so it is, and why I do not know,
Unless for fear those dead ones should at last
Sense somehow that the door is now shut fast.

Week 438: ‘Tarry, delight’ by A.E.Housman

Another of those lapidary Housman poems that I find slip so easily into the memory. In case anyone has forgotten the story, the youth Leander fell in love with Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, and would swim across the Hellespont every night to spend time with her. Hero would light a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

I particularly associate this poem with the early days of my marriage, when for the first seven weeks I had to live away on a residential training course, just coming home on a Friday evening and going back Sunday night. I remember quoting its lines to my wife one Sunday as I prepared to depart. She, who has always felt that self-dramatization in poets is not a tendency to be encouraged, suggested that a fifteen mile bike ride on a pleasant autumn evening was not quite the equivalent of swimming the Hellespont at night. I suppose she had a point.

Poem XV (from ‘More Poems’)

Tarry, delight, so seldom met,
So sure to perish, tarry still;
Forbear to cease or languish yet,
Though soon you must and will.

By Sestos town, in Hero’s tower,
On Hero’s heart Leander lies;
The signal torch has burned its hour
And sputters as it dies.

Beneath him, in the nighted firth,
Between two continents complain
The seas he swam from earth to earth
And he must swim again.

A.E.Housman

Week 416: The Wild Iris, by Louise Gluck

I confess that until last week’s news that she had won the Nobel Prize for literature I had not heard of the American poet Louise Gluck (oh, come on, David, do keep up), but I soon found a good selection of her work online. Some poets possess you immediately, some you need to live with for a while: at the moment I don’t feel I’ve quite tuned in to these spare, mythic poems but I’ve made a good start with this one, the title poem from a 1992 collection.

The Wild Iris

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.

Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.

Louise Gluck

Week 415: The Persian Version, by Robert Graves

I see that in this blog so far I have rarely if ever featured the poetry of wit and humour, despite the fact that I relish a well-turned parody or satire as much as anyone, so here to make some amends is a report on the Battle of Marathon as seen from the Persian point of view. Robert Graves, though primarily a love poet, could also be very funny – as witness, for example, the poem ‘Welsh Incident’ – and here he takes aim at political/military spin, though in my experience the satire could equally apply to the desperate quest for morale-boosting positivity engaged in by corporate bodies generally.

The Persian Version

Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.
As for the Greek theatrical tradition
Which represents that summer’s expedition
Not as a mere reconnaissance in force
By three brigades of foot and one of horse
(Their left flank covered by some obsolete
Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)
But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt
To conquer Greece – they treat it with contempt;
And only incidentally refute
Major Greek claims, by stressing what repute
The Persian monarch and the Persian nation
Won by this salutary demonstration:
Despite a strong defence and adverse weather
All arms combined magnificently together.

Robert Graves

Week 414: If I Should Ever by Chance, by Edward Thomas

I find this poem a pure delight. For one thing it is, uncharacteristically for Edward Thomas, an essentially happy poem, even if the happiness is tinged with wistfulness: ‘If I should ever by chance grow rich’ – Thomas knew quite well that he was never going to grow rich, certainly not rich enough to own a tract of English countryside, having chosen the penurious life of a literary hack.

Then there are the field names: Codham, Roses, Pyrgo. Thomas loved to pore over maps finding these curious old appellations, so expressive of our ancient, many-layered, parcelled-out countryside, and letting them conjure up for him memories and visions of the landscape he was so intimate with. And there is the playful relationship in the poem with his small daughter Bronwen, the only one who could lighten his black moods, the one he would take on his spring walks, competing with her to find the first flowers of the year. So it is a light rent that he imagines asking of her first, and then really no rent at all, since it would be quite difficult not to find a blossom on furze at any time of year: hence the country saying ‘When gorse is out of bloom, kissing’s out of season’.

Happy, I called it, if  a little wistful. Yet I suspect that for the Thomas family, after Edward’s death in France in 1917, there must have been a sadness beyond wistfulness about this particular poem, having to stand as it did for all the things a father might have wished to give to a daughter whose growing up he was never to see.

If I Should Ever by Chance

If I should ever by chance grow rich
I’ll buy Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo, and Lapwater,
And let them all to my elder daughter.
The rent I shall ask of her will be only
Each year’s first violets, white and lonely,
The first primroses and orchises –
She must find them before I do, that is.
But if she finds a blossom on furze
Without rent they shall all for ever be hers,
Whenever I am sufficiently rich:
Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo and Lapwater, –
I shall give them all to my elder daughter.

Edward Thomas

Week 413: On A Return From Egypt, by Keith Douglas

This appears to have been the last poem that Keith Douglas wrote, before his death at the age of 24 during the Normandy campaign on June 1944, a loss to English poetry that was great if little recognised at the time. I do not think it is quite as perfectly realised as some others of his poems, like ‘Vergissmeinnicht’, ‘Canoe’ or ‘Aristocrats’ that I have already featured, but I do find the third stanza in particular very moving. One might speak of pathos, but really there is nothing pathetic about Douglas: this is not an invitation to sympathy but more like a great howl of frustration from a poet who knows he has so much more to give but also has a growing sense that he has little time left in which to give it. ‘Time, time is all I lacked…’. Indeed.

On A Return From Egypt

To stand here in the wings of Europe
disheartened, I have come away
from the sick land where in the sun lay
the gentle sloe-eyed murderers
of themselves, exquisites under a curse;
here to exercise my depleted fury.

For the heart is a coal, growing colder
when jewelled caerulean seas change
into grey rocks, grey water-fringe,
sea and sky altering like a cloth
till colour and sheen are gone both:
cold is an opiate of the soldier.

And all my endeavours are unlucky explorers
come back, abandoning the expedition;
the specimens, the lilies of ambition
still spring in their climate, still unpicked:
but time, time is all I lacked
to find them, as the great collectors before me.

The next month, then, is a window
and with a crash I’ll split the glass.
Behind it stands one I must kiss,
person of love or death,
a person or a wraith,
I fear what I shall find.

Keith Douglas

Week 412: Die Spitze, by Rainer Maria Rilke

A favourite theme in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke is the sacrifices that the artist must make for the sake of his/her art. In his poem ‘Der Dichter’ (‘The Poet’) he bemoans these: ‘Ich habe keine Geliebte, kein Haus,/keine Stelle auf der ich lebe’ (I have no beloved, no house, nowhere I can live’). Actually one feels he didn’t do too badly: people lent him their castles to compose in; a poet nowadays would be lucky to get the offer of a garden shed.

This poem exemplifies that theme of sacrifice: it is about a lace-maker who goes blind from all the close work involved in the practice of her craft but lives on, Rilke imagines, in one artefact. The poem is actually in two parts: this is just the first part, which I feel is self-sufficient.

The translation that follows is my own.

Die Spitze

Menschlichkeit: Namen schwankender Besitze,
noch unbestätigter Bestand von Glück:
ist das unmenschlich, daß zu dieser Spitze,
zu diesem kleinen dichten Spitzenstück
zwei Augen wurden? — Willst du sie zurück?

Du Langvergangene und schließlich Blinde,
ist deine Seligkeit in diesem Ding,
zu welcher hin, wie zwischen Stamm und Rinde,
dein großes Fühlen, kleinverwandelt, ging?

Durch einen Riß im Schicksal, eine Lücke
entzogst du deine Seele deiner Zeit;
und sie ist so in diesem lichten Stücke,
daß es mich lächeln macht vor Nützlichkeit.

The Lace

What is it to be human? To possess
Nothing for certain, no sure happiness.
Was it inhuman then, that you who made
This thing, this small close-woven piece of lace,
Gave two eyes for it? Do you rue that trade?

You, long departed one, whose end was dark,
Is this the thing wherein you left your bliss,
Great feeling, in the width of trunk to bark,
Diminished as by magic into this?

You found a rift in destiny, a space
To draw your soul out of its time, set free,
And it’s so here, in this light piece of lace,
It makes me smile at the utility.